Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Listen Up Writers--Take A Chance!

A postscript about the Liebster Award I received earlier this week. One of the people I selected for the award was Annette Gendler, whose blog I read faithfully. She was curious enough about the word Liebster that she did some searching and found out more about it. Read what Annette learned here.

Today, I'd like to urge writers to take a chance. No, not on the lottery. I have a suggestion that gives you better odds of winning.

Sunday night I was searching through my document files for an old story. I found it, but I also noticed one sitting quietly in the files about Halloween. With October just around the corner, I opened it, read it and decided to send it to a senior newspaper editor. I did it purely on a whim. The essay was called "Halloween Confessions" and is all about my disliking Halloween all my life. I got it ready and sent it on its way through cyberspace. This has a snowball's chance in hell--that was the thought I had as soon as I'd sent it.

Imagine my surprise when the next day, the editor wrote that she already had two Halloween essays for the October issue but she'd love to run mine, too. It will depend on how many ads they sell for that issue. So, it's not a sure thing yet, but looking good. I think it appealed to her because it had a different slant on Halloween.

The point here is that sometimes writers need to take a chance. Send the story to an editor and see what happens. It's very possible it will come back with a big fat rejection, but it could also be a winner. You'll never know unless you give it a try. Go through your file of stories and see what you have that might be worth sending out. Read it, do a little editing and give it a go. Not everything you send out will get published, but it has a far better possibility than if it sits quietly in your documents file forever. You don't even have to purchase a ticket for a winner--just send your work to an editor. Soon!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

One More WWII Novel

I finished reading The Girl In The Blue Beret last night. It's another WWII setting, well written by Bobbie Ann Mason who is a writer in residence at the University of Kentucky. The list of awards she's won is impressive. Besides a good story, I look for good writing in novels.

Ms. Mason has done extensive research for the background of her story. In 1980, Marshall Stone is a commercial pilot who is forced to retire long before he's ready only because of airline policy. His wife died a couple years earlier, his two children are adults and independent. At loose ends, Marshall decides to go to France to find the people who helped him when his plane was shot down in 1944. There were many who hid him, then moved him on to others who did the same. He wants to thank them personally and to know more about these everyday heroes.

The one who stands out in his mind is a young schoolgirl who guided him through Paris. He stayed in her family's apartment while they forged papers for him and found a way to get him to back to his base in England. He would need to go south to Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and then fly on to England. The young gilr wore a blue beret--one that all her schoolmates wore.

Marshall finds one of the couples who helped him, and their son aids him in finding others. He finds an apartment in Paris and becomes a part of the city, reveling in its beauty and freedom. During the war years he hid and ran secretly during the Nazi occupation.

Eventually, Marshall finds Annette, the schoolgirl he remembered so well. Now, she is in her fifties, only a few years younger than he. She is a widow, a mother and grandmother. Through her, he learns more about the resistance movement during the war years and what happened to many of those people when they were caught. He learns why ordinary citizens risked so much for others, and he learns a great deal about himself. Once again, it is Annette who guides him on this journey.

The characters are varied and many stand out due to the skillful writing of Ms. Mason. If you're a history buff, you'll soak up the historical bits and pieces that serve to illustrate this story. If you're a romantic, you'll revel in the love story that emerges.

I liked everything about this book except the ending. I won't spoil the story for you by revealing it. Just suffice it say that I read the final page and said out loud, "What?" Then slammed the book shut. Maybe it's only because I like endings wrapped up neatly in pretty ribbons. Someone else who reads the book may be completely satisfied with the ending. I'd love to hear from others who read The Girl In The Blue Beret. Let me know what you think.

Monday, August 29, 2011

An Unexpected Award

I did a last e-mail check just before toddling off to bed last night, and I found a message that made my day. Fatigue floated away when I read that Tracy Millions had named me as a recipient of the Liebster Award. I'd never heard of it, so I trekked on over to Tracy's blog to read more about it. There I learned it's an award meant to connect bloggers, particularly those who have less than 200 Followers. In the blog world, i'ts a Friendship Award.

Each person who receives it is asked to pass it on to five other bloggers who might qualify as a friend who has a blog with fewer than the 200 Followers. I read what Tracy had to say about the people she named for the award, and it seemed as though I would like every one of those people, and I definitely intedn to check out their blogs. I was also very pleases with what she had to say about me and my blog.

 I also select Nancy for this award as she is a writer (yes, Kansan) who encourages other writers to create and submit and take chances and try new writerly things. She is a very accomplished, yet down-to-earth writer who has practical advice for writing as well as encouraging words.

So, now it's my turn. I'd like to give the Liebster Award to the following people who blog and are my friends, too.

1. Fiona who goes by Fi most of the time. She lives in the Forest of Dean in the UK and is one of the most energetic writers I know. She flies above the clouds with good cheer for other wirters. She is an excellent writer and a fine friend to have.

2.  Mary because I admire many things about her. She is a talented graphic designer, an excellent writer, and she lives in my old hometown--Chicago--so I feel a real connection in that respect, too. 

3.  Betty, known to many as B.J., because she was one of my first Followers and has always supported my blog with comments and faithful reading. She is also determined to hone her craft. When she couldn't find a critique group, she started one. Her blog showcases her short stories and an occasional poem.

4.  Tom writes historical novels and some poetry. He encourages other writers through his blog and facebook, with a fine dose of humor tossed in. His blog posts are varied and always of interest.

5.  Annette writes memoir and teaches writing classes in Chicago. She has a wealth of good information for writers on her blog. I am also thankful for the many little tips she's passed on to me to make my blog easier to write and to read. 

I hope each of the five people I named will pass on the award to other bloggers, so that the goal of connecting bloggers around the world is met. It will also bring some new readers for each blogger. Notify them by leaving a comment on their blog, which is how Tracy informed me. 

Thank you, Tracy, for the recognition. Liebsters forever!

Friday, August 26, 2011

WWII Novels

There seems to be a plethora of novels set during WWII. I wrote about The Soldier's Wife last week, and in a post last year, I wrote about reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. There have been many others including Sarah's Key, Winter Garden, and a brand new one that I'm reading now--The Girl In The Blue Beret. All of the above are set in the European theater of war, but there are also books set in the Pacific theater.One I talked about a few weeks ago is titled Beside A Burning Sea.

For a reason unknown to me, I have always gravitated to novels set during WWII years. Perhaps because  that era was part of my childhood, and I still remember bits and pieces of wartime shortanges, newsreels in theaters, a trip on a troop train and more. Or is it because, as horrible as it was, a tremendous number of good stories have come out of those years. So, the publishing trend of these novels suits me just fine

Place/setting is of great importance in a story, and in these wartime novels, place is of prime importance. It's also one easy for a novelist to research, or perhaps remember.

WWII novels are at the forefront ahead of ones about Korea or Vietnam because it was a war that was fought with more honor, fewer politics and  we came out victorious. Not so easy to say that about wars the USA has been involved in befyond the 1940's.

Novels do go in trends as do nonfiction books. Memoirs came roaring to the front of the nonfiction lists quite some time ago, and they are still popular. Is it our innate curiosity that makes us read them, to want to peek inside other people's lives. Will the memoir book suddenly take a nosedive?  An unknown, but I think that they will stay around a long time because we've learned that the past is important to our future, particularly so in families. And that allows me one more time to stress the importance of writing your famiy stories!

But I've strayed from the original subject quite a bit. As I said, I do like WWII novels, but many people may not. If you think it's a period you don''t care about or want to know more about, try one of the novels mentioned above and see how you like it. It's like your mother making you try just a bite of something to see if you liked it when you were a toddler. If you don't try, you'll never know.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Remember... Exercise Part 2

This is part 2 of yesterday's writing exercise. You were to write I remember, then freewrite whatever came to mind for as long as you can. Look back at what you've written. You may find a theme in what is there, and you may find enough for inspiration to write more than one personal essay. 

When I looked at the sample of mine that I posted yesterday, something stood out for me. You'll see it in this second part below. Because of crowded conditions in our living arrangement, I never had time alone during my growing-up years. That is material for a full essay, using what I'd written as an example. Take a look at the rest of my exercise below and see what else might be used for another essay. 

I remember.... Part 2

I never knew what it was to be alone during my growing-up years. With three younger brothers and living in a small apartment, privacy came down to my allotted ten minutes in the bathroom each morning. The only place I can remember having solitude is when I walked to the library, which was at least once every week. Down the three flights of stairs with a load of books in my arms and away I went, past the conservatory in the next block, past the city park, and across the double set of railroad tracks. One was for freight trains, the other for Chicago Transit Authority "els" Once over the tracks, I turned onto a cinder path that ran behind the train station platform. I loved that cinder path. It made me feel as though I’d entered another world. The feel of concrete under my feet was the norm, but crunching along the cinder path brought me to another realm. The back of the train platform was to one side of me and a field of tall weeds bordered the other side of the path. Today, I would probably think it was no place for a child to be walking alone, but I did it myriad times over those years and never had a mishap. Maybe an angel walked with me.
The cinder path ended all too soon to suit me, and I skipped along the remaining block and a half until I reached my home away from home--the public library. While I made the walk to and from the library, my thoughts ran to so many things. I had time to think, to plan, to dream. I cherished that private time as much as the wonderful books I carried with me.

I remember so many good things my mother cooked and baked for us. Food was something to be enjoyed in our home, not just to eat to stay alive. Money was scarce, and Mother skimped on many things, but food was of primary importance, and we ate quite well. Steak appeared on our table only occasionally.  And we knew if we had steak one night, the next night was something like tuna casserole, or a pound of hamburger stretched in any way possible, and some never even thought of before. My mother baked a lot, and she passed the love of baking on to me. She had learned from her own mother who had a neighborhood bakery for many years.

Memories feed an old soul. Memories entertain the younger generations. Memories are priceless.

Yes, I remember so many things from those childhood years on Garfield Street in Oak Park, Illinois. They helped make me the person I am today, and they've made me appreciate all that I have as an adult, not least of all, the joy of having occasional private moments.__._,_.___


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Writng Exercise--I Remember...

I have a writing exercise to share with you. It's one that worked so well for me in triggering memories. From those memories, I found many possibilities for writing personal essays, the kind that many of the anthologies are looking for. 

You begin by writing two words--I remember. Then let your mind spiral you back to your childhood, young adult days ow wherever and begin to freewrite--just continue writing, letting your mind take over, perhaps your subconscious mind.  Keep going as long as you can. When I did it, I thought of the place I lived in my growing-up years, and as I began to describe it, more and more memories came to me. I'll paste the first half of what I ended up with below and will add the second part tomorrow along with what can be done next. 

I remember...
By Nancy Julien Kopp.

I remember so much of my childhood days. Incidents, events, people, and places return to me over and over, sometimes in my dreams. I so often am the age I am now, but the dream is set in someplace of long ago—a place where I might have been as a child. My childhood home figures prominently in my dreams and memories.

I grew up in a 3rd floor apartment. Six of us crowded into a 2 bedroom apartment which also had a small kitchen, pantry, dining room (which is where I slept) and a living room with a small sunroom extension on it and one bathroom with a clawfoot tub, no shower. We also had an outdoor balcony, very small and scary when you leaned over the railing and looked way down below. We never had a chair or table on the balcony like people would today. It was a place we were seldom allowed to go, reserved for those Kodak moments.

We climbed the three flights of stairs to our door carrying so many things. Laundry baskets, grocery bags, the live Christmas tree we had each December. Whatever we needed or wanted was toted up those three flights. The enclosed front stairs were carpeted, and as we climbed, we could smell dinner. Sometimes it was dinner cooking and sometimes it was a lingering odor from yesterday's dinner. We had to pass four other apartment doors to reach our floor, and the dinner smells from all four mingled. I often tried to single out the aromas to see who had eaten what that day. The back steps were outdoors and wooden. Up a big double set to the first floor, then split off to a single width set on either side, then onto another double set, and another single width set on either side leading to our floor. One more double set of steps and we landed on our back porch. There were four apartment doors on that big porch. And above the railing on our side ran a clothesline on a pulley. My mother often did hand-washing and hung the clothes to dry on that line. When there was an infant in the family, diapers fluttered in the wind every day of the week, drying quickly on summer days, and freezing to a cardboard stiffness in the winter.

Part II tomorrow...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Read A Good Book

Yesterday I finished a book, a book that had a good story but also contained some beautiful writing. The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy is set on the island of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands closer to Normandy than to England. Another bestseller, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was set in the same place. And both are WWII stories.

The Soldier's Wife is a slice of life of a handful of people who live on the island during the German occupation. The story covers the years from 1940 to 1946. Vivienne de la Mare lives with her two young daughters and her mother-in-law in her husband's family home. Her husband is in the British army, stationed in England. Theirs is a marriage that has turned cold, and it is Eugene's mother, Evelyn, who misses him most.

German officers move into the house next door, and Vivienne loses her heart to one of them. She is also fiercely loyal to her family and friends on the island while keeping her love affair secret. She is torn between her love for Gunther and her love for home and family.

As the story moves through the war years, we see four-year-old Millie and fourteen-years-old Blanche grow and change. We watch Evelyn deteriorate mentally from old age and worry about her soldier son. We live the story through Vivienne's eyes as she narrates the events in present tense. I found the use of present tense appealing, as it seemed to bring the reader immediately into the action or the scene.

The story twists and turns and portrays the hardships and the horrors of living in an occupied country, but it also gives a vivid picture of what being oppressed does to the human psyche. Both weakness and strength in personalities are brought out by the circumstances of the times.

The ending was not quite what I expected and I will say no more than that, should you want to read it yourself. It's worth reading this book for the beautiful writing. Margaret Leroy has written five previous novels. She lives in London. I intend to look for her other books.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Five Years For Writers

Our grandson, Cole, turned five on Saturday. A family friend made his cool birthday cake pictured above. I got to thinking about what Cole has accomplished in his five years. He learned to sleep through the night, roll over, sit up, crawl, walk and run. He figured out how to eat from a spoon, chew solids and eat a variety of foods, both healthy and not-so-healthy ones. He can write his name, count to 20 and more, recognizes most of the letters in the alphabet. He learned to play soccer, has the basics of swimming and can fish. Quite a lot of learning for five short years.

How about you? What have you accomplished in your writing life in the past five years? Would your list be as long as Cole's? Writers need to keep learning and grow just like infants who  become kids. What if you started writing and never moved from stage one?

2006 was five years ago. What have you written in that period of time? Have you had anything published? Have you increased the amount of time you spend writing? Or has it gotten less and less? Look back at something you wrote five years ago. Do you consider yourself a better writer today?

I know that Cole will keep growing and learning over the next five years. How about your writing life? Will you keep growing and learning during that amount of time? Take a look back over the last five years and then make a list of what you hope to accomplish in the next five. Don't get stuck in 2011.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beginnings--Kids and Writers, Too

My two youngest grandchildren, Jordan and Cole, started school this week. Their dad snapped this picture this morning as they headed out to the school bus just before 7 a.m. It's a definite milestone as now both children will be in school all day. Jordan is a second grader and Cole starting his school days--kindergarten. Mom took him to school on the first day, but today he's riding the bus with his big sister and lots of other kids he knows. A new beginning in his life.

We've all had those 'beginnings' in life. First it was grade school, then high school, maybe college and then a full-time job. Moved on to starting a marriage, being a parent for the first time, and later beginning the wonderful world of grandparent-hood. There were misgivings and anxious moments along the way each time a new phase of our life turned up. Even so, we met most of them with the anticipation of the good things to come.

Our writing life is much the same. Do you remember what it was like when you had those beginning moments? Had you set goals that were impossibly high? It took time to learn that you have to go in small steps to reach that Great American Novel status, didn't it? Maybe you started writing feeling like a fish floundering on dry land. Or maybe you had the attitude that you'd learn this craft bit by bit. Whatever your outlook was, you added something to your profile. You experienced one more new beginning in your life.

Beginnings--they're a first step on a long and, hopefully, positive journey.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Emotion In Nonfiction

Nonfiction should be filled with facts. Nonfiction doesn't allow for as much creative writing as fiction does. There is no emotion in nonfiction.  Answers to these questions --Yes, No and No!

This morning's Kansas City Star featured a great story on the first day of school in Joplin, Missouri. As almost anyone who doesn't live in a cave knows, Joplin was hit with a killer tornado three months ago--on the day of high school graduation. After three months of clean-up with the assistance of many outside groups, the town and its people are moving on.

The front page story was filled with facts, but the writer incorporated creative writing and emotion into the story. I finished reading and felt my heart touched and wrenched at the same time.

Click on the link in the paragraph above and read the story for yourself. Read it twice. Once to learn about what the first day of school was like in this now well-known community. Then read it again from a writers's perspective to see what the article writer did to cause your heart to be touched.

When nonfiction spotlights the human element of what could have been just a factual account, emotion comes into play. When a writer hammers out creative nonfiction, readers can relate to whatever the situation might be. Maybe they haven't experienced exactly the same things, but they can have a better understanding. The individual stories of some of the survivors of the tornado can be classified as creative nonfiction.

Look at some of your own nonfiction stories and ask yourself the three questions:
1.  Is it factual?
2.  Can it be called creative nonfiction?
3.  Is there emotion in the writing?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Touch--An Important Sensory Detail

We've talked about sensory details a number of times. Using sensory details makes a good story even better. They bring life to a story and allow the reader to relate to the characters and situation.

We use sight, sound and smell often when writing a story, but the sense of touch can be very useful, as well.

Think about the way your fingers relay messages to your brain when you touch something. Immediately, you know if what you touched is soft, hard, smooth or greasy. Some things we touch bring satisfying reactions while others are startling.

Try this exercise on using this important sensory detail. Write a sentence showing a reaction to each of the items below:

1.  kitten
2.  doorknob
3.  grass
4.  baby's blanket
5.  a tub of water
6.  grease
7.  tree trunk

Now, reverse the exercise by using these reactions to touch in a sentence. Show, don't tell

1.  soft
2.  hard
3.  smooth
4.  rough
5.  sticky
6.  greasy
7.  hot

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When A Story Doesn't Work

Sometimes our candle goes out, but is blown into flame by an encounter with another human being.~Albert Schweitzer

The quote above made me think about the many times I've been stuck on a story. The idea is in my mind, half of it is written, and then it seems to go nowhere, or it goes skittering in far too many directions. Anyone who writes has been in a similar situation more than once.

So, as Mr. Schweitzer said, our candle goes out. And there we sit alone in the dark not knowing which way to go. Maybe that's when it's time to walk away, to go out and see what's happening in the world. Leave the story half-done and go for a walk, a visit to the library, or a trip to the mall. 

Chances are that you will have an encounter with another human being. You might run into a friend you haven't seen for a long time, or have a friendly chat with a clerk. It's possible that a chance phrase or even a couple of words will trigger something to help you finish your story that's waiting at home. 

Don't shake your heard. It does happen. I'm not going to guarantee that it will occur 100% of the time, but it can and does happen. Maybe the encounter need not be with a human being, maybe something you see while walking alone will trigger ideas for you. 

Only this morning, a well-known author who shall remain nameless told her facebook friends that she had been stuck on a short story she was writing until the solution came to her in the shower. She left the story and did something not a bit related to her writing, and bingo--she had the answer.

The point of all this is to walk away when your writing becomes frustrating and nonproductive. Whether it's for an hour or all day, you'll have a better result when you come back to the unfinished story.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Help--First A Book, Now A Movie

Anyone who is a regular reader here will know that I usually am not thrilled with the movies that evolve from a good book. All too often, the movie strays far from the book, even changes major portions. I almost always come home grumbling. Lately, after reading the movie review, I generally choose to skip it.

I enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett so much that I feared what would happen when the movie was made. But last week, the review in our Kansas City Star made me decide to see the film, which opened nationwide this week.

Sunday afternoon, I saw the movie with two friends. We noted that the age level of the audience tilted wildly to the senior citizens. More on that later...

I enjoyed every bit of the movie and was pleased to see that the director and producer of the film had stayed true to the story in the book. Some editorial reviews of the book were not as favorable as the ones that came from a majority of readers. Maybe some of those who did not warm to the book would feel the same regarding the movie. Anyone who liked the book is almost certain to like the movie.

It was great fun to see the 60's cars, hairdos, and dresses. I noted many dresses that looked like ones that hung in my closet 50+ years ago, and I definitely had long hair in a flip hairstyle. What a time I had getting my natural curly hair to behave for that style. By day's end, the curls were back.

I noted several actresses who gave academy award performances. I won't name them, so you can select them on your own if you see the movie.

Back to the people in the audience--I wished that more of our younger generations would come to see the movie. Yes, it has historical value regarding civil rights as it takes place long before many of them were born, but it has more than that. There are clear messages about people and they way they act and the consequences of their actions. That is what I would like them to see.

I'm giving The Help a thumbs up for both book and movie.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Writing To A Theme in Contests

Many writing contests have a theme. It might be a quote, a phrase, or even one word which the entrant is  to consider in their entry. Sometimes, it's rather nice to have the path you're going to walk already selected for you, since we often find the beginning the most difficult steps. It also limits the writer but only in a small way.

Hope Clark runs an annual themed contest connected with her marketing newsletters. This year the theme is one word--diligence. The word allows you to go in myriad directions but which one will come up a winner? I've been mulling it over for weeks now and I haven't come up with an idea yet. There's still time left.

Our state authors group has an annual contest which offers several categories a writer can enter. There is an overall theme each year which is a category all its own. It offers the greatest amount of prize money. The theme generally has something to do with writing but occasionally it reflects our state heritage. Kansas has a rich history in the pioneer movement in the nineteenth century.

One year, the theme was"Pen Life As Art" and I thought and thought about it while I did household tasks, while I waited in line at the checkout counter and when TV was so boring I couldn't concentrate on it. I had a choice of entering either poetry or prose for this theme, or both, as they were separate categories.
I ended up entering a poem and was pleased when it won third place. The poem is below, so you can judge for yourself if I wrote to the theme.

Artists All

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

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

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

The writer gathers life’s stories
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.

Encouraged by placing, I entered a lengthy poem about the wild west the following year. It was so contrived, so terrible that I should not have even entered it. It may have been written to the theme, but it was just plain awful. Keep the theme in mind, but also concentrate on good writing.

If you can't come up with something related to the theme, move on to another contest. Not every theme given is going to inspire us. Our state contest theme this year is "Kansas:  Freedom Frontier For 150 Years"  This is our state's 150th birthday so it was a good choice. I never came up with anything to write for it, however. Rather than entering something awful, I skipped on to the other categories.

Writing to a theme can be interesting. If you haven't tried it, give it a whirl. Google writing contest with theme and see if you can find one that appeals to you.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writers Can Change

Longtime friends are moving away. They decided they needed to downsize and also move to a warmer climate. No hurry, they told us. We'll put the house on the market and take it off in 4 months it it doesn't sell, try again in the spring. The first person to walk through on the first day bought it! Suddenly, their lives were turned upside down. They hadn't decided where they were going to settle, and they had to be out in a matter of 6 weeks. Change suddenly became the keyword in their life.

Writers face changes, too. Lots of them. Look how the publishing industry has done aerobatic loops and turns these last couple of decades. Self-publishing, once sneered at, has suddenly become a big deal for writers. Those who pedaled manuscripts from agent to agent and publisher to publisher unsuccessfully now have an easier way to get their book read by the public.

If you do manage to sell a book to a publisher, they no longer do all the marketing. The writer is expected to dive in headfirst in what may be deep water for them. And that's only one change in publishing houses.

Magazines look for material that is very different from what they sought one, two, or three decades ago. They've always looked for good writing and they still are. It's just a different style and different subjects that they want now. Can you change with them?

Some changes have been terrific. How much easier it is to send a submission via email or electronic form than to snail mail your copy and SASE. And let's not forget how we had to change from working on a typewriter (you do remember those, don't you?) to learning how to operate a computer.

There are always going to be changes in our personal lives and in our writing lives, as well. The writer who stubbornly refuses to change is left sitting on the curb while the other kids are having fun. We have to be willing to make changes if we want to continue having our work published. We can do it if we change one important thing first--attitude.

If ebook publishing scares you to death, stop shaking, and research the process step by step. It might not seem so daunting then. Talk to others who have published more than one ebook. Whenever a new change comes along in your writing world, approach it calmly and open yourself to learning. In the long run, it will be to your benefit. Have an "I can do this!" attitude.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Keywords For Writers That Work

It was only a year ago that the picture above was taken in  a picturesque French village. Ken wasn't as enthused about visiting France as I was, but it turned out to be a good trip for him, as well. I've been mentally reliving the trip these last few days, as it was one of my favorite overseas visits.

My musing was partly because of an essay I wrote about one of the stops that left us both  deeply impressed. The WWII American Rhone Cemetery etched itself onto my heart, where it stayed. I knew I wanted to write about the experience when we returned home. It was one of the first stories I started, even before we'd drifted through the several days of jet lag. The emotion I felt in the open air chapel still overwhelmed me.

I wrote the story. It just wasn't right. So I waited a few days and tried again. I sent it to writersandcritters, my online critique group. They had some good things to say but also pointed out the many spots that just plain didn't work. I knew they were right. Something was missing. But what? I revised it again and finally threw up my hands in disgust. Into the "to be worked on" file it went. 

The story stayed in that file for many months, but it circled round and round in my mind from time to time. Still, I didn't pull it out and work on it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I opened the file and read the story. Then I started from scratch and rewrote it. Not once, a couple of times. Sent it to wac for a critique. I waited for the red axes to slash through it. 

Wonder of wonders, only a few minor little things were suggested. Even so, I waited a few more days, did a final revision, then sent it to an editor of a senior newspaper in a nearby city. I suggested to her that it might be a good piece for the November issue which would most likely commemorate Veterans Day. She wrote back in record time that the story was perfect for the November issue and then went on to praise the writing. Which, of course, had me floating on a cloud for a few hours afterward.

The point of all this is that we shouldn't give up when a story doesn't work right. Put it away, let it simmer, let your subconscious mind filter ideas. Then work on it again until it's satisfying to you (and to your critique group if you have one). The process for this particular story took close to a full year. That's perfectly alright, even though it gave me a hefty dose of frustration. That old patience and perseverance advice worked well with this one. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Help From My Granddaughters

The two girls above were grilled the other night by their grandmother--me! I had some questions about what is being taught regarding writing in today's schools. So who better to ask than my two oldest granddaughters who live in suburban Dallas. Alexis is starting 10th grade in a couple of weeks, and Gracen  will be a 7th grader. Both are good students and participate in extracurricular activities. They're 'with-it' kids.

But perhaps I should back up and tell you why I felt I had to consult the younger generation for some answers. I am in the process of reading entries in the nonfiction category of a Youth Writing Contest. They were grouped by grades, from 1st through 12th. Prizes will be awarded at the state authors club convention. I looked forward to reading what the young people had written. The old teacher in me bubbled to the surface, raring to go.

What I found disturbed me a great deal. All the entries were typed, all were nameless as should be. Many were original and well thought out. Some sounded like something read in a book the student had used for research. Putting the information into their own words escaped a few. Many were filled with expressions we hear in everyday conversation. What bothered me most were the many entries that had extremely poor capitalization and punctuation. Spelling errors were in far fewer numbers. With no capitals, no commas or periods, sentences ran on and on and....

I thought back to my teaching days. I taught both third and fourth grades, and in both those levels, we emphasized good writing in all our subjects, not just the English papers. I found the 3rd through  6th grade entries to be the worst. I counted far more on the content than the mechanics of writing, but I did take the latter into consideration. No matter how good the content, if it was a trial to read a full paper because of mechanical/grammatical errors, it didn't deserve to win an award.

It bothered me enough that I decided to call on my own personal experts. I told Alexis and Gracen what I had been doing and why I was concerned. "Did your teachers work on capitalization and punctuation a lot, a little, or not at all?"  Then I asked them if they felt it was important to learn or not. "And be honest," I told them.

They both said they had some emphasis on those two parts of writing but not a whole lot. Gracen said that her English teacher last year (6th grade) worked on it a lot, but her teachers before that had only done a little. She added that teachers in other subjects didn't mention it much. Alexis has been in many advanced classes and she said you were kind of expected to know those things. Both girls said yes, that they felt it was important to learn the right way and use it in everyday things.

So, why are so many of these contest entries coming in with glaring errors? In our technology based world today, shortcuts are the norm. Look at texting and email where people use abbreviations, pay no attention to capitals etc. Is that part of the problem? I have also read that some teachers, not all, grade an essay only on content, no points off for mechanical errors. Are they doing the children any favors by doing so?

I'm going to go back over the contest entries again and look primarily at content to select the award winners. But I will put notes on the papers to tell the children to watch their capitals and punctuation. It's not teaching them how to do it, but perhaps it will make them aware of the problem. I'll also add something positive in my note. My aim is not to humiliate or tear a kid down, only to bring some awareness.

Next, I'd like to sit down with a group of teachers and get their thoughts about how English grammar and writing is taught in our schools today.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Family Historian---Take It Seriously

My parents and me in 1942

Last Friday, Veronica Breen Hogle, wrote here about job descriptions. Hers is Family Historian. Veronica has a rich and colorful history which she brings to life so very well in her stories. I have taken on the role of Family Historian in my family and, I think, in my husband's, as well. 

Ken's Aunt Fannie played that role in her large, German immigrant family, and I eagerly anticipated the stories she told. Sadly, she didn't write them down, but I have written several of them. The one problem with that is that they may lose something as they are moved on from one person to another. Still, it is better than not having any written record at all. 

Do you have a Family Historian in your extended family? In the family of your spouse? If you don't, it's time to begin. Family history is true treasure. The funny stories, the joyful ones, and even the tragic episodes in a family's journey through life--they're all of importance. No other family has exactly the same history, yours is unique, and it deserves to be passed on to your children, grandchildren and future generations. 

Besides knowing what has happened within a family, these stories can sometimes be of importance in medical issues that pop up now and then. There have been a few times when my son has called and started a conversaton with "Who in our family had ______?"  And usually, I can come up with the answer.

Where do you begin this job of Family Historian? It's not necessary to begin at the beginning, whatever that might be. Write each story as it comes to you, when something or someone triggers a memory. Or when you attend a family reunion, jot down notes and write the story when you get home. A good trigger for these memories is to sit down and look through old photo albums. If you're lucky, your generations-back relatives noted dates and names on the backs or underneath. The photo with this posting is from an album my mother started when I was just an infant. This picture was taken in the back of my grandmother's apartment building in suburban Chicago when I was around 3. We're all dressed up. Maybe it was Easter Sunday.

I count myself as fortunate because my mother was a storyteller and so was my Aunt Vivienne, my dad's sister. I listened to countless stories from each of them, some repeated many times. It's possible some of these stories were a bit embellished, but the basic facts were there. Hearing so many stories, often told around the dinner table, left me with a tapestry of my family history. My father told family stories, too. If you come from a family that doesn't have a rich storytelling history, you'll have to use other means to delve back through the years. Do look up those photo albums, Interview older family members, even old neighbors who will remember many happenings. 

Don't say that you aren't very good at writing these kinds of stories. That's one excuse I find unacceptable. There's no doubt that some Family Historians will bring a story to life better than others, but the most important thing is to have a written record to pass on. Step up and take on the job. What better legacy could you leave?

Friday, August 5, 2011

Guest Blog--What's Your Job Description?

Meet Veronica Breen Hogle, today's Guest Blogger. Her thoughts for us are below:

Last week a tall, trim, silver-haired friend named Joe, two days younger than me died unexpectedly.
“His big generous heart just stopped beating.   He died quietly at home with me and our daughter, Anna,” his wife told me.   I joined a long line of people at the funeral home to pay my respects. Joe’s body wasn’t there because he’d willed it to the medical school at the University at Buffalo.  In the middle of the week  on a sweltering day,  people crowded into the church where he had been an influential leader to remember  Joe, the elementary school teacher, husband and father of five adult children.  His hobbies were folk dancing and magic.   People said Joe’s greatest gift was his ability to build community through activities.  This was his legacy.
I thought of my own legacy.  Because my mother left my father when I was two and couldn’t rear me herself, I grew up under the wings of my grandmother and her invalid sister and her husband in Bagenalstown, County Carlow, a little railway and flour mill town on the Barrow River, 68 miles south-east of Dublin.  These family members lived and fought during World War 1 and World War 2.  I listened to their stories so often, I felt like I’d been there in the trenches with them.  While telling me their stories and without noticing it, they gave me the job description of family historian.  I received the old family photographs, letters, postcards, and the bits and pieces that were important to them.
When I went to school, the nun wrote the title of our composition on the blackboard every Friday.
“Use your five senses. What does the person look like?  How does she sound? How does she smell?  What does she eat and what does it taste like?  Paint a picture with words” she told us.  On Monday, she had her hand out to receive the required two pages written with a wood pen with a two-penny removable, brass nib, which required great care to put it in and take out.  When ready to write in the circle of light from the oil lamp, I dipped the nib into the bottle of black Indian ink, tapped it lightly on the side of the glass bottle to remove any excess ink so it would glide across the paper with just the right sound of a squeak and not leave any forbidden  ink blots on the paper. 
No one from my family is alive in Bagenalstown now.  All are clustered together and tucked in beneath the clay in the little hilly cemetery two miles outside the town. The Barrow still flows through the town and the train stops in the railway station eight times a day on its way from Waterford to Dublin and back. Bagenalstown still has no traffic lights.  The Church Belll rings out the Angelus three times a day and the church clock rings out the hour and half hour.
It’s been a long time since I was groomed to be the family historian.   I will write about my family and the stories they told me around the sweet-smelling turf fires long before we had television or a radio.  I’m Just an ordinary person who uses writing and the five senses to take readers to a place in a certain time and introduce them to ordinary people who underneath what you see at first are extraordinary people in their own way.
So what’s your job description?  What gifts will you pass on?  What will people say about you when your heart just stops beating? 
Bio: Veronica Breen Hogle has won six prizes for writing short memoir pieces about growing up in small towns and villages along the Barrow River in Ireland.  Her stories appear in magazines, newspapers and books in the US, Canada and Ireland.  She’s the mother of four adult children and grandmother of four grandchildren. She enjoys working in her flower garden, folk dancing, travel, baking fruit cakes, being a host parent to international students and writing short stories about growing up in Ireland when only the hospital, the doctor and a few merchants had phones.  She puts her writing skills to work by writing grant proposals for nonprofit organizations and to elected officials suggesting ways they could improve services to her and their other customers.  
Read some of Veronica's stories at Our Echo. Select from a three page list of titles.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sell Yourself As A Writer

There's more to writing than just pounding out words that come together in fine prose or poetry. You have to convince an editor that your writing is worthy of being published. It doesn't stop there.

It's also necessary to sell yourself as a writer to readers. I've written short posts about this subject in the past and have now expanded it into a full article.

"Seven Ways To Sell Yourself To Readers" was published today at the Institute of Children's Literature newsletter. It will stay on file in their Writers Support section. The article tips work for all writers, not just those who write for kids.

The Institute of Children's Literature is where I started my writing world. I needed something to get me writing regularly. At the time, my goal was to write for children, so I signed up for the ICL correspondence course. Over the next 18 months, the ICL saw to it that I had the basic tools needed to launch a writing career. It ended up that I didn't concentrate wholly on children's stories, but I learned what I needed to branch out into other types of writing.

The ICL website has a lot to offer, so take a look after reading my latest article in their newsletter.

Come back tomorrow to meet a special guest blogger.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Can Writers Take Criticism?

I did something this morning that left me feeling a little anxious. I risked offending a writer friend by pointing out something in his latest story that bothered me. This man writes good creative nonfiction stories. He can tug at your heart and bring a tear to your eye and lump to the throat with his subject matter.

He could make a good story a great one by changing one thing. He tends to tell rather than show. Anyone who reads articles or books on the craft of writing has learned that showing is better than telling. Sure, we learn it but do we always use it? I'm not just picking on this particular guy because nearly all writers have been guilty. Maybe it's one of those 'deadly sins' of a writer. And I've been guilty of it, too. For one thing, it's an easier way to write!

Part of it is not making ourselves conscious of this little sin. Being in a critique group, I see it pointed out over and over again, so perhaps I am more aware of it.  Ah, there's a good reason for all writers to join a critique group!

When I read the man's story today, I knew what it needed to become a better story. To be fair, it was an exercise he'd written in a workshop, but it would eventually turn into a full story someday. I've noted the problem in many things he writes. So, I asked myself if I should point it out, try to help him establish a better habit. Would he thank me? Would he be so offended he never wants to talk to me again? Would he be willing to work on it? All unknowns.

I decided to write and point out the problem in as gentle a way as possible. I told him that my intent was not to hurt his feelings but rather to help him grow as a writer. I added that I work on that part of my writing world 24/7. I haven't had a response from him yet. Crossing my fingers that it will be positive when it comes.

The point of all this is that writers need to learn to accept criticism. My mom use to play a little game with me in my formative years. She often prefaced her scolding with "Just a little constructive criticism but you..." Keyword was constructive. As a kid, I hated statements she began with those words, but I did learn something.

If we don't learn to take criticism of our writing, we'll stagnate. Our goal should be to grow as a writer. Attitude comes into play here, too. If you accept the fact that criticism of your writing is to help you, not hurt you, then you'll come out a winner. I sure hope my friend has that attitude. If he doesn't, I may lose a friend.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Do You Have Favorite Writers?

Do you have favorite writers? I certainly do. I found a new story today posted at Our Echo website. The author is one who use to post her work regularly at this website where writers of all levels can contribute. No rejections here, just readers who appreciate good stories.

This particular woman is one of the best of the Our Echo family of writers. Whenever I see a new story of hers, I feel a little thrill because I know I'm in for a treat. Born in Ireland and now a US resident, she has a way of using sensory detail that takes the reader straight across the Atlantic and into the green hills of Ireland. Her stories feature her growing-up years and the various people who were a part of that period. But beyond the fine detail and character development, her nonfiction stories have an underlying message and/or lesson for all of us. I'm not going to name her yet, as I'm hoping she'll consent to being a guest blogger here.

I have favorite novelists, too. Catherine Cookson wrote book upon book about often poverty-stricken working class people in England and the aristocrats who lord it over them. Coal miners showed up often in her fine stories, and since my grandfather was a miner here in the  US but born in London of Irish parents, this is of great interest to me. Ms. Cookson was a master storyteller and a prolific writer with a long list of books to her credit.

Another novelist I especially like is Barbara Taylor Bradford. Her rags to riches stories are fell-good and entertaining ones. Rosamunde Pilcher, another British author, ranks among my favorites. Do I like any American authors? Of course, I do. Among them are Kristin Hannah, Taylor Caldwell, John Grisham and David Guterson. Some I've named are contemporary novelists while others have passed on, leaving their published works behind.

I have a few favorite nonfiction authors, too. Stephen Ambrose probably tops that list. His books on American History often read like novels.

My favorite authors and yours are probably totally different because we don't all like to read the same kind of thing. I like a good story, historical fiction, good creative nonfiction but I don't read fantasy or science fiction. Yet some people will rank authors of those genres high on their list of favorites. How about you? Who are your favorite authors?

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Critical Trait For The Writer

Cars need regular maintenance and some fixing-up, and I guess people do, too. My absence last week was due to a repair job I needed at our local hospital. I'm happy to say that surgery went well, and I'm feeling better each day. Energy level seems to be the biggest problem. I have stories swirling in my head but not yet able to sit down and write a full story. Soon, though...

Meanwhile, a friend wrote to me about a mutual writer friend who is a terrific storyteller. But she has one major flaw. She lacks confidence in herself. She thinks she was accepted into a prestigious writing group because of factors other than her writing. I found that to be quite sad, as she is an excellent writer.

Is she the only one who doesn't know it? Maybe so. I do know she does not submit her work for publication. She should, as a good deal of it would sell. She lacks one critical trait a writer must have--confidence.

How easy to say that a writer needs confidence. Wouldn't it be nice if she could run to Wally World and pick up a case of the stuff? If only! It's one thing to know you need to believe in yourself, but sometimes doing it is quite another breed of cat altogether. Believing in yourself as a writer is of prime importance.

If she asked me what to do to gain some confidence in her ability to write (and I seriously doubt she would do that!), I'd tell her to step out of her own shoes for a short while. Read some of her own work with objective eyes. Ask herself what she'd say if this story had been written by someone else. It's not easy to do, and she might not be successful at the first attempt. Like all things, it takes practice.

Next, I'd tell her to submit, submit, submit. If she gets two acceptances out of twelve, that's two doses of confidence. And yes, for someone whose confidence level is low, it takes courage to submit work.

Third, if she's in a critique group, she should pay attention to the praise part of the critiques she receives. Crits help us see parts of a story that need work, but they should also point out the areas that shine, the ones that stand out as fine writing.

Maybe the writer needs to be a little bit of an egotist. We need to build ourselves up so that we don't fall down.