Stuck!

Old fashioned image of a woman who is stuckI’m stuck in rhyming couplets! My verses won’t flow free.

Poetic devices, please: won’t you rescue me?

 

Alliteration is elusive.  She shuns my shriek and shout.

Symbolism opens a window, so why can’t I climb out?

 

Consonance couldn’t care less ‘bout my stress.

Yes, I’ve tried Similes.  They’re as good as useless.

 

I manage to catch Assonance as she prances past;

Man, that fancy Assonance can prance away fast!

 

Onomatopaeia bangs the bars, clangs and clatters the lock,

Then skips away, indifferent as the ticking of my clock.

 

I’ve got metaphors by the boatload, so why’s this ship still sinking?

Imagery by the great-garlic-truckload; still, my payload sits here, stinking.

 

Illusion’s no help, clearly—a shy guy, gone at a glance.

Hyperbole to the rescue? Not a one in a trillion chance.

 

Personification?  Please see above.  It’s there, abundantly.

In fact, are these couplets taunting me?  I think you’d call that, “Irony.”

 

My friend Free Verse has heard enough.  She frowns an artful frown,

Lays a cool hand over mine, and urges, “Put. The devices. Down.”

 

“Jettison convention! Ditch cliché! Find a more sophisticated way.

Rhyming couplets? Ridiculous! All rhyming, really, is passé!”

 

A Celtic laugh comes rollicking in. Limerick’s been eavesdroppin’!

Irish eyes roll to the heavens, as he snorts through his grin:

 

“Sophistication! Bah! A tired old rumor!”

“Write how you like, lass! Better yet, write with humor.”

 

Konnichiwa!” chimes a sweet voice anew.

Tell us, Haiku! What is your point of view?

 

“A Poem is a playground. It’s structure, for playing in.

Think of it as a promise, please—not as a prison.”

 

And with a “domo arigato” to graceful Haiku

The doors finally opened, and our caged poet flew!

 

Never again to feel stuck rhyming, or confined to a timing

Free instead to stick with, what for her, will ring out true.

 

Jen Laffler, poetJen Laffler is an author and poet.  Her first children’s book, J is for Jitterbug: A Fanciful Animal Alphabet, was published in 2016 (JALG, Ink).  Her current projects are a children’s board book entitled What Hairdo Does Your Hair Do?, and the children’s poetry collection Poem Seeds & Fine Messes.  Jen lives in Encinitas, California with her husband and three young daughters. She shares her books, poems, and message that there’s genius in each and every one of us, with school groups throughout California.  Jen’s poetic heroes? W. Shakespeare, S. Silverstein, and T. Shakur.  Connect with Jen on Facebook or on her website, Just A Genius, Ink.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1721918/ and Jen Laffler

Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

Taking Risks as a Writer

A GIF of a daisy bloomingAre you a raging risk taker? The person who jumps out of planes, eats live crickets, or bets thousands of dollars on a single throw at the craps table? Do you take risks in your writing too? If so, pat on the back for you, carry on.

While I know some fairly bold writers, as a general rule, we tend not to be risky. We like our books and our coffee and our computers and our dogs (or cats).  We hunker down with our words and our small group of humans and pets and live mostly in our minds.

Recently as I sat at my desk, staring at the query letter on my screen and refusing to press send, I thought about the importance of taking risks. I could press send and risk receiving the dreaded rejection letter in return. Or I could stare at the query letter, safe from rejection, with no shot at securing an agent or having my book traditionally published.

The question is, which caused me more pain? The risk of rejection or the risk of not achieving a dream? As I procrastinated, I came across this quote from Robert Schueller: “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”

Well, hell, when you put it that way, the list of what I’d do is pretty long. And it starts with sending that query letter.

So in the spirit of taking risks, here are a few more reasons why it’s important to take risks as a writer.

You don’t get anywhere playing safe

If you have dreams of getting your work out into the world, then at some point, you have to let someone else read it. You need to submit it to an anthology, literary magazine, or contest. Maybe start that blog you’ve always thought about. Submit to a magazine.

Start small, with something that only gives you a tiny bit of panic. Maybe it’s a local anthology or contest, or maybe you feel better in the anonymity of a larger competition. Pick one place where you are going to submit your work in the next thirty days, and do it. Once you take that tiny leap, you can grow and become bolder with your work. Challenge yourself. It’s important.

Learning to “embrace the suck” helps you to overcome your fear

I know people who take cold showers solely for the purpose of overcoming discomfort. It’s a way for them to actively condition their mind to stay present and overcome their hesitation to a situation that they know is going to be uncomfortable.  There’s a school of thought that says you should do something that makes you uncomfortable every day.

What makes you uncomfortable in your writing practice? Are you nervous about sharing your work out loud? Get out to an open mic night (like Dime Stories, here in San Diego) and share your newest piece. Always wanted to write poetry but not sure where to start? Take a class. It’s okay, if you’re not good at something to start, you’ll get better. Build your writing muscle, or your reading aloud muscle, or whatever muscle needs work because it causes you fear.

Sometimes you learn more from a belly flop than you do from a swan dive

In the early drafts of my book, I had a prologue that I loved. LOVED. The rhythmic quality of it. The words. The imagery. I protected that preamble like a troll hoards gold. It was my Precious.

A few months later, I brought that prologue and the first few chapters of my book to a writing workshop hosted by one of my writing heroes. And you know what? That prologue got shredded. Not like a delicate tear. Like a hungry bear destroying a campsite. It was a good lesson. My beloved prologue was not the beautiful swan dive I thought it was and as a result of belly flopping in front of fellow writers, it made my work that much stronger.

Expose yourself to new experiences and new people

The workshop you were afraid of? You met some lifelong friends. That poetry reading you didn’t want to attend by yourself? You got at least three ideas that will improve your work. The open mic night that gave you dry mouth and made you shake? You met two new people who introduced you to two other people with whom your formed a read and critique group. New experiences lead to great things.

It’s important for us as writers to take risks so we can grow. As Anaïs Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk to bloom.”

It’s time to bloom.

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work (Part II of II)

A Great White Shark attacking a lineIn Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part I, I broke the rules by suggesting that we writers can benefit from two reality TV shows: Project Runway and Shark Tank.

While Project Runway inspires creativity and shepherds me through the writing process, Shark Tank teaches me how to pitch my work for publication without becoming prey.

Pitching in Primetime

Shark Tank grants inventors the opportunity to pitch their products to venture capitalists (the sharks), who then decide whether to invest. The pitch room is called “the shark tank” for good reason: Investors are shrewd entrepreneurs who cut their teeth as they battled their way to the top. They don’t suffer fools, and they smell blood in the water a mile away. They extend investment offers only when a great product comes from a well-prepared inventor.

Pitching Basics from the Boardroom to Publishers

The same applies to publishers. Nonprofit presses enlarge the tank we writers dive into, but the feeding frenzies that surround submission are no less intense. Pitching a book is so similar to what Shark Tank portrays that watching TV feels like taking a course. When pitching to agents or editors, writers have three minutes to describe their target market, highlight their book’s unique features, and convince “paper sharks” that investment will lead to profit.

The show provides a second benefit, too. While agents and editors rarely explain why they reject a piece of writing and don’t give feedback unless they sign the writer, Shark Tank investors do both.

Let’s Meet the Sharks!

Like reality shows, however, not all sharks are created equal. Several seasons have helped me identify species that bear striking similarities to people who comment on writers’ work.

WHALE Shark (Robert Herjavec).

He proposes only win-win deals, and he wants investors to succeed whether or not he backs them. Whale Sharks don’t have teeth; their writing-world counterparts have no agenda. They don’t need to show off, have their ego stroked, or hear their own voice, so they speak little but convey a lot. Seek them out in writing groups, conferences, and critiques. Listen carefully. Take what they say to heart. Employ their advice; it will lift your work to the surface like a buoy.

The GREAT WHITE Shark (Kevin O’Leary).

Whether O’Leary or his writing-world counterpart, the Great White lives to get his teeth into writers and tear them to shreds, but only after batting them around for his own amusement. He panders to an audience he imagines is awed by his power and amused by his antics. He’s not above nipping at fellow sharks, swooping in at the last second to grind their offers—and the inventor/writer—to minced meat. He cuts down others to raise his profile, so unless you find value in something he says, ignore it all.

The BULL Shark (Mark Cuban).

Bull Sharks are mercurial: docile enough to hand-feed one second, voracious enough to attack the next. Their gut guides their every move. How their writing-world counterparts react to a text depends on their perception of its author. If intrigued, they offer a win-win deal—but only after they investigate to a degree that unnerves. If provoked (even unintentionally), they strike. If not engaged within the first 20 seconds, they dart out of reach and disappear. Regardless of their reaction, heed whatever feedback they give; they have a killer instinct.

The LEMON Shark (Laurie Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, and guest investors).

Lemon sharks prefer to observe from the periphery before they enter the fray. Smaller and less aggressive than other species, they rely on agility rather intimidation; therefore, they navigate shifting currents with ease. Their writing-world counterparts’ feedback may conflict, but that’s what makes it special. Keen eyesight aids them in glimpsing flashes of insight in murky depths. Consider their comments carefully; some are sinkers, while others’ quiet wisdom makes them rise above.

Finally, Shark Tank reminds me to pursue publication with a sense of humor. The most successful inventors laugh, even as the quake. The more shark teeth they reveal through smiles, the less likely they are to get eaten alive.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen

On the Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland

The High Street in Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival grew up on the “fringe” of the Edinburgh International Festival, which was launched in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the wake of World War Two. Eight theatre companies, disgruntled that they had not been invited to participate in the inaugural International Festival, came to Edinburgh anyway and performed in smaller venues around town. Both festivals still thrive. Today, the Fringe Festival is larger than the International Festival. In 2017, there were 53,000 performances of 3,300 shows, by companies from 62 countries. The Fringe offers open access to anyone with an idea who can find a venue. Last year it sold 2.5 million tickets.

Day One Fringe

The first day in Edinburgh is a blur. For the newly arrived, the time difference gives the whole city a gauzy filter—like watching a late-night movie through half-closed eyes. To a fuzzy, jet-lagged brain facing a shiny noon on the High Street, the whole place is impossibly attractive in an old world, fairytale kind of way. Also known as the “Royal Mile,” the street runs from Edinburgh Castle down the hill to the Palace of Holyrood House. Along the way, cobblestone passageways with names like Fleshmarket Close and Marlin’s Wynd lead off to courtyards or ancient market squares. During the Fringe, part of the High Street is closed off to vehicles, allowing performers to stage short snippets of shows and spectators to sample the wide range of performances available.

A Fairytale Come Alive

This makes the fairytale seem all the more plausible. That, and some of the people milling around are dressed in 18th-century costumes. You’ll see clowns, zombies, half-naked men holding up other half-naked men on their shoulders, singers, jugglers, and a decent number of metallic-painted people striking dramatic poses.

When someone approaches with an outstretched hand, holding out a colorful piece of paper, you have just been “flyered.”

“Come and see us, it’s great fun. A little bit romance, a little bit mystery. Bring the flyer, and you can get in for half price,” says a young man with a strong Scottish accent and burnished red hair.

An exiled Iranian playwright describes his one-person show in flawless English. He writes about a country to which he will never return in hopes of building understanding about the similarities of “home” in all cultures.

A smiling, silent Korean woman in traditional dress presents a flyer with two hands and a small bow. She is a member of a large dance troupe.

Holding the flyer, looking from picture to person, you might ask “Is that you?” He or she nods and smiles before moving on to the next pedestrian prospect. There are 3,000 shows in search of an audience. That’s a lot of flyers.

Day Two Fringe

“Excuse me, what are you queuing for?” By day two, you feel more comfortable, with both the vernacular and the process. Lines spill from ornate buildings with multiple shows going on at the same time. The answer sends you either to the end of the line or in search of a new one. There are no assigned seats at Fringe shows. Five hundred venues seat anywhere from 10 people to 600 people. The event spaces range from professional theaters that offer performances year-round to grimy bars and tiny cheese shops that host only one show daily during the three weeks in August when the Fringe Festival is on.

Site-specific performances can take you through the Royal Botanic Gardens, led by flaming torches as you watch Macbeth. Or on a bus ride to an ancient ruined abbey on the Scottish border where white-clad dancers enact an eerie tableau.

Day Three Fringe

By day three, you will have laughed and cried and wondered where this incredible event had been all your life. A show created with only shadows produced from an overhead projector leaves you speechless. A comedian from London has you laugh until you cry. A harrowing monologue from a woman soldier in Syria hits you between the eyes and brings the Mideast conflict into sharper focus.

You will fall asleep during at least one show. You will get a little pickier. A pretty flyer and a persuasive thespian are not objective—they are advertising. You learn about reviews and “stars” that are assigned by the many publications that cover the festival every summer. Some reviewers are seasoned experts; some are ambitious interns. You learn the difference the hard way—a rite of passage for any Fringe-goer. You will see a bad show, a show so bad you want to leave but as one of only five people in the audience, you fear the “fourth wall” could be broken by your departure.

This poor experience will soon be forgotten after a pint and a couple more shows. A word of caution: there is a limit to how many shows you can take in and still remember each one separately. Over-stimulation is common, often cured with whiskey and a late-night kebab.

Beware the 24-Hour Clock

The Fringe runs on a 24-hour clock, causing manic numeric hypnosis and the determination to get to that show with the ominous title “Chaucer in the Graveyard” that starts at 23:30—in a graveyard.

Some shows live brightly for three weeks and are seen no more. Others come to the Fringe because it is a marketplace. A chance to be seen and booked to tour Australia, the US, or other parts of the world.

Familiar faces from television, movies, and plays—Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Flight of the Conchords from HBO, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show—have all spent time at the Fringe. Robin Williams was in a Fringe show while he was studying drama in college.

A sunny morning on the High Street may feel like a fantasy but being at the Fringe is a waking dream for a writer. Inspiring stories spring from the tellers—because they must be told. You leave resolved to keep writing the story you have to tell. And to bring it to the Fringe one day.

Final Time from an Inveterate Fringe-goer:

Organizers estimate that the population of Edinburgh doubles—or even triples—in August. Above all, if you are considering a trip, you should plan ahead. Finally, the most important thing is a place to stay; even if you’re only sleeping a few hours each night. Visit Scotland is a wealth of information with a database of accommodations.

Edinburgh is easy to reach from London, with inexpensive flights from multiple London airports. Edinburgh Airport is only eight miles from the city center. A tram runs between the two as well as regular buses and airport shuttles. No need for a car once in the city. You can walk everywhere or take public transportation to more far-flung venues.

You can book tickets to shows in advance. The full program for this year’s Fringe, which runs from August 3 – 27, will be released June 6. Almost 400 shows have already been announced. You can check them out at the Fringe website. The main venues, with reliably good shows, include the Traverse Theatre, Assembly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and the Underbelly.

 

headshot of Andrea MoserAndrea Moser spent 35 years writing for other people and organizations, from elected officials and civic leaders to universities and non-profits. These days, she is animating the characters who inhabit her first novel. She is an avid theater-goer, in San Diego and in Edinburgh, Scotland where she has been attending the annual Fringe festival for 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos courtesy of Andrea Moser

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/

Lessons for a Writer at Washington DC’s March for Our Lives: When Words Are Too Small

The author walking at the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, DC.
The author in purple next to one of her favorite signs from the recent March for Our Lives protest.

I’ve been struggling with a case of writer’s block at the prospect of blogging my experience of the March for Our Lives in our nation’s capital ten days ago. But, no words have felt big enough.

The first expression to come to mind about the march is “community,” which seems to be a good and big enough word. I carried the names of people who had asked me to put theirs and their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews on my shirt. So while I was there, I felt a kind of halo of beloveds around me. And this struck a chord with others there that would say something like “ Nice shirt; that’s why I’m marching too!”

But the entourage on my shirt did not overcome the sense of puniness I felt when arriving at the corner of C and 4th and walking into an ocean of people with other brave and awesome homemade signs.

The Gathering of a New Us

Along with my self-image of tiny-ness was a humongous expanded sense of We. “We” may be a big enough word. It was big enough in “We the people… in order to form a more Perfect Union.” And our larger ‘We’ was marching all over the country. All over the world. With the same goal of stopping senseless killing, some life-affirming joy-based action at its heart.

We were there to support new life itself in the form of children speaking their truth. It was a wake. They were proud and sad, making us listen to their sorrow, their songs. The Psalms of our time. They were David of the Old Testament. They were our Prophets speaking uncomfortable truths in front of millions via media and half a million breathing souls weeping and hanging on every word as if we were at our own sister’s funeral.

March for Our Lives as a Writers’ Event

I do not want to gloss over the importance of these contributions and the significance of the entire three hours of this event. Here were original heart-wrenching stories, poems, songs, and material YES! Yay! All in the genre of memoirs – all from very young people. This punctuated by professional musicians. You can see the entire event recorded here.  But I do want to highlight two breathtaking moments.

Yolanda: “We Are Going to Be a Great Generation”

A few hundred meters in front of me Yolanda Renée King came out to speak, the day’s youngest presenter. Like at a Passover feast, she embodied why this day was different from all the others. Her very being was larger than any words. Reciting from Dr. Martin Luther King, her grandfather’s 1963 speech, itself a luminary incandescent piece of literature and history, created a time machine.

“My grandfather had a dream…” she began in her perky nine-year-old voice, “That his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ” The sad relevance of those words brought millions more into awareness that Saturday when Yolanda Renee King spoke them anew.

Yolanda added, “And I have a dream that Enough is Enough!” And we truly all became the same crowd marching through time. “Repeat after me,” cried the child, “We. Are Going to Be. A Great Generation.” We were connected from one mass of marchers to the others who had gone before chanting together.

A Writer’s Dream

In August 1963, only a short walk from where we stood was where Dr. King spoke of his dream. Just as here and now people marched with one another, with the spontaneous brave decision to make a stand, we were all together giving voice to our dream.

Time collapsed for me like a Janus telescope looking into the past and future. That’s exactly what I want my writing to do, to bring together the past and the future in a timeless now.

Here over eighty years of demonstrators in Washington stood in this place among us like ghosts holding our hands. There were the thousands of WWI veterans who gathered nearby during the 1933 Depression when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wandered among them. There was the Poor People’s March in 1968, and its earlier incarnation in 1963, all the way in history to the Women’s March last year. The tradition of marching felt proud and long and brave and yes, big enough.

Emma and the Power of Silence

Then Emma Gonzalez came to the podium and simply read the names of her young friends and how they would be missed, those who had been killed just one month before while we collectively stood. While she looked on, weeping, she made us feel every millisecond in our hearts and our expectations, of the six minutes and twenty seconds it took to destroy the seventeen names she said.

That is when the names and the worlds each name represented extended into the sky and beyond. When the words were big enough. And when the infinite hope that each child should be born with crashed into ashes. Gone forever.

This very personal pain, this lament, may have been the only way to birth a new hope of action to change the shameful reality. “Fight for your lives before someone else has to;” Emma called to action a generation.

I did not count her words, but it was a low number. Sometimes silence has the power to light a flame in each heart with a quiet invitation to our souls to care enough.

I can’t think of a stronger writing lesson than those seconds passing in the hearts of half a million strangers whose breath surrounded me.

The Content of Their Character

Today, April 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the murder through gun violence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am old enough to remember crying for hours with my dearest friend, Rueben. Even as a young child, the words of Dr. King rang deepest true, and that is what I felt all around on Saturday. The sound of Truth – with or without words.

 

photo of K.M. McNeelK.M. McNeel holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Trinity University, and Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London. In the 1990s and 2000s, she was known for her interventionist art collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Oxford, England. She is currently creating a solo performance, a memoir of her time working as a communications officer traveling for charities, and a mystery novel.

 

Photos courtesy of the author.

 

 

Building the Buzz: The 15 Sites that Made my Book Hot

the book cover of More by Mariah McKenzie

Do you remember that ad from the 80s where the guy holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain.”  Then he cracks the egg into the hot frying pan and says, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

Well, I have a flip side positive one for us writers about the benefits of marketing. 

This is your book:

This is your book on promotions:

a graph showing a lot of activity

Any questions?

Seriously though.  When I did a series of e-book promotions this year, the impact amazed me.  Several times over the course of several months my book skyrocketed to the Amazon bestseller list in several categories.

It got my attention.

I began to appreciate that unless I reach out and tell people my book exists, nobody knows it exists. There are simply too many books out there (over five million on Amazon Kindle).  For me, this hit home particularly hard because I had written it under a pseudonym. I didn’t even have the benefit of bootstrapping awareness for my book through a personal network of family and friends.  

I began to research what e-book promotions were available and how it worked.  I found some basic criteria that needed to be met. Often, you need to have at least five good reviews, and you needed to reduce the Kindle price to between $0.99 and $2.99 to help promote it.  I had the requisite reviews, and my publisher agreed to discount it for a period of time. The rest was up to me.

Below is a summary of the different promotions I tried with a note as to how much I spent and my experience.  This stuff doesn’t come free, but it’s not as crazy as I expected. One thing to note is that you do have to coordinate your promotional pricing with the dates of the promotion.  I requested my publisher reduce the price for a period and then signed up for several different promotions that fell within that period. Some companies require more notice than others, and sometimes my promotions were bunched up around the same time.  

The best part though? This was fun!  I was a patron of my art and supremely entertained by the process. It’s amazing how satisfying it is to do a one-day promotion and then obsessively watch on Amazon’s Author Central Ranking the fruits of your effort as your graph line goes up.  Don’t forget to check the author guidelines to make sure your book qualifies!

Books Butterfly

 https://www.booksbutterfly.com/bookpromotion/paidbookpromotion/

Books Butterfly promotes ebooks through various email lists, social media, and the website. What makes Books Butterfly stand out from other such sites is that they guarantee a minimum number of downloads for your book or you receive part of your payment back.

  • I did the new release option $70 for five days. I appreciated working with them. It seemed like I wasn’t making their sales guarantee although my ranking went up considerably (3000%). They listened and extended the sale for three days and tried different markets; they also told me about other venues to try, including the two below. They offered neat tracking software: www.trackmyrank.com (an interesting site where you can see hourly if you are making any sales).

Robin Reads  

https://robinreads.com/author-signup/

Books promoted specifically by genre. Books must have a good cover and good reviews to be selected. No minimum reviews.

  • They have a review process, and the book has to be approved.  I did a one-day promotion on April 16 for $55 in the non-fiction category.  On that one day, I had a 4000% increase in my rank and made it to the bestseller top ten in three different categories on Amazon Kindle. You have to wait 90 days before you can promote again.

Ereader news  

https://ereadernewstoday.com/bargain-and-free-book-submissions/

Promotes bargain books to its subscriber list.

  • Another one-day promotion for $45—this one wasn’t quite as spectacular but still resulted in a 400% increase in my rank

Author Buzz

AuthorBuzz is a marketing service for authors and publishers. Authors write short notes for readers, librarians, booksellers and so forth, which AuthorBuzz then distributes via platforms such as Shelf-Awareness.com, DearReader.com, BookMovement.com, PublishersMarketplace.com, and KindleNationDaily.com. AuthorBuzz can also create and place adverts on social media and relevant websites, on an author’s behalf. 

  • I decided to try a heavy hitter approach during the summer and engaged Author Buzz. They cost more (a little over $100 per day), and the promotion tends to last for longer, so the initial outlay is more (I spent $1500) but the money spent includes the creation of ad copy that you can use elsewhere.  They recommended I try a Bookbub ad. (Bookbub ads are affiliated with Bookbub but not Bookbub itself, which is notoriously hard to get into and even more expensive to use. Bookbub ads piggy-backs on Bookbub readers, as I understand it.) My ranking steadily went up and stayed up the entire time, and while I did not recoup my investment, I did sell 100 books over the two week period, plus I had the ad that I could use for other things.

Bookrunes

http://bookrunes.com/submit-book/

  • $25 one day (7/29); uptick in ranking

Booksends

https://booksends.com/expanded_guidelines.php

The total number of subscribers isn’t available, but the most popular email list has 120,000 people signed up for it. They have some minimum criteria for inclusion including at least five reviews with a high overall rating.  

  • $50, one day (7/29). I did notice an uptick in ranking after this promotion.

Facebook Ads

I also decided to do some Facebook ads to coincide with some of my promotions.  I had read that Facebook ads do not necessarily result in sales, but I was interested in increasing exposure. My ads were relatively inexpensive:

  • $35 4/1 (61 engaged)
  • $35   4/7 (71 engaged)
  • $18 7/16 (239 engaged)
  • $100 to promote my website for an extended period

Book Gorilla

http://www.bookgorilla.com/advertise

Book Gorilla has 350,000 subscribers, split across numerous genre-specific newsletters. Subscribers can select whether to receive details of 12, 25, or 50 books in each newsletter. This is a great deal more than BookBub, so it is easier to get included, although you’re also competing with many more books in one email. It costs between $40 and $100 to list a book in a newsletter. Unlike BookBub, BookGorilla doesn’t provide details of the average number of ebook downloads which result from being included in a newsletter.  

  • I thought my promotional pricing was going to end at the end of August and managed to squeak in one last six-day promotion for $175 (8/25 to 8/30).  This resulted in a nice uptick in my graph.

The Fussy Librarian

http://www.thefussylibrarian.com/for-authors/

The Fussy Librarian emails members with suggestions for fiction and non-fiction e-books that match their individual preferences. Subscribers can select their favorite genres, and the level of profanity, violence, and sexual content they’re comfortable with. There are 121,000 subscribers in total. 90,000 are signed up to the most popular category: romance-contemporary.  

  • I did two separate one-day promotions (7/22 and 8/19) for $25 each.  This was a good group to work with.

The Books Machine

http://www.thebooksmachine.com/deals/dealspromote.html

The Books Machine promotes Kindle Daily Deals via their website and a daily newsletter. There is a membership fee for authors wanting to list their book on the site. Readers can then click the link to buy the book, or request it as a ‘gift’ in exchange for an honest review on a site of the author’s choice, e.g., Amazon.

  • I signed up for one month (7/19 to 8/19) for $10 but couldn’t tell if I noticed anything from it

I found out almost too late that my promotional pricing was lasting through September and managed to sign up for several one-day promotions before my pricing went up.  I did see my ranking and sales increase with these.

That’s my story.  But here is one last resource: a link to a site that collates a whole bunch of promotion sites, including many of those above, but also some I haven’t tried.  The first section has to do with books that are being offered for free. I did not do this as my publisher did not agree. The second section is sites that help promote books being offered for a bargain price, generally $2.99 or less:

https://kindlepreneur.com/list-sites-promote-free-amazon-books/#

the book cover of More by Mariah McKenzie

Mariah McKenzie is the award-winning author of More . . . Journey to mystical union through the sacred and the profane—a spiritual memoir about the deep yearning within us all and within our relationships for more intimacy, more connection, more mystery and more awe despite the challenges keeping us from that. Mariah has dedicated a significant portion of life to exploring consciousness and ecstatic living.  She leads writing and meditation groups and classes.

For more information visit:  www.sacredjourneytomore.com or  Mariah’s Facebook. Contact her directly at Mariah@mariah-mckenzie.com

Photos provided by Mariah McKenzie

Imposter Syndrome, by Danielle Baldwin

A sign that says "fraud."Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? Scientific American describes it as “a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity or fraudulence, despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary.”

It’s most commonly associated with the workplace, but as writers, I’d argue it’s just as prevalent, if not more so, in the arts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in front of my computer and thought to myself, “Who am I kidding? I’m not a writer,” while I squished around in my self-doubt.

Valerie Young, an expert on the subject of imposter syndrome, identified five imposter subgroups. She created them to apply to the work persona, but I think each of these rings true for writers. I’ve created the writer version of each subgroup below. Which one of these do you associate with?

The Perfectionist

You can never complete a piece because you can’t decide whether or not to keep a comma in the third sentence. Comma in. Comma out. Comma in. Comma out. Taps fingers on desk. Looks up comma usage for the fourth time online. Comma in. Comma out.

We all want our work to be the best it can be. If you’re on your 9th draft, go ahead and fight with that comma. If in you’re in your first few, here’s what you should imagine: a loud voice coming from the Universe who says, “No one f*&^ing cares about your comma. Finish the damn piece and get on with it. And by the way, I think you’re amazing. Clooney would have totally married you if he hadn’t meet Amal.” Your Universe voice may close that conversation differently than mine, but you get the idea.

Superwoman/man

Convinced you’re a phony among your writing peers? You decide to overcome it by sheer grit. You spend hours grinding out content and leave claw marks on your desk whenever anyone tries to pull you away for anything other the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Will Smith tells a story about persistence, But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple, right?”

No one wants to pry your cold, dead hands from your keyboard. While writing is important, so are your family and friends. Your pets. Life outside of the screen and keyboard. Your book will be there when you get back. It won’t run away. So chill out. Do something fun. Your life away from the page will make the lives you create on the page that much richer.

The Natural Genius

The natural genius, according to Young, bases their success on their abilities and not on their efforts. It’s the opposite of Superwoman. So let’s say you go to your read and critique group. There’s one member who always brings beautiful work, week after week. You look at her work. You look at your own. The doubt creeps in. You look down at your first draft and picture the flies circling it because it suddenly looks like a pile of shit.

I’ve written before about the fact that first drafts are always crappy—but crappy with a cape. Too often we look around at beautiful pieces of work and compare our writing, negatively, to the talent we see on the page. In some cases, it’s because we haven’t been behind that writer’s curtain to watch them wrestle with their words. Or to see them completely overhaul four different drafts of the same piece before we see it in group. Other writers simply have more mastery. I read “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs and was so awed, I almost hucked my manuscript in the trash. Better to use other people’s writing as a guide and a learning tool, not as a way to discredit your own work.

Rugged Individualist

You have no idea how to fix your character arc that isn’t quite arcing, but you just sit at your desk by the hour. Staring at the screen. At your dog. At the squirrel outside your window. You’re past the point of working it out on your own, because you’re too close to it. But there you sit. Not asking for help. Because then people would know that you’re not a “real writer” because a “real writer” would know how to fix the issue.

I have three words of advice. Get. Over. Yourself. There is not one person on this planet with all the answers. Not one. And yes, there is glory and valor and satisfaction in working stuff out on your own, but sometimes you’re just wasting your own valuable writing time. Ask a writer friend. Post in a forum. Do anything, but know you don’t have to go it alone.

The Expert

You feel like you’ve tricked your read and critique group leader into accepting you. You think your story won an award based on sheer luck. You obsess about the fact you don’t have an MFA, or that you started writing later in life, or that you haven’t ever taken a formal writing class. You wonder if everyone can tell you don’t have all the writing credentials you “should” have.

Yes, more experience is always helpful. We should all aspire to be lifetime learners.  But you know who changed the course of history without having all the fancy titles and degrees? Abe Lincoln. Anne Frank. Susan B. Anthony. Bill Gates. Plenty of famous writers who never studied writing. Harper Lee. Kurt Vonnegut. JK Rowling. Barbara Kingsolver.

All of us feel like imposters some time. Even writers who have been at this for most of their lives. So the next time you hear that voice in your mind, your inner critic telling you you’re not good enough, that you really are an imposter, take a deep breath. Settle into your writing chair. Tell your critic to shut his or her pie hole. And write.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/2695269/

Inspiration

the book cover for CHicken Soup for the Empowered WomanI once wrote a short piece about the writer, Harriet Doerr, whom I consider my muse. I think that was about 2008, when I was 63, still teaching but nearing retirement. I was taking creative writing classes and entertaining ideas about a possible memoir about my 20 years living in Peru.

I discovered Ms. Doerr’s beautiful short novel, Stones for Ibarra, on the table in the teacher’s lounge one day after school. Enthralled, I read it three times: once as a reader, once as an American with some experience in Mexico, and once as an aspiring writer. Based on her experiences living with her American husband in northern Mexico as he oversaw the revival of his family’s mining business, this prize-winning first novel was published in 1984, when Ms. Doerr was 73.

 That gives me 10 years to get my first work published, I remember thinking. I may never achieve the natural beauty of her sparse, clear prose or the perfect voice of her Mexican characters, but I may be able to convey my love for my own adopted country and make Peru come alive to readers the way she makes us fall in love with northern Mexico–by the time I am 73. 

When I learned that she published a second novel, Consider This, Señora, also set in Mexico, when she was 83, she became my muse.

With that impetus, I began to call myself a Writer. To non-writers, that doesn’t sound like the big step it is. Taking oneself seriously in a professional sense takes more courage than the uninitiated imagine. I had written for children and pitched my work at writers conferences with no success. At the same time, I had taken two classes in writing personal narrative, but with my self-imposed age deadline looming, I pushed myself to take three consecutive classes on memoir at UCSD Extension and kept writing.

In 2011, when I retired from full-time teaching, I joined a read and critique group with the express purpose of combining my collection of personal essays into a memoir. With only six years to go before my seventy-third birthday, it was time to get serious.

In 2013, with the encouragement of my fellow writers, I submitted two pieces to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and kept on writing.

On March 22, 2017, I turned 73, still unpublished. After multiple revisions, my memoir was finished and had gone out to and been rejected by multiple agents. Still without a contract, I acknowledged that I had failed to achieve my goal of matching Harriet Doerr’s inspiring example. I hadn’t given up, and I kept on writing, but the year ended on a note of regret.

Then, a few days ago on Thursday, March 8, the International Day of the Woman, while I was still 73, I was sitting at my writing group when an email showed up in my inbox from…Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman.

Congratulations, it read. Your story, Lighting Fires, has been selected from thousands of submissions to be published in this edition! The book is on its way to the printers and will be in bookstores on May 1, 2018. Your check will be mailed to you about a month later.

 Being published is a goal; getting paid is validation.

So Harriet, it’s not a whole book, and I don’t have an agent, a contract for the memoir, or even a very good title, but this totally counts: I am still 73 and my story will be published this year, I will get paid, and you will remain my muse.

New Goal: Publish two memoirs by the time I’m 83. Only 10 years to go.

a photo of guest blogger Nancy Villalobos Nancy has been a member of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years, taking multiple courses at UCSD Extension as well as attending Marni Freedman’s ThursdayRead and Critique group in Encinitas. She lives in Carlsbad with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Coco.