Sunday, December 28, 2014

Five great things I did for my writing this year

1.      I made it a priority. The biggest thing I did was negotiate a four-day workweek so I could spend Fridays working on fiction. Was that easy? No. It took a few months of discussion among the bosses and figuring out how and if they could make that work. But I had established myself enough there that they were willing to try it, and they knew that fiction writing was an important part of my life. More and more employers are realizing that helping their workers pursue their passions leads to greater engagement and happiness in the workplace. And that’s good for everyone. You don’t have to change your work schedule, but could you reserve Saturday morning or Sunday evening as your writing time? A couple of hours in the early morning?

2.       I kept myself accountable. I knew that it would be easy to let an extra day “off” become – well, a day off. So I treated fiction writing like a job, arranging a workplace at a church downtown. They had lots of quiet space and were happy to have someone use it. Some days I worked here, other days I went to a coffee shop or a friend’s empty apartment. This friend left me a gift of pens and a new notebook, which I used to track my progress and jot down questions and problems with story and plot. I made excellent progress on finishing and editing two novels.

At my "office."
3.       I submitted my work to literary journals and entered contests. It’s easy to get discouraged by rejection. You can improve your odds of publication by A.) Making sure your piece is really ready and B.) Finding literary journals that are interested in the style and genre of stories that you write. The AWP Conference's book fair is a great way to get to know more about hundreds of literary journals and small presses and talk to the folks who edit them. Check local and state writing and book festivals for contests. Having the goal of submitting to a journal or a contest helps you hone your work and stick to a deadline. This year, my short story “Geography Lesson” won the Mill Prize for Fiction at the Fox Cities Book Festival.
A faraway picture of me reading my short story at the Mill Prize ceremony in April.

4.       I spent time with other writers. The Mill Prize led to a job offer teaching fiction at The Mill -- A Place for Writers. I taught a fiction class during the summer and fall, interacting with writers of various skill levels, interests and experiences. Being an instructor challenges my own skills and forces me to think about writing from different perspectives. You can get the same thing from being a part of a writing group. Can you join or form a small group of writers that meets regularly to discuss and critique your work? Sometimes it helps just to have a circle of other writers for the camaraderie and support.

5.       I went on a writing retreat. Some Goddard College classmates of mine developed a new writing retreat in Tuscany, and it was amazing – not just because, you know, Italy – but because of connecting with other writers, the powerful writing prompts and being totally and completely out of my element. Plus, wine. But you don’t have to go to all the way to Italy to benefit from a writing retreat – there are plenty of retreats in your own backyard, many of which offer subsidies and grants. Some are self-directed, giving you the silent space that writers crave, and some are led by instructors to help you create new work or improve what you’ve already been working on.
The Tuscan adventure with Wide Open Writing. I'm in the back in the beige jacket.

What are your plans for writing in the new year? What resolutions do you have about your work in 2015?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Stories to tell

Earlier this month, my friend Colleen Sutherland died after a months-long struggle with cancer. I met Colleen in 2009 while I was a graduate student at Goddard College, desperately seeking a teaching practicum, and this experienced writer agreed to let me teach her and a small group of writers at a coffee shop. Later, after my teaching sessions were completed, she invited me to be a part of the group, enjoying connections with other writers and offering them a chance for connection, too. I was a sporadic member, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of talking to others who “get it.” Sometimes our meetings were less about critiquing each other’s work (in fact, on occasion we never actually got around to it) and more about just getting together. My friend Wade says it best in this post about Colleen – you need other writers to understand what you’re going through, and just the very act of gathering could help bolster your sense of confidence. Colleen knew that writers needed to generate their own light, espousing this principle to a nearly literal sense by hosting an annual gathering of artist-types on the darkest day of the year.

I used to express frustration at the series of ‘almosts’ and ‘not quites’ that are common to the to publishing game. Colleen told me if I reached sudden and massive success as a writer then other writers would just hate me. This way, she said, I’ll have a great story to tell about how hard it was to get published, and that would be more inspiring. She saw potential for stories everywhere, the bellwether of a true artist.

Colleen built her individualistic life around the things she loved to do. Her warm house displayed her passions, including bookshelves stuffed with photo albums and a cozy, enveloping writing nook. She stayed a curious, avid learner and entrepreneur. When I wanted to try out Skype, she was my first on-screen face. She took a one-night blogging class I offered at Fox Valley Technical College, and that very night launched Storytelling Trails and Tales. She used the site to help her to book storytelling gigs around the country, spending a summer camping out and doing what she loved best at libraries around the country. She was in her late 60s at the time. She posted on her blog even when words started to fail her. That’s the part about this loss that is so cruel – as Wade says, the cancer took her words first. How frustrating for someone who loved to talk, loved to tell stories, made her living with words. But I sense she tried to maintain as much of a sense of humor about it as she could, because that’s how she approached her life and her writing.

Colleen Sutherland and Wade Peterson celebrating the arrival of their book of short stories in 2012.
She left a body of work, available through her blog. Her last post is entitled “Still here,” and she is and will be, through her work and her influence and her example of honoring the passions that make us the special individuals that we are. Her friends will have a potluck in her honor at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Muehl Public Library in Seymour, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Back on track

I just submitted an application for the new Amtrak residency. Thank you, Jessica Gross and Alexander Chee, for getting the ball rolling on this exciting new writing opportunity. Spending two to five days riding on a train across country with nothing to do but write? Count me in. Amtrak is accepting applications on a rolling basis (get it, 'rolling'?) and will pick 24 writers through March 31. All aboard.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Map quest

More editing today. Disappearing some characters and watching others grow and develop and shape the story. Sometimes they end up taking things in another direction, which is exciting and mildly irritating, like a favorite child that's just caused you more work, but at the same time you think what they just did was precocious and funny so you don't care all that much.

Been scrabbling for pieces of time to work on edits, and it helps to have a playlist to help me get into the right frame of mind. Here's one from my list (The Pines).

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Song writer?

Love this project by author Alison Kent -- she created a writing desk out of a refurbished piano (top). My parents have a 100-year-old piano that nobody plays (below)....I see potential for reincarnation.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And that's the end of you

Going through my post-apocalyptic YA one more time (Once More With Feeling!) and thinning out the unnecessary bits, including characters. Feels weirdly wrong to search and find and delete someone's existence, even if they only exist on the page. And it also seems right. If it's that easy to get rid of them, with only minor write-arounds, then that person wasn't where he/she needed to be. Maybe they'll show up someplace else, some other time, some other planet.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Surviving the mosh pit

So I tried my luck and talent at the recent Twitter #PitchMas fest, which is kind of like standing on the trading floor of the literary stock exchange and screaming what your book is about while a couple hundred other writers do exactly the same thing. If your pitch gets a "favorite" star from an agent, you get to send your query and pages to the agent who favorited you.

I kinda felt dirty. And I got sniped at by the Pitch Police for doing exactly nothing wrong. Still, I kept offering my manuscript up on a 140-character platter throughout the day. And then I thought, I have an MFA. I went through three cancer surgeries this year, and you know what? I don't have to put up with this kind of crap.

But yeah... sour grapes and all. I wasn't anybody's favorite.

Still, twitter pitching is a good exercise because it forces you to condense your novel into one very tiny sentence, and doing this helps you gain some interesting perspective on your story. When you're starting out, it's hard to get your query letter down to a one-page letter. It's even tougher to get your manuscript described within a paragraph. Try a sentence. Now try 140 characters. Can you do it? You should be able to. (Oh, and did you save room for the hashtag?) Having that focus on the most important elements of your novel will force you to ask yourself if you're maintaining that focus throughout your manuscript.

Get help from someone who's done it already. (Thank you, awesome Melissa Gorzelanczyk. I wish I'd listened to everything you'd said.) Having an unbiased pair of eyes on your pitch will force the important questions: Who is your character? What is most important about his/her journey or the plot? Why should we care? And yes, you can say it in 15 words or so.

It's also a good thing to get to connect with other writers and see what sorts of things people are doing these days, as well as what's attracting interest. Trends come and go and come back again, and as long as you have a good story it doesn't matter if it's got zombies or talking dogs or whatever. But it's good to see how writers are choosing to think outside the usual literary genre boxes.

And these pitch fests offer another venue for writers to connect with agents. Lots of people were getting requests for queries and manuscript partials, and that's exciting. (Really.)

Want to give it a shot? There's another Pitch fest coming up Jan. 8. Search #PitMad on Twitter to find out more. Dive into the pit, if you dare.