Weekend Edition – Writer in a Fish Bowl Plus Writing Tips and Good Reads

Of Fish and Stories and Living Life:

cinder benny

The younger of our two cats, Cinder, having a little chat with Benny the betta

Last year, my daughter gave me a fish as a birthday present. It’s a blue betta that is astonishingly like the one she’d asked for several hundred times. She acquired the fish with the help of her father (my ex-husband) who knew I did not want a fish, and I’m sure found the whole situation quite amusing. Part of me wanted to send the two of them packing to exchange the fish for a case of cat food; but then I thought about the depressing tower of small, plastic containers holding sad, wilted bettas, and my resolve wavered.

I named the fish Benedict, Benny for short. Though his arrival solicited from me only the most begrudging welcome, this little fish has managed to become a member of our family. Even the cats seem to enjoy communing with him through the Plexiglas walls of his house. (Though the pattern of feline teeth marks on the corner of the tank may indicate interest of a more gastronomical kind.)

Other than occasionally cleaning the tank, bettas require very little care. There are no daily litter box chores or demands for walks. There are no clawed chair backs or chewed shoes. A domestic betta’s life is contained, solitary, and painfully predictable.

I find this quite sad.

I watch Benny swimming around in his one-gallon world, and it makes me think about the ways our lives as writers can sometimes feel like life in a fish bowl.

On the one hand, each time we publish a story or idea, we put a little piece of ourselves on display. Anyone can stare through the transparent walls into our watery world, and – via reviews and blog comments – tap on the glass. We are naked and exposed, a curiosity. On the other hand, the nature of our work requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, leaving us feeling isolated. Like Benny, we must each spend time alone in our private universe, apart from the camaraderie of “normal” life. Observers.

The routine of a writer’s life can feel as monotonous (and pointless) as life in a fish bowl. Each day, we swim in the same circles, repeating the same routines and practices. We work on the stories, send out the queries, and try to keep up with all the “platform building” tasks. Around and around and around we go, and most of the time it looks pretty much the same. Though such an existence might be okay for the fish with no short-term memory, for a writer, it can become wearisome.

Luckily, unlike our finned friends, we do not have to stay in the fish bowl, swimming in those same circles. We can get out. Leap the barriers. Dive into the real world. Seek out new experiences. Sometimes, we forget this. We start to believe that there is no way out of the tank. Not true. Not true at all.

I hope that Benny is happy – as much as a fish can be happy – in his small, predictable world. And, I hope that you and I always remember that the walls of our fish bowls worlds are only an illusion. There is a whole, big, wide world out there. We don’t have to swim in the same circles day in and day out. With a little effort, we can break free from the same old-same old, and try something new. Write a different kind of story. Submit to a different kind of publication. Share a different side of yourself. Meet different people in different places and talk about different things. There is more than one plastic castle in the world. Go. Explore. Experience. Then, come back and tell us all about it.

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

Part of the classwork for the flash fiction course I’m taking is responding to craft questions about the sample stories we read. Each week, the lesson materials include questions about how each writer did this or conveyed that, about how a certain theme was expressed, or about how a particular technique worked.

To be perfectly honest, I’m a little intimidated by this part of my homework. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, and I don’t have any relevant degrees in literature or writing or anything else that might help me properly analyze a story’s meaning or structure or style. I feel slightly out of  my depth. To make it even more challenging, the online format of this class means that I have to put my thoughts into coherent sentences and post them for everyone else to read. This is, in my opinion, way more stressful than engaging in a live conversation.

Despite my reservations, I have made it a point to participate in almost all of the craft conversations, and to read all the comments from the other students. While this isn’t my favorite part of class, I have come to realize that it’s an important part of learning how a story works. It’s not enough to simply read a story. You will learn more if you take the time to pull it apart and consider each choice the author made in putting it together. In a beautifully crafted story, there are no random choices. Especially with short fiction and flash, each word is selected with care, each sentence constructed with intent, each twist and turn placed for a very specific reason.

VW bug cutawayI’ve written about this idea before in a post called Break Your Story Down to Build It Up, but I think it’s an idea and a practice that’s worth mentioning again. We learn best by doing, but we can also learn a lot by watching how other people do a thing. Find great stories and ask good questions. See if you can get inside the writer’s head to better understand why the story is the way it is. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.

What I’m Reading:

wattpadWhile I continue wading through a couple of novels, I took a little reading side trip to check out Wattpad, an “online community of readers and writers.”

I visited the site because of a comment Jane Friedman made in her post, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding the Dream of Book Writing:

I’ve had more than one conversation with adult writers who just don’t understand why anyone would take Wattpad seriously.

But it’s a mistake not to take it seriously. (If you’ve never heard of Wattpad, I encourage you to watch this video to begin to understand it.) It’s where young people are learning to write, in front of a “live” audience if you will, and going on to publish with traditional houses.

I was intrigued by the video, and decided to create an account. I’ve picked out a few stories to try, but haven’t yet read anything. I must admit that I’m already a little turned off by finding grammatical errors in the story descriptions. On the other hand, some well-known authors publish on Wattpad, Paulo Coelho, for instance.

I’m curious to know if any of you have experience reading or writing on the Wattpad platform. Anyone experimented as a reader or writer? What is the community like? Have you found quality stories and writing? Have you had any response to stories you’ve posted? 

 

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

vonnegut wings

Here’s to swimming outside your comfort zone, experiencing new things, and learning how things work so that you can make your own magic. 
.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.

Weekend Edition – Time to Write Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

On Making Time to Write in a Real Life

paris clockI’d been having trouble with my computer. The machine, a beautiful MacBook Pro, is only a few years old; but something seemed to have snapped in its shiny, silver brain. No matter what task I set it – opening a program, popping a new tab on my browser, saving a document, loading a web page, etc. – it froze. Whether its paralysis was born of fear or confusion or obstinance, I’ll never know. All I know is that each move I made resulted in the same outcome: the spinning, rainbow pinwheel of death.

At first, I was frustrated. Then, I became furious. I had so much to do and no time to waste. Precious minutes were sucked down that candy-colored vortex as I sat, blood pressure rising, tapping finger tips trying to pierce my wooden desktop.

Until I realized that those minutes were still mine.

True, I wasn’t able to use them as I’d planned, but they were still mine. I did not have to spend them staring in dumb rage at an immobilized computer screen. I moved a small pile of random reading material from its perch on the bookcase behind the couch and placed it next to my ailing computer. After that, each time that psychedelic harbinger of  technological doom appeared on my screen, I simply smiled and reached for something to read.

•••)o(•••

Time is our most finite and precious resource. We cannot create more of it, or slow it down. We cannot bend it to our will. We can only hope to use it wisely.

People often ask me how I find the time to fit consistent reading and writing into my life. My answer is that I do not find the time, I make it. Sometimes, I steal it.

The hard truth is that we rarely, if ever, stumble upon spare time. Most of our time is spoken for by our daily responsibilities and obligations – work, parenting, caring for family members, keeping house, shuttling kids hither and yon, shopping, cooking, taking out the trash. The rigors of our daily lives devour time in huge, hurriedly consumed bites. We get out of bed in the morning, and it seems moments later we are crawling back under the covers, barely aware of what transpired in the intervening hours.

Sometimes, it’s challenge enough to get from Point A to Point B without misplacing any kids, losing any clients, or forgetting (for the fiftieth time) where you put the car keys. How then, do you make the time for seemingly nonessential activities like reading and writing?

Well, first of all, you stop thinking of them as nonessential. From there, you can start to explore some of the tricks I’ve developed to make sure that each day of my life includes some reading and some writing.

•••)o(•••

Trick #1: Forget Optional

The first step is simple: Acknowledge and accept that your writing matters. You can’t prioritize something if you’re constantly pushing it to the bottom of your To Do list because it’s “only a nice-to-have” and not a necessity. Too often (and, I’m speaking especially to the women now) we marginalize the things we want out of shame or guilt or some misplaced sense of duty. Stop that. Pursuing your creative journey is not a “bonus” that you get to enjoy if, and only if, you get everything else done first. “Everything Else” will never be done. Ever. There’s always more of everything to add to your list. That’s the way life is. If you’re going to make time to read and write, you need to make it now, not “someday.”

 

Trick #2: Make Intentional Choices

Though we may ache for time to read and write, we routinely sacrifice that time voluntarily to other people’s small gods. We let ourselves be talked into participating on yet another committee, taking on another project, or attending another social event. We talk ourselves into saying “yes” by telling ourselves that it’s “only” one meeting a month or three hours on a Saturday or four weeks of overtime. Sometimes, the “yes” springs from guilt. Sometimes it comes from fear of missing out (aka – FOMO). We worry that we’ll never be invited again or get work again or whatever. Sometimes it comes from fear of failing, because if we’re too busy doing Everything Else, we’ll never have to try writing and we’ll never have to fail.

Sometimes, we don’t even need someone else to ask us to sacrifice our time. Sometimes, we sabotage ourselves by voluntarily giving up time for less important (though still enjoyable) pastimes. Watching television is a common one. But, even “good” personal choices (working out, for instance) can mean giving up writing time.

It all comes down to making intentional choices – learning to weigh out your options in the moment, and make your decision from a Big Picture perspective. The next time you’re tempted to say “yes” to someone else’s request or make a personal choice that will infringe on your writing time, picture your writing as a small, helpless creature being led to the sacrificial altar. Look at the poor creature’s big, frightened eyes. Know that you are the one who is going to have to do the deed. How are you feeling about your choice now?

Or, for those too squeamish for an actual sacrifice, imagine that you are the Old Woman in the Shoe and each of your “children” represents a part of your life – Work, Relationship, PTA, Clean House, Goal Weight, etc. You “feed” your children by giving them time. Each time you say “yes,” each time you choose one thing over another, you are feeding one of your children, but the others go hungry. (Remember, time is a finite resource; there just isn’t enough to go around. You’re the Old Woman in the Shoe, not Strega Nona with her magic stew pot.)

Who are you going to feed today?

 

Trick #3: Don’t Overlook Small Opportunities

There’s a common misconception that more is better, but less can sometimes serve just as well.

As writers, we often pine after long stretches of time free from other duties and obligations. We crave whole mornings and afternoons in which to immerse ourselves in the world of our stories. But, sadly, life doesn’t often offer up such opportunities. More often than not, we have to make do with small “pockets” of time, pieced together like a patchwork quilt made of scraps snipped out of other pieces of the day.

This is okay.

A minute stolen is still a minute, even if it has to stand on its own.

Like my story about using my computer’s temper tantrum time to read a few lines, you likely have countless chances throughout your day to take baby steps towards a more consistent writing and reading practice. What can you do in a minute? In three minutes? In ten?

I usually try to read one book every week or week-and-a-half. I am able to do this not by curling up for hours at a time with my book and a mug of tea (though, that sounds lovely). I am able to keep up with my reading by using the caches of minutes and moments that I’ve hidden throughout my day. I read while I eat my breakfast and lunch, while I’m waiting in the pick-up line at my daughter’s school,  while I watch my daughter at her riding lesson, while I’m stirring the pasta for dinner. I always carry reading material, either physical books or digital ones stored in my iPhone’s Kindle app.

I also always carry something to record my ideas. I may not be able to fit a long writing session into each day, but I can capture ideas in a notebook or an app. It may be challenging to work on a long-form piece like a novel a minute at a time, but you can do a lot of writing in fifteen minutes, or even three! Sketch out a character, map out an essay, craft a first draft of a piece of flash fiction, pen a poem. Bigger isn’t always better.

 

Trick #4: Find Your Joy

The power of enthusiasm can take you far. Where there is a will, there is a way. And there is always a will if we are passionate about something. We fight for the things we love. We choose the things we care about most. If you can rediscover and nurture your love of writing and your joy in the process, you will have tapped into an almost magical source of energy and drive.

Let yourself be swept up in the fire of your creative urges. Embrace your curiosity and your hunger to learn and explore and play. Remind yourself of the excitement that comes from trying new things. Make it FUN.

 

Trick #5: Build a Habit

Habits. Hard to break and hard to make.

Find one thing – reading while you eat breakfast, writing on your lunch break, penning a few lines before bed – and stick with it for thirty days. Establish a pattern. Train yourself to do this thing almost by rote … by habit.

I write morning pages – three handwritten pages of whatever tumbles out of my head. I write these weekend editions. Come hell or high water, I make the time, and I get them done. I write a bi-weekly column. It’s a small deadline, but one I refuse to miss. I read blog posts (to learn, explore, and keep up with what’s happening in publishing) each night on my iPhone while I wait for my daughter to drift off to sleep.

Each of these habits is a small thing, but together they create a broader writing life. I didn’t begin doing them all at once. I started one and then added another and another. It’s an organic process, but you have to start somewhere. Pick one thing. Go. Do it.

 

Trick #6: Be Flexible and Adaptable

Circumstances won’t always be perfect. Sometimes, even your plans to steal a few minutes will go awry. Sometimes, your time will be compromised by noisy neighbors or a bad cold. If you want to do this thing, you have to work with the circumstances at hand.

My daughter listens to audio books as she’s falling asleep. We read stories, and then turn on Audible so she can listen to an old favorite while she drifts off. She usually prefers that I stay with her for a little while, so I stay there in the dark and I catch up on reading blog posts. In order to do this, I had to learn to read one thing, while another thing was playing in my ear. It took me a while, but now I can focus completely on the words I’m reading, and I don’t even hear the story that’s playing on my daughter’s iPod.

I can also write just about anywhere. Noise and discomfort are only small annoyances, not roadblocks. I often work in a local coffee shop amidst the hustle and bustle of conversations, music, and other “ambiance.” People ask me how the heck I can get anything done in all that racket. Easy – I have adapted.

•••)o(•••

Annie Dillard said that, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It makes perfect sense, and yet it’s so easy to lose sight of that simple truth. I would take the idea one step further and say that how we spend our moments is how we spend our days. We do not need to measure activity in days or even hours. If we can only carve out minutes to practice the thing we love – to read and to write and to live like writers – that can be enough. It can give us a toehold on the writing life we crave. So, make that time – one minute at a time – and use it to create the life you want. After all, it’s your time, no one else’s.

 

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

"Catsquatch" by Shyama Golden

“Catsquatch” by Shyama Golden

This is a lesson I have to learn over and over (and over) again.

New projects are scary. They are big and unknown and complicated. They are full of stuff I don’t understand. They make me feel stupid.

Earlier this week, I almost passed on a new client project because it seemed too darn scary. I looked at the material in front of me, and I thought, “There’s no way.”

I was disappointed because it was a good project with a client I enjoy very much. But, I felt overwhelmed and out of my element. Because I didn’t want to let them down, I almost walked away.

And then I took a step back. I started to pull the thing apart. Instead of looking at it as a whole, I broke it down into smaller pieces. Suddenly, I began to see more clearly what it was. Suddenly, it wasn’t a huge and frightening beast, it was just a collection of small, mostly tame beasts.

Imagine that.

 

 

What I’m Reading:

book dog star never glowsI’m just about finished with the excellent craft book, The Field Guide to Flash Fiction, but I’ve also spent some of my precious reading time this week in the world of Tara Masih’s short (and short short) stories.

I came across Masih’s stories because she is the editor of the field guide, and when I posted about that book a few weeks ago, she was kind enough to reach out with a thank you. Because of our conversation, I ended up purchasing her short story anthology, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, and I’m so glad I did.

There is such a bounty of variety in this collection – of places and characters, voice and subject matter, style and length. Though they take us around the globe and invite us to inhabit, for a moment, the lives of a wildly diverse group of narrators, these stories each contain a pulsing thread that brings a sense of cohesion and balance.

Each story seems to live in a place in between. Characters hang, spectacularly or quietly, in the gap between what was and what might be. There is, to use a cliche, a quiet desperation that creates tension, but also gives a sense of familiarity. They are adapting and evolving. They are growing and learning. And we are growing and learning along with them.

I love the touches of the natural world that weave themselves in and through Masih’s stories. She subtly touches each of the five senses, bringing us fully into the moments her stories inhabit, so that we feel more of what the characters feel. And, her narratives are sprinkled with bits of poetry, images that persist in the mind long after the book has been closed.

I’m looking forward to experiencing the rest of the stories in Masih’s collection, and I’m looking forward to the next collection, which I believe is in the works.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

 

Finally, a quote for the week:

Art print by Thyme is Honey on Society6

Art print by Thyme is Honey on Society6

Here’s to carving out little nooks and crannies of time for your reading and your writing, making moments in your days and days in your life to do the things you love most. 
.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.

Weekend Edition: Love Your Mistakes Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

 

It’s All Part of the Process

Wise Owl says, "There are no mistakes (only happy accidents)!" (Lovely altar to mistakes compliments of my sweet and creative friend Kristin Cutaia)

Wise Owl says, “There are no mistakes (just happy accidents)!” (Image of a lovely “altar to mistakes” compliments of my sweet and creative neighbor, Kristin Cutaia)

Earlier this week, my friend Emma (fellow writer, mama, and – unlike me – a woman with a very chic style) shared an excerpt from an interview with Mike Patton of the band Faith No More. I am not cool enough to be an aficionado about Faith No More, but I loved the theme of the sound byte Emma shared: the value of making mistakes. Here’s a snippet:

But all the mistakes are little tiny little technical things, anyway, like, I shouldn’t have sung that that way, or, Oh, I was flat there. It’s not like, Oh, I shouldn’t have made this record. Because I feel like even if maybe I don’t like a particular record, it was a step in the process and I must have learned something from it. I think that’s more of a mature viewpoint. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, I’d have gone, “Oh, this record sucks and that’s bullshit,” but it all had to happen.

It all had to happen.

We forget that sometimes. We read – humbled, awed, and perhaps a little bit green – the inspiring (and somewhat intimidating) work of a writer we admire, and we forget what went into making it what it is. She wasn’t born with the ability to make that kind of art. She had to make a lot of mistakes to hone her craft. She had to try and fail and learn, and try and fail and learn again.

It’s all part of the process.

Whether you’re striving for brilliance or mere competence, you have to go through being clueless, inept, and moderately capable to get there. There are no shortcuts.

You have to learn you way to the top, one screw up at a time.

In my post about how to tell if you’re a real writer, I commented on the ludicrous demands our culture places on people who want to call themselves “Writer.” In most cases, simply practicing a thing – running, yoga, gardening – is enough to earn you the right to call yourself by that title: runner, yogi, gardener. Not so with writing (or, any other art for that matter). Likewise, there is something in our collective consciousness that tries to convince us of the infallibility of the “real” artist. Some primal part of our id wants us to believe that the road to literary greatness bypasses inadequacy via some kind of magical detour. Steven Pressfield would probably name this horrific misconception Resistance.

Whatever it’s name may be, you need to get rid of it.

We acquire skills through learning. Learning, by its nature, requires failure. Think about any skill you’ve learned – walking, talking, reading, baking a cake, tying your shoes, driving a car, dancing the waltz. Were you perfect the first time you tried? Of course not. You stumbled and tripped over your own feet and your partner’s toes. You mispronounced words, ground the gears, and watched – heart broken – as the perfect, golden arc of your faerie cake caved in on itself.

You made mistakes.

And, more importantly, you learned from them.

There is nothing like learning by doing. Being in the trenches trumps theory. Every. Single. Time. We study to gain knowledge, but we must practice in order to gain experience. And, only through experience can we ever hope to achieve mastery. Who would you want by your side if you were heading out for a week in the jungle – the guy who has read a thousand books on the jungle ecosystem and learned enough to earn himself a PhD in environmental science, or the gal who has bushwhacked her way through the heart of the tropical forest a dozen times and has already experienced torrential downpours, snake bites, and the hospitality of the indigenous people?

That’s right. You want the person who has “been there and done that,” the person with hard-won experience that I can guarantee you was riddled with mistakes and failures.

Don’t apologize for your mistakes. Welcome them. They are proof that you are making progress, that you have stepped outside the confines of your comfort zone. That you are growing. You practice and you fail and you learn from that failure, so that you can do better next time. You learn to see what works, and what doesn’t. You learn to understand not only where you went wrong, but why. You start to get your head around what makes a story tick because you’ve taken so many apart in order to figure out what was missing.

Making mistakes is also a great way to lighten up a little already. Never take yourself too seriously. Don’t just sulkily accept that you’re going to make a mess of things. Revel in it. Go into the process with your eyes wide open and your heart filled with a sense of adventure. Think of all the amazing things you’re going to learn along the way! Last fall I took a Fiction I class at the Grub Street Writers Center. To help us learn about how to write strong dialog, our super smart and warmly encouraging teacher (the fabulous KL Pereira) had us write a scene that included all the worst dialog gaffes in the book. We had to try and cram every dialog-related transgression we knew into that one scene: stilted language, filler, exposition, naming characters, overuse and variation of modifiers, too much faithfulness to speech (um, y’know, like), dialect exaggeration, excessive direct address, etc. The exercise was fun, and it drove home the lesson she was trying to teach in a way that simply reading about the mistake could never do.

In addition to helping us learn, mistakes provide fertile ground for new discoveries. Many of our best-known scientific advancements are attributed to happy accidents – things that happened while a scientist was “playing around” with an idea. When we practice writing in a way that embraces the possibility of making mistakes, we open ourselves up to a world of previously inaccessible opportunities. Instead of letting fear of failure keep our creative feet glued to the straight and narrow path, we can step off into the wilderness of creativity and imagination. When we set our muse free to explore and experiment, there’s no limit to what can happen.

But, no matter what happens, regret nothing.

Remember, mistakes are part of the process.

.

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

One of the images from my nature-centric Instagram account

One of the images from my nature-centric Instagram account

I am repeatedly amazed by how much I don’t know about all the different writing markets out there. Though I have mentioned the power of niche markets before, sometimes life gets so busy that I forget to apply what I’ve learned to my own career development. Thankfully, I have friends who remind me.

This past week, I had the pleasure of a phone chat with my friend, YiShun Lai. In addition to being a talented writer, mindful philanthropist/volunteer, and sharp wit, YiShin is also a generous human being who gave me a valuable gift simply by pointing out what was right in front of my nose. She noticed that some of my social media profiles include the descriptor “nature lover,” and asked me if, in addition to loving nature, I also write about it.

I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it turns out that I write about nature a lot. I laughed and said that I guess I’m kind of an “accidental” nature writer.

And then we talked at length about what a nature essayist does and where. She shared some reading resources and generally opened my eyes to a new potential outlet for some of my writing. How cool is that? More importantly, she gave me a lens through which to view some of my work in a way that will help me focus my efforts. Again – so cool.

Are there themes or topics that you return to again and again in your writing? Pay attention to them. Explore them. Think about how they fit together and where they might fit out in the world. You might be, like me, missing an invitation to walk a particular path just because you didn’t notice it was there.

 .

What I’m Reading:

bok darker shade magicI heard about A Darker Shade of Magic, the new book from Victoria (V.E.) Schwab, via Jen Campbell’s vlog, This is Not the Six Word Novel. Thank you, Jen!

I have had several recent disappointments with fantasy novels lately. I grew up reading fantasy and SciFi almost exclusively, and I’ve been itching lately to recapture that feeling of being swept off my feet and into another world. The trouble is, my tastes seem to have evolved, and it’s been a challenge to find stories that feature the kind of world-building prowess that makes me suspend disbelief, even at my – ahem – mature age.

Enter Schwab’s world of four parallel Londons.

From the book jacket:

STEP INTO A UNIVERSE OF DARING ADVENTURE, THRILLING POWER, AND MULTIPLE LONDONS.Kell is one of the last Travelers-magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel universes, connected by one magical city.

There’s Grey London, dirty and boring, without any magic, and with one mad king-George III. Red London, where life and magic are revered-and where Kell was raised alongside Rhys Maresh, the rougish heir to a flourishing empire. White London-a place where people fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. And once upon a time, there was Black London. But no one speaks of that now.

Officially, Kell is the Red Traveler, ambassador of the Maresh empire, carrying the monthly correspondences between the royals of each London. Unofficially, Kell is a smuggler, servicing people willing to pay for even the smallest glimpses of a world they’ll never see. It’s a defiant hobby with dangerous consequences, which Kell is now seeing firsthand.

Fleeing into Grey London, Kell runs into Delilah Bard, a cut-purse with lofty aspirations. She first robs him, then saves him from a deadly enemy, and finally forces Kell to spirit her to another world for a proper adventure.

Now perilous magic is afoot, and treachery lurks at every turn. To save all of the worlds, they’ll first need to stay alive.

Sounds fabulous, right? It is. 

This is the first book I’ve read by Schwab, but I have already added other titles of hers to my Want to Read list.

A Darker Shade of Magic is a perfect example of thorough and engaging world building. Once I opened the cover and stepped into the story, I was immediately drawn into Schwab’s alternate reality of four, parallel Londons and the magic that binds them together. Her characters are well drawn and her magic system is full of unexpected possibilities without being at all implausible (as magic systems go).

Once she had me hooked, Schwab led me through her story at a perfect pace. Though my overall impression of the book is that it’s something of a swashbuckler, the action is balanced with pockets of “smaller” action. It never feels like a Hollywood car chase, but I still couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Perhaps most importantly, I cared about what happened to these characters. Having recently abandoned a book because I just didn’t care what happened to the story’s protagonist, I was delighted to feel actual anxiety about what was happening to Kell and Lila. I reacted physically to some scenes, cringing and tensing as I read.

Perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about this book is that it was good enough that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to read “just one more chapter.” I even carted it with me when I went to wait in line to pick up my daughter at school. (And, yes, I may have left a little earlier than usual to extend my waiting/reading time.)

Bottom line: I recommend this one highly, and I already can’t wait for the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, which is due out next February.

 .

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

.

Finally, a quote for the week:

This week we have so much more than a mere quote. Big thanks to the lovely Sara Foley (aka The Practical Mystic) for finding and sharing this gem in her Twitter feed this week.

Here’s to embracing your mistakes, learning from them, and creating a writing world that sweeps you off your feet and into a new life. Happy reading! Happy Writing! See you on the other side. 

.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.

Weekend Edition – Finding Your Readers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

So Many Fish in the Sea, So Many Readers in the World

wooded roadWriting is an intrinsically challenging task. To do it well you must corral and harness many different parts of your intellect and spirit. You must learn to manage the diverse elements of your vision, imagination, and craft so that they move in tandem, pulling your story forward. The process requires varying degrees of earned skill, innate intuition, and stubborn stamina.

If, in addition to getting the words on the page, you also hope to have others read those words, you introduce an entirely new layer of complexity to your literary endeavors. In essence, you invite strangers to collaborate in your creative process. Because, make no mistake, crafting your story with a reader in mind (even an as yet unknown reader) changes both the writing experience and its outcome. As Samuel Johnson said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

As if the prospect of putting your words out into the world where they will be subject to comment, critique, and interpretation isn’t scary enough on its own, there is the matter of finding readers in the first place. The road to connecting with your audience can be a long and lonely one. Leading you through dark forests and across parched stretches of desert, it is pockmarked with potholes of doubt, misleading detours, and (on the worst days) roadside hecklers. This is not a path for the weak of heart or intention.

And yet, for those of us with a writer’s heart, it is not so much a matter of courage as it is a matter of simply putting one foot in front of the other. As it turns out, we are not separate from the path; we create it with each step we take.

But, sometimes, we forget this truth.

We falter, unsure of our next step, and we wind up putting our feet down on someone else’s path. We are distracted by the story of another writer’s success or swayed by other people’s presumptions about the kind of writer we should be. Though it looks as though we are still making progress, we have actually lost our way. We trudge happily (or, laboriously) along the road, hoping at each turn to finally meet our audience, completely unaware that we have taken a wrong turn and left our audience somewhere back there in the wilderness.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to find your audience by writing the Great American Novel, hitting the bestseller list, or having your books turned into box office gold. These are lofty goals to be sure, but that does not make them any less worthy. A word of caution, however, is warranted against allowing a single goal to consume you to the point of creative blindness.

The world of writing is vast, diverse, and always evolving. While it is admirable to commit, heart and soul, to reaching a specific audience by accomplishing a particular writing goal, it is not the best creative practice to let your pursuit of that one achievement blind you to other writing opportunities that might be uniquely yours.

For instance, while publishing a novel is a common, almost ubiquitous, goal of aspiring writers, it is only one of many possible ways to share your writing skills and stories. In addition to the long list of literary genres applied to novels (literary, historical, romance, mystery, cozy mystery, science fiction, fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, realism, magical realism, erotica, parody, paranormal, paranormal romance, fan fiction, dystopian, etc., etc., etc.), the world of writing also includes many different forms: essays (opinion, humor, editorial, lyrical), short stories, flash fiction, poems (in all their various forms and structures), scripts, non fiction (on every and any topic under the sun), journalistic stories, creative non fiction, educational texts, business writing, copywriting, and the list goes on and on and on.

If you have chosen to commit the lion’s share of your writing time to the pursuit of a particular goal, that’s fine. Just be sure it’s your goal, and not someone else’s. Also, don’t let your focus on that goal keep you from doing the two things that all artists must do to keep their creativity alive and connect with other artists and potential audiences: LEARN and PLAY.

Even if you are bound and determined to become an award-winning, bestselling novelist, know that there is still a lot you can learn about not only novel writing, but about writing in general. Be committed. Pursue your dream. But, make time to EXPLORE and EXPERIMENT.

Do not let your writer’s world get small.

READ EVERYTHING. Let your curiosity guide you. Taste all the different formats and genres. Indulge in the experience of reading the work of unfamiliar authors, new and old. Crack the stories open. Analyze them. Look at them through the lens of your life experience and your writing experience. Take away what serves you, and leave the rest. Remember that most innovations are mash-ups, putting two things together in a new way to create something new and exciting. Try out new combinations.

WRITE EVERYTHING. Don’t box yourself in with restrictions about the kinds of things you write or the way you write them. PLAY. Dabble. Turn things upside down. Try “translating” a story from one form to another. If you consider yourself a short story writer, take one of your stories and rewrite it as a poem or a play script. If you think of yourself as a serious journalist, take a piece you’ve written and make it into a humorous parody or a fiction story. Give yourself writing prompts that stretch you beyond your comfort zone. Don’t let your writer’s road take you in circles. Remember, each step that you take creates that road in front of you. Step off the beaten track and explore some new territory.

The search for your audience, your reader, may not be a linear journey. It’s more likely that the path will wind much, taking you through strange lands full of unfamiliar people and giving you the chance to discover unknown parts of your creative self. It is only by taking this journey and learning about yourself that you will finally be able to recognize your readers when you meet them.

The world of writing is vast, and so is the world of readers. You do not need to co-opt someone else’s readers or dream of writing success. Dream your own dream. No matter how crazy you may think your idea is, there is a reader out there waiting to read exactly the thing you are writing. The possibilities are truly endless. Not all of them have mass appeal, and that’s okay. That’s more than okay. Explore. Play. Experiment. An audience of one is still an audience, and if you are able to truly connect with one person, that one person will help you connect with another person, and another, and another. And, suddenly, your audience of one is growing.

What I’m {Learning About} Writing:

In a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, Mary Robinette Kowal (one of the four regular hosts of the show) said this about books:

“The book is a way to hack the brain … When people pick it up, they are picking it up to produce a specific emotional state in themselves.”

Think about that for a minute.

What kind of emotional state are you promising your readers? What emotional promise does your story make? How are you going to keep that promise?

Thinking about your story in the context of the reader’s emotional state is subtly different than thinking about the “kind” of story you’re writing.

What I’m Reading:

I’m about two-thirds of the way through a new novel. I’m really enjoying it, but not quite ready to share. In lieu of writing about that particular reading experience, I thought I’d share a wonderful source of reading recommendations who has been around for quite a while, but whom I’ve only just recently discovered: Jen Campbell of the blog This is Not the Six Word Novel.

The book I’m currently reading is one I picked up because of one of her recommendation videos. Here’s her most recent one. I hope you find something interesting to check out!

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin write what you wish

I wish you luck and joy on your writer’s road. Happy writing. Happy reading. See you on the other side! 
.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.
Forest Road Photo Credit: WarzauWynn via Compfight cc

Weekend Edition – Planting the Seeds of a Writing Life Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Planting the Seeds of a Writing Life

seedlingThere is no short cut to creating a writing life.

There is no 3-step process, no silver bullet, no magic spell.

You plant the seeds. You water. You wait.

Sometimes you say nice things, nurturing words of encouragement and inspiration.

Sometimes you slip up, and mutter dark, sharp things under your breath. Cutting things that slice carelessly into tender green shoots.

But somehow, the seedling survives.

You say you’re sorry. You add some nutrients to the soil. You let some sunshine in.

You keep writing.

Some days, you think you know how this writing life will turn out. You feel like you have a plan. A purpose. A path. It all makes sense, and you work away – pruning and fertilizing – secure in your sense of certainty.

But then, one day, a new blossom appears, and you don’t recognize it. It doesn’t match the picture on the seed packet.

Curious.

You forgot that this writing life of yours is not a domesticated species. It is of a genus and variety unto itself. It is a one-of-a-kind creation – exotic and constantly mutating. You forgot that there are no guarantees about the kinds of flowers and fruit it may bear, or the types of hybrid offspring it might propagate.

Throw away the seed packet. The picture doesn’t mean a thing.

Throw away your expectations. The adventure is better without them.

Tend the garden of your writer’s life with care. Give each seedling a place to grow. Spend time coaxing each new bud and leaf and bloom out into the bright world.

Take delight in the wildness. Bask in the colors. Surrender to the scents. Swing from the vines.

Amazing that such an Eden could spring forth from one, small seed.

That’s all it takes.

One. Small. Seed.

What I’m {About to Learn About} Writing:

I’m planting a new seed of my own next month. I’ve registered for a course on flash fiction. 6 Weeks, 6 Stories is an online class offered by the fabulous Grub Street creative writing center in Boston. I have participated in several workshops and classes there (all of them fabulous), most recently Fiction I taught by KL Pereira. 6 Weeks, 6 Stories will be, however, my first online Grub Street experience. I’m kind of excited.

book field guide flashTo prepare for class, I’m reading A Field Guide to Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih. Pereira recommended this book during last fall’s Fiction I class. Some of our in-class readings were flash fiction, and one of the students wrote some fabulous flash pieces of her own. I knew little about the genre, but was intrigued.

Though I am only about a fifth of the way through the Field Guide, I have already learned that flash fiction (sometimes called postcard, micro, sudden, or “short short” fiction) is not a new literary genre. The practice of condensing stories into a handful of words (the jury is out on exactly if or how word count should be used to define flash fiction) apparently goes back to the 1800s in the states and Europe, and potentially much further back (as early as AD 220) in China, where these tiny stories are often referred to as palm-of-the-hand or smoke-long stories.

I have also learned that there are many ways to define and describe flash fiction. A few of the themes and ideas that I’ve already heard repeated in the various essays in the Field Guide are:  short (obviously), surprise endings, twists, exact attention to detail, poetic prose, ambiguity, slice of life, sketch, vignette, true to life, lyrical, strong imagery, irony.

I’m looking forward to learning more about the history and craft of flash fiction. And, I’d love to hear what you know of this unique, bite-sized genre. Have any stories to share?

What I’m Reading: The Red Pony by Steinbeck

book red ponyFor years, a small, battered, paperback copy of John Steinbeck‘s The Red Pony has been among the books on my shelf. Through several moves and a number of yard sales, this book has remained on my shelf as a “to read someday” book. Last week, after abandoning a contemporary novel, I opened this classic and found myself pulled into the small, but deeply felt world of Jody Tifflin.

This series of four, linked short stories showcases Steinbeck’s realism to great effect. The sparse language, specific details, and storytelling through concrete observations are all part of a style that is very different from most of today’s fiction.

Reading Steinbeck’s stories felt like an invitation to slow down and feel something. There is much in these stories that is harsh and tragic. Through his experiences on his family’s ranch, young Jody learns important lessons about the way of the world and the people in it.

This isn’t what I would call an enjoyable read, but it is a masterful example of realism in writing. There’s a reason they are called “classics,” and they are always worth revisiting.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

A lovely quote from one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin. If you have a half hour, do listen to the BBC broadcast of their interview with Le Guin on her 85th birthday: Ursula at 85 which I came across because of a tweet from @neilhimself.

pin leguin writer is

I hope you are enjoying the garden of your writing life. Plant those seeds. Love the words. Embrace the fear and delight. 
.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
.

Weekend Edition – Imagine A World of Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Imagine a World of Writers

"Dear Earth" by Katie Daisy via etsy

“Dear, Earth” by Katie Daisy via etsy

More people should write.

They should write about their days and their dreams, about their hopes and their fears, about their families and their histories and their possible futures. They should write lists and poems and wild ramblings that sound like the intoxicated rantings of a idiot savant. They should tell stories, wonderful, improbable, made-up stories. They should sink or dig or dive or fall or claw their way into that place inside where the stories live, and pull them out like blunt-edged gems from deep within the living, breathing earth. They should write lies that are true and truths that uncover lies. They should weave secrets into the spaces between the words, and then give those secrets gladly to the world.

For those of us bitten by the writing bug, it is near impossible (and quite terrifying) to imagine life without the ability to put our thoughts, ideas, and stories into words and onto the page. This simple act of using language to articulate the inner workings of our mind and heart serves to free the former and to ground the latter. Writing is both our wings and our roots.

I believe that the world would be a better place if more people would write.

I don’t mean writing professionally or even publicly. I mean that the world would be a better place if more people took the time to simply slow down and put into words how they are feeling, what they are experiencing, and why. We move too fast most of the time. We fly through our days and collapse into our oblivious nights. We live our lives in the context of other people’s stories, hardly giving a thought to our own.

It is all too easy for a lifetime to slip by unquestioned. And if we do not take the time to ask the questions, how will we ever know our answers? Not that the answers are all that important. It is the questions that matter. Writing helps us grasp the questions; and, in the process of seeking an answer, it helps us to understand the question more fully. Writing forces us to think more deeply and broadly and carefully. It  breaks a question open and invites us to explore. The process of writing – the digging in, the discovery, the meandering and wondering, the finding of the right words, the connecting of ideas and generating of more questions – makes it impossible for any question to be answered in simple black and white terms.The process of writing introduces not only all the grays that live in the thousands of stories behind a question, but every beautiful, brilliant color of life.

When it comes to writing, it is difficult to keep from slipping down the slope of my good intentions into a pit of proselytizing. And, even if I didn’t abhor the concept of coercive conversion, it would be silly to attempt such a thing here where I am, I imagine, preaching to the proverbial choir.

To write is a uniquely human skill that gives us the ability to transcend time and space, break the boundaries of reality, and understand the nature of life more fully. Writing connects us to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. It is a powerful tool of self-discovery, communication, and self-expression. Writing gives us a magic lens through which to view our experiences with more depth and clarity, making us able to see into a moment in a different way. Writing helps us unlock questions and answers through analytical thinking, and it helps us create context and evoke empathy through creative play.

Imagine a world where writing is not considered a chore, a frivolous hobby, an indulgence, or the privilege of the few and gifted. Imagine a world where writing is simply part of what it means to be human. I wonder what that world would look like. I wonder.

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: You Need to Make Your Reader Care

book aurariaI downloaded Auraria by Tim Westover partly because it was free, but mostly because the highlighted promotional blurbs included this bit from Publisher’s Weekly: “Weaves tall tales and legends, Carrollian surrealism, and a fascinating cast of characters into a genuinely inventive novel that reads like steampunk via Mark Twain. Fact and fancy are intertwined cleverly and seamlessly in a top-notch, thoroughly American fantasy.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review) Sounds fabulous, right?

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t connect with the protagonist. Though the writing was lovely, and the setting and cast of characters was undeniably creative and whimsical, I just couldn’t muster much in the way of caring what happened.

Looking back, it’s interesting to note that the Publishers Weekly blurb does not mention the story – what is happening or why – in any way. It describes how the story is presented, but it doesn’t tell you what the story is about. It doesn’t ask a question that needs to be answered. It doesn’t even hint at the premise or the “what if” behind the novel.Sadly, this novel has earned a place on my “Did Not Finish” list in Goodreads.

Note to self: Make sure that you give readers a gripping reason to care about what happens to your protagonist and in your story. You don’t want to wind up in the unfinished pile.

What I’m Reading:  The Fairytales of Hermann Hesse

book hesse fairytalesAfter abandoning what was left of Auraria, I wanted  to read something that I knew would not disappoint. Since Auraria struck me as a bit fairytale-like, I decided to revisit an old favorite, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (translated by Jack Zipes).

I can’t recall exactly when I first began reading Hesse. It was quite far back in my youth, I think, a time when I was a little more starry-eyed. My memory of reading his books and stories was a feeling of being enlightened in small ways. It was a little surprising, then, that after all these years, these simple stories still held a sway over my head and heart.

There are three stories in this collection that are about the theme of artistic pursuits vs. worldly life. I read all three, “The Poet,” “The Fairy Tale About the Wicker Chair,” and “The Painter.” I also reread a story called “Iris,” primarily because it’s one that I remember reading. Though I could not recall the story’s details, I knew it was one I’d especially liked.

Interestingly, though the characters in Hesse’s fairy tales are, as is traditionally the case with the genre, only briefly “sketched” rather than being fully fleshed out, I was still able to feel a connection to them and to their stories. Unlike the challenge I had with Auraria, I cared enough about these people to continue reading to the end. Granted, short stories require a much lesser investment of time than a novel, but – still – I was not for a moment apathetic about the plight of the story’s players, or the discoveries they made. I’m looking forward to rereading more of these stories and thinking about how traditional tales like these might be adapted to a more contemporary kind of story telling. Hmmm … that might almost be a writing prompt. ;)

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

pin writing salvation gaiman Until next time – I wish you happy writing and happy reading! . Jamie Lee Wallace 

Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebooktwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually. .

Food in Fiction

Gavin's Buffalo Chicken Dip

Gavin’s Buffalo Chicken Dip Image Courtesy of Shannon Stacey.

Has this ever happened to you? Your going along, minding your own beeswax, innocently reading a book and BAM! A character eats something or smells a food and describes it in excruciating detail and your mouth is watering. You just have to have whatever the character is eating and you must haz it now! Nom Nom Nom!!

Sometimes the character is a chef as in the case of Mary Whaley the focus of Lauren Dane’s Lush  or Sarah Morgan’s Élise Philippe from Suddenly Last Summer. Sometimes the characters are just eating a food that sounds yummy. As is the case with Gavin’s infamous buffalo chicken dip in Shannon Stacey’s Kowalksi books. I don’t even really like buffalo chicken, but reading the characters enjoy the cheesy gooeyness that is this dip made me want to stuff my face. *

The principal of Checkov’s Gun says that everything that’s in your story should be there for a reason. For both Dane’s Mary and Morgan’s Élise, cooking was a part of who they were as people. It was their love language, how they demonstrated their passion for others and for life. In the case of Stacey’s characters, the dip was a symbol of caring. It brought people together. It was a balm to fractured hearts and a celebration of the good times.

As I reader if there is one particular food that plays a pivotal role in the story or in a key scene, I LOVE it when the writer shares the recipe. From the writer’s perspective, food can be a handy marketing angle. You can write a blog post about the food in question and include the recipe. Shannon Stacey did that with Gavin’s Buffalo Dip. She turned it into a blog post. I’ve shared the link with several people and now, I’m sharing it with you. If you’ve heard of Shannon great, but if not, hmmm that dip is bringing new readers to her fold.  In my opinion, this is the best kind of marketing, because it is related to the book, but it’s not a hard sell. I’ve shared it with romance readers and non-romance readers, when they get to the site, it’s easy for them to investigate her books or grab the recipe and run.

Image Courtesy of Shannon Stacey

Image Courtesy of Shannon Stacey

You could write about the origin of the food or the recipe. Has it been handed down from generation to generation? Just be careful not start any family feuds (or violate any copyrights)! You could even generate some good natured controversy (do nuts belong in chocolate chip cookies?).

I’m curious, from a reader perspective, do you find it distracting when an author brings food so intimately into the story or do you like it?

From a writer’s perspective have you ever used food as an element in your story? Have you ever used food almost as a character in a story?  What are some of your favorite foods in fiction? By all means if you have links to good author recipes, please share them in the comments. If I’m going to be hungry, then we all should be hungry!

*I made this dip for Easter and it was a HUGE hit. I even had a few scoopfuls!

Lee Laughlin is a writer, wife, and mom, frequently all of those things at once. She blogs at Livefearlesslee.com. She has been a member of the Concord Monitor Board of Contributors. Her words have also appeared in a broad range of publications from community newspapers to the Boston Globe. She is currently working on her first novel, a work of contemporary, romantic fiction.