We, Readers

blitzI love this picture of London during the Blitz. These diehard readers didn’t have to cope with “safer at home.” But they still were under grave stress and the chance of very real physical attack from the German Luftwaffe. Yet, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t stay away from their favorite bookstore. These days, we readers are luckier than those were. We can order books through mail order, get ebooks from paid sources or through our libraries, and listen to audio books. Of course, if you’re like me, you had a ton of books piled up anyway. In fact, since all the libraries hereabouts have suspended operations, they have also stopped all returning of library materials, and extended the due dates uniformly till some future date. Right now, it’s June 1, but it could go longer. This is a real boon to me, since I had, at the time of the freeze, way more books checked out than I could possibly have finished in the normal time allowed, even with renewals. This is on top of the hundreds of currently unread books on my shelves and several audio books queued up. But if you’re still in need, here’s my new favorite mail order bookseller: https://bookshop.org. And over at the Writers Who Kill blog, there is an entire post that lists non-Amazon booksellers. I’m only passing on this information, as I heard somewhere that Amazon was giving priority to essential products during this time of crisis, as well they should, causing some delays in orders for books and the like. So, whether you’re reading something light, to ease your mind, or something harrowing, to distract you from the present situation, you have plenty of choices and plenty of company. I wish you all safe and healthy reading.

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I’m Not Sure I Can Do This

theatreI don’t think I can go negative in public. In these posts, I always want to be positive, encouraging and supportive of my fellow writers. So, I hate to be critical. I know how hard writing is. Plus, in this case, no one is asking for my feedback. But here it is, anyway.

I saw a one-woman show a few days ago. I’ve seen many one-women or one-man shows over the years and most of them were outstanding. Even those slightly less stellar still left me envious of the quality of writing and the courage to perform them. But this last one, well . . .

Basically the show was a series of events and incidents from the author’s life strung together. Other than chronology, there was no organizing principle. There was no overall theme tying them together. She made a stab at presenting a thesis at the beginning and the end, but the part in between didn’t flow organically from the ostensible motif she attempted to develop. They were just, you know, anecdotes. I won’t give specifics. I would never in a million years hurt this woman’s feelings. She performed well, the accompanying graphics and music were spot on. But, let’s say you and your friends and family are all sitting around after a nice meal. One person tells a story about how a few days ago he lost his keys! But, guess what, after some searching, his found them. Then everybody else chimes in with stories about things they lost and found. It’s a fun way to bond over shared glitches in life. You care because you already care about these people. But in the end, the response is “so what?’ Is there a point? No. Do the stories have impact? are they memorable? do we learn anything? No. My first writing teacher, in fact, called these “so what? stories.”

The entire one-woman show was a string of these “so what?” anecdotes. Amusing, self-deprecating, with lots of concrete details, but there was no insight, no growth of character, no struggle, and thus no chance of a satisfying resolution. This woman put a lot of work into this performance. But it fell flat. Sad. Here’s the thing, though. It was a clear demonstration of what I must guard against in my own work.  There has to be a reason for the reader to care, to keep reading, to stay engaged, to care about the characters and what happens to them. I learn about my craft in many ways. I’m grateful for all of them, even this one. It’s a reminder of what I must not do. A reminder to dig deeper, to take risks, to put it out there. It was an object lesson in one of the reasons a piece of written work might fail.

Usually we don’t get to see the failures in the work of others. Editors and other gate-keepers stop them from being published. We might see them in a critique group or workshop. But my task is to spot them in my own work. Then, fix ’em or toss ’em.

Okay. I went negative. I hope I don’t have to do it again.

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The Antidote to Panic

panic1I saw a call for a new anthology. I thought had a story in inventory that would work. I had written it a few years ago and run it by my critique partner. Stephanie made some astute comments and I revised the story accordingly. So, it was pretty much ready to go–or so I thought. Then I pulled out the hard copy and starting reading, ready to make a few minor tweaks. After the first two sentences I was appalled. “This is awful! Unreadable. Boring,” I thought to myself. “Why didn’t I see this before. And more important, how can I fix it?” And still more urgently, how can I fix it in time for the anthology’s deadline?

Yep, thinking the story was nearly ready to go, I had waited till a couple of weeks before the deadline. I had other projects to work on, after all. Surely it would be easy to work this story into the schedule. But no, suddenly I was faced with some major revisions. At one point in my writing life, I might have given up in despair, believing I couldn’t fix the story in time. And at one point, that would have been true. But I’m way beyond that point these days. From years of experience, in reading, writing, revising, critiquing and listening to the critiques of others, I had a pretty good idea of what the story needed: change the point of view, add more dialogue, develop one of the secondary characters a bit more. It was also those years of experience that had enabled me to see how bad the story was in the first place. Stephanie had pointed out the most egregious problem. Silly me, not to have seen the others. But that was then, this is now.

I made the changes, re-read the guidelines for formatting one more time, then sent it off. It still may not be accepted. Might not be good enough. Might not be as close to the theme as the editor wants. Or, while it may be good enough, she might get dozens more that are better. But if I had succumbed to my initial panic, I would have stopped myself cold, and wouldn’t even have the chance for an acceptance. The cure for panic is two-fold. First, get that experience, then have faith that that experience is enough preparation to handle whatever writing challenges come up. Repeat.

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It Depends

pine strawBack when I was a Girl Scout, I went to camp every summer. Even the littlest campers were expected to help out with chores, both in their individual units and in the larger campground. One week, I was assigned to rake the pine straw off the sandy path from one area to another after breakfast each morning. One day, I was making progress, raking the path in long steady strokes. A counselor I didn’t know came up to supervise. Unhappy with my progress, she shouted, “Speed it up!” I was stunned and hurt. I was doing the best I could with my scrawny, little girl arms.

The next morning, I different counselor came along to monitor the chores. She said, as best as I can remember, “You’re doing a great job. You must have a lot of experience raking.” Now, of course, I was doing the exact same job in exactly the same way, which was the best I could and the only way I knew how. What changed was the viewer, not me or my work. I remember this every time I send out a submission. You don’t know who’s on the other end, the reading end. So, if you’ve done your best work, had it critiqued if possible, made revisions, followed the guidelines meticulously, then you can’t control the reaction of the editor or first reader.

I know I’ve told the story before of a piece I submitted to an anthology many years ago. The piece was not selected. But when I got the scores from the judges, it was more amusing than hurtful. One judge had give the story high marks on all criteria. One judge scored the story right down the middle. And the third judge had given the story all low marks, right down the line. So, what the heck? The wildly different reactions to the exact same story could only be the result of something in the judges themselves. I know from this and other experiences, rejections don’t mean my work is bad. It just means, not here, not now. I also know this because that same story was accepted and published in a different anthology a few years later. Keep writing, keep believing in yourself, keep submitting, keep finding new markets–keep trying. That’s my plan.

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Breakthrough

victrolaNo, not with my writing. (I wish.) But with my consumption of books. Years ago, I had a super long commute to and from work, 75 miles each way. I naturally thought it would be a great time to listen to audio books. Total failure. My mind was too busy with planning work projects or with problems there or at home. I just couldn’t pay attention. So, I gave up, thinking I just didn’t have the kind of mind to absorb audio books. Then I married a man who was nearly blind. I began to get him audio books in various forms, some from the library and some from a paid subscription service. He gobbled them up, and I was a bit envious that he had that option. Somehow, after he died, I never canceled his paid service, but also never thought I’d use it. After all, I had plenty of money to buy books, and had several libraries nearby. BUT–

The time arrived when I wanted to save more money. The time arrived, as it does for so many of us, when the pile of unread, or half read books became too much for my peace of mind. The time also arrived when I wasn’t able to get the books I wanted from any of my libraries. Either the collection development librarians didn’t choose them to buy, or they were so wildly popular the waiting list was a year long. So, I decided to give audio books another try. This time, it worked! Why now? First, the pressure of the above mentioned conditions. But moreover, I’ve stumbled upon the joy of the convenience of “hands-free” reading. Listening during mealtimes is the greatest discovery ever! Sure, there are gadgets that supposedly cradle a book while your hands are doing else. But I never found that any of them worked very well. You still have to turn the pages, after all. You really can’t read a print book while eating corn on the cob. Also, as with books on e-readers, you can carry a whole shelf of them with you anywhere you go. (Earphones or ear buds a must for public places.)

And the ways to get audio books are many. As I said, of course, there are the paid subscriptions, some of which offer free books as well. There are “playaways” offered by some libraries. And those same libraries have a both books on CDs and audio versions to download, just like checking out a print book.

Print books are still better for some topics, especially those with lot of illustrations, instructions to follow, or poetry. I’ll never give up my addiction to print books and I also have always enjoyed my various e-readers. But thanks to my willingness to try, try again, I can take advantage of a whole new source of book delivery. For a reading addict, nothing can be better than that.

 

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A Choice Every Minute

choiceOr maybe even every second. I have a writing project on my desk. I’m stuck. Can’t think of  new idea, can’t think where to take the ideas that I do have. Should I sit here until I have some kind of breakthrough? I’ve already been doing that, for an hour, with no tangible results. Judging by appearances that method is not working, even though it has in the past. BUT–there’s this program at the library that I told everybody I would attend. It starts in 15 minutes. Should I abandon my temporarily stuck project? Or stick to it till I muddle through, knowing I can fix it later.? But, if I’m not getting anywhere, aren’t I just embedding the sense of failure and ineptitude? If I go out, be amongst people, learn something new, will I then come back refreshed and, likely, with new ideas or a new direction? Or do I judge solely on what’s most important to me. Well, it’s all important to me. New experiences, as well as my work. As a writer, as  human, as someone who wants to “have it all”, I make these choices constantly. Do I choose wisely? I can’t say that I always do. And I won’t tell you what I’ll do this time. What choices do you make in your life. Which ones further your writing. Which ones bring you the most joy? Can they be the same? Yes, or no?

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I Did It Anyway

obstaclesYesterday I put my last submission of the year in the mail. (This was one of those rare markets where you actually send in a paper copy.) And I did it despite all contrary conditions. Despite the printer running out of ink. (I had a supply of cartridges, but installing a new one took precious minutes.) Despite my cat pestering me incessantly for attention. Despite the pressure of an 11:00 AM appointment. Despite having a crisis moment when I forgot how to perform certain formatting functions in Word. Despite all the piled up after holiday chores, nagging at the corner of my eye. Despite my own misgivings about the story: was it good enough? Had I made it the best I possibly could? Won’t they get hundreds of submissions and do I even have a chance? Despite all the obstacles and set-backs, I did it anyway. That’s just what I do. It’s just what we do. We writers.

There are always going to be challenges in everything in life. So what? Nobody has it easy and it’s not easier for others, no matter how it appears from the outside. If we want the results, we press on. And I especially wanted to get the story off yesterday, even though there’s no fixed deadline. I wanted to be able to say, at least regarding the calendar year, “I finished strong.” In whatever way you choose, I wish the same for you.

 

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Season’s Readings

irving berlin3At this time of year, who can resist the story of the composer of “White Christmas?” Not me.   I do love biographies, but this one is exceptional. It’s about a genius, of course. But it’s also about three of the things I care most about: music, writing and the mystery of creativity.

In addition, Irving Berlin: New York Genius is about so much more. James Kaplan has set Berlin’s life in the context of the immigrant experience, New York in the late nineteenth century, the theater and Broadway, the literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s, early Hollywood and America during the war years and the depression. While these topics are merely background and obviously not covered in depth, they add immeasurably to the rich portrait of an extraordinary life. It’s an inspiration for me as a writer. The main lesson: work. According to sources, Berlin believed in perspiration, not inspiration. Hmmm. Sounds like a New Year’s resolution in the making.

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Looking Backwards

nostalgiaI’m not one for nostalgia. I don’t view the past with some hazy golden glow.  I remember all too well the struggles, heartbreaks and hard work of my younger years. Besides, I’m happy now, so the past holds little attraction for me. There is one area, however, where I do tend to dwell on the past. I remember and relive my past writing successes and triumphs, publications and awards. I review in my mind work I published long ago, or last year. While I’m proud of them, I also keep thinking of ways I could have made them better. Well, that ship’s sailed. Okay, it’s possible I might gather and reprint some of them into a collection, in which case I can make some additional tweaks. But, barring that, they’re done, over with, and in many cases, forgotten. In fact, as I look back at some of them, they deserve to be forgotten.

Which is actually one of the benefits of this particular time suck. It reminds me that I’ve indeed come a long way. I’m a much better writer now. And during periods of writing blocks, this reminiscing also reminds me that, yes, I’ve done it before and I can do it again. The only caveat: I mustn’t ever rest on my laurels. Sure, remember my successes fondly for a while. Then get on with the process of creating new work to be proud of.

 

 

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Roughing It

rough3In my last post, I talked a bit about how we get ideas. But getting the idea is worthless if we immediately lose its essence. We have to capture not just the idea, but its context. Many writers talk about carrying around a small notebook for these occasions. Or, you can verbally record a note into your phone for later playback. Yet, there are times when neither of these is possible, like in a dark movie theater or when your friend is sobbingly recounting the tragedy of watching her cat die of a stroke. You can’t just whip a scrap of paper and say, “excuse me a minute. (Scribble.) Now, what were you saying?”

Okay, so you record ideas when you can. But I’ve found, for me that isn’t sufficient. I end up with cryptic notes that no longer have the slightest meaning. I find things like “rain barrel” or “dirty socks.” At the time I record them, they are so vivid, I’m certain I’ll remember later what story the image created in my mind. But later, no matter how hard I try, I can no longer recall what brilliant idea these words were meant to capture. So, for me, I’ve found that it’s essential to add a rough draft of the concept. E.g., “dirty socks. Is his relationship was on the rocks. Had he been showing other signs that I had glossed over? Is his mental health in danger?” That sort of thing. Just something that will give me a clue what to do with my strange notations. The more I can rough out my ideas when they occur to me, the easier it is to flesh them out later on. It doesn’t have to be an entire draft, of course. But definitely more than just “dead bird” or “that shade of red.” Things that leave me scratching my head, going “Wha???” Otherwise those brilliant ideas never get written. Luckily, as I wrote before, there are always more ideas out there.

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