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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Interview with Jill Pertler - Runner Up Spring 08 Flash Fiction Contest

Interviewed by LuAnn Schindler

Jill Pertler is an award-winning writer and photographer whose syndicated humor column, Slices of Life, brings smiles to Midwestern households each week. She was awarded an honorable mention in Writer's Digest 2008 Annual Competition in the personal essay category. She's written hundreds of articles for local, regional and national publications, and like many writers, is working on a book. She lives in northern Minnesota with her husband, four kids and assorted pets.

Feel free to visit her website and read her columns or email her:

Check out Jill's story, Holding On, on the WOW! website. Go on! You know you want to read it!

WOW!: Congratulations, Jill, on being named a runner up in the Spring Flash Fiction contest. Your story caught my attention. Where did you get the inspiration for your story, Holding On?

Jill: I often get my inspiration from real life. You could say I lived this one. I added details to create a fictional story, but many pieces of the story are true – I was a behavior analyst and I did work with a woman who ate things and eventually died because of it.

WOW!: That would be a tough situation to work in. You write a humor column. Was it difficult to switch gears to write such a serious story?

Jill: My column is officially called a “humor” column, but it’s really about my views on my life. Often that’s zany because I live in a busy, crazy household. But sometimes the column is touching or serious, depending on what I’ve observed that week.

I think it’s actually more of a challenge for me to try to be funny versus telling a story in a straightforward manner. Most days.

WOW!: Switching from daily observations to fiction must be challenging. This was your first attempt at fiction. What were some of the easy aspects of writing flash fiction? Difficult aspects?

Jill: In a way, I sort of write “flash” every week with my Slices of Life column. I tell a “story” in a little more than 500 words. I think short pieces can be some of the most challenging for a writer because you have to prioritize and decide what you want to say with little or no fluff. A short piece forces you to edit and then go back and edit again. It compels you to see your writing in a different way because you’ve got to cut those 14 words from somewhere. And in doing so, it improves your work and makes your abilities stronger.

As far as fiction versus nonfiction goes, I have a confession to make. I sometimes take liberties with my “non-fiction” column in order to make it more readable an interesting. I might alter facts just a little bit, or reverse the order of things. Nearly the same thing can be said for the fiction that I write. Many “true life” facts creep into my paragraphs.

Having said that, there is a different mindset between fiction and nonfiction (at least for me). Fiction gives you the freedom to make stuff up! I had to get used to that and once I did, I liked it!

I find that I have either fiction or non-fiction days. Once I get into the fiction mode, story ideas continually pop into my head. When I’m out of that mode, it can be difficult to come up with an idea for a short story.

WOW!: I can relate to having fiction or non-fiction days. You've been writing for nearly 20 years. What type of writing is your favorite and why?

Jill: I love writing my Slices of Life column. I consider it a privilege. First, it’s just fun for me to get those stories on paper. Second, I feel I am leaving a written legacy for my children – sort of like a family memoir. Third, it is rewarding and such a thrill to know that others read and enjoy my words. When they send me an email or stop me on the street to comment on a certain column, it makes my day.

I've also enjoyed experimenting with short stories – fiction. I’m still very new at it, but I hope to get to do more of it in the future.

WOW!: Good luck as you pursue fiction writing. Let's talk about your newspaper experience. What was the process like for syndicating your humor column? How many markets is it published in?

Jill: There are more than a few ways to pursue syndication. It can be a confusing and daunting labyrinth.

Right now I’m self-syndicated. That isn't as glamorous as representation by a national syndicate, but it is a start. I've been writing the Slices of Life column since 2002, but was writing monthly, not weekly. I knew that if I wanted to reach more people and bigger markets, I’d have to put out a weekly column.

In September 2007, I set a goal for myself to write a weekly column for one year. I contacted newspapers about printing it. Currently my column is distributed to 80 newspapers each week. I recently met my one-year goal, and now I feel I have the experience and skills to approach syndicates about representing me. That is my next step.

I also joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and entered their annual contest. I’ll do that again next year. Writing and gaining exposure through other contests, like this one, helps me get my name out there.

WOW!: Meeting a personal goal is so self-satisfying. Great job! Your weekly column must keep you busy. What's your writing routine like?

Jill: I practice two vastly different types of writing. First there is the writing that pays the bills. This might be writing for an annual report, brochure, magazine article, radio ad, etc. That writing has to get done so I have the luxury of indulging in the writing that feeds my soul. Examples of those projects are my Slices of Life column and flash fiction contest entries.

I am lucky, because I write from home full-time. By full-time I mean 4 – 6 hours per day. I am a mom of four kids and although they are now all in school, they take up a substantial amount of my time; I wouldn't have it any other way.

Often the writing that pays the bills takes precedence over the writing that feeds the soul. Life isn't always fair. I seem to do the bill-paying stuff in the morning, and the soul-feeding work in the afternoon. Usually.

I also find myself carving out an hour or two on the weekends to write – usually to polish up a column that’s due on Monday.

My writing career has grown gradually; I started very part-time when my house was filled with babies and toddlers. Now those babies are more independent and I've had more time to devote to writing. I’m finally establishing myself, and am just starting to be able to consider saying “no” to projects that aren't the soul-feeding type. I guess that means I’m on the right track.

WOW!: It seems like you've found a balance between the writing you want and need to do. It can be challenging! Have you entered or won any other writing contests? Any advice for other newbies?

Jill: I entered an essay in the 2008 Writer’s Digest annual competition and received an honorable mention, which means (I guess) that my piece was in the top 100 of 17,000 entries. They even sent a certificate. Very official!

Interestingly enough, I’d previously entered the same essay in a local contest and it did not win. I felt bad, but thought the piece had merit, so I went ahead and paid the $15 to enter it into the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition, and hey – we got a BINGO!

So my advice is to trust your gut. If you feel your words are laced with a little magic, maybe the first editor, contest director or critic will be blind to it. Tweak the piece, but don’t toss it in the trash until you, personally, decide that’s where it should go.

WOW!: That's great advice for anyone considering entering a contest. You are also a photographer. How does that creative outlet help your writing?

Jill: I think it makes me more marketable as a writer. My writing gets me photography gigs and vice versa.

My camera is also a great prop. Like a lot of writers, I can have my shy moments. The camera puts something between my subject and me. It allows me to feel freer with my conversation. When I’m taking photos, I’m working at putting my subject at ease, and therefore I’m more relaxed myself.

And, of course, the camera lens lets me see the world in a different way. It provides perspective, a new angle.

WOW!: Perspective is so important for writing and photography. What projects are you currently working on?

Jill: I’m working on a book that is a compilation of some of my columns, paired with recipes – a sort of cookbook/storybook. The premise is that so many of life’s memories are paired with food. Food and memories are intertwined, and I think there’s something special about that.

And, of course, I need to take that next step with my Slices of Life column – either to expand to more markets or to gain representation by a national syndicate.

WOW!: Jill, you are an inspiration! Congratulations, again, on being named a runner up in the WOW! contest. And thank you for sharing your views on writing.

Jill: I’d like to send a big thanks to everyone at WOW for sponsoring the quarterly contests. They are great. I also appreciate the bulk of useful information and articles on the site. It’s all inspiring and encouraging for other writers like me.

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