Happy Anniversary to The Feisty Writer

The Feisty Writer logo and the words Feisty Turns TwoIt is the two-year anniversary of The Feisty Writer. Yay, us! I’m prone to forgetting anniversaries (ask my husband, he will sigh and nod), but I will forever remember this one because we launched our wonderful site the day after election day, 2016. Did you just hear a balloon pop and deflate? Yeah, so did we.

Had we known or even hazarded a long-shot guess on the election outcome or the resulting ripple felt across the world, we would have chosen another day to magically appear on the interwebs, but alas, our wordy spacecraft lifted off as scheduled. As our planet stood in shock and disbelief, we scraped our jaws off the ground and stammered, Yay us, I think?

We had less conviction in our commencement celebration than we have today, two years in.

Today, we celebrate our Feisty-versary wholeheartedly, in large part due to what we have witnessed in these past two years. Suffice it to say, our world has changed and continues to change rapidly. Some of this is disheartening and terrifying and feels surreal and unnecessary and why, why, why? Much of what we’ve seen here at The Feisty Writer is good though, great even. But before I go into that, let me remind you of this.

Who We Are

Writers are keen observers; this is why we are the storytellers of our tribes. Without trying, we absorb our surroundings like human-shaped heart sponges. We may sometimes wish we absorbed less as we watch events unfold and notice the reactions that follow suit. As we imagine the causes and effects. As we play out how things could have unfolded differently. As we search for answers and solutions and apply our words and our creativity to make sense of the unfathomable. But no. We were built to mop up life, and writing is how we wring ourselves dry, or at least less wet, again.

Writers are also sensitive. We feel more deeply than the average bear. Being sensitive is not always fun, but imagine if we, our world’s chroniclers, shrugged off our emotions. What if we didn’t care? What if every story could end in some rendition of this: ”Then she yawned and walked away because it wasn’t a big deal. She posted #whatev on Instagram and forgot about the whole mess ten seconds later. THE END.” We care because we have to. As writers, it’s our job to be both keen and sensitive.

What We’ve Seen

Here are a few of the amazing things I have witnessed as a Feisty Writer in the past two years:

  1. We build Community. Writers need community, now more than ever, and we have a vibrant one. Maybe because the world has become less predictable, in the past two years we have shown up more than ever before. Whether it’s for book launches, movie premieres, workshops, classes, stage readings or showcases, our community of writers comes together, supports each other, participates and perseveres. We make time for each other. We create opportunities for others to thrive because we recognize there is enough room for all of us to succeed. We show up.
  2. Our talent grows. Because we show up, the talent in our community continues to strengthen. When we surround ourselves with greatness and become a part of something bigger than ourselves, magical things happen. We perform at higher levels. We exceed expectations.
  3. We embrace a challenge. This is what makes us Feisty Writers. Our world is a tough place to survive and thrive right now, but we persevere. We embrace difficult topics. We unveil our most vulnerable truths through our stories. We still fear the rejection that is part of being a published author. We fear it, yet we submit anyway. We find ways to make ourselves heard.

What Comes Next

Thank you for being a part of The Feisty Writer. We are here for you, and we want to hear from you. Please follow these guidelines and submit your posts to us. Also, save this date: April 13, 2019. This is the date of our first annual San Diego Writers Festival, held in partnership with the San Diego Central Library. This will be where we will finally meet to celebrate every corner of our feisty and fabulous writing community. Yay, us!

 

Photo Courtesy of Marni Freedman

Strategies for Beating Summertime Writing Blues

a picture of beach sand with the word success carved into the sandTime for some painful honesty.

I was more fidgety than the students I teach in anticipating summer. I couldn’t wait to revise my memoir without interference from my full-time job as a college professor. Gershwin’s song became an earworm: “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy . . .”

Summer 2017 lingered in memory as an ideal I sought to recreate. It had been my first experience of feeling like a “real” writer. I woke early, dove into revising and suspended in a flow. My enthusiasm often outlasted my body’s willingness to hunker in front of a screen, so I went for an afternoon run, walk, or yoga class. Then I returned to revising, brimming with ideas that exercise and a shower had shaken loose.

By August 1st, I had rewritten my book’s second or third draft (I’d lost track). I felt proud of my rewrite’s unique structure, which I’d arrived at by sticking and unsticking color-coded Post-It Notes to my office door as if playing Tetris. I liked the structure’s resemblance to lattice, its layered imagery and echoing themes. I liked how closely that structure mirrored the content, which describes how learning to ride horses in my late 30s helped me recover from a decades’ long eating disorder and accompanying depression. The book felt like a true representation of who I am as a writer.

With the Dog Days breathing down my neck, I pivoted to prepping classes and hatched a plan: spend the academic year querying agents, entering contests, and building my author platform.

I attended a pitch conference in September, where a senior editor at one of America’s largest publishers requested my manuscript. I was thrilled but realistic, aware that a request was worlds away from an offer to publish. I also held the suspicion that every editor/agent we pitched to requested a few manuscripts regardless of intent to publish so we writers would leave happy and conference organizers would extend more invitations to earn stipends.

Months passed. The senior editor remained mute. Two agents not affiliated with the conference requested my manuscript, but neither wanted to represent it. Rejections trickled into my email inbox.

March 2018’s slog toward Spring, along with feedback from agents, forced me to some conclusions about my memoir:

  1. its premise was interesting
  2. its voice was appealing
  3. its structure was off-putting.

Agents, it seems, want a memoir that adheres to Freytag’s Pyramid, the familiar structure girding nearly every creative work, from ancient Greek plays like Oedipus Rex to 1940s novels like George Orwell’s 1984 to 21st century short stories like George Saunders’ “The 10th of December.”

I’d gambled on a structure and lost, so I stopped submitting. I put plans for a new writing project on hold and resolved to spend summer 2018 restructuring my memoir.

I submitted final grades gleefully in May and then . . . did everything possible to avoid my memoir.

Revising to please others (instead of myself) held no appeal. My book’s content felt stale—far removed from the experiences that had inspired it—and trampled by over-editing. And I couldn’t escape the knowledge that I might spend a precious, too-short Minnesota summer plodding through work I dreaded only to end up without publication to show for it.

June 1 came and went. I had to decide: Do the work or chuck the book. I finally managed to unearth some excitement about revising with help from some essential tools:

  • Self-help books. While looking for texts that would help my students learn time management, I came across Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. Her book encourages readers to identify their preferences in order to form good habits. A passage on novelty versus familiarity answered questions I’d puzzled over for years: Why I did tackle some challenges eagerly but avoid others? The answer was my preference for novelty. While some people find familiarity comforting, I find it irritating. I crave discovery. Understanding that preference turned a character flaw into a small solvable problem: Hate the repetitive nature of vacuuming? Listen to a podcast while doing it. Dread revising a memoir? Find some new tools.

 

  • New tools. As a starry-eyed creative writing program graduate in 2003, I bought novel-writing software called Power Structure. Then I left the installation CD untouched. But I broke it out this summer. Learning a new program adds novelty to a familiar process. The software also presents options I’d never considered for experimenting with plot, character, and narrative tension.

 

  • Different environments. I struggle to write in the home office where I create syllabi and grade essays. My two professional roles—writer and teacher—require different mental framework. Simply moving from the office to the dining room table helped my brain shift gears.

 

  • Other writers. At my lowest point, I considered giving up writing altogether. Conversations with other writers lured me back to the keyboard by reminding me that we all sit on an emotional seesaw, that failure is a means rather than an end. A colleague who read my book’s first draft suggested beginning the revision with an event I’d mentioned in passing—something I hadn’t considered writing about. As soon as she suggested it, I could envision how perfectly it would set up the book’s central conflict. Viola! More novelty to fuel my fire.

 

  • Support Networks. Talking to my sister revealed how unreasonable I was in expecting an overnight transition from teaching to writing. Our conversation also reminded me of the two-year creative drought that followed my Ph.D. Every time I sat down to write, I heard my dissertation advisor poking fun at my proposal draft, saying that including transitional phrases was “bad writing,” and declaring I must start every sentence with one of three phrases she dictated. The power imbalance in our relationship convinced me she was right about my writing despite what tutoring graduate students in a university writing center had taught me. A supportive writing group helped me recover then, and it would now, too.

 

  • Value Mindset. Maybe it’s hubris, but I think my book offers value, especially to people battling negative body image, bearing depression’s weight, doubting the power of mind-body-spirit alignment, or seeking to understand what horses teach us about ourselves. I want to share hard-won insights so that others can avoid my mistakes. Believing in my book’s purpose adds meaning to a process that too often seems pointless.

I’m in the exposition phase of revising (again), so this post leaves Freytag’s Pyramid incomplete. Here’s hoping my summer plot thickens . . .  

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1909823/

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

Three Reasons to Write About Things We Don’t Talk About

The logo for the San Diego Memoir ShowcaseWhen we were brainstorming ideas for themes for this year’s San Diego Memoir Showcase, one theme kept circling back: Things We Don’t Talk About. People loved the idea, except for one cranky writer who came up to me and asked, “I don’t get it, why in the world would we want to write about things we don’t talk about?”

The question made me think. I didn’t have an answer at that moment, so I let it percolate until I realized that for me, there are three reasons:

 

  1. It feels like setting a big bag of rocks down that you have been unknowingly lugging around for years.

    I have to admit; I am sort of addicted to the feeling now. I love to “let go” of rocks before they pile up and become too heavy. One writer described her experience to me a few weeks ago as a weight off her chest—as if she could more fully take an in breath, and more fully exhale—for no other reason than she put down in words what she thought she would never share.

  1. The fear of people knowing your deep, dark secret—of judging you, and blaming you—it all sort of dissipates.

    The truth is, yeah, others may know, and so what?  We all have stuff we think no one will understand. Either they will or they won’t, but by facing the faceless monster, you are taking away the monster’s power. It’s empowering as you realize you don’t need to run anymore, you can stand in the light of your truth.

  1. You are speaking for those who feel they have no voice. 

    I can’t tell you how many times when a writer has taken a risk and shared his or her truth that someone comes up to them and thanks them. I hear sentiments like, “Thank you for putting my experience into words,” or “I had something just like that happen to me—I thought it was just me,” or “I feel less alone after hearing what you wrote.”

These moments are such full circle moments—we hide because we think we are the only ones with that kind of pain, then we share it—to realize just how many have experienced a similar kind of pain. By sharing what we are most afraid to share, we create community, spark healing in others while we heal ourselves.

For submission guidelines, click here. I if you have any questions, please contact me at Marnifreedman18@gmail.com. Please put Memoir Showcase 2018 in the subject line. I can’t wait to hear your stories about writing what you thought you could not.

Photo Courtesy of San Diego Memoir Showcase

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.

So You Wanna Write for The Feisty Writer. What’s Next?

The Feisty Writer Logo a Hand Holding a PenAh, jeez, thanks for your interest! We’re thrilled you love our site and want to join our roster of talented and spunky writers. As we approach our one-year anniversary, we’re looking for even more unique voices that offer fresh and original insights on writing and the writer’s life.

Is that right up your alley? Are you already feisty by nature? Great! Please look over our guest blogger guidelines below and then send in your submission. Best of luck and thanks again for your interest.

The Feisty Writer Guest Blogger Guidelines 

Submit blogs to The Feisty Writer Co-Editor, Tracy Jones, at tjjones1@gmail.com. You will receive a response within ten days of submitting.

Word Count: Short and sweet is best. Blogs should be at least 350 words and ideally no more than 1,000 words. If truly needed, blogs up to 1,300 words will be considered.

The Feisty Writer Voice: Of course, feisty. Punchy writing. You have something to say and aren’t afraid to shout it from the rafters. You have a distinct point of view. You’ve got something to get off your chest. You’re honest. You’re not scared to be vulnerable. You are not shy. Different is celebrated here.

The Feisty Writer Topics: Writing and the writer’s life but with a twist.

What’s the twist: your creativity and originality in how you approach writing. How to Be a Feisty Submitter—The Mustard Factor, Writing Through Trump, Establish Your Code: Navigating the Rules of Writing, Genderqueer, 5 Things My Inner Critic Says and How I Shut Her Up, Racist Bitch, Hitting the Wall, and Bring the Lover to the Bedroom are just a few of our favorite blogs.

We love informative blogs that show our readers the time, research, and love you spent in creatively organizing important information.

We live for inspiring blogs. Blogs that showcase how you overcame a writing challenge or roadblock, got to the other side, and how they can do the same thing, too. Share success stories that will have our readers dying to write.

A sense of urgency that ignites a flame under our readers’ butts, that the time is now to write, and that we’re going to be on this journey with them.

Embrace the Feisty Tribe: We want our readers to feel informed, inspired, and that they are part of a growing Feisty Writer movement. We want our readers to get to know YOU through your blog. Share your soul; let your freak flag fly. Almost any personal story, shitty experience, triumph or quiet moment can teach about writing or tell us something about the writer’s journey.

Risk, Dig Deep: This is the site where if you’re a little scared to hit submit, you’re probably on to something great. Be brave. Risk it all by being your most creative, vulnerable or opinionated self. Dare to be different.

If Accepted: We reserve the right to edit your piece including picking a new title that we feel may generate more clicks and views. You might also be set up with one of our two site editors to further edit and polish your piece. They’re experienced, easy to work with, and invested in helping our writers perfect their posts.

We will need a headshot/selfie, preferably one that showcases your personality and is more creative or fun compared to a corporate headshot. We will also need a short bio to include at the end of your blog. Again, highlight what you do in two to three sentences, and, if you can have a little fun, all the better. If you would like to add a link to your personal blog/website/Amazon page, we will happily include it.

A Note on Rejections: Due to our site’s unique voice and development of The Feisty Writer brand, not all guest blogs can be accepted. We are writers, too, and have had more than our fair share of rejection. We, too, hate rejection and understand your pain, anger or frustration if your blog isn’t right for our site. But know, it just isn’t a fit or a fit for now. And, it may be perfect for any other number of blogs out there. Please don’t let a ‘no’ from us deter your writing in any way. Keep writing, submit to other blogs, and if you have a more “feisty natured” blog in you, please resubmit!

Query Letters Are Impossible (But Here Are Some Websites That Helped Me)

girl climbing cliff while man shoots at zombiesI’ve got this manuscript, and I’ve been querying agents. It’s a little terrifying.

First, the basics: a query letter is about 250 words long, and it pitches your novel to an agent who might be interested in representing it to publishers. Also, it is somehow harder to write than an entire novel.

I’ve sent out one round of queries and gotten no bites, so I’ve been revamping my manuscript and submission materials. As I reach the eve of another round of querying, I thought I’d share the query-writing-related resources I’ve found most helpful so far.

Writer’s Digest Successful Queries

A compendium of blog posts by different agents showing great queries for successfully published books. Some of these queries are spectacular, some are really solid, and some aren’t my thing at all—all of which was super helpful for understanding what querying looks like from the agent’s side.

Query Shark

The Writer’s Digest list was many agents unpacking good queries. This is one agent, Janet Reid, unpacking great queries, mediocre queries, and disastrously bad queries, with discussions of what works and what doesn’t. Query Shark is funny, terrifying, and unbelievably helpful, and I learned a huge amount reading her archives.

Agent Query Connect

Forums for writers in the querying process. Their critique forums in particular are fantastic. You post your query, you critique other people’s posted queries, and they return the favor. There are pros and cons to getting a wide range of opinions (remember: your writing is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship), but I found it amazingly helpful. It’s hard having your 250 words battered into shape by total strangers, and it’s so worth it. This place and Query Shark genuinely made me a better writer. My ear for wordiness is vastly better than it was six months ago.

Absolute Write Water Cooler

If Agent Query is a writers’ forum about querying, Absolute Write is a writers’ forum about everything. Honestly, it’s so big I’m not entirely sure what’s on there. I know they’ve got a critique forum a lot like Agent Query where you can post your query for critique (many more rules, though—read the stickies!), and they have excellent advice for people in all stages of the writing and publishing process.

Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check

This subforum of Absolute Write is where writers discuss their experiences with agents and publishers. They have posts on what to expect from a legitimate agent or publisher and how to spot a scam, but mainly they discuss individual publishers and agents. It’s not all laments about dodgy dealings—many posts describe writers’ experiences with professionals who are fantastic at their jobs. If you’re wondering who’s legit, who’s a scam, and who’s amazing, I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

There are lots of resources I haven’t covered because I haven’t used them much yet. But I hope some of this was helpful! Whether you’re pursuing traditional publishing or fixing up your manuscript to publish yourself, good luck out there!

PHOTO CREDIT: https://pixabay.com/en/zombies-silhouette-girl-boy-gun-2258609/

What Makes a Good Memoir?

a book with a landscape popping out of it.As a publicist, I’m sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately, I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I’ve also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer’s conferences. The bulk of these conversations has to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better.

My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they’ve written.

A lot of memoirs I’ve seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences—some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I’ve found that a great number of memoirs contain information that might only be interesting to the author. In this category, I include stories about having a child out of wedlock, rescue missions by health care workers, struggles with family members over an elderly relative’s care, vacations or trips abroad, collections of stories that the author told his/her children while they were growing up, or collections of a family member’s letters from World War II. Although engaging and, occasionally, entertaining, books with these topics typically focus on material or experiences that a number of us have already encountered in our own lives. And, thus, because we readers are familiar with the situations ourselves, stories like these don’t always make interesting reading.

So, what makes a compelling memoir? To become a bestseller, a memoir must have a strong storyline. That means that there is a beginning, middle, and end to the events recounted in the book. Examples of breakout memoirs with clear timelines are Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, where the author, Danish baroness, Karin von Blixen-Finecke, describes the political and emotional barriers she faced while trying to build a coffee farm in Kenya. Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas, the rebellious and flamboyant Cuban poet and playwright, also falls into this category. He describes both his early years as a homosexual artist under the Castro regime, including his imprisonments and escapes, and his last days as an exile in the United States.

Successful memoirs also have compelling or distinct characters in them. Just like fiction, a good memoir will introduce the reader to individuals who are memorable and, sometimes, highly unusual. Examples include Augusten Burrough’s mother, Deidre, and her unorthodox psychiatrist, Dr. Finch, in Running with Scissors, or the sadistic mother in A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

Often, as in fiction, the individuals in a memoir will be sympathetic, so that readers strongly identify with them. This is particularly true of Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, who begins her book by depicting herself in a heap on the bathroom floor, devastated by a recent divorce, or Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, who lost her husband to a sudden heart attack and shares the aftermath with the reader in a way that is heart-wrenchingly honest.

Another reason for the success of these two memoirs is the fact that they both tell love stories. In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert begins the memoir with the loss of love (after a failed marriage) and then ends it with the start of a new relationship with the man who would eventually become her next husband. Likewise, Didion recounts the significant moments of her marriage to her husband, John Gregory Dunne, as she describes her attempts to grapple with her grief at his passing. These two books are skillfully written, with clear, strong voices and brave directness, and both authors draw painful moments with great tenderness.

People in successful memoirs often face situations with high stakes consequences and experience an emotional trajectory, or arc, whereby the individuals are changed somehow at the end of the book. Many memoirs have to do with the author or a parental figure teetering on the brink of alcoholism (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller), destitution (Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt), poverty and spousal abuse (All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg), drug addiction (A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey), cultural adversity (Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver-Relin), and life-threatening adventure (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer). What makes these books stand out above others is that in all of these stories, the authors or their loved ones faced extreme circumstances—incarceration, kidnapping, starvation, emotional abandonment, and, sometimes, imminent death—and somehow survived.

In addition to the victim/survival type memoir, there are celebrity memoirs, where the author recounts his own story as a celebrity or his experiences living or working with one (examples include Here’s the Story by The Brady Bunch star, Maureen McCormick, or Everything about Me is Fake and I’m Perfect by supermodel Janice Dickenson). There are also tell-all or insider memoirs, where the individual describes events in an environment that most of us would never have a chance to experience. Many of these are political in tone, such as John Dean’s Blind Ambition, the anti-Nixon tome published in 1976, or George Stephanopoulos’s All Too Human, which described intimate details about the first family during the Clinton administration.

The message here is that unless your memoir is something like the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, you might have a tough time selling it. That doesn’t mean that authors shouldn’t write memoirs—on the contrary, writing a memoir can be a wonderfully revealing and cathartic experience for the author and of great significance to family members and friends. But, to reach further audiences, memoirs that don’t involve a celebrity connection or insider information must have a definable storyline, remarkable characters, high stakes, and a great love story—or some combination, thereof—in order to experience breakout success.

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The Feisty Writer’s Guide to Tackling Your Fears

People on scary carnival rideWriting Task Terror Challenge

 Being the feisty coach that I am, I want to encourage you to start to tackle your writing fears.

“But how, how, how?”  you ask. “They are my fears; I can’t just conquer them. I am filled with writing anxiety. I am scared to reach out to an agent. I can’t submit to a contest, go to a networking event, or travel to a different city to pitch my story!”

 Yeah, you actually can. I’ve watched many a timid writer transform into a fierce writing lion in action. And I have a plan. It’s easy, and I know you can do it.

 Do one writing task per month that terrifies you!

 Let’s take a minute to talk about what you may be avoiding:

 Sending a query letter. Sending your 12th query letter. Making a cold call. Writing a book proposal. Pitching an agent. Signing up for a conference. Submitting to a contest. Applying for a writing job. Reaching out to a writing mentor you respect. Attending a class. Finding a writing group. Completing your book. Taking a manuscript out of the drawer and showing it to someone. (add your own here)

 Now let me break down my little plan for you in 4 easy steps:

Step one: Make a list of things that you want/need to get done in the next six months to reach a writing goal. Include the things that you really don’t want to do, or that freak you out.

Step two: Grab a calendar. Pick a day of the month (say the 15th) and make it your Writing Task Day.

Step three: On that day (for example, Oct 15th, then Nov 15th…), for six months, perform a task that you would normally shy away from.

Step four: Put it out of your mind until the next month.

Important: What matters is staying in creative motion and putting yourself out there. Don’t become attached to the outcome. I once worked with a client who had submitted her book for a year. Ready to quit, she said she would only submit one more. Well, three submissions later, she found her perfect agent. Had she quit at one more, her career would never have blossomed. Letting go of the outcome allowed her to keep moving.

 What you will notice: The first time will be the scariest.

 Then, you will find that:

Being bold is addicting!

 Why? Because you will realize that what has been holding you in its grips so tightly–telling you that you can’t do it, well, it no longer has a hold on you.  

 And the more you get out there, the more you will have successful experiences. Failures too. That’s just part of it. But the successes will happen–and they will happen because you stayed in creative motion.

 Send us an e-mail with a pic of you doing the thing that scares you the most!

 

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