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Monday, April 30, 2012

Thank A Writer Friend

My writing world is filled with other writers. Is it a misery loves company situation? Not really. But it is definitely good to have other writers to whine to once in awhile. Writers struggle every day to come up with the perfect publishable story, and when we don't, it's great to have an empathetic person to talk to.

Only another writer can understand what is involved in producing that successful story. They know about the time, effort, rewrites and frustration that roll back and forth during the process. They're the ones who can lift you up when the black cloud hovers over your head longer than you ever thought possible. Your writer friends can look at your story with objective eyes and help you see what is needed to make it better.

Think about the people in your life who are friends but also writers. How about those folks in your critique group? Sure, they point fingers at places in your stories that need work, but isn't that being your friend? Their aim is not to tear you down, make you gnash your teeth or give up a project. They want to help you become a better writer. Can't ask for a better friend than that.

How about people who have a special writing buddy? These duos trade work and provide needed feedback to one another. Do it long enough and you get to know one another very well. Writing buddies create a strong bond. 

Maybe you belong to a writer's organization that is either local or statewide, or even national. You run into the same people over and over again. You attend workshops together, chat over coffee, and discuss the literary world. A lot of them can be classified as your 'writer friends.' 

Writer friends do a lot for us. So how about saying thank you to a few of the special ones in your writing world? Tomorrow is May Day. Send a bouquet or a single bloom to those who are especially helpful to you? You don't need to call a florist. Send a floral e-mail message which doesn't cost a dime. Or forget the flowers altogether and write a Thank You note. I assure you the recipients will be pleased to read it. Send it to a writing group or an individual, but send it. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Where Do You Read and On What Kind of Day?

It's a kind of gray April day here in the heart of the Flint Hills of Kansas. The sun has taken the day off, and a strong breeze keeps rustling the leaves on the trees around our house. 65 degrees so not cold, but it's the kind of day that I like to curl up with a good book. Weather often plays a part in increasing our desire to read a book--at least for those people who are part of the group we call Readers--the ones who have a passion for the printed word.
What kind of day do you choose for a favorite reading time? Is it when a big thunderstorm hits?  Do you like curling up in your favorite chair with a good story to read when thunder booms and lightning cracks? Or is your best time for reading while a snowstorm howls outside your windows? When you have a fire crackling in your fireplace, does it call you sit nearby with a book?
And where do you like to read? The woman and man above have selected their special spots. The guy is definitely a multi-tasker, and the girl is also taking care of two things at a time. Do you have a special place in your house that you go to when you are ready for a reading session? Maybe it's a favorite chair or perhaps you like to lie down on the sofa, book in hand. 
I have a favorite leather chair in our living room where I read. I've tried the bathtub scene a time or two, but the water cools off and I'm still reading. Not such a good idea. And on a rare occasion that I go to a laundromat, I've always had a book or magazine to read while the clothes whirl madly in the machine with too much soapsuds because I always seem to put too much in! 
I also like to read in the car when Ken is driving. I bring the newspaper and/or a a novel or two with me when we take a long distance trip. On nice spring or fall days, I take a cup of coffee or tea and a book to the patio and enjoy some reading time there where I can enjoy the greenery, the birdsong, and the sky. I always read in airports while waiting to board a flight.
It doesn't really matter where we read or when. The big thing here is to keep on reading those novels, non-fiction books, magazines, and newspapers. Turn off the TV and immerse yourself in words someone has written for your knowledge and entertainment. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Story Ideas Are Everywhere

The following is a repeat post. It's one that is still current in thought so I decided to run it again.  Too often I hear writers say that they can't find story ideas. And I always tell them to look around, they're everywhere! Here's more on that subject:

An Abundance of Story Ideas

I so often hear writers say they get stuck for story ideas, both fiction and nonfiction writers. It puzzles me as I seem to find ideas everywhere. Sometimes in great abundance.

Last December, my husband and I were visiting our son’s family in Dallas. One afternoon, we ran over to a very nice, upscale outdoor mall in Highland Village. We parked near a Jos. A. Banks store, walked down to a shop where I bought a gift card, the final Christmas gift I had to buy. Ken said he wanted to take a look in the Banks shop since we were so close.

He found a bargain too good to pass up—a beautiful sport coat for a mere fraction of its regular price. We walked around the store, selected a shirt and tie to go with the coat and wandered over to the check-out counter. We spent about half an hour in the shop, and in that time I witnessed an abundance of stories waiting to be written.

  1. The little girl who sat huddled in a corner, playing with a handheld game while her dad stood impatiently in line to pay for the blue and white shirt he held. Dad kept checking on her and asking if she was hungry. He finally tossed the shirt on the counter and said to me, “She’s hungry and I’m starving. I can’t wait any longer.”
  2. The short Indian man who had a pile of clothes on the counter and waited patiently as the clerk scanned the prices while the computer had a temper tantrum when he tried to bring up the sale prices. The young man tried again and again, becoming more and more frustrated. The customer never said a word, just watched. When the total came to over $2,800, the man slid one pair of pants out of the pile and softly said, “I don’t need these.”  The young clerk threw up his hands and turned for help to the older woman working at another computer.

      “Abort the whole thing!” she said to him.

  1. The  young, blonde woman who was returning a topcoat and getting 2 belts, 2 shirts and 3 sweaters instead. The woman checking her out was also having computer problems, too high a tax and no way to change it. She appeared calm on the outside, but I sensed a great churning on the inside.

  1. The two thirty-something women behind us who were aghast at the terrific deal Ken had gotten on his sport coat. Envy is the only word that might describe their faces and actions and comments.

So, look around you. There are story possibilities everywhere!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Listen To The Pros

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I've been reading quotes by writers this morning. One section of the website dealt with Readers--the very people all writers need to keep in mind. You'll find some good advice in the ones below. A few words from a pro can be as good as an entire classroom lecture of nearly an hour. Read them, then read them again. If an author interests you, google him/her to learn more about what they write. 

1.  I think the first duty of all art, including fiction of any kind, is to entertain. That is to say, to hold interest. No matter how worthy the message of something, if it's dull, you're just not communicating. 
Poul Anderson 

2.  The only test of work of literature is that it shall please other ages than its own. 
Gerald Brenan

3.    Those who write clearly have readers. Those who write obscurely have commentators. 
Albert Camus

4.  The virtue of books is to be readable.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

5.  I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write. 
John D. MacDonald

6.  Write what you want to read. The person you know best in this world is you. Listen to yourself. If you are excited by what you are writing, you have a much better chance of putting that excitement over to a reader.
Robin McKinley

7.  Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences. 
Anne McCaffrey

8.  Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write my books so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she must turn one more page. When people tell me I've kept them up all night, I feel like I've succeeded!
Sidney Sheldon

If you'd like to read more quotes by writers, go to this website where you'll find a veritable bouquet of quotes, all nicely divided into sections for you. Some are amusing, others serious, but all are of some worth.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Editors Need Consoling Sometimes, Too

I received a rejection yesterday, but it wasn't the usual kind. I ended up wanting to console the editor who sent it instead of feeling sorry for myself. 

Several weeks ago, I sent an essay for Mother's Day to the editor of a monthly senior newspaper that has published many of my stories and essays in the past. I hadn't heard from her regarding the submission which was a bit unusual as she generally responds fairly soon. 

Yesterday, an e-mail arrived addressed to me and three other writers. The editor wrote that they had planned to publish the submissions from all four writers for the Mother's Day edition. She said they had to pull all of them because of the small size of the May issue. Which translates to the fact that not enough advertising was sold to justify a larger edition. 

She went on to say that she was truly sorry because the four pieces would have been a wonderful addition to the paper. She is putting them in the May 2013 folder in hopes that times will be more prosperous then. 

By the time I reached the end of her message, I felt so bad for her that I wanted to give her a hug and tell her things were sure to get better. I ended up replying and telling her that I understood her situation and appreciated her honesty in letting me know the reason the piece is not being published. And maybe next May my story will be published in her newspaper.

Sometimes  editors need consoling just as much as writers do when they receive a rejection. Most editors don't enjoy sending rejections. It's one of the necessary evils of their job. These past few recession years have been particularly hard on small publications that depend on advertising income to stay alive. 

Maybe we need a National Be Nice To An Editor Day. Until that happens, pick one yourself and do something kind and thoughtful. Awww, go ahead and try it. You'll feel good and so will the editor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Victorian Era Poet

It's still April, still National Poetry Month. So let's take a look at a Victorian era poet.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a familiar name in the world of poetry. Anyone interested in writing poems might benefit from learning about the personal histories of well-known poets. What things did they experience in life that led to the poetry they produced? 

Writers pull from their background experiences to write both fiction and non-fiction, and poets do the same. Elizabeth Barrett lived in the early part of the nineteenth century. In 1821, at age 15, she had an accident that injured her spine. She became an invalid, spending most of her time in her bedroom at her parents home. Some twenty years later she met Robert Browning and married him secretly after a year's time.

Her parents were against the marriage. Perhaps they were overly protective of their invalid daughter. Or maybe they just didn't like the man she'd chosen to spend her life with. They forbade her to marry Robert Browning, but she defied them and fled with him. They married and moved to Italy where she had a son and regained her health. The sunny climate and the joy in her marriage were most likely factors in healing her body.

But her heart had one sore spot. She wrote regularly to her parents who still lived in England. They never answered, and she learned much later that they had never opened any of the letters. What a tragic loss for both sides when it didn't need to be. 

Elizabeth continued to write poetry throughout her life. She is thought to have written poems about love, and she most definitely did. But she also wrote many about social injustice and political situations. Her best known book is Sonnets from the Portuguese, so named because her husband often referred to her as 'my little Portuguese' because of her dark hair and complexion. The book is subtitled A Celebration of Love.

You can read what is perhaps her best known poem How Do I Love Thee? at a fine poetry website. Read her poem several times to receive the full benefit. You may be inspired to read the other 43 sonnets in her book. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Celebrate Poetry Month

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April is National Poetry month. So, what are you going to do to celebrate? A poetry website I found lists 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry month. I must admit there were some I'd probably never do, but a few others did seem possible. Check out their suggestions

Poetry is not for everyone but more people would gain an appreciation of it if they gave it a chance. What does a poem do?

A poem: 
can be soothing
paints a picture with words
conveys new ideas for some readers
can be beautiful
can be powerful
can be emotional
might tickle your funnybone
is sometimes difficult to understand

What other things do you think a poem can be? What does poetry do for you? Or does it turn you off? Tell us why with a comment.

Sara Teasdale is one of my favorite poets. The website I've linked to gives you a brief biography of Ms. Teasdale and a list that will link you to her many poems. The poem I've included below is lovely and bears reading more than once. In fact, most poems should be read multiple times. I find that I see more with each reading. Start celebrating April's National Poetry Month by reading Sara Teasdale's words. (Note that many poems use the first line as title)

"I Have Loved Hours at Sea"
I have loved hours at sea, gray cities,
The fragile secret of a flower,
Music, the making of a poem
That gave me heaven for an hour;

First stars above a snowy hill,
Voices of people kindly and wise,
And the great look of love, long hidden,
Found at last in meeting eyes.

I have loved much and been loved deeply --
Oh when my spirit's fire burns low,
Leave me the darkness and the stillness,
I shall be tired and glad to go. 
Sarah Teasdale


Thursday, April 19, 2012

No Waiting, No Worries At This Website for Writers

Several years ago, I stumbled across a website where anyone can post their work. I posted a story, then another and kept on going. I met a lot of people on the site who were regulars, and before I knew it, I was one of them.

It was unlike submitting my work for publication. There was no waiting to hear from an editor. There was no worrying as to whether the story would need major revisions. There was also no pay. But money is not the only benefit that comes from seeing our work published.

In the early days of the website, there was a logo at the top of the home page. It said Everyone has a story. What's yours? It's been removed and I find that a bit sad, as I think it said in a very few words what this website was all about.

I can hear you scoffing already. You're wondering what the quality of the work is on a site where anyone can post. Some is pretty amateur writing, and other pieces are pretty professional. The people who post here are as varied as you'll find anywhere. There are wanna-be writers who have no idea about point of view, voice, writing tools etc. There are middle-of-the-road writers who have some talent but aren't there yet. And there are some outstanding writers who spin a great story time after time.

Photos can be added to the postings. There is a space for comments from readers which encourages new writers and pleases the experienced ones, too. A writer can track the number of hits they get. For awhile, some of the stories were recorded and a visitor to the site could either read or listen to the stories. I recorded a few of mine and found it great fun.

There are people who have only posted once or twice and others who post on a very regular basis. I continue to post occasionally for three reasons. First, that story is saved forever. Second, I look for feedback, and third, I enjoy many of the regular writers. I'm kind of a cheerleader at this site because I post comments frequently. All writers need encouragement, beginners or seasoned pros. I must admit that there are times when I'd like to give advice on how to make a story better, but I restrain myself in that department. And believe me, it's sometimes difficult.

One drawback is that if you post a story at Our Echo, it's considered published and limits the markets you might send it to. Many writers post something that has been published elsewhere, which is what I often do.

The editor selects a group of 20 stories every now and then to be included in Editor's Choice, also some to be put in the site's Hall of Fame. She highlights some of the comments made, too.

You will need to create an account to post at Our Echo, but it's quick, easy, free and obligates you to nothing. Just meant to keep spam out.

Take a look at Our Echo. Maybe you'll want to post something. Find a writer you like and read his/her work. If you visit regularly, you'll get to know the writers. Many write memoirs, some do fiction, others share poetry. A few write political or environmental  non-fiction.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Needed--Holiday Stories

Silver Boomer Books has need of submissions for an anthology of holiday stories. The working title of the planned book is Times To Remember--A Pocketful of Holidays. I hope they end up keeping that title as I find it most appealing. It would make me pick up the book when browsing in a bookstore.

Dixon Hearne edited a book called Thanksgiving To Christmas and wanted to create a sequel highlighting other holidays of the year. You can read more about Mr. Hearne and the proposed book here.

Becky Haigler, Editor/Partner of Silver Boomer Books says that stories on Thanksgiving and Christmas will be accepted but your chances of acceptance will be higher if your story, essay or poem highlights another holiday in the year.

Scroll down this page to the section headed How We Want It for full guidelines on the submission process. Follow the guidelines carefully. Payment is $5 for poetry and $10 for prose plus one copy of the book. It's not much in comparison to some other anthologies. You need to decide if publication and a bio about you is worth taking a smaller amount of pay. I have had a story in one Silver Boomer book and was pleased with the copy I received.

Give thought to sending something about the other holidays we celebrate. Look at the list below and see if something acts as a trigger for a story or poem. You may think of others, too.

1.  President's Day
2.  Valentine's Day
3.  St. Patrick's Day
4.  Easter
5.  Passover
6.  Flag Day
7.  Independence Day
8.  Mother's Day
9.  Father's Day
10. Arbor Day
11. Labor Day
12. Halloween
13. Veteran's Day

And yes, they will accept reprints if you let them know where the story was previously published.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pulitzer Snub

By now, most of you have read about the snub the Pulitzer Prize Committee gave to the Fiction category when awarding this prestigious trophy for books from 2011. Three novels were nominated by the Pulitzer jury, but none were deemed worthy of being chosen for this year's fiction award. They were not distinguished enough.

The three books nominated were:
1.  Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
2.  Swamplandia by Karen Russell
3.  The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

You can look them up at to find out more about each one. After reading about no fiction prize being awarded, I almost felt like sending condolence notes to each of the authors above. So close to the gold ring, and they missed it. The Pulitzer Prize has not awarded a prize for fiction eleven times in its history, so this omission is not a first.
I found a list of novels that did receive the prize since 1918. Check it here to see the titles. I've read 21 of these books. How many have you read?

The selection committee felt that no fiction book published in 2011 was distinguished enough to earn the prize. In my estimation, that's rather sad. Granted, I am looking at the novels strictly as a reader, not a judge, but I think I might have been able to choose at least one of the many that had earned a place on bookshelves in shops, libraries and online booksellers. A sad state of affairs methinks!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Vision Is Precious

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We take so many things for granted . Water comes out of the tap when we turn it on. Our houses are heated and cooled when needed. The newspaper lands on the driveway every day. We can pick up that newspaper or a book and read it.

I lost one of those for granted things this past week-end. Due to some complications after an eyelid lift surgery on Friday, I could not read, could not see words on paper.It was pretty scary. I needed the surgery to prepare for some cataract surgery down the line. A friend had gone through it earlier and assured me it was no big deal. The surgery went fine on Friday morning and I had some swelling and bruising which was to be expected. But Saturday morning, I woke up with my eyes nearly swollen shut. I could see objects but could not read a word in the newspaper or on TV. I waited a couple hours hoping that the night-time ointment I'd used would have cleared by then and my vision would be fine. It wasn't! 

Off to the Emergency Room. The doctor there determined it was caused by my eyes being so swollen. The doctor who did the surgery was in Kansas City, 2+ hours away and also had no office hours on Saturdays. He did have a number to call which I missed that morning. Sunday, the swelling had moved down into my cheeks, and I looked like Charlotte Chipmunk! But I could read large letters, although not normal size print. Later in the day, the reading got better and my relief was great.

During that period when I could not read, I felt frightened, lost, and totally bored. I began to think about the role reading plays in my life. When I'm not out or doing household tasks, I am reading a book, a magazine, a newspaper or something online. Or I'm writing, which involves reading, too. I watch very little TV, but Saturday and much of Sunday, I was forced to do so. It reminded me why I watch little of it. Give me a book or a magazine please. 

Thinking about all the reading I do also made me appreciate my eyes. They've never been very good as I started wearing glasses at age 10, then contacts at 22 and am now back in glasses while waiting for my corneas to go back to normal shape before the cataract surgery. But I've had good correction all these years so seeing what I needed to see was not a problem. My mother had macular degeneration and lost much of her sight toward the end of her life. It's been a worry to me, but recent tests showed no sign of the macula being a problem. 

My message today could be shortened to on sentence Don't take your vision for granted and take care of your eyes. 

Afternote: I spoke to the nurse in Kansas City this morning, and she assured me this swelling is very normal and will go on for at least three weeks, then longer but to a lesser degree. She gave me a few hints about things that will help and things that will keep my vision normal. It's defintely a relief to know it is not unusual, that I'm normal, after all!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lessons In Grandma's Bakery

Yesterday, I promised to post my essay about things I'd learned as a very little girl in my grandmother's bakery. That's my grandam in the picture above. Her name was Elizabeth Doonan Studham, and stern as she was, I loved her very much.

Lessons In Grandma’s Bakery
By Nancy Julien Kopp

 My mother and I spent our mornings in the working area of my grandmother’s bakery during my early years, from 1939 to 1943. I picked up some good habits and learned a few things in a painless way. I watched and I listened. There was no need for a formal lecture.

One of those good habits concerned drinking tea. A long, narrow table, covered with a soft-green oilcloth sat parallel to the north wall in the workroom of the small neighborhood bakery. The table offered a resting place when Grandma, my mother and my Uncle Paul took breaks from the hours spent on their feet. Thick white cups on matching saucers were set before each of us and a plate of some fresh-baked delicacy graced the center of the table.

Grandma brewed the tea in a large brown pot. “You can only make good tea in a brown pot,” she often said as she tipped it enough to pour the steaming brown liquid into our cups. She filled my cup half-full, then added milk and a bit of sugar. “English tea for you,” she’d say before she sank onto the bench that ran the length of the table. She added some sugar to her tea and passed the plate of sweet rolls or cookies or whatever it happened to be that day. She conditioned me to crave a little something sweet when having a cup of tea.

Our tea breaks weren’t long for there was always a new task waiting for these three members of my family. When we’d eaten every crumb on the treat plate and drained our cups, Grandma and Uncle Paul went back to the baking, and my mother relieved the girl who worked in the front room serving customers. I’d kneel on the bench and wait for Adeline to come to the table and pour her own cup of tea. Grandma brought her a small plate with a treat on it, and I chattered while Adeline savored both her tea and a rest.. She was young and pretty with golden curls and always smiling or laughing.

I heard Grandma say one day that Adeline was a good worker despite being so young. “Those Czech girls know how to work. I’d hire another one to help her if I could afford it.” The bakery served as Grandma’s only income, and she watched her pennies carefully. Adeline never complained about low pay. When she finished her tea, she’d give me a hug and hurry back to the front room to continue selling bakery goods from the case and taking orders for later. I peeked around the edge of the doorway and watched as she wrapped the purchases carefully and handed them to the customers along with her warm smile. “There you go,” she’d say. “Come back soon.”

I wanted to go into that front room and spend my time with Adeline. I wanted to talk to the customers, too, but it was forbidden territory. My grandmother told me I must never go through that doorway. My mother told me. My Uncle Paul told me. The lure of that front room with people coming and going proved to be my undoing now and then. Once I started peeking around the doorway, I inched my way through it, quiet as the proverbial church mouse. I tried to stand behind the bakery cases and watch, but it never lasted long. I’d feel a strong hand grasp my skinny upper arm, and I got pulled, none too gently, into the work room. Two things happened next. First came the scolding followed by me being marched to the side of a large refrigerator. “Now you stand there and think about what you did,” Uncle Paul said. He turned me so that my back was against the fridge, and my face far away from that doorway that lured me like a siren of the sea so many times.

Years later, when he had his own children, I overheard him tell my mother how sorry he was that he’d made me stand by myself as punishment for so long. “She was just a little girl,” he said, “and the time must have been an eternity for her.”  I spent the half-hour watching all the activity around me--Grandma and my mother rolling dough or slicing apples for pies, and Uncle Paul hoisting huge tins of flour and sugar for them, and then he’d punch down the bread dough and begin shaping it into loaves. I loved the yeasty aroma that drifted into every corner of that big workroom. Sometimes I’d be able to see deliverymen come through the back door toting everything from lard to flour to butter to sugar, milk and eggs. Grandma got extra rations for her business during those WWII years. I learned that making a business successful meant hard work and being careful with money.

Occasionally, Adeline came to the workroom to get more baked goods for the cases. She didn’t dare talk to me during punishment time, nor could I speak to her. But as she walked by, arms loaded with bread and cinnamon rolls, she’d make a funny face and wink at me. I clapped my hands over my mouth so I wouldn’t giggle. I learned that punishment was serious business, but it didn’t mean the end of the world. Life would go on when I’d served my sentence.

When Uncle Paul gave me the signal, I dragged a flour tin close to Grandma and climbed onto it so I could watch at the high table where she worked. If she had nuts ready to use, I asked her, “Just one nut for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one beautiful, big pecan. I had my one pecan every day of the week. If she was making fancy tea sandwiches for a catering order, I’d ask, “Just one for me, Grandma?” and she’d hand me one without a word. I learned that even a little bit of something you crave is satisfying.

The mornings in Grandma’s bakery during the early 1940’s remain a clear memory. I can see my grandma in her Mother Hubbard apron, hair braided and wrapped atop her head like a crown. Her rimless glasses steamed often from the heat of the ovens and hot water in the deep sink. I can see my mother, young with a colored ribbon woven into her curls, apron wrapped around her cotton dress darting me warning looks if I ventured near the doorway to the front room. I see my Uncle Paul with his thick, blond hair swept straight back from his forehead, a large flour sack towel tied around his waist for an apron. At night, he performed as a magician wearing a tuxedo, but I never got see him except in photos. I see Adeline running back and forth from the front to the workroom, curls bouncing, with always a word or a pat for me.

It’s when I have a cup of tea now that these memories come floating back to me. Once again, I am at the oil-cloth covered table with Grandma pouring my English tea and handing me a sweet roll which smells of yeast and cinnamon. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bakeries On My Mind

I have bakeries on my mind this morning. You know how something triggers a memory, and then that one dredges up another memory? Before you know it, your head is filled with memories tripping over each other. 

It all began when the sister of a childhood friend of mine posted notice of a death on her facebook page. The man who died at only 62 was the youngest son in a family that lived next door to my family for many years in a Chicago suburb. His older sister is the same age as my middle brother. She had Friended me on facebook some months ago, so I went to her page and sent a private condolence message. In it, I told her that one of my fondest memories of her family is that her parents gave me my wedding cake as a gift when I was married, nearly 48 years ago.

Bud and Lorraine owned the bakery in our neighborhood shopping district, three blocks from our houses. We ordered the cake from them because it was the best place to do so as well as the owners being neighbors and friends. What a surprise when they gifted us with the cake. That kind and thoughtful gesture was typical of them. 

After writing the note, I began to have mental snapshots of the small bakery where waiting in line was not a problem since there were so many delectable goodies to look at. Besides what we saw, the blend of baked goods aromas tickled the nose and whet the appetite. Every child was given a cookie by the clerk behind the counter. My mother bought a loaf of bread there every day, and sometimes she'd bring home crullers or kolaches that our family of six adored. Mother did a lot of baking at home, but those two delicacies were not in her repertoire. 

I delved farther back into my memory bank to my very early years and the small bakery that my grandmother owned. I've written several stories about that heavenly establishment. My mother worked there on weekday mornings, and she took me with her. Imagine having a small child running loose in one of today's big bakeries! There were rules and I was expected to follow them. Most of the time I did, but sometimes....well, that's a story in itself. 

What all this is leading to is that we all have something that was special to our families, and those memories and reminiscences give us a resource for stories we write. Mine happens to be bakeries, but your family might have had a connection to auto repair shops or Mom and Pop grocery stores or neighborhood beauty shops. There are so many things from our long-ago everyday lives that we can write about. And the stories can be serious, humorous, or even sad. Use the great trigger I remember... when thinking about one of these subjects and you'll be surprised at how many long-buried memories rise up to meet you. 

Tomorrow, I'll post an essay I've written about lessons I learned in my grandmother's bakery. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Long Or Short For New Writers?

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Most beginning fiction writers dream of writing a novel. They have an idea for a book and want to run with it. But is it smart to attempt to write a novel when you haven't yet written short pieces? A novel is a huge project with myriad problems to face. 

Would a brand new carpenter attempt to build a house be has tried a smaller project? Probably not. A kid who loves baseball can't move into the major leagues until he's had some success with school teams and the minors. Rare is the film star who takes on a leading role for their first professional acting job. Nor does an attorney argue his first case before the Supreme Court. We all need to work our way up to the project we dream about.

If you want to write fiction, begin with a short story. It has one plot, not a series of sub-plots that a full-length book might have. It has fewer characters. It can be completed in less time than a book. It is a fine training ground to practice using sensory details, to perfect using the necessary skill to construct good Beginnings, Middles and Ends, which happens to be the title of a terrific book by Nancy Kress.

When we dream of a big project like writing a book, we're usually eager to get going on it. We want to jump right in and write hours every day. Seasoned novelists know it's a fast road to burnout and frustration. Write a good short story instead. Even that can take more time than you think.Then market it and see if someone else thinks it's worthy of publication. Build up a few credits before you attempt to peddle a first book project to an agent. 

I'm reminded of a song Julie Andrews sang to the children in the movie, The Sound of Music. The first words of the song are Start at the very beginning... It's good advice for all writers, whether newbies or old war-horses. 

Start slow and work your way up. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Good News/Bad News

Yesterday I received a dose of  good news/bad news. An editor from Chicken Soup Publishing wrote that my story "The Body Beautiful"  had made it to the final selection for a book on Faith. The letter indicated that only a small percentage of the stories submitted had made it this far. That's the good news.

The bad news is that the book will be released in mid-October, and the authors of the final stories selected will be notified about a month prior to that. I call that bad news since it is a long wait from mid-April to mid-September. And, as is their policy, the authors who make the cut will be notified, the others will not. It leaves a writer hanging on the edge of the cliff waiting for James Bond to come and rescue her. Well, maybe not quite that dramatic, but it's a long wait, especially since the story was submitted in December 2011.

It also means that I cannot submit the story to another publication until I know whether it will be in this new book or not. If the worst happens, the story has been sitting gathering literary dust for longer than I'd like.

When I submit to a Chicken Soup book, I know the odds of my story making it into their book are not great. But I've been successful a dozen times with them so far, and I know how the process works. That makes me willing to submit, willing to wait, willing to take my chances. And I know my chances are far better than winning the lottery, so I'll continue to send stories to Chicken Soup books. I won't sit around just waiting. I'll start working on a story for the newest titles listed. When one of my stories makes it into a Chicken Soup book, I'm a happy writer.

A member of my critique group also received a letter informing her that her story is in the final selection stage. We both signed the Permission Release Agreement and sent it back, and we're hoping to be able to congratulate one another on getting into the book.

Do you wonder how a story called "The Body Beautiful" is in the finals for a book on faith? I assure you that it is a story about faith, also about a girl who wore leopard-skin print panties and bra. Check back in October for more about the story.

Do you have any thoughts about the process of submitting your work to Chicken Soup books? 

Monday, April 9, 2012

A Great Storyteller

Charles Dickens

I'm a big fan of Masterpiece Theater on public television. They give us a variety of excellent presentations ranging from mysteries to romance to adventure. The past two Sunday evenings, Ken and I watched Great Expectations, which was adapted from the classic Charles Dickens novel. 

I had a vague recollection of the story but could not remember many of the details. The story involves a young boy named Pip who is an orphan living with an older sister. Pip happens upon an escaped convict out in the marshes. He brings the man a file to open his shackles when the convict threatens him. Later, Pip brings the man food. The convict is recaptured and Pip moves on with his life. It's a life which is filled with twists and turns of strange people, apprenticeship, learning to live as a gentleman, a love that is lost and found, the return of the convict who suddenly becomes an important part of Pip;s life. The two-part movie was well done with an English cast and filmed there, as most of the Masterpiece Theater presentations are. 

As I watched the story unfold, I kept thinking about what a superb storyteller the author was. His 200th birthday was celebrated only a couple of months ago. His storytelling would have to be superb for him to be recognized around the world two centuries after his birth. He left the world with not one, two or three novels but a host of them. Many of us were required to read them in high school. I remember my son reading Great Expectations during his high school years. Kirk was not a reader so  he never looked forward to an assignment involving reading a full book. But how he loved that story, Even though it took place in a time and place far removed from what my son knew, I think he was able to relate to Pip as a boy his own age. And besides that, it's a good story that kept his attention.

Who can forget other Dickens' tales like A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield and so many more? He based many of his characters on people he actually knew. He had an uncanny ability to weave a tale with many threads, all of which made perfect sense in the end. You might say he was a master plotter. His books are filled with description, almost to the point that the reader sometimes becomes impatient, wanting to get on with the story. But it's those details that paint a vivid picture of the characters, the place, and the times. I think we'd  all like to be wearing the same label he has, that of being A Great Storyteller.

If you google Charles Dickens, you'll find links to a great many sites about him and his novels. One I found of interest lists ten things you might not know about him. Read it here.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Sometimes Life Steps In

Sometimes life steps in and pushes our writing time into a corner where it has to sit quietly and wait for us to return. 

Holidays bring more tasks than usual for a lot of people. If the family is coming for dinner or to spend the holiday week-end, there is grocery shopping to be done, the house to clean and cooking for the big day. This year Passover and Easter week-end coincide so many homes across our nation will be preparing special foods for these celebrations. 

All those goodies take time to prepare. If you're lucky, some of your guests might bring a dish or two. If not, you're the one mixing up this and that. For me, it's going to be baked ham, a favorite potato casserole, fresh asparagus and Hollandaise sauce, Seafoam Salad, rolls, and a new cake recipe for dessert. It's a white cake that has holes poked into it, lime jello trickled into the holes, then a topping of cream cheese, lime jello, and whipped topping. Tasted it at a meeting a couple weeks ago and requested the recipe pretty quickly. It was a St. Pat's Day cake but works great for any springtime  dessert need. Check the links for the recipes.

Today, I have to get the groceries to make all the items on my menu and tomorrow I need to clean the house and do a little prep in the kitchen. Which means the story that is swirling in my head is going to have to wait until at least Monday before it gets down in print. To be perfectly honest, that frustrates me, but the story isn't going to disappear. It's stored away in a corner of my brain where I can pull it out when needed. I can also jot down a few notes today which might help. 

If you're a writer who also has other responsibilities (and who doesn't?), there are going to be times when you do have to set the writing aside for a short time and take care of other parts of life. That's perfectly OK. All you need to do  is be sure you get back to writing when things return to normal again. Meanwhile, enjoy your holiday celebrations or the short vacation or major home project you;re dealing with. Whatever it is, you know that your writing project can be pulled back whenever you're ready. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Musing On Childhood Easter Celebrations

Easter is only a few days away. I'm going to post a piece on Easter thoughts that I wrote a few years ago. It's about the Easter holidays of my growing up years--a memory piece that will go in the book of family stories. Have you got one about Easter in your family story book yet? This might be a good time to muse a bit and get started. Meanwhile, read about my Easters of the 1940's.

Easter Thoughts
By Nancy Julien Kopp

I’ve been thinking about the Easter celebrations of my childhood years in the Chicago area during the 1940’s. When Easter fell in March or early April, we donned spring dresses and coats to walk to church in sharp north winds, even a little snow on occasion.

On one of those bitter cold Easter mornings, I had a new aqua-blue spring coat and hat that I’d looked forward to wearing. Mother told me it was much too cold to wear it. “You have too far to walk to church. You’ll freeze,” she said.

I begged and begged. “Please let me wear it. I’ll wear a sweater underneath.” Tears slipped from my eyes as I waited for her to give in. They were genuine, not a ploy. Wearing that new coat was a monumental need at that moment at age eight.

Mother relented, but I did have to wear the sweater I’d proposed underneath my lightweight, pastel-colored coat. I think I was very glad to have it as my brother and I headed to church to hear the Easter story once again. My parents never attended church
with us. Theirs was a mixed marriage—Dad was Catholic and Mother Methodist, and neither ever gave in to the other. But we kids all attended the Methodist church and Sunday School. Dad polished our shoes every Saturday night so we’d look our best on Sunday mornings. He buffed them to a high shine and lined them up in the living room.

The day before Easter, we dyed eggs in glorious colors. Coffee cups filled with hot water, a dye tablet and a splash of vinegar covered the kitchen table. We arranged the eggs on a big platter with artificial grass as a nest. The Easter Bunny would hide them while we slept that night.

The Easter Bunny usually brought us a few chocolates, jelly beans and a new comic book. He also hid the brightly colored eggs in our living and dining rooms. What fun it was to discover the decorated eggs, one or two of which we always found in Dad’s shoes left out overnight.

Later in the day, aunts, uncles and cousins joined us for a special dinner. Mother usually fixed a leg of lamb or a big ham, glazed with brown sugar and mustard, cloves inserted in the scored top. Many side dishes weighed down the dining room table-- scalloped or mashed potatoes, two or three vegetables, a jello salad, homemade rolls, pickles, olives and pickled beets, and a springtime dessert of some kind, cream pies, berry pies, or a cake with whipped cream frosting. The aroma of all these good things filled our small apartment.

When we were all too full to move, it was time to do dishes.. No dishwashers, but all the women pitched in and they were finished in no time. Maybe not all the women. I had one aunt who always announced she needed to use the bathroom as soon as the cleaning up began. Off she went, and she never appeared in the kitchen again! The clatter of dishes and the chatter of women filled the tiny kitchen. My cousin, Carol, and I were drafted at an early age to dry the silverware, a job neither of us liked. We hurried through our task so we could walk to the park to play the rest of the afternoon.  Occasionally we finished our Easter celebration by going at the movies. We sat transfixed at the fabulous musicals starring Betty Grable or some other glamorous star.
The rebirth of springtime flowers, trees and bushes still symbolizes the meaning of Easter for me. Christ’s resurrection created a rebirth for all Christians, and as He taught us to love one another, I also think of the love of family as part of our Easter celebrations. It isn’t only the ones of my childhood but for today, as well. We will be spending this Easter holiday with our daughter’s family, going to church, having a celebration dinner, and being together. Not so very different than all those years ago.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Book I Enjoyed

Last month, a woman at my book club announced the title of our next book. She had selected The Leisure Seeker by Michael Zadoorian. She said she'd chosen it after reading a review in a newspaper. "It's about a couple in their 80's who take a trip in their small camper. She has cancer and decided to have no more treatment. He has Alzheimer's." At that point, another member said, "Oh gee, that sounds like a really cheery book!" 

Turns out that woman loved the book and so did I. It is filled with humor, irony, and, yes, some sad moments. It's also amazing in the observations about life and all it serves to us, like it or not. Ella, the wife narrates the story while her husband, John, drives them from Detroit to California. Ella has had it with doctors, hospitals and treatments. She wants one more trip for the two of them. She prepares and leaves without informing her two adult children as she knows they'd veto the trip in a hurry. 

Off they go in the '78 Leisure Seeker camper, follow the old Rte 66, stopping at ghost towns and tourist attractions, meeting a host of people along the way. John still remembers how to drive, with Ella's guidance as to where to turn. They reminisce, they laugh, they fight. Ella is in charge and John cooperates most of the time.  Ella functions on little blue pills that ease what she calls her discomfort. I found myself cheering these two eighty-somethings on. I knew the book could not end with They lived happily ever after, but it did end with a terrific line.

It's possible that only people of the senior citizen variety would find this book appealing, but I think it might be a good read for those who have older parents, too. It might help them understand what the ending stages of life are all about. 

Bittersweet might be a good way to describe the book. My friend, who had made the remark at book club, told me she can hardly wait until we gather to discuss it. You can read more about the novel at Amazon.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Disappointment Stinks But Isn't Fatal

Last night the University of Kansas Jayhawks played in the NCAA Tournament Championship game. They'd had a wonderful season, beating one opponent after another. Many of the games were a bit too close for comfort for their fans, but they landed in the win column. . Their expectations in this last game were sky-high. The Jayhawks planned to win this final game and once again be the number one team in the nation. But it didn't work out that way. Kentucky was just too much for them. The players, coaches and fans were deeply disappointed. Even though I'm a true Kansas State Wildcat fan, I cheered for KU all through the tournament. They're a part of our conference, and my son-in-law, Steve. is one of their greatest fans. I know he's feeling that let-down disappointment today. Pretty soon, the KU faithful will start to look ahead to next season, and that's as it should be. A great quote that fits here is Don't look back. That's not where you're going.

Writers have high expectations, too, They're no different than those young men playing basketball. We take a chance when submitting our work to a contest, an editor or agent. A lot of the time, we end up with a rejection which breeds deep disappointment. I don't want to use the word 'depression'  because I hope we all can deal with the disappointment and move on before having to deal with that. We need to look ahead, not to the next basketball season, but to the next submission or the next project in our writing life. For writers or athletes, losing or being rejected is part of the game. If you aren't able to deal with it, then maybe a writer's life isn't for you. That sounds harsh, I know, but we all need to be honest with ourselves. The future depends on it.

First and foremost, when you receive a rejection, don't think it is a rejection of you as a person. It is not! It also does not mean that your submission is no good. Granted, that is a possibility, but it more often than not, means that the piece was not right for the publication. Or maybe it wasn't what they needed at this time. Perhaps they'd just published an article in their magazine on the same subject. There are myriad reasons.

Should you feel bad if your reaction to a rejection is disappointment? Absolutely not. It wouldn't be normal not to feel that way. I find that the best thing for me to do is set it aside for awhile, then come back to it later. I'm usually able to stop ranting by then and can look at the rejection a bit more sanely. Not immediately, but within a short time, I try to find another market and send my poor rejected baby out into the world again. Sometimes, I leave it in my files and wait until I run across a market that might fit. The important thing here is that I don't dwell on it. My pity party can last only 24 hours, then it's time to move on.

Disappointment stinks, but it isn't fatal!

Monday, April 2, 2012

My COOL Guest Blogger

Mo (Maureen)

Today's Guest Blogger is Maureen Rogers, a Seattle writer friend who has a lot to say about slang words. 

COOL - still the Freshest

When was the last time you heard something described as a doosy, copacetic, hep, or hotsy-totsy? If you’re under 40, these expressions probably seem like a foreign language. Words are disappearing as fast as our culture can create new ones and as the 21st century rolls into its second decade most of these funny old sayings have been left in the dust.

Slang has evolved and moved in and out of the English vernacular for centuries but the culture of the 1950s, those early baby boomer years, seemed to speed things up. The introduction of the transistor radio brought disk jockeys spinning rock and roll along with their platter patter. Television became the new vehicle for cultural images. The Beat era was popularized by Maynard G. Krebs  on “Dobie Gillis” for his unconventional approach to life.  Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, an aspiring PI, parked cars and combed his hair constantly on “77 Sunset Strip.” American slang exploded. Young people in particular were eager to adopt the words of their new ‘modern’ heroes.

The expression COOL has been around since the jazz age of the 20s but its popularity rose in the 50’s during the era of Big Daddy, cloud nine, bread (money), pad (home) and that word we boomers often had for your parents –  square. From the hip and cool cats of the 50s, the surfer beach crowd impacted our words. Slang moved on to cool dude, boss and bogus in the 60s. The war protesters and hippie movement that followed us into the 70s had a stronger influence. Dropping out became the theme for many. We were groovy, funky, psychedelic, sometimes veering toward radical.

In the 80’s when the war was over, the ‘me’ generation came up with new words for COOL such as outrageous, bad and bodacious. Meanwhile punk influence brought about more extreme expressions for COOL like sick. In the 90’s culture veered into new territory with rap music and the black gangster culture. Expressions like whoa, jiggy, the bomb, ghetto, and phat became the words of the day for many. Somewhere in the last couple of decades awesome slipped into everyday lingo for kids and many adults.

In the 2000s COOL branched out into fresh and adopted a popular cousin, chill. The expression hot, which has been around forever, is making a strong comeback these days.
But anyway you look at it, COOL is still hands down, the grand prize winner -- the slang word that has survived all others for almost a century. So what is it about temperature? Either up or down, these words have a power to express our emotions so succinctly that they hang on through generations.

When words fail to describe something wonderful, absolutely fantastic, COOL always fits. I still find myself using it, my adult kids use it, I even recall my mother using it a time or two. As baby boomers of the mid 20th century, we may never be the bee’s knees or the cat’s pajamas but hopefully, as long as we’re here, we’ll still be COOL.

Maureen Rogers is a transplanted Canadian who has lived in the Seattle area for over 40 years. Her writing projects include fiction, poetry and essays. She has been published online, in newspapers, anthologies and is currently working on a collection of short stories.