Raw Literature: Support System

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

March 20, 2018

By Susan Sleggs

I have read and heard in classes a writer should be able to condense a raw piece of literature down to one word or subject. That’s easy to do when I write flash fiction from a prompt by Charli Mills because she gives us the one word as a starting point. I find it challenging and fun. I love reading all the different takes on that one word. We certainly think and write with a different slant. When applying my craft in other venues such as poetry, memoir or other fiction that one word isn’t so easy to decipher. What is easy is to give credit to my support system for any writing I may accomplish. They encourage me with praise, and sometimes a nudge.

I first met my now husband in 2001. I told him I had a novel running around in my head but didn’t know how to go about writing it. He listened patiently for almost ten years then one evening while we were out listening to a Frank Sinatra impersonator, he noticed tears running down my face. He asked why. I told him I had just figured out how I could tie my story together. On the way home, he firmly said, “Now you have the missing piece, sit down and write it or quit talking about it.” I knew he was serious and I wasn’t about to quit talking about it. Halfway through the two-and-a-half-year writing process that started in 2013, he wished at times to never hear me mention it again. It became my total focus. Another nudge happened when I became frightened about the fact all my characters are a part of myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted my readers to know me so well. He assured me only a few people would be able to recognize that, so I went back to writing.

The first couple of weeks of actual writing I realized how much research I had to do. I wanted to find an Air Force pilot to model a character after. I called the local Veteran’s Outreach Center, and they directed me to the Rochester Veteran’s Writing Group whose doors are open to all vets, family members, and friends. As an ex-Air Force wife, I walked fearlessly into that first meeting on May 2, 2015, and not only found my pilot, but one that flew the exact airplane I wanted information about. The group has twelve regular members; two from WWII, three Viet Nam and the rest from Iraq and Afghanistan. We write from prompts every month and share our memories in a safe, non-judgmental situation, just like at Carrot Ranch. We have become special friends who understand PTSD, sacrifice, brotherhood and share the love of writing. That ex-pilot and I have read, critiqued and edited each other’s manuscripts. He is one of my best cheerleaders.

During the same time, I started taking classes at Writer’s, and Books, a Rochester, NY, based non-profit that promotes writing and reading. I learned about story arc, not using the word was because it tells instead of showing action and that the publishing industry doesn’t like exclamation points. I also joined another local writing group, the Lilac City Rochester Writers which is made up mostly of published authors who are willing to help other writers. I have learned much from their programs. It’s amazing when you put a group of people together who have the same passion how quickly they all become mentors to each other.

People have told me it doesn’t matter that I don’t have a college education, but I disagree. There are so many things I have had to learn the slow hard way that had I more education I would have learned in writing classes like the first draft is not the completed project. Writing is never done; there is always one, or many more adjustments that can be made. At times I find that disheartening and I retreat to my sewing room where I finish a quilt and give it away relishing the fact “done is done.”

In my quest for writing knowledge, the fact you must keep writing to improve became apparent, so I started a blog in July of 2016 (susansleggs.com). I share memories and information based on the National Day of Calendar. That’s where Robbie Cheadle found me and became my first international blogging friend. The Tanka Tuesday poetry challenges she entered grabbed my attention. I didn’t use the prompts for poetry but for the keywords in my first efforts at flash. She also introduced me to the Carrot Ranch. I took a flash fiction class in September 2017, and to my delight learned I could write short fiction. I submitted my first 99-word flash at Carrot Ranch last November and look forward to a new challenge each week. The content of my blog has changed, and my group of national and international friends keeps growing.

When Charli Mills asked if I wanted to share my writing process I was elated and humbled as my journey is far from over. My novel, even at the end of its eighth draft needs more work. I have let it languish for the last year, and since I have learned to write more concisely, I’m thinking rewrites to tighten the scenes might even be fun now. I need to get to it. The problem remains, my story is a soap-opera type family saga, and they are not the in thing right now.

As to my process, there is something I can’t explain. Insights come on a regular basis when I am listening to live music whether it is a crooner, jazz or country. And the irony of the whole situation is I am known for always having an opinion and lots to say, so being recognized for doing something short and concise makes me laugh and want to forge ahead.

Thank you to my support system, especially the folks at Carrot Ranch who keep giving me challenges, are positive, and I’m getting to know better as each week passes.

***

Susan Sleggs is a retiree who blogs from her home in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. She spends as many hours quilting in her sewing studio as she does writing in front of the computer. Memoir, fiction, and free-form poetry are common writing genres, but flash is her current passion.

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Raw Literature posts as an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99-word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at wordsforpeople@gmail.com.

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73 Comments

  1. Charli Mills

    Susan, you have taken many steps to bring your book to fruition and have discovered the joys of support from fellows along the way. Our writing can take us deep within and far outside of ourselves. I had to laugh, though — I can clear a room when I start verbally processing what I’m writing about! My husband doesn’t want to hear me discuss my books, either. I’m fascinated that you also quilt. What a rich artistic expression you have!

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Charli. I am still in search of a balance between the writing and sewing. The writing has become more fun since I found the Ranch. I am indebted.

      • Charli Mills

        I can see how the two pursuits can be complimentary. Enjoy them both!

  2. Ritu

    The support network is so important when writing I totally agree! With my book still being written 17 years on I totally understand!

    • susansleggs

      I’m sure your WIP will one day be finished to your satisfaction. I enjoy reading all your comments.

      • Ritu

        ????

    • Charli Mills

      Our first book represents a long and winding writing journey. The next ones don’t take as long when we learn from the first. Support and friendship along the way makes the journey enjoyable!

      • Ritu

        100% Agree with that Charli!

  3. Juliet

    Hi Susan. What a great piece to let us get to know you better and understand your writing path and support systems. Thanks for sharing.

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Juliet.

  4. Annecdotist

    Thanks for sharing your process, Susan. It’s great to have supportive people around you.
    A couple of things resonated particularly for me:
    “I became frightened about the fact all my characters are a part of myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted my readers to know me so well.” Oh, yes! At my first book launch party I spoke about going from being anxious I could never get published to worrying people WOULD read my novel and realise I was much weirder than I appear on the surface. But I’ve learnt it doesn’t matter – in fact, it’s an asset. While readers can be curious about the story behind the story, it’s the fictional characters that grab them, not the author.
    I wouldn’t worry about not having a degree. Although education obviously helps, what’s more important is a willingness to learn which you clearly have. If it’s any consolation, I have four degrees, and I still thought, like you, that all I’d have to do is get down my 100,000 words and my novel would fly! That turned out to be my practice novel, unpublished and unpublishable.
    Wishing you the very best with yours.

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Anne. Being an ex-military life having lived in many states and the UK I have an abundance of “writing what I know.” It’s a blessing.

    • Charli Mills

      You bring up a good point about education, Anne. It’s one path to getting published but tends to be specific (at least in the US). I worked on a novel with a professor for two years and it’s unfinished and unlikely to ever be. While I cut my teeth on that book, I’ve learned far more by allowing my writing the time to process. There is a time to read, a time to write, a time to revise, a time to learn…and we have to figure that out on our own. Writing is an education. I think authors like Susan push themselves to learn without realizing they are learning more than a degree would have taught.

  5. calmkate

    enjoyed reading this, thanks Susan

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Kate.

      • calmkate

        my pleasure

  6. nothingtopuzzle

    Hi Susan. I came to your blog post here via searching for blogs about writing (I plan to write a memoir). I am also an avid quilter so to stumble upon your blog as a fellow aspiring writer and quilter was a blessing! I’ll look forward to following your posts from now on.

    • susansleggs

      Thank you. When I was working full time on my novel I had a quilter friend say, “OH, you’ve just switched ways to share your creativity.” I thought the comment profound and complimentary. Glad to meet you.

    • D. Avery @shiftnshake

      Hi. Welcome. You have stumbled well. Our fellow rancher and Rough Writer Irene Waters has been posting here about memoir. Look around the ranch. Visit https://irenewaters19.com.

    • Charli Mills

      There must be something to the hands needing to express all that’s going on in the mind. I think of cooking and gardening as rock hunting as my hands-on creative outlets to writing and imagining stories. Glad you found Susan and the Ranch! As D. points the way, we do have a memoir post monthly with Irene Waters.

  7. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    That is interesting about the music. Do you go to more live venues, recognizing this? I sometimes have to keep the radio off on my way to work as the lyrics to the folk music are too story stimulating; I get distracted and lose my work focus. (I only mention that here in this supportive group.)
    I am glad you too found the Ranch.

    • susansleggs

      My husband I pretty much stick to the three music genres I mentioned. I do write in silence and often clean the house in silence when I am formulating a scene in my head. I can see how folk music could easily get the thoughts going in other directions.

    • Charli Mills

      I use silence or Yanni or Enya when I write, but I love music blasting loud when I drive, cook, walk or do the dishes. I don’t listen to music while hunting rocks because it’s too dangerous to ignore Lady Superior. I get excited when my daughter choreographs because we both express music but in different creative ways and yet we feel it in a similar way. I love all the cross-pollination that can happen in expressions of art. The more we share and are exposed to, the bigger our wildflower patch grows.

  8. Norah

    I find your story fascinating, Susan, and I’d love to know what piece of music it was that provided the missing piece. I’m thinking “My Way”, but it could be something totally different. While your Hub may complain about your writing at times, I see him as being a support, a cheerleader for you, and I wish you success with your writing and with publication of your book. I agree with Anne – degrees don’t matter as much as a willingness to learn; and the best way to learn about writing is to read. I doubt there is anyone who will tell you differently. The show not tell debate is a difficult one. I don’t think I’ve got it just yet. I try to do it better each week as I respond to the prompt, but I’m always amazed at how much other writers seem to tell (show) in their 99 words.
    You belong to so many writing communities, I think it is wonderful. What a great way to be supported and encouraged.
    Thank you for joining us at the Ranch and for becoming part of our cheer leading team.

    • susansleggs

      Thanks Norah. I don’t know what song I was hearing when the light came on, it could easily have been “Happy Birthday” because it’s secret birthday cards that carry my family saga from year to year.
      It’s an honor to be part of the cheering squad as I believe in paying it forward.

      • Norah

        Oh, I’m intrigued by the tradition of your secret birthday cards. I wonder what that entails. Sounds fun. Paying it forward is a wonderful act of generosity. Thank you.

    • Charli Mills

      Show not tell is complex because many of us are storytellers. And as people, we are hardwired for stories. But when we write that story, we make scenes or visual images. We invite the reader to experience the story as it unfolds. To a certain extent, genre dictates how a story is told. Modern literature often pushes the boundaries and has no story to tell at all. I’m not a fan of non-narrative but they do have an intellectual following. In practical terms, it comes down to showing the action by using strong verbs and creating memorable experiences through sensory detail and the right mix of emotion. No wonder we write so much to learn! There’s really no other way to do it than to do. Thanks for your thoughts, Norah!

      • Norah

        Thanks for your thoughts and explanation of showing rather than telling, Charli. So much to learn . . .

  9. TanGental

    the journey never stops; i found the only way to stop tinkering with my novel was to self publish. Best decision ever as I’ve now written several books and, like with your quilts, I can say, ‘it’s done’. not that my wife ever thinks she’s finished a quilt, when there’s more embroidery to add…

    • susansleggs

      I’m giving more consideration to self publishing Geoff as I think I have a sure audience in the quilting world. Still a little afraid of that avenue.
      I understand the embroidery aspect, I choose not to do it.
      They say the journey is what counts…..I’m enjoying it more now I have found my new family of fellow writers.

      • TanGental

        this group is extraordinary, isn’t it; so welcoming…

    • Charli Mills

      One way or another, I think we never stop learning or tinkering. We can take 20 years to write the first novel, or write 20 novels in that time. What we learn will likely be similar. It’s amazing, though, that no matter our craft there’s always that sense of having to say enough or else we would never feel finished on a project!

  10. Liz H

    It’s true for me, too, that just writing in a safe and positive environment keeps me returning to the page/keyboard, and reading others’ writing results in improved writing (in my own, wandering time…).

    And community with those who share our happy quirk of writing gives support that those not similarly wired can’t provide. We are also grateful, though, for those who offer a polite, puzzled smile, a quick hug, and assurance that they’re happy because we’re happy. 😀

    In the words of Paul Gardner “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” So we keep on writing to discover all the interesting places along the journey.

    Really enjoyed this!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Susan, I so much enjoyed your post and resonated in so many ways. Like Norah, I would love to know which song it was that gave you your tie-in. I beat myself up too many times for how long it’s taking me to complete my memoir (coming up five years but wanted to write for over 30…), but realise how much I’ve learnt – and needed to – along the way. Through blogging and the network of fantastic fellow writers, aspiring or published, the wealth of knowledge and experience out there is pheonomenal. I don’t have college degree either, and regretted it, and I also don’t belong to any writing groups other than online, so the support here is invaluable. I don’t know how my husband puts up with all my writing angst! Too many times I’ve been derailed from my memoir and too many times I’ve had to pick up the momentum. Each time, it gets harder to do so. I get that ‘done is done’ with the quilting: there’s an end, the fulfillment and satisfaction of having completed the task and ready for the next one. With our books, it seems interminable. Will we ever get there? Oh I do feel your pain! And also like you, I had a ‘moment’ two years in. I finally finished the first draft (which I bashed out, 125K words) and knew was a mess, but the sense of accomplishment and relief was incredible. Hubby and I went away for a weekend by the sea to celebrate, and it was while we walked along the coastal path that the title, still so elusive, came to me. In a breath of wind, there it was. And it turned my story on its head. It’s a memoir, so a true story, but I realised in that moment what the real story needed to be. It was exhileratinig but sobering: I knew I had my work cut out for me and three years later, I’m still working on the rewrites, yikes! Loved your story about the Air Force pilot. I am a true believer that the right people crossing our paths at the right time. I came here because of Irene who left such a wonderfully encouraging message on my blog in my very early days, met Charli, then Norah, Anne and Geoff and the rest, as they say, is history. Writing is isolating and it’s hard…thank goodness for our amazing support on and offline. Thank you for expressing it’s vital importance so eloquently and I wish you every success with your novel 🙂

      • susansleggs

        Thank you Sherri. So many people have crossed my path at just the right time, some I searched for and some were brought to me. The community here at the Ranch is stimulating and well as supportive. I enjoy learning as I go so will hope that never stops.

      • Charli Mills

        Often, Sherri, we set out to write the story we think we have and discover so many deep and rich veins it’s hard to know when to stop mining and what to make use of all we discovered. It’s a wonderful and terrifying process. Sometimes I wish I had a shallower mind — lol! But it takes what it takes and the important thing is, you’ve never gone off track, just changed course. Your destination will be the one your book intended all along. Thank you for being my support, and my writing partner! <3

      • Sherri Matthews

        Ha…I know what you mean Charli, that constant mining is quite exhausting! And it is indeed both wonderful and terrifying…especially knowing that it is our book that leads the way, not the other way round! Likewise my friend, likewise! 🙂 <3

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Liz. I’ll have to remember the line, “it simply stops in interesting places.” So, so true and freeing.

    • Charli Mills

      Liz, I think it’s important to give creativity safe space to explore and play. Love the Paul Gardener quote!

  11. Jules

    Nice to know that I am in excellent company, Susan! I’m a bit of a rebel when it comes to rules. And while publishers and editors can be intimidating… I am so happy for the support and encouragement of those at Carrot Ranch.

    I like quiet when I work, well at least when I write. I started with poetry (ages ago) and expanded. I think there is one series of flash fiction that I’ve completed (out of way too many). Maybe with Charli’s help there might be another completed one for the second anthology… if I can get my ‘act’ together.

    I wish I too had a better grasp of English grammar rules. And the steps for writing. I like Charli’s TUFF steps and may use that to draft my series for the anthology. I think a one word reduction is rather harsh – at least with TUFF you get nine words 🙂

    As for our personalities creeping into our characters…I was encouraged to write about what I know. And who else do we ‘know’ better than ourselves?
    I think that incorporation of self makes our writing real and helps connect us with our readers.

    Continued success ~ Jules

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Jules. I have to ask what TUFF stands for.

      • susansleggs

        Wow. that would be a tough challenge.

      • Jules

        I think I did three of them 😉
        But since they were for a contest I didn’t post any. I think Charli did post the winner and top two or three in a CR Rodeo post though.

        Just takes a little more time than a 99 flash fiction piece 🙂 Trickier when you have a deadline.

      • susansleggs

        I did read the winners at Carrot Ranch. I’m totally impressed.

      • Jules

        For me anyway – the short stuff is easy. But TUFF takes some work 😉

    • Charli Mills

      A good point you make, Jules — “And who else do we ‘know’ better than ourselves?” I’m looking forward to working with you on your series, Jules and I hope it will redeem your thoughts about editors and publishers. 😉 Grammar is not straightforward and I have great respect for the grammarians who do line editing. A good one will go beyond grammar rules and also edit for consistency. I’m a developmental editor which is different and I hire line editors because I will never master understanding grammar at their level. And in part, I think it’s because it’s a different skill from creativity. But that’s open to discussion! Thanks for mentioning TUFF, too! You used it well during the Rodeo.

  12. Shallow Reflections

    I love the story of you finding your Air Force veteran who flew the very same plane your wrote about in your book. This is how the universe (I call it God) gives you what you ask for. So brave of you to go looking for him and what a wonderful group of friends you found! I am inspired by your willingness to learn and be vulnerable – and that is more valuable than any kind of degree. And I’m also inspired that you are retired and finding your second act at the writing desk. I’m semi-retired and writing motivates me to get up in the morning. Who knows? I might even have the courage to fully retire in the near future.

    • susansleggs

      Thanks Molly. My veteran friends are top notch. I’m sure you would do fine in full retirement.

      • Shallow Reflections

        I’m feeling better about my chances of thriving in retirement all the time, Susan!

      • susansleggs

        On a different subject…I follow the Bangor Maine marginally famous Facebook page and T.C. makes me smile most days. Maine is a beautiful state.

      • Shallow Reflections

        TC has done a great job with the Bangor PD FB page. I really need to read it more often. He has built a huge platform and is so funny. I’ve had my photo taken with the Duck of Justice. haha!

    • Charli Mills

      Molly, I love your statement — “I am inspired by your willingness to learn and be vulnerable – and that is more valuable than any kind of degree.” That willingness to be vulnerable can open us up to so much. You’ll find the right time and inspiration to retire! And you both have me curious about T.C. and the Duck of Justice!

      • Shallow Reflections

        Thank you, Charli. I am working on the ‘write’ time to retire. ???? Tim Cotton has done a fantastic job developing an audience fore the Bangor, Maine police department – has a quarter million plus followers and keeps us entertained. He was willing to learn and be vulnerable. Here is a link: https://www.facebook.com/bangormainepolice/?fref=ts

      • Charli Mills

        I went to the FB page. What a great Police Department!

  13. floridaborne

    I have a college education and took several writing classes. Please ease your mind about the lack of sitting in rooms listening to lectures and getting a piece of paper that says “college” on it. The universe completely ignores our idea of “education” and has no problem teaching us there’s a learning curve to writing. We apprentice — whether we want to or not. 🙂

    • susansleggs

      Thanks for the pep talk. I like the sound of apprentice, it says it all.

    • Charli Mills

      Ah, good point about the apprenticeship, Joelle! We do that with or without the degree. And I laughed at this — “getting a piece of paper that says “college” on it.” Doesn’t sound so fancy when you put it that way. 😀

      • floridaborne

        My grandfather left Canada (and thus, school) at 14. He learned Spanish on a freighter, as well as engineering. In the 1920’s, electric plants were rather exotic (like a hadron collider). He walked in, told the person in charge he was an elecrical engineer with a degree from Boston and ran that plant for years. That’s why having a piece of paper seems so mundane to me. The best person isn’t always the one who sat in a classroom for 4 years. 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        I knew a lot of cowboys who had skills college paper couldn’t cover. But I also had a longing to go.

  14. Jennie

    I love this story!

    • susansleggs

      Thank you for your support Jennie.

      • Jennie

        You are welcome, Susan.

  15. Marje @ Kyrosmagica

    Best of luck with your writing journey. Like you I bore my hubby to tears talking about my novel! I finally took the plunge in August last year and released my kindle copy of The Curse of Time Book 1 Bloodstone. This April I will be releasing the paperback. I couldn’t have done it without the support and encouragement of my blogging friends. I love flash and poetry challenges they are a great way to develop your writing skills and meet new friends. 🙂

    • susansleggs

      Thank you Marje, I’m glad I’m not alone in the boring department. Makes us all one family!

    • Charli Mills

      I had to stop telling my husband about my writing. I think some of us need to verbalize because we spend so much time in our heads. Woe to the spouses who have to be a part of the processing!

      • Marje @ Kyrosmagica

        My hubby says I’m like my dad. He talks about his golf in detail and no one is interested! I talk to everyone about my writing, anyone who will listen! Ha ha… Oh dear maybe I should stop!

      • Charli Mills

        Don’t stop, Marje! I found a victim, I mean a willing listener, Sunday and I had a grand time talking writing! 😀

  16. robbiesinspiration

    A wonderful post, Susan. Thank you for your kind mention. I am so happy I could help you a little along your writing path. I met Charli through Norah Colvin who lives in Australia. Isn’t it just so wonderful how blogging introduces us to so many amazing people all over the world. I think many of us write from our own experience and there is a lot of ourselves and our friends and families that creep into our writing. I am looking forward to reading your book sometime.

    • susansleggs

      Thanks for everything Robbie. When I talk about my Ranch friends I include the country they are from. Makes my puddle of life ever so large. Funny you mention our friends and family creeping into our characters. A friend of my husband’s read one of my drafts and recognized himself and I had no idea I had given my character his personality. He thought it a huge compliment. (smile)

    • Charli Mills

      It’s so amazing how the world opens up to writers, connecting us around the globe. To think that we are each writing to a prompt from a diversity of countries is mind boggling at times. I’m so glad you are both here at the Ranch!

  17. susansleggs

    Thank you for the reblogging this. I am appreciative of more exposure.

  18. Charli Mills

    Thanks for sharing!

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