Category Archives: Question of the Month

Happy New Year! What are your New Year resolutions?

Lose weight. Exercise more. Adopt a healthier diet. Drink more water.
You too? Do these top your list of New Year resolutions?

I know all about goals. When I worked in Corporate America, I had to set goals. Short-term goals, the one-year plan. Long-term goals, the five-year plan. I had to write them down and submit them to my supervisor signed as if I was pledging my life away. As a corporate robot I set goals, wrote them down and charted my way to success.

What worked in my corporate America world, doesn’t work so well in my Happy Writer World. I’ve been a writer long enough to know that in happy writer world the best laid plans often end up in the garbage. Rejection letters sting and waiting for agents and editors to return calls feels like a waste of time not to mention control. My goal might be to publish a book or a short story but the publishing world has other ideas. It all boils down to what can I do better. How can I make this story float above the slush pile?

Recently author Cheryl Strayed summed up precisely on Facebook how I feel about New Year goals and resolutions:
“Is there ever an end to the daily struggle to be a better person? I’m not asking this rhetorically. I’m wondering if there’s a time when you reach it, when you say “I can no longer think of any way to be a better person.” (Or maybe there are people who do not ponder every day how they can be a better person?) When I say “better person” I don’t mean that I constantly tell myself how awful I am but rather I’m very aware of the ways in which I could’ve done better as a friend, as a mom, as a spouse, as a sister, as a writer, as a woman with some serious aspirations for this thing called “balance” (ie: time for exercise, lounging, sex, thrift-store shopping, voracious reading). On a pretty much daily basis I think of how I’ve failed in many of these areas. It’s not a self-hate thing, but rather a deep desire I have to someday fall asleep thinking, “Well done, Strayed. You’ve got it down.” I’m reflecting on this as the first day of 2014 comes to an end here on the west coast of America. Not thinking “Well done, Strayed” but thinking instead, “Maybe next year. Maybe tomorrow. Keep going. Keep walking. Just try to do better in every action, intention, thought and deed.””

I once sat in on a lecture by writer William C. Anderson. When asked a question about “how to know when to quit editing” he said that he was so relieved when BAT-21 was finally published because he could finally stop changing things and move on to something else. He said nothing ever felt perfect, nothing ever felt “done.” Most writers I know strive for perfection when theoretically we know there is no perfect, only better.

I’m struggling with these issues today as I think about what I want to accomplish in 2014. How can I write better? What can I do to propel my work forward? How can I achieve balance in this less than perfect world?

For me the answer is simple. Begin each day with optimism knowing I’m doing the best I can. Dig in knowing there will be ups and downs and some days will be better than others.

C. S. Lewis said, “ You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” So here’s my New Year resolution. Relax and enjoy the journey. It’s a brand new year full of wonderful possibilities.

What are your New Year goals and resolutions? Do you set daily word count goals? How do your reward yourself when you meet them?
-Bonnie Dodge

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To self-publish or not to self-publish, that is the question

At a recent book-selling event that was a topic of conversation among many of the local authors.  We had time to talk because a snow storm put a damper on sales.

Given the opportunity to self-publish thanks to companies like Create Space, Book Baby, Lulu and more, authors can put their books into print, at least print on demand. This route is the alternative to the more traditional one of seeking an agent who will negotiate a sale of your work to a larger publisher.

As a writer who has gone both ways, there are pros and cons to each.

Make no mistake; the largest obstacle to the more traditional route is getting an agent because most of the very big publishing houses won’t look at you without one. Your writing and/or subject matter (hopefully both) must be compelling to get their attention. Once you land an agent, they will do the work to present your book to a publisher. Publishers will provide editors to make sure your work is the best it can be, as well as cover designers. Once published, they roll out their formidable marketing machine.

With a publisher you will get a percentage of the profits from book sales, and don’t forget the cut to your agent. But hello, an established publisher had enough faith in you to publish your work. I felt very, very proud of that when a New York house picked up my children’s book, “Red Ridin’ in the Hood and Other Cuentos.”

More and more writers, even ones who have been published by traditional publishers, are looking at self-publishing. In this route you will have to take care of the things publishers do from editing to cover design to marketing to distinguish your book from the many, many more books there are out there because of self-publishing. That is a downside because the time you spend doing this takes away from your writing time.

If you take this route, my best advice is to spend money on an editor. Readers usually don’t care who publishes a book, but they will care if it’s poorly written and full of grammatical errors that bump them out of the story. Then they’ll ask, “Who the hell published this book?” On the plus side, there are lots of editing services and cover designers available and plenty of advice online about how to market. All the profits from the sales of your book go to you.

The end product is also a published book.

So when asking the question to publish or not to publish, remember both ways mean work. Ultimately, you will never get paid for the hours upon hours you put into writing and rewriting your book unless it makes the bestseller list and you sell the rights for a movie starring Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock.

In the end, no matter what route you pursue — love the writing.

Patricia Santos Marcantonio

Question of the Month: NaNoWriMo, Who’s winning?

It’s day 20. By now you’ve written 33,336 words of your great American novel. You’re on the home stretch. You’re ahead by 3 words. You’re still in the race. You’re winning, right?

If you’re like me, probably not, although I know some writers participating in *NaNoWriMo this year have reached their goal of 50,000, or are really really close. But not you, you’re still slugging away at that mountain of words wondering why you let so and so talk you into this messy frustrating confusion when you’d rather be thinking about turkeys and Christmas trees. But you can’t because you have to stay focused on characters who won’t behave and plot lines that wander off into the desert and disappear. You’re tired, frustrated, and hate the project you’re working on. Or you’re behind in your word count and looking for any reason to stop writing and return to the real world.

Before you do, give yourself credit for attempting such a daunting task in the first place. Writing takes discipline. Writing every day takes a great deal of discipline. In a perfect writer’s world every morning you would rise to an already prepared healthy breakfast and a pot of coffee. You would write all day without distractions. You would retire at night with a ream of polished words, a real page-turner ready to meet your publisher. But in the real writer’s world you have to prepare the healthy breakfast, feed the pets and get the family off to work and out the door, maybe vacuum the rugs, or even put in a day’s work at the office before you can settle down and write. Squeezing enough time to generate 1,666 words a day is a chore in itself so why bother?

Because you’re a writer. Stories buzz around your head dying to be told. Because when you’re not writing, everything seems in a constant state of chaos.

If you’re stumped and ready to throw in the towel, here are some suggestions that may help you reach your NaNo goal this year.

Write from a different point of view. Or write in a different tense. Mixing it up might lend new energy to your writing.
Kill your internal editor. Now is the time to write. You can edit later.
Do some free writing if you can’t think of anything to write. Just the action of moving your fingers releases something in the brain allowing you to move forward.
Don’t stop to do research. Add asterisks. When your draft is done, you can fill in the blanks. And, you might discover that a date or fact you thought was important no longer is.
If you’re feeling low or depressed talk to other writers or read the pep talks provided on the NaNoWriMo website. Visit their “procrastination station” for inspiration.
Don’t delete, don’t edit, just keep writing.

So it’s November 20. Ten days to go. You’re 2,000 words behind. Thanksgiving is just around the corner and it’s easier to focus on the green bean casserole than keep your fingers and brain moving. But look how far you’ve come. You’re in the middle of your book where things usually tend to get messy anyway. It would be so easy to quit.

But instead of giving up, dig deeper. Time travel back to October when NaNo sounded like a great way to whip out a draft of your story. Capture some of that creative energy then sit down and start writing.

Because you can do it. You’re so close. You’re almost there.

-Bonnie Dodge

*NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. On November 1, participants begin working towards writing a 50,000 novel by 11:59 on November 30. It’s free and a fun way to write a novel. For more information visit NaNoWriMo.org.

 

Question of the month: How can I write when I’m so dreadfully stressed?

Join the parade! This is what I’m doing. As long as I’m halfway up the wall I’m going to grab a foothold, brace myself, peek over and take notes. I might get some unique insights that would otherwise be lost in the fog of forgetting.

Let me tell you about stress. A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. At first my brain was in a muddle of confusion, I was scared and didn’t know what to do. Then it came to me. This is one of the GRAND ADVENTURES of my lifetime — I will probably not be back this way again in this existence anyway. A quick ride in the ambulance from my house to St. Benedict’s. Then a life flight from Jerome to St. Luke’s in Boise. I’d never been in a helicopter. The trip was exciting in a strange way. My mind kept drifting toward the source of life. The closer I approached the nugget of consciousness as we know it the more vivid my insights grew.

I saw infinity in all directions — matter, time, space, motion, wind, electricity, sound and entire worlds. I saw creation across the face of the deep when God stretched forth a hand and flung stars into the big bang and said, “Let there be light.” I realized I am stardust drifting forever in the cosmos, both infinitely conscious and unconscious. I am everywhere and nowhere all at one time.

One evening a thunderstorm rolled through Boise. I was on the ninth floor and I got an unusual display just outside my window. Since it was Independence Day, I thought it was pyre-techniques. Then it occurred to me what it was — I’d heard of but never seen ball lightening — absolutely beautiful in an awe inspiring way. It looked like twin fire tornadoes turned sideways. I looked first through one then the other when they lumbered past my window. Brilliant burning vortices — maws opened to the black depths of creation.

I saw birds and other animals both large and small, eating and being eaten in turn. Everyone eats. I glimpsed where I am ultimately going, and guess what — I’m already there. Although I’m not in any big rush to get back to the little spot where my life slipped through to this side when I was born, I know all I will have to do when the time comes is slide back down that life thread and figure out how to get back through the pin hole-divider to where I need to be. We are part of infinity. And infinity by definition is forever. There are no beginnings or endings in eternity. Infinity goes on and on forever in all directions, in all times, and all ways.

That is what I saw when I grabbed a handhold, braced myself against the wall and wrote notes. It doesn’t take much effort and the results are absolutely amazing. Who knows what you might see over your fence.

So next time you are making excuses about not writing because you are too stressed, think of the possibilities. You will be amazed at what you will see if you take the time to peek and write notes.

When Cleopatra faced her ultimate end I think she said it best, “I have immortal longings in me now.”

-By Dixie Thomas Reale

Are writing conferences worth the money?

I just returned from a writing conference where an attendee asked, “Are writing contests worth the time and money?”

“It depends,” the presenter said. “Is it a well-known contest? Will you get any feedback?”

I could say the same thing about writers’ conferences.

Most of the writers I know have more than one job: they work to pay bills, and they also write. Digging up a couple hundred bucks to attend a conference, not to mention making time to go, can be daunting. It’s too expensive. It’s too far. The kids need braces.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I’ve organized writers’ conferences so I know how expensive they are to host. I’ve also been the writer staring at a brochure, trying to justify squeezing money from an already tight budget. 

But I am a writer. How can I improve if I don’t mingle with my peers?

Other professionals—accountants, attorneys, bankers, and lawyers—attend conferences and workshops to stay current with their industry. Why shouldn’t I?

I’ve been writing a fair amount of time, and I’ve attended many writers’ conferences. Some were good, some not so good, but I always gleaned something, even if it’s something not to do—like answer a text message in the middle of a presentation. Besides the current information on craft and submissions, what I find even more valuable is a word most introverted writers hate, “networking.” As writers, we sit alone in our office creating great stories, and now we are expected to extend our hand, introduce ourselves and tell everyone what we write. It’s painful, but where else but writers’ conferences can you discuss the craft of writing with other serious writers? We know they’re serious because they’ve spent the kids’ lunch money (just like we did) to attend.

Maybe the biggest reward for attending writers’ conferences is the energy that percolates from the meeting rooms, filling the halls and building with palpable enthusiasm, propelling us home eager to finish our novel or book of poetry. As Mastercard says, “Priceless.”  

Only you can decide if entering contests or attending conferences is worth your time and money. Before you decide, I would encourage you to look at writers’ conferences as opportunities to grow your career and improve your craft. Take a risk; put yourself out there. Ask questions. After a session, thank the speaker. Shake his/her hand and ask for a business card. Network. Talk about what you love most, writing. And in the meantime, get busy saving those pennies.

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Lance Thompson at the 2013 Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous talking about log lines.

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Alan Heathcock talking about originality.

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Alvin Greenberg and Doug Copsey

Writing the small stuff may lead to something bigger

by Dixie Thomas Reale

How can I find time to do serious writing when nuisance writing chores keep copping up?

Just because you aren’t working on the great American Novel or some epic poem doesn’t mean you should not do your best when writing whatever you need to write. Many day to day opportunities come along that require you to write something — a few well-chosen words to mark an occasion — a wedding toast, a baby’s christening, a friend’s birthday.

Most of these events are no big deal and you can often get by with a few sentences, but if you craft your toast or comments well enough, and allow your creativity free reign — who knows what masterpiece might evolve from your words?

I had an opportunity recently. My daughter got married in Australia to an Australian fellow. I wanted to mark the occasion with some well-crafted words so decided to write a toast for the reception.

I asked the mother of the groom for information about his childhood. Then I listed out details from my daughter’s childhood.

They both had some interesting events listed and I played around with the idea of one child growing up in America while the other grew up in Australia. I needed a creative way to draw them together in adulthood so they could marry. Having them think about and long for one another before they met was just too hokey.

Then I got an idea and settled on two wild puppies. One was a girl coyote who grew up at the top of the world near the Yellowstone Volcano; the other was a boy dingo from Down Under who grew up near Ayres rock. With my make believe baby dogs I could get as fanciful as I wanted.

So, I had fun. She sang with her pack into the lava tubes in the Craters of the Moon and he howled with his mates across the Outback. The puppies didn’t know about one another, but heard the other’s singing coming back to them from the deepest part of their respective caves. Soon they were meeting every night to sing together — he in limestone caves on the Outback and she in lava tubes on the Snake River Plain

He invited her down under. She caught a ride on the back of a giant bird. They fell in love, married and lived happily ever after.

Once I finished the toast I liked it so much I decided to revise it slightly, add illustrations and use it for a children’s book.

If I had not labored over that toast I would not have my children’s story. So don’t knock the small stuff. It may evolve into something great that you can use elsewhere.

Now, let’s see what I can do with the grocery list.

What does a room of my own mean to you?

When asked what one needs in order to write, Virginia Wolf said she needed “500 pounds and a room of my own.”

What do you think she meant? Was she saying that she needed exactly “500 pounds” as money in her day was measured? I do not think so. I think she was saying that she needed an income comfortable enough that the basic necessities of life were covered. Enough money that she did not have to worry where her next meal was coming from, or wonder if she could pay the rent. After all if I am always hungry and worried that I may be thrown out into the street and be homeless at anytime, I’m not going to be able to focus on similes and metaphors.

I believe “A room of my own” could mean a whole house or just a small corner of a room. It doesn’t matter. Many years ago I was sorting boxes of old magazines I wanted to keep for reference, into order by date of issue. I had so many magazines that I had to spread them out on the living room floor. It was the only space large enough. I’d spent an entire afternoon lining them up into rows and moving them from one area of a row to another as I worked through many years and months of dates. I was about halfway through when I had to stop to get dinner for my family.

When the evening dishes were finally done and the kitchen back in order I returned to the living room to resume my sorting. My magazines had been gathered up and thrown into a huge heap in the corner of the room. Nobody would admit to the deed, but I knew then the living room was not “my room.”

In my room or my own space I can spread out my projects and nobody will bother them. I can lay my papers and books on a table or on the floor if I wish and leave them there all strung out and in disarray. If this is truly “my own room” when I come back my papers will be exactly where I left them. Nothing will be touched. That I believe is what she means by “A room of my own.”

I recently staked out a room of my own from vacated rental space that the tenant no longer wanted. It is 20 feet by 22 feet with a huge storage area. It is in an area where I do not think I will be able to re-rent it easily, So, it is mine.

In my room I will put my favorite books, a library table, a music maker of some sort, my computer and printer, plenty of reference books, a big easy chair or recliner, reading lamp, coffee table, inspirational pictures on the wall, and enough shelves in my storage area to hold paper, ink supplies, glue, staples, paper clips, pencils, notebooks, paper cutters, laminating machines. I want plenty of daylight and maybe even a dorm sized refrigerator and microwave for snacks. The room will be comfortable enough that I will want to spend time there.

Who knows I may even store some folding chairs in the closet for friends or students, in case I decide to invite someone over or host a seminar in my space.

Right now I am measuring for carpet and plan to put a curse on any who disturbs my space. There will be an amulet above the door.

Dixie Thomas Reale