Thursday, May 30, 2013

Conquering a Difficult Interview

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Writers who produce articles for magazines and newspapers are quite familiar with the interviewing process.  Today, it actually happens to be one of my favorite parts of writing, but when I was a newbie writer I would easily get myself all worked up prior to an interview because I allowed my fear of the "unknown" and "what if" syndrome to dictate my experience.

During the past ten years, I've had the pleasure of interviewing hundreds of people from all walks of life for the many articles I've written.  Thankfully, the majority of my interviews have all yielded a positive experience, some extraordinary and a few life changing.  On the flip side, I've also come up against some tough individuals that have challenged  both my wit as well as my interviewing skills, but I now consider these situations opportunities, not problems.  

A difficult interview doesn't have to be frustrating--instead it can offer a writer the chance to grow by utilizing skills and strategies that can turn an awkward or unpleasant situation into something productive and wonderful.

Here are some of my best tips for conquering a difficult or challenging interview.

  1. Prepare your questions in advance. Never arrive at an interview to get information on the fly, this is a disaster waiting to happen and others will feel that you are wasting their time. Get organized and learn as much about your subject as possible beforehand.
  2. If possible, reach out to your subject well in advance.  I love to either call or send a personal e-mail simply introducing myself as the writer for "such and such" magazine and let them know how much I'm looking forward to interviewing them.  This can serve as an ice breaker and builds the beginning of a writer/source relationship.
  3. When scheduling the actual interview, ask your source if they'd like you to send along some questions in advance.  While spontaneity is also important  during an interview, if you have a particular source or subject that you know might be difficult this tactic can help keep the interview on task and can potentially be the catalyst to eliciting some great information from this person.
  4. Memorize 10 emergency questions you can ask any time you're in danger that will draw out more personal stories or more detailed facts from your source.  For example, "What author has made an impression on you and helped to shape your writing career?"  
  5. Ask questions when you don't understand something.  Don't try and pretend you understand a subject matter that has left you completely baffled.  Verify what you have heard, and don't be afraid to repeat what the interviewee has just said to clarify the accuracy of the information.
  6. Finally, after the interview is finished it's always a nice touch to send a quick thank you e-mail or written note acknowledging that you appreciate the time the interviewee has spent with you.  You never know when the opportunity will arise again to work with this particular individual and difficult or not, this could be the start of a professional relationship that could be fruitful in the future.    
What about you?  How do you break the ice during a difficult interview?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reads for Writers: Diane Ackerman Provides a Masterclass

From Kate's Writing Crate... 
As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide Masterclasses within their books.   
            Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be Masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.

            Diane Ackerman is an award-winning poet, essayist, and naturalist. With this unique combination of talents and passion, it's not surprising that the depth and breadth of her books are extraordinary.    
            I discovered Ackerman when I asked the best writer I know personally to recommend her favorite books for writers. She listed A Natural History of the Senses in the top 10. An odd choice I thought, but I trusted her judgment and read it.  

            The genius of Ackerman is how beautifully she incorporates facts into her lyrical prose and enlightening examples while exploring not only our senses, but, in other books, the natural history of love and the mystery of the brain as well as the play activities and adventures of many species of animals. She leaves her readers wiser, more aware of the world and themselves, and intrigued to learn more--all excellent reasons for everyone, but especially writers, to read her books.   
            All writers are explorers. We begin with our thoughts, emotions, and ideas as well as facts and imagination. We pick up our pens or sit at our keyboards and head into unknown territories, writing through the jumble in our minds. As C. Day-Lewis stated, "We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand." And E. M. Forster noted, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say."   
            Lucky for us, Ackerman understands a great deal and has many inspiring things to say:     
            "How sense-luscious the world is… The senses don't just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart in vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern…The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle…"(pages xv & xvii).   
            "For convenience, and perhaps in a kind of mental pout about how thickly demanding just being alive is, we say there are five senses. Yet we know there are more should we but wish to explore and canonize them." (page 302)   
            "Evolution didn't overload us with unnecessary abilities...The body edits and prunes experience before sending it to the brain for contemplation or action…This makes our version of the world somewhat simplistic, given how complex the world is. The body's quest isn't for truth, it's for survival." (page 304).   
            "So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life." (page 305).   
After reading Diane Ackerman's books, writers should be more energized and take less in life for granted adding more depth to their lives and writing.    

Further reading: A Natural History of Love; Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden; An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain; Deep Play; The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales; and Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Happy Birthday Cheryl!

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Greetings and Happy Thursday!

Today is a special day for this writer.  No, my new book deal hasn't come through--YET, my column isn't nationally syndicated--YET, I haven't booked a writer's retreat to a tranquil mountain cabin or seaside resort--YET, but equally important--today I'm celebrating something else that is pretty wonderful--my 49th birthday!

My post for today was all about conquering a difficult interview, but I decided to shake it up and wish myself a Happy Birthday instead because it marks a brand new year, a clean slate, and endless possibilities for both my writing career and me personally!

Best of all, I have an entire afternoon in between birthday celebrations to spend doing anything that pleases ME, so if the muse strikes, I have some bonus time to sit quietly and write, read, indulge in a glass of my favorite Pinot Grigio or even soak in the jacuzzi--the best part is that I don't have to commit to anything until I decide how I'd like to spend that precious time.

Stay tuned next week for my post on turning a difficult interview into a wonderful experience, and until then this birthday girl hopes you all enjoy this lovely day too!

Do you have any birthday traditions that you practice to celebrate you?

Monday, May 20, 2013

My Room with a View: Perspective

From Kate's Writing Crate...
            When I walk into my writing space,

I face an elongated window that looks out

over the yard and the edge of some woods. In

spring, I see dozens of shades of green from

grass, ivy, maple and pear leaves, poison ivy,

larch, and daffodil and Vinca leaves. The

evergreen alone has several shades as the

new growth is Midori green and the trumpet

vine twisting through the branches is the color

of martini olives.
The maple trees are mostly taller than the house, but I only see them from ground level up about 15 feet. When seated, however, suddenly the trees tower over me. I can see the tops of all but one. I feel transported to a forest since most of the yard has disappeared from view.

As details are important, I measured and my eye level only dropped 14 inches, but my view has expanded by miles. I can now see blue sky behind a hawk sitting high up on a dead branch watching the cardinals at the birdfeeder.

Since I had no idea a hawk was out there, it makes me consider changing my perspectives as I write my novel. What is behind my characters or not at eye level in the scene? What is visible to adults versus children? What do they notice when they sit down or bend over to pick something up?  Answering these questions will ground my scenes.

Paying attention to the details around me as I write my blog or in my notebook makes my writing richer. I have surrounded my desk with things that delight me. I need to really look at them from time to time, not take them for granted as sunlight catches a clear glass sculpture and a mottled forest green ceramic vase differently as I sit or stand. The facial details of two cartoonish dragon figurines are funnier when I sit; my paintings of a stormy sea and a summer beach are easier to appreciate when I stand.


Taking a break from writing, I stare out the window again. I notice clumps of buttercups through the branches of the evergreen. As the sky clears, the fairview blue background changes the maple leaves from antique jade to tequila. The direct sunlight brightens the grass to lime twist. Shadows add another layer of deep sea greens to the view.

Specific colors with evocative names help readers better imagine written hues. Use paint color fan decks for inspiration. Brazilian Rainforest and Emerald Vapor are much more enticing than simply dark and light green.

In any scene, there are too many details to describe them all, but hone in on what catches your eyes, nose, and ears. If my window was open, I would add the scent of lilacs, the rumbling of cars passing by, and the occasional dog bark to my description. Training ourselves to notice and note down details like these captures our readers' interest and transports them to the worlds we create.

What details do you notice as you look around you right now?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

No Time To Write!

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As the mother of 8 kids, I love telling the story of how I became an empty nester while they were still all at home.  Last year, my youngest child ventured off to all-day kindergarten.  As bittersweet as this was, moments after she left on the bus for her 7 plus hour day away from me, I sat on the couch rubbing my hands together thinking about how many novels I would write that year—after all, I was now going to be an empty nester for 35 hours a week!

I guess I got a little ahead of myself because after just 2 weeks of her being in school all day, not only did I not write a single chapter of a single book, I never even sat at my computer to write out a grocery list, as I foolishly started filling my blank days with obligations like food shopping in peace and quiet, taking the dog for three walks instead of one, reorganizing the laundry room and so on and so on.  By the end of the school year, I literally had done less writing than I used to while juggling toddlers and pre-schoolers at home by myself 24/7.

Luckily, I came across a wonderful book called Writers First Aid written by Kristi Holl.  It was a fun, easy read loaded with practical tips to get organized and get more writing done.  One of my favorite chapters was called, But I don’t have time!  It struck a chord with me because she shared a very insightful story that changed my perspective on making time to write.   Perhaps you'll recognize it:

One day an old professor was invited to lecture on the topic of Efficient Time Management, so goes the tale.  Standing in front of this group of elite managers he said, "We are going to conduct an experiment".  The professor pulled out a big glass jar and gently placed it on the table. Next, he pulled out from under the table a bag of stones, each the size of a tennis ball, and placed the stones one by one in the jar. He did so until there was no room to add another stone in the jar.

Lifting his gaze to the managers, the professor asked, "Is the jar full?" The managers replied, "Yes". The professor paused for a moment, and replied, "Really?" Once again, he reached under the table and pulled out a bag full of pebbles. Carefully, the professor poured the pebbles in and slightly shook the jar, allowing the pebbles to slip through the larger stones, until they settled at the bottom. Again, the professor lifted his gaze to his audience and asked, "Is the jar full?" At this point, the managers began to understand his intentions. One replied, "Apparently not!" "Correct", replied the old professor, now pulling out a bag of sand from under the table.

Cautiously, the professor poured the sand into the jar filling up the spaces between the stones and the pebbles. Yet again, the professor asked, "Is the jar full?" Without hesitation, the entire group of students replied in unison, "NO!" "Correct", replied the professor. The professor reached for the pitcher of water that was on the table, and poured water in the jar until it was absolutely full.  

The lesson was brilliant—the jar represents a resource in general, and time specifically. What is true about time is also true about most resources, especially life itself. The jar has a certain fixed or finite capacity. It could not be stretched or enlarged. Similarly, our days are all 24 hour cycles. They can neither be shortened nor elongated.

When I seem to hit a period where I struggle thinking I don’t have enough time to get my writing done, I reach for this story, and it always makes me think outside the “jar” and figure out where I can sneak some writing in between those big rocks in my life that take up lots of time.

What do you do to find more time to write?

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reads for Writers: Non-Writers Beware, Writers Unite 2

From Kate's Writing Crate...

This post is longer than my standard 500 words as I want to give each book and author/editor their due as well as recommend more than two books at a time.

If you are a writer, you need to write to be happy. Don't let nay-sayers or your own resistance/procrastination get in your way.

            Last week, I recommended books for

students and others looking for support as

they started their writing lives—fantastic

books I reread for inspiration.

This week, I am recommending additional books for beginners and more experienced writers.
Writing Toward Home: Tales and Lessons to Find Your Way by Georgia Heard, dedicated "To those whose voices have been silent," offers insights into the writing life along with passages and quotes from other writers. Among her thoughts: a notebook is an ear, always tuned in, always ready to hear more... it's your job to keep up the conversation (page 27); fall in love at least three times a day with…stacked apples, kiwis, and oranges, the sunlight making a green fire hydrant look iridescent…everything in the world so [you] can come to writing with more openness (page 60); found writing…grab books at random and use words and phrases in them to create "found" poems or pieces of writing (page 110); and 54 other inspiring tales and lessons.

The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft by Kim Stafford reminds writers that the…Gifts of rich lore surround us all. While others seem to observe these offerings on occasion and by chance, noticing and then letting them go, I make hearing and recording of them my mission as a writer, and a key invitation to writing students. Dreams get away if we don't tell them or write them down. Thoughts do the same. The writer's greatest chance may be devotion to the passing fragment. It is small, but it is pure, and it may hold a compact infinity. You heard it for a reason (page 26); Some twinkle in the language around me makes me raise my head, listen close, and jot (page 31); The whole secret in writing is the ability to recognize the good line, the part that sings, the sliver that is new, and old, and deeper than what surrounds it—idea, rhythm, insight—the whole work of writing is to hone this habit of selection. We find the small rich beginning that speaks, and we let it grow according to an imaginative logic of its own (page 74).

The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work, A Collection from The Washington Post Book World edited and with an introduction by Marie Arana includes essays from 55 contemporary writers. Erica Jong states that writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away. (page 67); Patricia Cornwall shares what a sage, older friend told her, "Writing is a way of having experiences without scars." (page 157); Stanley Karnow finds that writing books is the loneliest of occupations, akin to long distance running—not exactly my idea of fun. (page 159); Edmund Morris…grew to love the silence, even the mini-silences that swelled between one word and the next, and to this day, when words don't come, I listen for them rather than look for them. Sooner or later one that sounds right will whisper itself onto the page. (182-3); Richard Selzer says writing, for me, is what purring is for a cat. It represents pure pleasure, and there is no purer pleasure than chasing after the nature of a bodily thing and nailing to the page. Compelling reading from writers who live the writing life.  

Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between edited by Carole Burns includes an Introduction by Marie Arana who writes…There is nothing easy about the literary life. It's a punishing profession. Sissies need not apply. (page 15)…every writer forges a private way, sets personal rules, fashions an individual technique. A writer learns to pursue the craft as he or she will. (page 16). The book includes 42 writers giving shorter answers about 16 topics including "The Writing Life: Springs of Hope, Winters of Despair"…Most days are a struggle between writing and staving off all the other things you should be doing. Few writers make enough money to allow them to do nothing but write…There are moments of glory…They come on the battleground—at your desk, writing. A good sentence. An idea that shaped your novel. (page 146). In "Words of Wisdom: What Writers Wish Someone Had Told Them" Claire Tristram states: You just need to write. The best way to learn how to write is to read, and then do it. Very simply, successful writing is when you are listening to yourself very deeply and you have something to say. It's very solitary, quiet, meditative process and you have to be patient enough to have that happen on the page. And trust that you have something to say. (page 210).
What books do you recommend?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Writer's Retreat

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Doctor's, lawyers, nurses, teachers, accountants and even clergy all take an oath, in one form or another, and pledge to deliver their professional services according to the best of their ability as well as adhere to their coveted professional guidelines that come along with their licenses and degrees.

Writers also take an oath, although it's mainly an agreement they sign up with themselves and of course, their editors, and one of the most important components that every writer must meet is the all-encompassing deadline!

If you write for any publication on a regular basis, you as a writer realize that making deadline, on time, is a no brainer.  It's expected, it's professional, it's many times non-negotiable and most of all it helps keep a writer accountable and on track.

My life as a writer often takes a big back seat to my role as the busy mother of eight.  Despite my best efforts and intentions, unless I have a deadline set in stone, I don't get nearly as much writing accomplished as I desire.  I think that's just called "life"!  On the other hand, I have very big dreams and goals for my writing life, so I'm truly learning that although my family is my biggest joy and priority there is absolutely no reason that my passion for writing should have to be treated as an afterthought if a deadline is not included.

I think I may have just received an answer to some of my self-inflicted writing turmoils--making the time to fulfill my muse.  How you ask?  My birthday is right around the corner, and my Writer's Crate blogging partner, Kate, gifted me with some amazing writing gifts, one being a gift set called, The Writer's Retreat Kit, A Guide for Creative Exploration & Personal Expression  by Judy Reeves.

Would you believe I read and devoured the entire book and kit while waiting at the registry of motor vehicles this past week?  I made so many notes about how I could escape into a writing retreat of my dreams (escaping to a mountain cabin near a lake for an entire month) or how I could take advantage of 1/2 hour in my very own home.  I left that miserable place called the DMV feeling inspired and able to achieve any writing goal possible rather than feeling frustrated that I had just given 2 plus hours of my valuable time sitting amongst folks who were miserable because they too were stuck waiting and waiting and waiting.

Have you ever attended a writer's retreat with a group or simply by yourself?  What moves you to write if you aren't up against a deadline?

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reads for Writers: Non-Writers Beware as Writers Unite

        From Kate's Writing Crate...
        Recently I was at a book event where I was seated next to a school librarian. Among other topics, we talked about some teachers and other adults discouraging students from becoming writers. The biggest reasons given were: you don't have enough experience and you won't make any money.

        Why do non-writers feel they have any say in who becomes a writer anyway?
        Every person has experiences interacting with others and overcoming hurdles in life. Add in unique insights, imagination, and the willingness to put in hours at the keyboard or pen in hand and a writer is born.
        Someone has to be a bestselling author, top songwriter, in-demand script writer, and popular playwright. Work hard, use your talents, and why not you? And good livings can be made in those fields even if you are not the most successful. Writers are also needed to be columnists, journalists, staff writers, bloggers as well as in the advertising and greeting card businesses.
        However, not many new writers are given support. If you cannot find a person in your life to support your dream of writing, turn to the company you keep—books by authors who speak to you. Here are a few of my favorites:
        Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is one of the best support systems for beginning and intermediate writers. Goldberg shares her story, believes in yours, and shows you how to integrate writing into your life. It's the book that got me to write on a regular basis which led to my writing and editing career. In my opinion, it's a must-read.
        Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is a masterclass. She recounts her journey as a writer (starting when she was seven), a bestselling author (after decades of writing and the publication of her fourth book), and a writing teacher. It's a funny and realistic look at the writing life. Another must read!
        The Writer's Life: Insights from The Right to Write by Julia Cameron is an inspiring pocket-size book perfect to keep with you all day. When you have a spare moment, open to any page and read about the writing life, i.e., your life.
        The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century's Preeminent Writers Edited from The Paris Review interviews and with an introduction by George Plimpton shares insights from over 200 writers on an array of topics including first efforts, work habits, style, success, failure, plot, characters, symbols, dialogue, writer's block, criticism, and much more. In the chapter "On Motivation: Why I Write", you can find support from over 55 writers as they discuss the importance of writing.
        I've recommended many writing books on this blog including most strongly The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. Click on "writing book recommendations" under Categories to see other books that might appeal to and support you.

What books support your writing life?


Thursday, May 2, 2013

You Know You're a Writer When.........

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

This week I spent a glorious afternoon catching up with two of my favorite "book people" in the world, Robin Kall Homonoff, aka radio personality and host of Reading with Robin, and her daughter, Emily, who is graduating from college this spring!  This dynamic mother and daughter duo have a constant flow of words running through their veins and straight to their hearts and minds at all times, and it's utterly contagious!

As a writer and a fellow "readahollic" I soaked in and cherished the two hours (which was not nearly enough time!) we spent chatting authors, styles, voices and quirks, and most enticing reads for the upcoming summer season, and it got me thinking about my own dreams of writing a novel someday (soon!) that will hopefully set my "reading friends" on fire because it will be so cleverly written they won't be able to put it down!  

Once I returned home and sat down in my cozy writing space at home I started thinking about all the authors that have touched my life in addition to the insightful columnists I follow on a regular basis and wondered if before they ever became published they asked themselves a question that many writers, new and experienced, have asked themselves, "How do I know when I'm a real writer?"

In my writer's library I came across a witty book on the topic called You Know You're a Writer When.....written by Adair Lara.   Here are a few of my favorite responses in this fun read.

In the introduction she shares:  A writer is someone who writes.  Writing is not a job, something you do.  It's something you are, something you can't not be.  Being a writer is not a matter of being published, it's about being so bewitched by language that writing seems real, and life by comparison feels like a dream.

You Know You're a Writer When..........

  • You've switched to stretchier pants and looser sweaters to hide the effects of hours at the keyboard.
  • You hide your writing journal on your lap at your kid's soccer game and rely on the other moms to give you the stats at the end of the game, especially if your own kid makes some great plays.
  • You catch yourself patting your laptop with affection when you close it down.
  • A new ream of blank paper can bring on an anxiety attack.
  • At parties, you check out the bookshelves the way other people snoop through medicine cabinets.
  • Not writing makes you depressed!

Just for the record, I have been calling myself a writer ever since my first essay was published in The Providence Journal 12 years ago and I've never looked back.    How about you?  When did you decide you were a writer?