Tag Archives: writing

My Do-it-Yourself Homegrown Self-Appointed MFA

I am never going to get an MFA.

In the first place, the cost of chasing one down is out of my budget–considering I have kids to put through college.

Secondly, even if I had the money, MFA programs have them whattaya-call-em…’standards‘, which means it’s unlikely I’d be accepted.

However, in the spirit of improving my craft, I decided to make 2018 the year of My Do-it-Yourself Homegrown Self-Appointed MFA.

Here’s what I did:

Read. A lot.

I didn’t break any Goodreads records, but I did beat my goal of 36 books this year. I read 40 fiction, motivational, and writing craft books in 2018.

In fact, the idea to earn my Do-it-Yourself Homegrown Self-Appointed MFA came to me after I came across the reading list of an MFA hopeful. This hopeful was pursing an MFA in Young Adult fiction and had been provided a list of ten YA books to chose from. They were supposed to pick three.

I decided to read them all.

Once I finished, I added more YA books to my to-be-read, both new releases and classic favorites. In addition to YA, I read chick lit, fantasy, romance, horror, literature, pulp, and even a few non-fiction.

Fangirl by Rainbow RowellGirls by Frederick BuschBad Girls Throughout History by Ann ShenThe Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa SeeThe Book Thief by Markus ZusakThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. SalingerSee All the Stars by Kit FrickBone Gap by Laura RubyOne of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManusSimple Truth by Carol BodensteinerEleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellThe New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderThe Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary ChaseThe Hate U Give by Angie ThomasButterfly by Sonya HartnettMansfield Park by Jane AustenBoy Meets Boy by David LevithanAsking For It by Louise O'NeillIf I Was Your Girl by Meredith RussoForever . . . by Judy BlumeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonTurtles All the Way Down by John GreenThirteen Reasons Why by Jay AsherRagtime by E.L. DoctorowThe Color Purple by Alice WalkerA Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinYoung Goodman Brown by Nathaniel HawthorneSon of the Morning by Linda HowardEverything's Eventual by Stephen KingA Game of Thrones by George R.R. MartinSkies of Gold by Zoe ArcherThe Giver by Lois LowryAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

For craft books, I picked up some excellent suggestions after lurking around the boards at PitchWars. My favorite was Story Genius, but I also enjoyed Writing the Breakout Novel. I’m currently reading Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.

Save the Cat by Blake SnyderWriting the Breakout Novel by Donald MaassStory Genius by Lisa CronBig Magic by Elizabeth GilbertWired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence

The 5 Second Rule by Mel RobbinsFor inspiration, I opened the year with Big Magic. However, for a good old-fashioned ass-kicking motivation, I listened to Mel Robbins’s audio book The 5-Second Rule. Three times.

 

 

The War of Art by Steven PressfieldStephen Pressman’s The War of Art is a favorite for helping me overcome the resistance/writer’s block that follows me like a tall shadow on a late winter afternoon.

I Found a Critique Partner.

Thanks to Wendy Heard, author of upcoming release Hunting Annabelle, I found a CP. Wendy offers a matchmaking service and matches writers by genre and level of experience. I hit the jackpot with my new Critique Partner, Gavin. Not only is he a talented writer full of insight, he’s got industry experience. I only hope I can be as much help to him as he’s already been to me.

I Got Professional Help.

When I started querying my latest novel this spring, I got lots of requests, but no takers. After the fourth or fifth “loved the writing, not the story” letter, I put my querying on hiatus and started getting serious about finding some professional help.

Image result for kit frick

Kit Frick, author of See All The Stars

I decided to go with Kit Frick. Kit is an extraordinarily talented writer. Her debut See All the Stars is a runaway success and she’s got three more books you can look forward to in the coming years. She’s also a gifted editor offering services through Copper Lantern Studio.

Writers can hire Kit for everything from coaching to Editorial Blueprints to full-manuscript editing. Her prices are beyond reasonable.

Right now, my novel is in her talented hands and I look forward to hearing back from her before the end of the year.

I Took Classes.

I took classes both online and in person. I enjoyed a journalism class, attended webinars, and attended two workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, including Kelly Dwyer’s Five Elements of a Novel.

It was in Kelly’s workshop that I completely revamped my plot for my novel in progress. The feedback I got from Kelly and fellow participants was instrumental in strengthening my story.

I Got Some Writing Jobs.

Iowa’s Emerging Writers Pick up your copy today!

In 2018, I landed a couple of writing positions. I’m now a regular contributor for HER Magazine and have had stories and articles published in local lifestyle magazine Grande Living.

My short story “Hooked” was published in September of this year in Iowa’s Emerging Writers. I was honored and flattered when they reached out to me to request a submission, and proud to be a part of this project along with so many talented writers.

I’ve also been brushing up on my editing chops at 101words.org. For several hours every week, I wade through the slush pile, give writers feedback, and edit stories for publication.

I Wrote.

I wrote. I wrote a lot and then I wrote some more. I finished my third novel in March of 2018 (The Kwan Factor).

I wrote 72 articles and/or stories for my blog. I started two new blogs.

Plus, I’ve written over 200,000 words on my current work-in-progress–just since July of this year! Some of these words are probably even good. I’ll have muchos editing to do when it’s time to pin down the fourth draft of this untitled novel, but I’m proud of the fact that I’ve averaged 40,000 words a month.

The Year In Review

In 2018, I didn’t land representation for my most recently finished novel. I didn’t win Pitch Wars, I didn’t win any writing contests.

I didn’t land a 3-book deal with a major publisher, I didn’t get a fat option for my last novel, I didn’t land on anyone’s best seller list. In fact, I’ve hardly sold any books, and most days it seems my aspirations of making a living as a writer are as distant as Dan Brown’s aspirations for the Man Booker prize.

However, thanks to all this effort, there’s one thing I can check off my to-do list–I’ve earned my Do-it-Yourself Homegrown Self-Appointed MFA. And goddamn, when I look at all these accomplishments all one place, I’m tempted to name myself valedictorian or something.

If you need me, I’ll be signing my own diploma.

Nothing never started gets better.

Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.

Nothing never started gets better.

Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.

As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.

Nothing never started gets better.

(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)

What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.

This almost never happens.

Okay, it maybe happened once.

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.

Flash fiction is creative crack

Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.

I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.

Here’s a secret: Ninety percent of the time when I look at the photo prompts on Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers or Al Forbes Sunday Photo Fiction, I blank. I can’t think of anything.

The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watchingjust do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.

Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.

This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.

Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:

Nothing Anything you never started gets any better.

Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.

So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.

Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.

You can’t improve what you don’t write.

Happy writing.

A Damn Fine Fire

big bonfire

By Janne Karaste (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes I watch her in the field, her sunhat bobbing as she leans to check the early May buds or bends to pull a weed, and I think about how it could have been. And I wonder if we are better because if it.

It started innocently enough. She was busy writing, I was busy sniping and being seventeen, and she started to complain how all her hard work was getting her nowhere. And goddamn me for having the nerve to complain about my life. And so I said to her, “It’s because you suck.”

She stared at me a long moment, as if I’d slapped her. It was surprising, really, because I’d said plenty worse before. But this one particular must have hit her wrong. Maybe she’d been stuck on a tricky piece of dialogue, or opening a chapter. Or who knows, because I think you know what I’m talking about. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s timing.

She cried. Silently at first, but it grew into racking sobs, the sort you never hear outside of daycares or mental asylums. Dad and I stood speechless. Because, honestly— it’s more than a little distressing to watch your wife or mother go unhinged. And up to that point, we’d thought she was put together—you know–upstairs.

It’s just that she had no business doing it—that writing thing. And Dad, he tried to tell her, but you really can’t tell someone they suck at something. Especially when it’s something they want so badly. Except by then, even she was starting to realize. And so I said: “You suck.”

After the crying, like an hour or more of it, she lifted her head and stared across her office, to some faraway place that neither Dad nor I could see. Like a castaway imagining a ship on the horizon. I could see her left eye twitch and she said, “Ahhhh.”

With mighty purpose, she lifted her fingers to the keys of her laptop, and began.

Across the room, the printer whirred to life, spat out one page and then another. The printer shat and spat and spewed her stories, one by one. The poems, the plays, the essays. The treatments and the novels. Her collection of flash fiction, the synopses and her journals.

The stack of papers grew so tall that pages gushed onto the floor and still—she kept on printing. Soon the words all faded gray, and fainter still, with skinny lines all eaten through, until there were only ghosts of words. And finally, blank.

She watched the empty pages churn through the inkless printer, let them flutter to the floor because there was nowhere else to land.

Once the printer stopped, she started to erase. One by one, jaw clenched, she opened all the files, stabbed the keys, and killed her stories. Each pitch, each book, each query. And once she’d hunted down the last, nuked the text and jabbed delete, she slammed the lid of her laptop shut, looked up and glared at me.

“Ha,” she said. But by now I could only look away.

She pushed back from her desk, got up and staggered toward the printer. Lurching right and left, she shoveled armloads of papers into an open garbage can.

Then she charged past Dad and me and marched out the doorway, down the hall and into the backyard—all the time holding that trashcan in front of her like she was leading the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And just outside the shade of the sycamore, she dumped it.

She went back three more times, shoveling in every last page that had drifted about the office, until she had a pile outside a good two feet tall. After vanishing into the garage for a minute, she came out with lighter fluid. For a good five minutes, she stood there spraying, stopped and dropped it. Went inside and came out smirking, her laptop high above her head, like an airport chauffeur awaiting a mysterious stranger, and when she got to the pit, she slammed it down—so hard we heard her grunt, felt the thump and heard it echo about the yard.

She rattled out the last few drops of lighter fluid and looked over her shoulder at us. “Matches,” she smiled.

Dad crossed a protective arm over me and took a step back. “No.”

As if he could stop her. “Yesss,” she said. I could see the whites of her eyes all the way around.

She pushed past, ran inside, and rifled through the kitchen drawers, leaving every last one open. But there was not a lighter or a match to be found—so she charged across the yard, broke off a low-hanging branch, snapped it on one knee and proceeded to rub two sticks together.

She kept at it for forty minutes, stopping every now and then to push her hair back and wipe the sweat out of her eyes. And when she started crying again, I drove to Gas Buddy and bought her a lighter.

They say the flames shot up two stories.

When the fire steadied, she pulled up an Adirondack and a box of Barefoot and stayed there all afternoon and evening. When the flames got low, she dragged out her box of writing tomes, her chair and desk. Piece by piece, she fed them to the fire. Now and then, she’d poke the embers with an old golf club and tip her head back to watch the sparks roar up to the sky, like stars set free.

I think about that day a lot now, about how different it was back then and how seldom you seen the demarcations in your life that you can point to it and say, that is when it happened. That is when it changed.

She doesn’t talk much now, or smile often, but I think she’s happy. She spends a lot of time outdoors, and I think the vineyard suits her better than writing ever did.

There’s just too much trouble in it—the writing—and no way to know if it’s right. I think that’s what pushed her over the edge that day, realizing what it was, how imperfect. How deficient. How incomplete.

Now that it’s gone—her writing, I mean—I’ve wondered. It probably wasn’t fair, what I said about her work. It might have been true—or maybe it was only true to me. Or perhaps it was just true at the time. No one can say for sure. But I think she realized what I do now—there’s no way to measure writing, no way to prove and no way to ever know if it’s right. There is only one true thing about it:

It makes a damn fine fire.

Big Ideas, Little Time

Yesterday, I had the most amazing idea!

Truly. It was a killer plot twist for my WIP and I could see instantly how perfect it was. How right. How clever. How utterly badass and organically woven into the very fabric of the story—as if it had existed all along and was just waiting for me to discover it.

Ideas this big, they don’t come along every day. In my case, they’re rare.

Actually, never.

Yep. In truth, I never had a clever idea, up until yesterday. I couldn’t wait to write it down.

But then, the meeting. After that, my boss. The QA server meltdown. Lunch at my desk. The four-dozen calls to coworkers for status. The code that wouldn’t compile and the bug on the test server. And suddenly it was 4:30 and time to hurry home and walk the dog and fix the dinner and fold the laundry and do the dishes and sign the permission slip and email the teacher and run the daughter’s bath.

And of course I always leave a block of time open at the end of the day for the Shame Ritual: that special time where I alternate between yelling at the kids to brush their teeth and chastising myself for whatever I failed to get done.

But finally it came: a quiet hour to write, which actually was only fifteen minutes by then. Well really five, because I spent an extra ten trying to find clean socks for my son. And then I sort of fell asleep.

But there’s always tomorrow, I say. Which is today.

Now if I could just remember that goddamn idea.

I’m a Dog’s Ass and Other Things my Phone Thinks

My phone hates me. Or maybe it’s not hate so much as sneering disrespect.

IMG_1476Case in point: I manage my calendar on my phone. That’s the wonderful thing with smartphones: everyone trots around with their own personal assistant at the ready. Start my coffee! Turn up the heat! Add four boxes Barefoot wine to the grocery list!

It’s really astounding if you think about it. So there I was, putting my week together  and on Tuesdays I take my dog to agility class. So I said: “Emma dog class”

I’m a dog’s ass

Seriously? I repeat it three times. Each time, my phone smirks back at me: I’m a dog’s ass.

Do I argue with that?

I walk a lot. Gets the wheels turning when I’m writing and part of the appeal of my particular phone was the thought that I could march along and dictate all my profound musings as they occurred to me. Because God forbid I have a deep thought that isn’t saved for posterity.

But my phone is a churlish, inattentive, gum-chewing idiot.

Consider this mystifying entry from my notes:

Voted up for good measure. And it stays that way.

Or this:

Feel the shiver's ink to the base of yours. Bye.

Or this:

Sleep frayed at both ends.

Well I actually sort of like that last one.

But it’s 2015. Haven’t we perfected this technology by now? Maybe it’s me. Maybe after all these years I haven’t mastered the English language. And there are those that read my blog that might argue such. Or maybe my phone thinks I sound like I have a dog’s ass squished against my face. Who knows. But the whole thing is a daily source of frustration.

Play music: the Handsome Family.

Which member of your family do you want to call?

OH MY GOD. It’s moments like this I feel like such a dog’s ass.

What does your phone think of you?

2015. It’s more than just the square root of 4,060,225.

Magic 8 ball says: My sources say no

Well how else do you make decisions? Magic 8 Ball says: My sources say no.

So I was reflecting on the year to come and contemplating how to fit it all in. I had paralyzing fear penciled in for the first few months, followed by a six-week self-pity retreat, and I was keeping the summer open for raging self-doubt.

And then I thought: No.

Oh my dearies.

It’s not just that I’ve been keeping secrets from you. Turns out I spend most of my time tharn in the middle of life’s headlights. But enough of that sorry behavior.

Galley copy of HitList

View from the desktop with a galley copy of HitList

This year, I’m going to tell all: about my dream-date query experience with HitList, what Random House said about my book and about those next two novels in the queue.

Look for juicy tell-all posts, good advice on badass queries and how to make agents fight over you. Plus, tips on how to blow it all because you’re going through an ugly divorce.

What’s after that? Who knows. Maybe I’ll even update my Facebook status.

Here’s hoping you are in the midst of your own brave plans for 2015.

Me, the Beast and that B!+*# in Louboutins

Two things:

1. Turns out you can eat too many sugar cookies.

2. Writing sucks. Here’s why: Somewhere between inspiration and completion lies a battle zone, where muse and inner critic wage war. And here’s a glimpse of what it looks like at my place:

She made a disgusted noise—you know the one that starts with a ‘t’ sound and ends with an exasperated sigh. “You aren’t really going to do that, are you? End a scene like that?”

“Um. Sort of?” I say. I realize how lame it sounds. End every scene on an emotional shift. End every scene on an emotional shift. If she’s told me once, she’s told me a thousand times.

“I heard that,” she says.

“What?”

“‘Told me once, told me a thousand times.’ What did I tell you about clichés?”

“That they’re…bad?”

“Hmph.” She bends forward, rests a manicured hand on my desktop and adjusts her glasses with the other. She peers closely at the screen and then turns to me, incredulous. “Did you just use an adverb?”

“Ahh.”

I did. I totally used an adverb. I was in a hurry. I thought it sounded okay. I didn’t think anyone would get hurt. Oh god. There’s just no excuse. Not when SHE’S around.

SHE is inner critic, editor in chief and nothing satisfies her. She’s tall, effortlessly thin. You know the type: power suit, lip-liner and those shoes with the red soles—the-I-can’t-remember-the-name-of-thems.

Louboutins,” she says with a perfect French accent.

“Huh?”

“The shoes. They’re Louboutins.”

“Oh, right.”

“Wouldn’t kill you to do some research now and then, you know.”

I try to catch the Beast’s eye, but he’s reclining on the other side of my desk, feet up, examining what appears to be a booger at the tip of one filthy finger.

She clears her throat and taps one crimson nail on my monitor. “Are you with me, Karen?”

“Yes.”

“Then fix this,” she hisses, her finger underscoring the adverb.

She pulls back. “Oh my God. Did you just attribute my dialogue?”

“Ahhh.”

She throws her arms up and storms for the door, pausing long enough to mutter to the Beast before she leaves: “I can’t work with her. She’s hopeless. Don’t waste your time.”

The Beast does nothing. The door slams and I spend a few moments staring at my hands lying limp on the keyboard.

Finally, I look up and try to snag his eye. “That’s good, right? We can finally get some work done.”

He leans forward and wipes the booger on the underside of my desk. “Maybe,” he says. “If you’d get your ass off that blog.”

Sigh.

Here’s hoping you win your creative battles today.