Writing (or Not Writing) and Daycare for Grandkids

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides.

The synapses in my brain zing snarky impulses from neuron to neuron, causing my mind to fire on all cylinders with crankiness and snarl, feed me serotonin.

I have to write because that’s what the old gray mass wants. At this point, my brain is past accepting substitutes—walking, chocolate, reading, or cleaning won’t short-circuit the cranky electrical impulses as my brain begs, write, you know you want to; write, you know you need to; just bloody hell write.

***

I’m retired and days should be my own, but my grandkids need daycare, and being the only available option, I’ve been babysitting now for two-and-a-half months.

Most weekdays my four grandkids fill the house with the discordant sound of a young orchestra struggling to play on key and in time. I love them, but by the end of the day, their continuous, overlapping voices and sounds of play erode my energy, leaving my mind worn down like a piece of driftwood partly buried in sand.

Writing saves me from feeling like a clunker that’s been dropped into a car crusher, being pushed into itself on all sides. It’s been days since I’ve attempted any writing, and the front and rear bumpers of my soul are almost rubbing together.

Each morning I’ve grand plans to write after my grandkids go home. But after they leave, I descend into a stuffed chair, stretch my legs over its ottoman, and muster up what I need to get through the few hours I’ve left before going to bed. Writing rarely makes the cut.

My weekends are grandchild-free, but I’m spending them working on a sizeable editing job for a client. The work is stimulating, and the client’s writing is enjoyable, but it’s not the same as doing my own writing.

Because I’ve the reserves for escapism but not the stamina to write, I hide from writing, pretending I’m being productive by reading a novel for my book club, embroidering dishtowels for friends, and watching British police dramas with tortured detectives, hence phrases like bloody hell slinking into my speech. (In one police drama, the storyline featured a detective winning third place in a prestigious writing contest. It was the character’s last episode, and with no explanation for his exit, I’m assuming he left the force to pursue a rewarding writing career. I decided the show was mocking me. But I still watch it.)

***

Today, mercifully, my 22-month-old grandson falls asleep on the daily car ride my grandkids and I take after lunch. I carry him into the house and place him on the couch. He curls up like an armadillo and slips back into a deep slumber. If he follows his routine, he’ll sleep about two hours. His older siblings migrate to the rec room to play with a marble run and building blocks. An enticing silence replaces the din of chatter, constant questions, and chirps of “Nana.”

I brush aside plans to catch up on housework and slip into my writing hole. I ease in by organizing a few items on my desk. Next, I slide a little deeper by doing some research for an article I’m writing. Finally, I burrow in and start writing this essay about how hard it is to write after caring for grandkids all day.

***

A friend of mine often tells me I’m doing an important job (the babysitting not the writing). I agree with her that caring for children is important, but I don’t say that for me, it’s not enough.

Writing isn’t my hobby, but it’s not my job either. I started writing after I retired, and I grapple with its place in my life, but if I ignore writing, it picks and prods at me. If I don’t write, writing finds me, invading my thoughts, diverting them from the world around me. I start composing in my head and later find I’ve driven to the end of my day, but don’t remember the scenery along the way.

***

After more than two hours at my desk, except for quick breaks to check on my grandkids, my brain is swimming in a pool of serotonin. So, when my sleeping grandson awakes calling, “Nana,” I know I can handle whatever he tosses at me for the afternoon. We meet halfway between the living room and family room. He reaches up for me and I reach down for him, scooping him up in a big hug.

At six o’clock my son picks up his children, and I write for another half-hour, but I’m tired because it’s been a ten-hour day. I take a break to eat, but I don’t want to leave my writing world, so when I join my husband in the family room where he’s watching TV, I read a book about writing essays. The book, a bit academic, isn’t what I thought it would be, but the writer’s prose is wonderful and I find myself lulled by the rhythm of his sentences, enjoying his contemplations about essays. I’ve entered a Zen-like calm. It’s the best I’ve felt in days.

Even if it’s just in snippets of time, I resolve to write more, to read more about the craft of writing, and to sign up for writing classes. If I don’t, my brain will hunt me down, nip at my heels, and bite me in the behind.

And, having started writing after retirement, behind is what I feel. At sixty-one, I don’t see unending days and years stretching ahead of me, like I did when I was twenty and thirty. It’s harder to say, I’ll write when life settles down, because that doesn’t happen. Life pushes in, but with keyboard at fingertips, I need to push back.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had an essay and several stories published in three regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on the following blogs: Lake Superior Writers, Brevity, and Perfect Duluth Day. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music.

Procrastination as a Tool by Brian Matuszak

“I am at my most creative, my most prolific, my most full of wonderfulness when there isn’t any time left to screw around. When it has to be done, I get it done. And more often than not, I get it done well.”

Today I was going to talk about procrastination, but I figured that could wait.* 

All seriousness aside, procrastination is a worthwhile topic for writers to think about…eventually.** How many of us put off writing because the ink’s low in the printer? Or the kitten’s stuck in the printer? Or you have to purchase a new printer? Around my house, the Procrastination List of Topics is long and varied, but I’m here to let you in a little secret:  

That’s not entirely bad.  

Some of my best work has been created in the proverbial (and literal) Last Minute. Nothing transforms a Walter White of an idea into a Heisenberg of creative output faster than when there’s absolutely no other option besides getting it done. Deadlines are a wonderful thing. And I know them intimately because I don’t bother embracing them until they’re right in my face. 

I recall my freshmen year in college. I was a newly scrubbed high school graduate, ready to take on the world with energy, passion, and hair. We had an assignment in Freshman English to write an essay about an embarrassing moment. Being the action postponer I had grown up to be, I dove right in to not doing it. 

Not that I didn’t *think* about it, and that’s crucial to the Master Put-Offer-Of-Things. You must plop the main idea into the brain oven and let it simmer. Consider possible topics, themes, ideas, turns of phrase…BUT DON’T WRITE ANY OF THEM DOWN! That’s called Working On It, which will get you kicked out of the Procrastination Club, as soon as we feel like looking up the bylaws. 

Eventually, I settled on the horrifyingly stupid and humiliating story of me hauling an automatic transmission around downtown Duluth in the back of my car, getting a flat tire, then not being able to jack up my car because of the weight of the 800-pound greasy piece of scrap metal lodged in my backseat. Oh, and I was on a first date at the time. (Yes, smarty pants, I did get a second date, which proves that sweat is charming to some people.) 

Now it came time to put off the writing of the assignment. 

I should point out that in high school, I had a mother who always checked on my homework. What was the assignment? When was it due? WHY AREN’T YOU WORKING ON IT RIGHT NOW? Through the prism of time, it’s easy to see that Mom’s nagging was essential for my high school success. But then I graduated, moved out of the house, and Procrastination said “Hey, college man. Let’s grab some lukewarm PBR and hang.” 

So when did I finally compose this particular English essay? The hour before it was due. In the student lounge. Written out in longhand in my notebook. With minutes to spare, I set my still-smoking essay free from the spiral prison, neatly clipped all the jagged paper edges off, slapped my name on it and handed it in. 

Ladies and gentlemen, not only did I get an A, the teacher read it out loud to the entire class as an example of how a personal essay should be written. Yes, I WAS REWARDED FOR MY DRAGGING FEET! The dye was set. The concrete poured. My destiny fulfilled. That day, I learned that I am at my most creative, my most prolific, my most full of wonderfulness when there isn’t any time left to screw around. When it has to be done, I get it done. And more often than not, I get it done well. 

So embrace your inner Goof Off Guy/Gal/Gang. See if it works for you to put something creative off until the last possible second. When there’s no time left for second-guessing yourself, you might just achieve some incredible writing. Get out of your own way and shine. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another essay due in twenty minutes. Better get crackin’.*** 

*Comedy professional. Do not attempt at home. 

**Again, comedy professional. Please stop trying to put this into your writing. You’re only hurting yourself. 

***It’s called the Comedy Rule of Three. Look it up. 

Brian Matuszak is a local writer/actor/director/producer, co-founder of Rubber Chicken Theater, and has been practicing the fine art of procrastination since birth. In fact, he didn’t finish this bio until you started reading it.

Log It! by Eric Chandler

Having a submissions tracker is aspirational . . .  it shows you’re creating enough “content” that you need to manage it. That you are serious about finding readers. The empty lines in the spreadsheet are almost like a coach, motivating you to send your work into the world.

The internet gods attacked two of my logs this year. Those crimes spurred me to create two new logs that help me as a writer. So buckle in and get helped, if you want. 

Log

The First Attack. I have a software program called The Athlete’s Diary. It’s a daily log of my exercise. I have 37 years of daily workouts and races in that data base. I’ve logged around 40 thousand miles of running, cross-country skiing, cycling, hiking, paddling, and rollerskiing. I’m on my second lap around the earth. This log is my life’s work. I’m not kidding.

Recently, I updated my computer to the latest operating system. I was shocked when my Athlete’s Diary didn’t work anymore. I “sucked up some seat cushion,” as they say in the flying biz when you get scared. I wrote the company and they said, “Yeah, we aren’t supporting the desktop version anymore.” The application still works on my phone, thank goodness. For a second, I thought I lost my magnum opus

The Second Attack. I subscribed to Writer’s Market online for about 20 years. When I was new to submitting work, it helped me find new markets. Eventually, I subscribed just for the submissions tracker. It was an online database that kept track of where you sent your work. I had 20 years of submissions in that database. Since I travel for my day job, it was good because I could access it anywhere. One day, I went to Writer’s Market, and the website was gone. I emailed them and they said, “Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore.” I suggested that maybe they could’ve given me a heads up BEFORE FLUSHING TWENTY YEARS DOWN THE TOILET. Luckily, I saved a backup record. It was about six months out of date, but I was able to cobble together a new log. Just 541 different submission attempts I made over 20 years. No big deal. 

The Two New Logs. So, the two bad things happened: my workout tracking software was dumbed down and my submissions tracker was eliminated completely. Two new good things came from it. I have a new way of tracking submissions and a new way of logging my writing time. 

Submissions Tracker Sample

The First New Log. First, my new submissions tracker. It’s a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I’ve included a sample picture and a blank spreadsheet that you’re welcome to have. It’s the backup I made of the Writer’s Market website. This whole experience made me ask this: Why track submissions? I track my submissions for three reasons: Writing needs readers, having a submissions tracker saves time, and it helps me act like a professional. (“Act like one”; ahem)

Writing needs readers. I like the process of writing. I learn about myself, others, and the world through writing. But I also believe that writing isn’t actualized until a reader absorbs it. It hasn’t reached its full potential until somebody reads the words you wrote. Having a submissions tracker is aspirational. Gee, you must have work to track. It shows you’re creating enough “content” that you need to manage it. That you are serious about finding readers. The empty lines in the spreadsheet are almost like a coach, motivating you to send your work into the world.

A submissions tracker saves time. I don’t enjoy the submissions process. Especially when you’re trying to break into a new market. You have to spell the editor’s name right. You have to put the manuscript in the correct format. Do I include my stupid address on the first page or not? Do they want a bio? Tedious, boring, and exhausting. The tracker helps me cut down on this time. I can see that I’ve submitted to someone before and go update that previously rejected cover letter. I’ll already know what publications accept simultaneous submissions or previously published work. It’s easy to find when I last submitted to a certain magazine. Which publications I have a better success rate with. There’s no avoiding some legwork when submitting to a new market. But with the tracker, I don’t reinvent the wheel each time. I like having readers. I don’t like spending time on clerical work to find them. 

A submissions tracker helps me act like a professional. It’s a lifelong process to become a “serious writer,” especially if you’re a slow learner like me. My new Excel submissions tracker has spurred me to submit more often. I can still get to it everywhere since I save it on Dropbox, one of many file-sharing options you can use. When I submit simultaneously and something is accepted, I can easily find the other places where I submitted and notify them. 

The biggest driver on my spreadsheet is the “Next Action Date” along with the adjacent “Next Action Description.” Sorting my spreadsheet by this date lets me see ALL the things I have in the hopper and the real tasks that are next. When I first submit a piece, if they specify how long they want to be left alone or when they’ll announce acceptances, I put that as the next action date. I don’t have to keep looking up when to follow-up and I don’t pester a busy editor. I use the “Notes” section freely, especially to highlight why the “Next Action Date” exists. If a piece gets accepted, I put the expected publication date in that column, so I can share it and bask in glory. After it’s published, I put a date sometime in the future so I can make sure I got paid or a contributor copy. “Paid?” goes in the description column. When a piece gets rejected, I leave the current date there, but add a “resubmit” comment until I submit the piece somewhere else. That way the resubmitting task stays higher in the pile. Professionals are detail oriented, punctual, disciplined, and committed to finding readers. But like Vonnegut says, we are what we pretend to be. The submissions tracker helps me pretend, because I’m no pro.

Writing Time Sheet SampleThe Second New Thing. So, we covered the submissions tracker and my three reasons for having one. Now, the second new outcome: my writing time sheet. It’s inspired by my Athlete’s Diary, which acts like a minimalist journal. My time sheet is simple, too. It’s another Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and I included an example. It’s yet another way to show I’m a “serious writer.” 

I log the date, how many hours I worked, and what I did. I don’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but I have those tendencies. I tried to weaponize my OCD before by tracking my writing word count. But there is more to writing than word count. Editing my work is vital, but there’s no word count for that. Researching and interviewing people for articles takes time, but has no word count. For me, logging my time at work lends the whole enterprise more meaning. The fact is, I like logging things. So, this writing time sheet is also a motivational tool, like the submissions tracker. If I get to log it, I’m more likely to do all the work that writing entails. 

I’m new at this time log. It might help me to determine what my time is worth. What things are effective as a writer vs. things that waste my time. It’s like the old Annie Dillard quote: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” In a typical year, I fly airplanes for about 600 hours. In a good year, I ski/run/bike/hike for 300 hours. For the first time in 20 years of writing for publication, I know my writing time. If I stay on pace, I’ll put in 400 hours on writing this year. I’m surprised that it’s up with my other “serious” pursuits. And I also learned why I’m a little soft around the middle. I need more mileage to match the sedentary “butt-in-chair” time.

Evil forces attacked two of my logs. I came up with two new logs as a result. And I share this with you dear reader, because maybe it will help you take this solitary writing work to the next level. Also, I really like Ren & Stimpy, so I got to include a picture of the famous log song cartoon. Keep writing!

Eric Chandler is the author of Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War (Middle West Press, 2017). His writing appeared in Northern Wilds, Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Columbia Journal, The War Horse, Consequence Magazine, Sleet Magazine, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, O-Dark-Thirty, and The Deadly Writers Patrol. Eric cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota. Check out his website: Shmotown

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.

 

 

VictoriaSmith_Author Photo3

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.