Thursday, January 30, 2014

Feed Your Muse With Writing Contests

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

In last week's post, I shared what I felt my writing strengths and weaknesses were.  Since I've always been a "list person" and somewhat goal oriented, just re-reading that post gave me lots to think about but more importantly, it helped me stay the course with my organization and daily writing rituals.  

In that post I discussed one strategy I plan on implementing in order to improve my muse as well as help keep me excited and that is entering writing contests.  Years ago I went through a phase where I entered several writing contests, and I actually won three of them—two were paid essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul books so this year I'm gearing up to enter some contests that appeal to my writing style and my interests--mainly humor and family-style essays.  

I recently did some research as to the benefits of entering writing contests and here is what I found:

  • Receive Recognition:
In certain writing contests winners earn cash and the opportunity to have their work published in various publications or on-line sites.  In addition to the thrill of entering and winning, it's a nice way to build your writing portfolio.
  • Remove Writer’s Block:
Because contests have deadlines, you’re forced to push yourself beyond your writer’s block. If necessary, write in the morning, set it aside during the day, and rewrite at night. Submitting means you’re getting your work out in the world.
  • Get Feedback:
Not all contests offer feedback, of course, but it’s one of the perks of some. Constructive criticism is necessary for growth and to write outside of your comfort zone.
  • Stretch Your Skills:
 “Send your best work” means revise, proofread, read it aloud, share it with a trusted friend or writing partner, listen to advice, take what works, and when you are satisfied, send it out. You’ll learn from doing that, but you’ll also learn from reading at least an excerpt or two from any periodical you’re submitting to.  
  • Stretch Your Subject Matter:
Try writing to contests that send a theme. See what you have to say on a particular subject. Try writing in a genre you have not explored. See how well you can express yourself on subjects that are new.
  • Fees:
Most contests ask you to pay for administration time, reading time, and responding time. The money also offsets the cost of prizes. NOTE: If you feel that you should not pay for contests, don’t enter…or broaden your thinking for six months or even three. Give it a try and see if your writing improves.

Finding trustworthy writing contests can be a concern for writers.  Here are three resources to help you get started:

Here are three resources. They will undoubtedly lead you to more:
  1. Funds for Writers:
  2. Poets & Writers (classifieds):
  3. Writer Advice:
You can also find opportunities in national magazines such as Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping and other publications that reach thousands of readers.  

Don't lose sight of the real prize when entering a writing contest--while undeniably satisfying, a winner’s check in your hot little hand is not the real prize. The more you write, the better you’ll become—but you know that. “Practice makes perfect” is an old adage that has not faded with time.

So, what is the prize? Even as you mail your entry, whether you win or not, you have triumphed. For it takes the spirit of a winner, the heart of an artist, and the determination of a corporate magnate to create, manifest, and bare your soul with your writing, and submit it to a contest.

If you are satisfied you submitted your best work  and if you enjoyed the writing process and if you learned something in your self-imposed workshop—you are a winner!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reads for Writers: Janet Evanovich 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.

        In this post, I'm writing about a series that I loved then stopped reading because, in my opinion, the author made some big mistakes that should have been avoided. I prefer to celebrate only books I love, but there are writing lesson to be learned from books not so well written, too.

        As I have previously mentioned, I watch CBS Sunday Morning every week as it is an excellent program that quite often highlights authors. About 14 years ago, author Janet Evanovich was interviewed about her Stephanie Plum series just before the sixth book was released. Evanovich was wearing a hockey jersey as she took the interviewer on a tour of the neighborhood that she used as the basis for Stephanie's hometown. She then explained how she decided to make Stephanie a hockey-jersey-wearing bounty hunter.

        Intrigued, I checked out the first book in the series, One for the Money, and loved it! (Do not judge the book by its movie!) Evanovich won a Dilys Award for the book.
         Evanovich's characters are flawed and funny. Desperate for a paycheck after she loses her job as a lingerie buyer at a third-rate department store, Stephanie Plum stumbles into a new career when her mother reminds her of a filing job at a cousin's business. Instead, she ends up working as a bounty hunter for the same cousin (a bail bondsman who has odd proclivities) along with a high school classmate office manager as well as a wise-cracking sidekick Stephanie meets on her first case.
        Living in an apartment only a few miles from the house she grew up in, she is often home for dinner cooked by her mother for her semi-retired father and a grandmother who moved in when her husband died. Grandma is almost everyone's favorite character as she has trouble staying out of trouble—much of it inspired by Stephanie's new career.
        Besides the criminals she chases down in each book, there are two other vital and, I must add, hot characters: Vice cop Joe Morelli and bounty hunter Ranger. Stephanie and Morelli have a complicated relationship having known each other since grade school. Ranger becomes her bounty hunter tutor when Stephanie realizes she is ill-equipped for her new job through a comedy of errors. Sexual tension in this romantic triangle is off the charts!
I was so happy I could buy and quickly read the next four books and only had a two-week wait for book six instead of a whole year as book five ended with a cliff hanger.
        I highly recommend the first six books with a warning NOT to read book four in public. Everyone I know screamed with laughter in several places. And despite my warning, one friend had to scramble off a public bus and another had to run out of doctor's waiting room because they did in fact scream with laughter.
        Now for the bad news.
After a buildup through six books, the author did not live up to a promise she made that spending the night with one character would ruin Stephanie for all other men. No author should let readers down after a statement like that, but Evanovich did. Combine that with weaker plots in books 7-12 and the series didn't keep my interest any longer although book 20 has been published.
        I learned important writing lessons from this author.
In the two weeks I was waiting for book six to be released, I bought copies of the romance novels Evanovich wrote before she hit it big with her series. I like to read things in order and it really paid off as you could see her evolve as a writer.
The books were pretty bad frankly, but each one improved a bit until the last one (I've forgotten the title—it was 14 years ago) which had the seeds for both Stephanie's and her grandma's characters in it. I saw bad writing become better writing become prize-winning writing right before my eyes. Please note: these romance novels have been updated/improved by a co-writer so you have to look for the originals if you want to see the same progress.
In the end, the more you write, the better you will write.
Finish a book—only 1% of all writers do.
Send it out. It may be published.
In the meantime, start your next book.
Persistence will pay off.
It did for Janet Evanovich. Why not for you, too?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Analyzing your Writing Strengths and Weaknesses

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

At the beginning of this New Year I spent some serious time reflecting on my writing career and assessed what I felt my strengths and weaknesses were so that I could build on those in order to grow professionally and personally.

Here’s what I determined:

·         I’m passionate about writing in general, particularly family/parenting based columns that are flavored with humor.
·         I thoroughly enjoy interviewing people and businesses for the articles I write.
·         My imagination is one of my best friends.
·         I’m a published author once—I can do it again!
·         I’ve been a writer for the same wonderful magazines for nearly 15 years and can now add Macmillan Publishers to my list of writing employers.
·         Reading books about writing is one of my favorite ways to spend some free time.

·         My writing is not as “tight” as I know it could be.
·         I’m nowhere as organized as I’d like to be therefore I end up rushed at deadline.
·         I don’t devote serious time to finishing my novel due to those daily distractions called “life”.
·         I’d love to earn my living writing full-time, but I don’t take the necessary steps to make that happen.

So as not to overwhelm myself with too many lofty writing intentions this year, I chose three areas to focus on for the first 6 months and 2 to focus on for the entire year:

·         Organization

·         Tightening my thoughts with less of a word count

·         Look for more ways to get published

Yearlong Intentions:

·         Write daily or as often as possible

·         Finish my novel

How am I going to fulfill these intentions you ask?  For starters, I am going to read more.  Not just books about improving my craft but genres that pique my interest (mainly mysteries and thrillers), non-fiction, biographies, magazine pieces and as many on-line articles ranging in topics from A to Z.  Reading opens the flood gates for inspired creativity.

As I shared in last week’s blog post on getting organized, I’ve already cleaned up my computer files and created fresh folders for my latest projects, deleted files that have been cluttering up my computer for far too long, and I have begun purging my actual writer’s crate with a personal deadline of February 15th to have it revamped and much more “writer” friendly.  And as far as tightening my writing—well, that’s only going to happen with practice, and that means writing daily or as often as possible.

Lastly, in hopes of getting published more this year I am very excited to be entering some writing contests this year.  Years ago I went through a phase where I entered several writing contests, and I actually won three of them—two were paid essays in Chicken Soup for the Soul books. 

My post next week will delve into the pros of writing contests and some legitimate sites that I will share so that if you, too, wish to explore this avenue you’ll have some information available.

What about you?  Do you have any short or long-term writing goals that you hope to accomplish this year?   

Monday, January 20, 2014

Do You Reread?

From Kate's Writing Crate…

        Rereading reveals insights in books from different perspectives as I mature. I reread other books for comfort because they remind me of the loved ones who gave them to me or because I know these books by heart and they're good for my soul as they stay constant and true.

We connect with authors who draw us in, expand our minds, and touch our hearts. They are "the company we want to keep" to paraphrase Ruth Whitman in The Writer's Home Companion.

The company I keep and reread includes:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

This may be my all-time favorite book. Fadiman's passion for books, reading, and writing are captured in a series of thoughtful, funny, and poignant essays about, among other things, marrying libraries, courtly and carnal love for books, and an ode to a favorite fountain pen. She shares stories from her literate upbringing as well as raising a family with her husband, a fellow writer. A book all readers and writers will revel in!

Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion edited by Diane K. Osbon

This book details a 30-day workshop led by Joseph Campbell of "Follow Your Bliss" fame. From the flyleaf: "…poet Diane Osbon has selected Campbell's most illuminating perceptions into those fundamental subjects that are of perennial human concern: the challenge of living in the world, the process of spiritual awakening, the struggle to come into awareness, and the art of living in the sacred. This exquisite volume, crafted with love and care, will enrich, uplift, and inspire everyone it touches." I completely agree.

Running From Safety: An Adventure of the Spirit by Richard Bach
The premise of this book from the back cover: "If the children we were asked us today for the best we've learned from living, what would we tell, and what would we discover in return?" Bach writes this book as a tale where his ten-year-old self confronts him as an adult to ask him questions both mundane and profound. Even if the questions are painful, the child demands honesty. Bach's soul-searching answers contain mind-expanding wisdom—truly words to live by.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert Pirsig.
Books and workbooks have been written about this true account of a father and son on a long motorcycle trip with friends. The father, Pirsig, is a brilliant man who had electric shock therapy which affected his life, relationships, and memories. From the back flyleaf: "[The book] speaks directly to the confusions and agonies of existence. In the intimate detailing of a real-life odyssey—personal, philosophical—Robert Pirsig has written a touching, painful, and ultimately transcendent book of life." A fascinating read.

The Writer's Life: Insights from The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
From the back cover: "Cameron's pivotal insights and pointers are distilled in a pocket-size daily companion that will help readers lead a writer's life more easily, joyfully, and powerfully." An inspiring book!
What books do you reread?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Becoming an Organized Writer

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

When Kate and I started our blog, The Writer’s Crate, I was so excited I could barely contain myself.  With writing as my passion, I thought sure it would be effortless for me to come up with one post a week in a timely fashion.

Wrong!  Though ideas for individual posts are not usually a problem, organizing my time between my large family (I promise I’m not using the 8-kid thing as my trump card!), my paid writing jobs (thank you Lord for those—I never take a single one for granted.), my part-time job at a school, and keeping my household in order on top of PTO, church activities and making time to keep myself sane and healthy while not forgetting play time each day with our two dogs, I guess I got a little ahead of myself forgetting that blogs don’t write themselves, at least not good ones.

Ever grateful for the dynamic presence of the internet and the plethora of on-line articles available for helping nearly any cause one might be searching for, I found some wonderful tips that I believe are going to get me on the “write” track during this New Year so that not only will my weekly blog post be on time and written to the best of my availability but they will trickle into other areas of my writing and personal life as well.

Here are some great tips from writer K.M. Weiland I intend to try as soon as this post is uploaded!

An Organized Desk or Writer's Crate

Whether your desk is your bed (not unusual for us writers), your kitchen table, or an actual desk, the important thing is putting and keeping your stuff in places that are both memorable and convenient.

Tip:  Use a large desk calendar to keep track of all of your writing commitments whether they are for fun or for paid writing jobs.  If you prefer, create a spreadsheet on your computer but the key is to check it every single day so you’ll never forget what’s coming up.  It’s also helpful to break your writing down into chunks of time.  For example, if you’re writing a piece that requires you to interview two different sources, schedule the proper time for each interview, then perhaps time to outline your article then time to actually write it and submit it to your editor.  Don’t underestimate how much time each portion of your assignment will take, that is where writers can easily get into time-management trouble and fall behind. 

Tip: Big drawers are often just hidden messes, so optimize them by dividing them into smaller, more specific niches. Use metal bookends to divide my drawers into smaller subdivisions. Pens go in front, iPod/Pad/Kindle/phone cords in the middle, little-used odds and ends in the back.
This Year, I'm going to get "back on track" and get my writing area organized and as inspired as this desk!
Organizing Your Computer and Browser
In our mad rush to clean our houses, we can sometimes overlook the one place where we actually spend the most time: the computer. If you haven’t sorted through your files lately, make time to look through every nook and cranny of your computer.
Tip: Delete files you no longer need (but make sure you really don’t need them!) and organize the files that remain into sensible categories.
Tip:  To keep your computer as clean looking as possible, organize files into the smallest number of folders so you can save time by not clicking through numerous subfolders before finding the one you finally need.
While you’re elbow deep in computer dust, take another minute to sort through your browser’s bookmarks and add-ons. 

Tip: Make extensive use of folders and subfolders in your bookmarks.

Tip: Every couple of years, go through all the bookmarks and delete any links that are dead or no longer useful to me.

What keeps you organized and on track in your writing world?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reads for Writers: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg

From Kate's Writing Crate…
Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True is novelist Elizabeth Berg's invitation to anyone interested to join her in the writing world. "…I believe many people do want to share, do want to write, and are afraid to try. They need a gentle nudge to get going. It is my mission and my high privilege to try to make this book that nudge. …You feel the call. That's the most important thing. Now answer it as fully as you can. Take the risk to let all that is in you, out. Escape into the open." (page xv)

        Berg makes it easier to take the risk, to escape into the open because she is so open about her writing life, style, routines, successes, and failures. She started writing knowing nothing about the publishing world, only writing true to herself.
        "When you are first starting to write, you don't need to buy a whole lot of things. What you need most is a fierce desire to put things down on paper; and you need a certain sensibility, a way of seeing and feeling. These things cost nothing and, like many things that are free, are worth a lot—worth everything in fact." (page 19)
        Her Chapter 2 Getting Started is a descriptive list of all the useful information you need to begin. It's amusing that the first 16 items all begin with the letter P from Purpose, Plan, and Place to Privacy, Playfulness, and Payoffs, but Berg gives you all the information you need to know as a fellow writer.
        Berg's writing wisdom is found on every page. Here are a few examples:
"I'm sure you've also heard…Write what you know." I would change that to "Write what you love." The knowledge can be learned, the passion can't be…" (page 43)
"Nuance works. Subtlety works. Make the act of someone reading you an interactive process by expecting the reader to bring a level of willingness and acceptance—and imagination—to you. Lure, don't force, readers into a story with you. Remember they want to be lured, they want to lose themselves in your words." (page 47)
"Whenever people ask me where I get my material, I am befuddled…We need only be awake, and curious, and willing to share." (page 104)
"The best thing that can happen to me when I am writing fiction is to lose sight of the fact that I am writing at all. It's as though I enter into a kind of trance. I know I am writing, but I don't think about it. I just let my fingers type—it's as though the feeling comes out directly through them, bypassing the brain altogether. When that happens, I feel completely transported. There is nothing else like this feeling, very little else more important to me. That intimacy I feel between myself and my work is what makes me feel at home on the earth. I am basically a shy person, basically a loner and an outsider; and I have been all my life. But when I achieve the kind of connection I can get through writing, I feel I'm sitting in the lap of God." (page 118)
"I'm interested in helping people I know and people I don't know, too; that's why I wrote this book. I believe the more good writers we have, the happier we readers will be." (page 201)
        Many writers will be happier, too, if they read this book.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Finding the Right Place to Write!

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

As I've mentioned before, January truly is one of my favorite months.  I'm just coming off that "New Year's" high where that blank slate in front of me is beginning to take a bit of shape.

Because this year I'm really not setting resolutions, but intentions instead, I have challenged myself to be extra creative in finding new places to write this year.  Don't misunderstand--my writer's crate is my first choice because I have fabricated it to house my most prized writing possessions--favorite resource books, inspired quotes and photos, past and present journals, pictures of my family and most important--my vision board which lists all my writing dreams and desires as if they've already happened.

Now, realistically, for those writing dreams to happen--well, I need to actually write!  So with this brand new year still so fresh I sat down and brainstormed some fun new places to make some magic on my pages this year.

Here's my recent list of places I hope to be frequenting in the year ahead as I feed my muse and my passion--all things written!

1.  The Mall -- Don't underestimate the flow of ideas and stimulation you can get from grabbing a cup of hot chocolate and sitting in the food court at the mall.  Not only is the people watching great, the abundance of material for magazine articles, a short story or even your novel is there for the taking.

2.  The Registry of Motor Vehicles -- Are you booing and hissing at the thoughts of this?  Face it, when we go to the registry we usually end up waiting for at least an hour or more.  I have to renew my license this year as well as take care of some title business on one of our cars so I plan on bringing my laptop and hunkering down right in my very own DMV.

3.  The Airport -- One of my favorite movies is "Love Actually" starring Hugh Grant.  The opening scene to this movie is in Heathrow Airport in London.  I have always been intrigued by airports and find myself wondering where everyone is traveling to and why they might be doing so.  I'm going to hit our state airport in Rhode Island in February and see what excitement I can stir up in my writing this winter.  

4.  The Bowling Alley -- My kids love to bowl, and I love to watch them bowl.  Their expressions when they get a near strike or better yet when they get a gutter ball are priceless.  There is something very "grass roots" about the local bowling alley, so I'm going to give that location a whirl this year as well.

5.  A Church Parking Lot -- My family belongs to a large parish right on campus at The University of Rhode Island.  The activity in the parking lot alone after Mass is something to behold.  I think the good Lord would be pleased to see me perched in the church parking lot some Sunday after Mass where i can reflect on all the blessings in my life and turn those thoughts into something memorable on paper.

How about you?  Do you have some creative spots in which you hope to pen some wonderful works this year?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Writing with Power

From Kate's Writing Crate…

        Once you start writing on a regular basis—no matter what—you can write whenever and wherever you are. It's a powerful feeling. Quite simply, the more you write, the quicker the flow.

        Facing a blank page can still be scary, but you get past that fear the faster you start filling the page. There are two methods I use to get started writing blog posts.
        At any given time, I have several posts started, half finished, and/or in need of final polishing. I start my writing day working on one of these. With fresh eyes, I dive in. When I've taken the piece as far as I can, I'm warmed up so it is easier to face a blank page.
If I start out facing a blank page, then I turn to my list of the topics that I have published on this blog on a Word doc in date order. I have the next six months set up by week and fill in topics as I decide on them.
At the end of that list, I keep a constantly changing list of topics for future posts. I pick any one that catches my interest. Because I made this list in advance, the topics have been bubbling away in my subconscious. Things I don't remember considering show up on the page as I write. I follow these thoughts as far as I can then I go off on tangents just free writing to capture everything I want to say. I don't worry about spelling or punctuation or anything else. I just get the ideas down.
When the fever of words breaks, I take a breath and consider what I have written. Then I start reorganizing my thoughts then expanding upon them. I start to shape them into paragraphs. I delete lines and sections or save them for different posts. I usually work for 30-60 minutes. Then I close the document and work on another post or start editing for my magazine jobs. A day or two later, I start rewriting, revising, and polishing my work. This is my favorite part. It can take a lot of time and hard work, but this is what makes me—or anyone—a professional writer.
I don't stop until I feel the piece is complete, but even then I put it away for another day or two because fresh eyes catch awkward transitions and other errors.

        Blogging does not give me time to procrastinate. I have paid assignments that take priority, but, since I love to blog, I make the time to write, rewrite, and edit posts. That's what it means to be a writer—you have to make the time to write no matter what so the quicker you get started, the more time you have to write.

How do you get yourself to start writing?

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Questions to Gear Up For Meaningful Writing in 2014

From Cheryl's Writing Crate

Happy New Year!  Another whirlwind holiday season has come and gone, and here on the East Coast, we're gearing up for a pretty big snow storm that should be arriving momentarily.

For those of you who don't know me well, January has always been one of my favorite months.  I know, I know--you think I'm crazy don't you?  It's not that I jet off to a tropical location for this month, or celebrate my birthday or any other family milestone, it's really quite simple--I love January because it's a fresh start.

I go back and forth  each year on whether or not I'll be setting New Year's resolutions.  Some years I'm completely caught up in goal setting and making changes for the incoming year and other years, I sit back and just reflect on what went well in the previous year and how I can focus on my blessings rather than what didn't work so well.

For 2014 I'm  mixing it up.  I'm setting a few New Year's intentions, rather than resolutions so that I don't put so much pressure on myself to make change happen.  For instance, I have wanted to finish my novel for the past two years and set it as one of my goals each year, but since it hasn't happened yet, this year, I have set an intention that my chapters will be finished and my goal will be to edit my novel, carefully and thoughtfully, throughout 2014.

I have a few other writing intentions for the New Year as well as for my personal life all of which have me feeling inspired and excited, not like a failure because I didn't do as well as I would've liked last year.  My biggest intention for myself on a personal level is to be kinder and more accepting of myself.  Just writing that down makes me smile.

In order to figure out exactly what I wanted to create and give positive thought to this year, I sat down on New Year's eve with the following questions and answered them in my journal so I could physically have something concrete to refer to throughout the year when I get into one of my "reflective" states.

I thought I'd share my questions with you in hopes you might share some of your own with those of us here at The Writer's Crate.

1.  What was the single best thing that happened to you as a writer this past year?

2.  What was the single most challenging thing that happened to you as a writer this past year?

3.  Pick three words to describe you best this past year?

4.  What were the three best books you read this past year?

5.  What was an unexpected joy this year that influenced you as a writer?

6.  What was an unexpected obstacle this year that influenced you as a writer?

7.  In what way did you grow professionally?

8.  In what way did you come out of your comfort zone as a writer during the past year?

9.  What was the single biggest time waster in your life this past year--both as a writer and personally?

10.  What will your "mantra" be in the New Year to help you achieve your writing goals?  (mine is reflected below in the photo!)

What are your hopes for your writing year ahead?