Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag!

I had never read Erma Bombeck until a literary agency’s query letter specifications required me to find comparable books. I Googled books about families with a strong humor element, wrote down the titles, and placed holds on them at my local library. I also visited Books-A-Million to find the titles my library didn’t own, and I read the book jacket flaps, the opening paragraphs, and random selections throughout the books. One novel in particular seemed like it was going to be close, but I just didn’t feel a connection with it. The comparison to my novel ended up being slim at best. I never finished reading it.

I went back to the drawing board (Google) and refined my search for comparable books. I wanted truly funny family situations, the kind to which a reader could relate and which would make him or her laugh out loud. What I didn’t want were books that pushed someone’s social, political, or religious agenda or books that praised deep-seated dysfunctions in need of therapy and medication. Whatever I did returned a better selection of titles that weren’t just new books and authors, but many classic humor writers, too.

And I discovered Erma Bombeck. I had heard about Mrs. Bombeck as a kid, and I’ve read snippets of her writing usually on refrigerator magnets or bookmarks. At first I worried that her writing would be considered too old or irrelevant to today’s family, or worse, today’s woman. After reading Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! I realized that Mrs. Bombeck’s humorous writing is every bit as relevant today as when it was first published.

What appealed to me about Mrs. Bombeck’s writing was that she blended her role as a wife and mother into that of her writing career. She used the years she wasn’t writing for a paycheck to gather material for the times when she could. She made sacrifices without sacrificing her family, and it paid off in fifteen books, a humor column that appeared in nine hundred newspapers throughout the world, and an eleven-year guest appearance on ABC’s Good Morning, America. Mrs. Bombeck held twelve honorary doctorates, was appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee for Women, and was repeatedly named to The World Almanac’s annual list of the twenty five Most Influential Women in America. Pretty impressive for a housewife.

Per Mrs. Bombeck:

Raising a family wasn’t something I put on my resume, but I have to ask myself, would I apply for the same job again?

It was hard work. It was a lot of crud detail. It was steady. Lord, it was steady. But in retrospect, no matter what deeds my life yielded…no matter how many books I had written marched in a row on a library shelf, no matter how many printed words of mine dangled under magnets on refrigerator doors, I had done something rather extraordinary with my life as a mother. For three decades, I had been a matriarch of my own family…bonding them together, waiting for stragglers to grow up, catch up, or make up, mending verbal fences, adding a little glue for cohesion here, patching a few harsh exchanges there, and daily dispensing a potion of love and loyalty to something bigger than all of us.

I cannot tell you how reassured I was to know that Mrs. Bombeck understood the importance of investing in her family. She understood that women aren’t defined by how much they earn or their status in life. She knew that the stay-at-home mother who didn’t make money doing what she did was every bit as important as the woman in the corporate boardroom pulling down millions.

Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! was a truly satisfying read, and I hope women today will realize that the greatest thing they can do for themselves is to selflessly serve others. The rewards are endless. Don’t believe me? Reread Erma Bombeck’s list of accomplishments above.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 26

It’s time to take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself for one of my least favorite challenges in my writing life: querying. I remember the first time I queried my novel. I labored over my letter, presenting it to members of my writing groups and submitting it for a paid critique, as if I was writing the Declaration of Independence. Every word had to be perfect. Nothing less than exceptional would do as I crafted this key to unlock the doors to the world of publishing. But never mind the doors; I must first get past the gatekeepers.

Researching agents is a full-time job unto itself. I found literary agencies that represented my genre, and then I located specific agents within the agency. After choosing an agent, I looked to see which authors they had worked with and which titles they represented, hoping to find a title comparable with my novel. Using tips I’d picked up from webinars, I hunted for any connection between myself and the agent. (Did we have similar hobbies and interests, did we grow up in the same state, do they have pets?) All this was before I even sent the letter. Crazy, isn’t it?

Just today my husband wished for me the kind of writing life where I didn’t have to worry about publishing. And what is the concern, really? Can I not create art for the sake of art? Trying to have my work published was my idea. No one forced me to do it. But then I struggle with the question of why write if I’m not going to try to publish, and I start thinking maybe I should find a job. I hate the way money always pops up in my thoughts.

The truth is, I have a supportive husband who isn’t insisting that I find work or publish to bring in a paycheck. When combined with the abundant amount of free time I have, you may wonder what my complaint actually is. Sometimes, I do, too.

There are days I wish I’d never sought publication because I remember how it felt to write freely without that pressure hanging over my head. Don’t think for one minute, though, that I don’t want to be published. Because I do. I’ve invested in my blog and I maintain social media toward the endeavor of publication. My problem is that my two desires are at war in my mind and my heart.

There are also days when I wonder if I’m creating this drama for myself, and I laugh thinking at least I’ll get a good blog post out of it. Because really, it’s better to let this stuff out than it is to hold it in. So again, deep breath.

I am aware of the emotional toll querying can take on a writer, but I’m not ready to abandon my dream. I’ll balance it by realizing how good I have it in that while I’m waiting for replies, I can write freely to my heart’s content. I’ll fill notebook after notebook with words the world will never see. Writing just for me. And once again I’ll…

…Write Happy!

Brilliant In Its Simplicity

In continuation of providing support to my fellow writers, today’s blog post offers further assistance with the publication of your short story.  I touched on how to format your short story for submission, but now I’ll address the query letter.  I don’t know about you, but those two simple words often strike fear in my heart.  After working so hard on your piece of writing, now you have to craft a brilliant letter to entice your chosen agent or editor in the hopes of receiving publication of your short work or a request to see more of your longer pieces.

The good news is that a query letter to accompany your short story is more like a cover letter.  You’ll probably spend more time researching magazines that are compatible with your work than you will crafting your submission cover letter.  In fact, I’m amazed I have this much to say about one of the shortest things you’ll ever write.  As an added bonus, this letter works for poetry, too.

Start you letter with your name and contact information at the top left-hand side of the document.  Immediately following is the name of the editor-in-chief or appropriate genre editor and the name of the magazine.  Next is the genre of the piece you are submitting.

Sidebar:  I must admit that I didn’t know short story was a genre especially since many people indicate that a piece is fantasy, horror, etc.  I double checked this because I always love to learn something new and pass it on.  It would appear to be true.  I suppose if one has written a piece in a more specific genre, such as those mentioned, you could state this.  I also suppose one would be smart enough not to send a short work of romance to a sci-fi journal.

The word count for the short story comes next, or if you’re submitting poems, indicate the number you have included.  A brief bio highlighting your previous publications should be included.  If you are well published, congratulations; however, resist the urge to mention every piece you’ve ever placed.  One or two of those placed with well-known magazines or journals will suffice.  If your education is relevant to your writing career or topic of choice, include that as well.  The same goes for your professional background.

Be sure to mention whether or not your submission is simultaneous.  There are a few places that will not accept a simultaneous submission, and I will withhold my opinion about them.  Some editors assume a submission has been sent to multiple magazines/journals, but they still want this noted.  Quite frankly, I can’t imagine why one wouldn’t be sending out simultaneous submissions especially if he or she is attempting to build reputation as a writer.  When your piece of short fiction has been accepted, immediately notify and/or withdraw it from other places to which you have submitted.

The good thing about cover letters for short fiction is that they do not require a synopsis of the written work.  Another unnecessary addition is your life story, so don’t be tempted to include it.  Only short works of non-fiction need this type of information, and even then, filter what you include.  Use good sense and don’t gush over the magazine/journal to which you are submitting.  Don’t tell how many times the piece has been rejected.

And that, fellow writers, is the long and short of it.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 19

I’ve admitted before in my Writer’s Soul series that I’m not the opening up and sharing kind of person. I created Baring My Writer’s Soul to help me get over that as well as many of the anxieties I have about writing. Well, it worked until it didn’t. Now I find myself back at the beginning of my own series, reading Part 1, and trying to figure out how I derailed myself yet again.

I’ll take responsibility for my derailment when what I really want to say is that I allowed it to happen. I could even pinpoint the exact moment it happened three days before Christmas of 2016. Instead, I’ll return to the methods that had been working for me up until I jumped the tracks and seek fresh methods for dealing with the new worries that have sneaked into my life.

I’ll start by making peace with all the bad, whether real or perceived, that occurred up to this point for it’s the only way I’m going move forward. Even as I do this, I know the negative thoughts will rear their ugly heads to remind me that the sky is falling in my world and that this never happens to anyone else. It would be so wonderful if I could predict when this is going to happen, but since I can’t, I’ll keep stockpiling my Writer’s Toolbox with the tools and supplies I need to move past the bad.

Another thing I’ll stop doing is thinking so much. I overanalyze until I’ve worked myself into a tizzy which dumps me into the middle of comparing myself to others, and we all know that’s the death of joy. I must learn to content myself with not knowing all the answers right now, all at once, or ever. Giving myself a reasonable amount of time to make it back to a healthy writing me is also essential. This is a tricky one for me, and I must admit that, but I must also not fall into the trap of believing that I don’t have time to get it right.

writers-soul-19The biggest issue I’ll need to deal with in my writing life is one that I’ve been working up to:  rejection. All writers face it at some point, but we are also aware that knowing this doesn’t make it one whit easier. The first ones were the hardest, but then I leveled out for a while and took them in stride. At the end of last year when my submission tracking spreadsheet began to pile up with Nos and No Responses, I pushed my writing muse off a high mental bridge and jumped in after her. Together we wallowed in the river of grief.

The best way I have found to deal with rejection is to remember that it is not a reflection on who I am, what I have written, or how I present myself and my writing. Rejection does not alter the merit of my writing or me. People get turned down all the time for various reasons, and it has nothing to do with their worth. Furthermore, rejection is not a valid excuse for quitting. Just like I kept on looking for the perfect man before I met and married my husband, so will I continue searching for the best agent to represent my work. I feel bad for the ones who passed me up, but I don’t want someone in my life who isn’t thrilled just thinking about me and all that I have to offer. That line of thinking landed me an amazing man, and I trust it will connect me with a terrific agent.

So, as I sift through the past Writer’s Soul posts, I’ll keep in mind that all rejection is just re-direction and begin plotting a new path to happiness as I continue writing. I have to do this for myself because my happiness is dependent on me and no one else is going to do it for me.

Remember: Write Happy!

A Snapshot of Writing

A Snapshot of WritingThe creation of art can be a wonderful and dreadful process at the same time. Some of the struggles I’ve encountered with my chosen art form of writing include writer’s block, doubts and fears regarding my abilities, the evil query and rejection letters, comparison, envy, impatience, and the list goes on and on. But every now and then, there are lamps along the tunnel as I travel toward the light at the end. That’s when it’s wonderful.

As an outlet for my frustration, I began to tag along with my sister-in-law when she took photographs. She’s really quite good and a patient teacher as well when I asked her questions on how she approached her shot. One of the ways she explained the process was to hand the camera to me. I declined the opportunity to even hold her camera, which looked far too technical and expensive, but in addition to being a great teacher, my sister-in-law is mildly insistent. There was no way I was getting off the hook.

So, I snapped a few pictures as she taught me what the various dials and buttons on the camera do. She talked me through the procedure, and by allowing me to make mistakes, I learned quite a bit and became addicted to photography.

Here’s where the wonderful part happened. After setting up an account on ViewBug for my photos, joining challenges, and voting on other peoples’ pictures, I earned a free tutorial on landscape photography. Even though I don’t own a camera, I watched the video with the hopes of gaining more knowledge and possibly impressing my sister-in-law.

The lesson on photography will help me hone my skill, but what truly impressed me was how much of what the instructor said could be applied to writing. For starters, new experiences are good for you. Even if you’ve been writing for a while, keep in mind that every time you start a new piece, you’re taking yourself someplace you’ve never been with a different location, characters, style, descriptions, etc. And even if you’re working on a series, you have the power to make something new happen each time. Then there is your unique perspective. You are going to see things differently than anyone else in the world, so write them from the perspective that you alone possess.

As for equipment, writers have the luxury of keeping it simple, and I strongly suggest you do. A well-sharpened pencil and single-subject, college ruled notebook is all you need to create literary brilliance. Know the basics and fundamentals of your technique. Scouting a good location is important for a writer because distractions, even in the home, will keep you from your goal. Timing is important for the same reason: determine when in your day you are the most productive and stick to the schedule. And when it comes to composition, that’s where your personal style will shine through.

So now it’s time to address your process. The instructor on the tutorial called it a mind process and used words every writer knows. He started with subject. Identify what deserves to be written. Don’t forget POV. Take a small bit of advice from a photographer, and don’t be afraid to explore multiple POVs at the same time. What it does for photography will not be lost on writing. The formula for determining exposure translates into plotting, pantsing, or a combination thereof for a writer. Again, don’t be afraid to experiment. Next, decide what you’d like to focus on. Once all of this is determined, work that composition.

When you show your photographs to other people, they don’t know what else is going on around the scene you’ve captured or how you felt when you took it. Writers can combat this issue by providing essential backstory at the appropriate time. But just like a photographer, you don’t have to show it all. Leave a little mystery, a little something to the imagination, and your reader won’t feel led around by the nose. Write about the most interesting parts because that’s where the story is, and you’ll capture a good picture. A mental picture in this case. Remember that the objective is not to capture one big picture of everything all at once, but rather a frame that tells a clear story. You are the director, you choose the content.

Don’t fall in love with the first thing you write. Investigate your characters’ surroundings and discover what else you can do with it or them. Walk through their world. Return many times with breaks in between. Take another look at your subject, and decide what else you can do with it. Then apply your creative style in a way no one else has thought of.

Add vibrant but well-written details and structure, and a sense of order will emerge. You can do this on different levels of your writing whether writing on a grand scale, intimate stories, or the minute particulars. Keep in mind that your ideal and the reality won’t always match, but don’t let this discourage you. Work with what you’re given, seek inspiration, and the great story will come.

As for filters, they apply to the writer during the editing stage. You’ll be able to filter out the bad in your own writing after you’ve set it aside for a couple months and return to it fresh. Beta readers provide some of the best filtering toward your writing goal, seeing things you didn’t, and offering advice from their own perspective.

With a few modifications, the guidelines for taking a great photograph apply to writing with stunning clarity. I mentioned this at my writer’s group and was told by a poet that this is known as the rules of the creatives. They are a set of standards that transcend one artistic form to positively influence another. Hanging with the poets a couple of times a year has already lent valuable insight to my writing. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that my newfound hobby would as well.

There are so many artistic pursuits that crossover to supply inspiration and encouragement. Already I’m viewing the story ingredients in my mind and trying to figure a way to bake them all together so as to produce a perfect word painting. I suggest you do the same.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 15

Two days ago I started reading a novel by an author whose previous book I enjoyed. Admittedly, I only had one book by which to judge her writing, but since I absolutely fell in love with the story, I trusted that I would like other books she wrote. The first novel I read by this particular author was set in medieval Japan, a favorite era of mine, which scored the book high marks right off the bat. I didn’t have to labor at all to find the exciting parts as the writing was excellent and the story captivated me. Again, this alone shed a positive light on the second novel even though it wasn’t about Japan.

Writer's Soul 15Many years had passed between reading the two novels, but I had high hopes for the second one. The second book started slowly with very little dialog and page long paragraphs composed of rambling sentences from multiple POVs separated only by commas. It took some effort to follow whose thoughts were being expressed. But I’m no quitter. If I could read José Saramago’s The Double which has enormous paragraphs with only periods and commas even when it’s dialog, and ended up being one of the best books I ever read, then I could finish this book.

One of the first things I checked was where in the lineup of publication this particular book stood. It’s number fourteen for the author which is quite impressive. There was a reason to keep going. If publishers believed the novel worthy of printing, then I should probably press on. I mentioned this to my husband, and it generated a question we’ve debated before. Is there a certain place in an established author’s career when no matter how mediocre the book may be it will still be published based on his or her prior success and/or reputation?

I’m tempted to read this author’s first and second books. They were published several decades ago, and I wonder how the writing may have evolved over time. Is it better, worse, different? Was the author simply trying something new, something she always wanted to do but didn’t dare attempt until she was established enough to trust that her work wouldn’t be rejected? Or does this later book reflect the change in tastes among readers?

In either case, I’m going to be fair to this author and finish the book. There have been less than five books in my lifetime that I was unable to finish. Also, I’m willing to allow an author some grace as she builds up to the pinnacle of the story. I trust that fourteen books later, this author knows how to write worthy of my attention. There are slight mysteries and questions that have been posed, and I cannot set the book down without discovering what they are.

I mention all of this to lay some groundwork for the real issue I want to discuss. It has to do with query letters, synopses, and first page or chapter critiques experienced by new authors. If the book I’m reading was a first novel, without an established reputation backing it, to be judged only on a query letter, synopsis, or first chapter, regardless of how brilliant those items may be written, it would be rejected outright.

A person simply cannot focus on a tiny glimpse of someone’s writing taken out of context and judge whether or not the entire work is worthy of publication. And yet, this is exactly what it done during pitch sessions at writing conferences and in agents’ offices on a daily basis. How much brilliant writing is bypassed because an agent, editor, or publisher wasn’t aware of all the narrative forces driving the story as it unfolds to reveal its true shape?

I fear that what I’ve termed ‘fast-food thinking’ has negatively influenced the art of writing and publication of said writing. Everything in life takes place at the speed of light so that our desires receive instant gratification. Just as quickly, we move on to seek the next tantalizing thing without ever realizing that we aren’t truly satisfied. The more we seek, the more things need to be supplied to fulfill the vicious whims of demand. And if you are the person who can do it bigger, better, faster than anyone else, you’ll probably be the one to make boat loads of money. So what if quality suffers? Well, that’s the problem I’m leading up to.

Let’s step back for a moment and analyze why this fast-paced process isn’t working. Let’s start with the writing. Great writing takes time, and if people have bought into the lie that time is money, then great literature is in more danger of becoming obsolete than even I thought possible.

There has to be a better way.

Writing is a major investment of passion and time. It doesn’t follow cookie-cutter formats and spew out copycat books, it doesn’t happen to make the writer rich, and it doesn’t exist for the express purpose of becoming a movie. Writing can be summarized for book flaps and reviews, but if that was all it took to satisfy a person, the writing wouldn’t have become a book in the first place.

It’s time to trade in ‘fast-food thinking’ for ‘stop and smell the roses reasoning.’ If anything worth having is worth waiting for, then I propose allowing this lesson in patience to be applied to how books are evaluated. Furthermore, as a society, we must no longer tolerate being spoon fed our entertainment especially where books and/or writing is concerned. Readers must also slow down and appreciate the treasures they hold in their hands when they read a book.

Of course, I’m open to suggestions on how to make this process work better, not just easier. In doing so, we’ll not only rescue writing from being destroyed, we’ll stop this process from encroaching upon other forms of art.

Write Happy!

The Terror of Querying

The Terror of Querying

I don’t know about you, but the idea of querying an agent terrifies me. I have two opinions of this process based on various articles I’ve read.

One: As long as Starbuck’s doesn’t mess up the coffee order for the assistant to your chosen agent, your manuscript might have a chance of landing in said agent’s hands.

Translation: As long as everyone is having a good day, your manuscript might be smiled upon.

Two: Agents are fearsome gatekeepers to the world of fulfilled dreams, and I’m standing outside the gate.

That one is pretty clear.

Today I’m stocking my Writing Toolbox with a blog post from Writers in the Storm guest blogger, Julie Glover. Her post, “Are You Ready to Query,” posed questions to me that I hadn’t seriously considered before. What I had been doing is letting the answers jumble around my brain without pinning them down because I felt foolish about them. Now I think I may have been on to something.

Admittedly, I need to perfect my answer to question number one. Yes, I know what my story is about, but do I communicate that well?

To questions number two and three, I have a combined answer. I used to play a game where I fantasized about what critics would say regarding my brilliant novel. It went something like this:

If Wally Lamb and Billie Letts had a child and Isabelle Allende was her nanny, that author would be HL Gibson.

Grandiose, isn’t it? And yet, I believe this game answers the questions about writing voice and comparative titles. I consider the above-mentioned authors to be some of the best storytellers on Earth, and this is the role I want to achieve with my writing. So now I have published authors and titles to which I can compare myself and my novel.

As for voice, it’s all about the storytelling for me. My style is easy and familiar. It reads like the voice of an older relative relating family tales and history, the stories you grew up listening to at every family get together, and the ones you now find yourself telling the next generation.

As for question four, I have feedback from several beta readers, and I have completed two rounds of edits. There are beta readers waiting in the wings to assist me after I complete round three edits. A daunting process for sure, but after reading Ms. Glover’s post, I’m encouraged that I’m on the right track.

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