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With so many writers’ conferences coming up lately, I thought this is the perfect time to address the importance of writers’ conferences and workshops—whether you’re a novice, or an established, published writer.

Of course, if you’re relatively new to the business—and make no mistake, it is a business—attending writers’ conferences is essential. Why? Oh, let me count just some of the ways:

  • You Get to Network with Like-Minded Souls:  Writing is such a solitary activity. As we sit alone with our keyboards (save for the cat on our lap) searching constantly for the right words, sweating over awkward sentences, and wondering why we’re in this crazy business (except that we love it!), we need to be with people who understand. Not merely for the camaraderie, but also to learn from each other. To make new friends who love the written word as much as we do. To bask in one another’s successes, or offer words of encouragement after that dreaded rejection. One thing about writers, we are a wonderfully supportive bunch.    
  • To meet professional writers, authors, editors, agents—all from whom we can draw inspiration, education, and connections. Who knows? Perhaps one of them will be the perfect source when it comes time to submit our work. 
  • To keep up with what’s happening in the industry. I recently attended the Las Vegas Writers’ Conference and learned the latest on Social Media, Creating a Digital/Online Media Kit, and other topics I needed to brush up on. As much as I began this decade kicking and screaming into the 21st century, I now marvel at all the new opportunities available for us writers. And yes, I am also happily certain there will still be printed books in the future. (See my last blog).

Let me add a phrase I heard often growing up: “You are who you associate with.” Well, real writers tend to hang out with each other, and a conference is simply the best way to meet a lot of them all in one place.

Now you may think that you cannot afford to attend these wonderful events because of today’s economy, gas prices, and your own dwindling bank account. Believe me, there is not a writer among us who doesn’t know the sacrifices we make for our prose.

So here’s an idea. Let me borrow from financial expert, Suze Orman, and say, “Pay yourself first.” Even if you tuck away $10 a week, that’s $40 a month. If there’s a conference or workshop coming up in six months that you want to attend, you’ll have $240 by that time, and even if that doesn’t cover the entire cost, it will surely be a big chunk of it. I admit to using my credit card to pay the balance for a more expensive conference (especially when I have to travel, say, to Vegas) but I know I’ll get it paid off, and that everything I get out of a conference will more than pay for itself when it comes to building my career.

And let’s not forget the tax write-off. . . .

So with that said, I must get back to writing for a living.  Hopefully, I will see many of you at future conferences.

And in case you’re interested,  I’ll be presenting at the Columbus State Writers’ Conference on Saturday, May 7th, and the Pennwriters’ Conference from May 13-15 in Pittsburgh.

Till then, keep on writing! Then get out there and learn more about your craft. And in the process,  make new friends.

You can’t beat that.

Happy Spring!

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I Still See Books

I’ve been a bit down in the dumps lately. In the past few months, one of my favorite book stores, Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cleveland, closed, followed by news of a Borders demise just five minutes from my house.

Big. Sad. Sigh. My mood became as dark as the ominous skies that dominate throughout our long Ohio winters.

What’s going to become of our industry? I couldn’t help wonder. I’m finally making a living as a writer (albeit, a modest one), and now book stores are crumbling faster than Lindsay Lohan’s career. Not to mention that I love, love, love books—printed books, that is. I love the smell, the feel of the pages, the infinite selection of stories in which to choose . . .

I go to bed with a book each night. I love the words telling me fascinating tales as I drift gently into a good night’s sleep. I even won an award recounting my lifelong love affair with books—it was the easiest essay I ever wrote.

Quite simply, books make me happy.

And so, I cringe as, one by one, book stores are closing everywhere I look, and as I hear people tell me proudly, “Oh, got your book on Amazon!” This even after I’ve suggested they support a local bookstore. And I know it’s because “it’s easier now just to order online.” 

But then, I saw a vision. Or several, actually. While vacationing in Key West recently, I saw a great book town. Strolling along Duval Street, I saw books. And signs for books. And book stores! Imagine my joy when I discovered two independent book stores within walking distance! My heart leapt with exhilaration! The stores were big and beautiful, and I was once again reminded how much I love hanging out in a book store. What fun it is to browse through so many books—all shapes and sizes and stories. For years, spending time in a book store has been my favorite thing to do on my birthday. (Oprah gets a mammogram on her birthday. I shop at books stores. Who has the better time?)

As I blissfully scoured through a wonderful array of titles (and yes, there were many others there, too), I was reminded why E-books will never be for me. To add to my delight, I saw a new book by a colleague of mine, Cleveland writer, Paula McLain, prominently displayed. Her wonderful new novel, The Paris Wife (about Hemingway’s first wife) had just been released that week. Hope of good books still being published was restored.  

If all those thrilling visions weren’t enough to lift my literary spirits, I saw more books. At the airport, awaiting my trip back to the arctic north, I gazed around me and saw nine people (yes, I counted) reading books. Real. Printed. Books. Others were reading newspapers and magazines. I saw not one Kindle. I nearly wept with happiness. 

For in that moment I was reassured that I am not alone. I believe that after all the buzz of these new, exciting gadgets dies down, both E and printed books will live together in harmony.

So don’t let all the bad news about the book industry get you down. Books are still vital, cherished commodities. And it’s up to us writers to keep it that way by continuing to produce good work. . . . 

*And by the way, did you know that this is National Novel Editing Month? If you’re working on getting that novel polished in time to pitch it to an agent at the upcoming Pennwriters conference, check out: National Novel Editing Month – GalleyCat

See you next time. Until then, keep writing!

Today, let’s talk about me. Me, me, me, me, me, and a little bit more about me.

What, you don’t care? You don’t want to hear that I did this, and then I did that, and when I, and how I and why I….

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? I was reminded of this recently when reading a blog—by a writer, no less—that contained some good advice, but she used so many “I”s, it was hard to concentrate on what she was trying to articulate. Her overuse of this pronoun was so distracting,  I decided to count them. In one blog, she used 59 “I”s.

That’s right, 59. And it wasn’t even that long a piece.

Of course, when writing in first person, you will be using quite a few “I”s simply can’t be helped. But when you use them in every sentence, and sometimes more than once in every sentence, the topic you want to discuss disappears into a muddy pool of self-serving blubber. Plus, it’s lazy writing. The writer’s not taking the time to be creative with their prose. And isn’t that half the fun?

It also shows that you’re so wrapped up in you as a writer, you’re not considering the reader. And writers must always consider their readers. You want them to take in your words, and forget about the person behind them.

For example. Let’s say you’re writing a memoir piece about your father:

“I loved those fishing trips my dad and I would take each year and I can still see him. . . .

It’s not even a completed sentence and already the writer has used three “I”s.

Now if you say, “Dad always organized our annual fishing trip. Those images are still fresh in my mind . . .”

This allows the reader to be involved. The focus is on Dad and the trip. The reader already feels involved, imaging Dad preparing for the big event, rather than hearing the writer go on about his reflections.

I know, it’s easier said than done. But a good creative nonfiction class can show you how. You can also just play a bit on your own. Try and tell your personal story without using hardly any “I”s. Quite a challenge, but chances are, the finished piece will be incredibly more interesting.

You can also read how the masters do it. Here  are a few to get you started. My immediate short list of authors and their excellent books, written in first person:

E. B White, Essays of E. B. White

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (Check out her others as well)

Mary Karr, Lit (Check out her first book too, The Liar’s Club)

David Sedaris, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

Russell Baker, Growing Up

J. R. Moehringer, The Tender Bar

Till next month, Happy Writing!

The above title is an example of when it’s possibly okay to use explanation points.

Though, even then, four of them is a bit much, don’t you think?

I was reminded to write about this after seeing a lively exchange among Pennwriters on this very topic. I wanted to address it because I am a frequent offender. Just look at them all in my past blogs (on second thought, don’t). It’s becoming a disturbing problem.

While I certainly know better than to use them in my professional writing, they seem to pop up almost without my thinking in personal emails, blogs, and of course, Facebook. I seem to find it necessary somehow. I’ll use it instead of a smiley face (which I also use way too often) to show that I’m smiling, or winking, through my words. They pop up when I want to emphasize an important point, a shocking revelation, or after a question, such as “Can you believe it?!!

We write so casually nowadays that we often tend to abandon those die-hard grammar rules we writers usually live by.  Though, in all honesty, I guess I’ve been using exclamation points since back when handwritten letters were a common means of communication (ah, how I miss those), and through all those years I spent huddled over my typewriter (of which I don’t miss so much).

Yes, a lot of formality has gone the way of the dinosaur. And some of this casual writing is welcomed. More often than not, prose reads better when you can end a sentence with a preposition, or begin one with a conjunction (such as “and” or “but”), or use fragments (all within reason, of course). I also get a little chuckle now whenever I read all those looooong, ongoing sentences by bestselling authors, recalling how often my English teachers marked on my papers, “Stop using so many Run-On Sentences!” (As a matter of fact, I do believe they always added an exclamation point. Or two!!). 

Some conversational writing, of course, has gotten way out of hand (yes, I’m talking to you, next generation of writers). When I see my adult daughters’ spelling and bad grammar in their texts (and they were good students), I cringe every time. But that’s a blog for another day. . . .

Oh, did you see that? I threw in an ellipses—yet another thing I see misused all the time. So since this blog is getting long (rule number one in blogs: Don’t be boring, or overstay your welcome) and I still have some shopping to do on this Christmas Eve, I’ll just leave you with these thoughts to keep in mind.

Ellipses do not go on and on (and on, and on). There are either three (for unfinished thoughts or sentences), or four, and a space is used between each one. And be watchful for any overuse of dashes, parentheses, italics and yes! yes! yes! those excitable exclamation points (although in that last example, you romance writers are free to use them where noted :-).

Remember that whenever you overuse anything, rather than enhance your writing, they serve to distract from it!!! As you see, overuse of exclamation points—to use my youngest daughter’s favorite saying—can be just so annoying!!!!

So, along with a few other resolutions I’ve been listing for this new year, I’m going to follow my own advice. No more exclamation points!

I wish all of you wonderful writers a happy, healthy and published New Year!! (Okay, clearly, there’s work to be done :-).

Getting The Story Down

Just yesterday I completed my first novel. And yes, my feathers are a bit fluffed right now knowing that I made it through the beginning. The middle. And the end (I often have problems with endings!).

It took a full year to write this first draft (after all, life does get in the way), and of course I realize that the hard part has only just begun. Now it’s time to go through the entire manuscript page by page, do necessary revisions, then draft a dynamite query and synopsis. Then begin the process of pitching it to the right agent.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: There is a terrific site on Writermag.com called “Critique My Query.” Check it out if you are in the process of writing that all-important query. The information given by Marla Miller is essential.)

But the novel, the story, is complete. And that’s what I want to address this month. The importance of just getting the story down. 

Although I have written fiction before, I’ve basically been a nonfiction writer the last twenty-five years. A nonfiction writer with a bad habit. That is, I tend to edit my work as I go.

And that’s not a sin, if you’re a nonfiction writer. After all, it’s important to tweak that lead so you know where the article is going. And oftentimes, you need to fact check things along the way. And thank God for cut and paste! How often have you noticed a source’s quotation fits elsewhere, or one paragraph makes a better transition with another one further down, or you see that the third or fourth paragraph makes a better opening, or a perfect ending? 

So revising and editing a piece as I write it hasn’t normally been a problem for me. But I also knew that, when writing a creative nonfiction piece, such as an essay, or a fictional story, that stopping the creative flow to check for just the right word, or research a fact, or revise the lead is not good. How did I know this? Because all my literary heroes have told me. Every time I’d read their advice in magazines or books, I could almost feel their slap on my hand! “Just get the story down first,” they’d say. Time and again. So I knew it. But kept doing it anyway.

That is, until I started this novel. I knew the story wouldn’t flow if I kept interrupting it.  But at first, it was like keeping a smoker from lighting up when the pack and lighter is right at their fingertips. And I admit there were times when I’d actually minimize the window and jump right online to research something, like a year, or what my character would most likely be wearing in 1962. I had to, right that minute, find this out before continue writing. But each time I did this, I could feel the sting from my heroes on my hands, and hear them scream, Now stop that! And I knew I had to, if this story was going to continue moving from chapter to chapter.

So this is what I did: I began to bold or highlight a word or sentence that needed changing or researching, knowing that when the chapter was complete, I’d give myself permission to then make the change or addition. *But never during my prime writing time, which for me, is in the morning. So when it came to finding just the right word, or give more detail to that scene, I’d do this later in the day, or the evening when my husband was busy having his way with his beloved remote controller.

And it worked beautifully! My story moved on, almost seamlessly. I also kept a notebook to jot down changes, details, additions (or subtractions), that I wanted to make later during the revision process. 

Having done this now, I can honestly say this is probably the best advice I’ve ever received as a writer. So I am passing it along, from one writer to another.

 Just. Get. It. Down. Worry about all the details later.

And one more thing: Heed the advice from successful writers. So you can be one, too!

So my writer friends and I were discussing the topics of memoirs the other day and I was saying how hard it is to be a writer. Particularly when writing the “personal” stuff because you really have to let yourself out there if you’re to write with any kind of emotional depth, which can only come with raw candor—being honest with yourself and your readers. I was telling them how I was at a party soon after my memoir collection, Confessions of a Not-So-Good Catholic Girl, came out, and, without having actually read the book, a woman, a nonwriter, commented on what she’d heard about it. “Yeah, well, I’ve done a lot of things in my day, but I’d never WRITE about it!”

She didn’t say this meanly, just matter-of-factly.  I forced myself not to respond with, “That’s too bad.” Not meanly, just matter-of-factly.

Because she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Sure, it hurts to write about those events in our lives that still sting, even just a bit. Yet, how cleansing, and rewarding, it feels when we do! This woman’s comment conveys exactly why she is not a writer and demonstrates what set us writers apart, as well as underlines our importance in the world.

After all, if there weren’t writers to document all the “stuff” that happens to us as human beings, we’d learn nothing about, or from, history. Or from each other. We writers are not only necessary in the world, we got guts, folks. Damn straight.

Here are a few excellent examples to emphasize my point:

From Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: “We all have a dream of telling our stories—of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate.”

From Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Secret Life of Bees: “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

And finally, this one, from the book Inviting the Wolf In, by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis: “As much as we need to tell the difficult story, there are those who need to hear it. For many, the fact that these topics might be spoken of, serves as a beacon of hope or reassurance that they are not alone. In a world where families suffer prejudice, economic hardship, illness, accident, and untimely death, listeners need ways to understand and acknowledge their suffering as part of the human experience, not be denied its power or the necessity of their coming to grips with it.”

So, two years later, am I sorry for anything I revealed in my book? Not at all. I not only have fond memories of sitting many mornings at my keyboard getting the stories down, reminiscing the good— and the not-so-good—adventures, I now have a collection of emails and memories of wonderful voice messages thanking me for writing it, adding that it “made me laugh” or “made me cry” or “I could so relate!” And especially, “You made me think differently about things.”

Wow. All that, along with a more peaceful mind. Because, you see, when you write it out, you no longer possess it, hold it in. It is released to the Writer Gods, who then spread your hard-earned wisdom throughout the world.

Some people bake pies. Some knit. Some paint . . .

Others tell stories. Preserve histories.

And if they do it right, make a profound difference in other people’s lives.

Pretty cool, huh? How very lucky, and privileged, we are to be writers.

Don’t ask me why, but I’ve had two blogs for awhile now. So I’ve decided to make this one my “For Writers Only” blog because I know a lot of writers, and we all need each other. Hopefully, I can bring some knowledge, inspiration and author information to my creative, hard-working friends.

So without further ado, as they say, let’s get to it!

I plan to address many of the issues that often keep us writers up nights: Time management (do I have to get up at 4 in the morning to squeeze in my writing?). Story development (conflict, conflict, conflict). Characterization (why are the characters going in the opposite direction that I had planned for them?). Plotting (now what?). Setting (should my story take place in the big city, the suburbs, the country . . . and what era? 1940s, 2010?). Research (should I believe everything I read? Maybe I should talk to some experts). And, when I’m working on my own personal stories, how much should I reveal? Must I change names to protect the guilty?. . . .

And so on. 

I’m sure you all can relate.

But first, I’d like to nip something in the bud (forgive the cliché!). I get a little nuts whenever I hear that common misconception about writers: that all writers experience Writers’ Block. That well-worn image of the frustrated writer bent over the keyboard staring mindless at the blank piece of paper—or nowadays, computer screen—is still engraved in minds as part of the pain of being a struggling writer.

Hogwash.

I personally don’t believe there is such a thing as writers’ block and I’ll tell you why. A true writer “writes” all the time in their mind. When you’re working on a story, you think about it while driving, or potty-training your little one, or lying on the beach, and sometimes, even in your dreams. So many times we get these great ideas when we’re not at the keyboard. So write it down, or carry a little recorder and enter it as soon as possible. Because those great thoughts oftentimes do not magically reappear.  You may think, oh that’s exactly how I want to phrase it, it’s so good, I know I’ll remember it. You won’t. Not always. Trust me on that. So when you do find—no, make—time to write, you’ll already have those notes and recordings at the ready.

So that brings us to the first way in which to banish that writers’ myth and abandon the silly notion forever. Here are more:

Preparation is Key

If you prepare for your work, you will never experience writers’ block. You will have recorded your ideas that came during your lunch hour, or rush hour, or those middle-of-the-night hours when you laid awake while your mind created complete scenes for your novel.

You will have at your writing desk, an updated dictionary and thesaurus (sure your computer has those, but the books offer much broader selections), as well as educational writing books and magazines that are wonderful resources.

And sure, there will be days you won’t feel like writing. That’s the perfect time to read a good book. Read not just for entertainment, but to learn how the author put the story together. How he developed his characters so well, you feel you know each one. How she managed to keep you interested page after page, chapter after chapter, then finished by successfully wrapping up all the loose ends to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Have Literary Heroes

These are your mentors. You cannot be a great writer, or even a good one, without reading great works. So learn from the best. How did that author get you involved from the first sentence on? How did he use backstory to fill in details? How did she use dialogue to further the story? All of this, and more, is important for nonfiction and memoirs as well. (More on that another time.)

If you’re working on a mystery novel, you should have a list of favorite mystery writers. Same for romance, memoirs, etc. Let them be your guides. Highlight their perfect sentences, write notes on the pages of their books. Let them teach you how it’s done.

Dreams vs. Goals

What’s this have to do with writers’ block? If you simply dream it, it won’t happen. You have to do the work. That means setting goals.

There is a distinct difference between a Dream and a Goal. Dreams are purely illusionary. Goals are concrete plans for the future. Yet we really can’t have one without the other. Dreams are what first provide us the inspiration and vision for what we ultimately want. Goals, in turn, gives us a sense of direction, motivation, and, if accomplished, a wonderful sense of satisfaction, and success!

 Norman Vincent Peale said: “The greatest power we have is the power of choice.”  Right now you are living your past choices. Where you are today—at this very moment—is the result of your past decisions.

Think about it. The decisions you make today will be your experiences tomorrow.

Here are just a few examples of people who worked hard at their Goals to become the successful writer of their Dreams:

Novelist John Grisham began by subscribing to the Writers’ Digest, then wrote chapters of his first novel while riding every morning on the subway to his job as a lawyer. Novelist Elizabeth Berg was a nurse and mother of small children in 1984 when she began writing for her small town newspaper. Soon after, she submitted an essay to Parents magazine – and won $500! She started publishing regularly in national magazines, then went on to write her first of many successful novels.

Prolific novelist Nora Roberts was “one of the worst secretaries ever!” But she always loved stories and soon found she had a knack. A simple act of nature—a snowstorm—prompted her first book, published in 1981. Since then, she has written more than 50 novels, some under the name, J. D. Robb.  

Mary Karr had a childhood that certainly didn’t lend itself to a successful life, yet wrote a memoir (in an era when publishers said you best be a celebrity if you want to sell your memoirs) so brilliantly that her first book, The Liars’ Club became the bar in which creative nonfiction writers aspire to.

Anne Lamott was a clerk/typist who wrote every night for an hour, and although received her share of rejections (as did other greats like J.K.Rowling) – even receiving terrible reviews on her first book – kept at it and is today is mentioned among all the other great writers of this century.

If you are unfamiliar with the works of these authors  (and remember, these are just a select few of many successful ones), go to the library, get their books, read their work, study their work.

Now stop reading this blog and start writing. 

But don’t forget to come back during your breaks!