Category Archives: Article

How to Write when Life Bites, Like a Shark

Amber Victoria was a guest speaker at the California Writers Club in September. She introduced her topic about illustrating and publishing her children’s book, Twins European Adventure, by enumerating all the small towns she called home. This was followed by a lengthy resume of everything she loved about her education, interests, hobbies and life. Just as worried if, and when, she was ever going to talk about books, she veered into the oddest transition. She talked about her childhood fear of sharks, a fear so debilitating that she trained in competitive swimming to gain confidence.

And then it clicked. A swim race was like writing, she explained. How you talk to yourself is what gets you across the finish line. “Don’t negate yourself,” she warned, “or you will never finish.” Writing means you’re an independent entrepreneur and since it’s about learning, every step takes you towards an obstacle. You will find a way around it. Don’t be afraid of launching yourself in too many new directions, it may feel as if you are stalling, but, in reality, you are developing something new.

Victoria took a breath, and shared another obstacle, a very personal one. She is dyslexic. I was intrigued, dyslexia would be a significant obstacle when writing a book! It explained something else too. While coordinating the presentation schedule I noticed that the quality of her texts and email was uneven. At first I assumed she was a typical Millennial, perusing ebusiness on the fly. I even wondered if English were a second language. I did not catch a single error in her PowerPoint because her personal narrative was so compelling, but an English teacher spotted several distracting mistakes.

“Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”

Victoria shared a motivational quote from the Dalai Lama, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” Grammar issues would not be a surprise to her, and if a comment about grammatical imperfections were passed along, it would not have discouraged her. Belief and mindset was key to Victoria’s concept of success. She reminded the audience that bestselling authors received bad reviews. She mentioned a fellow writer who ranted about recommendations he disliked. She cautioned the audience, “You have to make sure you don’t absorb advice in a way that makes you the kind of negative person you hate.” Keep writing, she urged. Write what feels closest to your heart. Ask yourself, what is the outcome? What does my audience need to hear? What are the “what ifs”? Where are the morals and emotional growth issues? What are you teaching? And to whom?

She finished by giving specific examples of how her past influenced her present work, adding technical tips about the market for children’s literature. Her talk picked up speed and held together with verve and impact.

An audience member described Amber Victoria as an angel. “I embrace how she keeps inspired in her life, what an accomplished soul! What a blessing to have her on the planet and hear her speak about her love and putting it on pages.” Proving, once again, that when a storyteller effectively communicates his or her vulnerable moments, they leave their audience with the most memorable impressions.

How to find more time? It’s kinda like cleaning, and taking out the trash.

I read a recent post about decision making from marketing guru, Seth Godin. He calls his process to goScreenshot 2015-05-16 18.25.06 faster “decision hygiene.” It reminded me of principles I use for sorting mail and housework. My clean-up knowledge is based on hand-me-down wisdom like “touch things once” and “everything in its place” but in reality, anything that takes time is a decision making process.

Godin had five points to move things along faster: make decisions faster, do them in the right order, do it once, don’t look for help once you’ve started and triage the decisions.

So If I am going to write I’m going to:

  1. Decide what I am going to write about, and do it as quickly as possible.
  2. Do all organizational activities involving committees or other people’s permission first.
  3. Follow through with my idea, even if I start to hate it while I’m typing.
  4. Workshop the results only with people who will improve my writing.
  5. Decide what to write: a blog, novel scene, or schedule twitter feeds. If any of these items do not matter to the project at hand, I’ll choose not to focus on it.

Why write in the first place?

“Why write in the first place?” Paula Priamos, a professor at University California, San Bernardino, questioned her students, all intermediate level writers. The responses spun around the notion of self-expression, the importance of free expression without judgment and how writing is a calming, enjoyable way to articulate ideas. For a few people it was also tied to compulsive need, or to practical goal like developing a skill that they were “half-way good at”, or the opportunity of a portable job. Paula discovered that self-expression it is essential to all writers.

writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard.

In her keynote address at “Another Bloomin’ Writers Conference” in early May, Priamos argued that writing gives people a sense of empowerment because it gives voice to something that would not otherwise be heard. This was true for Priamos. Her memoir “The Shyster’s Daughter” exposed family secrets. Writing was not an easy process, sometimes she felt she ‘ripped out her heart and left it pulsing on paper.’ Her memoir was a very personal tribute to the “no-name” women who endure traumatic experiences. When the book was published and people (including family members) thanked her for sharing, Paula realized that her writing had given a voice to the weak.

When a published writer gives a presentation they invariably disclose an underlying theme, the “why” for their writing. I anticipate this moment like the makeover reveal at the end of a reality show. Readers connect to universal truths, to the greater worldview that writers expose as stories. Writers like Priamos have honed their voice, exposed their hearts, and are passionate about their truths. Successful writers capitalize on this sense of empowerment. Empowerment gives writers personality and fuels their works. It is something to build a social platform around because it attracts fans.

The Nine Muses of Inspiration

The first time I noticed inspiration it was sculpted into the sides of a sarcophagus in the Louvre museum. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and Zeus, the great womanizer, had nine daughters together; the Muses of Inspiration. These muses were carved for prosperity into the cold stone slabs of a marble coffin. The most famous are Thalia and Melpomene, comedy and tragedy, best known by their theatrical masks. The Greeks had oral tradition of literature, alive with music, including a muse for dance, Terpsichore. A writer was mostly about poetry, and they had several variations: Polymnis who fostered musical poetry (or hymnody); Erato, the muse of love poetry; Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry, and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. The muse Clio holds a writing tablet while she records history. The odd one out is Urania, the muse of astronomy. She’s the lone scientist and placeholder for future generations of academic publications.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.43.39

The muses characterize the ancient ideals of a cultivated man, as represented by the likes of Socrates, or Homer. “According to a belief attested in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, the practice of literature and philosophy, or daily intercourse with the Muses, ensured immortality and the soul’s salvation.”

Some things never change.

The moral is, since the earliest times, writers prayed or drank wine while yearning for inspiration. And, not content to be a legacy just in their own minds, they’ve all craved the immortal success of a best seller.

* Image courtesy of Sarcophages des Muses, copyright 1993 RMN, Herve Lewandowski

AWP2015: Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art

AWP2015: Confronting Our Fears: Turning Adversity into Art.

The worst competition? Yourself.

New Year 2015With each New Years Resolution focused on writing, I step further out of the safe and dreamy world of wishful thinking and into the messy complications of action and imbalance. I am killing myself with writing activities. These activities sabotage the act of writing by keeping me away from the keyboard yet when I sit in front of the computer I’m not working on manuscripts but managing social media and organizational activities.

Last night I researched publishing trends for 2015 for a panel discussion I am moderating for the California Writers Club. Guess what the experts say? There’s gonna be more competition in the ebook universe.

Groan.

Today’s improved technology means there is a screen in every pocket, tablets and computers in every household, and an easy way to access digital content. eBooks have become an established in libraries, elementary schools, and are willingly adopted by seniors. The five traditional publishing houses are paying attention, but, while the IT world of content and distribution is growing, the ebook trend for 2015 is going to flatten out due to more competition.

To find readers, authors must be at the top of their craft, producing attractive books, and building marketing platforms. Time-management in the world of social media will be crucial for all.

Exactly how does that work? I work part time as an administrator but I want to maintain my writer’s lifestyle. Last year I cut out evening meetings unless they were about writing. This year I’ll stop relaxing in front of the television. Sad face. After work I’ll go to the gym to pump oxygen into my tired brain so I can read at night, and get up earlier to write at work. Some perks; I have an expansive desk, nice view, and the boss arrives late to work and doesn’t do social media…

Funny thing is, writing is like spending money on your kids. No matter how bad things get, you always find a way to fund those activities and needs. Daughter’s university education is paid by taking out a loan, ignoring home maintenance, my part-time work, eating at home, and shopping second hand or thrift. It gets done. Writing is like raising a kid, you muddle through the things that are important, and it happens.

Debra Eve and other later-blooming writers

Debra Eve, always wanted to write but started her career as a technical engineer, training lawyers in technology. She tired of the corporate milieu and returned to school to become an archeologist only to discover that she didn’t have deep enough pockets to finance any digs. Disappointed, she attended writing workshops, martial arts classes, and traveled. She was learning, exploring, taking mental notes, but not writing. One day, when she was fifty, she asked herself when she’d get around to it. There was never a good time. She’d have to make the decision to write.

So she did. Not knowing where to start, she researched any other writers that got off to a late start. Contrary to the myth of gifted “born” writers, many successful authors “got around” to writing well after the age of forty. Eve wrote mini biographies about these well-known writers and posted their stories on her blog, laterbloomer.com. She had created one of the first repositories that listed “re-invented” writers. In 2012, she published these biographies as an anthology and it is still a high-ranking seller on Amazon.

What do these late blooming writers have in common? They are people with too many disparate interests. Often, they are unusually industrious and responsible people, working and slaving away even if they feel stuck in unsatisfying careers until there is a change in their jobs, routine or personal life. They take this opportunity to reflect and release themselves from their duties to explore new directions. Like writing.

Hmmm, I wonder what percentage of bloggers are later bloomers?

This article was compiled from a presentation Debra Eve gave at the California Writers Club – Inland Empire Branch in October 2014.

How a Writing Prompt Turns into a Story

Anja Niedringhaus, a German AP photojournalist, was shot to death while covering the elections in Afghanistan, on April 4th, 2014. Also injured in the attack was Kathy Gannon, a 60 year old Canadian reporter based in Islamabad. They were in the back seat of a car, waiting for the rain to stop before taking pictures of ballots being prepared for voting the following day.

I heard the announcement on my nightly BBC worldwide radio broadcast, then again on NPR. Not many international stories make the American news but two experienced female reporters, gunned down in public, received a fair bit of attention. Later, on Facebook, a Pakistani friend who lives down the street  posted that she knew the surviving journalist–six degrees of separation. I wondered about women who take dangerous assignments when most people (like me) stay safe at home.

I understand one motivator that powers such daring, compassionate hearts. It’s a lifestyle. As a “third culture kid,” raised overseas, in Iran, Indonesia, and France by a British mother and a Canadian father, I lived in cultures that were not my own, and was immersed in religions and languages that were not shared by my parents either. In vibrant expatriate communities, new people and continuous travel is the norm, and exploring differences is always interesting, always compelling.

When the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters announced their contest theme of “déjà-vu,” I used it as a writing prompt in one of my writing workshops. Writing prompts stir up all kinds of thoughts and images. This one brought up memories of Iran, saying good-bye to the corners of my bedroom while tanks rumbled outside. It evoked images of Iraq and the “Arab Spring” sweeping the Middle East. I’d seen revolutions before. And I remembered my sorrow over the fate of those journalists, who recorded injustice and truths, and were shot for their troubles, while the world is indifferent to their efforts.

I polished the déjà-vu prompt into a perfect story. Well, I thought I did. I listened, astonished, as my writing group argued over it’s meaning. “It’s a stream of consciousness,” one person said. Huh? I had not realized that it was, and I didn’t like that approach. “Are there magical elements?” “No, it’s an out of body experience.” “Well, I think the protagonist is going crazy.” They even debated the ending, which I thought was clever, and obvious. My first pass was a jumble of ideas. I re-wrote the piece several times until everyone understood what I was trying to say, the way I wanted it to be understood. It was an unpleasant process, like bludgeoning my ego into submission. Eventually, the prompt transformed into a story, and I hoped that the judges would have a broad interpretation of “deja-vu.” As luck would have it, enough of them did, and it won second prize.

I love the magic of writing prompts. Prompts generate ideas for stories by locating, and defining, whispers of thought. Fun, but the next steps are hard. It take ruthless editing and tough love to incorporate the comments from my writer’s workgroup, but it makes me tap into the heart of my story.

David Congalton: tips from a screenwriter

David Congalton once sat behind a fellow writer, Catherine Ryan Hyde. She had unexpected, sudden success when her book Pay It Forward was adapted to film in 2000. She even received an invitation to a White House reception. Congalton spent the evening consumed by feelings of intense envy, instead of being happy for the author’s success. He grumbled to his wife, “Why is she successful, but not me?” His wife’s response was matter of fact. Ms Hyde had done the work, paid her dues, and she deserved her success.

David had moved to Los Angeles in 1987 to become a professional writer. He spent a decade dreaming up crazy concepts to break into the commercial market and writing bad screenplays and unpublished novels. After a house fire and the death of five pets, he developed a niche as a pet writer. He got married and became a popular radio show host but it was not the best-selling success he’d imagined. His brother constantly asked when he’d go back to his real job as a teacher. Eventually, Congalton agreed but when he announced his decision to stop writing to his friends they challenged him to try one more time, with the caveat that he write about something he knew well.

Well, Congalton had twenty-seven years of participation in writer critique workshops. His earliest endeavors were filled with amateur writing mistakes. He had real life examples of obnoxious and humorous attitudes from aspiring writers. Mostly, he could parody himself.

He wrote a screenplay about a writing critique group. The group has an encouraging “All for One, One for All” attitude—until the least seasoned, least educated member experiences sudden success and the rest of the group becomes envious. The movie was released as Authors Anonymous. Now David Congalton can say he’s done the work and paid his dues. He treasured the thrill of the movie premier, seated beside his once skeptical brother in an auditorium filled with actors, producers and directors. But that was one evening over many years of writing. For all the other evenings, David Congalton can say for sure:

  • Don’t give up on your dreams
  • Don’t let anyone else define your dream
  • Write what you know
  • Be happy when others are successful

This article was compiled from a presentation David Congalton gave at the California Writers Club – Inland Empire Branch in April 2014.

How to start a memoir

Victoria Zackheim teaches memoir and personal essay at UCLA, in the Writer’s Extension program. She has developed a straightforward approach to start writing a memoir.

(1) The first step is to outline a chronology of your life, year by year. This will get you into the memory of things.

(2) Once this is done, research any significant year. What else was happening in 1973 when your father died? Include anything that explains your state of mind or actions at the time, but no extraneous information.

(3) Next is the fun part. Refer to your outline to create a series of vignettes, short stories, poems, and personal essays. Keep going until you have a body of work— say 20-50 pieces.

(4) Sift through them. What is the theme? What have you learned? What is the message that you want to share?

Once you know where the memoir is going you can start to string the stories together.

Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014 promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.