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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Benefits Of Reading

Whether you're a writer who reads or a reader who writes, you can only benefit from your reading habit.

I feel bad for those who seldom read books. Have you ever heard someone say Nah, I don't like to read. I'd rather watch TV. I'm sure you all know people who have said that or something similar. My inward reaction is that they miss so much. I'm not much of a TV fan. I have a few shows, and they're very few, that I enjoy but I much prefer reading in the evening than sitting in front of a screen.

I will admit that, as a kid, I became totally addicted to movies. TV was not in every home and movies were our main form of entertainment. How I loved them! The theaters changed venues a couple times a week and often showed a double feature plus a news short and a cartoon. And the coming attractions, of course. Those short bits showing what the next movies would be hooked me every time. I had mental lists of the ones I wanted to see. Which was usaully all of them!

Even with my movie addiction, I grew up being an avid reader from the first Dick and Jane books on to my adult choices. Always have been, still am, and will be as long as my mind and eyes hold up. Here are a few of the benefits I've derived from my reading habit.

I've traveled the world through reading. 

I've met people from every walk of life through reading.

I've gathered information of all kinds through reading. 

I've escaped from everyday cares through reading.

I've run the gamut of emotions through reading.

I've been entertained countless hours through reading.

I've been helped in my writing through reading.

Can you become a reader later in life if you've spurned it in the past? Yes, it can be done. My son read only what he had to for school and once he'd graduated from college, he pushed books far into the background of his life. He did read newspapers daily but never a novel. Ever! His wife and two daughters are all readers and one day a few years ago, his daughter got him to read a novel she'd enjoyed. He did it for her, I'm sure, and to his utter surprise, he was hooked. At the time, he traveled a lot for his job, and he found out that taking a paperback novel with him helped get through those hours of waiting in airports and on airplanes. So, yes, you can become a reader later in life.

I don't feel guilty about reading. Whatever else I may be shirking will most likely still be there waiting when I finish the book. Rationalization? Perhaps but readers can always find a reason to read.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Icing On The Cake

Today's post is an article that I wrote for a Children's Writer's Newsletter a few years ago. Although originally geared to people who write for children, the information works just as well for those who write for adults. I interviewed two people I considered experts in their field for the article. 

The Icing On The Cake
By Nancy Julien Kopp

A cake with no icing is about as appealing as toast with no butter. The
basic food is there, but the special something that makes it taste so good
is missing. The icing makes the cake sweeter, prettier, and more
appealing. A story may have a good plot but without the little extra, it
may end up being rather ordinary.

Sensory details enhance a story like the icing on that cake. We use our
five senses hundreds of times a day without being conscious of doing so.
Think about the many every day things you do that involve your senses.
When you look out your kitchen window and see a bird, your mind registers
more than the fact that you saw a bird. You know that it is a bird, you
know the color, the size, and perhaps the sound it makes, you know how
soft the feathers would feel if you stroked it. We see, hear, smell, taste
and touch with our daily experiences, so why not include them in our stories?

Children relate to things in their personal surroundings. They know that
the bristles of a brush might feel scratchy. They squeal with delight at
the sound of the ice cream vendor, and they wrinkle their noses when
taste-testing a new food not to their liking. Include these experiences in
the stories they read, and you could end up being a sought-after
author-the writer who made the story come alive.

Margaret Shauers, author of many children's stories and regular columnist
at Write4Kids, says "The way humans communicate is through shared
experiences and emotions, and we experience life through the five senses."
Ms Shauers has a word of warning. "We rely too much on sight and need to
hone our skills at the other four. Keeping a sense diary helps-a short
sentence or two about each sense every day." She admits that it is easiest
to include sight and sound in children's stories. Touch runs a close
third, but taste and smell are senses she must concentrate on when she writes.

Look at the sentences below. Which example in each set is more interesting?>

1.  Sam saw a big wave.  Or   Sam's heart leaped in his chest when he
spied the huge wall of water headed his way-taller than his basketball
goal at home.

A few added words allows the reader to see the wave headed for Sam.

2.  Sally heard thunder.    Or   Sally covered her ears when thunder
boomed overhead and echoed across the prairie. The wind whistled through
the tall grasses as she raced toward home.

We know that the noise is very loud if Sally has covered her ears, and we
can discern the sound in the grass, too, through the active verb form.

3.  The dead mouse smelled bad.    Or    The rotten stench of the dead
mouse made Susie gag, and clap her hand over her nose and mouth.

Gagging and covering her nose and mouth illustrates the nasty smell so
much better than simply telling the reader the mouse smelled.

4.  Tommy didn't like the vegetable.    Or    The slimy, green spinach sat
on Tommy's tongue and refused to move any farther. He'd never be able to
swallow the bitter stuff.

Here we not only know what the taste is, but we can also see the vile
veggie Tommy is trying to eat.

5.  Jody petted the cat.  Or   Jody giggled when the cat's soft fur
tickled her hand as she stroked him.

The sense of both touch and hearing are evident in this last sentence.

Did you notice that the first sentence in each group was a telling
sentence, while the next one showed what happened. Using sensory details
remedies too much telling.

Picture book author, Barbara Santucci, pays close attention to sensory
details in her three picture books--Anna's Corn, Loon Summer, and Abby's Chairs.
Ms Santucci says "The more sensory details we include, the richer our
writing becomes, and the more able we are to show and not tell the story
plot and the emotions we are trying to convey." Anna's Corn is a story
built around the sound of corn growing in Anna's grandfather's field.
There is, of course, a good deal more to the story, but the music of the
corn Anna remembers figures strongly in this tale of loss.

Ms. Santucci adds "Our writing should create concrete and vivid images in
the minds of readers that help them experience the emotions of the
characters, thereby creating a mind and heart connection between the story
and the reader."

That "mind and heart connection" is what a children's author strives for.

Adding lively sensory details will achieve that connection more easily.
For most of us, it's not a given. We need to practice writing those
sensory details so that they become second nature when writing a new
children's tale. Let sight, sound, smell, taste and touch be the icing on
the cake in your stories.

* Keep a Sense Diary. Write a short sentence or two about each sense
    * Practice writing phrases that include sensory details
    * Watch for sensory details when you read.
    * Be observant. Take note of the sensory details in your daily life.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Writing Exercise

Here's a picture prompt exercise for you that has a little something more to help you get started. Ken took the picture when we were in Germany this past summer.

I've given you the opening paragraph below. Use it and the picture to help you create a scene or a full story. Be creative. Use sesnrory details. Give us a sense of place. Tall order for a Monday!

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving but there will be no turkey and cranberries for me this year. I'm in Hamburg, Germany on a tough assignment. I feel so depressed already that I can only imagine what depths I'll sink to tomorrow. This charming house where I'm staying will not be filled with the Thanksgiving aromas I long to savor. What can I do to save the day? 

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Two Keywords For Writers Plus One More

Friday seems a good day to talk about the advice in the poster above. You who read the blog on a regular basis know that my two keywords for writers are patience and persistence. The poster says the same thing but in a more poetic way. Still, for me, those two words sum up the attitude that a writer needs to have or acquire.

Most of us don't have patience when we start writing and subbing our work. It comes slowly over the years as we wait and wait and wait to get a response from an editor or agent. The persistence is also a learned thing. The easy way is to give up when our writing career doesn't skyrocket in a matter of months. If you're serious about being a writer and being published, you need to persist relentlessly.

This writing game is definitely not for the faint of heart. If you have been writing for a long time and and have had your work published, you're strong as the lion who claims to be king of all he surveys. If you persist, you're tough. You're courageous. You're self-confident. Maybe you have all these qualities in different degrees. And maybe you're strong for awhile, then slide back.

That's perfectly alright. It's normal. If you made a line graph of your writing journey, it would probably resemble a roller coaster ride at an amusement park. There will be ups and downs from start to the present and continue that way into the future. Even top authors who sell books by the carload have those ups and downs. Let's face it--not every one of their books rates the same with readers. Some will be far higher on the chart than others.

In the poster above, there is one more keyword to add to my own patience and persistence. That one is believe. Consider it step one in your writing journey. We all need ot believe in ourself as writers. With each success we have, that belief becomes a little stronger. Key here is to not let the rejections and the downs in your writing life poke a hole in the belief balloon. When you write something that leaves you feeling satisfied with the end result, believe in yourself. When someone critiques your work and has more positives to say than negative, believe in yourself. I can't do it for you. Your spouse can't do it for you. Believing in yourself is entirely up to you.

Years ago, I attended a writing conference in Kansas City. Loved soaking up all the workshop material but I couldn't tell you today what any of those workshops were about. What I have never forgotten, however, is the motivational speaker after lunch. Her topic centered on not being afraid to tell people you are a writer. Being a newbie at the time, I had been reluctant to announce to others that I was a writer, even though I'd had a few successes. By the time the woman finished speaking, I had the courage and the belief in myself to say "I am a writer." Try it--even if you start by looking in the mirror and saying the words.

If you haven't acquired belief in yourself, patience on your writing path, and continued persistence, it might be time to work on an attitude adjustment. Build yourself up, don't tear yourself down.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Nonfiction Contest--No Entry Fee, Published or Unpublished Work

I've been waiting to enter the following contest. Those of you who have been writing family stories and your family history might give consideration to this contest, too. This is the announcement I found a few months ago.
2014 GENEii Family History Writers Contest Opens

NOW is the time to write your family's history. Submissions will be accepted for the 2014 GENEii Family History Writing Contest beginning 01 Nov 2014. Contest closes on 31 Dec 2014.
The GENEii Writing Contest is for factual articles: either family history or local history, character sketches, or memoirs. Winning entries capture a sense of a family's experience(s), the character of a locality, or reveal an individual's character and personality. Complete contest rules can be found here and a brochure can be downloaded here. Winning stories for the past 10 years can be found here.
Cash prizes are awarded in two categories: articles (1000 to 2000 words: $200, $100, and $50) and Category 2 (under 1000 words: $100, $50, and $25).

To read the specific guidelines go to this link and download the brochure. Note that there are two categories, mainly marking  a difference in word count. Your entry can be a purely factual history or a character sketch/memoir which allows you to be a little more creative, still keeping to the facts.

You are not restricted to history of southern California history, anyplace is eligible. They state that entries have come from around the world. There are cash prizes and publication possibilities. One thing I especially liked is that your entry can be either a published or unpublished piece. Another plus is that there is no entry fee.

Ponder on this today. Do you have something already written, or even published, that you might enter? Or do you have a thought about a new piece to write specifically for this contest? I am considering a story about my grandparents that has been published. Before I send it, I am going to expand on parts of it, add more to bring out the character traits of these family members. If you want to enter something you've already written, look carefully to see if you might improve on it before you submit. 

Read and study the guidelines carefully to see if your submission fits.

Note the deadline for submission is December 31, 2014. That gives you about six weeks. 

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why Should You Attend A Writer's Workshop?

This is a candid snapshot of me teaching a workshop at our Kansas Authors State Convention last month. I must have been listening to an attendee's comment or question as my mouth is not going a mile a minute as is often the case.

The topic I spoke on was The Basics of Writing.  The program booklet suggested it was for new writers and a review for more seasoned writers. We covered a lot of ground in the slightly less than an hour's time allotted.

One thing I noted was the absolute attention those who attended gave to me, the speaker.  I hope they each took away some information that will help their writing and allow them to grow as writers.

There were questions and comments at each of the two sessions I taught. It was obvious that these people had come to learn. They weren't there passing the time until the social hour began. I would give a gold star to each one for pursuing growth in their writing.

The one thing we writers do not want to do is to find a slot we're comfortable in and stay there--even if you feel happy in that spot. In each workshop, I emphasized the importance of growing as a writer and that we should never cease seeking that growth. One woman stopped me the next day and said, The best thing you said yesterday is to never stop learning.

I don't think we ever reach a stage where we know it all. Even those who have written for years and years can benefit from new methods that come along. If a writer has the attitude that my way is just fine and I don't need to try new things, they may rue that attitude.

One of the reasons I attend conferences is to find out what the new trends are. I want to know what has changed in the publishing industry that will affect my style of writing. I look for the genres that are the hottest in the market. Does my writing fit there? Or am I way off in another land? What attitude changes should I make?

A topic at my online writers' conference about three years ago was Branding. When I saw it on the program, I must have had a big question mark on my face but by the time Mary Bower finished her presentation, I had a pretty good idea of this newer term. At the workshop I recently taught, I asked how many knew what branding was. Only two raised their hands in each session. If you are unawaare of all it involves, I suggest googling using the keywords branding for writers. You'll have a wealth of articles to read to help you understand what it is and how to achieve it.

Keep learning your craft. Keep up with the tools we use as writers. Keep up with trends in our industry. Don't ever stop learning!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Writing Shorter Is Better But How Do You Do It?

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
- Henry David Thoreau

The author of Walden gives us a piece of advice that writers today might heed. Henry David Thoreau wrote his book about an experiment of living in natural surroundings more than 150 years ago. I ran across the quote above and felt it worth taking a closer look. What I found in my research was a scathing look at the way Mr. Thoreau writes. It makes one wonder if he listened to his own words about writing shorter, or writing 'tight' as we might say today. 

Here is the assessment of Ken Kifer, who was an admirer of Thoreau and Walden. He seems to be able to separate what he likes and what he doesn't quite well with the quote below. 
Walden is a difficult book to read for three reasons: First, it was written by a gifted writer who uses surgically precise language, extended, allegorical metaphors, long and complex paragraphs and sentences, and vivid, detailed, and insightful descriptions. Thoreau does not hesitate to use metaphors, allusions, understatement, hyperbolepersonificationironysatiremetonymy,synecdoche, and oxymorons, and he can shift from a scientific to a transcendental point of view in mid-sentence. Second, its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense. Ironically, this logic is based on what most people say they believe. Thoreau, recognizing this, fills Walden with sarcasmparadoxes, and double entendres. He likes to tease, challenge, and even fool his readers. And third, quite often any words would be inadequate at expressing many of Thoreau's non-verbal insights into truth. Thoreau must use non-literal language to express these notions, and the reader must reach out to understand.— Ken Kifer[11]
Let's go back to the original quote. Thoreau suggests that short, tight writing is not an easy task for the writer. I now that's true and so do you. So often, the writers in my critique group submit a piece and then say that they know it is too long and they need help in cutting it to the maximum amount of words an editor is calling for. 
Wouldn't it be nice if we could put all the words into a box, shake it up and pour them out with the cuts made for us? If you ever find that writing fairy who can do this, let me know.
Otherwise, we all need to spend time editing our work and cutting vast amounts to make a better end product. We need to:
1. Look for redundancy: We often write two sentences that say basically the same thing with different words to make a point. We want the reader to be sure to 'get it.' Instead, they might be a bit miffed that you, the writer, didn't give them enough credit for 'getting it' in the first place. 
2. Strike unnecessary words: Words, or phrases, like really, very, just, only, in other words, for the most part do not add anything to your sentence. They tend to clutter what could be a perfectly good sentence on its own. Simple is best in all things.
3. Stop hammering a point: Make your point and then move on. Don't overstate your case. This falls under redundancy but I've seen writers who write an entire paragraph about one thing, then write another. Say it once and move on.
4. Overuse of adjectives: Newer writres tend to do this. They want to bring an image to the reader but tossing a bunch of adjectives into the air and letting them land wherever is not the best way to do this. Too many adjectives to describe one poor little noun makes for overwriting in a big way. 
5. Too many adverbs: Adverbs modify verbs. Writers sometimes think that using them on a regular basis helps them show the reader what is happening. An occasional adverb is alright but use them too often and the reader becomes tired.
6. Get rid of the superfluous:  A wise editor I once knew hammered this point with her students. She taught that anything that does not move the story along should be dumped. Every single sentence should have a reason to be in your story. If it doesn't, slash it. We all tend to add these little extras that really have no bearing on the story action. We like them but they become distracting. 
There are more ways to cut your first drafts and to tighten your writing but the ones above are enough to consider for now. If you can work on these six, you'll find that your writing has moved to a new level. Mr. Thoreau is right when he says that writing a piece shorter will take a long time. You come out a winner in the end if you heed his advice.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

November Memory Stories Need To Be Written Now

We've just passed the middle of November. Before Thanksgiving pops up, you might give thought to writing your memories of Thanksgiving and November activities from your growing-up years to add to your Family Memories Book. 

While Thanksgiving is the prime event, there are other things that occur during this month. I wrote about them on November 3rd. If you missed it, take a look here. Something might trigger memories that you can write about. 

You can write about Novembers of your childhood or those in your early married life or even the ones that you spent in the first years of being a grandparent. All would have a place in your memory book. 

You might even write about the weather patterns in your area. The sunny Indian Summer days of October gave way to gloomy ones in November in the Chicago area where I grew up. It wasn't unusual to have a full week with no sun. The cold penetrated our bones because it was also a time of dampness. We even had an occasional snow in November. Here in Kansas, my children grew up knowing a few chilly days in November but also some warm, sunny ones where no coat was needed. The last of the leaves drifted down from the trees. This year, our November temps have been more like January for the past week or more and we're all looking forward to a warm-up and more normal temps as the week progresses. 

Thanksgiving is most likely of prime importance in our memories this month. We lived in a small 2 bedroom apartment, three flights up, when I was growing up. My mother turned out wonderful holiday meals in our tiny kitchen. One or both of my dad's sisters and their families often joined us making our apartment appear even smaller but no one seemed to mind. I never gave a thought to what my mother had to do to fix a meal for a large group or where to accomodate them. As a kid, I guess I thought it all happened with a wave of Mom's magic wand. Now, I realize what a feat she'd performed. The aunts brought side dishes or desserts to add to what Mom made. It wasn't an unusual occurrence to have a long freight train roll by on the tracks that parallelled our street during the meal. No one paid much attention to those trains since they were a part of our everyday life. 

After dinner, my cousins and I were shooed outside to play, no matter the weather, while the adults finished dessert and coffee and discussed this and that. As my female cousin closest to me in age and I got older, we were drafted to help with the clean-up after dinner. No dishwasher then so all the good china had to be washed and dried by hand. Carole and I were initially given the silverware to dry and put away, a job we both hated. But even so, I remember the feeling of being included with the adults. We liked it. Carole and I often rolled our eyes at one another over something one of the adult women said. Our other two female cousins were enough younger than we were that they got to go outside and play with the boys. No kitchen duty for them! 

I wrote a family story about the Thanksgiving when my children were small and we had both of Ken's brothers and their families plus Ken's mother at our house. It was a disaster and one Thanksgiving I'll never forget. Read it here. Another time, we had to eat in a restaurant because I was far too pregnant to have company or travel. Read that story here.

You each have memories of your own about Thanksgiving or other times in November. Now is the time to write those stories and add them to your book. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Three Words Might Be All That's Needed

I was looking through some files last evening and ran across a Guest Blog post that I'd done for my writer friend, Jennie Helderman, author of As The Sycamore Grows, almost five years ago. I'm reposting it as it has some valid points for writers. Some of this you've heard me say more than once, but if that's the case, then it must be important. Right?

Guest Blog I Wrote for Jennie Helderman

Thanks, Jennie, for asking me to be your first guest blogger. I could write three words that cover the topic I’ve selected, but readers might not be satisfied with such brevity, even though the words are pretty self-explanatory. Send it out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 13, 2014

This Reader Likes Ken Follett's Century Trilogy

Product Details

Ever since reading Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle, I've been an ardent admirer of his ability to tell a story that holds the reader from beginning to end. He was only 27 when he wrote this suspense novel that put the reader on the edge of his seat more than once. There have been new releases on this book which was originally published in 1978 under the name Storm Island. The author is Welsh and he has published many more books making his name easily recognized by the reading public in many countries.

What amazes me about this author is that he writes suspense novels and historical tomes and plain good stories to read. Not just one genre. I suppose we should call him gifted. I might also add patient as the amount of research that goes into his historical novels is astonishing and time-consuming. Once he became a top-selling author, he was most likely able to hire a research team to get the information he needed to write the books. 

His latest work is a trilogy that follows members of five intertwined families in England, Germany, Russia, United States and Wales through the twentieth century. We watch the characters during the WWI years, the WWII years and in the final book, the tumultuous 1960's to 80's. Needless to say, it is a fair amount of time between the publishing dates of the three books but it is not a problem. Once I started on Book 2, the characters and the things that happened in Book 1 came back to me easily--thanks in part to excellent writing. The same has occurred in Book 3. 

I am a fan of historical novels because I enjoy history but find that it is of greater interest to read a well-researched novel about an era rather than a nonfiction textbook. I'm a people person and want more than the facts of what happened in the world during a particular time period. I like knowing how the things that happened affected people around the world. The Century Trilogy gives me both the history and the people, although they are fictional. Still, they are representative of those who lived in the time period. 

Be forewarned--these books are in the 1000+ page variety. I have not found that to be a problem. In fact, when I finished the first two lengthy books, I immediately wondered how soon the next book would be out as I had the desire to keep reading.  I'm in the middle of Book 3 now and know I'll be sad when the final page is turned. 

Another favorite book by Ken Follett is Pillars of the Earth which follows five families through the building of a cathedral. I found the story and the educational information fascinating. I have visited many cathedrals in Europe since reading that book and I know that it gave me a far greater appreciation of how these magnificent edifaces were built.