School Supply Savings

While chatting with a friend-R about the rising cost of everything, she mentioned she had just spent over one hundred dollars on school supplies, just for the basics like crayons and pencils. R also remarked that she recycled some of last year’s composition books by ripping out the used pages. It started me thinking. How much of this stuff did I have just lying around the house?

Checking our schools website, I found the list of recommended supply items for elementary school: Book bag, pencil-case, pencils #2, colored pencils, highlighters, erasers, composition books, wide ruled paper, ruler, binder or spirals, scissors, dividers with tabs, glue sticks, folders, post-its, pens and index cards.

This started me digging through drawers and closets. Between the children’s previous year leftovers, career or company changes and my home office glut, I emerged with an enormous pile of stuff.

Not only had I already covered the bulk of the supply list for both of my children, but had surplus to keep for home use or donate to their school.

The only thing we really needed were two new boxes of crayons, total cost, about .99 cents each.  Maybe I could have found those by recycling, but there is nothing like a fresh box of crayons to start a new school year right.  The one hundred dollars in savings will be better used in their college funds.  A hidden benefit was the organization and cleaning out of forgotten storage spaces.

So, before heading to the office supply store, first check your drawers and you may not have to lose your shirt!

Maintaining Momentum

Thought for the week: We all spend time in the writing ditch; how you get out of it is up to you.

In the midst of writing and re-writing my first novel, “Seeing Scarlet”, a second novel materialized. Initially, I denied it time and energy due to WOCD, writer’s obsessive compulsion disorder, refusing to write novel number two, because novel number one was not yet complete.

However, this new character, Janice Morrison, would not go away. Every time I stalled out writing Scarlet’s story, Janice would tap on the back door of my brain.

“Hay, it’s me again, Janice. Got a second?”

“No, I’m busy. Come back later,” I grumbled.

“You still working on that book? Come, on! I’ve been waitin’ long enough here to tell you something. You won’t believe this one.”

Janice would just not hear me and I refused to listen because I was busy being stuck in the ‘writing ditch’, a place where you cannot move forward or backward, without digging yourself a deeper hole.

Frustrated anyway, I finally took a woefully needed break from Scarlet and tuned in to Janice. Before long, I had written twenty-five thousand words of her story. Now that number is nearly double. My second novel, “Secret Agent of…God?” is character driven, focused, true to the tale that I set out to write and is a narrative that technically told itself. The best part…it was fun to write again.

I learned something valuable from Janice. The protagonist sets the tone of the story and decides where it will ultimately go. In Scarlet’s case, I had tried to mold her into someone she had no interest in becoming. I became confused, thinking I was writing my story at times, but Scarlet is definitely not me.

I let Scarlet’s issues stew on the back burner for a bit and worked on Janice’s predicament and other projects, short stories and flash fiction for contests until one day, an answer to Scarlet’s problem presented itself.

While watching my eight-year-old outrunning ten and eleven-year-olds at her running camp, being fiercely competitive at all things, easily able to outsmart me with minimal effort, she was already so confident and different from me, at her age. I realized something, I gave her life and shared a few genes, but I can never take credit for how amazing she is, all on her own.

This triggered my ascent. I needed to accept Scarlet’s individuality as I have my daughters. As Scarlet’s creator, I owed her this much. When I began blending in this new perspective, a bright and more vivid character emerged.

Ask yourself if you have another tale to tell, at least temporarily. Write poetry, even badly, create a children’s book, draft a short story, pen an article about anthills. Meanwhile, let your character quandary simmer until a solution comes bubbling to the surface; when it does, simply stir in the spice you found before your ideas burn out or evaporate. At the very least, a fresh story will keep you company and give you something to chew on while you wait for a figurative tow truck to conjure a productive way out of the ‘writing ditch’.

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come: Seeking Support: Surprises and Stumbling Blocks; The Benefits of Insomnia; My First Writers Conference; Query Letter Hell!; The ABC’s…Author Websites, Blogging and Contests, Oh, My!

Writers Group Therapy

Thought for the week: If you can’t take the heat, stay away from the fire pit.

As an aspiring writer, I subscribe to various trade publications, my favorite being Writers Digest Magazine. The magazine offers solid advice, contest opportunities, author interviews and inspiration among other things. One piece of valuable advice I garnered from WD was the recommendation to create a writing support system by becoming part of the writing community, in other words make some writing friends. What a novel idea. This craft can be isolating.

My first step was to join a local writers group. I went to my favorite source of information, the local library, where a helpful librarian directed to me to a group that meets twice a month.

Naturally, I had preconceived notions of what the group would be like. I imagined people like myself, amateur stay-at-home Moms who wanted to reenter the work force by becoming writers. No egocentrism involved there. I assumed between chats about writing we would swap stories about our children’s sports events and share recipes.

As it turns out, my group is primarily male and filled with some excellent writers with varied backgrounds: retired teachers with advanced degrees, a journalist, a songwriter, a film school graduate, self-published authors and traditionally published authors of novels or short story anthologies.

This threw me, I was not sure I was either worthy or courageous enough to be in this group, not to mention, read my romantic suspense Novel in front of them. I wondered how my membership might enhance the group. I hung in because there was no question I would have an opportunity to learn something.

At the first meeting, I sat quietly listening to the others read their work. I had in tow, chapter one of my novel, Seeing Scarlet. At one point, the group organizer called on me to read. I shook my head furiously and refused. Very mature on my part, yes? If I could have, I would have slunk under the table and slithered from the room. I considered quitting but instead returned a few weeks later for the next meeting.

I brought the same chapter and after a few people read, summoned the courage to read. My delivery was akin to that of an auctioneer. I am not certain anyone could even understand me. The piece was entirely too long and halfway through, I could hear people shifting in their seats. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them checking their watches. Okay, I may have imagined that last part. Then, the critique of my work commenced. The quotes are only as accurate as my own recollection and are unassigned to protect identities:

“There’s way too much back story!”

“Where’s the action?”

“All I could think about was Scarlet O’Hara.”

I felt as if my heartfelt narrative was a slab of raw meat and the wolves were all having at it. Then, my personal favorite:

“I was falling asleep over here!”

They liked certain parts of it and some offered more carefully formed comments:

“You’re obviously a competent writer. It’s good to know you can form sentences with some degree of ability.”

Finally, the statement that cut to the quick:

“You’re quirky. You have a story to tell and it’s buried in there somewhere.”

I was upset, although I am not sure what I expected. I went home, drank some wine while wallowing in self-pity and flipped through the television channels.

What do a bunch of men know about romance anyway? What makes them think they’re so great?

Ironically, I stumbled across the movie “Gone with the Wind” on TMC. Scarlet O’Hara, humph! In truth, I had never seen the movie or read the book. Instead, I secretly scoffed about it. I began watching. Hours later, at two in morning, riveted, with tears in my eyes, I shouted at the television and shook my fist, give ‘em hell, Scarlet!

I had always presumed it was a sappy romance, but Scarlet O’Hara was the Heroine of her time, strong, determined, smart, witty, beautiful and maybe a little manipulative, but what choice did she have? I would be proud to have a character like her in my novel.

Watching the film, I realized a few things, you cannot scoff at romance if you are going to write it and you somehow have to make people care about your characters, so they could not possibly fall asleep in the beginning of your story.

What had I written? What was my novel about? Questions I needed to answer, before the reconstruction of the story could begin in earnest. I realized that I began telling one story and then morphed into telling another because I was chasing the market. I had committed the worst offense in writing; I had lost sight of my story and set aside good writing in search of commercial success.

The next day, still slightly steaming about the comments from my group, I re-read my notes from the night before and realized they were not trying to mean, they were trying to help me become a better writer. I felt even more embarrassed for my reaction. If someone is willing to hear or read your writing, take it for what it is, a gift.

Of course, a small part of my Irish pride still needed to prove to them that I could do better. I rewrote chapter one, over and over and over. Each time it got a little tighter and more fluid. After all, writing is only the beginning, then comes rewriting.

As regards the group, I stuck it out and I like to think I am earning my stripes. It has become something to look forward to although it seems like an odd cross between AA and group therapy for writers, not that I have experience with either.

If you join one, think of the first reading as an initiation of sorts. Learning how to take criticism on your work is vital to survival. You may never learn to take it without insult, but your writing will benefit from it, by incorporating the suggestions that make your work more polished.

Ultimately, being an author is a weird sort of solo act with many support personnel helping and guiding you along the way but you have to know what is best for your story.

I have since received much stronger reviews from my group and I now feel as though my writing better represents who I want to be as an author of novels-still unpublished, but unwavering.

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come: Momentum; Seeking Support: Surprises and Stumbling Blocks; The Benefits of Insomnia; My First Writers Conference & Query Letter Hell!

The Starting Line

Thought for the week:   If I freeze at the start, I will surely never finish.

I write for sanity, but I run for fitness.  I seem to lack coordination for any other form of exercise.  I have tried group exercise classes, perhaps you have seen my kind, the one capsizing in the warrior pose, knocking down the perfect yoga poser next to me or zigging in Zumba when everyone else is zagging.  So I run.  It is relatively safe.  Although, on occasion I have tripped over my own feet and wiped out, sprawled on the concrete, it is a rare occurrence.

Since I began both hobbies at an early age, I see parallels in my life between running and writing.  I wrote for years before ever thinking about going public and I ran for years before ever entering my first official race, terrified of being last, thinking I should be a ‘real’ runner to compete in a community  race.  Not true.   Anyone can run a 5K; some do it without any training at all, although I would not recommend that unless you enjoy being sore for days afterward.

The more races I ran, the more comfortable I became as a runner.  At the finish line, there were always people ahead of me and always people behind me.  After years of racing, I decided to push myself a little harder and trained over several weeks to run a ten-mile run, The Blessing of the Feet, in Narragansett, RI.  Guess what?  I was not last.

Eventually I even got faster.  I won a third place medal for women in my age group, two years running, in the Keep Your Colon Rolling 5K in Southern Maryland.  Now there is a T-shirt to wear proudly!  The race raises money for colon cancer research, a good cause and no joke; I have lost family members to this disease.  Granted it is a small race and I was competing against a tiny group, but it was an accomplishment for me to place.

Around this same time, feeling triumphant, I wrote a sample story, sent it to Bay Weekly, a local paper, and received an e-mail back from the Editor, which led to roughly two years of freelance writing.  The paper with an estimated circulation of about 50,000 and I was an infrequent contributor at best, but published.

The first time I saw my words in print and my name on the byline, I was both nervous and ecstatic.  I walked around town a little prouder.  Still, I fretted about public recognition.  Once, while sitting in a local restaurant, the customer at the table next to me was reading one of my articles including photos of myself and family members and yet, I still went unrecognized.  Amazing!  My fear of publishing and the remains of my ego quickly dissipated.

I was content for some time, running and writing, doing two things I loved.  I marveled at marathon runners the same way I marveled at novelists.  I could never do those things; I was a short distance runner and a short story and essay writer.  Then one day, I thought, if I can run ten miles, maybe I could write a novel.  I started writing, only a few pages at first.  I put the project down for weeks, coming back to it and then writing some more.  It took ages to write the first ten thousand words.  It was a start.

Years later, my family and I moved to Italy.  I was still running, still writing here and there but still nowhere near completing the novel.  A friend asked me to train with her for the Rome to Ostia half marathon.  Me, run a half marathon?  Well, I ran a ten mile race once.  I trained, progressively adding miles to my training over several weeks.  At the midpoint of my training, I developed runner’s knee and thought I was doomed, but I rested, used alternate training methods and quickly started training again.  After months of preparation, I ran the race with my friend and finished in a respectable amount of time.  I was not last.  It was a proud moment.

By conquering my inner running demons, I realized that I had always possessed the stamina and the self-discipline to do whatever I set my mind to, including finishing my novel.  What I lacked was courage and commitment.   To compete at the half marathon level, training almost every day was essential, just as completing a novel requires consistent daily writing.

I challenged myself to write every week.  I began with a weekly goal of ten hours.  Vigilance was difficult with so many distractions, responsibilities, family, friends, and fun.  Life gets in the way of writing.  I had a single-minded goal and remained fixated on that.  Before long, I was writing twenty hours per week, sometimes at night, weekends, early in the morning, when I could steal time.  Finally, I completed the novel.  It did in fact, take years, but maybe, had I begun sooner, with more focus, it would not have.

Polishing and publishing it is another story, hopefully a shorter one.

Now I have characters waking me at night when I am trying to sleep.  While standing in line at the grocery store, I daydream about plots.  When I meet someone new, I immediately start thinking about what a great character he or she might be in my next book.  On non-writing days, I am cranky; I take this as a sign that writing is essential to my mental health.

Consistency, creating your own rhythm, I believe, is the secret to writing, not only talent and education, although these are helpful.  This is the one piece of advice I have seen appear with frequency in author interviews.  It makes sense.  It sounds simple.  However, it requires sacrifice to make writing a priority, especially without income attached.

Becoming a published novelist is an entirely different bag of worms, but I cannot allow that to steal my momentum.  In addition, about those nagging doubts whether the novel is ever truly finished, I continue to make changes.  It is all part of the process.  However, I started writing a second novel, in the midst of tweaking the first, so as not to waste time staring at blank pages.  The second is nearly finished and considerably more expeditiously than the first.  What do you know?

I no longer count the hours.  I write every chance I have.  Some days, while my children are at school, I look up from the computer screen to realize hours have passed.  In my mind, I have stopped considering writing a hobby and begun thinking of it as a serious profession.  As for hobbies, I still have running, the one thing that quiets my mind, offering solace, a refuge, an escape.  Someday, maybe I will run a full marathon, but first, I have a few novels to finish!

So, you want to write a novel.  What are you waiting for?  On your mark, get set, you know the rest!

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come:  Writers Group, Momentum, My First Writers Conference, Query Letter Hell and Seeking Support:  Surprises and Stumbling Blocks

Becoming a Real Writer

Thought for the week:  Dream bigger, what do you have to lose?

Like many of you, I have been thinking about writing a blog for a long time.  Thinking about writing anything and not doing it is pointless because your ideas only become something when you put them down on paper or onto a computer screen and even then, if you never share the document with anyone else, you still have not accomplished anything.   If you share your writing with at least one other person, you can then say, “I wrote this and someone read it.”  Even better, “I wrote this and someone liked it.”  Best, “I wrote this and someone published it.”

I have dreamed of being a writer all of my life, but only recently have I dared call myself by that noble title.  Why?  I began writing in childhood, making greeting cards and filling journals with poetry while sitting in my bedroom closet.  At ten I did not know anything about poetry except that I needed to write my thoughts down on a page in an obscure way, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes comprehensible to others, sometimes not.  I read one of my poems to my Mother once.  She said it was depressing.  It was my first official critique.

In college, I wrote short stories and read them in front of my classes.  It was mortifying.  Sometimes my professors felt the stories were publishable.  Therefore, I did the logical thing, stuck them in a drawer, and never showed them to anyone again.  The thought of having my writing out there, my soul bared, terrified me.  I switched majors knowing that remaining an English major was the path to unemployment, until one of my writing professors pulled me aside and said, “Why aren’t you writing?  This is what you are meant to do.”  So struck by her confidence in me, something I surely never possessed, I stuck it out and graduated with a BA in English from the University of Rhode Island.

Beginning the very day of graduation, I fielded questions such as “What are going do, teach?”

“No, I answered, I am going to be a writer.”   That response brought scoffs at best and at worst; long diatribes on how most writers never see their work published.

My father, a Professor at the University, retired the year that I graduated, so we were invitees to a special reception where all of the important staff and graduates mixed and mingled, including the Valedictorian of my class, whom I had a crush on and the guest speaker, Kurt Vonnegut.

I remember standing under the tent in the buffet line next to Kurt Vonnegut straining to think of something brilliant to say.  We both stepped sideways pausing to spoon mayonnaise infused salads and cold cuts onto our plates.  He was so close; I could have touched him.  Before we reached the end of the table, he stopped and looked down at me.  I am five foot nine, but I suddenly felt like a small child.  I looked up at this famous writer, a towering oak, this man who was an expert at his craft and profoundly said, “Hi,” and then looked sharply at my potato salad.

How many chances do you think one person gets in life?  Can you walk away from your destiny and not expect it to shadow your steps for the rest of your days?

After college, unable to find work as writer that paid enough to keep me from needing a second job, I worked as a server, a bartender, a housecleaner and began writing my first novel.  I think I still have it somewhere in a box, in the attic, a mass of scribbled notebook pages and notes on cocktail napkins.  The most idiotic thoughts seem profound jotted down onto a cocktail napkin.  If I remember correctly it was typical of most first novels, far too autobiographical, overly emotive and missing a so what?

I quickly tired of serving people food and cleaning toilets and found a job in the business world where competent writing ability is valued-sometimes.  I planned to keep writing creatively on the side.  The problem with having a real job, if you are doing it right, is that it leaves you with very little energy on the side.  However, I fulfilled other dreams of mine, traveled all over the United States and overcame my fears of public speaking and cocktail parties; in Sales and Marketing you do or die.

The great thing about a real job is it gives you a real life and real things to write about when you finally stop daydreaming and decide that you will write that first novel.  I married a brilliant man, had two wonderful children, left my career, wrote freelance (emphasis on the free part) for two years, lived in Italy for three years and finally got serious about writing.  I have one novel written, although I cannot seem to stop changing it and a second more than half-written and several ideas and chapters for others.  I am now utilizing my business background to help me navigate the business of publishing, which is no easy task, especially since the industry is elastic.

After coming out of the “writing closet”, I have discovered something astounding: many people write or aspire to and never tell a soul.  For the longest time, only my closest friends knew about my writing.  We ‘want to be’ writers apologize and say, “Well, I’m not a real writer.”

What is a real writer?  Today anyone can self publish.  Anyone can write a blog.  Does being a real writer still mean publication by one of the big New York publishing houses?  Ultimately, this remains the goal of many writers, including myself.  Despite the fact that e publishing is all the rage, I still have my heart set on posing for a photo in front of a bookstore window displaying my published novel.  I also frequent libraries and prefer to hold an actual book in my hands when I read it, blissfully turning paper pages.  I realize this makes me a Techno Dino and I may have to revise my goals.  Flexibility is key in today’s publishing market, even if I do everything right and follow all of the advice I’ve been given, I may never be published in the traditional sense.

After spending more than a six years seriously writing and over two years researching and employing tactics of how to publish my work, I decided to blog about this topic, to talk about what’s working for me and what is not.  Who knows, I might be able to help other writers struggling with the same issues.  With luck, this journey will take us both to the bookshelves!

Thank you for reading and keep writing!

Yet to come:  The Starting Line, Writers Group, Momentum, My First Writers Conference & Query Letter Hell!

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