Monday, February 27, 2017

Dealing with Negative Feedback

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Rejection letters are part of a writing career as is negative feedback from readers. You have to learn to deal with them.

          Thoughtful criticism is always helpful, if difficult, to read. Nasty comments, not so much. However, some of them are unintentionally funny.

          Even as the Assistant Editor and then Editor of a family-friendly magazine, I have seen my share of negative feedback:

We used to receive a postcard from a retired English teacher with a list of all the mistakes in each issue. She prefaced the first one with “You are the best written publication in town; however, there are still errors.” The Editor and I comforted ourselves that they all fit on a postcard and not in a letter. We also learned from her notes.

          However, the comments I really remember are the funny ones.

          A veteran wrote us when another veteran appeared on the cover. “I usually don’t read your magazine. I use it for kindling. But this cover caught my eye so I read the article and I’d like you to introduce me to that veteran.” Hmm…an insult followed by a request for a favor. Of course, we did let the veteran on the cover know about the request and they met.

There is a section in the magazine where residents can email in photos and captions about positive things like awards won, promotions, new business openings, making the Dean’s List, fundraising events, and cute kids doing fun things. Generally, there are three or four items that all fit on one page. One month, there were six items so we jumped the section to another page. A woman called me up to say the News Bit on page 8 was complete and did not jump to page 10. I explained that the section jumped to page 10. Exact wording: News Bits continued on page 10. She was not amused. I wondered how stress-free her life must be to call up and complain about that?

          A message left in voicemail: “How dare you put a criminal on the cover of the magazine! I can tell by his teeth.”

          I picked up the office phone only to hear an angry man telling me that he was reporting the magazine to the Post Office for mailing porn to his house. Stunned, I asked him why he was doing this. He was upset by a spa ad. (This ad had also appeared in three other local publications.) Not sure what a porn charge would entail, I called the magazine owner, who laughed. She called the Post Office to ask what would happen if the charge was made. The Postal clerks couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t know what would’ve happened, but the man never showed up.

          Dealing with the public can be challenging, aggravating, and hilarious. Learn what you can from the serious comments and learn to laugh at the rest—then continue writing and publishing.

Please note: If someone is really upset, diffuse the situation by asking them what they would like done to rectify the problem. Most people are not prepared for that question which stops the tirade and moves the conversation on to taking positive steps.

Word count for Feb. 19-25 was 5,198.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Reads for Writers: Why I Write? Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I’m curious about relationships. I always ask about how couples met; how people ended up in their current jobs; and, since I’m a writer, why people write.

          In Why I Write? Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe, twenty-six writers answer this question. Well worth reading.

Here are some of my favorite answers:  

“The only time I know the truth is when it reveals itself at the point of my pen.”

                                                                   —Jean Malaquais p.4

…Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.
                                                                   —Joy Williams p. 9

…The act of writing, though often tedious, can still provide extraordinary pleasure. For me that comes line by line at the tip of a pen, which is what I like to write with, and the page on which the lines are written, the pages, can be the most valuable thing I will ever own.
—James Salter pp. 34-35.

…Yet I don’t blush when I’m with dogs, and I don’t blush when I write. I take it then that these two activities answer a related question: Where in your life are you most yourself?
                                                                   —Amy Hempel p. 42

…the lesson retold in its most basic form was this: write with great truthfulness; work harder than you thought possible; have passion, enormous sweeping passion. Give it first to your work. Let your work have all the passion it requires, and whatever is left, put into your life. What is left varies greatly for me from year to year.
                                                                   —Ann Patchett p. 66

This writing stuff saved me. It has become my way of responding to and dealing with things I find too disturbing or distressing or painful to handle in any other way. It’s safe. Writing is my shelter. I don’t hide behind the words. I use them to dig inside my heart to find the truth. I guess I can say, honestly, that writing also offers me a kind of patience I don’t have in my ordinary day-to-day life. It makes me stop. It makes me take note. It affords me a kind of sanctuary that I can’t get in my hurried and full-to-the-brim-with-activity life.
                                                                   —Terry McMillan pp. 70-71

… For the time of the writing, I am nobody. Nobody at all. I am a conduit, nothing but a way for the story to come to the page. Oh, but I am terribly alive then, too, though I say I am no one at all; my every sense is keen and quivering.
                                                                   —Lee Smith p. 134

…Writing should detonate in your brain like a strong dosage of acid, exploding in an abundance of color, attacking all that is accepted as sacred and true, rearranging, changing all sense and sensibility. Writing should dump the jigsaw puzzle of reality on the ground. Let the reader put the pieces back together.
                                                                   —Darius James p.169

…Writers drive cars, hold jobs off and on, raise children, climb mountains, and take out the garbage, but very few have retirement plans. Retire from what? Thinking? Being?...the process of writing goes on, the secret reserve is honed and moving, moving toward writing, into writing, until death cancels all.
                                                                   —Jayne Anne Phillips p. 189

Word count for February 12-18 was 6,866.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Word Counts for a Working Writer

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          As a working writer, I write almost every day. Deadline for the magazines lasts three days each month so I’m too busy then, otherwise I write.

          Filling a notebook a month is the best way to stay on track. Use an 80-100 page notebook as recommended by Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. If you write about three pages every day, you’ll fill the notebook. If you don’t, then you will have a lot of pages to fill at the end of the month.

          In January, I had company as well as deadline. Because I wrote only a few paragraphs or a page or two each day, the last week of the month I had to fill 40 pages—which I did. My word count for that week was over 12,000 which also included a blog post and facebook thoughts for the magazines. I had to write fast to meet my monthly notebook deadline.

          Learning to write fast is essential for a working writer. Get all your thoughts down on paper as quickly as you can. This leaves you more time to rewrite, organize, make corrections, and polish your words—the real work of a professional working writer.

The initial act of writing is wild, spontaneous, exciting. When you reread what you wrote, you might not even remember some of these thoughts as they came so fast. Good. Those thoughts are what you really think without any filters. Work with them.

As I wrote in my post on 3/9/15:

 I think anyone interested in becoming a writer should read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury.

These books will also energize anyone who is already a writer. I often pick one of them up, flip open to a random page, read for a while then jump into writing.

           In Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury not only encourages writing, he also shares his story of becoming a writer then working hard to become a better writer. Read his work. His dedication and creativity are astounding.

He’s inspiring—hard not to be when he begins his essay “The Joy of Writing” on page 3 with:

Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.

          Bradbury notes on page 13:

In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon the truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.

Tiger-trapping. How exciting that makes writing sound! We are brave. Capturing truth. Following wherever our creativity leads us. Zest and gusto indeed!

Write with zest and gusto in a monthly notebook no one else will ever read. You’ll surprise yourself as well as come up with ideas for writing projects. I’ve written many essays and blog posts on thoughts I might never have discovered without scribbling in my notebooks which I take with me everywhere—like Natalie Goldberg, I carry a notebook-sized purse. Writing in public is inspiring in a different way than writing at home. Write wherever you are.

Word counts do matter. Not only in meeting specifications for projects, but quantity leads to quality. In filling these notebooks, you’ll find your voice, your rhythm, and your ability to meet deadlines no matter how short—all hallmarks of a working writer.

My word count for February 5-11 was 7,287.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Monthly Magazine Timeline 4---Editor's Essays

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I write an essay for an Editor’s Thoughts column each month for the magazines. The word count is 450-500. The topic is timely—something I thought about recently or plan to do in the upcoming month.

          I often write this essay in one day after deadline but before proofing. I’ve written well over 100 of them as an editor so I’ve had lots of practice. Since I’m exhausted after three days of editing all the text for both issues, I don’t expend the energy unless it’s going to be published although I’ve had to cut it occasionally at second proof if ads come in late. Editing requires tough calls.

          Here is the essay I wrote and rewrote on January 19th in 242 minutes:     

If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend viewing Hidden Figures—the true story of three brilliant black women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who worked for NASA’s early space program.

Who isn’t in awe of anyone who can create equations to overcome gravity then accurately bring astronauts back to an exact area for pick up, or program one of the first computers, or design space crafts to withstand re-entry? Yes, there were smart and brave men who sat in those space crafts not knowing if they would live or die, but they would not have succeeded without every employee at NASA doing their jobs.

          Imagine if during some of the proudest moments of this country—John Glenn in space then astronauts on the moon and back—everyone in the world knew about the contributions of these and other black women like Christine Darden and all the other minorities that helped make it possible.

NASA’s workforce reflected America, but most citizens were not aware of it. These people were living their dreams in a time when most were not. Wouldn’t these facts have changed the country and the world even more?

According to the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, who visited NASA as a child because her father, Robert B. Lee III, was an engineer there: “Five of my father’s seven siblings made their bones as engineers or technologists…Our church abounded with mathematicians. Supersonic experts held leadership positions in my mother’s sorority…As a child…I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” (page viii)

Imagine a world where everyone thought that; a world where all people were valued for their abilities regardless of race or gender.

The events depicted in Hidden Figures took place before I arrived on earth, but I’d like to image being born into a world where the STEM program wasn’t needed because all little girls studied and then grew up to major in science, technology, engineering, and math, if they wished, due to these strong female role models who provided crucial knowledge and data to put men on the moon.

In return for their amazing work, NASA named buildings in their honor. Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

In this day and age, I cannot understand why the history of space exploration isn’t taught so we know the names of at least these three women, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, as well as we know the names of astronauts Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, and Buzz Aldrin. We would not have won the space race without all of them working together—a giant step for all human beings.

As the Editor, I also write weekly thoughts for the magazines’ facebook page. Here is my most recent one, 193 words written and rewritten in 50 minutes on February 1st:

          Recently, my sister surprised our father with an array of photos from his high school ice hockey team printed from older newspapers now online. As the goalie, there are photos of him blocking shots including one where he is doing a split with his glove outstretched and stick ready to block a rebounding puck. It’s a photo he is proud of, but the newsprint copy in his scrapbook is crumbling.

          He was surprised and touched that she found the photos and articles, printed them out, and framed them. They are now hung on the wall or on shelves where he can see and enjoy them every day. He may not be able to do a split anymore, but there was a time when he could do it well. They’re called glory days for a good reason.

This was such a lovely, thoughtful gift, I wanted to share it. A blast from the past like this is perfect for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, etc. Imagine the look on your loved ones’ faces as they are reminded of wonderful times captured years ago yet available now for display thanks to the internet.

Writing and rewriting fast are necessary skills for editors. Deadlines have to be met and the editor is the one who has to make it happen.

Weekly word count for January 29-February 4: 12,902.