Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Celebrating My Mother On Her 100th Birthday


My mother was born January 17th, 1918 so today would have been her 100th birthday. She passed away almost twelve years ago. She loved birthday cake so I know she'd have looked forward to having one for this very special birthday--two layers and lots of icing. She often said, "Birthday cakes taste better than any other kind." 

The photos above show her at 19 and 80-something. Her name was Garnet Elizabeth Studham Julien.

She baked many of them for our family of six over the years we all lived together in a Chicago suburb. Having worked in her mother's neighborhood bakery, she was a natural baker. 

Some people have mothers who were highly educated, have done exciting things in the medical or science field, led a company or were a celebrity. My mother was none of these things but she achieved greatness in her own way over the 87 years she was on the earth. 

She grew up in a small coal mining town in southeast Iowa. Her father, grandfather and uncles were all coal miners. Mom told many stories about life in Melcher, often as we sat around the kitchen table. They sent her to first grade at age four. She was the youngest of five children and the only girl. Two older brothers died of diphtheria before she was born. You'd think she would have been the spoiled little princess under those circumstances, but that was not the case. She had a stern mother and a family who survived from pay envelope to pay envelope. She got in more trouble as a child than either of her older brothers. 

In 1929, her family broke up. The older brothers had moved to Chicago to find jobs and her mother took Mom to visit them. As they sat on the train, Mom said, "I'll have lots of things to tell Papa when we get home." Her mother made one reply. "We aren't going home again." No explanation as to why she had left her husband. What a shock it must have been for my eleven-year-old mother. She survived but never forgot the way she'd been informed of the separation of her parents.

The Depression years followed their move to the big city. Her mother started a small bakery in a suburb and Mom had to quit school after her Freshman year to help her mother. It wasn't so unusual during those difficult years but she loved learning and would have enjoyed finishing her education.

She married at twenty, had four children between 1939 and 1955. Until I was four, she helped in the bakery during the mornings, taking me with her. When my first brother was born, she became a stay-at-home mom. She cooked, did laundry, cleaned and took care of her brood but she and Dad had a full social life with friends and family. She read books and learned to love football on television once it became a staple in our home. 

Her storytelling around the table continued as her children married and she became a grandmother, and later, a great-grandmother, known as Gigi. 

She had a great sense of humor, an Irish temper that flared now and then, and a genuine caring for other people. She knew no stranger. Coming from a small town where everyone spoke to everyone, she continued the practice until the end of her life. She spoke to all she encountered, brightened the day of the mailman, the lawn mowing men, the clerks in the bakery and pharmacy. Her smile brought more smiles from whoever she met in daily life. 

She was widowed at 77. Her life changed drastically but she carried on, learned how to do many things in the house she'd never done before. Dad always controlled the remote for the television so one of the first things she had to be taught was how to operate same. One time on a visit, she admitted that it was kind of fun to be in control of that little 'remote thing.' She started taking the local senior bus to do her shopping. She told me there were a bunch of grim-faced looking, silent old people on that bus. It wasn't long before she had everyone talking and laughing and greeting one another. She read books and newspapers every day, kept up with political news on tv. Formal education? No. Instead, she was self-educated. 

She was also a great psychologist. She saw deep into the heart of soul of others and often knew what their problems were. And she kept on telling those family stories around the kitchen or dining room table when we came to visit. Is it any wonder that I urge everyone to write their own family stories? She didn't write any of them, but I have written many of them in her stead. 

She spent the final years of her life in North Carolina with one of my brothers and his wife, and, finally, the last fourteen months in a nursing home. My last visit with her proved to be a happy one, even though I knew it would probably be our final time together. 

Nothing would make me happier today than being able to bake a birthday cake for her, two layers with lots of icing. Birthday cakes taste better than any other kind. I know that because my mother told me so.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Good Writing Is Not Guaranteed With Every Try

If we're honest with ourselves, we know that not everything we write is going to be great. Or publishable. I'd guess that a good many successful writers have stacks of stories/essays that have never seen publication in their files. 

Even the 'good guys' write not-so-hot tales at times and so do we who are still working hard to be one of those often published writers. Why? 
  • an idea comes and we write too fast and carelessly
  • we don't let that first draft sit and simmer for a few days
  • we don't edit carefully
  • we're too hurried to consider major revisions
  • we're tired
  • we're in the I'll never be a great writer mode at the time
  • we write with surface thoughts; we don't take time to dig deeper
The more we write, the better writers we can become if we pay attention to all the little do's instead of the don'ts in the writing world. We also have to have a mindset that not every single piece we write is going to be super. Even if we're good, we're not perfect.

The positive in writing many pieces is that the writer can go back later and improve on the ones that were not picked up by an editor. That is reason enough to keep the ones you consider 'bad.' 

I have written a few fiction stories that I thought would turn out pretty well. The idea I had for the story was a good one. After reading what I'd written, I thought something like What a bunch of drivel this is! When we read our first draft over, we know if it has potential or if it is one to file and forget for awhile. Some of them should be forgotten for a long while!

All of the above is a good reason to write regularly and produce myriad stories, essays, poems or whatever your specialty happens to be. Make writing a habit, not an occasional pastime.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Say It In A New Way

It's not only new writers who worry about creating something that seems to have done before. There are just so many plots for a novel or only a few perspectives on divorce, marriage, or childbirth. So, it's inevitable that you're going to choose a subject sometime that has been done again and again.

Don't you get sick of reading the same story over and over again in the newspaper when some scandal hits Washington DC or Hollywood? Journalists around the world write about the event and they get published so what's the difference you might wonder. I tend to tune out when it's the same story running like a hamster on his exercise wheel. 

What you can do is write something that has been done before but put a new twist on it. Bring in a viewpoint that no one else has done. There are lots of poems about stars. That's fine but, when you write a poem about stars, consider a new angle. No more "Star light, star bright..." 

Medical magazines have myriad stories about people having a heart attack. I wrote one, too, but mine highlighted what happened when my husband had a heart attack on a chilly February day on the golf course. Few golfers were on the course that day and the group he was in had no carts. They walked for exercise. A bit ironic, I know. One of the men spied a cart on another fairway and he ran faster than he'd ever run in his life to commandeer it for his buddy laying on the 14th green in great pain. He told the man who was driving the cart to run to the clubhouse and call an ambulance. Then he drove faster than any golf cart had a right to be going to pick up my husband. The three men got Ken into the cart and sped to the clubhouse. The man who called the ambulance was a military man who had been a medic so he did all the preliminary things needed until the paramedics arrived. The story was sold to the first magazine I sent it to. Why? Because it was a little different kind of heart attack story. By the way, Ken ended up with a stent and has been fine in the 16 years since that happened.

So, write about a popular topic in a different way and you'll catch an editor's eye. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

No Time or Making Time For Writing

Time, Clock, Head, Woman, Face, View, Outlook, Watches

Time looms over us as the great enemy. How often have you said If I had more time, I would.... and then lamented whatever it was you thought you couldn't get done? 

Yesterday, I was in the library when I overheard one woman say to another "I'd read more but I don't have time." I stopped reading the book in my hands and looked up at the speaker. She was in her mid-eighties. I wondered what kept her so busy that she didn't have time to read. I watched her turn around and leave without a book in her hand.

Many writers claim they don't have time to write. Too many other things are calling them, especially those who don't write as a full time occupation. I don't dispute the claim at all. Writers all have other things in their lives--spouses, children, homes to care for, jobs or part time jobs, social activities, exercise, grocery shopping and more. You have many on that list and so do I. 

If you truly want to write, you will make time. Two small words--make time--but important if you have a real desire to write and be published. 

Consider how many minutes a day you actually waste. The TV or radio distracts you. You spend far longer on the phone with friends than is necessary. We are all guilty of wasting parts of our day. 

So, how do you make time to write? There are different solutions for all of us. What works for a retired person doesn't for a young mother. We each have to figure out what is possible for us. Take a look at the list below and see what suits you best:
  • Get up an hour earlier than usual
  • Stay up an hour later (You can get a lot done in an hour)
  • Make baby's nap time your writing time
  • Keep a notebook with you to write on your lunch hour
  • Say NO to an overabundance of volunteer activities
  • Turn down a social invitation now and then 
  • Ask your spouse to take over the kids for an hour
  • Take a notebook with you to the laundromat
  • Have a notebook with you when waiting in airports, medical offices etc
  • Watch less television
  • Use half of your usual reading time to write
Anyone have other suggestions on how to create writing time? Send us your comments. If time is our enemy, we must learn how to fight and conquer.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Writing With Clarity

One of the big problems writers have is to write with clarity so that their reader is not confused.  

As writers, we know in our mind what is happening in a scene, whether it is fiction or memoir or personal essay. Or even poetry.  Because we see it so clearly, it's all too easy for us to skip over details that help the reader also 'see' what we are writing about. 

If I'm writing a short memoir piece about my childhood years, I have a mental picture of the big apartment buidling where we lived. I know there is a brick street that runs in front with the tires of cars bumping along. I know that across that brick street, two sets of railroad tracks allow both commuter trains and freight trains to rumble by. If I don't add those pertinent pieces of information, the reader can't tell what kind of neighborhood I lived in. 

When I write about my grandmother, I know that she wore her hair in a braid wrapped in a crown atop her head. I know that she wore rimless glasses, orthopedic shoes and an apron when she cooked or baked. I know that her expression was often stern and her words sometimes cut straight to the heart but that she had a soft spot, too. My reader doesn't know it unless I include all that in my story. I don't mean writing a paragrpah 'telling' it either. 'Showing' is going to bring a clearer picture of her. 

Use too many pronouns in your writing and the reader can become confused over who you're referring to. When you edit, watch for that. The same goes for dialogue tags. We don't need to use them in every piece of dialogue but if the conversation goes on too long, the reader can become befuddled so use them enough to make sure the reader is aware of who is speaking. 

The poster at the top left makes an important point in a few words. Many writers have marvelous ideas but transferring from mind to the printed word is not always easy, just like the poster on the top right tells us. 

When you edit a first draft, go through the entire piece with one question in your mind--Is this clear to the reader? Don't consider anything but that question for the first time through. Then check it again to catch other problems like redundancy, poor grammar, typos--the mechanical errors. 

Whenever you write, be conscious about making sure you have written clearly enough so the reader is not scratching his/her head wondering about this or that. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cut and Snip Words From Your Writing


Writers love words. The more the merrier is often our attitude but too many words can ruin what could be a good piece of writing. Don't cover up all that is good.

When we start writing, we want to make full use of all the adjectives we can gather from our busy little brains. Use too many of those adjectives and adverbs and you're liable to cover up the really fine part of your story or essay. The longer we write, the more we understand that less is usually better. 

Consider a woman who puts on a stunning, but simple, dress for a night out. The dress fits her well, is cut to show her figure to advantage. She looks in the mirror and thinks This dress is nice but maybe it's a bit too plain. So, she turns to her jewelry box and pulls out a few necklaces, dangle earrings a couple of pins and three bracelets. She dons them, one by one, and turns to the mirror. She thinks That looks better.  What she's done is bring attention to all the jewelry and covered up the fine dress beneath all of the necklaces, bracelets etc. Too many adjectives and will do the same thing to your writing. 

Does this mean you should dump all adjectives? Not at all. The key is to use one, not three at a time. 

We also tend to use words that are quite unnecessary to the meaning of what you've written.  Words like just, quite, that and really are a few that we add to our sentences even though they add nothing to the meaning. They're extra and unnecessary. 

  A.  I would just like you to answer me.
  B.  I would like you to answer me.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut just.

  A.  I am quite angry at the boys who broke my window.
  B.  I am angry at the boys who broke my window.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut quite.

  A.  This is the house that I bought three years ago.
  B.  This is the house I bought three years ago.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut that.

  A.  I really dislike liver and onions.
  B.  I dislike liver and onions.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut really.

When we write with a maximum word count, it is to our benefit to cut all the unnecessary or overdone words we can. When you edit your first draft, look for these two problem areas and snip, snip, snip. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Write More Than Once

When I first started writing, I didn't do much revising and/or editing. I felt pretty sure of my grammar and knew I'd said what I wanted to say, so when the first draft came to an end, I foolishly thought it was finished. Off it would go to some editor and it bounced back just as quickly. 

It took the reading of several books on writing, some conferences and lastly, some common sense to convince me to not be in such a hurry. I hated to admit that once I'd written that first draft, I should do more to it. It's my nature to do things in a hurry. Maybe I should blame my mother. When I was a child, her rule was that I had to do whatever household chores she had lined up for me and then I could out to play or read my books. Of course, I learned to do my chores with lightning speed. I also came to realize that I'd better do a decent job or she'd make me do it over again. 

I did finally understand that my first drafts needed to be set aside for a matter of days, or weeks, and then looked at again. Believe me, the first few times I did that, it shocked me to see all that could or should be done to make a better piece of writing. 

I figured out that revisions and editing are as important as writing that first draft. Maybe more so. 
Revision usually makes for a piece of writing that is more clear for the reader. A point can be made without rambling on for paragraphs. Editing catches all those passive verbs, misspelled words and more. 

So, no, you don't have to get it right the first time. In fact, you won't get it right the first time. Some writers revise and edit multiple times. The trick here is to know when you've done enough and to stop. 

Follow these steps in all your writing:
  • Write the first draft
  • Set it aside for a few days, even weeks
  • Revise
  • Edit
  • Set it aside for a day or two
  • Revise and edit once again

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Perfect Present

I ran across this poster telling us that one of the best presents we can give is memories. The big gift giving season just finished but there are other times of the year that we can offer a gift to a friend or family member--Valentine's Day, birthdays, anniversaries--to name a few. We can even give a gift for no reason at all.

Around Thanksgiving, I used a piece about November in Chicago during my growing-up years. I then shared it with a childhood friend who wrote that she enjoyed it so much as it brought back myriad memories. Writing about your memories can be the perfect present for someone you care about.

I've often suggested that we all keep a Family Memories Book. Write one story at a time and put it in the book, something like a three ring binder so that you can easily add to it. It's overwhelming if you try to write about your entire childhood, family stories and characterizations of family members all in one big piece. You'll start and give up before you get very far. 

But single out one person or one story or one specific memory to write about and you'll feel a sense of accomplishment. You can divide the notebook into sections any way you like. It might be by the age you were at the time, or relatives names, or places where you lived. Your choice.

That book will grow as you add story upon story. Consider what a treasure it will be for your children and grandchildren in the years to come. It will be one great big gift!

Besides doing one big Family Stories book, write one story or a musing about a period of life or how you felt about a friend. Make it 500 words, 1,000 or more. Again, it's your choice. Then send it as a gift to whoever can relate to it, whether friend, cousin, sibling or other family member. They will feel pretty special to have been singled out to receive something you wrote. 

Memories are gifts to ourself, as well. Have you ever sat down with a cup of coffee or tea and mused over some long ago memory? It's a pleasant pastime and one memory often triggers another. They give you story ideas. Base a fiction story on a real happening rather than creating it from scratch. 

As the poster says, memories don't need to be returned, don't take up room, have to be replaced and they fit just right. Besides all that, they never have to be dusted! 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Be Responsible With The Words You Write

As writers, we sometimes wonder if what we've written makes any difference in the life of any of our readers. How nice it would be if every reader offered a written note to the author to let them know how the written words had affected them. Nice, yes, but we know that seldom happens. 

We have to go on the assumption that some of what we write stays with the reader, or comes back to them later. In my first year of teaching, I carefully prepared for parent-teacher conferences, making sure I had something positive to say about each child, hoping to soften some of the negative comments made for a few. I wanted to help the parents learn more about their child. Instead, I learned a great deal about myself. Many parents commented on something I said in class, weeks or months earlier, that came home with the child and was discussed at the dinner table. Nothing earth-shaking, but a comment that resonated with that child, made him/her remember and relate it at home. One thing it made me aware of was to be careful in what I said in the classroom. A flippant remark could be construed in a different light than it was meant. 

It is the same when we write. Even if readers take away only one idea, or statement, we make in a 2500 word story, we've accomplished something. Our words are like seeds. We plant them in a story or poem or essay and wait for them to grow into something a reader will remember. Words have power and we writers are the force behind them. Consider it a responsibility as well as a means to entertain or inform our readers. 

When we write a personal essay, we try to get a point across to the reader--a lesson learned or something they can relate to in their own lives. If we don't do that, there's little point to writing the story part of the personal essay. Your reader wants to know how whatever happened changed you or what you learned. 

Readers might tell you that they read only for the pure enjoyment or as a means of escaping from the everyday routines and personal problems they might have. Truth there for sure. Few will tell you they read a novel or book of personal essays in order to learn something. That is not their initial intent but most readers do take away something, even if they do it subconsciously. 

When you write, use your words responsibly and know that they will have meaning for many readers. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Magic Of A New Writing Project

We talk about new beginnings at the start of every new year. For writers, the feeling that it's time to start a new writing project can come at any time--June or October--it doesn't matter.

You might have been mulling an idea over and over for weeks--or longer. Then one day, it all comes together and you're inspired to begin the project. You're eager, can hardly wait to get your routine chores done so you can write. The opening line has been dancing in your head for days. It's time to begin.

All we need is the beginning to inspire us to continue writing. We've all read many times how important that opening line or first paragraph is. It sets the tone for what comes next. It's got to be something that grabs the reader and spurs them into wanting to continue reading. Facts and figures, unless they are pretty startling, aren't going to do it. Your beginning needs to reach the human side of your reader. 

Once you finish the piece, it's possible that you'll write an entirely different beginning but that's alright. We have to get something down in print to jump start the project. It's also possible that your opening paragraph is the magic mentioned in today's poster. If so, consider yourself ever so fortunate. 

Once we have the opening lines written, it's much easier to continue. I try to keep writing that first draft right to the end before I go back and look at the beginning and rest of the piece. Let what you wrote first stand as is until you have time to put the draft away for a few days. Then, take a look at it and try to be objective. Hard as it is for us to do that with our own writing, it's worthwhile. 

Ask yourself what the reader will see, what the reader will take away, what the reader will enjoy. Even though we say we write for ourself, anyone who hopes to be published is writing for the future readers. It would behoove us to keep them in mind at all times. 

And yes, there is some magic in beginning a new project. It's fresh. It's open to myriad possibilities. It's stimulating to you, the writer. It makes you want to write and write and write until you have a finished piece. I wish you all new beginnings very soon.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Books I Liked In 2017

Most writers are also avid readers. I have been one since the days of Dick and Jane in my first grade reading book. Bookworm is probably an apt description of me durng my growing up years. It still fits today. I finished reading the last of my library books on Monday of this week but the library was closed for New Year's Day. I almost felt panicked! Tuesday, I was at the library and brought three books home. 

I read a few books in 2017 that I especially enjoyed. They are ones I'd recommend to others. The first three are historical fiction and other two are mystery/suspense. I have included links to Amazon for each one.
How about you? Can you recommend a few titles that you particularly like in 2017? 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Writer As Artist

I've never had any artistic ability. None whatsoever. When in college, I had to take a class called "Art For The Handicapped Child." It was a required course for Special Ed majors. The instructor was an older woman who rarely smiled or had a kind word. We were working with clay, creating animals, I think. She walked by me, stopped and said, "That would be fine if a blind child had done it." Cringe! What I needed was help not criticism. 

I could not draw or paint or model clay very well but I could paint my world with words, and I did. Unlike most college students, I reveled in writing papers for my classes. I didn't start writing other things for a good many years but I always had the desire to write. I tell young would-be writers today to act upon that desire. Don't let life get in the way as I did. 

Artists of all kinds--sculptors, painters, musicians, writers--bring so much to our world. Think of the many hours of pleasure you have had when admiring paintings and sculptures in a museum, or at a concert or in reading myriad books. These many artists enrich our lives and soothe our souls. It always saddens me when I see budget cuts needed and the arts is one of the first groups to have funds slashed. Granted, they are not a necessity but they offer so very much. 

I once wrote a poem that placed in a writing contest that speaks to the part the arts play in our lives., especially writing. Read it and think about how all of these artists have touched your own life and, if you are a writer, how you have made a difference in the lives of readers. All artists speak with a different voice. As writers, ours is with words. 

Artists All

Painting with oils,
watercolors brushed across paper,
clay molded by loving hands, 
marble chiseled to exquisite form.

Artists ply their trade
by the golden light of day,
by the velvet depths of night
with passion and joy.

One more artist joins the ranks.
The writer brushes words over paper,
molds a story bit by glittering bit,
chisels a novel to survive the ages.

Life stories are gathered
from country roads to city streets,
written from the depths of a heart
bursting with intensity and rapture.

Artists all, masters of creation,
be they painters, sculptors or writers,
leaving footprints on canvas, marble and paper--
heartfelt tributes embraced by mankind.
                                           ---Nancy Julien Kopp

Monday, January 1, 2018

And So It Begins...

I love starting a new year. I also enjoy turning my calendar at the end of each month. It's on to new things in both cases. Sure, we do bring some of the old baggage along with us but we look to the horizon ahead and consider what we can do in this next twelve months.

It's a time to consider what our goals for this year will be. Some writers set goals on a regular basis. They like to keep a list and check each one that comes to fruition. Others have a mental list. Still more never set any goals at all. Should they? I think setting a few goals for ourself is like getting a nudge each time we see the list. It helps to spur us on, to inspire us. 

If you don't accomplish every goal you set, it doesn't brand you a failure. Keep your list relatively short. Set too many goals and it might be a wee bit overwhelming. You're likely to do better with a shorter list.

clean and Organize
The beginning of a new year is also a perfect time to do some cleaning and organizing in your writing world. Start with your writing space. I see a few stacks in mine that I need to go through. It's save or toss time. Next, consider the files in your computer. You know there are things you've saved for a long time that no longer have any relevance. Get rid of them! 

What about the records you keep of your submissions, rejections, acceptances and pay amounts? Now is the time to go through all from 2017. Take a good look. What kinds of things did you submit? With what types of writing were you the most successful? Maybe that's an area that you might concentrate on in 2018. 

New Projects List
As we go about our everyday chores, snippets of what we'd like to write someday flit through our minds. If you've been vigilant about jotting them down in a small notebook, now is the time to expand on those notes and make a list of what you'd like to write this year.

Are there conferences that you attend regularly? Check to see what the dates will be this year and start planning now. Set aside a little money each month to pay the fee when the time comes. Write the dates on your calendar and work other things around them.

May we all have fewer rejections this year. To do that, we need to put forth our very best writing. Maybe that should be Goal #1 for 2018.