Tuesday, December 30, 2014


by Susan

I threw a beloved child off the boat yesterday.

Let me back up. In October, my husband and I took a trip to the Dakota Black Hills. We drove the Needles Highway and stopped to hike the Little Devil's Trail. All the way along the trail were flecks of mica, glistening in the sun.

The sparkles captured me. What a great image! My WIP involves a road trip out West -- this would be great to include! Out came the maps to redraw the main character's route. The problem was, I couldn't find a good reason to route Evvie through Custer State Park.

Did that stop me? Of course not. I brainstormed reasons why she would end up on that road, see that mica and have a stunning revelation about life. I wedged it into that story. With a hammer. And a mallet. And a crowbar.

And my story fell apart.

Yesterday it dawned on me:
  • The scene, wonderful as it was, was throwing a monkey wrench (or crowbar) into the plot.
  •  Evvie had no reason to go to South Dakota.
  • What I was going to have her do there was totally out of character.
No wonder I was spinning my wheels for weeks.

Maybe Evvie whispered in my ear that she didn't want to go there. I don't know. I'm no longer going to try to force her to. It's not as if this image will go away -- oh, no. It goes back into the idea arsenal for another time, another story, another character.

I see a lot of revision advice on cutting dead weight. Sometimes the parts that seem nearest to our hearts are not just dead weight: they're actively getting in the way. So is your story not working? Take a look at the parts you love best. See who you can throw overboard. If they're strong enough, they'll swim back to shore and you can take them out on the waters another trip.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


‘Tis the season for lighting candles: candles in an advent wreath for Christmas, red, black and green for Kwanzaa, menorah-held ones for Hanukkah’s “Festival of Light.”

My childhood memories of holiday scenes are wrapped in light. I remember squinting at the lights on the tree and holding gifts up against a lamp with my sisters, trying to see through the packaging—as if Mom and Dad didn’t know!

But it's no denying that holidays can be challenging for writers. “No time for that!” we yell as we cook and shop and wrap. 

I’d like to suggest that we don’t have to write the season off as a loss to our writing. We shouldn’t let our creativity flicker and go out any time of year, and that includes the holiday season.

Light the flame
Think of your creativity as a lighted candle, a special flame inside. It is your charge during the holidays, as well as every other day of the year, to keep it lit. I encourage you to think of the flame as strong, fueled by your determination and hard work. It is fed by the wax of every hard-fought lesson you have learned along your writing path.

Watch the flame
Now is the perfect time for pausing midst the holiday chaos to just look and listen. Notice your feelings. Childhood memories percolate to the surface during the holidays—take note. Literally. Keep a small notebook with you to write down the things you feel and observe. This is rich material for use later, maybe in a fictional character, a scene in a memoir or essay, or a sketched moment in a poem.

Feed the flame
Re-invent the holidays in a way that suits the writer in you. It’s all about awareness. Pay attention to what causes your creativity flame to burn brighter, and what makes it flicker. If being out in the hubbub of the season lights you up, then go. Be among the people in a mall, a place of worship, or go caroling with friends. If a silent night soothes you, then curl up with a fleece blanket, sip some hot cider and create a gratitude list. Experiment joyously. The discoveries you make about what lights you up during this crazy-busy season can be extended into the new year.

Spread the light
Above all, ‘tis the season for sharing. December 21st was the shortest day of the year, with the longest night. The world craves your light always, but especially at this time of year.

What is there to lose by sharing? Absolutely nothing. As Buddha said, “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

There are a myriad of ways to spread the light of creativity: you can form or join a writing group, volunteer for a writing organization, or help a child write and illustrate a story. One of my ways to is to lead a writing group at a residential addiction treatment center for women. The women there inspire me and feed my flame with their passion for life and recovery. Give it some thought and I know you’ll find something that suits you.

So let’s all go and light it up! And from Susan and me...

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Just Read It Already

by Susan

Bearlodge Writers has a simple rule for their critique sessions:

"cut the crap and read ... and pass the chocolate!"

In other words, don't waste time explaining yourself before you read your piece to the group. Don't apologize if it's a first draft (remember... you can't edit nothing). Don't give a long-winded spiel with the entire history of your piece.

You know what? It's a good rule when you get behind the podium at a reading as well. Too often I have heard someone spend longer prefacing their poem than reading it.

Beware. It can suck the life out of the piece.

While some writing may need a small piece of context, most can stand on its own. You do not need to justify yourself before you share your work. You are a writer, and you have every right to be heard. It's natural to be nervous if you are inexperienced with reading, but your audience wants to hear your work. Go for it. Plunge right in. You don't need the verbal equivalent of throat clearing.

Trust your listeners. Have faith that your work stands on its own merits. Don't hesitate. Cut the crap and read.

And reward yourself with some chocolate after the applause dies down.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Writing What’s Real: A Hero’s Journey, with Darcy Lipp-Acord

by Darcy Lipp-Acord

Writers weave connections.  One of my most important connections goes back to my years as a high school English teacher, when I first began studying epic and mythic literature in earnest. That’s when I first read the work of Joseph Campbell, and naturally made connections between his construct of the Hero’s Journey and the literature I was teaching my students. Later in life, the heroic arc Campbell speaks about became, for me, an apt metaphor for the writing life, as well.  As writers, we all prepare for the journey; we all experience the moment of actual departure; we all encounter detours; and we all, finally, must face our dragons. 

Rarely in epic literature does the hero, or heroine, depart abruptly: quests, after all, require planning and preparation.  Odysseus, and the rest of the Hellenic force, has to secure and supply ships before departing for Troy; even his homeward odyssey, for which he is most famous, requires preparation. Likewise, serious writing requires forethought. In my twenties, I mistakenly imagined long hours spent squirreled away with my pen and my notebook, words flowing freely. Wrong.  I soon found out that I needed to carve writing time from an already-busy schedule; I needed to find a quiet place; and I needed the support of, at least, my husband. Although we may not know exactly where our quest will lead – or sometimes, what the object of our quest even is -- we should at least give thought to when and where we will write, who we can trust as comrades, and what support we will need to sustain the journey.

Planning is not writing, however. Any adventurer will confirm that it is one thing to stock the hold, secure a crew, plan a route; it is quite another to board the ship and leave shore.  I love to plan, and can get so caught up in this stage that I don’t move forward. The “being stuck” between thinking about writing and actually putting words on a page can look like any of these scenarios: picking up all the clutter in the house before you sit down to write; getting out next year’s calendar to pencil in research trips; checking and re-checking your social media accounts. None of these activities are necessarily bad – and can, indeed, be valuable pieces of the first stage of the journey -- but sooner or later, one must actually leave Hobbiton. Once you have a basic plan for how you will write, you have enough to start. You’ll never be completely prepared, just sufficiently so. For me, a journal helps, particularly when there have been too many weeks of too few words: just putting ink to page stirs the writing spirit, and once again I set off.

My connection between the act of writing and a hero’s journey is nowhere as evident as in the next stage: the detours, road blocks, and obstacles that threaten to end a quest.  My book, Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey took me over ten years to write and publish. Odysseus takes ten years to return home from Troy. Eragon spends five years learning to be a Dragon Rider before he can finally confront Galbatorix. We all have our own experience with the detours. Not all our writerly road blocks are as fascinating or as terrorizing as the navigation of Scylla & Charybdis or an encounter with Urgals. Our detours mostly look like real-life: earning a living, raising a family, healing from sickness. In epic literature, however, the detours form the meat of the story; they are what make an epic, well, epic. Our own detours may keep us from finishing the novel for a while, but they also give us depth as writers. The only type of detour that is considered deadly is the self-inflicted one: Frodo’s paralyzing fear and greed; the Greek fleet’s languishing on the Island of the Lotus Eaters; Odysseus’ near-tragic end at Polyphemus’ hands.

And in confronting these more deadly, self-inflicted road blocks to our creativity, we must face our dragons. Our dragons are precisely our tragic flaws: the self-sabatoging behaviors that threaten to derail the quest. When Odysseus escapes from Polyphemus’ cave – by blinding the Cyclops and sneaking out of the cave on the bellies of the monster’s sheep – his ego would not let him simply sail away, grateful to not be eaten. Instead, Odysseus taunts the Cyclops, and makes sure that his name becomes known. Polyphemus is able to pinpoint the location of Odysseus’ voice; he hurls a giant boulder and sinks one of the ships, killing all aboard. It is simple luck that Odysseus’ own ship is not hit; but it is his ego that is responsible for the killing of his men. There are many creatures in The Odyssey, but there are no dragons; at least, not physical ones.

In Western literature, dragons are portrayed as horrific beasts to be slaughtered and exterminated (with Eragon’s Saphira being one exception). In Eastern literature, dragons represent power and wisdom.   What if a more accurate idea of our dragons combines elements of both traditions?  When we don’t know our dragons, or when we deny that they lurk in the caves of our subconscious, their fire is a danger to us: like any power suppressed, its eventual explosion can burn, maim, even kill.  But a power that’s known, that’s been reckoned with, can be managed, can even help and support us in our quest.

At this critical point in the hero’s journey, the hero must face and either conquer, or submit to, his tragic flaw. At this point in the writer’s journey, we must face the truth of who we are and why we are writing. When I started my book, I thought I was writing to commemorate a lifestyle. My dragon, my controlling nature, wanted me to only write the good, to sugar-coat my experiences so as not to offend or to make myself look weak.  Perhaps the countless rejection letters came because the writing I had been doing was false, superficial. Truth was scary, like a big, slimy dragon. But even a dragon has beauty – in its iridescent skin, its glowing eyes, its majesty. Instead of facing and confronting my dragon, I “friended” it – finally acknowledging that the flaws I was trying to hide were the truthful details that made my story real. I was not only writing to capture the truth about a lifestyle, but also to honor a people and a place that I had previously dishonored.

A hero who confronts his dragon, who friends it and learns from it, returns home a changed person. When Odysseus finally reaches the shores of Ithaca, he possesses humility enough to endure shame and ridicule, in order to finally emerge victorious. A writer who faces her dragon, who writes the truth no matter how ugly/beautiful/embarrassing/powerful it is, completes a higher purpose. She writes now to serve something outside herself, and her writing, when done in this spirit, assumes a new restraint, maturity, and wisdom.

She has completed a heroic journey, and circles back home, changed. But, as any hero knows, there are always more adventures ahead, more dragons to friend, more stories to tell.  

Darcy Lipp-Acord, a native of South Dakota, is the granddaughter of German-Russian immigrants. She grew up on a farm worked by three generations of her family, and currently lives on a ranch with her husband, Shawn, and their six children near the Montana-Wyoming border.

Her first book, Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey was published in 2013 by South Dakota State Historical Society Press. It was a finalist in the 2014 WILLA Literary Awards and a nominee in the 2014 Will Rogers Medallion Awards. Written over 10 years, Lipp-Acord’s essays compose a picture of endurance and grace as the author addresses her history and finds her way home. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Embracing Changes in Publishing with Tina Ann Forkner

by Tina Ann Forkner

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

 -- George Bernard Shaw

To date, I’ve had two novels published by a big legacy publisher and one from an independent publisher, but there was a time when I was afraid to take that step and pursue an alternative publisher as I waited for the big guys to call.

Even though everybody was saying to embrace the change, I didn’t want to. I wanted to keep doing things the old way. I’m not a business or economics major, so I can’t explain the business of publishing to you in technical terms, but for years I sat back and watched the ebook and self-publishing industries evolve as traditionally published authors like myself struggled to get new books out. Finally, last year, I started asking myself if I was missing the boat.

It didn’t seem right that thousands of people were publishing novels all by themselves and making money, while multi-published authors sat by their laptops waiting for their phones to ring with the unlikely news of a book contract. That’s when it happened. I decided to embrace changing technology.

I used to say I would never read an ebook, but that has changed as I’ve realized that while I love a traditional book, a story is a story, no matter its delivery to the reader. Likewise, I used to tell authors don’t ever self-publish, and while I still haven’t self-published my own books, I’ve changed my mind about that too.

I’ve never been one to rush into change, but as I’ve watched the industry transform, I had to ask myself why, as a traditionally published author with a legacy publisher who has some experience in publishing, was I not willing to step in and become a hybrid author.

I don’t know who first coined the term, but a hybrid author is a writer who has novels published by legacy publishers (Random House, Hachette, and the rest of the big guys in publishing), as well as novels that are self-published or published by smaller independent presses.

When I mentioned to my husband, the economics major, that I was thinking about pursuing another way to get my latest novel, Waking Up Joy, published, he was all for it. On the other hand, I, the English major, was leery of doing all that work. Plus, I had worked hard to be traditionally published. I didn’t want to bring a book out into the world only to be lost in a sea of self-published works, many of them subpar, from online retailers.

Not all self-published books were poorly written, of course, and many excellent writers were rising to the top, but when I looked at my friends who had written fantastic self-pubbed books and saw the amount of work they put into the publishing and marketing of their books, I was overwhelmed. My mind was opened to change, but my business capabilities and time priorities weren’t. That’s when a new publishing option came along for me in the form of a smaller independent publisher that specializes in mostly digital sales and some print.

Tule Publishing Group isn’t a self-publisher, but it is completely independent of the legacy publishers. When they wanted to do a contract with me to publish Waking Up Joy, I couldn’t believe my luck.

But maybe it wasn’t luck at all. If I had not embraced the change that was happening in the publishing industry, I would have never been connected to my new publisher and I would have never considered going with a non-legacy publisher. The opportunity would have sailed right by, which is what’s happening to too many authors.

My advice to other authors who have been doing this for years is to embrace change, because things really do change. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have been saying what I’m saying now because all the pieces weren’t in place, but a lot has happened lately to give serious writers new opportunities.

Writers don’t need to give up the pursuit of traditional publishing in order to pursue other opportunities. In fact, I don’t think any writer should give that up, but it’s okay to consider another way. Whatever you do, I believe it’s time for serious writers to make a choice.

Are we are going to be so concerned with preserving the purity of our writing that the words we write are never going to be read? If the answer is yes, then I don’t judge you. I have been there. I have even had friends who decided to pull out of the publishing industry completely, all because they did not want to embrace the change. But if getting published is still a goal, then it’s time to mindfully explore new ways to share our love of story with our readers.

At the risk of sounding like I need a megaphone, the time for authors is right now. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who have caught onto this publishing game and are doing what they can to exploit publishing, but we are the authors. We write the books. I guess you could say it’s time for us to take back the industry.


Tina Ann Forkner is a women’s fiction writer and the author of the newly released novel Waking Up Joy. She is also the author of Rose House and Ruby Among Us. Tina was born and raised in Oklahoma where Waking Up Joy is set, but she makes her home in Cheyenne, Wyoming with her husband, three teenagers, and two spoiled dogs. In her spare time, she is a substitute teacher. Learn more about her and her books at www.tinaannforkner.com