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A bee bobs over my stack of education — a Paperwhite Kindle in a tattered green case; a copy of Story Genius by Lisa Cron as worn as old summer flip-flops; a cheap plastic pencil box filled with colorful gel pens and peony-pink sticky notes; a folder full of plots and timeline notes. Despite the bounty contained there, the bee moves on to inspect the unfurling of French marigolds. The flowers are a deep cabernet, lined in dark gold. I grew them from seed and smile that the bee acknowledges my efforts to garden.
Will my thesis, one day, know such regard?
As artists, we require the interaction of readers, viewers, listeners the same way my courgettes requires the company of bumblebees. Otherwise, we labor without fruit. A writer writes, but there must be some sort of regard of the product. Even a private diary or feelings journal offers insights when reread. At the very least, reading our own output establishes literary art. We are the first to be transfixed or transformed by it.
Handing over our work to the gaze of unknown worker bees feels like exposure. We keep our blossoms close while we write, shading future fruit from direct sunlight with leaves broad as palms as if to say, hands-off. Yet, we must invite the bees in closely, open up tender petals of the page and allow for probing investigation. What does the reader see, we wonder, hoping they don’t see the parts we thought protected. But we put it all out there — our thoughts and feelings, our experiences and imaginings, our deliberations and unconscious biases — and call it fiction.
We call it many things, our literary art, our edible blossoms, our hopes of fruit and best sellers. We call it memoir or personal essay or environmental writing. We call it fantasy or romance or young adult. We call it prose or poetry. In the end, creative writing is fiction the way courgettes are zucchinis. Different names for something beautiful we grow to be consumed. The moment we push the seed into the soil is the same moment we press the keys. We start a story.
Some might argue the semantics or bristle at calling their output fiction. Am I writing fiction right now? Yes, I am. That doesn’t mean I’m deceiving you or making up stories, but I am reaching down into my heart with content from my head to place my philosophizing into a structure that connects with you. It doesn’t get more authentic than this. To me, I’m giving shape to my truth, hoping to link to yours. Wallace Stegner says we can’t invent without experience. Fiction is rooted in every essence of our lives, no matter what name we give it.
Stegner explains the importance of filling our containers the way we amend the soil of our gardens:
“What I meant was that experience sought for the sake of writing about it may produce reporting, or travel books, but it is not likely to produce literature. And experience is of many kinds, some of them so subtle and quiet it takes a good Geiger counter to detect them.
The way to gain experience is to live, but that does not mean one must go slumming for the exotic or outrageous or adventurous or sordid or, even, unusual. Any experience, looked at steadily, is likely to be strange enough for fiction or poetry.
By the same token, the individual who has lived deeply and widely—and I mean lived, not gone slumming or adventuring for literary purposes—has more to write about, and perhaps a better base for mature wisdom, than someone less privileged.
And yet, I don’t know. What did Thoreau know? He lived deeply in Walden, deeply in books, deeply in his mind. By occupation he was nothing spectacular, part-time surveyor and handyman.
The subject of fiction is not just what one did yesterday. It may borrow from the experience of others than the author.”
Stegner, Wallace. On Teaching and Writing Fiction (pp. 41-42). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Whether we write such experiences in our diaries or in stories constructed of craft elements, we dig first within. No wonder we can feel so exposed to the bees even though our relationships benefit what we write. Bees and readers want honey. We want to harvest what we planted.
So, it is a hot one. As I try to garden and write, summer arrives relentlessly. I’m missing Vermont, the summer lands of Stegner and Slaytons. What drew my mentor from the West, also draws me — roots. We are a restless sort, Westerners. I am what Stegner describes as the displaced person, “Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none.” Thus my attraction to a region of placed people, where family has lived for many generations. It is hallowed ground and a sanctuary to someone like me who can appreciate transplanting among the deep roots, even for a brief time each year.
I think writers are a mixture of placed and displaced people. Even rooted, we don’t always feel we belong. Unrooted, and we seek community. We explore externally and then write internally. Stegner calls us to learn to be quiet where we don’t own our writing but belong to it. He was talking about land and rootlessness, but I see it as a driver of all art. The artist doesn’t own the seed, nor does the bee own the blossom, but together they belong to the harvest.
Take a long drink of water this week and share what comes up from the well.
July 2, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes the word blossom. You can use the word as a noun or a verb, or even as a name. How does it fit into your story? Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by July 7, 2020. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Submissions closed. Find our most current weekly Flash Fiction Challenge to enter.
Doing Right by Charli Mills
“What’s wrong?” Cate snapped open the canvas covering the freight-wagon. Three pale faces from within stared back in wide-eyed silence.
“Zeb broke my blossom.” Abigail, the youngest, wailed.
“Not-uh. Just made a pile of petals, teachin’ Joseph numbers like Ma did.” Zeb, the eldest, scowled. Joseph hid his face on his older brother’s shoulder.
Cate bit the stem of her pipe. She was a muleskinner not a childminder. With their parents buried three days back, none of the other families stepped up in charity. So, Cate found another blossom, wiped the tears, soothed the fear, and resumed her mules.
For those who rode in last month’s 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo, this is the date you’ve anxiously awaited. I use the adverb with understanding. This past month, I’ve entered my writing in two contests and submitted it to two literary journals. Waiting for notification can induce anxiety, angst, and doubt. Know that every writer experiences the rollercoaster ride of doubt. Artists combat resistance. Maybe you didn’t participate in the Rodeo because the word contest unnerved you. This is Carrot Ranch, a safe place to write, a fun literary community where you can find kindred spirits, a weekly challenge that displays 99-word stories. A contest invites danger; it sparks resistance.
If you haven’t yet read Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art, it’s worth the read. Some of it will make you cringe. Some of it will make you determined. He’s an author who understands the artistic battlefield. He writes:
“Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance…Resistance by definition is self-sabatoge.”
(Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.)
It is not easy to overcome resistance. Each and every one of you who finds your way to the Ranch to read, write, or join a discussion is participating in the three pillars of literary art. It matters not that you are here every week, but as the host, I can attest to the growth of those who are regular participants. When writers are new to the weekly challenges, I hope they stick around long enough to experience the magic of writing to a constraint within the bounds of a safe space. The Rodeo is a series of contests meant to challenge you to overcome your resistance.
My hat is off to each contestant. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for overcoming, for resisting, for showing up, and for delaying gratification. The challenges are fun — we get to see our work in concert with others. However, contests select and eliminate. We may not be gratified this time. Even if we win, doubt will still try to whisper in our ear. Winning or losing never offers comfort. So why seek out contests and selective submissions? To overcome the impulses of resistance and to learn. Growth requires an awareness of how our writing compares to others.
Comparison can be the ultimate discomfort for any artist. It produces a host of nagging emotions that range from inferiority to full-blown jealousy. A winner can feel like an imposter. In fact, in the first term of my MFA, we discussed the imposter syndrome as a common affliction of graduate students. Understand that this mindset shows up for contests, too. However, comparison can be productive. Let’s discuss how because it’s important to growth as a writer.
First, acknowledge any negative emotions. Practice kindness. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, tells us that fear will come along for the ride of everything creative we attempt. Consider her mega-success (she wrote Eat, Pray Love), and yet she still feels fear. Resistance. Her advice is to invite fear along for the ride but never allow fear to take the driver’s seat. You can practice this every time you enter a contest, submit to a journal, or seek an agent or publisher. Invite fear along, recognize its emotional presence, but do the driving yourself.
From this frame of mind, accept any bludgeoning thoughts that tell you, “Hers is much better than mine,” or “His sucked; how could the judges be so blind?” Accept them as signals for comparison. Pause. Compare in a productive (and kind) way. Take a deep breath and ask, “How does her story differ from mine?” This exercise will teach you to learn how to compare and contrast in such a way that you begin to notice how craft skills are used. There is no right or wrong between your writing and someone else’s. The better you can get at identifying craft skills in other writing, the better you can adapt those skills to your own toolkit as a writer. Try to go a step farther and see what the judges selected. Instead of feeling hurt, set that real emotion aside and go deeper to identify one new writing attribute to try.
Originality will always be your ace card. No one has experienced the life you have. How can you express your sensations, experiences, concepts, and observations in your writing? That’s your voice. Cultivate your voice and you will cultivate originality. I see this truth played out week after week at Carrot Ranch. You go where the prompt leads because it will lead you to your voice. That intuition is what you learn to follow. You can always revise, but let originality lead the way.
The most original stories are not always the most sensational. I think mainstream media tricks us into believing that hooks have to be startling. What surprised me most about the entries to the 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo was how prompts lead to greater originality. One of our contests was unprompted (Three-Act Stories) and instead of broadening originality, many writers resorted to sensational ideas for stories. Funny thing is, this diminished the impact because what was meant to be shocking risked becoming cliche. Let that sink in a moment. Writing about a hard social issue or injustice is not necessarily brave; writing about it from your own point of vulnerability is.
Your voice matters. Dare to follow that sensational (or common) lead into your own swath of experiences, blow past the tropes with something only you could write. If you take on a shocking topic, use it in an original way or say something new about humanity.
The most fun we all seemed to have with the Rodeo (judges and contestants combined) was with the Pro-Bull Mashup. Using three words from the source of pro-rodeo bull names and two niche genres (pirates and game shows) created a tight constraint and yet yielded much playfulness. In opposition to no prompt, multiple prompts pushed creativity. That’s an interesting consideration. Currently, I’m working with a 94-year-old WWII veteran in a writing group and he told me that as a child he read the entire dictionary. If he gets stuck writing, he turns to a page in his dictionary and uses a word to prompt an idea.
A standing ovation to ALL of you who entered TUFF Beans.
TUFF does its job and that is to force a writer to revise. I’ve known that my greatest weakness as a writer is revision. One of my best professors from undergrad days used to say, “Your manuscript doesn’t begin to sing until the thirteenth time.” Reality as a career writer was that I wrote to deadlines. I had to learn to write and edit simultaneously, gather momentum from interview transcripts, find original ways to include research with relatable analogies and write to my audiences for specific publications. As a marketing communicator and a freelance profilist, I got good at my work.
However, as a literary artist, I have had a tough time breaking those habits of simultaneously editing and drafting. I can write fast, and come up with original angles. But the more I pushed into my literary art and the more I grappled with manuscript revision, I felt like I had gaps in knowledge. Part of going back to get my MFA is to identify what it is I don’t know. What am I supposed to do each subsequent revision? Thirteen — how do I get to a singing manuscript when I can’t get past five revisions? I’ve developed tools like my storyboard. And I came up with TUFF to help me identify my blind spots in revision. I admit that I fear to make changes — what if I screw up the original thrust of creativity? How do I plot when my stories are character-driven and landscape-oriented?
TUFF and 99-word stories are tools as much as they are works of art. Many in my community use TUFF to craft business statements, explore narrative therapy, or generate manuscript revisions. Other organizations use it in ways I hadn’t considered. Offering it as a Rodeo contest is bringing it home to where it all began. When I see writers use the constraints to shift their stories and revise their original drafts, I feel giddy with excitement. TUFF provides its own lessons through the process. Our TUFF judge is a local life coach who loves using the tool with clients and business teams.
This year, I worked locally with our team of judges as I build up our Carrot Ranch literary presence in the Keweenaw. Here’s a bit about me and my home crew.
Charli Mills came to the Keweenaw from everywhere out West. As lead buckaroo at Carrot Ranch, she makes literary art accessible 99 words at a time and writes stories about the veteran experience and those marginalized by history. The Rodeo is a chance for her to encourage writers to push through creativity with courage.
Cynthia May Drake lives at the Ripley Falls Home of Healing, having lived in the UP for 30 years. She creates retreats and coaches clients to reach their spectacular potential. She regularly practices the 99-word and TUFF formats to resolve life conundrums, which has her fired up to be a literary judge for the Rodeo’s TUFF contest.
Marie Bertineau, born amidst the copper mining ruins of northern Michigan, is the daughter of an Ojibwe mother and a French Canadian and Cornish father. Her memoir, The Mason House, is set for release in September 2020 by Lanternfish Press of Philadelphia. She enjoyed the opportunity to work with Carrot Ranch on the Rodeo contest.
Tammy Toj Gajewski is an educated artist who recently retired from 24 years in prison where her nickname was Sgt. Carebear. She has written poetry and stories her whole life and is working on her book. She moved to the UP over 25 years ago and loves rock hunting, foster parenting, and dogs.
Bonnie Brandt came to the UP for MTU education and never left. As the daughter of a math teacher, she reads voraciously and belongs to a book club. She lives for the pun. She loves kayaking and cooking. She often will be reading even in summer!
Paula Sahin visited Carrot Ranch Headquarters during judging and joined in a session at the Continental Fire Company. She is a leadership development consultant trained by Brené Brown and manages Inner Wisdom Coaching and Consulting. She has a serious passion for learning and development.
Donna Armistead is a native of Florida and has taught dance and theatre in the Copper Country for over 30 years. Finally emerging from research mode to write a novel inspired by the lives of her Georgia ancestors, she is honored to have been invited to assist as a judge for the Rodeo.
Word Press allowed me to capture each entry and save according to IP address so that I could initially judge blind. I screened entries according to the rules and selected ten finalists in each category. I was looking for entries that met the criteria according to my perspective. I then shared criteria with my judges and let them use their own perspectives. None of the contests were purely technical. A few were more technical than others, but there remains an area of subjectivity. Judges do not all initially agree but everyone is allowed to voice their reasoning. Consensus was reached and three top places were awarded in each contest.
Each of the ten finalists will receive a submission critique. When I used to work with Paula Sahin, she coached me in ways to build strong teams. Together, we worked in senior management and helped our organization develop feedback loops that contributed to the productive growth of employees. As Carrot Ranch has grown, I’ve applied much of my previous career to our literary community, focusing on writers’ strengths and appreciating their use of originality and craft skills. With entry to my MFA program, I wondered if I could meld my positive feedback preferences with that of writing workshop critique.
One of my professors told me after a workshop exercise that I was one of the best line editors he had encountered. Editing is not my natural inclination (remember, I said my weakness is revision). What I realized is that by mindfully practicing positive feedback every week at Carrot Ranch, I had grown my skills. And yes, I’m working toward a brand of productive critique techniques to teach and use with others. I’m in my baby-steps phase, but by offering critique on contest entries where criteria are stated, I get to practice. Those receiving feedback get useful insights.
Be patient with me, though! Today is Thanksgiving in the US and it’s my second dinner, meaning I went to Wisconsin last weekend to fix Thanksgiving for my son at his request (Mama Bear can’t refuse an offer to feed people), then returned to the Keweenaw to fix dinner for my daughter, SIL, Hub, and friends. When on terms with an MFA, there is no such thing as a break. And somehow I thought it was a good idea (back in September) to announce winners today! I will not be immediately responsive, but I’ll be back at it on Friday when I’ll send email winner announcements.
Over the next four weeks, I will email a batch of critiques according to the order of contests. By the end of December, all 40 critiques will be delivered, just in time for my term finals.
I’d like to thank the Patrons of Carrot Ranch — your contributions maintain a dynamic community making literary art accessible. I have no staff. I have a small team of Ranchers who contribute as patrons. The work behind the scenes is my privilege. I’m grateful for all of you at Carrot Ranch Literary Community. It’s my life’s work to encourage others to write, read, and heartily discuss creative writing. It helps us all overcome resistance to our art and pursuit of it. I love what I do.
Thank you for your support of the Flash Fiction Rodeo. I hope you found it scary, fun, enlightening, and anything else you need to keep you on your writing path. Please take the time to read the 2019 Winners Page where all contest finalists, their entries and awarded top three places are displayed. Last year’s Rodeo Pages are all compiled into one 2018 Flash Fiction Rodeo. To celebrate or commiserate winning, our prompt challenge follows.
November 28, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about winners. Who are they, what’s the mood, and what did they win? Express emotion or subdue it. Go where the prompt leads!
Respond by December 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
NOTE: Contest winners from all the flash fiction contests are located at 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo.
Challenge submissions closed. Find our latest Flash Fiction Challenge.
Keep Trying Until You Win by Charli Mills
Martha posed her best winning grin to the reporter, spitting dirt as she smiled. The bulb flashed so brightly it turned everything to white blotches. Blinking, and wiping at the mouthful of arena dirt she received after the goat clocked her a second time, she looked for Auntie Bess. The old woman was leaning against the railing beyond the chatter of family and fans. Ducking the swipe of a hankie, Martha joined her Aunt.
“Why’d ya win kiddo?”
“Cause no one else would go after that stinkin’ goat three times. Figured, I keep trying ‘til I got him tied!”
The 2019 Flash Fiction Rodeo begins October 3 (TODAY!) and remains a free-to-enter series of contests. Here’s the contest schedule:
- Oct. 3 (11:59 pm EST): Modern Tall Tales (entries due Oct. 9, 11:59 pm EST)
- Oct. 10 (11:59 pm EST): Pro-Bull Mashup (entries due Oct. 16, 11:59 pm EST)
- Oct. 17 (11:59 pm EST): Three-Act Story (entries due Oct. 23, 11:59 pm EST)
- Oct. 24 (11:59 pm EST): TUFF Beans (entries due Oct. 30, 11:59 pm EST)
ENTER USING THE FORM FOUND AT EACH CONTEST POST ON THE BLOG.
This is your pep talk. Saddle up, you got this! It’s also the post to help guide you through the expectations. Each contest will have its own post, going live at 11:59 p.m. EST (set your clock to New York City). You have until the following Wednesday by 11:59 p.m. EST to submit. That’s a full seven days.
The Ranchers and Rough Writers who practice their craft through play and serious participation (writer’s prerogative as to which it is) will be familiar with the (mostly) 99-word literary art form. It is 99 words exactly. 99 words, no more, no less. This is the official word counter for the contest: https://wordcounter.net/. Don’t count words on your own, or else you’ll find all the gray areas of counting, including hyphenated words and punctuation. Use the official word counter because it is the hard, fast constraint of what we do at Carrot Ranch.
Follow directions. In addition to the word constraints (TUFF has a several: 99-59-9-99), each contest will have its own prompt and criteria. Read the instructions thoroughly before you write, and again after you write your first draft. Often, after we get the first draft out, we realize we might have missed an important point. Or, you can reread the criteria and revise to better fit what the judges will be looking for in entries. It’s important not to be hasty. You have seven days, plenty of time for revision and final proof-reading. I want your best submission. I want you to wait before you submit and be certain you have no changes — because, this year, you get one submission per contest. In the spirit of wordplay and inspiration, you may submit as many challenge entries as you want. Use them to limber up, fulfill your need to be prolific, or play along if you don’t want to compete.
Go where the prompt leads! I want you to learn to trust your gut, write from the heart, and revise mindfully. When you follow your instinct despite writer’s doubt or critical inner voices telling you not to, you overcome a huge barrier to writing authentically. Carrot Ranch is built to be a safe literary community where writers can explore, grow, and incubate.
Incubation is not just for chickens! I think slam poets and stand-up comedians do this best — they take new material to a live audience, test-drive new word phrases and jokes. I like to hang with the poets because 99 words can be lyrical, and it aligns with acceptable mic time. Did you know 99 words equals 45 seconds? That might matter to you one day. If you have not read live, I’d encourage it. I often read from our collections, less so than when I had a regular open mic night to attend when I lived in Idaho. But I find opportunities, including art or book fairs, to read my own 99 words to gauge reactions. There is no better audience than a live one to incubate new work. The second best is to share among an online group such as what we do here.
Reflect. Contests present a time for you to rethink some of the stories you wrote that got strong responses. If you’ve ever received a “well done” from me, that is the equivalent of Paul Hollywood’s handshake on the Great British Baking Show. Even if you haven’t received a “well done,” pay attention to what commenters, me included, have responded to. This gives you an idea of what your strengths are — writing with emotion, creating powerful imagery, crafting unexpected twists, fitting an entire story in 99 words, or crafting original ideas.
FOCUS ON YOUR STRENGTHS.
Don’t let doubt niggle away your confidence, focusing on weaknesses unless you can be constructive. Know that training is required for critique because it is a skill. Anyone can learn the skill, of course, but many struggle with the perceived negativity and rejection that can accompany criticism. And yes, there are those who exploit the weaknesses of others to feel better about their own abilities. Such insecurity is often expressed by trolls and bullies. But that doesn’t mean criticism falls into that realm. For our purposes, I want you to focus on what works in your writing. Respond from a place of strength, and you will feel more confident. Confidence shows in our writing!
Dare to be original. How can you stand out? Well, no one is you, no one has had your accumulative experiences, and we all come from diverse walks of life, locations, and interests. We each have a bucket of details to color the stories we imagine or base on ones we experienced. Yes, BOTS (based on a true story) are welcome here because by the act of committing the story to 99 words and deciding which details to include, and how you sequence the event, all ads up to fictionizing a real story. In fact, my virtual mentor, Wallace Stegner, wrote about his faith:
“…that fictionizing is an essential function of the mind and emotions–that reality is not fully reality until it has been fictionized.”
Follow your North Star. Before you embark on this contest, understand why it matters to you. You are here for different reasons – one writer wants to publish her book traditionally and hopes a contest win will add to her portfolio. Another writer has discovered new life and friends in writing online, and he’s here to have fun. Someone else might still carry the voice of a harsh critic, a perfectionist parent, or a dismissive teacher, and they want to prove they are a writer. Remember, it is best if you set your North Star overhead, aim for your own personal goals without comparison to another’s writer’s personal goals, and banish that voice of the critic. Have some of your most obnoxious characters apply duct tape to the mouth of your worst critic. And care for who you are as a writer. Care for your fellow writers. Care for this place where, together, we make literary art accessible, no one kept out.
My North Star. I want to make literary art accessible. That’s the mission of Carrot Ranch. Every door I open for you, I get to walk through, too. Like many of you, I love to write. Like those who have experienced writing education or careers, literary criticism can create unhealthy spaces. One day, after training, I’d like to expand Carrot Ranch into the dimension of offering productive critique groups, training writers into a process that teaches both skills of giving and receiving feedback. This will happen online and at my workshops or retreats. You grow, I grow, we all grow. Again, I defer to my virtual mentor to explain my vision for the kind of environment Carrot Ranch supports through weekly challenges, annual Rodeo contests, and future critique groups:
“Managing the environment for a group of talented (and frequently headstrong) people is not easy. I have often thought of it as comparable to the way one trains a hot-blooded colt, whose whole impulse is to run. You put him in a corral and you let him run—in circles, with a rope on him. You don’t yank his head off, and you don’t let him run over you. You teach him to run under control. And much of his control is going to be learned from the other horses in the corral.
A writing class is inevitably competitive, do you see? Everyone’s primary concern is his own success, and that success, when something as personal as literature is involved, is acutely personal. But if you encourage competition, or let it run rampant, any individual’s success becomes everyone else’s envy.
Ideally, if the class mix and the teacher’s wisdom operate right, every individual’s success becomes everyone else’s stimulation. The people in such a class, if it is well selected, are roughly equal in talent and opportunity. If one puts a story in The New Yorker or gets an enthusiastic acceptance of his novel, other members of the class have a right to feel that the possibility is all the more available to them.
That successful one is no better than I am, they will think. The gift there is different from mine, but not superior. What happened to him is bound, sooner or later, if I work, to happen to me. (C Mills, emphasis.)
For some such reason, in seminars that jelled properly, I have seen people write better than they will ever write again—write better than they really know how to. The trick is to keep the competitiveness friendly, to see to it that individual success stimulates other members of the group, instead of depressing and discouraging them.”
Stegner, Wallace. On Teaching and Writing Fiction (pp. 62-63). Penguin Publishing Group.
In a short while, your first contest will go live at 11:59 p.m. EST. May you ride well, sitting tall in the saddle. Success here is success for us all. Believe in possibility and never stop defining, exploring, and reaching for your North Star.
Grab your notebook and walking stick, a light coat, and maybe a hat. It’s cold enough to turn a few maple leaves into fire paintings. We’re going for a walk.
Feel the brisk air? Inhale deeply and watch your breath frost on the exhale. I wasn’t kidding about the cold. I know, it’s dark so let your eyes adjust a moment. See my tomato plants in the shadows of night? It won’t frost yet. They’ll be okay. If you can strain your eyes, that’s a potted eggplant. No flower, no fruit. Ah, well. It was worth a try. See over there to the right of the tomatoes? Yes, I know it’s dark, but see how the light-colored leaves illuminate? Those are all Brussel sprouts. Six of them and they will continue to grow until frost. After that, they will sweeten on the stalk.
Carefully take the stairs, and we’ll gather beneath the street lamp. Look back at my home (MY HOME!) and see how the light in the back windows glows. It makes me sigh in satisfaction. A heavy sigh frosts my breath again! Notice the color of the lamplight is pinker than the warm yellow tones emanating from inside my house. Just an observation. Smell that? Crisp fall air smells sharp and clean. It clears the sinuses the way champagne cleanses the palate. Did you catch the whiff of smoke? Someone has lit a fire against the chill.
This narrow street we are standing in is named Jensen. It’s a one-way alley. See Mrs. H’s house over my shoulder? She’s on the corner of Roberts and Ethel. Next door on the corner of Ethel and Jensen is her granddaughter’s house. Their back yard is a run-on sentence to ours. We really don’t know the property lines. That bank of lilacs might be mine, or they might belong to Mrs. H. Their snow gets shoved into our yard each winter. But I’m jumping ahead.
If you count those two houses and the ones across the alleyway down to where Jensen curves back up to intersect Roberts, we total six houses. There’s only one other house on the other side of my next-door neighbor. That makes eight, ours makes nine. Let’s walk to the corner. The alleyway slopes downhill slightly then rises again to meet Roberts Street. That open space fills with snow removal in winter.
If you go past the last house, there’s a hillside where we all dump our maple leaves after they drop. That house on the corner is for sale. Bet the new owners will be surprised to see the neighborhood crossing their yard with a parade of leaves this fall. Okay. We are at the corner. If we turn left, we’d have to cross the snowmobile trail. It’s great for walking the dogs in summer. If you walk up the long hill, you’ll pass the county fairgrounds where the city of Hancock stores all its removed snow. It’s like glacial melt in the spring.
Further, are the Maasto Hiihto Trails. I know, it looks like a misspelling, but double vowels are typical in the Finnish language, and you’ll find that our area is imbued with Finn culture. The Laurn Grove Park is only a block up the snowmobile trail. It has an ice hockey rink and play area for kids. If I had young children, they’d play there, making sport of cutting paths through the small copse of woods on the other side of the trail.
The park is named for two boys who grew up in the scattering of neighborhoods like ours on this hillside. Both died in WWII on different ships in the Pacific. Past the park is the house where the Koski boys grew up a generation later. They both served in Vietnam, and their wives are good friends of mine.
The opposite way down the snowmobile trail is the Finlandia football field. I heard them practicing well after dark tonight. The Hancock high school squad practices there, too, and I know the parents of one of the boys. His dad served in Iraq, and his mom works fulltime at Michigan Tech. She takes care of him. He has back injuries, TBI and PTSD almost to the point of agoraphobia. But he watches his son play.
War has left its mark on my small neighborhood. My husband is a veteran of Grenada and deployments to Central America. My next-door neighbor was in the Army. Not sure if he’s a combat veteran, but he can seem intimidating. I talk garden matters with him, and that softens him.
Let’s walk back to the house from Roberts Street and add to our count the neighbors on the opposite side. Fourteen. That’s our block. A good baker’s dozen of us. A friendly bunch. Dog walkers and bird watchers. A few general landscapers, just two of us gardening, but everyone mows their lawns or hires Mrs. H’s great-grandson.
Come on inside. I don’t know about you, but my hands are cold! The tip of my nose, too. It was quiet tonight. Last week, when the fair was in town, traffic got loud up and down Ethel. Sometimes we can hear noisy bikes or trucks blasting down Quincy Hill. Otherwise, it’s a quiet place for town-living. I’m going to link a map for you, and you can zoom in to see 1112 Roberts Street or zoom out to where I live in proximity to Lake Superior.
What a glorious tool, Google Maps! You can also click on places like Maasto Hiihto Trail or Franklin Mine or McLain State Park and look at streets and satellite views and click on photos. You can measure distances and see the terrain. Maps used to show space on a grid. Now they can be more interactive. The purpose of our walk tonight was to introduce you to something I just learned and feel excited about — deep mapping.
Consider the difference between space and place. Space spreads out on a map and can be measured in longitude, latitude, and altitude. Place is what we make of space, the meaning we attribute to it. To deep map a place, we start with observation. We took a walk. According to Linda Lappin, author of a book I’m reading for my MFA called The Soul of a Place, “A deep map, then, is a sample swatch of the multiple manifestations of the genius loci [the spirit of a place].” The term comes from PrairyErth: A Deep Map by William Least Heat-Moon and shows the stratification of a geographical spot.
Walking the spot is the first step to deep mapping. This is exploration. Next is a gathering of details — how does the light of day, the cold of winter change the place. Lappin advises authors to learn the names of plants and birds and streets. This act transforms a writer into a camera, a recorder, a scientist before artist. As artist, deep mapping then calls the writer to respond to all discoveries, to learn and observe. Push deeper and research the place names and local history. Think about how your personal story intersects with all this information about a single place. Finally, a deep mapper must organize all this material into blocks, miles, and themes.
Lappin writes that she gathers superstitions, plant lore and recipes to add local color. All this true-to-life background informs the details upon which she traces out the plot of the story. She shows that deep mapping crosses all genres and can include interiors as well as exteriors. I find it fascinating because I’ve intuitively deep mapped places I write about not realizing there’s an entire process to this kind of work. Film-makers, visual, and performing artists also use the tool.
And as a writer of 99-word stories, I often use that literary artform to catch my mapping impressions, which makes me even more excited about the process. If you give deep mapping a try or find, like me, you already do some of it, let me know your thoughts in the comments.
While reading The Soul of Place, Lappin shared a list of street names she collected in Italy. One translated to Girl Thief Road. This jogged my memory of a Mean Mary song:
The banker’s boy, the boss’s son
They’re hoarding all the treasures their daddy’s won
And they think the vault is safe but she’s smarter than they thought her
They always underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter
You can listen to the full song here: The Safebreaker’s Daughter. One of the techniques for deep mapping can be music. I like songs that hint at a story, ones I can apply to a place. Mean Mary never reveals “the story” in her song, and that’s why it always niggles at me. How did they underestimate the safebreaker’s daughter? And, who was the safebreaker? Did he have a legitimate job, or was he a thief? What if I plopped these characters from a song onto my street? Deep mapping can be fun, and there are endless ways you can use it to spark your own writing.
August 29, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the safebreaker’s daughter. Who is she, what did she do, and where? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by September 3, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Thelma on Roberts Street by Charli Mills
The light overlooking Roberts Street flickered and faded. Thelma smiled and accepted the omen – all that glows holds no permanence. Probably the gales blew out a transformer nearby. Wind gusted through the maple trees, scattering small flocks of leaves to the ground. Summer was over. The tourists went home; the college students returned. The latest batch of football players for Finlandia made a good excuse for her to walk this path. Just another smitten female sauntering home late. Who would think she was casing the football coach’s house? She had ten minutes to prove she was the safebreaker’s daughter.
Raspberries, plump, and red hang from canes my daughter planted. It’s my patch now, and I savor the connection. Reminders fill my home, memories of my daughter’s love for this grand old copper-mining house on Roberts Street. The walls she painted yellow, russet, and teal. The worn patches on the maple hardwood floor mark where her two huskies slept. The kitchen holds warmth where we shared meals.
Paint cans wait for me to dip a brush in Easter Grass yellow-green and Inspire purple-blue. I’m not covering up the memories but adding layers of my own. I’m plucking the fruit my daughter planted, and I’m making sweet jam. The peace of home fills my every fiber. When you have not had a home of your own, you appreciate how luxurious space can be. I’m in no hurry to claim and decorate and fill. I’m enjoying the space to just be.
A new desk also waits for me. It’s a Flexsteel, marbled-wood beauty with matching bookcase and filing cabinet. Already, I’m setting up my files in both desk and bookcase drawers. I ordered dark purple hanging folders and beautiful files with realist paintings of botany on parchment. It matters what surrounds me. I’m slow to bring in new belongings, quick to say no to household purgings of friends, and satisfied to make do with much less. What I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
Much that we have in storage in North Idaho will not see the Keweenaw. My purge list is longer than my keepers. We fixed the truck, including the death wobble, but then the Hub decided he didn’t have enough funds for the trip. Thankfully, we got him to listen, to look at the paper with costs. He did make a few calls to get quotes on delivery, and it could be within our range to do if we save up by next spring. I feel no urgency, though there are boxes and items I’d want as soon as possible.
Having a home has mattered more than belongings, so I feel content with a sparsely filled house. It feels like potential.
Right now, I’m all about potential. I’m a grad student. This week, I started my online MFA at SNHU, and every course I take adds to the ascension of my novel. I’ve written four manuscripts, hoping that I’d learn from one to the other. And I have! But I felt stuck, not knowing where to turn my attention to improve my craft skills. I can distinguish misinformation from quality sources, but even good information gets buried. Where to start?
And I want quality feedback to grow my skills and discipline as an author. One way or the other, you have to pay for that standard — hire a top-notch editor in the publishing industry of your choice; pay to attend national writing conferences; sign up for online or in-person workshops; hire a writing coach with credentials; go back to school.
When I worked for wages, I took time every year to attend writing workshops. It furthered my motivation, and I always learned something new to apply to my craft skills. When I left my career to write full-time self-employed, I paid for an expensive ($2,000) multi-day workshop. Like many writers, I’m a self-learner capable of finding the information I need.
Eventually, I won a scholarship to a writing conference and laid out the groundwork for building a literary community. And I wrote four complete manuscripts. What I mean by complete is that they started and ended with lots of wordcount and self-editing in between. I even hired an editor from NYC for several revisions of one manuscript.
Then I scrapped it when life got hairier than Sasquatch’s feet. I rewrote it, mid-crisis. Shopped out the new beginning to trusted alpha-readers, received encouragement, and honest assessment.
One reader reminded me that our first novel isn’t always the book that makes it to print.
Remember, I used alpha-readers. These are readers I trust. These are people who are more than friends; they are also qualified to give feedback I trust. Beta-readers differ in that they are people you often don’t know but who read the genre you write and offer feedback on how well your manuscript would be received in that genre.
Trusted opinions don’t mean they are my thoughts, too, but I agree that our first novel isn’t always going to be the one that makes it.
We live (and publish) in interesting times. Independent publishing gives second life to first novels. Some might argue that a green manuscript should stay in the desk drawer. Others believe you have to start somewhere. I actually enjoy reading the progress of an author. And I’ve gone back to the first novels of some of my favorite authors and recognized even the masters were once green.
The point is — don’t stop, but publish according to your goals.
My goal is lofty, I know. I want to traditionally publish. I’ve waxed and waned on that idea and even came to the conclusion that hybrid authors are successful (those who publish both traditionally and independently). My dilemma was, though, how do I get better? I knew it was investment time.
You can invest sweat equity, but without paid feedback, the return will be hit and miss. I had sweated enough. It was time to write novels smarter. When the opportunity came up to pursue an MFA, I snapped like a hungry trout. But I thought carefully about it, too. Were there online programs I could invest in, and would I have the motivation to go at my own pace without instructor feedback? If I’m going to get an MFA, do I go back to college, do a low-residency, or go online?
Just for giggles, I wrote to Brigham Young University because I know that Brandon Sanderson teaches creative writing there. I also checked out grad schools with MFA programs across the country. And I looked online. I like the SNHU online MFA best, but I kept looking. In the end, I simply liked the program and the support they offer to students.
I didn’t want to go back to college on campus and disrupt my life after finally coming home. I don’t need the in-person connection of a low-residency because I get that through my own workshops and literary community. So online it was.
Let me tell you, four days into my journey, and I’m walking on clouds of whipped cream sweetened with apricot jam. This structured learning is precisely what I needed, and it tastes like mana! I didn’t even realize how much I was struggling to articulate some of my needs as a writer until I began interacting with my instructor, peers, and course material.
I’m in awe of how much technology has improved the overall experience of online schooling. And both my professors this term rock — experienced, eager to be part of the learning environment, and committed to the hard work and thrill of being a professional writer.
This week, we are studying genre and how it predicts craft skills. We are comparing craft to writing skills, and reading the opinions of greats, such as Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s thoughts in his book, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. I have two video discussions to write and record tonight, and three books to read in addition to weekly assignments. All coursework informs how I will advance my novel (my thesis).
Learning is looking a lot like rebuilding a home — what I take in must have function, joy, and meaning.
August 15, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a sweet jam. It can take you to the kitchen or the smokey room of a back-alley bar. What makes it sweet? Go where the prompt leads you!
Respond by August 20, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Not a Typical Sweet Jam (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Boiling quinces filled Danni’s kitchen with a lively scent, something between citrus and pears. Something remembered. In the canner, she prepped a hot bath to disinfect her jars and lids. She opened the sack of white sugar, ready to make sweet jam. Michael raised an eyebrow, continuing to look as skeptical as he did when he helped her pick the lumpy fruit.
“How’d you hear about these quince things?”
“The joy of being a historical archeologist. I read old books and journals.”
“Huh. Nothing from my Anishinaabe roots.”
Later, spread thickly across slabs of sourdough, Michael updated his history.
By D. Avery
This past weekend I took time away from my regular work to peddle my written wares under the local author’s tent at the Nantucket Book Fest. This was my first time attending, and I was glad for the opportunity and exposure. If you’re wondering, I didn’t get rich, but I was enriched by the words of some of the visiting authors.
At the opening celebration of the Book Fest, three authors took to the pulpit (literally, it was at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House) to speak of their motivations. The question posed was, “How can we write when everything’s wrong?”
Ben Fountain asked, “How can we not?” The author of Beautiful Country Burn Again, also said, “I try to understand everything I can,” and spoke of language and writing being a tool for that understanding. Regardless of genre, writers are “the scouts and spies of the human tribe.” Dave Cullen, who wrote Columbine and Parkland, and who “writes because he has to, he writes because he gets to,” reiterated the idea of writers as spies, and told of his vocation, his “being called” to be a “participant observer,” as opposed to objective reporting where a distance is maintained.
Perhaps it was the “human tribe” line that made me think of our tribe here at Buckaroo Nation, where we report back to one another every week after receiving our mission, the prompt. We take up a lens, a spyglass, at times a telescope, at times a kaleidoscope, but we scout out a story and bring it back to the communal fire for sharing. Sometimes we bring back entertainment and sometimes truths, often both.
How can we write, when everything’s wrong? How can we not? The human tribe is a tribe of storytellers. Madeline Miller, author of Circe, reminded us that stories are where there are tears for things and where mortality touches the heart. With her references to the Aeneid a reminder of both the antiquity and the universality of stories, of the constant presence of monsters and dangers and journeys, her closing remarks also brought it back to the fire. “Stories say, ‘I hear you.’ Readers hear, ‘I’m heard, I’m here.’”
This and more I have also heard at the campfire of Carrot Ranch. Writers must write; readers must read. At the Book Fest, the theme continued when Alex Marzano-Lesnevich spoke about their book, The Fact of a Body, a book intriguing to me not for its content, which is grim, but for how they were uncovering one story and discovered their own. The interviewer called the writing “unflinching” and “brave” for the places it goes. Alex admits it might have been easier to have not gone there. But how could they not? Alex suggested that writing is a moral obligation. Their book not only gave the victim of the crime a voice, readers were given a voice, too many readers who had remained silent. Because of Alex’s book, these people felt their story had been told, that they were heard.
As Alex says in the introduction of The Fact of a Body, the book is “my interpretation of the facts, my rendering, my attempt to piece together this story. As such, this is a book about what happened, yes, but it is also about what we do with what happened. It is about a murder, it is about my family, it is about other families whose lives were touched by the murder. But more than that, much more than that, it is about how we understand our lives, the past, and each other. To do this, we all make stories.” The human tribe shares stories.
Sometimes, even in just 99 words, we might, after scouting and spying on pasts and places, on histories, come back with a story that, through the telling and the reading, becomes something more than we knew ourselves. We share in our community; we take communion of story. We might come to understanding or bring understanding through writing, through story making. Our words might make someone else feel heard. And that’s good for the human tribe.
Book Fest was not what I thought it’d be. It was much better than what I thought it would be. Book Fest made me feel like a writer, but not through volume of sales under the tent. True story: A woman whom I had met only the night before when she bought a book, came back to tell me she had just read the first story in After Ever and it made her cry. The story was about her friend she told me, and she was very touched by that. Did I sell a ton of books? I sold enough.
D. Avery lives on an island off the coast of Massachusetts with a husband and a cat. She is a teacher of middle school mathematics. She enjoys kayaking, baking sourdough bread, and reading. She sometimes write. People sometimes read what she writes. ShiftnShake is a place for you to read some of D.’s writing, including her weekly Ranch Yarns.
But for the kindness of others, my car is unburied, and my accessibility to Carrot Ranch improved. The storms have not entirely passed.
Last year, we received almost 60 more inches of snow before we called it good for flowers to burst forth from receding drifts in yards and woods. And officially, my computer is dead. Her memory broken, unable to function.
Not a way any of us want to go.
Today, I’m gratefully tapping away on a loaner laptop. I’m adjusting to not having the speeds I’ve grown accustomed to, or having all my files arranged just so. I spent the last week feeling lost, following an unfortunate computer crash. Each failed fix left me brooding.
The blizzard that shut down our town (even snowmobiles got stuck) delayed the response from the only tech store we have. By then, a friend who works in IT offered to help, running diagnostics to pinpoint the actual problem. A rep who called me back said they probably couldn’t fix it or retrieve data, and they wouldn’t have new computers in stock until March 15 because of some Intel processing glitch.
Let’s pause a moment and discuss backup strategies.
Early on, I learned to back up my work as a professional. Not only did I write content for businesses, but I was also responsible for archiving it. As technology grew into the Information Age, archives grew into fierce beasts to manage. By 2010, we had servers to back up all our computers nightly. In 2012, I purchased an external hard drive for all my personal and professional work.
Today we have a myriad of choices to backup our writing files from hardware to digital clouds. However, nothing is failproof. In 2016, I carefully boxed up my physical portfolio into three large plastic tubs. In my previous move, I lost all my earlier writing to a nesting mouse, learning the value of plastic. I also lost my college writing because floppy disks became obsolete.
Thus we each need a Backup Strategy that fits our needs and resources.
WANTS & NEEDS
First, determine what is essential to preserve. Flag these files as needs. For me, it’s a single folder marked as NOVELS. Each individual novel has its own folder within the main one. Each revision has its own folder. And, each novel has its own research file filled with photos, links, articles, and notes. Finally, I backup each novel project from Scrivener (where I write and save every scrap of writing and revision in a “project” as well as arranging my research, character and setting notes on board).
That way, I have a single NEED TO SAVE folder called NOVELS. I have one folder to backup, which I did two days before my laptop crashed.
The rest of my files I want to save, but I won’t die if something catastrophic happens. Most of these are unessential archives. Some also exist in hard copy files (such as my editorial calendar, budget, and workshop materials). Other writing and genealogy research exists on other platforms. Photos are backed up automatically to Google, and now my new iPhone comes with iCloud storage for which I expanded for a nominal monthly fee.
Photos, books, magazines, printouts or tearsheets (as we used to call evidence of publication back in the printing days) comprise most hard copies. These are the documents we often scan or have backed up digitally. I’m old school and keep way too many hard copies. In 2016, when I knew I had to pack up my office, I used the NEED vs. WANT system to prioritize what got scanned, placed in a plastic tub, or filed into a carrying case which I kept throughout my wandering adventures.
Don’t keep everything.
Think about who has to sort your stuff after you die. Seriously. I’m not trying to be morbid, but after helping my best friend sort her parents’ hoard after they died, I can tell you there is no joy in going through stuff they found sentimentally worthy. Then my best friend died, leaving the sorting unfinished along with her own items. Watching her grown children muck through an entire storage unit and cry over the burden of decisions, I decided I’d not do that to my own kids.
Hard as it may be, I use moves to confront the reality — what if I lost this document or item forever? Remember, NEEDS vs. WANTS. Sometimes you have to separate from things you want to keep but if they do not serve a purpose, toss. Question:
- Does it keep your portfolio relevant to next big goal?
- Does it serve a future purpose?
- Is it an heirloom someone else will appreciate?
- Is it essential to your writing?
- Is it valuable?
Having organized files is the first step toward a good backup plan. Every year, I make it a practice to archive files so I can minimize the number of documents I have to scroll through. At work, I used to sort data by quarters. It makes document sorting and relocation easier. Annual archiving works well. But what happens if your software or hardware fails?
You have many choices for backup:
- USB (or USB-c) drives, also known as “memory sticks”
- External hard drives for data (especially if you need large storage for high-resolution photos, videos or graphic design of book covers, advertising, etc.)
- Multiple computers (home, work, and laptop)
- Time Machine (an Apple product)
- Server used for networks (something not readily affordable for the home user)
Keep in mind these backups can fail, or technology can advance. Somehow I damaged my external hard drive storing it in a fireproof lockbox (it got damp). It is possible to retrieve the data, however but requires an expert technician. My floppy discs from college are obsolete, but again, an expert with the right equipment can retrieve the data if it felt like a need. My honors thesis was published at Carroll College and may be digitally scanned, something I never dreamed could happen 20 years ago!
Technology changes and technology fails. Keep your backups backed up.
Cloud service might seem practical, especially to younger generations who don’t recall life without the internet. It might feel suspicious to those of us who grew up reading about Big Brother. Certainly, it is convenient, much of it is free, and many reputable services offer extra storage. Here are links to learn more:
- Google Drive
- Microsoft One Drive
- Amazon (and you’re unlikely to use it, but know it exists because it might make a great plot twist in that thriller you’re writing).
The cloud can fail, too. Security and solvency remain two major issues.
Facing the vulnerability of our backups is like facing our mortality. Our writing, our art, our work won’t live forever. But while we yet breathe, we make art and we back it up best we can. Have a plan that fits your needs and assess it regularly.
My future computer is unknown. It kills me to think my Acer is gone. Her memory sits in a clunky piece of hardware on my desk marked with my name on a strip of blue tape. Her body rests on my printer, paining me each time I look at her. How it became her in death, I’m not sure, but she served me well. Until she up and quit on me. Bah…!
Meanwhile, I have a hardy little Dell to help see me through to what next. I’m considering going over to the dark apple.
Something to think about (me, and others considering a new laptop) — when my component failed, I learned it is soldered onto the mainboard. My tech friend explained this new practice to me, and Acer confirmed it. To replace the faulty piece, I’d have to buy an $875 board which is $25 less than the cost of my laptop.
If you are in the market for a laptop, ask if the model you are considering has a soldered board. If so, you might want to reconsider. Single components are easier and cheaper to replace. However, you would be best guided by a trusted IT person. Chromebooks are inexpensive, and MacBook Airs are dependable. I feel like a widow having to pick a new mate one week after the funeral. I just want my old love back.
Moving onto snow, we are still digging out but have had sunshine. Today, Mrs. H called in the serious snow removal equipment to deal with her blocked garage. Each time the loader backed up, a loud beep echoed throughout the neighborhood. The sound of progress. The sound of moving onward.
Up to a challenge? After you back up your writing, eh.
February 28, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the term backup. You can back up or have a backup, just go where the prompt leads!
Respond by March 5, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Backup Work (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Mars sparkled overhead. Could Ike see their favorite constellations from his post in Iraq? Danni lit a lantern at the kitchen table. With the power out from the wind storm, she couldn’t access her computer files. Good thing her work included books and items found in the dirt. She poked at the latest sorting of glass globs. A fire, which locals claimed was the burning of the Rose Bud Inn during Prohibition. If so, Danni might have found its location. Tonight, she couldn’t back up her reports, but she could sift the remains of another era. Stories always surface.
By D. Avery
Their colors are those of Tibetan prayer flags, but these squares are not yet whispering in the wind. An unassuming plastic wrapped cube; they appear to be ordinary post-it notes. These are not ordinary post-it notes to be used for mundane purposes. This five-colored cube is composed of post-it notes destined for a special purpose. They will remain in their pristine packaging, neat and orderly until I’m ready to apply them to their designated task. For now I am inspired by their contained order while the story they will eventually help shape and organize swirls free-form in my head.
Ha! I happened to notice the word count (opening paragraph) — exactly 99 words. That’s seriously funny. And if there had been a prompt with “prayer” or “flag” or “post-it” those 99 words would suffice, no more, no less. 99 words come more easily since my early days at Carrot Ranch, but it is still very satisfying to meet the challenge of forging a 99-word story. To write even 99 words every week has been a worthy exercise, one I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. But lately, I am seeing how 99 words might, like another prompt, lead to more.
Yes, that second paragraph is also 99 words and is better for it. The constraint forced its construction to be more carefully considered, like with our flash fiction pieces. I enjoy crafting stories that are complete in just 99 words. Honing those skills is challenge enough. But recurring characters keep insisting I write their bigger story, even though I don’t know how. I’m not skilled or ambitious enough to write a big story. But then a funny thing happened after I published a collection of flash fiction and short stories. I found myself imagining how I might do it.
You will have guessed that the solution, like the previous paragraph, is 99 words. I might be able to use flash fiction as a tool to shape and sharpen a larger story. But there’s that word “might” again. Might. Its verb and noun definitions almost seem unrelated. As a verb, it is a form of “may” as in maybe, as in possibly. As a noun, might means strength, force, power. Maybe the noun and verb definitions are aligned. Maybe power comes from imagining possibilities and persevering to realize potential. Maybe 99-word flashes might be pieces of bigger stories.
If you are still reading you might rightly doubt me, might wonder if I could ever leave the comfort of 99 words; wonder if I could ever actually organize a big story. You wonder if I’ve forgotten those five colors of post-it notes. Nope; they are the color codes of characters and flashes. They are the pieces of a quilt, its pattern still emerging. The still unopened cube has been joined by a doodle pad where a scene gets hurriedly splashed onto its own page as it arrives unbidden. I might be getting ready for something I might do.
I will do it. I will write a big story. Because the mightiest outcome from writing weekly flash challenges has been in finding my creative courage, 99 words at a time, going wherever the prompts lead. These flashes and the encouragement of this community led to a book. It was through that experience that I finally got the idea of “raw” and finally accepted it in my own writing. It’s leading to more. I will write a bigger story because it is there. I will figure out how as I go along. Now it’s just a matter of time.
It’s all a leap of faith. But I will open that plastic wrapped cube, will start stringing my post-it prayer flags together. My characters and their stories will flash uncontained, will spread their wings to soar on the winds of possibility. In the meantime the hunting and gathering will continue, week to week, 99 words here, six sentences there, some flashes so raw it’s a health code violation, some satisfying and tasty. Risks will be taken, flaws will be evident, revisions will be made. I look forward to this self-imposed challenge; and then the next one after that.
D. Avery, Rough Writer spinner of Ranch Yarns, shares prose and poetry at ShiftnShake. She has published two books of poetry, Chicken Shift and For the Girls. Her third book, After Ever, little stories for grown children, is evidence of her shift to fiction writing. You might find her funny, except when she’s serious, but you can certainly find her at Twitter and Amazon.
According to Sean Prentiss:
D. Avery has written a stunning collection of flash fictions that take us from here in Vermont to places far afield and from children to the elderly. These short stories in After Ever, though, all share one common thread, and that is tight, beautiful prose about the human condition, about the moments of our lives that make us weep from sorrow and from love.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Technically speaking, enriched foods are those that manufacturers have fortified like adding calcium to orange juice. In the US, government programs support healthier foods for school children through programs that started during our Great Depression. Food enrichment progressed during WWII, finding ways to get nutritious C-rations and K-rations to soldiers. If you grew up fascinated by the developing space programs, you might recall “ice cream for astronauts” or used “dehydrated eggs” on a backpacking trip. All food enrichment.
But I like to think of enriching my lunch a different way. Instead of buying food from a laboratory, I prefer it as close to the farm as possible, or from artisan producers who source locally.
Artisan food producers might sound like a made-up word so grocery stores can charge more. A fad, a novelty, not real value. However, after sixteen years of writing profiles about farmers and producers, I understand the value of calling someone an artisan. At the invitation of the Wisconson Cheese Makers, I once toured the state for three days, meeting artisan cheese makers and masters.
So, yes, cheese features regularly on my lunch plate. Today, it was an aged cheddar (serve at room temperature, and you can crunch the tiny crystals that form). To further enrich my plate, I added artisan rosemary crackers made from whole ingredients (in other words, crackers from a bakery, not a factory). For health and taste, I included a crisp local apple, a sprinkling of raw pumpkin seeds, and a Greek gift to food artistry — dolmades.
It comes as no surprise that many of us seek to add value to what we do beyond eating — we go to school to learn more about a topic or trade, we gain experience to enrich our careers, and we blog to enhance our writing goals. Many authors resist blogging because they think it detracts from what they write (books), and other bloggers treat their blog like a business. Which writers are right? The ones who know why they do what they do.
Last month, I offered you the opportunity to work out a vision for your writing journey by ultimately setting your North Star. This gives you a clear picture of success and becomes the reason for why you do what you do. Vision work can make you a more productive writer, and save you angst when you are trying to figure out what tasks to take on to further your writing goals.
So let’s compare some right/wrong ways to blog.
Authors who don’t blog because it detracts from their writing could be right or wrong. Authors who are resistant without a compelling reason beyond finding blogging a distraction, are likely to be behind on platform building once they publish their books. Blogging is not the platform, but it can build audience, community, brand awareness and credibility. So can many other tactics. If the authors know why they write, what success looks like and have set goals these authors can better decide if blogging is the right tactic. They can set goals for platform building and blog if it meets their needs, or not. Many successful authors do not blog, but they likely have a website, are active contributors to mainstream media, and have a brand presence.
Many bloggers treat their blogs like a business, which is smart. First of all, a blog is “owned” territory. That means it is a digitally accessible area that individuals own as opposed to corporate ownership (like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter). However, a good marketing plan includes a mix of these outlets. But some bloggers think a blog is going to make them rich and they use AdSense or spam techniques to boost traffic for pay.
Are any of these bloggers clearly right or wrong? Only the ones who don’t know why they do what they do. In other words, even the slinky scammer with a spam campaign is right if that person has a plan. Morally, and sometimes legally, they are wrong (these blog spammers), but they have a plan of enrichment.
Many of us probably have opinions about those who enrich themselves on the backs of others — in 1914, copper miners on the Keweenaw went on strike because they saw the mine owners getting richer, while miners struggled on their wages, faced deadly work situations, and had little respite from hard labor. Wal-Mart has a reputation for being a low-price retailer not because its stockholders suffer the cut in price but because their workers and manufacturers do. Recently, my stomach turned when I read an article about a certain wealthy leader who has enriched himself while in office.
Enrichment, in and of itself, is not bad. To find value, or add value to something is worthy. Dragons who burn villages to hoard gold are the villains of legend, while the heroes are myths like Robin Hood, the prince of thieves, who sought to take from the rich to enrich the poor. Like all things, perspective is a fractured lens.
Why do I blog? That’s a legitimate question to answer for those of you who regularly visit Carrot Ranch. My reason is summed up in my North Star — to make literary art accessible. Here, it’s to make it accessible 99-words at a time, meaning it is meant to be playful and inspirational.
You might find it puzzling, but I do not consider myself a blogger. It’s probably just semantics, and, of course, perspective. Obviously, I’m writing a blog post right now…but I consider myself a writer in every sense possible. I have aspirations, career, successes, and failures as a writer. More to the point, I’ve used my writing skills to make a living for more than 20 years. My portfolio of tear sheets fill two large plastic tubs, I’ve been published in seven books and more than 300 hundred magazines. I have no problem saying I’m a writer.
Blogging is part of my platform building and directly connects all my writing to my greatest aspiration of all — to write and publish successful historical novels. I’m in it for the long haul, the big journey. My North Star that guides me is a vision I have for why writing matters to me — because I want to be immersed in creative writing. I have craved this since I first realized I got as much joy from writing as I did reading.
The first book I ever wanted to write was about a girl named Silver Chalmers whose father was a mining investor who left California for his native England and never returned. It was based on a true incident. Local legend held that Mrs. Chalmers returned to the stage every day for word of her husband’s return. When he didn’t, she was sent away to the insane asylum in Carson City. Her mansion in Silver City (a ghost town where my father once logged when I was a kid) sat full of all her furnishings until someone broke in during the 1970s. My pinprick as a kid was, “what if they had a daughter.”
Ever since I was 12 years old, I’ve wanted to write historical novels. I’ve devoured them as a reader, studied them as a student, and crafted my first real attempted as an independent project in college under the tutelage of a professor I still hold in high esteem. I learned to research, find stories in cemeteries, and where to look for the women who tend to be invisible in the American wild west.
I’ve also encountered barriers to success — things like, not everyone who dreams of writing a novel gets to make a living as a novelist. The closest I got to overcome that hurdle was achieving an undergraduate degree in creative writing. My bitter pill in 1998 was a choice — pursue an MFA to continue my novel and publish, or take my writing skills to the workplace. I had three kids and a husband, so I became a writer instead of a novelist.
What I missed during my career writing years was that connectivity to literary art. I felt shut out from it. Over the years, I enjoyed pockets of connectivity and began to realize that literary art was not just an academic experience. But other than going on retreats or back to school, how did I access it? In small ways, I included literary art in my workplace. I used to make my staff write cinquains before weekly meetings, and I taught nature writing classes locally.
Carrot Ranch was selfish — I wanted to feel connected to that spark I defined internally as my inner literary artists. I wanted kindred spirits who felt it too. And I no longer believed I had to get an MFA to publish (than you, pioneering independent authors). Carrot Ranch makes literary art accessible 99 words at a time. That is my North Star for achieving my dream of writing historical novels.
So, I don’t consider myself a blogger. And that’s okay if we differ on perspective. What’s important to me is that we have this safe space to create as we all go about our long-haul goals. My first novel isn’t even going to be in the genre I dream of writing. Why? Because I don’t know how to write a successful novel — yet. Oh, I know what goes into one, and I know tons about craft, process and even editing. I know more than I did six years ago about the book industry. I’m an expert in story-telling and branding.
But that first novel, ah, the agony of writing it right. And I’m not saying that as a perfectionist. I’m saying that as an artisan — from the maker we become the master. Many authors publish their first or second drafts, some take time to edit. You can do it many ways and anyway you want! (Remember, your dream and your goals belong to you, just be aware of them and what it takes). And other authors don’t publish their first three books. No way is wrong or right — as long as you know why you choose one way over the others — but in the end, most authors will tell you that it’s by the ninth manuscript they feel they have it right.
I’ve learned so much working on Miracle of Ducks. I had really believed it would be easier because I wasn’t adding that extra burden of historical research. But I’m pleased with what the experience is teaching me. And I’m pleased knowing that working it is working my dream.
Thank you all for joining me on this journey! We are like Chaucer’s pilgrims. Each of us has wild stories and varied reasons for taking the writing path, but what compels us inside is a shared joy in the creative endeavor we call literary art. No matter where you are, keep your North Star sharp, set goals that fit you like good hiking boots and keep on the trail.
January 10, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes the idea of enrichment. Use many of its different manifestations or explore reasons why it matters to the character. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by January 15, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form. Rules & Guidelines.
Life Experience (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Sitting with Ramona, Danni sniffled. The older woman said, “We all look to enrich our lives, Dear. You might say each experience is like putting dimes in a slot machine. We hope one gives us the jackpot, but before you know it, we’re out of dimes.”
“That’s not hopeful,” Danni said, wiping her nose with a paper towel. She hated crying. Saline didn’t solve anything.
Ramona continued to smile. “Enjoy the gamble, Danni! In the end, we all lose our dimes. You’ll be disappointed if you wait for one jackpot experience and miss the fun in all the others.”
Branding, Bios and Author Multiple-identity Disorder
by Anne Goodwin
If there’s one consistent message about managing our author platforms, it’s that consistency rules. After all, if consumers need to be exposed to a product around seven times before they commit to making a purchase, only a fool would reduce the odds of being noticed by presenting their product in potentially contradictory ways. Friends, I am that self-sabotaging fool.
While I deeply admire those who can sum up what you stand for in an attractive image and roll-off-the-tongue strap line, there’s a part of me wailing How on earth can you know? Doesn’t your sense of who you are alter, like mine, with the seasons? Don’t you behave differently depending on who’s with you and where you are?
I do appreciate that we can’t dither indefinitely; that we have to make choices if we’re not to stagnate. I accept there’s no brand loyalty without brand recognition. Hell, thanks to Charli, I even accept I have a brand. But I have to develop it at my own pace.
I’ve come a long way since I balked at putting my mugshot on my website. I’ve come a long way since my first published stories were followed by the bio-that-never-was:
Anne Goodwin loves fiction for the freedom to contradict herself and hates bios for fear of getting it wrong.
Although a certain self-deprecating humour has become part of my brand – risky because what amuses one person turns another right off – the sentiment of that non-bio still holds true. I do like to contradict myself and fear commitment to a form of words that were right for me yesterday but a poor fit today.
But my shape-shifting author identity might be frustrating for others, as I was reminded recently when someone kindly sent through the version of my bio she planned to use in a post that mentioned me. Horror of horrors, it was the bio that accompanies my debut novel, and thus three and a half years out of date. Yet it wasn’t so much that the older version deprives me of the opportunity to crow about more recent accomplishments, but the slant of the summary was wrong. I don’t know if others do this but, in addition to my short-and-sweet Twitter biography, and the let-me-tell-you-everything about page on my website, I’ve composed a completely new bio for each of my published books.
Why, Anne, why? Because each novel draws on a different part of me: I thought readers of my debut, Sugar and Snails, narrated by a psychology lecturer at Newcastle University with a close friend teaching in the mathematics department across the road, might like to know that I studied those subjects at that same institution myself. But that’s irrelevant to people picking up my second novel, Underneath, who might be more interested to learn that, like Steve, my narrator, I used to like to travel and that, like Liesel, his partner, I worked in mental health services in the region where the story is set. If and when my possibly third novel, Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home is published, I’ll probably mention that, like Janice, one of three point-of-view characters, I had a role in the longstay psychiatric hospital closures of the 1980s and 1990s.
With my forthcoming short story collection, Becoming Someone, I have a freshly-minted bio all over again. As the anthology is on the theme of identity and self-discovery, it felt right to include some of the quirkier aspects of my own identity in the bio:
Alongside her identity as a writer, she’ll admit to being a sociable introvert; recovering psychologist; voracious reader; slug slayer; struggling soprano; and tramper of moors.
We all have multiple identities to accompany our different responsibilities and roles. But I’m still unsure how much my multi-author biographies represent flexibility and diversity versus disorder and lack of focus. What do you think?
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, was published in 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity launches on Facebook on November 23rd, 2018, where the more people participate the more she’ll donate to Book Aid International. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a particular interest in fictional therapists.
Becoming Someone published 23rd November, 2018 by Inspired Quill
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-908600-77-6 / 9781908600776
eBook ISBN: 978-1-908600-78-3 / 9781908600783
Amazon author page
Author page at Inspired Quill publishers
Facebook launch in support of Book Aid International