Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Paddle Me, Baby

by Susan

"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."

(Source uncertain. Often misattributed to Dorothy Parker.)

Ever dropped a book like a bad transmission before making it to page two? Most readers have. So have agents and editors faced with finding the best manuscripts in the pile.

At the Wyoming Writers Conference, Chuck Sambuchino shared the two deadly sins of book openings: too slow and too much exposition. The Sunday morning paddle panel put this idea into action.

Paddle panel panelists (say that five times fast) each have a YES and NO paddle. Writers submit just the first page of their work in progress. As it is read aloud, panelists hold up YES if that first page would keep them reading, NO if they would set it aside before discussing their decisions.

Lest you think this was a lesson in public humiliation like the "Gong Show," pieces were submitted anonymously, the panelists -- literary agents April Eberhardt and Jessica Sinsheimer, publisher Nancy Curtis and past Wyoming Poet Laureate Robert Roripaugh -- were kind and not cutting in their remarks, and there were no boos from the audience. Still, it takes bravery to put out your work for an up-down vote.

Even the best writers can fall flat on the first page. Over on Writer Unboxed, you can go Flog a Pro (or paddle them.) Given the name on the cover, most fans will slog through for a bit if necessary, but most of us don't have that luxury.

As the session went on, I found myself holding up my own mental paddles. One piece might start strong and then plunge into too much backstory. Another might have beautiful language, but meander too much.

Others were simply gripping. The best let you know what was at stake right away. It put a question in your mind that you wanted the answer to, if it meant you had to read to the very end. (And a good idea, per Lee Gutkind in his creative writing workshops, is to NOT answer that question until the very end.)

The latter half of the session, I found it hard to pay attention as I was scribbling notes to myself for a piece of fiction I've been playing with. The light had come on: I knew where to start it and where to go with it. I may still fall flat, but I had some better ideas of how not to.

A paddle panel might be a good exercise for a local writing group. You could also go down the shelf of nonfiction at your local library and pull one book at a time. Stay away from names you know where you might have a preconceived expectation. Don't read anything on the cover or flaps. Just pick up the book, read the first page and ask yourself if you would keep reading. Then, more importantly, ask yourself why. Analyzing what works and what doesn't allows you to watch for -- or strive for -- those same things in your own work.

I nearly skipped the paddle panel in favor of an early start down that long, lonesome highway from Sheridan to Cheyenne. I'm glad I didn't. Every session I attended at the conference was great, but I would have to say I learned the most from this one. Additional lesson learned: hold up a big YES paddle to new writing experiences. You never know what you'll take away from them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


post by Lynn

To me, attending a writing conference is analogous to jumping in a river that’s cresting at flood stage. I am swept along in the flow of presentations and workshops, and I try as hard as I can to keep my chin above water. I clutch at the hunks of information surging past, trying to fashion a raft, something I can float on in my post-conference writing life. But so much good debris bobs by and I just can’t get it all.

When the event is over, I drag my motley raft home and examine it, trying to make sense of what I’ve got.

That’s the stage I’m currently at, after the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference that took place June 7 – 9 in Sheridan.

One hunk I brought home was courtesy of Lee Gutkind who whipped through a session on creative nonfiction titled You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.

A smattering from my notes:
• Story is how you tell the reader what you want them to know, without teaching, without them even knowing they are learning.
• Style/story and substance/information. You need both sides—it’s a balancing act between the two.
• The beginning of the piece should plunge the reader in and show them what’s at stake.
• Never tell the reader what they are dying to find out; dangle them on a string as long as possible.

That’s just a sprinkling of what that energetic man delivered in a presentation that zipped by, seeming much shorter than an hour and 15 minutes.

Speaking of rampaging waters, literary agent April Eberhardt talked about the flood of publishing options open to writers these days. She laid out five pathways: traditional; small press; partner publishing; assisted publishing; and self-publishing. Hybrids are joining the flow every day.

Unlike some other presentations I’ve attended on this topic, I actually came away encouraged, instead of half-drowned. April exudes optimism and you can do it-ness and I guess some of that rubbed off. The main thing is to know what your own goals are regarding publication, and become informed before you dive in. She said her goal as an agent is to help each client “publish well” and I like that attitude, because it doesn’t assume that publishing well means the same thing to everyone.

There’s something large in the underpinning of my raft, but it is mostly submerged and hard to explain. It has to do with what Wyoming author Mark Spragg talked about during his keynote speech on Saturday night. I couldn’t begin to quote him, but I listened intently to his insights, as did everyone else in the room—no small thing at a banquet—and felt buoyed by them. It had to do with recognizing the powerful effect that the written word has on us, on our ability to reach toward wisdom—not simply knowledge or diversion—and how a world full of screens and photographic images cannot replace the magic of those hours spent getting lost in a book and letting our brains extract the images from our imagination.

I’m paraphrasing outrageously here, but this unseen, inexpressible hunk of insight I got from Mark gives me something to float merrily down the stream on, especially on those occasions when I hear, or say to myself, “why does writing matter?” I could have listened to him talk about reading and writing until midnight, but Mark’s not the kind of guy to go on that long.

The examination of what I learned at this conference will continue, I know, and more insights will bobble to the surface. Next week, Susan will share some of her gleanings.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Dear Ted Kooser: I'm Trying

by Susan

Ted Kooser is my hero: Past National Poet Laureate, brilliant writer, funny, an amazing teacher and just a genuinely good man.

That's not why he's my hero (although it doesn't hurt.) He's my hero because for decades he got up at 4 a.m. every morning and wrote poetry before he went to his job at an insurance firm.

4 a.m. Ouch.

Still it gives me hope. Maybe I can do this. I wake up at 5 a.m. most days; how much harder could 4 a.m. be? So for two days I've set the sunrise lamp for an hour of the morning that my husband refers to as "the middle of the night" to try to make some writing time.

Two days in, it's harder than I thought.

First night, didn't sleep well and set the lamp incorrectly so it didn't go off. Didn't even make 5 a.m. Survived the day on abusive doses of coffee -- think "IV drip" level consumption.

Ah, but last night I was ready for rock-solid sleep and an early start to the writing. Not only was I tuckered out, but I worked a gentle 8-mile bike ride into my evening.

Unfortunately, the husband started turning over on a regular basis with remarkable vigor and vehemence. Then there were the sound effects -- "Mmmph! Mmmph!" -- as if he were moving a boulder and not merely snatching half my side of the quilt.

I pulled it back gently at first, not wanting to wake him, then with more force until by the fourth or fifth time I was ripping it back violently. He finally woke up with a "Wha?"

Just stop, I told him. Stop. He went to sleep out on the couch out of either consideration or fear.

The lamp dawned slowly at 4 a.m. I turned it off. I'm sorry, Ted. I'll keep trying.

When do you find time for your writing, and how do you carve it out of your day?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

June Writing Awards Roundup

We take a break from our regularly scheduled programming for a quick rundown of the many awards that have been handed out in Wyoming or to Wyoming writers recently. Congratulations to all!

Wyoming Arts Council awards
  • Darcy Lipp-Acord of Weston won the Neltje Blanchan award for nature writing for excerpts from her creative nonfiction book, Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey
  • Winner of the Frank Nelson Doubleday award for women writers is Yvette Ward-Horner of Cody for her fiction entry, “Giving Birth is not a Promise.” 

High Plains Book Awards
Julianne Couch is a finalist for the High Plains Book Awards nonfiction category for her work, Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy. Julianne lived in Wyoming for 20 years and still teaches for the University of Wyoming.

2014 Wyoming Writers Inc. Awards

Wyoming Writers Inc. 2014 writing contest

Short and Sweet
  • 1st: "Goodbye" by Vickie Goodwin, Douglas, Wyoming
  • 2nd: "Madge’s Kitchen" by Bob Townsend, Atlantic City, Wyoming
  • 3rd: "Enigma" by Brittany Williams, Pine Haven, Wyoming
  • 1st: "Reflections in the Wall" by Shelagh Wulff Wisdom, Douglas, Wyoming          
  • 2nd: "Grandmothers May Come and Go, But Acrylic Yarn is Forever" by Susan Vittitow Mark, Cheyenne, Wyoming                 
  • 3rd: "Losing Ground" by Shelagh Wulff Wisdom, Douglas, Wyoming        
  • HM: "Allen Ginsberg Goes to BoomTown With All Due Respect" by Barbara M. Smith, Rock Springs, Wyoming            
Children’s/Juvenile Fiction
  • 1st: "Losing Julie Moon" by Rebecca Ashcraft,  Kansas City, Missouri         
  • 2nd: "Feeding Time on the Farm" by A.M. Hummel, Hulett, Wyoming                   
  • 3rd: "Partner for Papa" by June Willson Read,  Greensboro, North Carolina          
  • HM: "Rat Haven" by Bonnie Sargent, Sheridan, Wyoming            
Traditional Poetry
  • 1st: "Music Not Heard" by Art Elser, Denver, Colorado    
  • 2nd:  "Alone (after Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks)" by Gail Denham, Sunriver, Oregon                
  • 3rd: "Prepositions" by Cornelius F. Kelly, Pinedale, Wyoming
  • HM: "Winter Hawk" by Renee Meador, Big Horn, Wyoming  
  • HM: "Heavenly Pillow Fight" by Shelagh Wulff Wisdom, Douglas, Wyoming                   
Free Verse Poetry
  • 1st: "Last Thoughts before Drinking From The River Lethe" by Constance Brewer, Gillette, Wyoming
  • 2nd: "She Carried Oklahoma With Her" by Gail Denham, Sunriver, Oregon                
  • 3rd: "Lies We Tell To Our Children" by Constance Brewer,   Gillette, Wyoming
  • HM: "Generosities" by Lynn Carlson, Cheyenne, Wyoming
  • HM: "Beloved" by Renee Meador, Big Horn, Wyoming 
  • HM: "Best Friends" by Constance Brewer, Gillette, Wyoming               
  • 1st: "Cries on the Prairie" by Barbara Marsak, Hill City, South Dakota
  • 2nd: "Scars" by A.M. Hummel, Hulett, Wyoming 82720
  • 3rd: "The Telegraph Tree" by Linda Broday, Amarillo, Texas
  • HM: "In the Shadow of the Xerxes Canal" Constance Brewer, Gillette, Wyoming


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Generally Agreed-Upon Qualities of Good Poems, with Rick Kempa

guest post by Rick Kempa

I put together this list, “Generally Agreed-Upon Qualities of Good Poems,” so that the students in my poetry classes at Western Wyoming College would have a point of reference in the art of shaping the words that come spilling onto the page when the floodgates of inspiration are pried open.

It is not meant to be didactic, exclusivist, all-encompassing, chiseled in stone, written in blood, tattooed on the writing hand, or any such thing; it is just a list (and a fluid one at that) intended to give us a language for thinking and talking about our poems-in-progress, so that we can do more than say things like, “Your poem is great; maybe add a comma or two,” or “It’s missing something, but I can’t say what,” or (worst of all) “It’s perfect; I wouldn’t change a thing.” We want to be able to articulate what makes a poem “work” (when it works). We want to say something specifically helpful about the poems-in-progress that we are aiming to improve. Hopefully this list will help.

Generally agreed-upon qualities of good poems
Whatever their shape or their length or their subject matter, good poems usually embody these ten traits.  Aim for them!

  • voice   (Develop your own. Don’t hold back!)
  • precision  (Aim for “the right word in the right place.”)
  • economy  (Make everything contribute; no slack.)
  • vividness  (Find “words for the world.” Use fresh images that appeal to the senses.)
  • clarity  (Challenge us, stretch our limits with language, but aim to be understood.)
  • development   (Be willing to push the poem forward, to keep exploring.)
  • music  (Make the poem’s music somehow suitable to its subject.)
  • fittingness of form  (Make the poem’s shape—its stanzas and line-breaks—mirror the meaning or the tone.)
  • surprise  (Break the patterns. Delight us. Give us a twist.)
  • subtlety (Employ the light touch: A little bit goes a long way.)
Poet, essayist, and editor Rick Kempa teaches writing and philosophy at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. Learn more about Rick on the Wyoming Authors Wiki.

Susan chimes in....
I've often noticed in critique groups that my fellow writers -- particularly the ones more fond of writing prose -- get that "deer in the headlights" look when confronted with a poem. That's why I was grateful at last year's Wyoming Writers conference to sit in Rick Kempa's session where he shared this advice. With this in hand, I had better tools to see where a poem excelled or could be made better. It didn't hurt that as a teacher, he was kind, entertaining and encouraging.

Having experienced Rick as a teacher, I was fortunate to come across a copy of his book, Keeping the Quiet, so I could get to know him better as a writer. I found pages filled with beautiful language and love of family. His poetry touched me deeply. It will be a treasured volume on my bookshelf.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


post by Lynn
Here's Lance studying the livestock
prior to his first mutton-busting experience.

When Lance, my grandnephew, was first learning to string words together, I’d load him in his car seat and start the process of buckling him in: put the straps around his shoulders, and hook those two clips together. Lance would then pipe up, “I do my part,” which meant that he would put the whole thing down into the plastic contraption between his legs, the one that holds the harness together.

I do my part. We should all be so dedicated.

When it comes to writing, it's the same for me: I do my part—on whatever project I have set for myself. Maybe it’s sitting down to write in my journal, adding another scene to a story, or reading up on point of view. Before anything else can happen, I have to do that. It’s that simple. It’s that hard. Because we all have other things tugging at us for our attention.

So that’s it. That’s all I’m asking of myself today. And of you.

Let's show up and do our part.