Writing Lessons I Learned At My Grandmother's Knee

Wednesday, July 08, 2020
When I was a child I was always at my maternal grandmother's knee, who was affectionately called Mama. Every weekend for as long as I could remember until Mama passed away, my mother, sister, and I would pack a weekend bag, kiss my father goodbye, and go stay with Mama in her apartment which was over a laundromat in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn. It was the apartment she moved into after leaving New Jersey, and where she would later raise five children as a young widow. 

We'd arrive at Mama's in a yellow taxi cab most times and other times we'd take the bus that dropped us off a block away. Delicious aroma's from something she was cooking always greeted us in the stairwell before she unlocked the front door. And when she opened it, her salt and pepper hair in pin curls, her arms would open wide to give us the tightest hugs, as if she hadn't seen us in a while even though she'd just seen us the weekend before.

"What you writing about now?" Mama would ask me when I unpacked my writing notebook along with my clothes to put in an empty drawer she had cleared out.

I'd show her whatever had filled the pages of my writing notebook. She'd smile proudly. At that age I wrote mainly stories about cats, but when she nodded her head in approval it made me feel like I was a writing prodigy.

It was at Mama's knee that I learned an abundance of lessons that inspired me as a writer and infused my writing. Lessons about life, love, family, food, faith, and determination.

At Mama's knee I learned about my history; the painful part and the joyous, proud hopeful part. She was a living history book. Her lessons inspired me to write and speak about our history not just with my own ethnicity, but others so that they too would know those parts about us. The history she spoke into me fortified my storytelling.

At Mama's knee I learned about faith, never giving up on my dreams no matter the challenges. That has helped me press on as a writer when facing rejections or writer's block. 

At Mama's knee I gained wisdom. She had a sage saying for anything and everything, that lifted me up, humored me, and taught me. My female characters often repeat her sayings in their narratives, a favorite one being, "This too shall pass." 

At Mama's knee I learned the importance of traditions; the loving act and art of preparing meals that were food for your soul, the sacredness of family and friends gathering around the table, and other cultural traditions. Her traditions bonded us as a family, and I frequently recreate them with detailed imagery in the fiction stories I write. 

Mama indeed was a gem. Just as it was with my late mother and paternal grandmother, I cannot write stories without a huge part of Mama's molasses sweet spirit and nuances being in it.

What fond lessons did you learn from your elders whose knees you sat at as a child, and how has that inspired you as a writer? I hope you share a few of those lessons in this post.

...Jeanine


Jeanine DeHoney's writing has been published in several magazines, anthologies, and online blogs. her fiction stories are always "full" of the voices of the women who loved and nurtured her.
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Interview with Kristin Lenz: Runner Up in the Winter 2020 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, July 07, 2020


Kristin Bartley Lenz is a writer and social worker who has lived in Michigan, Georgia, and California. Her debut young adult novel, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go, was the 2016 Helen Sheehan YA Book Prize winner, a 2016 Junior Library Guild Selection, and an honor book for the 2017-2018 Great Lakes Great Books Award statewide literature program. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and articles have been published by Hunger Mountain, Great Lakes Review, The ALAN Review, Literary MamaThe New Social Worker, and Writer’s Digest. She was honored to win 2nd place in the WOW! Fall 2018 Flash Fiction Contest. She also writes freelance for Detroit area non-profits and manages the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Michigan Chapter blog. Learn more and connect at www.kristinbartleylenz.com

Be sure to read Kristin's story Spontaneous Combustion and then come back and read her interview!

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: First of all, I notice in your bio that you have an impressive amount of writing publications. What is your secret? 

Kristin: Thank you! Maybe it looks impressive all gathered together in one paragraph, but the reality is I’ve been writing for 20 years and my bio reflects my journey of slowly improving my craft and finding publications that are a good fit for my work. 

WOW: And that is the key! Finding publications that are a fit for our work. So, the character in your story Spontaneous Combustion is a young woman who is burdened by the pressures of her life. How did your work as a social worker influence this character? 

Kristin: In addition to my social work background, I’m also the mother of a teen. Even with my clinical training, there were times that I felt helpless as she struggled to navigate the anxiety-producing, pressure-filled system of competitive sports, testing, and academic expectations. I started writing to vent my own frustration, but then I widened my lens to create characters who embodied and reflected aspects of our society that troubled me. People often complain about teenagers and their emotional behavior, but I wanted to flip this around and show how adults have created many of these problematic expectations while teens see the reality. I wrote this story last year before the Coronavirus pandemic, and now it almost feels like a relic from a time past. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about using this crisis to reshape our priorities, address inequality and discrimination, and make long-needed changes to our nation’s safety net and structures. Today’s teens are going to make sure these changes happen. 

WOW: I think that's so true - and inspiring! I see this is the second time you've won in a WOW contest! For those interested in writing flash fiction, what advice would you give them?

Kristin: I learned a lot from two different workshops (one in-person and the other online) led by local Detroit authors/instructors - Doreen O’Brien and Peter Markus. We read many micro and short stories and discussed what made them evocative. My original draft of Spontaneous Combustion was twice as long, but I challenged myself to reduce the word count for this contest. I still like that longer version too, but it’s a good exercise to try with any writing project; cut redundancy and fillers, and use specific descriptions and actions to convey mood and meaning. Endings are also important, especially in flash fiction. It took me a while to find the right ending to this story, and I waited for over a month before I submitted it. I re-read and tweaked it every week. Finally, I was out for a walk one day and the ending came to me. 

WOW: How awesome is that! Now, a confession: I have major title envy! I personally struggle so much with titling my stories. How did the title of this piece come about for you? 

Kristin: I always struggle with titles too! I came up with Spontaneous Combustion when I was thinking about the mood of the piece and my character feeling so much pressure and anger that she could burst into flames. I had already referenced her AP Chemistry class, and out of curiosity I looked up the formula for spontaneous combustion. I ultimately added it to one of the scenes: “I close my eyes and scratch Fuel + O2 --> CO2 + H2O across the inside of my eyelids.” 

WOW: You have such incredible sensory details in this piece! Can you tell me a bit about your writing process to create such vivid scenes? 

Kristin: I learned so much by working with my editor, Jotham Burrello, on my debut novel, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go. Whenever a scene needed more emotional resonance, he encouraged me to take a look around from my character’s point of view, keeping in mind how she was feeling. What does she notice and how does this show her mood or reflect what’s happening in her life? What does she see, hear, smell, or touch? Showing vs telling is a lesson I need to continuously practice and re-learn!

WOW: I can't even tell you how much that same advice helps me. I will absolutely apply it to my writing. Best of luck with your writing and congratulations again! 
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How Doing Writing Inventory Will Jumpstart Your Creativity

Monday, July 06, 2020



Last Wednesday, Sue blogged about jumpstarting your writing this July. I have to tell you, I needed to read that. So, inspired by her post, I reflected on another way to get myself writing this summer:

Doing a writing inventory.

If you aren't familiar with the term, businesses do inventory so they know how much product they have on hand. It's a way of stopping everything and seeing exactly what you have on hand. 

You see, over the past few months, I have been in a fog and creative writing has been the furthest from my mind. I had nearly forgotten about a flash fiction piece I submitted until I received a rejection letter. Flowery language aside, I felt like this rejection letter was telling me two things about this story 1) my story didn't make sense and 2) my story has been told before. For a moment I thought about ditching the story completely and then the quiet, creative voice stopped me. Instead, I sought feedback (which ended up being surprisingly positive) and after a few edits, I plan on sending the story out again. 

After logging the rejection on my submissions spreadsheet, I realized so many of my stories hadn't been submitted in weeks, if not longer. A couple I had even forgotten about recently. I realized, it was time to do inventory. 

Doing inventory on your writing means you are taking stock of what you have and where you at in each piece.

I recommend taking out a notebook and pouring over your files or handwritten stories and logging all the pieces that you've been working on, even if it's been months since you've touched it.

Do a checklist for each piece that considers the following:

* Is the first draft complete?
* Is it typed? (Am I the only one who lets handwritten stories sit around untyped for months?)
* Have I done the first round of revising?
* Have I asked for and received feedback? 
* Have I made revised the story based on the feedback?
* Has this been submitted recently?
* Can I submit this elsewhere, simultaneously?
* Can I edit this piece to match the theme or prompt of a particular competition?

Your answer to each of the above questions will give you a clue about what you can do next.

I have also a treasure trove of half-finished pieces and story starters that have been left untouched. You may want to do an inventory on those as well. Consider these questions:

* What feelings am I trying to evoke with this piece?
* What does my character want?
* What is the setting?
* What is the inciting incident?
* What problem is my character dealing with?
* How can I make things worse/more complicated for this character?
* What is the resolution I am trying for?
* What's missing from this piece?
* Is there a writing contest that I can use to help me build on this story?

Of course, that is just the start of the questions you may ask yourself about various ideas and half-finished stories. Keep your writing weakness in mind as you take stock of your ideas. For example, if your characters never seem to want something, ask yourself if you have given them a "want" as you do inventory. Also, consider marrying two ideas together, whether it's swapping out settings, swapping main (or supporting) characters, or swapping inciting incidents.

One of my favorite activities is pouring over old notebooks and running into a half-finished piece that I find amazing all over again. That is essentially what you are doing by taking writing inventory. You are examining the treasure trove of stock that you have and making use of it. You may just find your writing amazing all over again.

Once you are done taking stock, start giving yourself a timeline for each piece. Give yourself a specific weekly or monthly goal, such as finishing one half-finished story each week. Also, use the status of each story and idea as a guideline. If you have more stories needing feedback than you do submittable stories, it's time to get feedback. If you are lacking in new ideas, consider making that your challenge this month. 

Hopefully with this in mind, you will be able to get out of your writing slump and get writing again. 

Nicole Pyles is a freelance writer and Blog Tour Manager. You can check out her writing portfolio here, particularly if you are in need of a writer at this time. Also, check out her latest blog, LadyUnemployed.com. Say hi on Twitter @BeingTheWriter.
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Meet Charlotte B. Roth - Runner Up in the 2020 Quarter 2 Creative Non-Fiction Essay Contest with "Oxfords and Heels - - Walking Through Life"

Sunday, July 05, 2020
Congratulations to Charlotte B. Roth and Oxfords and Heels - - Walking Through Life and all the winners of our 2020 Quarter 2 Creative Non-Fiction Essay Contest!

Charlotte's Bio:
Charlotte B. Roth fell in love with the craft of writing five years ago in a memoir workshop. Her work appears in the anthology titled The Boom Project, and also in Long Ridge Review. She received an Honorable Mention in the Q419, Women on Writing creative non-fiction contest.

Her writing draws from her life growing up in Pineville, Kentucky, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, the strong-willed women that raised her, African violets, and the old Ash tree in her back yard. Charlotte currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband, two spoiled Havanese, and 88 house plants (at last count).

Playing with her grandsons, gardening, meditation, and a cup of Earl Grey, fuel her creativity. Follow her on Twitter@croth502, Instagram@croth502, and @charlottebowlingroth.

If you haven't done so already, check out Charlotte's intimate and touching story Oxfords and Heels - - Walking Through Life and then return here for a chat with the author.

WOW: Congratulations Charlotte! Thank you for writing this essay - what is the take-away you'd like readers to gain from Oxfords and Heels?

Charlotte: Remember that life is composed of everyday minutia, and so are our most interesting and intriguing stories. When you get stumped, or your mind deadlocks, stop for a moment to allow a small memory or an object from the past to float through your mind. Then start writing about it without conscious critiquing. It's a good exercise to remember the tiny details of your life. It adds perspective. Dust off old memories, connect the dots, try to put segmented essays together. Oxfords and Heels were four pairs of shoes, but it could just as easily have been four purses, five dogs, or three boyfriends— just let your muse take over without judgment.


WOW: I feel like that slight pause is great advice for life right now too - thank you for that!

Where do you write? What does your space look like?

Charlotte: My space is chaotic, as is my thought process. My desk is covered with papers, books, notebooks, sticky notes, a finger labyrinth, crystals, and my mala beads. Anne Lamott says, "Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground," and I agree with her. I have two large windows that display my climbing yellow roses dancing with purple clematis, azalea bushes, and a row of holly trees. Surrounding my desk are bookshelves, and plants. I begin with a writing ritual: I make a cup of tea (Earl Grey or chai), put it in a special teacup with a saucer. The teacup I chose depends on the energy I'd like to channel. I have one that belonged to my mother, my mother-in-law, an Alice in Wonderland cup, the teacup Chip, from Beauty and the Beast—I can go on about my teacups, but I won't bore you.

WOW: It's great to hear you are so successful in your craft despite the chaos - that's empowering to many I'm sure.

Do you have advice for your younger self when it comes to making decisions, believing in yourself, and/or writing? What would your current self say to the younger you?

Charlotte: That's a hard one. I'd tell her to listen to her heart. Follow it regardless what people say or think. Be more confident. When I graduated high school, I was told by family and teachers that I had to do something with business, science, or education if I wanted to make any money. That I couldn't make a living in art or literature. So that's what I did. I worked in business management and later, property management all the while writing stories in my head. I wasted a lot of time and I regret that. I wish I'd followed the starving artist path. I'd say— Do what brings you joy. And don't throw those old poems, journals, or diaries away! They are golden.

WOW: I love so much of what you said - especially:

DO WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY!

Thank you for your honesty!

Speaking of joy - does journaling bring you joy? What role has journaling and/or writer's group played in your writing life?

Charlotte: Reading Julia Cameron's The Artist Way, and working through her workbook brought me back to journaling and writing.

My monthly writing group and my writing workshop community are the backbones of my writing. Everything I write filters through one of these groups. "Oxfords and Heels" was actually born from a writing prompt from one of my group workshops.

Sitting around a nurturing table, offering honest feedback and encouragement helps make my writing stronger. Without this tribe of writers, I wouldn't have found the courage or confidence to share my work, enter a contest, or put my essays out there for submissions.

WOW: We here at WOW! are so happy you fuond the courage and confidence to share - thank you!

Do you often enter contests or is this a first? What would you like to tell other authors concerning contests and submitting their work?


Charlotte: I rarely enter contests.

I have entered the WOW! contest three times, though. I like the word limitation and the option to get feedback. I entered Oxfords and Heels in a previous WOW contest, revised it from the excellent critique received, and reentered for this one. I was thrilled my edits, based on the advice received, helped this piece make it to the top ten. I'd tell other authors, "You have nothing to lose, especially with the WOW contest where you have the option for constructive feedback, your essay will be better in the long run, even if you don't win.

WOW: That's great advice - and speaking of advice...here we are April 20th 2020 and what advice do you have for others during this turbulent pandemic time? What's working or not working for you?

Charlotte: I am not the one to ask for advice, but what I've found helpful is a bit of a routine, different from the routine— pre-pandemic. Meditation has been my saving grace. If you don't have a meditation practice, I'd recommend starting one. Even if you just start slow, sitting in silence for 10 minutes, it helps ground you. My husband and I meditate first thing every morning, and again after dinner. We walk the dogs at 4:00 every day. We meet at 5:00 to watch our wise governor on television. He reminds us we are all in this together. We facetime our grandsons at least four times a week.

Limit social media, don't get caught up in the frenzy and the fear. Keep a gratitude journal, find something you can be grateful for every day. Some days it may just be toilet paper.
I'm finding it hard to start anything new. I am digging back into old pieces and revising. I had this vision that I'd write and write and write creatively uninterrupted. I'd sort through old photos and organize, I'd clean and organize my house, but none of that is working. I'm not sure where the day goes.


WOW: Thank you for that sage advice regarding this trying time and thank you for sharing your thoughts today. We will be looking forward to hearing more from you in 2020 and beyond! 

Interviewed by Crystal Otto who just keeps on keeping on!

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How "Unsolved Mysteries" Influenced My Writing

Saturday, July 04, 2020


When I was in college, I became obsessed with watching the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” when it ran on the Lifetime Channel. Working 30 plus hours a week and taking a full course load of communications classes, I rarely had downtime. When I did, I would settle onto my couch and spend my evenings with host Robert Stack, complete with his trench coat with the collar turned up. Even today, just hearing the opening theme music can make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. There was something about the stories that were shared, with the mix of ghosts, murderers, unsolved murders, missing people and strange phenomenon that reeled me in almost every time.

In fact, a few years ago my husband went on a business trip out in Long Beach, California and called me to say he was staying on an old ship that had been refurbished into a hotel.

“The Queen Mary,” I said, incredulously. “Uh oh. You’d better watch out. According to ‘Unsolved Mysteries,’ that place is haunted.” Sure enough, on the two nights he stayed there, the fire alarm went off around 3 a.m. each morning, and even he had a feeling there was a supernatural reasoning behind it.

When I found out Netflix had created a reboot of "Unsolved Mysteries," I jumped for joy but also approached it cautiously. This is, after all, the type of show that first stirred my curiosity into true crime reporting, because I discovered it at the same time I was studying to become a journalist. I’m convinced that show helped me learn how to craft intriguing lead sentences, teaser copy and scripts that interest a variety of listeners. I’ve even been toying around with the idea of creating a bonus episode of my podcast, “Missing in the Carolinas,” where I discuss some of my favorite episodes of the show, since I’ve been binging reruns on Amazon Prime.

As of right now, there are six episodes of the reboot available on Netflix, with six more to be included in the first season. Without doing any research first, I watched a few episodes this week while I’ve been on vacation. I loved the tribute they paid to original host Robert Stack in the opening credits, but then became confused. The format of the show is much like what you’d see on an Investigation Discovery show like “Disappeared,” and each episode only covers one story, rather than the re-enacted vignettes the original produced. In my opinion, the producers did a great job in uncovering some stories I’d never heard of before. The first, about a young man named Rey Rivera who died under mysterious circumstances, reeled me in. The second episode about a missing woman from Georgia was edited in such a strange way that I asked my daughter if I had missed something and had to replay a section. I got my answers in a written update at the end of the story. Only one episode in the first six featured a paranormal event—a UFO sighting in 1969 Massachusetts. I've read some mixed reviews about the reboot and agree with some people that the ghost and haunting stories of the original show were what kept me up at night. This reboot doesn't feature any of those so far.

One of the best things about the original series was the updates that would be featured in the segments, and I’m hopeful new information will help solve the cases featured in the first half of the season. If so, I hope they’ll add in updates. And although the new series doesn’t have a host standing in the shadows, I’d like to volunteer for the job if they ever decide to add one!

Have you watched the new "Unsolved Mysteries" reboot yet? Which case interested you the most?

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and magazine editor who also produces the true crime podcast, Missing in the Carolinas. Visit her website at FinishedPages.com.
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6 Ways to Jumpstart July and Write

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

As of yesterday, July 1st, we are half way through the year. I don’t know about you but I have been slacking off in the writing department. I know. I know. Give yourself space. Give yourself grace. Treat yourself with loving kindness. 

That’s all well and good. But I need something to do other than check Facebook. I’ve been crocheting and I’ve got plans to knit tonight, but I’m generally much happier when I write. 

If that sounds familiar, here are 6 ways to jumpstart July and get back to your writing. 

Brainstorm 

One of my favorite writing challenges, Storystorm, takes place in November. I tend to do it now and again throughout the year. The goal is to brainstorm 30 writing ideas in 30 days. This is a good one if the kids are missing camp, you or your spouse are working from home, or you are otherwise up to your hips in the glory of 2020. It doesn't take a lot of effort. When you see something that sparks an idea, write it down. 

Camp NaNoWriMo 

In April and July, participants sign up at the NaNoWriMo web site for Camp. They set a month-long goal for themselves and get to work. This is great if you need external deadlines. That writing project you’ve been talking about doing in 2020 but haven’t started? Why not sign up and set a July goal for yourself?  I'm there as Nonfiction Writer. 

Something that Won’t Be Published 

If you are a working writer who happens to be out of work at the moment, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about writing that will sell. This challenge can help you rediscover the fun and the play of writing. Craft something you won’t market.  For me, this means poetry. Earlier this week, I played around with an In One Word poem. You can find a wide variety of poetry types to play with at the Poetic Asides blog.  

30 Queries 

Maybe you are someone who has a vast number of completed manuscripts. Or you’ve been talking about finding an agent. All Freelance Writing challenged writers to send out 30 Queries in 30 Days. Imagine that – 30 agents, 30 magazine editors, 30 editors, or any combination. Me? I need to query agents. Click through above and you’ll even find a tracking worksheet. 

30 Blog Posts 

Or you might be a blogger who has let things slide during the uncertainty that has been 2020. If so, try writing 30 Blog Posts in 30 Days. That’s another All Freelance Writing challenge. It can help inspire you to update your blog’s content or just to plan ahead so that you aren’t scrambling the night before a post has to go live. 

Run with Something 

New Maybe, more than anything, you need to run with a manuscript that is shiny and new. Instead of working on my novel or querying an agent, I spent two days roughing out a new picture book. I could say that I made this choice because it is a story about identity and isn’t that a timely topic. But really? I just needed to work on something new. 

We are half way through 2020. Don’t let that panic you. It’s been a stinker of a year all around but the redemption arc should come into play any time now. Right? Right?! 

--SueBE
Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 25 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins  July 6th, 2020) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins July 6, 2010). 
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Watch Out for Overwriting: Once is Enough!

If you're a children's or young adult writer, do you ever ask yourself: How many times do I need to tell young readers important facts in my novel? Do I have to do it more because I am writing for kids and teens?  The best answer is just like you would in an adult novel—kids and teens are smart—sometimes, we don’t give them enough credit, which can lead to overwriting.

Overwriting is when you tell and retell, and then even show (and maybe even retell again), a character’s emotions or a reaction to an event. Overwriting tends to slow down the pace of your novel and bore readers—some readers may even be offended that you feel like you have to tell them so many times the important points of your book.

Beginning children’s novelists and picture book writers can really struggle with this before they get to know their audience well and put trust in them. These young readers will figure out plot points and character emotions without being told again and again. Think about this: if you handed a fourth grader a new smartphone and handed the same smartphone to his mom, who do you think would figure out how to use it first? When young readers and teens are interested in a story and love characters, they don’t need overwriting to understand the story. Picture book readers have the text and the illustrations to help tell the story. Trust them! They’ll get it.

Here’s an example of overwriting from my own writing. I am using the characters from my middle-grade historical fiction novel, Finding My Place, set during the Civil War’s Siege of Vicksburg; but hopefully, I do not actually do this in the novel (although the draft probably had passages like this or worse!). This passage could have easily appeared in a rough draft:
Anna didn’t think she would last another minute living in a cave. She hated the cave! Her brother and sister detested it, too. Her brother said, “I hate living here.” Her sister cried every time they went into the cave. Anna felt nauseated when they entered the cave to sleep. She felt sick to her stomach when she lay on her mat. What was she going to do? How could she help her sister and brother? She didn’t know what to do. She hated the cave.
Has anyone ever written something like: “She felt sick to her stomach. She was nauseated,” like in the above example? I find myself taking the same idea and wording it in a different way—or saying the same thing in my dialogue and my dialogue tags, such as: Martha felt horrible about lying to her parents. “Why did I lie?” she said to her brother. “I feel awful about it.”

In picture books, writers hardly ever have to tell readers how a character is feeling because the illustrator can show that. Sometimes for the sake of rhythm or explaining a concept, an “emotion” sentence will be included. But this should be the exception, rather than the norm.

I’ve overwritten more times than I can count—and I hope I catch these overwriting spots in my revisions or with the help of my critique group. Most of us tend to overwrite in the first draft. When we’re working on word count or exploring the emotions of our characters, we get wordy and repeat ourselves (as well as forget to show and not tell). The great news is that revision is the place to concentrate on fixing these simple and common mistakes.

When you have a spot where you think you’re overwriting, choose the strongest image or the least wordy one or even the example where you do the most showing instead of telling. Most of the time, you only need to tell a reader one time about an event or a character—unless you’re repeating words or phrases on purpose as a literary device.

One spot to really watch for, especially if you have an exciting YA novel or a middle-grade mystery,  is when you write an action scene for readers, and then later in the story, a character is asked about what happened. The character should not retell the entire story. Readers already saw it unfold. For example, let’s say one of your characters witnessed a convenience store robbery when he was buying a candy bar. He talks to police after the robbery, but all readers need to know is something like this:

After Officer Davidson asked Rob what he saw, he tried to remember as much as he could. Did he see the face of the guy? Rob told the officer what he heard and what the guy had on, but that’s all he could come up with.

Remember, readers are with you, and they get you. You don’t have to tell them too many times—so, I’ll stop now, too.

Margo L. Dill is teaching her WOW! novel writing course with a writing coach this summer, starting on July 3 and on August 7. To sign up, go here. Her next class for novel writers for middle grade and YA readers starts on September 30. 


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MEET ALICE BENSON, RUNNER UP IN WINTER 2020 FLASH FICTION CONTEST

Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Alice Benson lives in Wisconsin with her spouse and their two dogs. She discovered writing as a passion in the third act of her life and spends much of her time in pursuit of metaphors. Alice recently retired from a job in a human services field; previously she spent over thirteen years working with a domestic violence program.

Her shorter published works have appeared in a Main Street Rag Anthology, Epiphany, Molotov Cocktail, Cliterature, English Kills Review, Scrutiny Literary Journal, Shooter Literary Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly and a variety of other publications. Both Alice’s books and many of her shorter works address intimate partner violence, abuse, and sexual assault. Alice’s first book, Her Life is Showing, set in a domestic violence shelter was published by Black Rose Writing in 2014. Alice’s second novel, A Year In Her Life, tackles many difficult social issues and was published by Black Rose Writing in July 2019. For more information, visit Alice’s website.

If you haven't read Alice's story, "Silence," yet, click through here and then return for an interview with the author.

-----interview with Sue Bradford Edwards-----

WOW:  What was your inspiration for “Silence”?

Alice: I was visiting Arizona when I drafted the story, and we had a red brick wall around our patio. I sat on the patio to write, and the story began with that wall. As I imagined coloring the lines with a sharpie, the story grew and then my thoughts moved to children. Over the years, friends and family who struggled with infertility issues had shared some of their pain with me. As this story developed, I wanted to pay tribute to their challenges.


WOW: So often here at the Muffin, we read stories told from a woman’s point of view. Why did you decide to tell the story from the husband’s perspective instead of the wife’s?

Alice:  I began the first draft of “Silence” as an exercise in a writing workshop. Our assignment was to create a main character that “reacted to the trauma/problems/issues of a secondary character and reveal the main character through thoughts and description.” I almost always write from a woman’s perspective, and I saw this as an opportunity to get into the head of someone different. I related to the wife’s anguish, and I wanted to explore and understand the husband’s pain more thoroughly.


WOW:  How did this story change and grow from your initial idea to the story that you submitted?

Alice: As I mentioned, the story began as an exercise in a workshop, so it took me several drafts to advance it into a fully formed piece with a beginning, middle, and ending. I was focused on the description in the first two drafts and, as I kept writing, I changed focus to character development.


As I began thinking more about the characters, they came alive in my head. Generally, characters become more and more real as I write them. I knew that the wife was devastated by the infertility issues they faced, and as I reflected more, I saw that the husband’s emotions were different. He was sad, but mostly sad for her, and he was conflicted because he also felt some relief. I didn’t plan that, and I was a bit surprised. As I delved further into their characters, though, his feelings made sense to me. I’m always fascinated by how stories develop and characters manage to speak their truth.

My characters sometimes decide the path they want to take, and they will tell me when I'm trying to push them to do something that they don't believe is the best way for them to go. For example, a few years ago, I read a newspaper article about a stripper who got bit on the breast by a monkey; I thought that called out for a short story. I started it as a light, humorous piece, but as I got to know the stripper, it changed into a darker, more intense story about sexual abuse and lost dreams.

WOW:  Readers who are interested in the stripper's story can click through to read "What She Had." Alice, I saw on your website that you have been reading Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. How have the themes in this book impacted your writing?

Alice: I’m reading Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race in an on-going effort to educate myself about racism in our country and my role in it. I find I still have much to learn about many, many things, which is both overwhelming and exciting.


I’ve spent much of my adult life involved with various social justice issues. I worked in a domestic violence shelter; I served on the board of our local LGBT Center and a local anti-poverty organization. I volunteered teaching English as a Second Language, and I worked as an advocate for adults with disabilities. Many of those opportunities have had a huge impact on my writing.

My first novel was set in a domestic violence shelter where I was able to explore the influence of intimate partner violence in the lives of the characters, as well as in the larger community. The main character in my second book was very involved in social causes, and she allowed me to examine and discuss issues related to violence, racism, and sexism in the novel.

WOW: You write such a wide variety of things from novels to essays. What are you working on now? Do you have anything new coming out?  

Alice: Right now I’m working on my third novel which focuses on the bonds between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters. I don’t have a daughter, but I do have two granddaughters. Exploration of these relationships is new territory for me and so much fun. I’m hoping to have the book completed by early 2021. As ideas continue to swirl through my head, I’ll also continue to write blog posts and the occasional short story.


WOW: Good luck wrapping up your current novel and we hope our readers will soon be visiting your web site.  Thank you for sharing your process with us!





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Seeker by Rita Pomade Blog Tour and Giveaway

Monday, June 29, 2020
Seeker: A Sea Odyssey is the story of two people who meet in Mexico and fall in love. Rita is an American part-time English language teacher and freelance reporter for an English language tourist magazine struggling to raise two young boys on her own. Bernard is a French geologist under contract to the Mexican government to search for underground thermal springs. She dreams of finding Shangri-la after witnessing a bloody government crackdown from which she barely escapes. He dreams of having a yacht and sailing the world. Their dreams mesh, and they immigrate to Canada to earn the money to build their boat.

Print Length: 330 Pages
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Guernica Editions (MiroLand)
ISBN-10: 1771833513
ISBN-13: 9781771833516

Seeker: A Sea Odyssey is available to purchase at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million, and IndieBound. You can also add this to your Goodreads reading list.

Book Giveaway Contest

To win a copy of the book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey by Rita Pomade, please enter using Rafflecopter at the bottom of this post. Giveaway ends on July 5th at 11:59 PM EST. We will announce the winner the next day on the Rafflecopter widget. Good luck!

About the Author, Rita Pomade



Rita Pomade, an intrepid nomad originally from New York, now lives and writes in Montreal. Her work has appeared in literary magazines and poetry reviews, and her monologue for auditioning actors was selected for inclusion in the Monologue Bank. An excerpt from her forthcoming memoir Seeker: A Sea Odyssey was included in two travel anthologies.

---- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: First of all, congratulations on your memoir, Seeker: A Sea Odyssey. What inspired you to write this book?

Rita: During our years at sea, I sent letters to a childhood friend from every port where we dropped anchor. Thirty years later, my ex-husband —we divorced soon after our adventure—Skyped to say he had a chance to sell a yacht moored in Tunisia, but felt the best market was in Tahiti. He asked if I’d sail with him. “It’ll be better this time,” he said. “It’s a well-equipped yacht.” I told him I’d think about it and wrote my friend about his offer. In response, she sent me a packet with every letter I’d sent her throughout our six-year voyage, thinking it might help in my decision. The letters brought back huge swaths of memory including smells, touch and even dialogue. I relived those years, but with more maturity and reflection. My revisiting the past was as much an adventure and eye-opener as it had been when I first made the voyage. I realized not only how unique an experience it had been, but how much I’d gained from it. I felt my journey could be of interest to others. It motivated me to put my story on paper.

WOW: That must have felt incredible to read all those letters! What advice do you have for authors who have a story to tell but don’t know where to begin?

Rita: Personal stories need time to ripen, like a good wine or cheese. When you’re too close to your material, it doesn’t allow for enough distance to make the story universal. Letting the story simmer a while takes you away from the rut of this happened and then that happened, and creates more texture and nuance. While the story is ripening in your subconscious, do some preparation. Jot down fragments. Keep a journal of ideas. Make mind maps around a memory you want to explore in more depth later. None of this needs elaboration. The brain will click into these prompts and bring up more details as you write. From bits of text in my letters, whole scenes came tumbling back. Also, you can’t know what you’ll put on the paper before you put it there. You start with a sentence, but that sentence takes on a life of its own and dictates where it wants to go. Trust the process and let it take you. I’m often surprised at what comes up. As you write, you gradually see how threads of your story fit together. Don’t aim for perfection. It’s inhibiting. You can deal with the editing in your next draft, or the one after that.

WOW: What you said resonated with me about not aiming for perfection! What was your process in writing the memoir?

Rita: I thought of my book as a patchwork quilt. I wrote it in sections. The “quilt pieces” were tentative chapters. If I got stuck in one section, I worked on another. When I had all the parts, I sewed my quilt together. In the process of connecting the pieces, I made adjustments to make them fit seamlessly.

Before working on the memoir, I often wrote a poem as a warm up. It didn’t have to be good. I was the only one who’d see it. Or I jotted down a few lines of observation about something or a fragment from a dream. It removed the terror of a blank page when I’d first sit down at the computer. Also, I’d think about my story when taking a walk, and had it in mind as I went to sleep. I’d put out an intention, and my subconscious often delivered. To keep me in the story, I had photos of myself on the journey pinned to the wall in front of my desk, and looked at them as I wrote. I also had a little note taped to my computer that said “Success is fear, but doing it anyway.”

WOW: I love that quote! You are so incredibly well-traveled. How has traveling changed you and how you see the world?

Rita: I grew up in a small, insular town in upstate New York. All I knew of people who were different from me came from a world history course in high school. I didn’t question what I was taught, and my perception of the world was colored by what I had learned. My first foray into a different culture was Mexico where I taught English literature and Mexican history. I learned the Mexican-American War was not as I had been taught. For the first time I realized different cultures have different stories that give a different perspective on life. And their stories are as valid as ours. I leaned that whatever their stories, they laughed, cried, felt pain and joy, and loved their children with the same degree of intensity as we do. I learned that you can’t dislike a people once you know them, and how much more we are alike than different. Humanity and its lack are as universal as is suffering and sorrow, love and longing. Travel opened my heart to all people. It made me more compassionate, broadminded, and far better informed than my academic education. I no longer think in terms of “them” and “us.” We are one species sharing space with other species on a beautiful but fragile planet.


"Humanity and its lack are as universal as is suffering and sorrow, love and longing. Travel opened my heart to all people...We are one species sharing space with other species on a beautiful but fragile planet."


WOW: What a beautiful way of looking at the world! I was reading an interview where you said, “By revisiting the past, I was able to reshape my present.” How did writing this memoir transform how you saw your life at the time you lived this experience?

Rita: Living on a small, minimally equipped yacht with my husband for so many years and in so many countries put me on constant alert for survival. I didn’t allow for the fact that my husband had to deal with much of the issues I was struggling with. And beyond that, it was his responsibility to keep us afloat, out of the way of pirates, and alive on a fickle sea. I had never sailed before our adventure, and took more interest in our travel adventures than I did in sailing. He felt I could not sail the yacht alone and would drown at sea if anything happened to him. I didn’t allow for his anxieties. I interpreted his distance as rejection—and it often was. I reacted to feeling unappreciated. He responded defensively. Our exchanges brought out the worst in both of us. I couldn’t respond to his insecurities, and he couldn’t understand my need for appreciation. On reliving our trip, I could allow him in, see his insecurities, and understand the building of tensions that had no outlet. From a less self-centered, more mature perspective, I was more open to compassion and understanding. My story had been frozen in time with all its hurts and resentments. In the process of revisiting our adventure, I could see more objectively, and it healed the past. As a result of my writing Seeker, he and I now live together after a 25-year hiatus.

WOW: How profound! Another quote: “I think writing, particularly memoir writing, takes tremendous courage.” What advice do you have for authors who want to start their memoir but are afraid to?

Rita: It helps to have a small critique group to work with, preferably a group that’s also writing memoirs. It bolsters confidence to know where your weaknesses are and what parts need to be edited for more clarity. A group will give you encouragement and support when it’s too painful to delve into certain aspects of your story. They’ll let you know when you’re not in your story or skirting the issue. And they’ll praise the good parts that will keep you on track. When you’re really discouraged and want to give it all up, you are motivated to plow ahead because you need to have something to show them the next time you meet. Their feedback stimulates you to keep going, and having deadlines gets the adrenaline going.

I felt more confident working on my memoir when I thought it was for someone else. While I was writing Seeker, I had my granddaughter in mind. I wanted her to know about her grandmother. I also thought about whom I wanted my readers to be, what kind of insights I wanted to share with them. When your story has broader implications than its linear progression, it takes it out of the realm of ego and into having a greater message, which makes it feel less personal, and takes away some of the fear.


"When your story has broader implications than its linear progression, it takes it out of the realm of ego and into having a greater message, which makes it feel less personal, and takes away some of the fear."


WOW: I think writing for your possible reader is an excellent approach! What are you working on now? What can we expect from you?

Rita: I was a breech birth with the umbilical cord wrapped twice around my neck while I floated in toxic waste due to my mother’s toxemia. Toxemia is a condition where the mother’s body does not recognize its embryo and thinks it’s a foreign invader that has to be destroyed. My mother went blind for three months, and was told not to have more children as I had weakened her body. There is family history behind that birth, and its influence impacted my development. At eleven years old, I burst out of its hold through a fortuitous event. Recent research in the field of biogenetics has shown that familial memory can pass from one generation to the next, especially if there was something traumatic in the parent’s past. Its influence plays a powerful role in a child’s development. We may come into this world innocent, but often we carry the emotional burden of our forefathers. The next memoir, that I’m tentatively calling Genesis, is a slice of life from birth to eleven years old through the lens of biogenetics. It’s a story of how genetic history, social and political environment, and temperament came together to mold one child—me.

WOW: That sounds so interesting! I can't wait to read it. Best of luck to you and your book!

---- Blog Tour Dates

June 29th @ The Muffin
What goes better with coffee in the morning than a muffin? Grab your coffee and join us in celebrating the launch of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey. You can read an interview with the author and enter to win a copy of the book.
https://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/

July 2nd @ Fiona Ingram's Blog
Visit Fiona's blog and you can read a guest post by the author about how she could have enriched her journey at sea.
http://fionaingramauthor.blogspot.com/

July 5th @ CK Sorens' Blog
Visit Carrie's blog today and you can read her review of Rita Pomade's memoir Seeker.
https://www.cksorens.com/blog

July 6th @ Create Write Now
Visit Mari L. McCarthy's blog where you can read author Rita Pomade's guest post about what she learned about herself through writing.
https://www.createwritenow.com/

July 7th @ The Faerie Review
Make sure you visit Lily's blog and read a guest post by the author about cooking on a shoestring at sea.
http://www.thefaeriereview.com/

July 8th @ Coffee with Lacey
Visit Lacey's blog today and read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
https://coffeewithlacey.com/

July 10th @ 12 Books
Visit Louise's blog and read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
https://12books.co.uk/

July 11th @ Bookworm Blog
Visit Anjanette's blog today and you can read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
http://bookworm66.wordpress.com/

July 12th @ It's Alanna Jean
Visit Alanna's blog today and you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade about the ten best traits you need for living aboard a yacht.
http://itsalannajean.com/

July 13th @ The New England Book Critic
Join Vickie as she reviews Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
http://www.thenewenglandbookcritic.com/

July 14th @ Bev. A Baird's Blog
Visit Bev's blog today and read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
https://beverleyabaird.wordpress.com/

July 15th @ Reviews and Interviews
Visit Lisa's blog today where she interviews author Rita Pomade about her book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
http://lisahaseltonsreviewsandinterviews.blogspot.com/

July 16th @ Author Anthony Avina's Blog
Visit Anthony's blog where he reviews Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
https://authoranthonyavinablog.com/

July 17th @ 12 Books
Visit Louise's blog and read author Rita Pomade's guest post discussing sailing myths.
https://12books.co.uk/

July 18th @ Author Anthon Avina's Blog
Visit Anthony's blog today and read his interview with author Rita Pomade.
https://www.authoranthonyavinablog.com

July 20th @ Bev. A Baird's Blog
Visit Bev's blog again and you can read author Rita Pomade's guest post featuring her advice on writing a memoir.
https://beverleyabaird.wordpress.com/

July 21st @ Jill Sheet's Blog
Visit Jill's blog where you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade about how her handwriting analysis skills made her a better writer.
https://jillsheets.blogspot.com/

July 22nd @ A Storybook World
Visit Deirdra's blog today and you can checkout her spotlight of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
http://www.astorybookworld.com/

July 23rd @ Choices
Visit Madeline's blog today and you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade about the benefits of spending time abroad.
http://madelinesharples.com/

July 24th @ Books, Beans and Botany
Visit Ashley's blog today where she reviews Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey.
https://booksbeansandbotany.com/

July 24th @ Tiggy's Books
Visit Tiggy's blog today and read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey. She'll also be chatting a bit with the author!
https://tiggysbooks.com/

July 26th @ CK Sorens Blog
Visit Carrie's blog today and you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade about how she jumpstart her writing process.
https://www.cksorens.com/blog

July 27th @ Memoir Writer's Journey
Visit Kathleen's blog today and read her review of Rita Pomade's book Seeker.
https://www.krpooler.com/

July 28th @ Lady Unemployed
Visit Nicole's blog today where you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade talking about stepping outside of one's comfort zone.
http://www.ladyunemployed.com

July 31st @ Wild Hearted
Visit Ashley's blog where you can read a guest post by author Rita Pomade about why she jumped at the chance to go to sea.
https://wild-hearted.com/
 

***** BOOK GIVEAWAY *****

To win a copy of the book Seeker: A Sea Odyssey by Rita Pomade, please enter using the Rafflecopter below. Giveaway ends on July 5th at 11:59 PM EST. We will announce the winner the next day on the Rafflecopter widget and follow up via email. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
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Meet Miranda Keller, Runner Up in the WOW! Q2 2020 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, June 28, 2020


Miranda lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of 35 years. Her writings take the reader down various paths of thought and feeling- the ebb and flow of life. She faces her own human struggles with courage and refreshing honesty.

She has enthusiastically coached her two sons and numerous students through the challenging aspects of the English language working as a teacher’s assistant. Her love of the written word is contagious. She has attended literary course work in which she excelled and is currently reworking her biography.

Recently, Miranda had the opportunity to ghost write in a nonfiction, short story. In addition, Miranda placed 4th with “What If” in a past WOW Contest, which can be found here.

Read Miranda's noteworthy essay, Good Morning, Class, and then return here to learn more about the writer.

----------Interview by Renee Roberson

WOW: Welcome, Miranda, and congratulations! What are some of your favorite topics to explore in creative nonfiction essays? 

Miranda: I don’t have a favorite topic to explore. I tend to move on my inspiration. My favorite type of essay to write is a narrative essay that looks a whole lot like a descriptive essay. I’m aiming to paint a picture that draws a reader in.

WOW: Do you have a specific revision process? How long do you spend on a piece once you begin writing it? 

Miranda: I spit it out. I write everything that comes to mind. Then I look through my verb choices, trying to eliminate every Be verb possible. My next objective involves shrinking my work down to 1000 words. I just recently minimized 1556 words down to 985. I thought not a single part of my work could be reduced and still have its power. Watching that story take on a refreshing clarity floored me. Lastly, I read it to myself, and to anyone else I persuade to hear it, out loud. I hate when I make stupid mistakes, ones I should have caught.

WOW: Are there any non-fiction books that you look to for inspiration? 

Miranda: Yes. Philip Yancy trained me with his brilliant writing style. Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, In His Image, Pain- The Gift Nobody Wants left lasting impressions in my mind and heart. I, also loved Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. As I read David Pelzer’s story, my heart broke for him. The fact that he was in a foster home ran by a woman named Aunt Mary has never left me. I know we know the same Aunt Mary. Was David’s real name Lenard? I’ll wonder about that forever.

WOW: “Good Morning, Class” contains a good amount of dialect as part of the character development. When writing this type of piece, do you find it easier to read it out loud while revising to get the tone where you want it? 

Miranda: Yes. Pictures flash in my mind (memories). I write what I see, hear and feel. Then I read it out loud.

WOW: What advice would you give to a writer who is nervous about entering a writing contest?

Miranda: I can certainly understand being nervous to enter a writing a contest. I’ll never forget the first time I entered one. I hung by my nails swinging back and forth. Push the send button, on one shoulder. Don’t do it, tickling my other ear. I finally realized I’ll never know if I don’t try. Can I do this? I’ll never know if I don’t try.

WOW: That's right--you never know until you try! Thank you for sharing your work and words of wisdom with us today, Miranda. Happy writing!

Read More »

I'm NOT Sorry and You Shouldn't be Either!

Saturday, June 27, 2020
Do you ever feel guilty promoting your writing or your book(s) on social media? 

Be honest...

At some time in your career, you've heard someone say "I'm so sick of her posts" or "seriously, no one cares" etc...

That's not even about you. Those comments are about THEM. At the root of negative comments are insecurities and they aren't yours. Don't own those comments and don't let them stop you from doing what you are doing.

All through the ages, business owners have been told that advertising works. 

*Advertising through word of mouth (free samples back in the horse and buggy days when you could get a swig of moonshine to dull that aching tooth).

*Advertising through print once newspapers came available.

*Advertising on the radio.

*Advertising on television.

and today...

*Advertising via social media outlets: blogs, podcasts, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the list goes on.

There is nothing shameful about letting people know what you are doing OR what you are selling. If you're selling cosmetics and I don't need them, I just keep scrolling. If you are selling a steamy novel and I'm not in the mood, I can keep scrolling. Are you a freelance writer and I'm looking for someone to pierce my ears, I'll keep scrolling. You get the point. The fact is, you may not have what I want right now, but I guarantee you there is someone out there who will see your post and think "now that's exactly what I've always wanted!"

Self promotion is not vanity, and in the current conditions of the world, it may be the only piece of sanity. If you are waiting for people to come to you and ask what you have at your store, it's likely the doors will close and the light bill will go unpaid. Do those interviews, have those launch parties, share the cover reveals, do a few drawing for swag, ask for early readers, and don't you dare feel guilty.

You may not be everyone's cup of tea, but they have options to unfriend you, un-follow you, or just keep scrolling. Don't let their negativity put a damper on your creativity! After all, even bad publicity is publicity!


Unapologetic-ally Yours,


~Crystal

and now...a little more about me...


Shown from left to right:
Delphine riding Honey
Mr. Otto holding Eudora
Crystal riding Marv.
Thank you Forward Farm, LLC 
Crystal is the office manager, council secretary, financial secretary, and musician at her church, birth
mother, Auntie, babywearing mama, business owner, active journaler, writer and blogger, Blog Tour Manager with WOW! Women on Writing, Press Corp teammate for the DairyGirl Network, Unicorn Mom Ambassador, as well as a dairy farmer. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and their five youngest children, two dogs, four little piggies, a handful of cats and kittens, horses Darlin' and Joker, pony Miss Maggie May, and over 250 Holsteins.

You can find Crystal milking cows, riding horses, and riding unicorns (not at the same time), taking the ordinary and giving it a little extra (making it extraordinary), blogging and reviewing books here, and at her own blog - Crystal is dedicated to turning life's lemons into lemonade and she has never (not once) been accused of being normal!
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Friday Speak Out!: From Protest to Plague and Back Again: Researching Memory, Living the Past

Friday, June 26, 2020
by Sarah Relyea

Can we ever know the past? Sure, we have research—records, documents, and archaeological sites—but long-ago words and stones leave huge gaps. Sensory memory rushes to fill those gaps, dangling its low-hanging fruit, coloring today's pandemic and protest with our forgotten fears and longings.

Through the strange brew of research and memory, novels can bring the past to life. Novels make the past come alive in much the same way they make anything else come alive—by creating assumptions and then breaking them. By creating a seemingly stable world and then setting loose an orphan, a killer cop—or maybe a plague. Once you’ve opened the barn door and overturned your readers’ safe assumptions—the assumptions you set up—you can let the horses run pretty far before you start rounding them up. Your readers will follow, because they’re looking for resolution. They’ll want your character’s ordeal to end—by death, if necessary, as long as that ushers in a new world order.

World-Building

Consider fairy tales. They begin by sketching a world and its usual cause-and-effect. When Hansel and Gretel’s father abandons them in the forest, for example, Hansel saves them by leaving a trail of pebbles. As the scene begins to repeat, the reader assumes it will follow the same pattern. But seemingly minor changes—this time Hansel has bread rather than pebbles—end up overturning the reader’s expectations.

Fairy tales are sketches. By contrast, world-building in a novel demands more than bare-bones narrative. It calls for dense description of outer and inner worlds, and for that reason novels are research-based. In writing your novel, you will need to engage in lengthy world-building, laying down patterns and assumptions—developing your readers’ expectations. Then, just as your reader is getting comfortable in your fictional world, go ahead and do something slightly freaky. Change the pebbles to bread. If you’re subtle, the reader may not even notice. Now you can lead them deep in the primeval forest—where you’ve planned on taking them all along.

If you’re taking your reader through the forest, you’ll need to know all about trees and wildflowers. Dig out your nature guides, pack a notebook, and head for a redwood canyon. By the way, make sure you know how to spot mountain lion tracks. Bear tracks, too. Research can save your life!

1969 Protests

Along with research on everything from clothing styles to historical events to bear tracks, you’ll need to delve into memory. In my novel Playground Zero, I stayed close to home. As a very young person, I’d spent several years in 1960s Berkeley, a place of fantasy and anarchy where fences were for jumping, boys and girls on LSD roamed the streets, and tear gas was as common as patchouli. Places and events from those years appear in Playground Zero—including the 1969 confrontations over People’s Park, when cops and protesters fought over a park, tear-gas-spewing helicopters choked the skies, and Governor Reagan called in the National Guard. I searched through newspaper databases and historical works; and I dredged my own deeply-buried memories.

Novels set in the past are more suspenseful when the author does not always know where the story is going. Remember that research seeks enlightenment. Focus on unresolved problems from the past that reverberate today.

Not Pebbles, Not Bread

Tonight, as the pandemic fades and protesters and looters rage through the streets of Brooklyn after the blatant police killing of a black man, George Floyd, I hear the drone of choppers overhead. The People’s Park riot was years ago and thousands of miles away, yet for me the sounds convey a whole world. They carry the seeds of a new scene. Research and memory together could bring it to life on the page, but for now there’s no need. The tragedy is already much too real.

I close my eyes and wonder what people are throwing. Not pebbles, and certainly not bread.

A sudden explosion rocks my desk. I pray it’s not another Princeton-educated lawyer tossing a Molotov cocktail into a police car.

* * *
Harvard grad Sarah Relyea is author of the upcoming novel, Playground Zero (She Writes Press, 2020), a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Her first book was the nonfiction Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. Follow Sarah on Facebook and Goodreads.
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Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
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New Thinking About Old Goals

Thursday, June 25, 2020
I recently came across an interview with renowned dancer and choreographer, Twyla Tharp, whom I greatly admire, and at the very end of the interview, I read this:

“You don’t want to have a goal that you can accomplish.”

Which is…wait. What? I’m a goal-driven person; I have daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, yearly goals. Goals keep me on track, help me to accomplish the little things, like getting a blog post written. Goals push me all the way up to the major successes, like publishing a book. What am I supposed to do? Hope that I can accomplish all that stuff? Hope is great but without actionable goals, I’m not getting far.

But then Twyla added this gem:

“You want one [a goal] that will continuously pull you along to the next discovery.”

Ohhhh. I had to tear those sentences out of the magazine (Calm down, y’all. I own the magazine.) and sip on my tea for a while and think. Because I needed to know: As a creative and a writer, is my goal one that pulls me along to the next discovery?

How about you, dear writer? Are you wondering about your goal, too?

Most of us realize by now that we need something bigger than “wanting to be a writer”. So we get more specific, like wanting to get published. That’s a big goal, especially if you have the kind of specificity that states, “I want to get my byline in a major newspaper, or a contract with a major publisher, or my poetry in a literary journal.”

But here’s what can happen when you accomplish that big, specific, and seemingly worthy goal—at least, it happened to me, and many creatives, I think, deal with the same feeling. I call it the “is that all there is?” feeling. It’s that emptiness, even depression that one’s left with after having achieved a major and specific goal and wondering, “Hmmm. What do I do next?”

So let’s imagine having a goal that’s not accomplishable, one that propels you further and further along your creative journey. Like what if you visit the beach and see yellow tape surrounding a sea turtle’s nest? And because you think, “I hope the sea turtles make it!” you decide to find out more and write an article. So you interview a vet specializing in marine mammals, and you visit a marine science center, researching. And then one day, you sell that article about sea turtles. But that's no longer your over-riding goal, to sell that article. You’re just beginning on a journey, fueled by your love for animals and ignited by your desire to help the sea turtles. So maybe now, you want to write a picture book so children will understand the importance of the sea’s ecosystems, or maybe you’ll volunteer for an environmental organization, or perhaps you’ll even explore other species threatened by extinction…

That’s what Twyla Tharp is talking about, or that’s the way I understand it.

It doesn’t mean that your goals have to be something huge like saving the planet. Big goals can be about our everyday challenges. Maybe you care deeply about bullying or getting kids excited about science or helping people through grief. It’s often our own experiences that fuel our best goals, that can keep us going when we want to give up, simply because we’re not in it for the short term gratification. There's always something more.

So if you’re struggling in these times, wondering about what happened to all your goals and trying to figure out what your next steps should be, try stepping back. Think about what matters to you and look for something big and worthy, something that excites you and that you love. Maybe it’s not writing any more. Or maybe it’s finally getting your personal story out into the world in a TED talk!

But whatever your next goal, make it something you can’t quite accomplish. Have a goal where there's always something more pulling you along!

~Cathy C. Hall

Cathy C. Hall is often inspired by the world around her, but today she owes Twyla Tharp a shout out for the terrific inspiration provided. Not only did she pass along a great quote but Tharp has a book out--her third book at 78!--titled Keep It Moving--Lessons for the Rest of Your Life. So if you need a little no-nonsense inspiration, look around the web for her interviews.




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