Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Writing Rules I Can Live With

by Susan

I chafe at lists of writing rules, all the nevers and don'ts that imply there is one way to tell a story. If I want to use a dialogue tag other than "said," Mr. Leonard, I will. (She opined.) Despite that, a couple of years ago I wrote my own list that I'm reposting this morning.

Photo by Neha Deshmukh on Unsplash
RULES FOR MY KITCHEN
Coffee first, then food.
Live dangerously. Lick the batter off the spoon.
Eat what you want. Listen to your body.
Make a mess. Clean it up.
I love you, but stay out of my kitchen when I cook.
Food is forgiving. Create recklessly.
Recipes are mere suggestions. Experiment.
You can never go wrong starting dinner with sizzling onions.
Although there are limits. Sizzling onions over ice cream? Doubtful.
On the other hand, I could be mistaken. Try onion ice cream if you want.
When in doubt, err on the side of too much butter.
Vanilla, too. Measure it over the bowl so the extra spills over.
Garlic makes life complete.
Fresh is better.
Invest in good knives. Chop with confidence.
There are no rules.

Photo by PICSELI on Unsplash
RULES FOR MY WRITING
Coffee first, then writing.
Live dangerously. Release the muse.
Write what you want. Listen to your soul.
Make a messy first draft. Clean it up.
I love you, but stay out of my room when I write.
Words are forgiving. Create recklessly.
Writing guides are mere suggestions. Experiment.
You can never go wrong finding the sizzling, red-hot core of your story.
There are no limits to that sizzling core.
I am not mistaken on this one.
When in doubt, err on the side of too much writing time.
Self-care, too. Fill yourself until you overflow.
Words make life complete.
Fresh is better.
Invest in your editing. Chop with confidence.
There are no rules.

I'd also like to share Chuck Wendig's post, A Very Good List of Vital Writing Advice — DO NOT IGNORE! With a language warning. I'd have to meet him in real life to be certain, but I think the man might swear more than I do, which takes some doing.


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

CREATIVE WANDERINGS

guest post by Rich Keller


There are moments in your life when one door closes while another opens. This doesn’t happen on a regular schedule. It can take place anywhere and anytime in your life. It can be so subtle that you may not even know it. Then again, thunderous crashes and creaks can represent the closing of one portal and the opening of another. For me, the path between doors led to a revelation in which many more journeys will take place.

For privacy reasons, I shan’t go into too many details. Be assured I’m not seriously ill, or going to war, or heading off to Alpha Centauri with my new alien friends. For simplicity sake, let’s say I came to a great epiphany during one of the lowest points in my life. A change in my domestic situation provided a great gift … freedom. And I decided to utilize this precious commodity by shedding many of my unneeded objects though minimalism and transforming myself into a digital nomad.

For clarification, I am not traveling across the Sahara on the back of a camel while I try to get a signal for my laptop. The ever-growing community of digital nomads use the opportunities the current age of communication provides to work from anywhere across the globe. They shed mortgages, cars, bills, and personal objects to work and play for extended periods of time in places like Costa Rica, Vietnam, Hungary, and Thailand.

Instead of seeing the world through the microcosm of the media, they experience it firsthand.

For creatives, including myself, taking on the world as a digital nomad is so right. I’ve always been a traveler, gaining experience for two weeks each year when my father took us on our annual summer vacation. I learned more about this country than I could through textbooks and AAA pamphlets. And I took this love of travel into adulthood.

Unfortunately, the culture of consumerism drew me in. I bought houses and cars, thinking I would feel better if I could keep up with the Joneses. But, I never did keep up nor feel better. The weight of bills, lawns, and oil changes kept the love of travel at bay. In turn, it also kept the creativity on simmer instead of quick boil.

Thing is, we’re a nomadic society. Think about your great, great, great, great, etc. ancestors who walked across Pangea and the land bridges which once spanned this planet. They had to be creative to survive. And they didn’t “settle down” to spend time rocking on their rocks and complaining about the kids who wouldn’t get out of their mud pits. They continued to move, to explore, to see things from a new perspective.

And this is what I’m doing as a wandering creative. I want to see the world for myself, to draw energy from other cultures and environments, for that is bound to forge a new spike of power in my creative soul. Sometimes, this will be through my podcasts and videos. Other times it will be through my writing, and still other bouts of creativity will come from the challenges I make myself take. To minimize all of this into one statement … I’m going to take responsibility for myself as well as others in my life.

I understand this type of journey isn’t for everyone. However, should you have the chance, step outside of your comfort zone, close the door behind you, and seek out the adventure which is behind the new entryway. It’s the next step to determine who you really are.


Lynn chimes in...

I met Rich through my past involvement with the Northern Colorado Writers organization. Then I had the opportunity to be a guest on The Daily Author podcast, promoting Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology. Rich is a bright, humorous guy and I'm excited to see what he'll do as a digital nomad--hopefully he'll send back lots of dispatches from his travels!

Richard Keller is the owner of Wooden Pants Media and host of The Daily Author podcast. His new video and podcast series, The Wandering Creative, premieres in July. You can learn more about Richard, his company, and his books, at http://www.woodenpantspub.com.

You can listen to past episodes of The Daily Author on Blog Talk Radio, TuneIn, GooglePlay, and iTunes.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My Failed Declaration of Independence

My husband, that slacker. Why isn't he in the kitchen fixing me lunch?
By Susan

This whole househusband thing isn't working out quite as intended.

My husband retired a month ago, much to my joy and delight. I anticipated a life with time for writing. Someone else will clean the house! Shop for groceries! Cook me gourmet meals every night!

I'd have a kept man... a cabana boy... a scullery lad. All those tasks interfering with my writing were off my plate, and I would devote my hours to the written word. Needless to say, those large swaths of time did not materialize. Nor has the vastly increased word count.

The grocery fairy left me presents!
Certainly, the house has been cleaner. The grocery fairy has been leaving fresh fruit and vegetables in the fridge. I can't complain. He stays busy. Living with this man is like living with a border collie. "Gotta have a project! Gotta have a project! Woof, woof, WOOF!"

But he's not at my beck and call like some handsome manservant. He has his own things to do: tackling all those house projects that built up over 11 years living in an old house, mountain biking up at Vedauwoo, playing guitar. And when I get home at the end of the day he wants to spend time with me doing something other than staring at me while I type.

Then there's the bathroom (groan).

A scrub of the scrungy tub led to a strip of dislodged caulk led to the discovery of water damage in a corner of the floor. Now we have no sink, no vanity, no shower hardware or walls, and half of the linoleum is ripped up. (I guess technically, it's vinyl flooring, but I love the sound of the word, "linoleum.") On the other hand, we've got $200 worth of brand new ceramic tile out in the truck waiting to be unloaded.

Oh, the joy that awaits us.
He'll do the work himself. (WOOF!) He's a DIY kind of guy. He even bought me a tile saw for Valentine's Day one year.

When he was kicking around the idea of retirement, I envisioned coming home with evenings galore to sit at my laptop. In my mind, it promised freedom, my declaration of independence from the tasks that weighed down my writing. But truth be told, my writing is only weighed down when I do not make it a priority.

As I write this, I think forward to my own retirement in 2,405 days, 7 hours, 33 minutes, 30... 29... 28 seconds (not that I'm counting.) THEN, I will have hours upon hours to write... won't I?

I won't, unless I declare my independence from the fears and anxieties that paralyze me. I must battle my inertia, ignore distractions, and develop the ability to say "no" to unnecessary tasks and obligations. I must make writing my priority.

I can do that -- as can you. We carve out our own space for writing. Maybe, just maybe, today is the day I declare my freedom and start putting the words on paper that I'm meant to.

-----

My one concern writing this post is that some will think I'm making too light of Independence Day. I hope you do not take it that way. I wish you all a Happy Fourth of July. May this great country celebrate many birthdays to come.


-----

And as I now get ready to hit the PUBLISH button, it's 2,403 days, 11 hours, 31 minutes, and 20 seconds until I retire. Not that I'm counting...






Tuesday, June 27, 2017

CROSSING OVER

guest post by John D. Nesbitt

One of the best pieces of advice I received when I was trying to find a home for my first novel came from an agent. She suggested that I not be afraid to try writing a genre western. As I had been writing short stories, articles, reviews, and poems for several years and was taking a big step toward book-length fiction, I was hesitant to try a second novel if my first one wasn’t going anywhere. But with her encouragement, I went to work on an idea for a traditional western. It took me a couple of years, in and around the shorter things I was writing, in addition to my full-time teaching position, but I ended up with a western novel.

When I wrote to the agent to ask if she was interested, she told me she had had to give up agenting because she wasn’t making enough money and had to find another line of work. She wished me well, and I still appreciate her good will and good advice.

Other writers have seconded this advice. I remember more than one person in Wyoming Writers, people who were further along in the journey than I was, who told me that an agent or an editor wanted to know where to put a manuscript—what to call it, how to perceive it, how to present it to the world. On my own, I figured it was not a good idea to call a story something that it wasn’t (for example, my first novel, a contemporary story about a hunting guide, was not men’s adventure, even though the protagonist was a man who had adventures).

Finding a publisher for my western took me a couple of years more, but I ended up with a nice hardcover publisher in New York who published three of my traditional westerns before the owners canceled their western line. I worked with a good editor who was willing to consider original story lines rather than the usual gunfights, stagecoach robberies, and Indian battles. I came to understand that even if a person wanted to try something different, he or she had to fulfill the expectations of the genre. In other words, if something was going to be marketed as a western, it had to have some of the recognizable characteristics, not only in subject matter but also in story line or structure.

My next publisher was a mass-market paperback company, and again I had the good fortune to work with an editor who was willing to try something different while staying within the general lines of the genre. From the beginning, my westerns often had an element of mystery, so I continued to write in that style from time to time. I found myself writing more deliberate crossover stories, which I began to think of as western mysteries, even though they were marketed as westerns with the beloved covers of men and guns and horses. (I also had a love story in almost every novel, but women never appeared on the covers.) I was doing well, with a new western mystery written and under contract, and the next one in progress, when that publisher folded.

In my search for a new publisher, I saw what I had inferred before, which was that even though genre publishers say they want “something different,” most of them want a product that not only is safe, tried, and true, but that also resembles other products in their lines. As I was not writing a lawman series, or a series about a fugitive accused of a crime he did not commit, or thick novels with a plethora of historical details and adverbs, I was disconsolate.

Again through good fortune, I found yet another publisher who was willing to try something a little different. Five Star Publishing was bringing out a new line of Frontier fiction, which meant stories that did not fit neatly into the usual patterns. Furthermore, Five Star was (and still is) interested in Frontier mystery. To date, I have published seven hardcover novels with them—three with a series character who is a sleuth, three standalone amateur detective stories, and one novel for young or new adults. These works are marketed as Frontier fiction (no men and horses on the covers of my works), not westerns, but they are reviewed and regarded as westerns.

So the lesson remains. One way to get somewhere as a writer of book-length fiction is to write within a recognizable category or genre. Agents and editors and booksellers know what to do with it. One way to earn distinction is to do something original but to stay within the parameters of the genre, which may or may not be flexible, depending on the editor or publisher. It does seem as if, today, there is interest (especially in smaller publishers) in crossing over between genres such as western and mystery, western and young adult, historical and romance, romance and mystery, and so forth.

Perhaps the overarching rule is that genre fiction in general, even when it crosses over, needs to have a strong story line with clearly defined conflict and a definite resolution. During my first half-dozen westerns, I experimented with subdued, non-violent endings, but I found that I wasn’t connecting with the readers as well as I would like, and I wasn’t writing satisfying stories (or at least, once I had done it a few times, I had done it enough). I went to work at writing stories in which the protagonist has to work his way up the chain through a sequence of encounters and, of course, deal with the worst character last. This, for me, has been the biggest lesson and the hardest work.

I am still not at the top of the pyramid, not of western writers, much less fiction writers on a national scale. But I am doing better than I did before I received and followed good advice and figured out a couple of lessons on my own.






John D. Nesbitt lives in the plains country of Wyoming, where he teaches English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College. His articles, reviews, fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He has had more than thirty books published, including short story collections, contemporary novels, and traditional westerns, as well as textbooks for his courses.



John has won many awards for his work, including two awards from the Wyoming State Historical Society (for fiction), two awards from Wyoming Writers for encouragement of other writers and service to the organization, two Wyoming Arts Council literary fellowships (one for fiction, one for non- fiction), a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Dark Prairie (a frontier mystery) and another for Thorns on the Rose (a poetry collection), a Western Writers of America Spur finalist award for his novel Raven Springs, and the Spur award itself for his short story “At the End of the Orchard” and for his novels Trouble at the Redstone and Stranger in Thunder Basin.



His most recent work consists of Field Work, a retro-noir fiction collection; Thorns on the Rose, western poetry; and Destiny at Dry Camp, a frontier mystery. A contemporary western mystery, Blue Springs, is forthcoming. Visit his website at www.johndnesbitt.com.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Meaning of Success

Echo Klaproth
Guest post by Echo Klaproth

How do you define success? The only person who can answer that question is you. I am neither able nor willing to prescribe the ultimate definition for others because every person’s thinking is different and we each must define what triumph means or how it is achieved for ourselves.

For many, perhaps most, success is the opposite of failure and is the status of having achieved and accomplished an aim or goal. I believe it is important to make ourselves aware of what that in general means in our life. Some might define it as luxury and title, whereas others might consider a life full of joy and happiness with their family as the true meaning of success. Once you have figured out what is important for you personally, you are able to focus on your visions and goals.

How does this pertain to me or you as a writer, whether novelist, playwright, poet, journalist, or critic?

As I sat in on different workshops at our 2017 Wyoming Writers Conference in June, I couldn’t help but appreciate a truth that was stated by the presenters regarding their success as determined by the number of times they’d been published or the number of books that they’d sold, or the number of awards they’ve received over the years for their writing. With numbers being a key player.

The truth is, they all stated that they started by experiencing something that moved them to put pen to paper. Whether that something ever amounted to much either as an article, poem, or chapter in a book was secondary to their thinking at the time. They simply were moved to save the experience with words. And whether or not a work won a contest, was published, or sold was secondary to the effort and eventual accomplishment of getting their thoughts saved, maybe for no one else but themselves, in a cohesive form. The reward was extended whenever and through the sharing of their writing another person(s) enjoyed and likewise was able to experience an emotion, a reaction, from their effort.

For me, that’s enough. That’s success simply and succinctly defined.  Over a 40 year career of writing, it has been my pleasure to work and play with words with no other intention than to save them and maybe share them with someone else. If a particular piece doesn't raise much of a reaction, so be it. If the writing is well-received and someone tells me that it touched their heart, then and in the cowboy vernacular, WAHOO!

My point is, one of the most important and key steps to achieving success in writing is to define what success must look like in your personal life. It goes beyond any common definitions such as: being wealthy, owning a lot of tangibles, having earned degrees, or selling thousands of books. Quite the opposite for me: true success in life is measured instead with the reaction from people who are able to smile, shed a tear, or feel they are not alone in their emotions because of a piece of writing I created. For this writer, that’s the meaning of success.

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Echo Klaproth is a fourth-generation Wyoming rancher, writer, retired teacher and ordained minister from Shoshoni. She served as Wyoming’s sixth Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. Her writing reflects stories of her family’s heritage; of her struggles, gains, and growth as a woman, wife, mother, friend, and Christian; and of the blessings she experiences because she was born and raised in Wyoming among good and honest folks. She loves to travel around the state meeting people and celebrating her love of life through poetry, through programs, and/or writing workshops. She is the author of Words Turn Silhouette, a collection of prose and poetry. She edited Scattered, Lasting Remnants, a collection of "fine lines" excerpted from modern cowboy poetry and songs, and produced A Nameless Grace: Poetry and Songs Honoring Women of the West, a CD book devoted to ranch women past and present.



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WORD LARCENY

post by Lynn

According to Roy Peter Clark, author of the book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, 
“All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond. The good news is that the acts of searching and gathering always expand the number of usable words. The writer sees and hears and records. The seeing leads to language.”
Search and gather, yes. See, hear and record, by all means.


I also advocate for outright theft.

So how can writers pick language’s pocket? I can think of several time-tested ways:

STEAL FROM THE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE

My co-blogger, Susan, introduced me to the word “stupiphany” (not sure where she got it). She even used it in a sentence for me: “I spent 15 minutes trying to unscrew the pump top on the shampoo bottle before I had the stupiphany that it unscrewed in the other direction.”

Ain’t that a great word?

You can steal from family too.

My nephew-in-law occasionally uses a word I adore: "flustrated." Obviously a combination of “frustrated” and “flustered” but doesn’t it just nail that “I’m frustrated and can’t seem to spit anything out” feeling we’ve all had?

I also had the pleasure of getting acquainted with this certain nephew-in-law’s grandmother, Betty. She introduced me to a phrase I hadn’t heard before, although I’ve been told it has been around a long time:

"She doesn’t know siccum."

Which, apparently, is a phrase that was shortened from the original: "doesn’t know come here from sic ‘em," as when a dog doesn’t know how to obey commands.

Betty used it frequently in reference to the people who ran the retirement home where she lived for a time. Betty is gone now, but her phrase lives on in my mind, complete with her disdainful delivery of it.

Such treasures!


STEAL FROM OTHER LANGUAGES

I had the great pleasure of learning Bambara, a West African dialect, when I was in the Peace Corps. Bambara is chock full of onomatopoeia—that neat little trick where you form words that fit with what you are naming, like “sizzle” and “plop.”

One of my favorite Bambara words: "fitini." It means small. The Malians would add extra “ni” at the end when they were describing something really small: "fitini-ni-ni-ni."

Even if you don’t speak the language, you get the drift of what they’re saying, right?

Some languages have a knack for creating words that encompass big concepts and are very stealable. 

The Japanese language, for instance, has "shinrin-yoku." It means “forest bathing” and speaks to the clarity and relaxed feeling you get when you spend time in the company of trees.

Oh, I could use a little shinrin-yoku right now—thank goodness camping season is here.


Something else from the Japanese I’ll bet we ALL relate to: "tsunboku"—the act of buying a book and leaving it unread, often piled together with other unread books.

Yup.

Maybe it’s my Welsh heritage that makes me love "hiraeth," a Cymraeg (Welsh) word that doesn’t translate fully into English, but generally describes “a deep longing for home.”

STEAL FROM THE PAST

I'm of the opinion that some words, lost from everyday use, need to be found again. Who knows--we might be just the writers to do it.

Like "chobbling," which is a long-ago British word from Gloucestershire. It means “fragments of pulp as when an apple is chewed and ejected by a rat.”

Or "squitterers," a word used in the 18th century for grapes. Apparently had to do with the idea that grapes act as a laxative. Quite a sensory word, wouldn’t you agree?

STEAL, STOCKPILE AND SELECT FROM YOUR BOOTY

Stealing words doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll use every one (I have yet to try out "fitini-ni-ni-ni" on anybody here in the U.S.) but that’s not really the point.

It’s more about playing with language, fiddling on a regular basis with the raw material of our literary art.

Simply by stealing and stockpiling vocabulary you ensure that when you are writing and looking for the perfect word, your brain is limber and has plenty to pick from.

So go ahead and pilfer—I promise I won’t squeal.

Just one of the "tsuboku" in my house


Resources used in the writing of this post (yes, I stole some language here, I confess):

You English Words—A Book About Them by John Moore.

(Susan Mark bequeathed me this book, printed in 1961. The cover is falling off but I keep it nearby and often find juicy words in it.)

Buzzfeed: 22 Intensely Pleasurable Old Words We Need to Bring Back

Popxo: Meraki & 9 Other Beautiful Words

Buzzfeed: 28 Beautiful Words the English Language Could Steal


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Few Meditations on Place

By Susan
"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."
- Josip Novakovich, Writing Fiction Step by Step 

Along the rail line on the way to Hillsdale. No clue where this went,
and wasn't about to explore it in a Ford Taurus.
The road turns to dirt six miles west of  Hillsdale, Wyoming, population 47. Roads lead away from the town in all four cardinal directions, but the only asphalt is to the south, toward I-80. From the Wyoming highway maps, it looks like that stretch of pavement wasn't laid down until 1961,

In 1917, this town's fledgling newspaper, the Hillsdale Review, boasted of the local hotel, grocery, bank, and lumber company. Only that first issue of the Review is found in Wyoming Newspapers. Either the paper folded quickly, or subsequent issues were lost. Also lost is evidence of the thriving businesses touted on the Review's front page. Hillsdale is one of many towns in Wyoming that dotted the rail routes, but were left off the main drag when America fell in love with the automobile and built the roads to prove it.

Durham was between Cheyenne and
Hillsdale. It has vanished.
Even as I seek out hidden places like Hillsdale, I know that too often I have passed by places without seeing them or, worse yet, lived in them and left them unseen. I grew up in Ohio, but was amazed when I moved here at how much history Wyoming seemed to have. I think now, Dayton's history was all around me and I just didn't see it.

At the WyoPoets conference in April, poet David Mason pointed out that Homer did not write about epic settings. Those places became epic in our minds because Homer wrote about them. And every story about place is in reality a story about the people within it.

I think about the people who moved to Hillsdale with high hopes in the early 1900s, and I wonder about the ones who still live here. It still has a post office. The Methodist church stands tall. Cemeteries stay in one spot even when towns vanish, but in ghost towns they're not mowed so neatly, nor are the graves as freshly decorated.

Put me on an interstate and I want to keep going, looking for the next magical place. "Omaha 494 miles." I wonder what it's like to live in Omaha. I could keep driving. I have a credit card in my purse. I could start a new life. I want to find some locale on some map that will make me feel complete, while entirely missing what my own place in life offers.

As I drive, I think I might go on into Pine Bluffs and find a place where I can get a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Then I think, no. I'll go home to my own place instead of looking elsewhere. I'll make my own pie.

As a writer, I want to see a place intimately, whether it's one where I've lived, visited, or imagined. And then, I want to take the reader there.

On that note, I'm going to give you some of my favorite place-based links to explore:
And yes, I did make pie: strawberry. Delicious. I think I'm finally getting this pie crust thing down.





Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RISE AND WRITE!

post by Lynn




What kind of day are you going to have? Does it involve writing? Will you write this morning?

I’m not necessarily talking about a full sit-down session, although those are nice when you can manage them. If not, maybe you could pen a few lines over coffee, or recite a new haiku while you shave or fix your hair.

YEAH, EASY FOR YOU TO SAY

Full disclosure: I am semi-retired and work from home, so I have the luxury of not going off to an office in the morning. Still, I have to make decisions about my mornings, like anybody else.

Me, I journal. Seven days a week, unless I’m traveling, I fix coffee and then slide onto the chaise and start writing my own version of Morning Pages. (For more about the Morning Pages idea, developed by Julia Cameron, click here).

KEEPING GOOD COMPANY IN THE DIM MORNING LIGHT

Lots of writers through the years have worked in the early hours. Edith Wharton, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack London, Wallace Stegner, Virginia Woolf, to name a few.

Some wrote early by necessity, like Toni Morrison who wrote before her kids got up. Others by preference, like Katherine Anne Porter, who picked mornings for the quiet that this time of day offers. “I don’t want to speak to anyone or see anybody,” she said. “Perfect silence.”

KICK OFF THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I’d like to advocate for writing in the morning, however you can make it work in your life. Try it for a while. Set aside a time slot in the morning to do something related to writing.

Why?

Well, it’s a “prime the pump” thing—(an expression I just came up with. Have you heard it?) It goes way back to the day when people pumped their water from wells. You had to pump the old well handle up and down a few times—sometimes quite a few times—before the water started to flow from the spigot into your bucket.


Here are some morning writing ideas that might help start the flow for you:

  • Start a Writing Prompt list and do a quick free-write in lieu of reading the newspaper or scanning social media. Having the prompt picked and ready to go will save time; 

  • Sing a song to your kid or cat while you fix breakfast, re-writing the lyrics to a favorite tune; 

  • Use refrigerator magnets to write essay titles, random thoughts or even a blush-worthy limerick; 

  • Make like poet Art Elser and post a new haiku on your Facebook page each morning; 

  • In your car, play some inspiring music (without words) and think about what the music is depicting—is it a jazz riff on a busy street scene? A musical depiction of a horse galloping across the prairie? A long, slow massage in b minor? Speak your thoughts into your cell phone’s recording app; 

  • Using your family photo wall as inspiration, write down a re-created conversation with your mom, dad, siblings, or Grandma Ruth; 

  • Walk the dog and mentally scribe what you see/hear/smell: descriptions of the landscape, bird song and alley way garbage. Play with the phrases in your head, then write in your notepad any that stand out. 

I’m sure ya’ll know of some other ways to act writerly in the a.m., right? Please share!

PUMP AWAY

Pump that creative handle first thing in the morning, and you might find that words will trickle throughout your day. Be sure to keep that notepad handy to catch the drips. Occasionally you’ll even get a gush of insight that takes your latest poem, short story, essay or novel to a new level.

TRY AND TRY AGAIN

Maybe you already write in the morning. Excellent! I’ll be thinking of you out there while I’m journaling.

Maybe you keep trying the morning writing thing and life keeps intervening, and sleep is precious, and so on and so forth.

I get it.

But try again. Do it once a week or month or on vacation. Don’t be a perfectionist about it, just add it to your repertoire of writing activities.


If you need more convincing, read this post about The Best Time to Write and Get Ideas, According to Science, which explains why creative writing in the morning is a good idea, and how a routine of writing (at any time of day) is the ticket to productivity.


And while you're at it--have a great morning!



Resource:

Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, by Celia Blue Johnson




Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Writer, the Politician, the Truth

Guest post by David Romtvedt

David Romtvedt and his father-in-law
at the family's ranch.
I’m a writer and have been for over forty years. My job is to explore the human condition—the self, the world we live in, our relationship to the beings with whom we share the world—the plants and animals, the air and water. I try to understand and illuminate with language the inner life—my own and that of other people. To do this I must enter into another person’s psyche. In poetry and fiction this person is an invented being derived from observation, experience, and imagination.

The furniture of writing is the furniture of the world. Or the clothing. As we dress the body so the body dresses the psyche. Am I my body? When my body dies, do I die with it? There’s a scene in the film Little Buddha in which a Tibetan monk tries to explain something of Buddhism to the middle class American father whose son may be a reincarnation of a Tibetan master. The monk fills a cup of tea but rather than offer it to the American or drink it himself, he smashes the cup against the side of a table. Holding the handle and looking around at the shards of clay, he asks the American if the tea is gone. Of course it’s not gone, it’s just not in the cup anymore. Am I like the tea? Is the tea aware of its own existence? Tea is liquid and will evaporate leaving almost nothing behind but a brown stain.

The world is breathtakingly beautiful—the dust in the wind, the smell of that dust when rain falls, the shape and motion of leaves on a tree, the tree, the body language of a person who is physically hurt or angry or bitter, the look in the eyes of one who is longing for something unattainable, water and those insects that can walk on water, snow. Perhaps there is a book waiting to be made of nothing but a list of such details. Notice, the book tells us, what is all around us, everywhere present yet secretive.

While I have worked as a journalist, I rarely set out in my poetry and fiction to comment on current events or to articulate my personal and political values. Of course those values lead me to think in certain ways and are present in what I write. My poems, driven by image and metaphor, often try to reveal what those in power would hide.

I was raised in a working class household. My father left school at grade six and worked his entire life as a laborer doing physically hard and often dangerous jobs. At one point, a semi tractor-trailer hitch broke and the trailer fell on him crushing both his arms. He thought literature that made no money was worthless, money being the measure of worth. He was ashamed of his lack of money, seeing it as evidence that he was dumb. “If you’re so smart,’ he asked me, “why aren’t you rich?”

My mother grew up one of nine children on a dairy farm but after serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II attended normal school and became a teacher working with children in grades one to three. She never wanted to be a schoolteacher but saw it as the best escape for a woman born in 1920 into a household with no money.

It’s for my mother and father that I write.

There is a fairy tale we tell ourselves in America—anyone can do or be anything. If we work hard we can attain our goals. If we don’t, we didn’t work hard enough or we lacked the capacity for the thing we wanted to do and be. If these things are true, then the reason the US has never had a woman president is that no woman has ever worked hard enough and been competent enough to gain the office. This is one of the great lies told by people who need to believe that their gain has come only through individual effort and talent. The truth is that the vagaries of birth—money, race, religion, geography—also influence our fate and sometimes we are as lucky as we are talented. Or as unlucky.

While old age is gaining on me, I’m not dead yet, and there are some benefits to having been around the block a few times. A lot of what a younger person might feel is history remains for me current and personal. During the Watergate hearings investigating President Nixon, I was working unloading rough-cut lumber from railroad boxcars at a siding above the Columbia River near Bridal Veil, Oregon. It was exhausting work. And often painful—although we wore heavy leather gloves, shards of wood went through the gloves and into our hands. In the evening I sat pulling splinters out and soaking my hands in disinfectant then coating them with antibiotic cream while watching administration officials on television who were simultaneously explaining to and withholding from Congress what they had done or not done.

I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American Studies—a combination of history, political theory, and literature—and I was watching the American president lie about his administration’s involvement in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. It seemed that the more Nixon resisted telling the truth, the more truth came out. The president had an enemies list and he used the CIA, the FBI, and the IRS against those enemies. He bugged the offices of political opponents and hired people to infiltrate groups peacefully protesting the Vietnam War. The infiltrators were to commit acts of violence so as to damage the peace movement.

President Nixon tape-recorded many of his White House conversations and, after a series of court cases, the US Supreme Court ruled that the president was obliged to release the tapes. On August 9, 1974, seeking to avoid impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned as president. Less than a month later his former vice-president and then President Gerald Ford pardoned the president.

So part of why I write is to pursue the truth. Maybe that’s inner truth—what it is to be a person. Sometimes, though it’s more social, more political. I don’t plan it but in writing I butt up against social reality. In the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space, I imagine the life of a sixteen-year-old Basque girl who in 1902 immigrates to the invented town of Wolf, Wyoming. In Wolf, Zelestina meets a slightly younger orphaned half-Arapaho, half-Shoshone girl. As the two become friends they, the narrator, and the reader discover connections between the oppression of Basques and American Indians.

All this leads me to the Trump presidency, a presidency guided by the absence of guidance, by a quixotic individual and quixotic appointees who say one thing today and the opposite tomorrow. The president governs by bluster and ego. And it turns out he is willing to lie regularly, publicly, and bigly. Of late we have heard him explain the recently passed House of Representatives health care proposal in terms that are the opposite of what the bill actually says.

In his lack of commitment to the truth, the president’s actions and speech endanger our society for, in the absence of a commitment to the truth, citizens cannot know what to believe or how to respond to events. In a small way, this repudiation of the truth threatens literature by threatening the integrity of our individual and collective inner lives.

I feel unsettled speaking about Trump when I meant to speak about writing but I have never before felt so concerned about the possible destructive consequences of a president’s actions. I’m uncertain if I can sit down at my desk and work on a poem or story. For the first time since I was in my twenties, I’ve felt that maybe I made a big mistake being a writer. Maybe I should have gone to law school. A lawyer after all might be able to help us resist some of the inhumane proposals President Trump has made—a 25 billion dollar wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, executive orders that use race, religion, and citizenship to selectively keep people out of the U.S., budget bills with hidden agendas such as abolishing funding for reproductive health care services provided by Planned Parenthood or ending the Meals on Wheels program that serves many older and housebound people, health care reform that would lead to millions more Americans having no health insurance while exempting the U.S. Congress from the effects of the proposed reform. It’s just too much—cavalier cruelty against the poor and less powerful coupled with bold proposals to give ever greater advantage to the rich and powerful.

I guess I could write about it. And if I did, my thoughts on craft would be guided by the situation we’re in. I would try to speak spontaneously and personally as if to a friend and with as much emotional honesty as I could muster.

-----

David Romtvedt
"I was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up in southern Arizona. It was hot. I received a BA from Reed College and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop then worked with the US Peace Corps and Maison du Qu├ębec in the Congo and Rwanda. Later I worked building a children’s park and playground in Jalapa, Nicaragua, during the war against the U.S.-supported Contras. In Jalapa we were bombed by American jets flown with Honduran markings. After some years doing any job I could find—mostly labor--I began working as a writer, musician, and teacher in the artist in schools programs of Alaska, Washington, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming where after ten years of work in other states I was thrown out of a school for reading a poem called “Our Distance” that appeared in my book How Many Horses. I've taught as a half time professor at the University of Wyoming for twenty-two years. My most recent books are the novel Zelestina Urza in Outer Space (University of Nevada Center for Basque Studies, 2015) and the poetry collection Dilemmas of the Angels (LSU, 2017). Though I’m disheartened by the politics of the Trump era, I’m grateful to be here."





Tuesday, May 16, 2017

THE BOOK, THE STORY

post by Lynn 


Have you ever had moments when you started to doubt the importance of writing, of story?

I have.

I have had the thought run through my brain that says what I am attempting as a writer is, well, hardly substantial. Hardly life altering.

The last time I had a thought along those lines I coincidentally received a poem via email, from one of the authors who contributed to the Watch My Rising anthology that I edited last year.

That author’s name is Jim Littwin, and he attached the poem to some other comment, during an exchange we were having about the anthology.

Out of the blue, you might say.

Jim wrote the poem about an experience his father had during World War II. His father, John L. Littwin, was a captain in the Army Air Corps. He was shot down on his 53rd mission, and captured by the Nazis in May of 1944.

Here’s the poem, which was originally published in Whetstone, of Barrington, Illinois in 1985:



The Book

“Tell a story, they said.
“Keep our minds off the cold.”

My father didn’t answer.
He was just as cold,
     just as tired.
He could count his bones
     by touching them.

They trudged in snow,
feet wrapped in gunny sacks.

The moon looked like bread.

The Nazis, black helmets
     glinting like hell stars,
clawed the ranks of prisoners
to tear away the wounded
     and the slow.

The wishes of his men
and the rhythm of their walking
     made a book appear
before my father’s eyes.

He saw it floating there.

He began to read,
and men huddled round him
     to be near the story,
the story pulling them.

When my father reached out
and turned his hand
     in the frozen air,
an airman asked
     what he was doing.
“Turning the page,” he said.

And their feet and the cold
     were forgotten,
the guards in black helmets
     forgotten,
and my father read
     till his fingers froze.

With the sudden silence
     and crunch of snow,
     someone asked,
“What’s wrong, Captain?”

“My hands,” he said.
“I can’t turn the page.”

And the airman
     reached out, turning
     his hand in the icy air,
and my father went on reading.

They lost no more
     to the cold that night.
They lost no more
     to the snow.

          Jim Littwin (c) Whetstone, 1985




I read the poem.

I re-read the poem.

The doubts dissolved.

My stories may never matter in the way that John Littwin’s story mattered on that long ago march, but story matters.

Story matters.

Thanks, Jim Littwin, for sharing that story, that poem, with me.

How did you know I needed it?




Jim Littwin’s work has appeared in Story Quarterly (Volumes 5/6 and 10), Whetstone (Volumes 7, 12, 15), Willow ReviewThe National Catholic Reporter (7x), St. Anthony Messenger (4x), Hyphen Magazine, The Daily Herald, Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, Midwest Magazine, and other publications.

He is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction, a Whetstone Prize for Poetry, and a Ragdale Foundation Fellowship.

To read another fine poem by Jim Littwin, “The Lost Gospel,” you can get a copy of Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology at Powells.com, Amazon.com or from Recover Wyoming.


AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT

Memorial Day is coming up. Time to go lay some wreaths on the family graves at the cemetery in Lusk, Wyoming, including on that of my father, James B. Griffith, Jr., a veteran of World War II.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief

Image from http://marvel.com/
by Susan

Like half the world, it seems, I caught Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 at the theater this last weekend. WOW! I hadn't seen the first one, so I had to run out right away, rent it from the library and watch it twice.

Both movies were absolutely entertaining and also, frankly, ridiculous. Yet, I was more than willing to go on a journey that involved faster than light travel, a talking raccoon, and a sentient tree with limited vocabulary.

Ah, suspension of disbelief. A story is a spell the writer weaves, and the goal is to not do anything to break the enchantment.

I'm a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy reader, so I'm willing to play along with almost any concept. Waking up transformed into a giant cockroach? Let's see where it goes. An infinite improbability spaceship drive? I'm in. A world resting on the backs of four elephants who stand on a giant turtle who swims through space? Great setting!

Still, there are books I struggle to finish or can't get through because they snap me out of the spell. One Thousand White Women lost me with a main character I couldn't believe and a supporting cast of stereotypes, some offensive. I love a good Earth-ending asteroid story, but when I read Shiva Descending, I noticed that the meteor strikes seemed to only hit cities, leaving the 97% of the world that is rural land and ocean untouched. (Spoiler: Ogallalla, Nebraska, gets it.)

So what makes me willing to enter into and believe a writer's world? Clearly, given my reading and viewing tastes, it's not strict compliance with reality. Instead, these are the factors that stand out for me.

  • Convincing characters: This, to me, is the most important of all. Make me love them or hate them. Give me a rich, fully-developed character whose motivations I can grasp and whose actions are consistent with their own personality, history, and society.
  • Internal consistency: The story's world doesn't need to be consistent with the real world, but it does need to be consistent with itself. This is where your hidden backstory -- the things you know, but don't include in the story -- will come in handy. Readers will feel particularly cheated if the writer changes the rules of the world to extricate the hero from a sticky wicket. Superman can't suddenly develop a tolerance for kryptonite halfway through the comic book.
  • Getting the facts right when they matter: When Andy Weir first wrote The Martian, he posted chapters online on his blog and invited readers to fact-check him on the science. The result? A riveting story that became a best-seller and was made into a major motion picture. Even thought it's a fantastic premise -- one man inadvertently stranded on Mars -- the attention to how the science works keeps the spell intact. 
Finally, tell me a good story. Frankly, make it worth my while to believe you. You're a writer -- I know for a fact you're lying to me. Give me a good enough ride that I'll become willingly gullible.




Tuesday, May 2, 2017

TELL ME THIS...

Interview: Lynn with author Laura Pritchett



In Laura's recently-released novel, The Blue Hour, readers are introduced to the tight-knit community of Blue Moon Mountain, nestled high in the Colorado Mountains. These neighbors form an interconnected community of those living off the land, drawn by the beauty and isolation all around them. So when, at the onset of winter, the beloved town veterinarian commits a violent act, the repercussions of that tragedy are felt all across the mountainside, upending their lives and causing their paths to twist and collide in unexpected ways.

I recently caught up with Laura, who had just returned from a book tour, and asked her a few writing and writing-life-related questions.

You’ll be intrigued by her responses. I promise.


Hey, You 


Lynn: 

In Chapter One of The Blue Hour, we are introduced to Sy.

Well, we actually become Sy, in a way.
You bring your wife into focus. She is standing in front of you, only inches away, tucking her short blond hair behind her ear. In the past, she has been angry with you, angry with your selfishness, angry at your supposed mental illness, angry with your physical body and its pains, and she has also showed signs of pity and compassion and fear. 
Obviously, you write this chapter from the second person point of view, a fairly unusual—and often cautioned against—point of view.

How did you decide to do that? Did writing it present any challenges?

Laura Pritchett:

I normally stay away from second person myself. If it’s not done well, it falls flat—it can feel forced and gimmicky and author-ly. So I hear you. In this story, though, I found a rare instance when I thought it was essential: I was telling the story from the point of view of a man who is mentally ill, and in order for the reader to sympathize with what he’s about to do—which is horrible and painful—we need to understand where he’s coming from and what’s going on in his head and heart.

To my mind, I needed to do this in the most direct way possible and in a unique way that signified his view of the world. In other words, I wanted form to inform content. I imagined him speaking to himself, the reader, the universe—trying to explain what he was feeling, and why. Second person was the way he came to me, and it was the best choice for this particular story, in my opinion.

The Inner Realm 


Lynn: 

In all of your fiction that I’ve read, the reader gets to spend a fair amount of time in the heads of your characters—thinking, deciding, ruminating, wondering.

As in Chapter Four of The Blue Hour, when we are in Ruben’s head:

… he needed to get his own brain and heart straight. 
Jess was too young. Needed more life experience. Should not, under any circumstance, get married. To him or to anyone. 
But he loved her. She was perfect. There were so many things he respected: how she had a complete life of her own, that he did not at once become its center. Her preference for action over speech, but when she did talk, it was imbued with culture and oddness. How she pursued her best self. Engaged with the world with confidence and trust. He appreciated her desire in bed. But mostly her desire for life. He felt physically better when Jess was around, both less anxious and in less pain. 

This is an aspect of your writing that I am very drawn to, and enjoy as a reader, but I have a couple of questions.

Fiction writer Kent Nelson cautions about writing thoughts. He talked about the issue during a Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference (and I paraphrase from my notes):

Thoughts—a hard issue. Thoughts are not action or events. Too often thoughts are explanatory, used to dispense information. They can draw the reader out of the story by making the reader aware of the writer working behind the curtain. It doesn’t work so well if the character is talking to himself for the reader’s benefit.

How do you find the right balance of action and introspection for your story?

Laura Pritchett:

Well, I love Kent Nelson and his work, and I totally understand, respect, and agree with what he’s saying here. Too often, writers (especially beginning writers—which is fine, because they’re just learning!) use thoughts as a way to “info dump.”

But I will argue, and I think Kent would agree, that some novels are expansive horizontally (across time and space) and some novels are expansive vertically (inward, towards human experience). The beauty of a novel (as opposed to a short story) is that you have this distance.

In this novel, I wanted to go vertical. There’s not that much expanse covered in time or space, after all (it’s all on one mountain, during one winter), but I could go deep into the inner recesses of these folks. Indeed, one of my great goals as a writer is to explore psychological and emotional truths. I am far less interested in plot --- and far more interested in interior landscape.

I work really hard not only tell a good story, but to explore and illuminate emotional and psychological truths. I prefer those kind of books, I prefer those kind of discussions. To my mind, that is the writer’s hard task—and privilege—to dig deep into the interior recesses of my characters, so as to render the human experience in all its wacky contradictory wonderfulness. To my mind, this includes thoughts.

The trick is how to do it well. It almost never works to put something in italics and use third person. For example: Writing thoughts is hard, he thought. That’s horrible. The trick is to simply be in the mind of your narrator.

Lynn:

Is there something about the way you write introspection that helps it work?

Laura Pritchett: 

1. Don’t use italics!

2. Don’t filter through your narrator. Run right at the thought/emotion.

3. Make sure that interior life/thoughts are interesting and unusual. Otherwise, don’t bother.


The Conversation 


Lynn: 

In a workshop I attended last summer, author Kim Barnes talked about how writers become part of the conversation of their times (I’m paraphrasing).

Then she asked us a question:

As a writer, what kind of conversation do you want to be part of? 

How would you answer her question?

Laura Pritchett: 

Literary writing. I’ve always loved those books, always wanted to be part of the world (even if, say, I could make more money writing commercial/genre lit). I’m not a snob --- I’m a fan of all writers and writing, but I love books that focus on the words, on the poetry, on the language, on challenging cultural assumptions.

Fill in the blank 


Lynn: 

Would you fill in the blanks below for us?

Laura Pritchett:

One thing writers should do is

Read. And buy books, so that you are part of a community, and so that you’re fostering that community that you say you care about. Buy books not only books in the genre you write in, but subscribe to (and thereby support) at least one literary journal, which will keep you open to new writers and genres.

One thing writers shouldn’t do is

Think about publishing and finished product before they’ve focused on the process, the art of it.


What fuels my creativity is…

Walking in nature.

What saps my creativity is… 

Laundry. Ha! Just kidding. A truer answer is that current world events—which cause me despair—are sapping my creativity. It’s hard to find the spunk and spark when you’re losing so much that you care about.

I cringe when I read a piece of writing that

Has dialogue tags such as “he sighed” or “he grumped,” or “she whined.” People don’t normally grump or sigh words. They say words. We should know from context that he is grumpy, that she is whiney. I dislike dialogue tags in general, but especially ridiculous ones.

I cheer when I read a piece of writing that

Has voice. I’ve been asked to judge several contests lately, and that’s a joy, but I’m surprised at how many authors don’t sink into a voice. They sound more like an academic paper.

If I couldn’t be a writer I would be a

Oh, dear. Now it’s too late! I guess I’d be a lawyer, fighting for the good. Lawyers use language a lot, and at times, they have power and influence. I am an idealist, a believer in the power of words to affect change.




Laura Pritchett is an American author whose work is rooted in the natural world. Her four novels have garnered numerous national literary awards, including PEN USA Award for Fiction, the High Plains Book Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, and the WILLA Award.

She’s published over 200 essays and short stories in magazines (including The New York Times, The Sun, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, Orion, and others), mostly about environmental issues in the American West.

Laura holds a PhD from Purdue University and teaches around the country. She is also known for her environmental stewardship, particularly in regard to land preservation and river health. She has two books forthcoming—a novel, The Blue Hour (Counterpoint, 2017) and Making Friends with Death, Kind Of (Viva Editions, 2017).

More at www.laurapritchett.com.