Thursday, March 5, 2015

Encouraging Words From A Guest Blogger

Ellen Ritscher Sackett

Meet Guest Blogger Ellen Sackett. She thinks becoming a writer is pretty simple. After reading what she has to say, you might agree. 

Writing as My Second Career

By Ellen Ritscher Sackett

One day I decided to be a writer. It was pretty much that simple. This decision came about following a painful transition in my life away from my previous career after many years of severe burnout. I needed a new passion. At that time, I wasn’t yet clear on where my next path would take me, but I figured I was smart. Something would work out.

The natural next step of perusing job ads turned up big fat zeros. My two college degrees were in music, for Pete’s sake. My education didn’t prepare me for anything else — or did it? Those thousands of dollars in tuition and years of crafting term papers had to count for something.

At least I can write, I thought.

So just like that, I decided I was a writer, and I would do what professional writers do. I bought a bunch of books that would tell me how to go about it. I also took a few online classes and joined a writer’s group. I didn’t say to myself, “Someday I am going to be a writer,” or, “I hope I can do this.” Nope. I was a writer. It was a fact.

Around that same time, I had a date with a sweet guy who dreamed of being a writer. He spent big bucks on a weekly meetings and attended weekend retreats with a writing coach.”She is just wonderful,” he said. “The best.” So I asked him, “What kinds of things do you write about?” He stared at me for a moment, looking perplexed. “Why, nothing,” he said. “That’s why I talk to her. To figure that out.”

Purging myself of awful prose that could be easily erased or deleted later seemed better than therapy and, in my opinion, was time better spent. Reading books, taking classes and seeking advice is important — I get that — but in their proper time and place. Nothing can replace the actual physical act of getting thoughts out of one’s head and forming them into words.

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: Writing is much easier when one has something to say. Initially, food was my favorite subject. I started a blog and wrote restaurant reviews. Food writing as a profession piqued my interest, but I discovered that most food writers worth their salt also know quite a bit about food preparation. While I’m not a highly skilled cook, the blog served my purposes well. It gave me a creative outlet and a way to share my writing. The ultimate compliment was when readers would say, “Boy, that really made me hungry!” Then I knew I had made a connection with them through my words, and that was more satisfying than any meal.

My second career path has been far from straight. Fast forward through several years of freelancing, working for newspapers, improving my skills and shouldering many, many disappointments. It all added up to experience, and I eventually got there. I mean, here. 

Mind you, I didn’t achieve my goals of becoming a professional writer and magazine editor without lots of support, for which I am deeply grateful. There were also some genuinely concerned folks who expressed doubts about my choices, and I thank them, too, for giving me additional perspectives to consider. But I never once doubted myself. As corny and as cliché as this may sound, faith and determination have kept me on track.

I’d be lying if I said being a writer is easy because it’s not. But for me, deciding to be a writer really is as simple as that.


A little about me: I’m the executive editor for Dallas and Houston Hotel Magazines and a special contributor for The Dallas Morning News. I served on the staff of the Guide, The Dallas Morning News’ weekly entertainment magazine and was a part of the paper’s digital team, I’m a former member of Writers and Critters (WAC), an international online writing group for women where I became friends with Nancy Julien Kopp. In my spare time, I take care of my menagerie of four-legged, furry and feathered friends and try to come up with pithy and sometimes amusing Facebook posts. Thank you, Nancy, for the opportunity to share a few words on your blog. Feel free to email me at

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Accentuate The Positive

Do you remember that old song that has lyrics that say: you've got to accentuate the positive, elminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between.

Harold Arlen wrote the music and Johnny Mercer came up with the lyrics in 1944. There's a YouTube video of Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters singing the song. View it here.

The song was very popular during my growing-up years. I wonder if it had anthing to do with me being positive in my outlook on many things. I wouldn't say it was solely responsible but most likely did have some influence on me at the time.

In regard to our writing life, the poster is right on. A bad attitude is not going to take you very far. The writer who sends a sub to an editor but thinks to him/herself that it is really dumb to send this in because it's going to be rejected does him/herself a real injustice. Of course, a great deal depends on the quality of the submission but if a writer drags him/herself down with every submission, it won't be long before there are no more submissions.

Similarly, if you think everything you write is a piece of junk, you'll soon stop submitting. In everthing we write, whether story, poem or essay, there will be good things and crummy parts. Don't dwell on the bad parts, work on them and make them more like the good sections.

A negative attitude can easily destroy self-confidence and can drag you down to a place where it's hard to get up again. So what can you do to overcome having a bad outlook on your writing life?

Make a list, whether mentally or actually written, of the pros and cons of whatever is happening in your writing life. Which side has the most items? I'm guessing it's the con side. Ignore that side! Instead, concentrate on the pro side. And don't say There's nothing on that side because there is good and bad to everything. You might have to ponder it for awhile but I know you can come up with some positives in your list.

Don't read the list once and toss it. Uh-uh! Keep it where you can see it on a daily basis. Keep reading that pro side and add to it as time goes on. Is life suddenly going to become all roses? No, it most likely will not be an overnight miracle. It took a long time to develop the negative attitude so it will be awhile before you can change it to the positive side. And like most things that are worth pursuing, it's hard work. No magic wand here.

Key to changing a negative attitude is to truly want to do so. It's like wanting to be a successful writer--you must have a deep desire and the passion to make it happen. It's no different with an atttitude change. I'm not a psychologist nor a person with a PHD in writing, but my aim here is to encourage those with poor attitudes in their wriitng world to move to the other side.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Don't Be A Lazy Writer

Tell me what emotion your character is experiencing and I'm gonna be unhappy. I don't want you to tell your readers that Mary is excited, scared, shy, silly or angry as the women in today's poster are labeled. Show me! 

If you write Mary was angry, you're conserving words. Oh my,yes! A three word sentence conveys what you want the reader to get. You've saved room for lots of other words in your story, creative nonfiction essay or even a poem. Do it all through your project and you'll get labeled a 'lazy writer' for that is exactly what happens when a writer tells the reader what the character feels. It's the easy way out.

Using the 'tellng technique' instead of 'showing' throughout your project will result in a boring piece of writing. The last thing you want to do is bore your reader. 

Show your reader Mary's anger as in this sample:

Mary grabbed the nearest object and hurled it at the wall. The book fell with a thud. She tore across the room, snatched the book and this time, she aimed for the window when she threw it. As the glass shattered, she kicked the ottoman twice before speaking to her trembling sister.

Yes, the writer used a lot more words but isn't it more interesting? Don't you get a visual image of Mary's anger? It's action but you could also show her breathing hard, screaming as she throws the book. All these sensory details result in showing your character's emotion. Nopwhere in the passage did you see the words Mary was angry.

As an exercise, use each of the emotions shown above and write a simple telling sentence using the emotion. Then write a passage, or even one sentence, that shows the emotion. Keep the sensory details in mind as you write. 

Peel off the Lazy Writer label. You're more likely to find an acceptance than a rejection if you do.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Should I Enter A Writing Contest Or Not?

Three simple words--Enter to Win--gives writers good advice about contests. If you don't enter, there's no way you can win. Simple, or so it sounds.

A lot of writers are reluctant to enter a writing contest. They might think their writing is not good enough to compete with others. They procrastinate until the deadline for entering is past. They can't come up with a good idea for the contest theme. They waver--yes-no-yes-no--until no decision gets made. 

I know, and you know, too, that it takes a bit of courage to enter a contest. Sometimes, it also takes some cash you may not be willing to part with. No problem--there are plenty of contests with no entry fees. As a general rule, the ones that do charge a fee to enter also give larger prizes. Some of the contests that are free to enter promise publication to the winners and no more. For beginning writers that is prize enough. Some will debate that putting it in the same category with writing for pay vs writing for no pay. 

There are plenty of places to find writing contests. Ask your old friend Google for a list. Specify 'no fee' if your prefer. Subscribe to newsletters for writers that offer news of submissions needed and contests to enter. Visit with other writers for news about contests. Watch your local newspapers for announcements of contests within writing groups in your state or region, or the paper itself. 

Consider what you will send to a contest. It only makes sense that you will enter something you've written that is your best work. If you wrote something that multiple editors have rejected, then it's probably not the one you want to enter in a contest. What about taking that piece that has been rejected and polishing it until it sparkles? Then enter it! 

You need to have a positive attitude when entering.. The odds of winning are not the greatest when only three prizes are given, but somebody is going to win and it could be you. You  will never know if you don't enter.

I'm reminded of one of the first poems I wrote, then entered in my state authors group annual contest. What do I know about poetry? Won't there be lots of entries from seasoned poets? Should I pay the fee or not? It's probably money down the drain. But I did pay the fee and entered my poem which won first place and a nice check. What if I'd listened to my doubting self and shied away? I'd never have had the joy of being a winner.

Will you win every contest you enter? Most probably not. Will you become wiser about the kind of contest you enter and what the judges look for? I think you will. Entering writing contests is good experience. Go ahead, give it a try.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Sometimes Trouble Is OK

This quote had me nodding my head and also chuckling a bit. If writing proved to be a pure cinch every time we sat down at our computer or took pad and pencil in hand, would we get the thrill that we get when we struggle with a writing project that finally bears fruit? Doubtful.

If writing was so easy, wouldn't everyone give it a try? Possibly. Once in awhile, an idea comes to us for a story and it almost seems to write itself. Our fingers are on the keyboard but the words flow from who-knows-where? That does happen but not on an everyday basis.

Most of the time, we do struggle with what we write. It might be only one paragraph that gives trouble or one verse of a poem but we want to get it right. One poor section can taint the entire piece.

How many times can you rewrite one paragraph? Until it feels right to you! Whether that's twice or twenty, redo it until you are comfortable with it. Is this why some novelists say their book took 4 years (or more) to write? Maybe that's part of the reason.

We've discussed revising and re-editing many times so maybe it means there is something vital about doing so. Beginning writers all too often finsih a first draft and call it complete. It's a rare first draft that is ready for submission. Seasoned writers know that rewriting is key to publishing.  Even writers who can claim many publications have trouble writing in one respect or another.

I know a woman who writes wonderful prose but she struggles mightily with finding a title that sings, one that draws readers. Another writes wonderful essays but fails when she gets to the final paragraph or two. A good essay deserves, and needs, a good ending. Same with a fiction piece. An exciting story must stay exciting right to the final punctuation mark in the last paragraph. others have difficulty with opening hooks.

Trouble writing? We all experience it. Some of us have learned how to overcome the problems of various kinds. We work hard to end up with a finished piece of writing that is publishable and also satisfies us, the writer. Writing is hard but those who love it soldier on no matter how many problems they experience.

If you have trouble writing, remember that you're in good company. The vast majority of us are right there with you.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Be Careful Not To Overwrite

Have you ever read a story where every last detail about the actions the character takes are listed for you? Look at the picture above. The writer who 'overwrites' might say something like this:

Grace rose from the sofa and walked to the library table. She bent over and picked up the stack of       books. She placed her apple on the top and walked to her car.

Yes, the fact is that Grace got off the sofa, walked to the table and then bent over before picking up the stack of books, then placed her apple on top and walked to her car. If the author wrote the following:  Grace took the books home with her. we'd have the same information without the step by step process. Most likely, this is not a crucial part of the story itself. It's unnecessary description. If Grace had been sitting on the sofa earlier and then we're told she took the books home with her, we know that she stood up and walked to the table etc. Those actions are not needed to make the story move along. In fact, they soon become boring.

One of the best writing mentors I had contended that nothing should be in a story that is not important to the plot. Grace walking and carrying is superfluous. Maybe the important thing is that she took the books home with her--possibly they did not belong to her, or they were left there by a psychological killer. Whatever!

I recently critted a chapter of a novel for a friend. She described her character as getting out of bed, walking to window, closing the window. The only important part was that the woman closed the window to shut off noise from below. All that had to be said is something like "Belinda closed the window so the noise from the street was muted." I don't need to know that she a. got out of bed and b. walked to the window. As a reader, I will assume that she did those two things. 

Here's a passage that needs to be changed. 

   Mark stood up. He put the bookmark in his book. He placed the book on the end table. He         walked to the kitchen because he was hungry. A sandwich would taste good he thought. He walked to the cupboard and grabbed the loaf of rye bread. He placed it on the table, then walked to the fridge, opened the door and found some bologna, mustard and mayo. He closed the fridge door and went back tot he table to assemble the sandwich. 

As an exercise for today, rewrite the paragraph, eliminating all the unnecessary actions. Do we, as readers, really care what Mark did step by step to curb his hunger? Probably not--unless these actions are crucial to the storyline. 

One of the best parts of writing without unnecessary actions from characters is that you will be cutting words. You'll have more space to add important things. 

Here's a true story. I was at a Saturday morning get-together of a writing group I once belonged to. Members read a chapter of a work in progress. One young woman began to read. She described every tiny thing in detail. It wasn't long before she totally lost her audience. Some were writing in notebooks, a couple nodding off, one even tapping his pencil faster and faster on his book. No one cared about her story because there was no story. Or if there was, it became buried in all those descrptions of people doing what the reader would understand anyway. 

Give your reader some credit. They'll understand much of what you do not actually write. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Poetry Book To Be Read More Than Once

Music I Once could Dance To- Front Cover

My interview with poet, Roy Beckemeyer, ran Monday and Tuesday. Today, I'd like to feature Roy's first book of poetry, cover shown above. Some exciting news regarding the book is that it has been nominated for the High Plains Book Award in the poetry category. Results will be announced at the High Plains BookFest in Billings, MT October 2015. 

The poems in this book are ones that many readers can relate to. Roy does not write mystical verse that no one but the poet can decipher its meaning. He gives us poems about everyday happenings and memories of growing-up years. He takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary for his readers. Upon reading the assorted poesm in the book, I couldn't help but assess as a writer--he shows rather than tells and that is one reason his poetry appeals so much.

In the Introdution to the book, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, former Kansas Poet Laureate, said "Roy has a way of approachign poetry that is both expansive and precise. He instinctively trusts the image of the poem to convey the poem's layers of meaning, and he also leaps off any familiar edge to try new forms, new inspirations, and new rhythms to construct and unearth new poetry."

I especially liked the poems that show the reader the deep love Roy has for his wife, Pat. Not an I love you, Pat type of poem. Instead, his feelings for her run softly through the lines of an everyday expericnce of husband and wife. One of my favorites is At Watermark Books Before The Reading. The poem describes husband and wife looking at books, his observations of her and finally ending with lines that touched my heart:

               and you look up,
              catch my eye,
              cup your hands,
             and motion for me to share a cold sip
             from this well of words
            that you have found.

Another poem I particularly liked is titled A Year in Small-Town Illinois: 1953 in Tanka. Using this poetic form, Roy explores the small town where he grew up, one month at a time. One of the verses that appealed a lot to me because of its wonderful visual image and the sensory detail in the second line is this one:


           skating on Shoal Creek
           ice cracks like a rifle shot
           and transforms us both
           from skaters into swimmers
           huddled steaming by the fire

A poetry book is not to be read once and shelved. Oh no, it needs to read mutlitple times for you will find something new in it each successive reading. Lines you may have read but missed will suddenly stand out on the second or third reading. 

I believe one thing that impresses me about Roy Beckemeyer's poetry is the wide variety that he offers. The poems use different forms for various subjects.Some poets spend the majority of their writing life composing words about one or two subjects. In Music I Once Could Dance To, you'll be treated to many different topics.

The book can be ordered at Coal City Review and Press in Lawrence, KS for only $10. It is now in its second printing.