Friday, July 31, 2009

Don’t Be Shy

Meeting other writers can be challenging because writing is a solitary activity. Most writers who are serious about their work are more concerned with spending face-to-face time with the computer than reaching out to other writers. For many writers, “networking” is what they hope the Geek Squad will do for them one day.

But writers do need to meet other writers, if only because non-writers don’t give a fig about the overuse of adverbs and dialogue tags. You’ll have to find other writers to talk to if you want to ask questions about the proper way to write a book proposal, how to pitch a story idea, or the best way to learn SEO writing. Whether you are writing as a career or because you simply love to write, finding other writers can be as important as learning how to use Word. Writers are all over the Internet, and for those who prefer to converse with a human, writing groups, workshops, and seminars can be found in almost every city.

Pick your method for meeting other scribblers, and don’t be shy. After eight years as a professional writer, I still get what I call “Author Awe” any time I talk to writers with more experience and better clips than I have. And never, not once, have any of the more esteemed writers I’ve met, in person or on the Internet, been anything other than helpful and gracious. That’s not to say there aren’t some stinkers out there; I’m sure there are plenty of surly and anti-social writers in the world. In my case, however, I can honestly say I haven’t met them.

I’m always surprised when a busy and successful writer takes the time to ask me about what I’m writing. Honestly, the last time this happened, I was shocked. Author Awe hit me. Why would anyone want to talk to a regional writer like me? Well, if you’re a writer, you know that writers are curious. We ask questions. We tend to be nosy. And we like to talk to other writers. After I got over being shy, I had a good e-mail conversation with the other writer (and mostly got over my Author Awe).

If you get the chance to talk (or e-mail) with a more established/published writer, don’t be shy, but don’t overwhelm her, either. To make the most of the contacts you make with other writers, especially those a few steps ahead of you, I recommend:

--Be friendly, but keep it professional. Don’t share your unabridged life story in the first five minutes. Actually, unless you become exceptionally good friends, don't share the unabridged version at all.

--Asking simple questions is fine. Asking the other writer to read your 1,000-page novel and give you a critique is not.

--If you’re at a writing group or seminar, keep your questions on topic. A writer speaking about the techniques of writing narrative non-fiction isn’t there to answer your questions on copyright.

--Be brief. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Every writing group, seminar, or workshop I’ve attended included one attendee who just couldn’t seem to stop talking, and talking, and talking… all while the writer who was speaking tried desperately to get the talker to shut up. If you have a long story or involved question, ask the other writer if you may contact her via e-mail or telephone.

--If you are e-mailing, remember to use proper punctuation, spelling, etc. Every piece of correspondence leaves an impression. Most e-mail correspondence should also be brief.

--If you’ve met on a social networking site (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), a little extra friendliness is fine, even appropriate. Just remember that while your old college pals might think those pictures of you after an evening of Jager Bombs are oh-so-funny, your new writer friend might not.

--Be sensitive to the clues that the conversation/e-mail exchange is done.

Don’t be shy, but don’t be a bonehead, either. Keep some simple guidelines in mind, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how willing other writers are to talk to you.
Picture courtesy of Kylie White at

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A New Boyfriend & Other Writing Prompts

It’s time for some writing prompts! Pick a prompt that grabs your attention, and freewrite for ten minutes. When you’re done, you might have the start of a new story, or you might not. Don’t worry about the end result—just write!

--Linda’s mother had a new boyfriend, and Linda decided she didn’t like him because….
--Have you ever won a contest?
--Bob found his wife passed out in the bathroom, and he mistakenly assumed….
--Are you taking a vacation this summer?
Picture courtesy of Brenda Lamothe Coulomme at

Frank McCourt: An Inspiration to Millions

On Sunday, the world lost a very special author, a man with a voice and a story that inspired millions. Frank McCourt’s first memoir, Angela’s Ashes, received the Pulitzer Prize, and he followed up his incredible debut with two more memoirs, Teacher Man and ‘Tis. When I heard he had passed away, I felt like I had lost a friend.

When I meet aspiring memoir writers, I tell them to read Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s first book is a testament to the power of a well-told story and proof that one need not be famous to have had a fascinating life. If you’re a writer struggling to understand voice, read Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s voice is lyrical and sad, coarse and delicate; he gave us far more than just the narrative of a childhood filled with abject poverty and challenges that would break many a grown man. He took his readers back in time with him. When I read Angela’s Ashes, I had to stop sometimes because the descriptions and McCourt’s voice were so penetrating, so real, that sometimes it broke my heart to keep reading. If you’ve read Angela’s Ashes, I’d bet that you, too, can still envision the McCourt’s home in Ireland as it appeared in your mind, no matter how long ago you read the book. He gave us not just his story, but his family’s story. He didn’t gloss over anything, and he showed himself to be a fallible human as well as a central figure.

McCourt’s book helped give me the courage to write my own memoir, and I followed his example of showing my own role in my past in as unvarnished a manner as possible. The title of his last book, Teacher Man, describes him perfectly, although I know it’s a specific reference to the years he spent as a teacher in public schools. His words taught many of us, millions of us who never met him in person. He taught us about life, about poverty, about hope. He taught writers that the ugly truth can be beautiful on paper, and that the story of a common man can be uplifting and insightful.

When I was growing up, we had this Irish blessing in our kitchen, and I offer it today in memory of Frank McCourt.

An Old Irish Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Upcoming Events at the Clark County Library

The Clark County Library District continues to bring Southern Nevadan writers terrific (and free) programs. I especially recommend the Nuts & Bolts Writing Workshop (co-hosted by Stephens Press). Just be sure to arrive early; if the last workshop is any indication, they will be filled to overflowing. All the events below will be held at the main library branch, 1401 E. Flamingo Road. Descriptions of the programs are taken directly from the CCLD’s announcement; inserted links are my own doing.

* * *
Sunday, July 19 at 2 p.m. ◊ Norm & Tony Curtis: Inside the Actor’s Studio – Vegas Style:
Norm talks with legendary actor, Tony Curtis, about his life, the movies and his latest autobiography.

Wednesday, July 29 at 6:30 p.m. ◊ Meet the Authors: The Chosen Few: How to Become An Anthology Author:
Local authors Leslie Hoffman, Gregory Kompes and Tena Thompson are some of the chosen few who have had their stories accepted into anthologies on national, international, and local publishing levels. Come join us as they explain how to find an anthology to suit your writing style and common mistakes to avoid when writing a short story.

Saturday and Sunday, August 16 & 17 starting at 1 p.m. ◊ Nuts & Bolts Writing Workshops for Authors:
Join the Clark County Library and Stephens Press as we present 2 days of intensive workshops for writers! On Saturday we’ll focus on the “nuts & bolts” of writing and Sunday we’ll focus on writing memoirs, for pleasure and sales (one of the fastest growing areas in publishing).

Wednesday, August 26 at 6:30 p.m. ◊ Meet the Authors: Kid Lit 101: Breaking Into The Children's Literature Market:
What can authors do today to put the Child back into Children's Literature? Join us as authors Sid Goodman, Stacee Hallquist and Jackie Yoxen discuss their children's books and their writing experiences.

Wednesday, September 30 at 6:30 p.m. ◊ Meet the Authors: Self Publishing and the First Time Author:
Join us as Jo Wilkins, founder of Mystic Publishers and president of the Henderson Writers Group, plus a panel of local writers as they discuss self publishing and tips for writers who are starting out.

Thursday, October 8 at 7 p.m. ◊ A Supernatural Evening with Langan and Sokoloff: Things The Go Bump in the Night:
Sarah Langan (THE MISSING and THE KEEPER) and Alexandra Sokoloff (THE UNSEEN, THE PRICE and THE HARROWING: A GHOST STORY) talk about the dark fiction or horror genre as well as their new releases and their experiences writing and publishing.

Wednesday, October 14 at 6:30 p.m. ◊ Meet the Authors: #2 with a Bullet - Writing Your Second Book:
Join us as Jo Wilkins, founder of Mystic Publishers and president of the Henderson Writers Group, plus a panel of local writers as they discuss the pitfalls and perils of writing your second book.

Friday, October 16 at 7 p.m. ◊ An Evening with Max Brooks: Surviving the Zombie Wars:
Max Brooks, considered by many to be one of the world's foremost Zombie preparedness experts, will take the stage at the Clark County Library to explain the keys to success against the hordes of the undead that may be stalking you right now As we all know, the world we live in has become a rather scary place and the global increase in the number of Zombie attacks isn't helping matters any.
Photo information: My picture of Stephens Press President Carolyn Hayes Uber, taking questions after the March Nuts & Bolts Workshop.

Cats and Writers

What is it about cats and writers? Think about Hemmingway’s famous six-toed kitties and Cleveland Armory’s "Best Cat Ever." Cats and writers have a connection. Why?

I’ve always had a cat hanging around my desk. A feline is usually laying on the laptop, trying to drink from my water glass, or swatting at my pen. Sometimes we have disagreements. Sometimes we have full-blown arguments, like when my official office cat, Baby, decided to start spraying in the house. (After a stint on house arrest in the office, he’s been released, although he’s definitely still on probation. More about that in a moment.) Cats tend to be both stubborn and mysterious, little four-legged conundrums. Their moods and behavior can flip unexpectedly. When a cat decides that the belly rubbing session is over, he may quickly transform from an affectingly purring pet to a cranky creature with teeth and claws. I believe it’s that independent, unpredictable, inscrutable nature that draws writers to cats. If we could interview a cat, I think they might say the same about us.

Writers are almost as enigmatic as cats, at least to non-writers (and perhaps dogs). Think about it. There you are, working on an idea, mapping out that essay or story, when the phone rings or someone asks you to pass the salt, snapping you back into present time. Do you sweetly respond, or do you snarl, “Can’t you reach the salt yourself?” See, you’re acting just like that cat who has had enough belly rubbing. Just as you don’t know why Mr. Cat’s had enough, the unsuspecting person who wants the salt doesn’t know that you’ve just lost a piece of your plot over a condiment.

Study a cat’s behavior and personality, and you’ll find loads of material for characterization. Don’t get me wrong—plenty of dogs are overflowing with character (take Marley in Marley and Me, for instance)—but dogs are generally people pleasers. They want their people to be happy with them, but most cats couldn’t care less about making their people happy. They’re only a step away from being wild again, and if they could talk, I’m sure they’d tell us that on a daily basis. “Just fill my food bowl, human, and I won’t be forced to eat the poodle.” In many ways, cats remind me of the writing process itself: sometimes difficult, but ultimately rewarding. You know how your cat looks after he’s found a sunny spot by the window, after a good meal and the appropriate amount of petting? He’s purring and watching the birds, utter contentment on his face. To me, it looks like the feeling a writer gets when the story is done, when all the pieces have come together and the words are as close to perfect as we can make them.

Sometimes, however, the writing process doesn’t work out in such a sunny, happy manner. Sometimes it’s more like the day Baby Cat sprayed all over my bedroom curtains for no apparent reason. Even animal lovers have limits about acceptable behavior, and this totally crossed the line. No way could I cope with this, not with three other critters in the house (one of them sick), an almost-out-of-work spouse, and the pressing need to find writing assignments. Nope, that was it—good-bye Baby! You might know the feeling from a writer’s perspective; the story has gone hopelessly awry and you’ve no clue how to get it back on track. You’ve spent days (or weeks, months, or years) working on it. The descriptions are too thin, the plot is weak, or—even worse—it’s just wrong and you don’t why. You crumple up the paper, toss it into the trash, and mutter, “I can’t! I can’t fix this! I don’t know how!” Then the story has a few days to sit. That which seemed unfixable starts to come into focus. An idea pops into your head. You remember how much you wanted to write that story, how much it has burrowed into your soul, and solutions begin to emerge.

I’ve been ready to chuck plenty of writing projects. I’ve resisted the urge to delete my book from my computer, although at the time I contemplated it, it sure seemed like a good idea. After his misbehavior, I was ready to give up on Baby Cat, too, but I realized that urge was born out of frustration. After calming down, I took the time to sit with him, give him lots of love (and a heartfelt apology for threatening to send him to the animal orphanage), and contemplate what might be causing him to misbehave. The answers aren’t always obvious, for either cats or stories. Pushing beyond our limits, whether those limits are on our abilities as writers or as companions to our felines, can make us a little crazy. Accepting the unacceptable and fixing the unfixable is difficult, even painful. But when we move past our previously set limits, we grow.

Afterwards, we can grab that spot next to window and watch the birds.
Picture information: Baby Cat in the den. Check out that big belly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Under the Plum Tree

Before I plunged head-first into a freelance writing career, I imagined blissful days full of nothing but writing. I was shocked (and somewhat dismayed) to find that writers who want to be in business for themselves have to do all kinds of non-writing things--networking, research, prospecting for leads. It's a challenge to balance the business of writing against the craft of writing. When I have to escape the gravitational pull of the Internet and telephone, I retreat to my backyard. No Internet. No telephone. Sometimes the hummingbirds get a little pushy when their food is low, and the mockingbirds can be downright obnoxious if my dogs get too close to their nest, but those are minor distractions. Under the plum tree, I can immerse myself in whatever I'm writing. In those moments, being a freelance writer feels like everything I imagined.

Writers: Where do you go when you want to focus completely on your writing?
Photo information: My outside office, under the plum tree.

A Hot, Sunny Day & Other Writing Prompts

Since it's too dang hot to go outside, grab a writing implement and take a prompt for a test drive... inside in the air conditioning, of course, unless you have a pool and water-proof writing tools!

--The mid-day sun was unbearable, but Derrick still had to....
--When was the last time you saw the ocean?
--"Why do you care if I've had 12 beers?" ranted Anita. "Just be glad I haven't...."
--Have you ever attended a family reunion?
Picture courtesy of Dan Shirley at