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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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. 

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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.
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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! 
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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.
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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. 
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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.
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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.

Weekend Edition – On “Real” Writers Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

How to Tell If You’re a “Real” Writer

Even the Blue Fairy can't make you a real writer ~ Inspirational Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren

Even the Blue Fairy can’t make you a real writer ~ Inspirational Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle around the Internet for the past few weeks. Like drunken participants in a virtual bar brawl, the topics of MFAs and creative exclusion have careened from blog to blog, crashing into our headspace and spilling beer on our reading material. While I’m glad that people are talking about writing (even if they are being a little unruly about it), I’m discouraged that the conversation focuses so heavily on the idea of external validation – of whether or not (and how) someone else can say that you are (or are not) a “real” writer. And, for that matter, what’s with this term “Real” Writer?

This isn’t the first time we have been caught in the crossfire, but this particular row began with a piece penned by former MFA professor Ryan Boudinot. Published on The Stranger, Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One is less a personal expose and more a personal attack on both the students he taught and the institution he worked for. My favorite bit of his diatribe was this, “Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” I have no words.

As you might expect, Boudinot’s article raised the ire of other writers far and wide. Here are a few of the responses I found most interesting:

An Open Letter to That Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude by Chuck Wendig on Terrible Minds – Though Chuck’s prolific use of obscenities and colorful metaphors (such as, “peeing bees”) may not be your thing, Mr. Wendig makes some very good points and he gets top marks for passionate presentation.

On Ryan Boudinot and the Goddard MFA by poet Bhanu Kapil provides a much more restrained rebuttal, but a rebuttal nonetheless. The piece is given additional weight by the fact that the author also taught at Goddard.

Open Letter to Crabby Writing Teachers Everywhere by Karin Gillespie offers not only a satisfying rebuke, but also hope to emerging writers with her debunking of The Myth of the Real Deal.

 

I have never taught in an MFA, and I don’t expect I’ll ever enroll in one. I have, however, been a writer for my entire life. My journey began at the age of seven, when I put pencil to paper in my first journal. I have been on my writing adventure ever since, and although I have not hit the New York Times Bestseller List (yet), I definitely consider myself a “real” writer.

Why?

Because the result of doing something is not the thing. Doing the thing is the thing.

Being published or even financially compensated does not make you a “real” writer. Earning public acclaim, industry awards, or the envious admiration of your peers does not make you a “real” writer. All you need to do to be a “real” writer is commit to the practice of writing. All those other things – income, fame, academic acknowledgement – are just possible results of writing. They are not the writing. And – one more time – they do not make you a writer.

When you think about the question of whether or not you are a “real” writer in the context of other things we do, the idea becomes kind of silly.

If I run for fitness, but have not been paid to run or won any marathons, I can still call myself a “runner” without fear of anyone questioning the veracity of my claim. If I practice yoga in the privacy of my own home without any hope of applause for my downward dog or tree pose, I can still confidently call myself a yogini. If I tend a garden purely for the joy of nurturing green things, without any intent to make a profit from the flowers and vegetables that grow in my care, I can still call myself a gardener.

When people like Boudinot judge (as if it was their job in the first place) whether or not someone is a “real” writer, the criteria they use is all wrong. Income, acclaim, and all the other external trappings of their “real” writer have little to do with the actual writing. They are simply the outcome of a person having written. It was the act of writing that made that person a writer, not cashing a check or accepting a trophy. You may not be a professional writer, but that does not mean you are a not a real writer any more than not being paid for my zinnias keeps me from being a real gardener.

The question of skill is equally as misplaced.

Just because I’m unable to stand on my head perfectly (or, at all) doesn’t mean I’m not a yogini. Just because my tomato plant didn’t win first prize at the county fair doesn’t mean I’m not a gardener. Skill is something we can acquire only through practice. And, if we are practicing a thing, we are a practitioner of the skill in question, which in turn earns us the title of runner, writer, gardener, etc.

In her lovely and deeply inspiring book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland asserts that everyone has talent and everyone has a story worth telling. She has no tolerance for critics. In the very first chapter of her book, she writes,

So often I come upon articles written by critics of the very highest brow, and by other prominent writers, deploring the attempts of ordinary people to write. The critics rap us savagely on the head with their thimbles, for our nerve. No one but a virtuoso should be allowed to do it. The prominent writers sell funny articles about all the utterly crazy, fatuous, amateurish people who think they can write.

Ueland wrote her book in 1938. Clearly, this isn’t a new problem.

 

I hope that if you have been troubled in the past by worries about whether or not you are (or, ever will be) a “real” writer, that this post will help you move past that concern and free you up to focus on the joy of your writing practice. Put your heart and mind fully into the effort. Study and learn. Discover. Uncover. Experiment. There is no such thing as a “real” writer. If you write, you are a writer, and it doesn’t get any more real than that.

 

And, the next time someone asks you what you do, tell them, “Professionally, I’m a [fill in your job title here]; but in my real life, I’m a writer.”

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: You don’t have to put all your eggs in one basket.

Morning Gather by Terri Unger

Morning Gather by Terri Unger

You only get one chance to make a first impression.

This may be true. It may also be one of the primary reasons writers stress out about sharing their work.

Fear of rejection often keeps us from putting our work out into the world. Whatever opus we’re working on, we hide it away to protect it from critical eyes and sharp tongues. We have worked too long and too hard to risk others tearing the product of our labors apart, or (perhaps even worse) ignoring it completely. How many manuscripts are out there, languishing in the proverbial bottom drawer?

But, what if, instead of putting all your effort into your Big Project (only to lock it away from the light of day), you put some of your creative energy and time into shorter, less momentous works?

This idea is one of the reasons writing practices like blogging, short stories, flash fiction, poetry, and other short forms are so valuable. They require less of an investment from you, and they provide you with many, smaller (and therefore less daunting) opportunities to share your words. Instead of having to serve an entire, five-course meal, you can just offer a cup of tea, a cookie, or an appetizer.

Sure, sometimes a reader won’t enjoy your tea or will think your cookie could have used a little less sugar and a bit more spice, but that’s okay. It isn’t as if one blog post (or essay or short story) can define your career or your identity as a writer. And, the more you put these little pieces of yourself out into the world, the braver you will become and the better your will be at learning to separate yourself from the work. You will worry less about getting hurt, and be more intrigued by what you can learn from reader feedback. You will start to see each moment of “exposure” less as a horrific moment of being naked on stage, and more as a chance to build connections that sustain and inspire you.

Give it a try. What small thing can you write and share today?

 

What I’m Reading: Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé

book peaches monsieurChocolat is one of my favorite movies. Based on the novel by Joanne Harris (which I’m sorry to say I’ve never read), it has a wonderful sense of place, interwoven themes, and an underlying current of magic. Imagine my delight, then, to find a copy of Harris’ companion novel, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, on the sale cart at my local library. Oh, happy day!

Set in the same provincial French town as Chocolat, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé also features the same characters as Harris’ original story plus a new cast who bring heightened stakes and greater tension to this culturally-charged story. I was hooked by the book’s very first lines,

Someone once told me, that in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead.

What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.

Harris’ protagonist, Vianne Rocher, is fascinating to me. She is at once apart from and deeply entangled with the lives of the people around her. Her gifts of small magic, of being able to see people’s “colours” and flashes of visions, are both enchanting and believable.

I enjoyed my return trip to the small town of Lansquenet, and it may be that I will soon journey to other lands of Harris’ creation. Having taken a closer look at her catalog, it seems she offers a wide variety of destinations to her readers.

 

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 real writers

Here’s to being as real as you can be – as a writer, and as a human being. Happy writing! Happy reading! I’ll 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 – Writing When You Don’t Feel Creative plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

Writing from the Gray Space

fog riverI had an entirely different post planned for today. I outlined it while watching my daughter ride, jotting notes during the down time between jumps and canters. I was happy with the way the ideas were coming together on the mind map and in my head. I was really looking forward to writing my first draft. That was Tuesday.

Today seems a world away from Tuesday.

It’s not that anything awful happened, but my energy has taken a bit of a nose dive, and I seem to have lost the wonderful groove that had me dancing almost effortlessly through the early part of the week. Now, my mood and outlook match the sluggish gray that hangs on the world outside my window. The crows that usually appear full of mischief and mirth now hunch along the telephone lines wearing a foreboding countenance. Their calls sound lonely.

It’s okay. I know it’s only temporary.

It may not always be convenient or enjoyable, but I have learned (oh, yes, the hard way) that it’s wiser to ride the ups and downs of my energy and creativity than to try to control them. Once upon a time, I would have ignored the signs of a descent into a fallow period. I would have pushed doggedly forward, forcing myself to produce even though my heart and head weren’t invested in the effort. I would have told myself that there was no time to rest and no time to lose. Write, girl, write. Get that job done. Make it happen.

But, while persistence and commitment are both generally admirable qualities, sometimes they aren’t the answer to your creative question. Take today. I could have sat myself down at the keyboard and done my best to write the post I outlined on Tuesday. I could have tried to recapture my sense of enthusiasm on the page, but I knew that in my present state of mind I wouldn’t do the topic justice.

If I’d had a client deadline to meet, I wouldn’t have had the option to delay writing the piece. I would have had to buckle down and make the best of an imperfect situation. (The writing gods know I’ve done this many a time.) But, happily, in this case, I could switch gears and write about something that was better suited to my emotional bent. Which is what I did.

My creative cycle feels like one of those hypnotic Mandelbrot fractal designs, made of the same pattern repeated over and over at different scales. My creativity (and energy to create) ebb and flow over the course of each day, each project, and over the course of weeks, months, seasons, and years. The trick is in learning to work in harmony with the endless undulations of those natural patterns instead of against them.

Of course, each of us must be careful not to mistake Resistance for a natural part of the creative cycle. We must not surrender to a state of total creative paralysis. That is not the same as switching gears or letting projects lie fallow for a time. That is the lizard brain’s default response to fear, and it’s never helpful. Even when I feel unable to work on a particular piece or a certain type of creative endeavor, I strive to always be moving forward in some way.

I look out the window now and the heavy gray has undergone a subtle transformation. No longer heavy and colorless, the sky now appears gently lit from within, the edges deepening to a chalky blue-gray that liquifies in the still surface of the river. Gray can be beautiful – even inspiring – if we can accept it for what it is and learn to create in accord with its rhythms.

 

What I’m {Learning About} Writing: A Story Framework Can Help Jumpstart Your Writing

The more you learn about the writing craft, the more valuable reading will be to your education. Here’s why.

You’ve heard, of course, that there are two things every writer must do: write and read. It makes a lot of sense. If you are attempting to create a thing, you will benefit from studying that thing in its finished form, getting to know it inside and out, understanding how all the pieces fit together.

Even if you haven’t yet sunk your teeth fully into your study of the writing craft, reading provides much value simply by giving you the experience of being inside a story. Though it may not be immediately obvious, each story you read is teaching you something about the craft. Through broad experience, comparing, and contrasting, you are developing a more critical eye and a sense of what makes a story work for you.

Then, when you’re more invested in your exploration of the craft, you will feel as though your eyes have suddenly been given superpowers. You will read and, instead of just experiencing the surface of a story, you will see all the story’s insides – the clockwork and “magic” that make it come alive and give it the power to pull you into a different dimension. You will notice the key milestones in the story’s structure, the way the author has used direct and indirect characterization to bring life to her players, instances of foreshadowing, and all kinds of other details.

I have been noticing the power of a structural framework in a story. I don’t mean story structure in the archetypal sense, but in a more concrete sense – the way the writer organizes the pieces of the story. I’ve recently read a series of novels that each use a unique pattern to tell the story. For instance:

  • In The Moon Sisters, Therese Walsh tells her story from the points of view of two sisters, Jazz and Olivia. The narration alternates between the two women, switching with each chapter. In addition each chapter begins with a flashback that fills in some of the back story. There are also a series of letters that are revealed throughout the story, adding another layer of context. Finally, the entire book is organized into sections that mirror the five stages of grief.
  • In The Little Country, Charles deLint tells a story within a story, deftly weaving the two together to create a unique reading experience in which we get to experience the two adventures simultaneously.
  • In The Bookman’s Tale, Charlie Lovett shifts point of view and time periods ((Shakespeare’s day, the late 1800s, the mid-80s, and the mid-90s) with each chapter, carefully crafting the story across these characters and eras so that by the end, everything comes together.

While these may seem like complex approaches to storytelling, in my experience having any kind of framework can be immensely helpful to the writing process. Whether I am writing a blog post, an essay, or a marketing ebook, knowing how I’m going to break the piece down into parts gives me a “skeleton” on which I can begin hanging my story. It’s similar to having an outline, except that it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual content of what I’m writing. It just gives me some parameters and constraints about how to organize my content.

If you’re stuck on a piece of writing, you might want to try coming up with a structure and playing with “filling in the blanks,” so to speak. Looking at your story from a different perspective might help you break loose from what you thought was writer’s block.

 

What I’m Reading: Timeskip by Charles deLint

book timeskipI recently shared my delightful discovery of Charles deLint’s Facebook group, The Mystic Cafe.  This community of more than 3,500 fans of myth and fantasy posts a steady stream of links to interesting articles, artworks, and – of course – books. Because of a recent post in that group, I downloaded a copy of Charles deLint’s novella, Timeskip.

Timeskip is one in a series of stories and novellas set in deLint’s fictitious city of Newford. I have loved several of his Newford novels, including Widdershins and Onion Girl, enough to be happily anticipating rereads.

But, Timeskip didn’t thrill me the way that I had hoped. I feel guilty even writing that, like the way I felt as a kid the first time my mom made a dinner that I didn’t like. I wept quietly over my plate, sure I had somehow betrayed my mother.

But, even those we love and admire the most cannot be expected to hit a home run every time. And a single disappointment does not ruin a reader/author relationship. I am already eyeing up my next deLint read. I’m intrigued by another in his Newford Stories series, Crow Girls. I’ll let you know how it is.

 

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 deLint seeing

Here’s to creating something – anything – even when your heart and head are a bit foggy. Happy writing. Happy reading. Happy learning. 
.
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.
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