What rules do you follow?

Here are four things writers should do:

  • Read outside your genre
  • Study your craft
  • Write every day
  • Set goals

There are many more you can add, but these are what popped into my head. Do I do them?

Surely, you jest (makes frowny face).

But I do read every day, and I enjoy many different genres: historical, biography, science fiction, fantasy (no, they are not the same), thrillers , and mystery.  I read books from the library and books on my Kindle app. I read magazines and newspapers and cereal boxes and directions on detergent bottles. I am one of those people who panic when there isn’t a book in the house I haven’t read and the library is closed.

I subscribe to Writer’s Digest and study the articles, even if they don’t apply to me. Last weekend, I attended a workshop on writing narrative poetry with former NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti. I don’t intend to write a narrative poem, but there was so much more I learned that I can use.

Do I write every day? I know this is the rule that sets professionals apart from wannabes, but truthfully, it just isn’t possible. Life gets in the way. This week, I had meetings six of seven days. But I did manage to write most of those days. I believe setting up a goal to write every single day without fail is  setting yourself up to fail. Sometimes we need a breather.

Conversely, writing every day is like going to church. You miss one Sunday, then another, and pretty soon you aren’t going at all.

You see where I am heading with this.

Goals are good, though. I made my goal of writing 30 pages before our next writers’ club meeting. Then, since we don’t meet in December, I vowed I would finish my first draft before the January 26 meeting.

I think I will make it. I am near enough the end that I am eager to get it all put together. Today I wrote a crucial scene. It needs tweaking, but the bones are there.

I also did something I have never done before. I am a straight-line writer. I start at point A and end at point Z. But the ending of the story was so strong in my head that I went bravely forward and wrote it down before the impetus and excitement faded. Yes, excitement. I feel exhilarated when I can literally feel the story come alive.

So I guess thing number five would be, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

Happy Thanksgiving all, and don’t forget to skip that second helping of candied yams to leave room for the pumpkin pie.

 

 

 

 

 

When yours is the book under discussion

I belong to two book clubs. They are polar opposites.

One is serious about discussion and books are chosen by recommendation — that is, if someone has read a book and think it worthy of discussion, it goes on the list. Not all of us like every book. I have struggled through some, and been blown away by others. It’s a way of getting us out of our comfort zone to consider genres we might not read otherwise. This group meets at different homes for a pot-luck lunch and  little wine may occasionally be served.

All right, wine is always served. And, we can get a little bawdy. We laugh a lot. Sometimes if a member is going through a hard time, we call an emergency meeting and offer sympathy, tea, and hugs.

The other is African-American and accepted me as a member after inviting me to talk about one of my books. This group is spiritually-based and even if we don’t get around to talking about the assigned book, I come home feeling uplifted and at peace. They share amazing stories themselves — we don’t need a book to get the conversation started! We meet for breakfast at a restaurant and while people may stare and wonder what this disparate group of women is doing at that back table, it doesn’t stop us from laughing and interrupting each other, everyone as eager to be heard as to listen.

This week, the latter group decided to read my latest novel, “Morven.” I was a little apprehensive, since it is set in the South on a large plantation. I wrote about slavery and its evils, and how the protagonist’s life is changed when she sees a slave being abused. How would these women, descendants of slaves, see this book? Was I being presumptuous?

They discussed the first few chapters, and I was amazed at their insight. They saw things in the characters that I hadn’t seen. They searched for motivation. Was the main character really guilty of murder by failure to act? The question became: What would you have done? Then they began to defend their positions.

As I listened, I realized how powerful a story can be. I explained why I wrote a certain passage, admitted I wish I had not written some things, and explained things that I perhaps had not made clear in the narrative.

I did not feel that I was on trial. Loving friends can point out flaws without making you weep with shame. It’s called constructive criticism.

Although they had nothing but praise for “Morven,” because of them, my next book will be better because I will keep their comments in mind.

Two groups, different as night and day, but alike in their love of books.

And their love for each other.

 

 

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No NaNoWriMo — this year

So it is here: National Novel Writing Month. And for the upteenth time in as many years, I am not joining in.

I have the same, well-worn excuse: I am already in the middle of writing a novel and refuse to drop it to start another, no matter how tempting the challenge. Maybe some year I will be in between novels and will welcome the chance to jump-start a new one. But not this year.

Still, writers often need such a challenge to keep them on course. I admit I have been goofing off this past week. The weather has been too beautiful to ignore, and it is pruning season.

Image result for drawing a name from a hat

At our writers’ club, we also have a little challenge going on. Nothing as ambitious as churning out an entire novel in a month. We set a monthly goal and at the next meeting are forced to admit, not unlike Weight Watchers, if we have met our goal or not. It could be completing a poem you have worked on for weeks (or years), a page count on that ongoing short story, bravely submitting a piece to a magazine or contest, or whatever.

Winners occasionally net the lump sum of $7 or $8, because we only put a quarter in the pot. But as you have surmised, it isn’t the monetary goal that is — well, the goal — but the satisfaction of knowing you accomplished something you set out to do.

That, and the applause and congratulations from fellow members.

So at the last meeting I set a goal to move on with my manuscript. I tried to pick a number of pages that would be doable, but not too easy. It’s not a challenge if you set a goal you know you can reach without much effort. On the other hand, setting a goal too high results in burnout and giving up, with the subsequent feelings of failure and inadequacy.

Achieving my goal doesn’t mean I will win. My name will be put in a pot along with all the other members, whether they reached their goal or not, and someone will draw out a slip of paper and read a name. If that person didn’t make their goal, or is absent, the pot is moved on to another month, with the addition of several more quarters. Exciting times! We may never get to Las Vegas, but we do know how to gamble … on ourselves.

I guess we could call our challenge JuWriMoMo.*

So I need to get busy, ignore the enticing outdoors or the dusty furniture or the laundry piled up and start writing.

*Just Write More Month

 

 

 

Squirrels, Mark Twain, and pelisses

Well, that was fast!

One day I am sweating like a sumo wrestler just by walking to the mailbox, and the next I am rummaging through the closet for my sweater.

One thing about the cooler weather, I don’t have as much yard work to do. The grass  isn’t growing as fast, and the hedges and shrubs have slowed down in their efforts to add new little green leaves. So I have had time to get back to my book.

I feel pretty good about my writing this week. I’ve added pages and I can see where I am heading. I’ve gone over the last scene in the book so often that I’m now eager to get there.

The abrupt change in the weather reminded me of something, though. No, not Twain’s comment that everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it. (Fact check: It might not be Twain who said it, but Charles Dudley Warner, who was an editor at the Hartford Courant in the late 1800s. There, now we’ve both learned something new.)

Image result for pelisse

A reader asked me what a pelisse was. It’s outerwear, essentially a long cape with sleeves.

I  try to be cognizant of the passage of time in my stories, noting the passing of one season and the advent of another by describing the weather as sit affects the protagonist. She might be glad for her straw bonnet on a hot day, or the the warmth of her wool pelisse on a cold one.  Candles must be brought out in the long, dark evenings while a rooster’s crow might wake her early on a summer morning.

If a story takes place in a short period of time, such as a few months or a year, it’s pretty easy. It’s more difficult if it spans a decade or more, which happens in the first two books of my historical series. In “Riverbend” and “Morven,” I solved it by jumping ahead a few years, hoping my readers would catch on without my explaining, “Now, 10 years have passed …”

I must get my present protagonist from seventeen to her mid-twenties without dragging the story out by describing each birthday. I don’t want to make a sudden leap, but had the idea of showing the passage of time by the dates on her correspondence. Whether that will work or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, I have a little success to report. I have complained about the squirrels eating the bird feed, no matter where I place the feeders. When one dragged a songbird feeder from the deck to where I found it in the yard, empty, I had had enough. I rigged a line from the persimmon tree to the post that holds the sun-flower feeder (that particular feeder is squirrel-proof, by the way) and hung my finch and chickadee feeders from it. It’s too high for the squirrels to jump up, and the line is too thin for them to crawl along it.

I thought I had the last laugh when I saw a squirrel attempt to reach the finch feeder. He made it, but the tube is glass, and he slid down it like a fireman on a pole, and fell to the ground. Several times.

Or has he simply figured out a way to spill the seed to the ground where he can eat it as his leisure?

You decide.

 

 

 

 

 

Tall mountains, big fears

It is a truth universally acknowledged that once you have faced something you feared and conquered it, you wonder why you were afraid in the first place.

I put off going to California to visit my middle son, Scott, and his wife, Dana, for three years. I considered driving there, or taking a train. Anything but flying.

But flying made the most sense.

It’s not that I haven’t flown before, and it isn’t that I’ve not flown by myself.  I took the three boys, the youngest not even potty-trained yet, from Pittsburgh to Tampa without a qualm. In the months after 9-11, I flew from Pittsburgh to Greenville, N.C., with a stopover in Detroit. Didn’t ruffle a hair.

I’ve flown from Atlanta to Frankfurt and to Rome, and from Charlotte to London. Nothing to it. The caveat is, my overseas flights were with a group and I didn’t have to worry. Just follow the crowd.

So why was I hesitant to fly solo to Los Angeles?

The answer in one word: the airport.

This was the view out my window that greeted me every morning  when I finally got to California.

I didn’t think I could navigate the huge, confusing airports without someone to guide me.

When Scott said I could skip LAX and fly into Ontario, a much smaller airport, I began to think it might be possible. I didn’t know that in trying to book a flight to Ontario, CA, the site read the “CA” as Canada and routed me to Toronto, Ontario. After three attempts, I finally typed in ONTARIO, CALIFORNIA. Bingo. And, Scott suggested I should leave from Atlanta so I could park my car at my oldest son Rob’s house for the week and not have to fight Charlotte traffic.

I drove to Atlanta and Rob drove me to the airport and came inside to show me how to use the check-in kiosk. Things had changed, and I grumbled, cranky old lady style, that I had tucked away enough cash to pay the baggage fee and hadn’t planned on charging it to my card. I was pointed toward my gate and arrived just in time to board.

I won’t dwell on the flight itself. If you’ve flown, you know all about it. If you haven’t, I don’t want to spoil your illusions.

All through the trip I feared I would, indeed, land in Canada. Needless to say, I was spellbound when I stepped out  of the terminal in Ontario, California, and had my first glimpse of the mountains.  Scott met me and we set off for their home which was very, very high up the mountain. The road was a succession of hair-pin curves, and when I dared look out the window to see the valley below — far below — my remarks were reduced to “Oh! How high are we? Has anyone ever driven off? How high are we?” 

I took this from the car window. It’s hard to tell, but that valley is waaaay down there.

We were very high, indeed. More than a mile above the Pacific Ocean.

 

I had a lovely visit, and then it was time to go home. I dreaded arriving in Atlanta and navigating the airport. Something told me it would be different from my previous experience.

I got off the plane and dutifully called Rob. Then I followed the crowd: moving sidewalk, check. Mile-high (or so it seemed) escalator, check. All the while following signs that pointed to Baggage Claim. At one point I couldn’t figure out what the next  step was, then realized I was supposed to get on the plane train, which looked suspiciously like an underground transit to me. Well, I had learned how to ride that  in London, so I got aboard when the doors opened and grabbed a bar as, just like London, no seats were available.

The next stop was Baggage Claim. I looked at a board to see what carousel my flight’s bags were  on, found it, and immediately saw my little green bag. I grabbed it, went outside, and there was Rob. We had timed it perfectly.

“How was your trip?” he asked as we pulled away.

“Wonderful!” I replied, and I meant it. I may have been preening just a little. Maybe all my fears were unfounded, but I had overcome them anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing with joy

When I saw that Canadian author Louise Penny, author of the Three Pines mystery series, would be in North Carolina to kick off her book tour, I knew that I would go, no matter what. I immediately signed up for tickets, thinking the venue would be crowded. (It was.)

I, along with some friends who are also big fans, drove the two-and-a-half hours to Fearrington Village, where Penny was to speak. The  event was held in a building aptly called The Barn which can hold 500 people. We went in early to get good seats. So did 500 other people.

The wait was worth it. Penny is delightfully candid, humorous, and forthcoming. But there was one thing she said that drove everything else from my mind.

She had suffered from writer’s block after the publication of her first book. She eventually sought help from a therapist who told her she should not worry about editors, publishers, reviews, her family, or anything else, but write simply for the joy of writing.

Louise Penny

I haven’t got writer’s block — or do I? I dutifully put words on the page, but all the time I am thinking, why bother?

I haven’t got a nibble on the book that precedes the one I am writing. If it doesn’t get  published, the sequel is useless.

I could self-publish, which I have done, but I am of two minds about this. If it isn’t good enough for an agent to jump on, maybe it isn’t good enough to self-publish.

Then I read about authors who only self-publish and are doing very well, thank you.

So I got to thinking about why I am writing in the first place. To be rich and famous? Maybe, when I was younger, but it doesn’t appeal to me now. I have a good life and I’m content.

I have fans, and I cherish them. But I’m not writing just for them, either.

I think back to my first books, and how much fun it was to create my stories. Of course it was validation to get a contract from a publisher, or a good review from a reader. But the real joy was in the writing.

I need to get back to that and finish my book because it brings me joy to see it grow and develop. And yes, I want to share it once it is finished, not for praise or money, but because a story isn’t really complete until it is read. So I will look at other options for publication while knowing that this isn’t the reason for writing, but the final step on the creative journey.

So now that Louise Penny has, by a few words, changed my entire outlook, I say thank you. Thank you for seeing clearly what I failed to see: that you aren’t going to want to write if your writing fails to bring you joy.

 

 

 

Travelin’ shoes

You’d think after the trip to England and Scotland I took  last April, I’d put up my suitcase for awhile. But no, I went to Wilmington NC to see my granddaughter graduate  from community college. Then I drove to Pennsylvania for a week to see my sister. After one day at home to mow the front yard and wash some clothes, I headed out for Decatur, GA, to see my youngest grandson graduate from high school. Proud to say he made honor roll all four years and is now headed for Georgia Tech.

Going away for a weekend is one thing, but a week or more is another. Luckily I have friends willing to check on the cats to make sure they have food and water, (and clean the litter boxes) while I am gone. And, with this heat wave and no rain, to water the shrubs and flowers I have added to the front yard.

I have one more trip planned for this summer to Louisville KY and maybe a jaunt to the beach. My motto is: Go while you have the chance and the stamina!

And need I mention the friends who make it possible? Of course I return the favor or show my appreciation in some way. We support each other.

That’s why I like to write books about women and their circle of friends. “Angels

For the past three years I have planted the Easter lily I got from church … look how they have multiplied!

Unaware” and “The Lunch Club” are my favorites in this genre. My work in progress is also about friends…the ones you don’t recognize until almost too late.

So in between travels and visits, I am slowly getting the pages written. It’s another way to travel, back in time and entering a world long gone, meeting people who become real to me as I learn their hopes and dreams and share their disappointments.

Whether you travel in “real time” or through the pages of a book you re reading (or writing), I wish you a happy journey.

 

 

The (He)art of Journaling

Some years ago, my daughter-in-law presented me with a blank journal. I was pleased with the gift and vowed to use it to record only happy thoughts and experiences. I realized I had been a little negative lately (had she picked up on this?) and that I needed to change my perspective. Focusing on at least one good thing that happened each day would, I thought, condition me to look for the good rather than the bad.

It wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There were days where nothing good seemed to happen at all. I learned that if I  wanted to write something positive, I had to look for it.

Then the unthinkable happened. Jim died unexpectedly and my world was torn apart. For weeks, months, I howled my grief and despair on the pages. I blamed the doctors who didn’t think his infection was important enough to follow up  on. I blamed myself for not making an issue of it. I blamed everyone and everything until I realized that blame was worthless and not helping me heal.

Then I started writing about all the little things I had to do, a check list of sorts. Insurance, deeds, titles, credit accounts, all had to be sorted and reassigned. Every time I accomplished something on my list, I made a note of it. Sometimes it was easy, and more often it was hard and complicated and frustrating. The more difficult it was, the more satisfaction I took in recording the task’s completion.

When everything was sorted out, I began recording the little (and big) jumps I made out of my safety zone. There was the first time I ate in a restaurant alone. I was on my way home from an appointment. It was noon, and I was hungry. I said, “Why not?”

Afterward, I wondered what had taken me so long.

I learned to drive the riding mower, something Jim had never wanted me to do. I guess he was afraid I’d turn it over or something. Now I use it all the time.

I learned to pump my own gas. Can you believe that?

There were many little and big things I had to do for the first time, and I managed to do them all. Not that I’m asking for a pat on the back, but it is surprising how we let our partners take sole responsibility for certain chores. I know of husbands who couldn’t for the life of them figure out the checking account or which bills are paid when when their wives died. Or who couldn’t cook a simple meal or figure out the washing machine. So don’t you men shake your heads at me!

I think all marriages should do a little cross-training, like companies do with their employees.

Now when I journal, I write down things I have done for the simple reason that I like reading back over the entries and remembering the visit, the trip, or the fun luncheon with friends. I also write down when I’m feeling blue or lonely, because those days still come. Not as often, but still … And writing about my feelings helps me understand them and accept them.

Many people journal for many different reasons. I think those reasons can change with life circumstances, as mine did. No reason is better or worse than another.

If you are a writer, you might want to try keeping a journal. You can start with writing down one good thing that happened today.

 

 

 

Progress of sorts

As I said last week, I am participating in a program for Black History Month that recognizes  the contributions of all people regardless of ethnicity toward the cause of equality.

I pulled together a costume that might be worn by a rather fierce mid-19th century abolitionist lady: long skirt, high-necked, long-sleeved pleated blouse, high black boots. I tried on a shawl, but it didn’t look right. Nor could I find a hat that looked right, so I opted to believe the lady was speaking indoors and wouldn’t necessarily be wearing a hat. With totally opposite reasoning, I tried to find a pair of gloves. I did find a pair in the back of one of my dresser drawers. I used to have many women’s gloves, but had donated all but this pretty pair to costumes for our outdoor drama. Alas, these are stained and I have been trying every remedy I can think of to remove the blotches.

Elizabeth B. Chace

The hardest part was my hair. I wear it short, so I parted it in the middle and combed the sides straight back. It makes a severe look, which I thought appropriate. I’m sure my character, Mrs. Chace, was kind to her charges, but I imagine her strong in her beliefs.

We had dress rehearsal and although I’d been practicing my little piece, it flew out of my mind when I realized there would be actual people there. I recovered quickly and spoke my lines with only a few minor lapses.

My friend Beverley and I decided to get a quick supper after rehearsal and went to a local pizzeria in our costumes. We raised nary an eyebrow. I may be getting a local reputation for eccentricity. As Eleanor Roosevelt, Beverley simply looked stylish.

I  haven’t been neglecting my writing. I sent out another query, and have written more pages.  Whether or not they are any good remains to be seen. Here is where I will rely on beta readers.

All this takes time. Time is something you squander when you are young, and try to hang onto when you are old. Alas, it slips through your fingers either way. I am beginning to feel a sense of urgency, which may be why I am sticking to my writing schedule more rigidly than I have previously.

So I am working and having fun in equal parts, which is not to say having fun isn’t work at times (memorizing lines) and working isn’t having fun (looking up from writing to discover an hour has flown by).

The program will be behind me in a few days. Hopefully, I can say the same about this book in a few months!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading, writing, and weaving

My presentation went well last week. There was good attendance, although a few members were out sick. I tried to stay on course, pretty much laying it all out there and letting people take what was relevant to them (mentally, not physically).

There were some questions and I answered them to the best of my ability. My message was “There ain’t no shortcut to publishing” which sounds  good except one member got picked up by a university press without even querying. He was recommended, so there you are. Submitted, and wham! a published book. Followed by book #2 and if it weren’t for Florence and her shennanagins, book # 3 would be out about now.

So there are exceptions. I even named one: Diana Gabaldon, who was picked up after querying a half-finished novel one time. Which became a huge hit on Starz. Please don’t ask who she is. If you don’t know, you have been living in a cave.

This weekend was a little different. I signed up for another pine-needle basket weaving class. It was another beginner’s class, and I learned some things I didn’t know or hadn’t fully grasped the first time. I really went to have the instructor show me how to add embellishments such as beads or buttons. Success! She made it look so easy.

The first class I took had two participants, including me. This one had eight. It was a lot of fun. Most of us knew each other, so conversation flew from current books being read to politics (quickly shelved as we were all getting depressed), near-drowning experiences (how that came up I don’t know), and how women used to have to make about everything they used from clothing to candles to baskets. I hated when it came time to break up.

I have a busy week coming up three church meetings and one book club meeting. We are reading “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. Meanwhile, I checked out every Louise Penny novel in the library that I hadn’t yet read. I realized I had read a couple, but re-read them anyway. So glad she is writing another Gamache story.

I know–I need to find time for writing my own novel somewhere in there.  I am on chapter four! So it’s coming along. I have it plotted out in my head, but darn, it is taking a lot of research. So most of my time is spent writing a sentence and then thinking, “I need to look that up.”  I’m thinking I need to have some information of 18th newspapers and printing. And publishing.

Why didn’t I start a nice contemporary where I already know how things work? Or at least have an approximate idea.

Sometimes writers are masochists, just sayin’.

 

 

 

This is what I know for sure

Today (Sunday) I am doing the program for our monthly writers’ club meeting. Many of you realize I write this post well before Sunday, when it is published. So today is Friday in the real world. You can see I have let it slide just a little.

But that isn’t quiet true. I have been thinking about it ever since one of our members asked if I’d mind sharing my publishing experience. What can I say about a journey that started 20 years ago and is still ongoing? I did confess last week how easy it is for the hopeful beginner to get scammed. And that’s because, as beginners, we know nothing.

I certainly didn’t. Back in the day, convinced I had written a great novel (it wasn’t), I sent off my manuscript to any publisher I thought would take a look. I got the names and addresses from the  Novel and Short Story Writers’ Market at the local library. I would go inside, pull the book, sit at a table, and copy addresses down.  I’d take my manuscript to the post office, weigh it with the required SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), and again without the SASE, and put the exact postage on each envelope. The SASE was so the publisher would return my ms. Although I painstakingly made a copy, if rejected I’d want to send the original out again. And again. Oh, how I hated seeing those manila envelopes pop up in my mailbox. What I wanted to see was a long, white business envelope.

Alas, rejections were roughly 100%. Okay, exactly 100%.

The advent of the home computer helped a lot. Publishers and agents began accepting e-mail submissions. That saved a lot of money, but didn’t alleviate the waiting time. Sometimes I heard nothing back at all. Other times it was a matter of months. And sometimes, within a week.

I’ve been fortunate in that in all these years I’ve had only two discouraging rejections. In fact, they were so hateful and mean-spirited that I was brought to tears. I can only think the recipient was having a particularly bad day and I happened to be the one to bear the brunt of their fury. Most editors are kind in their rejections (when they bother to send one) even if it is just a standard paragraph sent to everyone alike. Some were kind enough to say, “This isn’t for us, but do keep writing and try us again.”

I’ve had acceptances from small presses, and they were a pleasure to work with even if they weren’t one of the Big New York Publishers. I never expected to hit the NY Times Best Seller List with my first novel, although it has been done. I know my limits.

I worked with one editor for nearly a year before she reluctantly passed when we couldn’t agree on the ending. That story is now in the hands of another house, which has had it in “in review” since June.

I guess the best advice I can give is first, write the best book you can, ask beta readers to give their opinion on what works and what doesn’t, and if you can’t afford an editor, at least ask a friend to proofread it. This friend should have a good command of English. I am lucky to have a friend who was a newspaper editor and is gifted with a sharp eye for errors.

That done, you should write a query letter that explains what your book is about, what the conflict is, and what genre it falls into. Hint: No conflict, no sale. And write a synopsis. This can be from a paragraph to 10 pages, so check the guidelines of whatever publisher you are going to submit to as they all differ.

Only then should you begin submitting. and for gosh sake, make sure your target publishes books in your genre. Don’t send a romance to a Sci-Fi publisher. I can’t emphasize enough that you need to check the submission guidelines for each publisher or agent. A submission can be rejected out of hand if you don’t follow the rules.

In a nutshell, that’s what I know about publishing. I’m sending out queries now, and waiting, checking my in-box just as I used to check my mailbox on the curb.

Some things never change.

 

 

 

 

The journey continues

My hope is that everyone had a very enjoyable holiday week — or however long you celebrate Christmas, New Year’s or Hannaukkah

— and didn’t even notice that I hadn’t posted in two weeks.

I decided to go to Pennsylvania to visit my sister over Christmas. We are close in spite of the distance between us — 600 miles from my home in North Carolina to hers. I broke up the drive by staying midway in West Virginia.

I have made the trip many times since we moved south in 1977. Jim always drove while I admired the scenery. In those days, we made the trip in one day, with our kids and dogs in tow. Then it was just us. And then just me.

The first time I made the trip alone I was filled with trepidation. Or in non-literary terms, scared to death. I took steep mountain inclines (and declines) and hairpin curves at something like 40 mph, my knuckles on the steering wheel white with tension. It took me hours to relax once I got to my destination, my neck and shoulders seemingly frozen in that fear-filled posture.

This time, however, I was almost to Pittsburgh before I realized I had kept to the 70 mph speed limit, passing more cautious drivers. I had learned to trust that the highway authority wouldn’t have posted such a high speed limit if it wasn’t safe. I had learned to trust that my Malibu wouldn’t fly off the road and plunge me to my death on the valley floor. I learned to trust myself.

Here is my chance to post something clever about how the writing journey is like my trip: filled with unexpected curves, breath-taking mountain tops and frightening descents into doubt and despair. But I’m sure you already figured that out.

I’m starting a new novel and querying another.  I’ve self-published several books, out of sheer laziness. And fear of rejection. But like my driving, I need to over come that fear an begin the search for a publisher who believes in me.

I’ve gotten good feedback on “Riverbend” and “When He said Goodbye.” The first is historical and the second is contemporary, which shows you how I leap from genre to genre. I was feeling badly about that, but then decided that the stories come to me, not me to them, and I have no choice except not to write at all. Which isn’t really a choice.

Unfortunately, the comments are verbal and not on Amazon or Nook or Smashwords. I beg them to send their nice words to the universe so others can read them, but for some reason, people are reluctant to post online. I have not yet figured out the magic words that will convince them to break out of their comfort zone and post a review.

So that is where I am now. Back from my trip, facing  new year filled with possibilities, and eager to continue my writing journey.

I hope you are feeling the same.

www.sandrazbruney.com

 

 

 

 

 

Memoir continued

Last week I attended a day-long workshop on writing the memoir.  Our teacher was fantastic, to say the least: Joseph Bathanti, Writer-in-Residence at Appalachian State University. Bathanti hails from Pittsburgh, which is near where I spent many years of my life before I, like him, found  my way to North Carolina. I won’t list all his honors and publications, but rest assured, the man knows his subject, loves writing, and enjoys imparting what he knows. I’m now reading Bathanti’s memoir, “Half of What I Say is Meaningless.”

Why do we write memoirs? Many of us want to or plan to, attested by the number of people who signed up for the workshop. Some have stories they need to share because of the lessons they learned and want to pass on. Some use memoir as a sort of catharsis. Me, I just want my grandkids to know how different life was when I was growing up.

Jack is more interested in getting a treat than hearing me talk about my writing.

One thing that kept me from starting, as I mentioned before, was revealing family secrets. Bathanti assured us that we didn’t need to tell everything, but if it is hurtful or painful, we can leave it out. “If you leave things out, you’re not lying,” he said.

That reminded me of another workshop leader who told our class, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” She was talking about fiction, but memoir writing is essentially creative non-fiction. It is subjective, and you can insert your opinion about events which you can’t do in journalism or non-fiction.

There are two things about the workshop that I’d like to point out. One is that as writers, we need to keep learning. Even if I never write a memoir, I took away a valuable tool that I can use in my fiction, which is to dig deep into my subconscious and bring up the emotion I need to make a scene live. The other is more prosaic: We are never too old to learn. I learn something new every day. Never mind that most of it I learn from watching Jeopardy!

And, I just thought of a third thing. Do we need to start with “I was born…” and end with some earthshaking conclusion about What It All Meant?

Bathanti’s book is a series of essays. I had already started writing a few essays on different themes, such as comparing play when I was a kid and what my grandkids do for fun. So now assured that I’m on the right track, I can continue.

Have  you ever considered writing a memoir? If so, what has kept you from starting? Or are you working on one now? I’d love to know how it’s going and what format you are writing it in — straight narrative, essays, humor, confession …?

Me, I’ll stick to short essays and hope it all comes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A dash of stress

No, I am not doing NaNoWriMo. It’s an attractive bandwagon, but I’m not jumping aboard.

I have my hands full enough as it is without adding more stress to my life. I lived with stress for years and the result was a tumor the size of a golf ball in my right boob. Don’t want to go there again. Ever since my Year with Chemo I have avoided stress like … well, like I should be avoiding poison ivy.

Not that stress can be shrugged off like an unwanted invitation. “No thank you; thanks anyway.” We need a little bit in our lives or we wouldn’t get up in the morning. In my case, I have to feed the cats. The minute I stir, they are on the bed with plaintive nudges and soft meows. “We’re starving! We haven’t eaten in hours and hours!” In full disclosure, this is more their stress than mine unless I really need another hour or two of sleep. In that case, I can own it.

So I get up, pad to the kitchen, turn on the light, and see … three bowls half full of food.

Just not fresh, poured-from-the-container-right-now food.

Jack enjoys a stress-free snooze

This week, I had a little angst-filled moment of stress when I realized my book club meets Tuesday and I had yet to read the book. Too late to order a paperback so I resorted to the e-version and then wondered if it would show up on my device. This has happened, causing a lot of calling and not complaining so much as whining, “Where is my fully-paid-for-book?”

Now, those of you contending with jobs and children under 18 — no, I take that last back. I have no children under 18, heck, I have no children under 40, and they still cause me stress. Sometimes it is good stress and sometimes it is the tearing-your-hair-out kind. I think there is no turning your back on child-related stress. My mom in her 90s worried about me. My kids worry about their kids. I worry about my grandkids. Nope, that stress is here to stay.

Everyone has stress. School, bills, illness, you name it. Some of us can handle it, some can’t, some ignore it and some (think sky divers or cave explorers) go looking for it. Some people need a certain amount of adrenaline just to survive. Some would like to be wrapped in a soft quilt and sung to sleep.

The key is balance. Too much can kill you. Too little, and life isn’t worth living.

I recently answered a request to speak about my new book (see last post) at the local library. I’m already stressing. What will I say? What will I wear? (This is a real thing.) Suppose no one buys a copy after I’ve ordered a crate from the publisher? (This has happened.)

But in the midst of my agonizing, I realize being asked to speak is a good thing and even if I don’t sell a single copy, people will have heard about it and maybe will buy it later. Or not.

That’s something I have learned not to stress about. I write because I love creating stories and I love it when people buy my books and read them and I really love it when they bother to write a favorable review.

Today’s lesson is that we can’t really live a stress-free life. If we did, we’d be pampered, indoor cats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weeding and writing

I am trying to write this with one eye covered by a patch. I put a wet tea bag on it  in hopes it would reduce the swelling of poison ivy.

Yep, I did it again. Thought I was pulling out English ivy vines. And yes, I know the difference (after repeated bouts with the poisonous vine) but there were no leaves on them so …here I am again, itching and miserable.

Summer is winding down, though, and soon enough my only yard work will be raking leaves. Time to start on something new. Or maybe something old. I have some manuscripts that are (gasp!) typed on paper. I wrote them before the advent of computers, that is to say very early in my career.

Now, have I learned anything since I wrote those stories? Or am I going to keep making the same mistakes, as I do with pulling vines?

Delia Owens and David Joy at McIntyres Books.

My hope and belief is that I have honed my craft enough so that I will be able to look at these old stories and spot trouble points. I need to be sure there is theme, not just a plot; that my characters are identifiable and relatable; that I balance narrative and dialogue; and most of all, that the story is not boring.

So there is that. And somehow I plan to finish that memoir I started for the grandkids, who are now adults and maybe more interested in their shared history. Our writers’ club is holding a workshop on writing the memoir in November, and  I’m looking forward to learning just how to approach this.  It is a great opportunity, and timely.

Opportunities to learn abound. Last weekend a friend and I drove two hours to hear two novelists (David Joy and Delia Owens) read from their works and talk about writing. Well worth the trip. What I learned: it is okay if your first book is crap. Keep writing.

I hope you all take every chance you get whether it is attending author talks, reading, going to workshops or conferences, or just getting together with other writers to share your dreams.

And if someone out there is trying to deter you ( and there are naysayers whose mission in life is to pull you down) just carefully root them out of your life. They are poison ivy.

Enter Title Here

I’ve been involved in a round-robin of editing. I’m editing a friend’s new book and another friend is editing my latest endeavor. If she ever writes a book and asks friend #1 to edit it, we will come full circle.

I feel it important to ask another pair of eyes to look over any manuscript. My years as a newspaper reporter and editor taught me that our own mistakes often go unnoticed because we “see” what ought to be there.  The friend I mentioned is good at catching misspellings and typos. I am going to ask another friend to read for clarity, flow, plot holes, etc.

And of course, I ran spellcheck and took its advice 90% of the time. It has no sense of humor and doesn’t catch dialect.

Meanwhile … oh, meanwhile. I was asked for a full back in June and have been checking every day for the verdict. And, I am still sending another work out and getting really nice rejections, even a suggestion of another publisher that might take a look. I don’t want to give up hope, so I keep sending it out. I got to thinking lately that the title might be part of the problem (although I have heard editors reserve the right to change a title, I never have had one to do that).

Anyway, on reflection, it doesn’t really say what the story is about. So I brainstormed and came up with about ten alternate titles.

Here’s where I need your help.

The blurb:

Marcie Wicker is the only person, including the police, who doesn’t believe her husband, Stan, is sunning himself on a tropical beach somewhere after withdrawing every cent from their joint savings account. She refuses her father’s advice to seek a divorce and her mother’s advice to move on, and grieves that her college-age twins are letting their anger sully the memory of their father.

With the arrival of the new pastor, Adam Shepherd, Marcie realizes that she is ready to love again, but as neither wife nor widow, she is torn between accepting that Stan left her or stubbornly clinging to her belief that he has come to harm. Adam, a divorcee,  is struggling with regaining the confidence of his rebellious 13-year-old daughter and wonders if he is ready for another relationship.

When the truth is finally revealed, families are not only turned upside down, but also are made stronger.

The working title is “Wherever You May Be.”

Her are my alternates:

Missing, Presumed Alive

When He said Goodbye

When He Disappeared

Without a Word

Looking for Answers

Holding On/ Letting Go

Maybe Today

Gut Instinct

A Wife’s Heart

No One is Listening

The Stubborn Wife

Okay, no none of the above are stellar. Any suggestions?

I’d love your input! And if I choose your title, I will give your name to one of the characters in the novel!

 

 

Back into the fray

I had a wonderful birthday week. My sister came to visit from Pennsylvania and together we drove to the Golden Isles in Georgia to visit my oldest son and daughter-in-law. My second-oldest son flew in from California, making my birthday wish to have all my family together almost come true. (My youngest son and wife couldn’t make it.) Of course, none of the teenage grandkids could come because of summer jobs and/or school. So it was an adult gathering … very relaxing and enjoyable.

Since I have returned home, I’ve been busy bouncing back from yet another rejection and sending out queries and submissions. If the rejections hadn’t been so positive I might have given up, but the encouragement to keep trying is very persuasive.

And, working on my WIP. Isn’t there always a WIP? If not, there should be. It”s the only way to stop worrying about the submissions — did they get it? did they like it? when will I get a reply?

And keep dreaming and hoping for a “yes” this time around.

If writers didn’t dream, there would be no stories. Oh, they might still write them, but the results would be

These daisies didn’t succumb to the dry weather and heat while I was gone and were a welcoming sight when I returned home.

hidden in a box under the bed, read only by trusted friends and then returned to dust and darkness. So we dream up stories and then dream of them finding a home on someone’s bookshelf.

And if we’re honest, on many, many someones’ bookshelves.

This writing path has had many twists and turns since I had my first acceptance after years of writing and submitting. My first two books were accepted and published, only to have the publisher close their door.  I got my rights back and self-published, figuring all the editing and formatting had already been done, so why not? Then I self-published another because it was fairly easy and let’s face it, instant gratification.

 

My next three were accepted by a publisher, which was and is thrilling. The series was fun to write. Then I wrote another book and self published it because I was too impatient to do the necessary round of submissions.

It seems my sales are about equal for the traditionally published and self-published novels. I think there is more of a sense of satisfaction when you get that acceptance letter, but today there is no real downside to self-publishing, either. I think either way is perfectly legitimate. So if you are wondering which path to choose, it depends on how quickly you want to see your book in print. But if you do self-publish, it’s very important to have your work proofed, edited (there is a difference), and professionally formatted. See Mark Coker’s excellent guide (Smashwords) if you decide to format it yourself. And don’t forget your cover, which is the first thing a potential buyer looks at.

My, I’m full of advice! Some gleaned from reading books on getting published and some from my own experience. And, in my opinion, real-life experience is the best teacher.

Write on!

 

 

 

 

Ready, Set … Goal!

Having made the statement that I was going to revisit an old manuscript and revise it because I know now more than I did then, I had several people respond that they couldn’t wait to read the story.

Not only that, but in my writing group I set my next month’s goal to finish at least four chapters. We each put in 25 cents and write down our goal for the next meeting. These slips of paper are put in a pot and drawn. If your name is drawn and you have accomplished your goal, you win. If not, the pot rolls over to next time.

It isn’t about the money. The last person who won walked off with a whopping $5.00. It’s about setting that goal and reaching it. No one wants to admit that, for whatever reason, they didn’t do what they vowed to do. It’s not only  embarrassing, but shows a lack of commitment.

So I set both a short-range and a long-range goal to revise and finish this story. I’m excited. For one thing, in the past 10 years or more since I started it, I’ve learned more about pacing and structure. I’ve changed from pure pantser to more of a plotter, because I’ve discovered that if you go down a  road without checking a map first, you could very well find yourself at a dead end, or almost as bad, someplace you never intended to go and no way to get back on course.

I would most likely finish the story without having made my intention public. But now I feel a responsibility not only to myself but to my few but loyal fans.

Setting a goal is good and we all do it. Sometimes the only person aware of the goal is yourself, and if you fail you are the only one who knows it.

However, if you set a goal and talk about it to friends and write about it, you  have a lot more riding on its completion. And if that doesn’t make you sit down and start writing, I don’t know what will.

 

 

 

a’s and b’s of contests

I’ve entered a few contests in my time and have been a) mortified or b) uplifted by the judges’ comments.  I have had entries returned with angry lines scrawled across my hard-written efforts and I have had very nice remarks that almost made me feel good that I had lost. Judging is difficult, but it is akin to critiquing. You try to point out flaws gently and kindly.

Gently and kindly is best.

So when I judge, I try to keep in mind how I would want to be treated. Maybe there are issues. How best to tell the would-be writer that maybe, just maybe, they might want to take a teeny-tiny revisit and oh, say change a word or two here or there to make the sentence more coherent?

You almost have to choose your words as carefully as if you were writing a query letter, which everyone knows is the hardest writing of all. And a contest all its own, of sorts.

Because the last thing a judge wants to do is discourage a writer just as she is starting out her career. You don’t slap their hands with a ruler because they made a little error in spelling.

Spelling is the least of it. Spelling can be corrected. But when the writer makes a great big error in plotting, or in pacing, it’s a little more difficult to point it out. I can say, “I got a little lost here…” or “a bridge paragraph might work at this point” and go on my way.

That said, the beginning chapters of the three manuscripts I read made me eager to read more. The opening sentences were spot-on to rouse my interest. The unfolding plot lines kept me guessing.

If these authors are amateurs in the sense that they are not yet published, the established authors had better look out.

Or not. There is always room in the world for a good, fast-paced, and interesting novel. One thing I have learned about writers is that they do not feel as if they are in competition. They are always eager to help one another.

What I take away from judging is that a) I can see other writers’ mistakes more easily than I can see my own and b) I look forward to reading more from these talented ladies.

 

Book fairs — are they worth it?

First, thank you to everyone who took the time to vote for “Riverbend” in the InD’Tale contest. Today is the last day to vote, just sayin’.

But it is time to move on. As I’ve said before, writing isn’t just about putting words on paper–or in Word file nowadays, although I do know some authors who still write with a pen and legal pad. If I did that, I would never be able to decipher my handwriting!

Me at a book fair. I believe the book I was selling then was “The Lunch Club.”

So coming up is a two-day book fair at a local library. Now here is where a writer has to make tough decisions. I’ve attended some book fairs and did very well. I’ve attended others and sold zero to one book. The trouble is, you never can tell. Do people come to browse and enjoy the free coffee or do they come with intent to buy? And how do you entice them to buy? I’ve offered free candy, book marks, half-price deals, pens, and other freebies. In my experience, people with gladly accept anything free and then walk away without making a purchase. Or they will buy more than one book.

So now I have to make an order from Amazon so I will have books to sell. How many? As Hamlet famously said, “That is the question.”

I guess I just have to go by instinct. No one wants to live with a garage filled with unsold books, but on the other hand, you don’t want to tell a prospective customer that you are out of the book she wants to buy.

Putting money matters aside, book fairs are a great way to meet people. Even if they don’t buy that day, if you’ve made a good impression — a connection — they may well buy your book while they next go  online to choose something to read. And, you get to meet fellow authors and exchange tips and advice.  And make connections.

So in my mind, that is almost as important as selling books. If I break even in expenses, I’m happy.

 

 

Here I go again!

“They” say history repeats itself.  I don’t think personal history was included in that remark, but I’m sure I’m not the only one to find myself thinking, “Here I go again!”

In 2015, a 4.5-star review made “A Question of Time” eligible for the prestigious RONE award, given by  InD’tale Magazine. As the title indicates, the award is for independently published fiction. After getting a 4.5 or 5-star review, the book is automatically entered. In the next round, readers vote for their favorite. After that, the finalists are judges by industry professionals.

My book passed the first round of reader judging. I was not able to go to the banquet and ceremony in California because Jim was in rehab at that time for a broken hip. It was just as well I saved my money, because I didn’t win. The judges didn’t find my story captivating. In fact, I didn’t even get an honorable mention. (Sobs)

That was in 2016. Now I am eligible again for “Riverbend.” Do I dare get my hopes up once more or do I tell myself that I’m up against many good writers, I don’t have a big fan base, and other excuses that will help soften the blow of losing?

Well, I’m going to give it all I can. Here are the instructions for voting:

It is extremely important that you let all your readers and fans know!  We would hate to think a superior quality book lost only because people were unaware of the time limit. Also, make sure that they understand they MUST be registered on our website at www.indtale.com in order to vote. Once they register, if they haven’t already, they will be required to click the verification link sent to them via email. If they do not verify their registration with this link, they will be unable to vote. This is very important to help insure that the voting is fair and maintains the high quality standards required for this top-tier award.

Yes, I know it sounds like a lot of trouble. But it really isn’t all that hard. Go to the link, register, click the verification email, and then vote.

Voting  in my category, Historical: Victorian-20th Century, begins April 23 and ends April 29. Just in case you don’t mark it on your calendar, I’ll remind you again.

If you haven’t read the book,  want to read an excerpt,  or go to the buy links, my website is www.sandrazbruney.com

I’d love to be a finalist again. I’d love it even more if I won, but if I don’t (again) it will be a fun ride.

By the way, here’s the review (5 stars!):

“Riverbend” is an emotionally provocative story that transports the reader back to the days of slavery. The story is well composed and well written, with compelling and bewitching characters. Damaris is often left a disadvantage but overcomes her afflictions with grace and perseverance. Zoe tantalizes with her beauty and antagonistic ways. There is a constant push and pull between Zoe and Damaris and the conflict that Zoe presents makes the story riveting. The fact that a slave has as much power as the mistress is unprecedented and provokes any different emotions. “Riverbend” is a truly excellent novel that will stay in the readers mind long after they are finished!

 

 

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