Old Love Inspires Me to Write Again by Victoria Lynn Smith

Just start the quilt. Or write. Make a choice.

Victoria_Smith_T shirt QuiltCOVID-19. Schools are closed; nonessential businesses are closed. But I worry about my husband, an essential worker, getting sick. I fret about my 79-year-old mother living alone in Michigan. I miss my children and grandchildren. I think about death.

And, I can’t write.

Fellow writers describe their new writing routines. Breathlessly, like excited young lovers, they talk about the hours they spend writing. I flutter between cleaning, cooking, walking dogs, and checking email. I’m not admitting I can’t write. Scariest thought racing through my head: Do I ever want to write again?

A writer writes, even in tough times. I wonder, Am I a real writer? I have ideas, but my concentration has jilted me. Then I read an essay by another writer who says that it’s okay to not write at this time. Validation. Perhaps I need a break.

I turn to an old love—quilting.

A stack of my son’s hockey T-shirts, which I’d cut and ironed to fusible interfacing months ago, squat on the dining room table.

I look at the T-shirt blocks and freeze. I’ve no pattern, and it takes precise measuring to create one. The blocks taunt me, much like my writing when I’m away from my desk. At this point, both are unrequited lovers.

Just start the quilt. Or write. Make a choice.

I begin surrounding each block with a black border, difficult because each block is a different size. I abandon the quilt and mop the kitchen floor.

Stop it. Start sewing. Make a mistake? Use a seam ripper—the delete button of sewing.

I return to sewing borders around each block until I come to the black T-shirt. Dilemma. A black border along the black T-shirt lacks contrast. I delve into my fabric stash. I find a gray print with a hint of pattern, which compliments the black T-shirt. Audition time. I place the black T-shirt on the gray fabric and return it to the other blocks. It screams, “Look at me!”

Egad, it’s a little darling. I kill it by replacing the gray border with the same black border I used on the other blocks. It no longer causes a scene and it works. Harmony returns to the quilt. Yes, the little darling had to go.

I arrange blocks on the floor. Blocks are sentences. Rows are paragraphs. I move blocks around. I exchange one row with another row. Reordering my “sentences” and “paragraphs” until the quilt reveals its best version.

I stitch the blocks together in vertical rows. Time to add narrow strips of bold color between each row. I select fabrics of blue, green, and red to enhance the bright colors in the final border. But the quilt is already bigger than I expected. I could cut a row, but each row tells a story about my son’s hockey days as a player. I study the T-shirt blocks on the floor. They float on the black background. Separating each row with a color would be superfluous: “words” that don’t belong. I stitch the rows together without colored strips. My son’s quilt is ready to go to the machine quilter.

I escaped the pressure to write by quilting. My hunger for creativity was satisfied, and my pursuit of serenity was realized. But writing followed me throughout the composing and editing my son’s quilt. As I pieced the quilt, I wrote the rough draft of this essay, first in my head then at my desk. Quilting calmed me and gave me space to think about writing. It carried me back to my desk.

I’m writing again. But when I become too antsy, I throw myself into the arms of another quilting project.

 

 

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Victoria Lynn Smith lives in Wisconsin near Lake Superior. She writes short stories, essays, and articles. Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had several fiction pieces and a nonfiction piece accepted by regional college journals. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music. Her poodles also like to help when she quilts.

Cabela with Tim's Quilt

 

Stay true to the story you want to tell: A Q & A with author Alex Messenger

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Photo by Lacey Messenger

 

“No matter how you go about publishing a book, it’ll be a long process, with ups and downs . . . You have to stay true to the story you want to tell, but most importantly, you have to believe in it.”

We’re sure it will come as a surprise to no one that we have to cancel our April 4 “Published!” panel due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We hope all of our members and blog readers are healthy and safe during these trying times. 

Since we couldn’t hold our panel discussion, we thought we’d bring the panel directly to you! We reached out to our panelists with a list of questions about writing, hobbies, and their publishing experiences. We’ll be posting their responses to the LSW blog.

Our first panelist is Alex Messenger, author of The Twenty-Ninth Day, Surviving a Grizzly 81h0eAszMELAttack in the Canadian Tundra. A Duluth, MN, author, marketer and photographer, at seventeen, Alex was mauled by a grizzly bear. In the decade afterward, he worked as a wilderness guide, marketing specialist, photographer and volunteer search-and-rescue operator. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, National Parks magazine, Outside Online, and Backpacker magazineHis website is alexmessenger.com.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I first wanted to be a writer when I was very young. I think I got the inspiration from my parents, and specifically, my Mom. She did a lot of things, and in addition to her full time job, she was a writer and editor, publishing and compiling a number of books. I saw at that time that it was possible, and the rich experiences I had as a child, tagging along with her and my Dad as they taught anthropology study abroad trips filled me with experiences from exciting, far-off places. My challenge was that I didn’t know what to write about. I had a few non-starter concepts and have many sets of just a few pages from a story. Nothing stuck. Then when I was 17, I had this life-altering thing happen with the bear attack, and it was kind of like, “well, there’s your story!”

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? 

It’s funny you should phrase it that way, because I’ve always written while also working a full time job. Part of that is because I wanted to take my time putting my work together, and I didn’t want to rush the book. I do my best writing work first thing in the morning. My favorite schedule is to get up very early in the morning, ideally before the sun rises, and before anyone else in the house is up for the day. Then, I’d write for 1-4 hours by the glow of the screen and the keyboard. There’s a mental freshness and focus that comes from doing it first-thing and there’s also fewer distractions. No one is calling, social media isn’t usually chiming away yet, and with the dark, the visual distractions of the desk, or the room, or the house—even the outside world—are in shadow. I’ve found I can only write for up to 4 hours at a time, so even if I was up at 4am and leaving for work around 8, I was still getting a ‘full day’ of writing time in.

Do you have any interesting writing quirks or habits?

Other than my schedule, which I think is relatively common for writers, I think my biggest quirk is that I have to write down everything first. Some writers can trim their work as they put it down, but not for me. My target for word counts are always things I have to trim down to. My process is to have it all on paper, and refine it down to the best version of itself, like carving from a piece of wood to make what I want from the blank starting block.

What is your proudest writing achievement?

My proudest writing achievement is definitely my book, The Twenty-Ninth Day. It took an inordinate amount of time to write, and it’s an incredibly personal story. I think the fact that it is so personal was one of the biggest challenges, too. I’m really excited that this intense journey is something that other people can experience, and I hope that each reader takes away lessons that are relevant to them.  

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure where this advice came from, but writing is a process. One of the biggest things to remember is that what you’re writing doesn’t have to start out the way it is when it’s done. That is to say, what you’re starting with is something to improve upon. If you don’t get it started though with that very rough beginning, and if you don’t then keep moving it forward to the next stage and the next and the next, you’ll never come up with the finished product. So get it started, and keep going.

What are your hobbies/pursuits when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m doing my day job of marketing for St. Luke’s health care system in Duluth, MN, or exploring the trails and waterways of the north country with my family and friends, or working with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad to perform search and rescue services from Lake Superior to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. 

Describe your path to publishing and some things you perhaps wish you’d known starting out?

As I was working on my book, I didn’t have a set way I was going to go about publishing the finished piece. In my mind, though, I always wanted to go the traditional publishing route first and planned to self-publish if that didn’t pan out. I think being adaptable and dedicated to getting your story out there is incredibly important. To that end, I had that route I wanted to take, but what was most important was two things — that my book would be of a quality that I was proud of, and that it actually got out there in finished book form. In the end, I was able to work with a traditional traditional publishing model. I found the experience to be good for me. They were very thorough. They have an established system. Before getting there, though I put a ton of work into my manuscript before pursuing an agent through Publisher’s Marketplace. When I queried a few folks, I found out that the ms wasn’t ready for representation. Luckily, one of the agents I’d queried works with books at all different stages, and I ended up hiring him and paying him as a freelance editor to help me get the text to the next stage. After we’d finished working on it, and cutting it by about half, we were both happy with the result and I signed with him to represent me as an agent.

At that point he started shopping around to publishers and found Blackstone, an independent publisher that started publishing audiobooks in 1987 and became a full-fledged publisher. I like to say that they’re big enough to put some really good energy behind the book, but they’re small enough to care about my book. They’re a great fit. 

Once I’d signed with the publisher we got to work once more on refining the book. The manuscript went through so many more edits but I had the resources of an editing team, graphic design team, marketing team etc. I think that’s what was most helpful to me; I wasn’t not alone, I was working with professionals. With self-publishing, you have to coordinate all that yourself. That’s a lot of work, and you can put together a great piece that way, but you truly are the hub, the driver. I found in my own journey that there were blind spots I hadn’t realized were there. With a bit of experience in design in college, I’d tinkered with some of the graphical elements for the book… Suffice to say, none of my design elements made it into the final book, and that’s a good thing. I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to realize that I needed to hire out for things like that if I’d been doing it all myself.

The folks at Blackstone, though, put together such a beautiful product, and were really collaborative the entire time. I had input throughout. I valued their expertise as we went through everything, and gave every suggestion and edit weight. Sometimes, I pushed back if I disagreed, but we came to excellent resolutions. We’d gone through all this work to get the manuscript ready to shop to publishers, and when we sold it I was told that it was basically ready and that maybe we didn’t need to bother with a content edit. Again, I wanted the book to be as good as it could be, so I asked that we do go through the edit. The most humbling thing for me was getting that first round of revisions back. All that work leading up to it, and the word doc came back just full of red revision marks. It was one of those moments where I was like, “well, I guess there’s still a lot more work to do.” But I’m so glad we did that. Having those fresh eyes on the text when it was already so far along let us really refine the story that much more, and it’s better because of it.

No matter how you go about publishing a book, it’ll be a long process, with ups and downs. And that comes back to the start of my publishing journey: you have to stay true to the story you want to tell, but most importantly, you have to believe in it.

 

 

Fun with apostrophes by Marie Zhuikov

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(This was originally posted on Marie Zhuikov’s blog on August 3, 2017.)

As a writer, I care about the written word. I care about proper grammar. While I have been known to dangle a preposition at the end of my sentences, I usually try to do what’s proper, especially in my writing for hire.

I had an instance this week where I wanted to confirm the name of a bay in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Someone who works for an agency in another state asked me to review a web site about this bay, which is the subject of a federal cleanup project because it’s contaminated. My office coworker is also helping with the project by providing engineering advice.

The title of the web page was first thing I noticed. It was called “Howards Bay,” which just screams out for a possessive apostrophe, doesn’t it? (Howard’s Bay.) Unless, of course, the bay was named after someone with the last name of Howards vs. the first name of Howard.

I’ve run across instances before where proper grammar for place names flies out the window because some mapmaker hundreds of years ago labelled places incorrectly on local maps. As such, writers like myself are required to grit our teeth and perpetuate the mistake because what’s on the map has become the actual factual name for those places. One example is the St. Marys River, which empties out of Lake Superior and into Lake Huron. It makes me cringe every time I write it, but there’s no possessive apostrophe in that name due to a mapmaker’s error.

Hoping against hope that wasn’t the case for Howards Bay, I investigated. I looked on the internet. I found that newspaper stories about the bay gave Howards an apostrophe. I found that many government documents (but not all) did not. I asked friends if they knew which form was correct, and received helpful suggestions about where else to check. I looked it up on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names website. It had “no data available” about this name.

Along the way, I discovered that that state of Wisconsin (where Howards Bay is located) has a state Geographic Names Council. Who better to ask? So I sent them an email. While I was awaiting their reply, I learned more about the organization. They seem mainly formed to approve new names for lakes and other geographic features.

They have a list of rules for new names. Among them is one that says, “newly acquired proper names for geographic features shall not be designated with ” ‘s ” or “s”, indicating possession, following the name. For example: Mott Lake, rather than Mott’s Lake or Motts Lake.”

Geez, I wish they would have had that rule in place when Howards Bay was being named!

The next day, I received the geographic names councilperson’s reply to my apostrophe question. Here’s what he said: All of our records that I have been able to find have no apostrophe for Howards Bay. I’ve attached a state sediment sampling document as evidence. I cannot give a more definite answer to the “official” name but I would say that the consistency in our records would point to this being the correct spelling.

In the meantime, with my dogged grammatical passion, I had asked the state cleanup project manager for Howards Bay the same question. He said: The apostrophe question has come up before.  I have not been able to determine which version is correct and occasionally catch myself using both. For consistency, the project team chose to perpetuate the mistake and go with the original name shown on maps, i.e. “Howards.”

Aaargh! Why are we at the grammatical mercy of ancient map makers? I say that modern writers should rise up and free themselves from this typographical tyranny! Add the apostrophe “s” and may the mapmakers be damned!

Who’s with me?

**Update** August 9, 2017

A friend of mine asked a research librarian with the Superior Public Library the origin of the name of Howards Bay (also called Howards Pocket). She said it’s named for John D. Howard who held an interest in a sawmill on Connors Point. He died in 1891.

So there really should be an apostrophe because it is Howard’s Bay. Darn those mapmakers! And there should be an apostrophe in Connors Point, too, but I’m not even going to go there.


In her day job, Marie Zhuikov is an award-winning science writer and communications project manager, specializing in environmental and medical topics. She has published hundreds of articles, publications, videos and radio programs, as well as coordinated production of many web sites. At night, Marie writes eco-mystic romance novels for new adults. Her first, Eye of the Wolf, was published in 2011. The sequel, Plover Landing, was published in 2014. Her first short story, “Water Witch,” was published in the Going Coastal anthology in 2017. Her website is http://www.mariezwrites.com and she blogs at http://mariezhuikov.wordpress.com.

 

The Art of Point of View with Tina Higgins Wussow

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“If a writer isn’t considering point of view they have locked themselves inside one room and are refusing to explore the rest of the house.”

Tina Higgins Wussow is well-known throughout the Twin Ports as a poet, fiction writer, teacher, and host of monthly spoken word events at Wussow’s Concert Cafe as well as the annual Homegrown Poetry Showcase. This month she’ll lead a two-part workshop on The Art of Point of View at the Carriage House at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (1710 East Superior Street) on Wednesday, February 19 and 26 at 6:30 p.m. 

Workshop participants will review and discuss all of the point of view options available for a fiction writer, including more nuanced considerations such as psychological and temporal distance. Each student will bring a short piece of completed writing and rework that piece from a new point of view. Participants will then discuss what was lost and/or gained by choosing one particular POV over another. By the end of this workshop, participants will have a deeper understanding of how POV works and why choosing carefully is crucial to a strong piece of writing.

The fee for the workshop is $50 for LSW members, $75 for non-members (fee for non-members includes a membership through June 30, 2020, including a free entry to the annual contest, and an invitation to the annual spring event). Space is limited! To register, email jennamkowaleski@gmail.com.

Tina was kind enough to answer some questions about herself, her writing, and the upcoming workshop, and this week we’re sharing her answers on the blog.

Tell us all about your upcoming point-of-view workshop! What is “point of view,” anyway? Why is it important for writers to think about it?

The Point of View workshop I am leading will take place on the last two Wednesdays of February at the Carriage House at 1710 East Superior Street at 6:30. I have a moderate obsession with point of view. There are so many interesting possibilities for writers to consider it’s like a “choose your own adventure” story. And every option comes with gains and losses. An example would be: a story that is told in the moment of action (a dramatic event) from the point of view of the aggressor versus a story that is told from a distance of 20 years from the point of view of the victim. This is a broad example, but there are countless more nuanced adjustments to point of view that live somewhere in between. If a writer isn’t considering point of view they have locked themselves inside one room and are refusing to explore the rest of the house.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I was writing stories when I was very young, but thought I wanted to be a vet or a dancer or the person who paints the lines down the center of the road. I didn’t fully consider the option of being a “writer” until I read The House on Mango Street when I was in junior high. I remember thinking, “I want to do that. I want to make people feel how I am feeling right now.” That feeling was connected, alive, open-hearted, curious. And then I read The Bluest Eye and Sula and that was it. Maybe I’d be a vet or a dancer or a line painter, but I would also be a writer. It seemed like the best job in the world. Still does.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing? 

When I was a younger writer I refused to work on a story (poetry was different) until I had a big chunk of time to devote to it, many hours to dive deep into the work. Then real life happened and now I work in small bursts, scene by scene. Once a first draft is accomplished I usually rewrite it at least three times, often from different points of view. When I have a draft I am proud of, one that feels “true” to me, I share it with a few close friends. I try to never share a draft that I can’t fully endorse as the best I can do at the time. With their feedback in mind I make some final adjustments. Then I read it a few more times, make a lot more adjustments and send it out to the world. If it doesn’t get picked up after many, many rejections I bring it back home and think about it some more. Some stories are easier to develop than others. I just let it come to me at its own pace. I have a deep belief in the magic of sitting quietly. 

Do you have any interesting writing quirks or habits?

I write in a notebook first and then transfer it to the screen later. The only reason I do this is because the screen is attached to the computer which is attached to the internet. There is no email, newsfeed, or entertaining youtube videos in my notebook. I know myself pretty well at this point and so I adjust my surroundings to keep myself out of trouble. 

What is your proudest writing achievement?

My most proud writing achievement is that I still do it. Painting lines would have been way easier. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Someone said, “The only difference between a successful writer and a failed writer is the successful writer didn’t give up.” And “Do your work and shut up” – I tell myself that all the time, it seems like sound advice.  

What are your hobbies/pursuits when you’re not writing?

I like to hike relatively long distances for relatively long periods of time. Being alone in the woods heals me. I also like baking and have worked quite hard at making sourdough. My husband and I run Wussow’s Concert Café and keeping that pastry case filled is how I spend a lot of my time.

The Paperwork of a Young One by Amanda Kilpatrick

The desk is six-feet long, cluttered with a printer and the various office supplies you’d normally find on a desk: pencils, pens, paperclips, a stapler, a three-hole punch, journals, and of course that well-loved coffee cup complete with the coffee-ring stains on the wooden top of the desk. My seven-year-old son sits on the chair at the desk, his legs dangling, too short yet to hit the floor. He is doing his “paperwork.” He has computer papers spread over any spare surface he can find, grabs pens and pencils from the little cup on top of the desk, and opens up my laptop. He makes his outlines on his computer paper, sticks his notes in what he deems appropriate spots, and colors with his orange and pink highlighters. Soon papers are straggling all over my desk.

My son and I often vie for the attention of my desk; who will get the privilege of working here? Is my computer safe in my hands today? Will I have the space to open up my journal and make an entry, or will I have to fight a pile of papers and highlighters before I can even think about sitting down to write? Luckily for me, most of my writing is done in a paper journal, so my desk is not the be-all/end-all of writing. I can take my journal with me and write anywhere.

It is this little boy who keeps me on task. When I finally do get my desk back, when I finally get the chance to write, and when his papers are contained in one spot, I feel energized. I look at my son’s outlines and paperwork. He has such a passion for writing. I know where he gets this from. I, too, had this passion from the young age that he is at now. At his age, I wrote stories about riding Christmas trains with my best friend up to the North Pole to see Santa. He writes stories about playing Minecraft with his friends. They may be different subjects, but our minds are in the same imaginative place.

When my son is at my desk, I often take my journal and sit in my recliner. I write about him; he has autism and life can be hard. Then he looks over his shoulder at me and smiles, and he says, “I love you, Mom.” My heart melts. I keep writing because it’s moments like this that I can write about, and it’s this little boy that gives me these moments.

 

 

Amanda is a proud mom to three children:  Bryan, 21; Dortea, 17; and Matthew, 7. Amanda will forever be apologizing to Dortea for giving her brothers normal names. Amanda can be found writing in the wee hours of the morning, which is the only time she has to herself.

Writing’s Daily Worries by Vickie Youngquist-Smith

Thanks to writing, my worries have shifted. (So has my ability to make sure I put the milk in the refrigerator instead of the cupboard, but that’s another post.)

I take a break from writing to get some water. In the kitchen I discover dishes are piling up and all the cereal bowls are dirty. But I worry about a story I want to submit to a contest, so I go back to my desk. I reread the story and forget to start the dishwasher. In the morning I’m handwashing cereal bowls.

“The truck needs an oil change,” my husband says.

“I’ll call,” I say, as I worry if a clause at the end of a sentence is nonessential or essential—to comma or not to comma. I don’t seem to have an ear for distinguishing between nonessential and essential clauses at the end of sentences.

After work my husband asks, “Did you call the mechanic?”

“I forgot,” I say.

But I did rewrite the sentence I was fretting about. It lost its rhythm, so I changed it back. I played with the comma again. I put the comma in and read; I took the comma out and read. I raised my hands to the ceiling, threw back my head, and yelled. I thought about meditation, but I’d only think about commas. And comma meditation is an oxymoron. So, when he asks about the mechanic, I’m still worrying: nonessential or essential?

The real fear? I’ll make the wrong choice. An editor will read my story and notice a missing comma, in what she obviously knows is a nonessential clause. She’ll ask everyone in earshot, “How can this person call herself a writer?” It’s of no comfort that Oscar Wilde spent a whole day wrestling with one comma.

I give the comma a break and call the mechanic. If I wait until tomorrow, I might be prewriting a story in my head, and unless the story is about a mechanic . . .

After supper I go outside to pick up dog poop. I hardly notice the robust weeds in my gardens. Before I started writing, they’d registered in my brain like a 6-point earthquake. Embarrassment would lead me to pull the largest ones. But I’m looking for dog poop and trying to decide between two different endings for a story I’ve been working on for months. I don’t have any leftover brain capacity to feel shame about rogue weeds. Maybe I should abandon the story. But it taunts me when I ignore it, so I keep rekindling our relationship. I cut the story more slack than I’d give a person who gave me that much grief.

Before I started writing, I worried about what to cook for supper. These days supper is a fleeting thought and easily evicted from my mind while I hunt for publications to submit a story. I play matchmaker. Is my story like their stories? Might it be considered even if it’s a little different? Or will some editor ask everyone in earshot, “Did she even read our journal?” My story doesn’t seem to fit. I read it again and wonder, Will I ever find it a date?

When my husband gets home, I’m reminded about supper. But it’s another five minutes before he comes up from the basement. I keep looking at publications. When he gets upstairs, supper becomes a multiple-choice question: A) heat up leftovers, B) cook a frozen pizza, or C) go out for dinner.

Maybe it would be easier to quit writing, but then I’d have to go back to my old worries.

 

Vickie Youngquist-Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short-short story “Tossed” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers 2019 Contest in the short-short fiction category. She has a B.A. in English and history from the University of Superior-Wisconsin.

Her essay, “Writing’s Daily Worries,” was first published on the Brevity Nonfiction Blog on December 18, 2019. 

Writing with Anton by Felicia Schneiderhan

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This year we’ve welcomed two tiny new board members to Lake Superior
Writers. They’ve got me thinking about writing with my own babies, who are now
no longer babies, but not so far away that I’ve forgotten the exhilaration and
stress of trying to write while ushering a new person into the world.

After my youngest was born, our babysitter would come to the house to watch
my two older kids, who were two and four at the time, so I could write. Anton was
only a few weeks old, so he would come with me to my unofficial office: the
minivan. Parked with a lakefront view, I would venture into the back seat, brush
off the cracker crumbs and itinerant M&Ms, arrange myself in a nest of blankets,
tuck him into me, prop up the laptop, and voila! Work could be done.

I had written in cafes, bars, libraries, in waiting rooms and on subway trains. For
a while I thought I liked having other people around. I was conscious of them, but
then I became conscious of trying to keep them out – not allowing their
conversations or their faces or their smells to interfere in the inner world I was
trying to cultivate. Even worse – they might want to interact with me.

As writers, do we want solitude? Interaction? The best of both?

So much of a fiction writer’s creative energy comes from the tension between
inner and outer worlds; the melding of these – bringing our inner reality into the
world for others to experience – can be one of the most satisfying and thrilling
parts of writing.

Our perinatal writing sessions that fall – the expanse of the big lake rolling and
crashing with great grey crests, the narrative arc that happened somewhere on
the page – created a shared experience in a way writing with others had not.
Anton was quiet, he slept, he ate. He became part of my process, writing a novel
about a mountain climber who was trying to figure out how to keep climbing after
she had kids.

Five years on, I can write at home, since my three kids all go to school. I can
settle into my place – wow, a real desk! – without having to brush off too many
cracker crumbs. My kids are invited into my creative process in different ways: if
they get up early enough (and my nine year old does), they sit with me, watching the dialogue I spew in fits and starts across the screen, periodically giving me
suggestions (which are pretty good, I gotta admit). But more often, they inspire
me in their own creative process. Anton completely immerses himself in Lego
worlds, building sets, then acting out scenarios with the little yellow people. His
immersion in his make-believe worlds, plus his propensity to tell outlandish
stories, makes me think he was a fiction writer from the get-go.

Felicia Schneiderhan is the author of the memoir Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss
and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living on a Trawler. Her work appears in Real Simple, Chicago Sun-Times, Great Lakes Review, Literary Mama, Lake Superior
Magazine, Sport Literate, Diverse Voices Quarterly, and elsewhere. She lives on the
northern shore of Lake Superior, where she writes in whatever closet she thinks her
three tsunamis won’t find her.

Breaking the Solitude by Molly Brewer Hoeg

Writing at Sinclair Lewis' table (1)We hear it all the time. The only way to get writing done is to “put your butt in the chair.” Show up and just do it. Punch those keys, push that pen. It requires mental fortitude, commitment, a will to write. And a willingness to shut out everything else, endure the solitude.

It’s been a quiet fall. The sudden cancellation of our September travel plans left me at home with an empty slate. An abundance of empty mornings that screamed Writing Time. A lack of excuses. A productive stretch. A lot of time spent inside my own head.

Yet as I look back over the last few weeks, I can see the benefits I reap from my so-called solitary pursuit.

A chance meeting at a birding event with my husband led to a coffee date with another nascent writer. She shared her passion for submitting stories to publications, reigniting my resolve to pursue more short pieces and send them out into the world. We swapped sources, favorite contests and writing goals all with a heavy dose of encouragement.

Through Lake Superior Writers, I have met local writers and now call many of them friends. Most are far more accomplished than I, yet generously share their knowledge, their experiences, their support. I can pour out my fears and inhibitions and they get it. They’ve been through it. Just recently, I spent several hours walking the woods of Lester Park and Hawk Ridge with two such women. With each crisp footstep and breath of Northwoods air, I relished the one-on-one connection, the common pursuit of elusive goals. No matter our skill levels.

My very first writing class was a week-long immersion in travel memoir, sequestered on beautiful Madeline Island. The twelve women in the class bonded by week’s end, sharing our writing aloud – hesitantly at first, then more eagerly as the week progressed. Last weekend, five of us gathered for dinner. We’ve managed a haphazard schedule of reunions since we first met four years ago. Of course, we all brought a piece to read. We still cheer one another on.

My own writing group met a few days ago. We’re only three in number, but we hold one another accountable. Critique each other’s works. One member has accurately dubbed it the Motivation Group. Once again, it’s the common bond of writing that unites us. Enriches our lives with this connection.

I just returned from the North Shore Readers and Writers Festival in Grand Marais. This bi-annual assembly of authors, instructors, book lovers and writers is the pinnacle of literary indulgence. For four days, I attended classes, listened to speakers and panels, and rubbed elbows with other writers all day long. Socializing over wine, meeting up for dinner, or just sitting in the same sessions widened my network of fellow writers and friends. But even better I could share my passion with like-minded folks. People who ground me. Reinforce my desire, and fully share the journey.

I came home exhausted but inspired. Ready to put my butt in the chair again. New ideas racing through my head. Suddenly, I don’t feel so alone anymore.

 

 

Bio:

Molly Brewer Hoeg turned to her creative side after spending a lifetime working in IT.  She writes for regional and national magazines, including Lake Superior Magazine and Adventure Cycling, and is working on a memoir based on thousands of miles of bicycle touring with her husband.  When not in a coffee shop writing, she can be found outdoors running, cycling or cross-country skiing or sewing slipper jammies for her six grandchildren.  You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints, https://superiorfootprints.org/.

 

A note about the photo:

I started writing my book at this table, which once belonged to Sinclair Lewis, and made its way into our family.  It seemed a fitting and inspirational way to start!

The Other 7 of 14 Takeaways for the Aspiring Published Author from The Loft’s Wordsmith 2019 Conference by J. Mackenzie

Part two of a two-part blog. See the first part here.

The second half of this blog will focus more on the specifics of finding an agent and the publishing process.

  1. Commercial vs Literary vs Upmarket vs New Adult vs Young Adult vs Contemporary

Ahh! What’s the difference? I did a ton of research on this before the conference and I still got confused, referred to my notes, found myself saying one thing when I meant another. To those of us on the verge of being in the business, these terms seem overwhelming and confusing and nebulous. But they are very, very important to people inside of the industry.

The good news here is that there are TONS of blogs about this on your friendly internet. Google it until it’s clear to you. (It took me about three different blogs). Know this before you pitch. If your dream agent only takes Literary Fiction and you wrote Commercial Fiction, then they’re not your dream agent because they probably won’t even read past the first line of your query.

  1. Put your character at the center of your pitch or query letter

This has been a hard one for me since my own work involves some world building and magical elements. Where do I start?

At the characters.

It’s not that these other elements aren’t important, but they’re meaningless without a character that people can care about. Lift up your character and their core conflict first, and everything else can follow (if there’s room in your short query letter).

  1. Agents/Editors want to be curious, not confused

This advice harkens back to the query letter. I thought this idea from one of the agents summed it all up nicely.

  1. Comp titles

Or “comparative titles”. Many agents at the conference empathized with how difficult this part of the process is, particularly because they have to do it themselves when they’re trying to sell any book – maybe even your book, one day – to a publishing house. But the idea behind it is simple: what other moderately successful book would share the shelf with your book?

Note that I say “moderately successful.” This is because we were advised against using huge worldwide phenomenons in our list of comp titles because series like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games have seen such an incredible amount of success across such a wide audience, that it’s nearly impossible to replicate and realistically picture how your book will fit in amongst the other mere-mortal books.

I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, like I did, “But my book isn’t like any other book. That’s why I wrote it.” Well, that’s a good step, but Barnes and Noble isn’t going to create a new section just for you. It’s got to sit somewhere. So, where’s that going to be? If someone searches for your book on Amazon, what other books is the site going to suggest for that person?

It’s okay to say something like, “The plotline is laid out similarly to XXX with the romance twist of YYY.” As a personal example, I’m using, “My novel is like American Gods by Neil Gaiman, but with a lighter, bubblier tone.” We’ll see how far that gets me.

  1. Google Yourself

Because they’re going to Google you.

And what are they going to find?

Okay, who’s ‘they’?

Well, first it’s going to be that agent that you adore. They want to know more about you. Who are you? What are you like? Are you a normal, well-adjusted person? Do you understand the industry? Do you read? Do you participate in the literary world? Are you a crazy ax-murdering stalker? These are all things that agents need to figure out before they offer to work with you for the next few years; before they stake their very livelihood on your success.

That’s right. Their livelihood. Many of us write because it’s our love and our passion and then we change out of our jammies, take a shower, and go to our full-time job. If an agent chooses your work, your work becomes their source of income. That’s serious business. You’ve now left the world of ‘fun hobby’. So they might check to see if you have a backlog of hateful tweets before making a bet on you.

Not into social media? That’s usually okay (pending agents’ opinion and genre), but you should have a website. What to include? Name, email and a little about you. A blog is nice too. Book reviews or some form or reflecting your love for the literary arts a plus.

Once the agent and publishing house are locked down, ‘they’ could turn into your fan base. The big takeaway here is that you should create a social presence for yourself, or someone else will. And it’s better if it comes from you. If you’re on your way to being published, create pages on behalf of the ‘author’ you. Separate it from your personal accounts. And then use it and use it well. Don’t know how? Use part of the nice little advance you received from the sale of your book to hire your niece to show you the ropes.

  1. Set 10% of your advance aside to reinvest in your own writing career

Gone are the days of fully-sponsored nation-wide book tours and elaborate marketing budgets for us debut, unknown authors. You’re going to have to work at selling your own book and, while agents will do what they can to spare authors the expense of  promoting their own book, I thought some sage advice came from one of the original founders of The Loft. She advised to set 10% of your advance aside to go out of town do a book signing at a bookstore you love or to send yourself to that writers conference on the other side of the country. This advice resonated with me not as a writer, but as a business person. I appreciate when my employer sends me to the occasional conference to keep my skills sharp and to network with people in the business. If you become a published author, you are now also owning your own small business. Same mentality applies.

  1. Resilience

A final, common theme throughout the conference was the emphasis on resilience. The path to professional publishing can be very hard. You gotta want it. You gotta try over and over and over and over. Andy maybe it still won’t happen for you.

Or maybe it will.

Thank you to the Arrowhead Arts Regional Council for their support, and to The Loft for organizing and hosting the Wordsmith Conference. 

 

 
J. Mackenzie is a passionate reader, scribbler of words, hiker, pet parent and Duluthian. She is also on the board of Lake Superior Writers, where she plans programs to connect the local writing community. She is currently seeking representation for the first time for The Platya, her third manuscript and has recently started a project, documenting the writing process from the spark of an idea through publishing. She’s currently in the early idea phase. Follow her journey at jmackenziewrites.wordpress.com.

7 of 14 Takeaways for the Aspiring Published Author from The Loft’s Wordsmith 2019 Conference By J. Mackenzie – Part one of a two-part blog

So much of writing is delightfully solitary. We authors eke out quiet moments in quiet corners of our busy lives where we don’t have to make eye contact with another living being so that we can stare down our own imaginative heroes and demons. We recall and create worlds. We reframe and reimagine what we know to show how things could be better. From the silence of our own minds we create battles and love affairs; we capture what it is to be human and we share it with the world in ways that can cause us all to better understand the humanity within one another and ourselves.

If the world ever reads it.

If anyone ever reads it.

Okay, can maybe my mom just read it?!?

The Loft’s Wordsmith Conference over the weekend of November 2-3, 2019 on the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities campus was built around this next step in mind, when we quiet little introspective writers need to take our gaze off our shoes and make eye contact with the world of publishing. It was built for those of us who’ve finished and polished that ‘final’* draft of a novel, look out the window above our computers screens and think ‘Now what?’ It’s for those of us who’ve spent our lives going to bookstores, zooming down the alphabet of last names to find where our own published works will eventually live. It’s for those of us who have something to say and are ready for someone to hear (read) it.

Thanks to an educational opportunities grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, I was lucky enough to venture down to the Twin Cities for the weekend conference. But I know it’s not possible for everyone to devote an entire weekend to a conference that’s 200 miles away, so, in this blog, I will attempt to bring the conference to you. The only thing you’ll miss is the cinnamon roll from Tobies on the way there. There’s simply no way to replicate that goodness.

The first part of this blog will focus on the basics of an agent/editor relationship, and how to prep your manuscript for querying. The second half, which will be published at a later date, will cover specifics of finding an agent and the publishing process.

1) Ummm…so what does an agent do?
They are your partner. Your collaborator. Your problem solver. They will get you as much money as possible for your manuscript and then will do whatever they can to get as many copies of that book sold to a greater audience.
They will take 15% of your manuscript’s purchase price (the amount your publisher pays for your manuscript). If there is a separate foreign distribution arrangement, then you’ll pay 20% (10% for your agent, 10% for the international distributor).
They’ll fight for you whenever a problem arises. Doesn’t that sound great? Book jacket design is terrible? They’ll help to figure that out. Would your book make a good movie? They’ll get it to producers. Some other unimaginable problem? They’ll deal with that too. This is why many agents only take a few new clients at a time, or maybe aren’t taking new clients at all. Because they’re fighting for other projects. They’re trying to get them sold.
Agents can be amazing. But, a word of caution, there are people who give agents a bad name. Read all contracts before signing. Ideally, have a lawyer familiar with the publishing world review any potential contracts before signing anything.

2) What does an editor do?
Edit.
And so much more.
Editors for publishing houses, of course, edit manuscripts. But they also fight for them. When an editor loves a manuscript that an agent has put in front of them, they have to sell it to a whole room full of people. They have to convince the publishing house that it’ll sell, so that their bosses will pay them to spend time on perfecting the book and eventually publish it.

Now that we’ve established the players in the game, we’ll move on to some advice on preparing your manuscript before sending it to potential agents.

3) Love Your Book. Hate Your Book. Love Your Book.
Madeline Miller, one of the keynote speakers, and author of The Song of Achilles and Circe spoke about her own editing process while finishing her manuscript. Her advice on the topic personally resonated because it perfectly summed up a process that I was experiencing without realizing it.
You have to love your book, especially when you’re writing the first draft. You have to believe in your idea and be passionate about your characters.
But then, when your draft is done, the book’s complete, your ideas are all out on the page, you have to hate your book. You have to edit. You need to believe that everything that you did could be done so much better, and then you have to do so much better.
Finally, once the editing step is done, you have to love your book again. Because if you’re not excited about it, how will anyone else be?

4) Proofread
Who would have thought that there would have had such a strong emphasis at a writer’s conference on proofreading?!?
A common question was whether agents actually throw queries away if there’s one typo.
The advice here was contradictory. Some agents have a “one typo and I’m out” policy when reviewing query letters and the first ten pages of your work (the typical amount to send alongside a query, though check each agents’ guidelines.) Others are more forgiving, knowing that a book will have to go through tons of revisions down the road anyway. (See #3).
Agents’ big concern is, and always will be, the story. However, they have a lot of other secondary concerns which can be deal breakers, and a top one is the quality of the writing. Typos in a query don’t send a strong and professional first impression. We are writers, after all.
But, bigger picture, the advice was to hold on to that manuscript until it’s DONE. Spend the time to perfect it, especially those first ten pages, which are so critical to hooking a potential agent and publisher. Rework it and revise it. Make sure it’s the best version of itself that it’s going to be. Then send it. This could take six months. This could take ten years. They don’t care. Agents will be around when you’re ready.
Agents get thousands – THOUSANDS – of queries a year. They may take ten clients on at a time. Proofread your work.
Another common question was whether us new-to-the-table authors should hire a professional editor. Agents and editors shifted uncomfortably in their chairs at this question because it’s really up to the individual author and their work. Only you know how much work is needed until a manuscript is done. Or, maybe get one, two or ten beta readers to give you feedback first for free (who owes you a favor???). If there’s a problem that you still can’t fix, maybe a professional editor could be helpful. But research them too. It would be terrible if they gave you bad advice that steered you further from your publishing goals.

5) Hold onto that manuscript until it’s ready
One of the agents on a panel commented that books need to be far more ‘done’ and polished than ever before. Back in the day, when there were dozens of publishing houses, editors could pick up projects because of their promise.
This way of life is no more.
Due to the constraints of the publishing business in 2019, he said that your book should be at least 90% of the way there, or they won’t pick it up. And, in my observation, their “90% of the way there” means that we authors have to get that manuscript as perfect as we think our book will ever be before we start the querying process.

6) The reason for the * after “‘final’*” draft in the intro paragraph to this blog
You think your draft is final, done, polished? That’s cute. The conversation that I found most surprising at the conference was the emphasis that agents and editors put on their own editing process. So, even though you need to get that manuscript as wonderful as you possibly can pre-querying, be prepared to edit it again. Over and over and over.

Depending on the agent, you can expect one to several rounds of revisions (sometimes before they even sign you!), and that’s before they even shop it out to editors and publishers. If an editor/publishing house signs with you, then you can expect one to several more rounds of editing as well (see above…it’s sort of what editors do.)

7) “Effective writing is flying” – Kao Kalia Yang
Yes, there’s a lot in this blog (just think what didn’t make the cut!). But it’s also important to continue to create the space to write. You need to take care of yourself and protect your time so that you can hit the point where you can write beautifully, eloquently and effectively. How else are you going to write that second best-seller?

Thank you to the Arrowhead Arts Regional Council for their support, and to The Loft for organizing and hosting the Wordsmith Conference.

J. Mackenzie is a passionate reader, scribbler of words, hiker, pet parent and Duluthian. She is also on the board of Lake Superior Writers, where she plans programs to connect the local writing community. She is currently seeking representation for the first time for The Platya, her third manuscript and has recently started a project, documenting the writing process from the spark of an idea through publishing. She’s currently in the early idea phase. Follow her journey at jmackenziewrites.wordpress.com.