Category Archives: Writing Tips and Habits

Write Short First

So you want to be a writer? Are you planning on working on the book-length manuscript for as long as it takes? And then market it to agents for as long as it takes?

How about being published in the meantime? Nothing is better experience for the novelist or memoirist than writing and publishing short stories or personal essays along the way. If you don’t have what it takes to go through the process successfully with short pieces, what makes you think you can do it with a longer story? Additionally, earning bylines along the way may help get your first book published.

Windy Lynn Harris has written the definitive book to help you get started. Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published provides valuable guidance for crafting and fine-tuning those shorter pieces, as well as providing a step-by-step plan for getting published. This system includes finding markets, preparing your manuscript, and how to submit those pieces to magazines. She even gives pointers for how to deal with rejection, an inevitable part of every writer’s life.

After you follow the advice in this book, I suspect you will have acceptances, too, as Harris’ information is practical and grounded in the realities of the publishing industry. I suggest purchasing a paperback copy and keep it at hand and well-notated on your desk.

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I posted the above review for Windy‘s book on Amazon and Goodreads. But I’d like to expand on the idea of going short before going long. I know I’m going to step on some toes here. A huge number of writers go straight to writing book-length manuscripts. That’s great. They often self-publish and tend to learn from the experience and the books improve with practice. I’ve greatly enjoyed many books that developed from these origins.

But my philosophy is that the best way to learn craft is to start by writing short stories or essays and revising them until they shine. Then send them out and get some publications under your belt. While you are doing this read like crazy. Revise like crazy. Find experienced beta readers who aren’t crazy. I think this is what takes good stories and turns them into literature.

Don’t throw things at me now!

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, Book Review, Books, Essay, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Literary Journals, Publishing, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

Writing Advice from Annie Dillard

I hope to be back soon, yakking away. In the meantime, here’s a little writing advice from Annie Dillard:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle–or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do. If you pursue your present course, the book will explode or collapse, and you do not know about it yet, quite.

The Writing Life

Where she uses the word “book” you can substitute article, short story, poem, or blog post. It’s true for them all. The advantage to a blog post, of course, is who cares ;)? If you split your post, your readers will be willing to split with you (because they know you and are hanging out by the coffee pot, teapot, or Mountain Dew with you) or they will stop reading at the split and, if you’re lucky, drop by another day.  But in more formal writing, you have to create a beauty of unity every time (even if it does so by disunity).

The structure of my life is temporarily forked, fractured, and threatening collapse, but I might be melodramatic because on top of everything else this month, I’m drinking all liquids today. Guess what for? Haha, that’s right. The dreaded C-word. It’s my first colonoscopy, y’all!

Have a great week and TTYL!

Princess Kana and the Pea

on 20 mattresses and 20 feather-beds

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Filed under #AmWriting, Blogging, Nonfiction, Writing, Writing Tips and Habits

Headless in the Liminal Zone

This is how I feel this summer.

No, not like the model haha. The headless dolls.

I’m not the only person who thinks dolls are representations of humans. Why else do many people believe a child should have a doll that looks like her? Why do they give anatomically correct dolls to children who might have been sexually abused? This belief underpins some of the poems in Doll God.

I can’t seem to feel my head this summer. There are lots of body lumps curves and big limbs when I glance down. The heat makes me swell, and this makes my already swollen legs and feet take over my self-image until all I am is a big Goodyear blimp with two more blimps hanging down to the floor. I have a condition called Primary Lymphedema, and it causes swelling of the “extremities.” It can be really extreme. If you’ve ever seen someone with grotesquely swollen and misshapen legs, that is probably what she (sometimes he) has. (Just so you know, no, I don’t have the grotesque version–just the super annoying version). If you have ever heard of Elephantiasis, this is really the same illness–only that one is caused by the bite of a mosquito.I’ll throw in a photo from Wikipedia, so you can get the idea.

Elephantiasis

Elephantiasis

I have to wear compression stockings except when I am lying down, even when it’s 118 degrees out. Sometimes I feel like that Goldfinger girl who died when the gold paint covered her entire body. The stockings are almost claustrophobic. My SIL used to say my legs look like ragdoll legs.

A machine pumps my legs occasionally. There is a leg-sized sleeve that fits over my leg and it alternatively fills with air and deflates, pushing against the leg to move the excess fluid out of there and toward my bladder. It makes my legs feel better, but it isn’t that powerful at pushing the fluid around. A massage called manual lymph drainage can be useful, but only if it’s done by a superhero. These superheroes are very rare. I had one for years, but that was in California. I don’t have one in Arizona.

That was a tangent, although I think you needed to know that to understand why my body becomes so central in the summer (at least in my mind haha, which is a bit of a paradox). So my legs look a bit more like the chubby doll legs above than like the elephantiasis sufferer, but much lumpier.

I might have lost my male readers by now because I have discovered that men generally can’t bear to look at the swelling. They seem to find it upsetting. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m generalizing too much. I’m just reporting on my experiences over the last few decades.

By now you might wonder why there are two dolls. I can’t answer that question because I found them this way at the hair salon. But since everything has a reason and a pattern, I have to assume that I am not the only one of me out there. Somebody else has the same problem.

On another note, I’m not just headless because the body has taken over my mind. It’s also because it’s hot and summer is such a LIMINAL period. Yes, it is. It always feels liminal to me–a passage between one year and another. Maybe it’s because I was very focused on school and summer vacation as a kid and then I was a teacher and the universe always seemed to operate on the school year.

All of the above is just to say that between the inflating body and the liminal season I #amnotwriting. Gosh, I have my memoir manuscript back from a reader and have some ideas on how to proceed. And I have the play we are supposed to be working on. I had another chapbook piece–this one flash nonfiction–taken by a lovely literary magazine called In Parentheses. It was all I could do to look it over for revision possibilities. At this point, most of the short prose pieces have been taken. So I really need to . . . WRITE SOMETHING.

Or not. I might not push myself until September. It will still be hot then, but the liminal period will be over.

In the meantime, we are going to sign the papers for Sloopy–and yes, that will be her new name!

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Writing tip: when cooking Chinese food always use sesame oil. You can never have a bad meal if you follow that advice. On a full stomach, you will be happier and think you are a writer even if you are not writing.

 

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Filed under Arizona, Doll God, Dolls, Flash Nonfiction, Food & Drink, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

Playing with Poetry (or T2)

The other day I realized that I do need to be systematic to stay organized and to be organized to feel productive (thank you, Jill Weatherholt). Chaos doesn’t work for me. Neither does too much spontaneity. Some, yes, but not too much.

I keep trying to get organized around poetry, and it keeps fighting back.

I had the possibly annoying brilliant idea that I would come up with a systematic way to share poetry tidbits and trivia (called T2) on a more regular basis. But what structure to use for that systematic organization?

Heh. I tried birth dates of poets. You know, like this: it’s June 20, so I will share something about Irish poet Paul Muldoon who was born on June 20, 1951. Kinda left me cold. Not Muldoon or his work, but his birthdate as an arbitrary choice of tidbit or trivia.

I wondered what happened in the poetry world on a June 20? I found this about Sylvia Plath on Poetry Foundation:

It was during her undergraduate years that Plath began to suffer the symptoms of severe depression that would ultimately lead to her death. In one of her journal entries, dated June 20, 1958, she wrote: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” This is an eloquent description of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, a very serious illness for which no genuinely effective medications were available during Plath’s lifetime.

I’m sure I read that before because when I was Plath-obsessed I studied her journals pretty, um, obsessively. But I wouldn’t remember that she wrote that on a June 20, would I? And while this is a very important quote for anyone with or touched by bipolar disorder, many other Plath quotes speak to me much more.

What I really like to do with poetry doesn’t have a lot to do with systems or schedules (maybe poetry fights back because it doesn’t like systems). I like to write it, for one. Too hot right now for that (we’re having a dangerous heat wave in Arizona) When I taught future elementary teachers, I had them make big posterboard collages for teaching particular poems.  I like to make collages about poems, too. Too hot for that for sure. I like to read poems and write in a journal the most random idiosyncratic* responses to them.

* When I was a new grad student in Riverside, I had a meeting with a professor about a paper I wrote.  He thought it was good, but very “idiosyncratic.” I had the embarrassment of asking him what that meant. Yes, I was an English grad student and had always read a lot, but sometimes it’s clear I am not an expert on English. If you grew up like I did, this is what idiosyncratic means: “peculiar or individual.”

Yup, peculiar. Hah. Individual. It also means one-of-a-kind. My paper was one-of-a-kind. I had no idea. But I was perceptive enough to realize that it wasn’t good to be “idiosyncratic” in grad school. (It was worth it because now I love the word).

Back to the subject of what I like to do with poetry. Journaling about poetry is therapeutic and creative. It’s lots of fun.

Have I mentioned I haven’t done it in a long time? So it isn’t just the heat over here.

You can see why I want some interesting way back into immersing myself in poetry that isn’t just the poetry I’m writing. I am lazy. And easily distracted. I thought maybe if I shared a poetry T2 on a regular basis, even if it’s within a post about something else, it would be a way of playing with poetry. Like making mud pies or playing with a bucket in the sand. Maybe if it’s just fun, poetry won’t notice that there is a schedule/system in place.

For today, since it’s so hot, how about a quote from a poem I love? I posted a long portion in the fall of 2013, but this passage gets to the heart of my sweet Felix’s nature. From Christopher Smart’s (1722-1771) “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]”. The trivia is that Christopher Smart’s nicknames were Kit Smart and Kitty Smart. Kitty Smart is a good name for some of my cats! The poem is very wide, so be sure to use the slide bar to read to the end of each line if the ends are not visible to you

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary. 
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.

 

For my cat Felix

Let me know, please, if you have ideas for what kind of T2 you would like for me to share about poetry. Maybe it’s not as hot by you . . . . After all, it did get to 118 yesterday.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Arizona, Cats and Other Animals, Poetry, Writing, Writing goals, Writing Tips and Habits

The Dilemma of Writing Competition Protocol

I started reading over the guidelines for a few writing competitions and was once again annoyed by a dilemma that they provoke.

Most of the contests tell you all the wonderful stuff they can think of about the poet/writer who is judging. Then they slam you with this one.

Poets/writers are not eligible to submit a manuscript if they know the judge or the [insert name of press here] personally.

What does this mean regarding the judge? If you’re her father or sister or niece? I get that. If you’re her best friend? If you took three courses in an MFA program from her? That all makes sense.

But what if you took a workshop a zillion years ago and that workshop was a total of less than six hours and she has absolutely no idea who you are?

Does that count?

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Pear says Hi!

 

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Are You Ready for a Poetry Coach?

How would you like to work on and develop your poetry under the specialized coaching of the person who encouraged Doll God into existence?  It’s now possible to work with Caroline Goodwin from wherever you live through a new project called OneRoom Poetry Group!

I took a prose and then a poetry course through Stanford University from Caroline a few years ago. It was during the poetry course that she said something that completely changed the way I saw my poetry. I’d been farting around fooling around with writing poetry for more years than I would like to face. She asked me to start pulling my book together. What book?! I thought to myself. But she had complete confidence in me, something I lacked when it came to my writing. With her help I did pull together my first book. Imagine my shock when it won a state book award. It would never have happened without Caroline.

You can find my review of her gorgeous poetry book Trapline here at Poetry on the Edge.

On to the link to this wonderful opportunity:  OneRoom Poetry Group

There are only a few spots left, so don’t delay if you want to take advantage!

From the site:

Here’s what happens when you join:

  1. Your experienced coach will reach out to you and schedule time to talk, to learn what you struggle with, and help you craft a set of concrete and achievable goals and a tailored practice plan to meet those goals.
  2. You will get access to a small, intimate support group of people working towards similar goals.
  3. Your coach will stick with you for the long-haul, making suggestions, sharing feedback, holding you accountable from day-to-day and week-to-week, and celebrating with you when you achieve your goals.

Meet the group coach

Caroline Goodwin

“I taught my first creative writing course in a Vancouver, BC public high school in 1994. After attending Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry from 1999 – 2002, I began to teach at California College of the Arts and Stanford Continuing Studies. My areas of expertise are poetry and memoir; I have published four poetry chapbooks and one full-length collection. I love teaching and consider it a privilege to engage with my students’ creativity and the development of their individual voices. I am currently serving my community as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, CA.

If you end up working with Caroline, I can’t wait to hear about it. She’s a fabulous poetry teacher.

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Filed under #AmWriting, Poetry, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

Need Some Writing Constraints?

Are you at a loss on choosing your next writing topic? Try this software program (for free)!

The Story Shack Writing Prompt Generator

Pretty darn cool.

P.S. If you’re like me, writing constraints make it easier to write. When you feel like EVERYTHING is fair game, the mind goes blank.

 

 

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Don’t Always Believe What You Read Online

When I started writing creative nonfiction/memoir, the issue of dialogue tags rose its nasty little head early on. I’d never given them much thought in fiction writing, and they don’t exist in poetry. For some reason, nonfiction made me think and rethink what works best. Maybe it’s that more expressive word choices conveyed more information than plain old “said,” but in nonfiction it seemed like overkill to write “stammered” or “giggled” about oneself.

These “more expressive” tags look something like this:

Eventually I took courses online and learned that all the creative and imaginative tags I’d debated were worthless. I think these teachers were right, so I’m sharing what I learned from them.

The idea is to stay as far from “tagging” as possible.

That means that if you can write dialogue where it’s clear who is speaking each line, you don’t need any tags at all. Sometimes you can start a conversation out by identifying the first speaker and then drop tags after that point. Here is a passage from Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty:

We stopped at the airport gift shop and I bought a scarf in a red tartan with the money I had left. “Write to me all the time,” she said as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.

“I always do.”

“Write to me more often now. I’m going to miss you more.”

The book is about the friendship of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). Lucy is leaving and wants Ann to write to her. In this passage, we know it’s Lucy who begins because she is the only other person in the scene and because with her head on Ann’s shoulder, she’s exhibiting her characteristic neediness. In the next line by Ann and the response from Lucy their personalities shine through. The only tag in this whole passage is “she said,” used once.

So why did Patchett use “said” and not a tag with more emotion or more information?

Because said is an invisible word. It’s so common that it exists just under the surface, much like articles (the, a, an) do. It doesn’t intrude on the scene. Instead the dialogue itself is allowed to pop with just a little help from scene setters: “as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.”

Another way you can avoid a tag is to pair the line of dialogue with an action that advances the plot. Here is a passage from Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father:

“By the time they come, I’ll have proof.”

“So what? What if I was seeing a man?”

My father turned. His hands were shaking. “It’s too soon.”

In this case, the father’s hands shaking pair with his words and create more emotion than if Cooper had written, “It’s too soon,” he said with a shaky voice. What is more important is that by avoiding a tag, the action and the words are not watered down by unnecessary words that attract attention.

Different versions of this “Said is Dead” chart are being shared all over the internet, along with other questionable writing advice. Rather than listening to these sources, pick up a good writing book and follow the advice in there.  Two good ones for nonfiction are Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away and Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanna Paola.

Have you seen advice online that you know to be wrong?

 

 

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

C.D. Wright on Revision

Off playing with my uncle and aunt who are visiting from Mountain Home, Arkansas.

The other day I was watching video clips of poet C. D. Wright who passed away January 12. Coincidentally, she was born in Mountain Home. I found this video where she talks about revision and “the writing mind,” as I would call it.

From what I can find online, they still don’t know how C.D. died. She went to sleep that night and never woke up again. Tests could not determine a cause of death. She was 67 years old and in great shape. A very vital member of the poetry community.

Here’s an article about her death that quotes her brother. Family Mourns Death of Poet Born in Mountain Home

I love how she talks in this video about the way her own mind works regarding writing and revision. She talks about her mind idling after it takes in information. That she can’t respond immediately. I well know that feeling! How about you? 

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Filed under Editing, Poetry, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

What Are Your Writing Customs?

Some of you probably remember a post by my friend poet and writer Carla McGill last year called “Poetry, Loss, and Grieving.” It’s a beautiful essay and has had a lot of readers.

Carla just started her own WordPress blog! Please go visit and welcome her. Blogging is all new to her, especially the technology, so she can use a lot of support. Also, you’re going to love her blog. It’s about writing and called Writing Customs. Be one of her first blog followers! And follow her on Twitter, too, here. You will love Carla’s posts (I promise). She’s so thoughtful and insightful and a wonderful writer and person.

I’m still trying to catch up with work and visiting with my mother, so don’t think I’m off writing a novel or something hahahahahaha. I hope to be back Monday.

Go tell Carla what YOUR writing customs are!

P.S. This is a chandelier at the Wrigley Mansion I visited with my mother and my husband. It’s Waterford crystal and Arizona amethysts!

 

 

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