Monday, June 29, 2015

It Takes a Village to Write a Book - Rae Theodore

If you ever doubted the importance of a writing group or writing workshop to move a manuscript toward completion, this guest post by Rae Theodore should put those doubts to rest.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rae through our Women's Writing Circle workshop on memoir and, more recently, our June read around. Please welcome Rae, whose memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, was just released this week. ~ Susan

"I always thought writing was a solitary pursuit until I started writing a book."

That's the first line of the Acknowledgements to my memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender.

Before I started putting my story down on paper, I had this image of what a "real" writer looked like. Real writers hid away in small offices and hunched over computer keyboards, clicking and clacking into the wee hours of the night.

I was already a writer -- a business writer.  That's how I paid the bills. However, I had put my dream of becoming a creative writer on hold. After I finished work for the day, I rarely found time for other writing, fun writing.  I had started a few short stories in notebooks but never finished them. 

A few years ago, I started seeing a therapist, who gave me a homework assignment.  

"Find a group or activity just for you," she said. 

I considered signing up for an art class but missed the registration deadline. 

"I'm failing therapy," I told my partner.

My therapy sessions were on Fridays. I only had a few days to sign up for something. I recalled seeing an ad for a writers' group that met on Tuesday mornings at a nearby bookstore. I planned to attend one group meeting, report back to my therapist and get a passing grade in therapy.

I was nervous that first day. About five or six of us sat around a folding table in the back of the store.  We introduced ourselves.

Rae, 2 years old, in Dad's shoes
"My name is Rae. I'm a business writer. After I'm finished work, I never seem to find time for creative writing.  I've always wanted to write a book.  I'm here to find some type of writing project to work on." 

That became my mantra.

We worked on writing prompts, which was new to me. On that first day, I surprised myself by sharing in a shaky voice something that I wrote.  There was something magical about the writing space.

I showed up most Tuesdays, even though I sometimes wanted to stay home in my pajamas and watch Dr. Phil and reruns of Sex in the City.

I wrote about wanting to stay home in my pajamas and watch Dr. Phil and Sex in the City.

In responding to the prompts, I noticed that I mostly wrote about myself, my family and my life. It was my default. I started thinking about penning a memoir.

Our writers' group started a monthly critique panel. I submitted my first memoir chapter. I had written about a humiliating incident that I had never shared with anyone else.
            I am climbing the back stairwell of my friends' off-campus apartment for a party.  I am  20 years old and a junior in college. Three students, two girls and one guy, pass me on their way down the stairs.
     
            "What was that?" one of them asks.
            Each new peal of laughter echoes and rings out like a shot in the enclosed space.
            With one three-word utterance, they have stripped me of my humanness.  I feel raw and   exposed.

            I focus on the words "what" and "that."
            For a brief moment, I think that this must be what Eve felt like in those first few seconds after the fall -- red faced and uncomfortable in her own body for the very first time.
While I was waiting for feedback on my piece, I spent a lot of time in bed in my pajamas watching Dr. Phil and Sex in the City (when I wasn't hiding under the covers and praying for the world to end).

When the critique group met, I steeled myself for comments that my chapter was weird or stupid or wrong. That I was weird or stupid or wrong. Instead, the feedback was enthusiastic and positive and gave me fuel to write the next chapter.

I fell into a routine of attending my writers' group every week, writing one chapter at a time and submitting it for critique.

I attended a memoir workshop run by Susan in which I laid down the bones for the book's title chapter. In the workshop, I learned about weaving light elements of a story with dark ones, and I played with that technique throughout my writing process.

Each time I submitted a chapter for critique, I held my breath and waited for: This is weird.  You are weird. No one will want to read this.  You call yourself a writer?
   
In time, I realized the comments were my own.  Decades of self-doubt played on a loop inside my head.  Writing quieted the voices.

It took me about two years to write the book. I traveled back in time and landed in each chapter, trying to remember every detail -- the sights, a song playing on the radio, the smell of Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific Shampoo, the way Pop Rocks feel as they melt strawberry sweet on my tongue.

I hope the book gets people talking about the red-hot topic of gender.  I hope it opens people's minds and hearts to what it's like to be different, a nonconformist, a gender rebel. 

I thought the book would be a gift to others who saw themselves reflected in its pages. Turns out, it was a gift to me as it provided an opportunity for self-reflection, inspection and growth.

****
How about you? Can you share an experience - good, bad, or indifferent - with a writing group? Your comments are most welcomed.

RAE THEODORE lives in Royersford, Pa. with her wife, children and, in stereotypical fashion, her cats. By day, she works as a staff writer for one of the world's largest communications firms. By night, she writes about living in that middle place where boy and girl collide. Her favorite day of the week is Tuesday because that's when her writers' group meets. You can read about her adventures in gender nonconformity on the Flannel Files at middleagebutch.wordpress.com. She has been recognized by the blogging site for a story she wrote about a soggy fish sandwich and another about a mystical message from a plumber. Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, is her first book.

Links to ordering book:

http://weaselpress.storenvy.com/products/13323072-leaving-normal-adventures-in-gender

Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/nqhplug
Twitter: @FlannelFiles

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A July Writing Workshop - Writing Our Stories

We'll be doing something a little different in July than read around. Susan will offer:  

Writing Our Stories

When: Sat., July 18, 2015: 9-11:30 a.m.

Where: St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 7 St. Andrew’s Lane, Ludwig’s Corner

Together we will write good stories, stories we each can tell, those true and unexpected narratives that reveal who we are separately and how we are together. We will explore what good stories are, and then we’ll write them.

We will work with writing prompts and timed exercises . . . then read our work aloud in a group setting. This is not critique, but a workshop to feel the dignity and the integrity of each word we write as it leads us toward story.

Bring your favorite writing tools: Laptops, notebooks, pens and pencils

Light refreshments, coffee, tea

Cost: $20

PLEASE RSVP Susan Weidener if you plan to attend this writing workshop at sgweidener@comcast.net. Space is limited.
  
Directions to the church are here.
All genres welcome. You do not have to be published. This workshop is open only to women.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Romance Writer Michelle Dim-St. Pierre's Writing Advice


As part of WOW! (Women On Writing) blog tours featuring women authors, please welcome romance novelist Michelle Dim-St. Pierre to the Circle as she discusses writing and offers advice. ~ Susan

What's the most important advice I can give to anyone wanting to become a writer?  Write.

I am not trained as a writer; I don’t have a degree in writing. Yet being able to combine words in such a way to have greater meaning has always meant a lot to me. I love being able to convey stories from what happens in my life.

I’ve practiced. I’ve worked at it. I’ve kept with it over time. I love taking thoughts from my imagination and building a story around it. Here's an example from my book:
There, at the cemetery, I was one among thousands of individuals who came to say goodbye. I was one among thousands who thought they knew Ron. I was the only one there, among so many people, who knew that the envelope I was to deliver to Ron had never been accepted. Therefore, the woman next to me buried, with anger, the father of her child, and the little girl next to her buried the man who never knew he had a daughter. I buried the man who had strong arms, a man who never knew how much I wanted him to hold me tight. I buried my hero who I’d failed to tell.
We all have a unique story to tell. We all live through different experiences, different transitions that make us who we are. Those experiences can guide us to think in a unique way. And when we apply that innate talent into our writing, magic occurs.

Writing is a personalized and individualized experience. My life is different than yours. What works for me might not work for you.

What I’ve done that most don’t is chosen to become a writer. I’ve taken the steps necessary to share my stories with the world.

Yet that doesn’t make me better equipped for writing. It doesn’t give me exclusive rights at being a storyteller.

If you want to write, write. Choose to listen to the stories that are deep within. Listen to the passion that rises from what makes you, you. Tell the story you are meant to tell.

You can get help with the editing.

You can get help with the publishing.

But if you never start the process – if you never write – your story will never be told.

About the Author: A native of Israel and a medical professional, Michelle Dim-St. Pierre left her homeland for America to further her career in nursing, recently finding herself giving up her lifetime career to write her first novel,.

http://www.michelledimstpierre.com/

Pinnacle Lust is the first book of a trilogy. The story takes place in Israel, during Operation Desert Storm, about an illicit affair that leads to great love, betrayal, and an unregretful commitment. Sharon Lapidot, is a beautiful young nurse who falls deeper and deeper into an affair with a married doctor. Her world is shattered by powerful and eroding mistakes, but her courage leads her to an unregretful commitment in a land far from home. It is only eighteen years later when her daughter discovers that the man who raised her is not her biological father.

In explaining her career shift from nurse to writer, Dim-St. Pierre says, “The nurse in me is sealed in my heart–it is me. I believe that the right time to change careers is when you reach the pinnacle. In my case it was even better, my nursing career inspired me to write.”

****
How do you feel about writing? Does it take courage to start - and stick - to the process of writing every day? Your comments are most welcomed.

Michelle has graciously offered to give away either a trade paperback or ebook of Pinnacle Lust  to the winner of a random drawing from guest commenters.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Writing and Wellness - A Guest Post By Randy Rolfe

This past month I met Randy Rolfe through Women's Business Connection, an empowering organization for women entrepreneurs in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Writing as a way of healing had influenced her work, Randy told me, not only at the International Women's Writing Guild summer conferences which I have attended several times, but in the greater scope of her work as an author, entrepreneur and healer.

Loss, the mother-daughter relationship, the "secrets" of successful parenting, and healthy living - all topics Randy has explored in her books. Please welcome Randy to the Women's Writing Circle ~ Susan

(Note: Painting is by Montreal artist and cancer survivor Cheryl Braganza, who I met at the recent Women's Voices, Women's Visions 2015 symposium at Skidmore College.)

****

In the early 1970s, I studied nutrition while going to law school. The smells, textures, tastes, and hands-on tasks were a great break from the books and lectures. Besides, I was determined to sort out all the conflicting information about nutrition to figure out what my new husband and I should be eating to maximize our health and longevity.

I wrote my first book about what I had learned, but publishers turned it down, saying it was too reasonable, so they didn’t know how to market it. Ten years later, my first published book was You Can Postpone Anything But Love, all about our happy experience raising our son and daughter. I self-published the book in 1985, when self-publishing was still largely unheard of, but I had a deadline for a conference where I wanted to introduce my book, so I made it happen! The book was eventually picked up by Time-Warner and has sold over 50,000 copies, now in third printing.

That experience led me to meeting many other women writers, particularly through the International Women’s Writing Guild. I was asked to develop workshops there to help busy writers to stay healthy while they bent over their computers after a long day at their day job. I also came to appreciate how, just as wellness can help a writer, writing and writers can help with our wellness.

Whether it is your career goals, your struggles, your insights, your dreams, your opinions, your personal resolutions, your favorite fantasies, or your advice and accumulated wisdom, it helps tremendously to lighten your heart, reduce your stress, unload your mind, lower your blood pressure, and allow you a good night’s sleep to get it all out there and down on paper or keyboard. And it can really be helpful to share your thoughts with other writers! It builds confidence, skills, and friendships!

My favorite question as a child was, "Why can't people just be happy?" So I set about to find out why. In my quest I have had the joy of working in a number of fields, as a lawyer, family therapist, clinical nutritionist, college professor, theologian, and media personality. Today my passion is helping individuals to become more aware of how their smallest choices each day have the biggest impact on their long-term happiness.

In an important article by Stephen C. Schimpff, MD, "The Dramatic Change in the Causes of Death," Schimpff points out that our causes of death have changed dramatically, and that the medical world has not kept up. Author of  The Future of Health Care Delivery, he explains, "Industry has found that some 70% of health care costs to the employer are due to modifiable behaviors and some two thirds or more of these expenditures go to managing just four diseases - cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. What is evident is that the causes of death have switched from acute illnesses to chronic illnesses. And we know from insurance companies that chronic illnesses consume about 70-85% of claims paid."

We often hear that these diseases are more prevalent now because we are just living so much longer, longer enough to reach the age when these "strike." But in fact, they don't just strike us. They develop over decades from our less than healthy environments and lifestyle choices.

In the last 100 years, according to U.S. Government Statistics, life expectancy at 50 years of age has increased by only 11 years for white males, by 12 years for white women, by 10 years for all other males, and by 14 for all other women. We cannot claim it is just because we are older. In fact today we see these dangerous conditions developing in young adults and even now in children.

So what can we do? All these conditions are related to chronic stress reactions which cause havoc to our bodies over time. We don’t sleep, make poor food choices, don’t feel like walking, and forget to take time to relax. Meanwhile we are exposed to ever increasing toxins, in our air, water, foods and beverages, household products, and even bedrooms, and now there is the challenge of universal WIFI frequencies, which the World Health Organization has identified as a possible hazard.  
We must reconnect to nature and improve our own homes, where we do have control. Technologies now exist for reducing the toxic load in our homes and our diets. Once we feel better, we will get out and about, have more adventures to write about, and interact with more people, like getting to our local writers’ group!

I hope you will take a look at the amazing line of wellness products which my family and I discovered more than a decade ago and which has virtually stopped the clock for us and made us feel more energized, relaxed and yes happy than we previously thought possible! If you choose to share these technologies with others, the income can also give you more time for writing!  


RANDY ROLFE is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur, and a recognized authority on parenting, family life, wellness, and life balance. She is author of eight books, including You Can Postpone Anything But Love and The Four Temperaments. She has appeared on top network talk shows more than 50 times and on 100s of radio shows. A Renaissance woman, Randy is also a lawyer, theologian, clinical nutritionist, and educator. She lives with her husband in Chester County, Pennsylvania and California and they have a son and daughter now grown. Randy enjoys travel, history, nature, cuisine, swimming, ping-pong, and ballroom dance. Please visit Randy at http://www.randyrolfe.com and  http://www.nikken.com/randyrolfe.

Her Amazon Author page is: http://www.amazon.com/Randy-Rolfe/e/B000APVFB8

How about you? Can you relate a story about the connection between writing and wellness? Your comments are most welcomed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The "Flicker" of Curiosity Finds The Writer


I met my husband thirty-eight years ago under white dogwood trees. This past Sunday I visited his gravesite. Dogwood bloomed in ivory splendor against a perfect blue sky. 

Everything comes full circle. These are the things the writer notices and remembers.

At the base of his small white tombstone, I placed a smooth tan stone with the word 'joy’ penned in black ink – the word I had selected as my intention for a three-day writing and women’s leadership symposium I attended before stopping off at the United States Military Academy at West Point to visit John’s grave.

I hadn’t been back in 15 years . . . some things are too hard.

That afternoon as sun slanted through treetops, I spent close to two hours by the gravesite, talking to my husband and sharing with him things that I know he already knows; how wonderful are his sons  . . . how he has remained my touchstone to honor and chivalry and the catalyst for my three books which form a trilogy of our love. I cried, laid my cheek against the cool white tombstone, wrapped my arms around him once again.

At the symposium, writing teacher June Gould posted this on the blackboard: “Dead is what gets poets up in the morning.” ~ Billy Collins

Sadly funny, but true. I’m not a poet, but my husband's untimely death at the age of 47 from cancer has been the reason for my books. Like the English writer Julian Barnes did for his late wife, I have become “the principal rememberer" of John, most recently through A Portrait of Love and Honor.


As another writer said to me at the symposium: “Out of great loss and love, you created a body of work that touches and helps others. That’s important stuff.” 

I hope so. I hope it helps others. I know it has helped me heal and find closure.


****

Write every day and let your curiosity lead your writing. That’s what June said in her class. “Look for the flickers,” she said . . . a shadow, a woman in white quietly slipping down a side alley . . who is she?  . . . why did no one see her, but you? 

Except for summer breezes whispering through the trees, silence enveloped the West Point cemetery. Row after row of tombstones. How would I find John? It had been so long, I couldn't remember where his small marker lay. Had I blocked the memory from so long ago? That day they handed me the folded American flag at his funeral . . . had I come back 15 years ago with our son? Even now, the memory remains shrouded in fog.

A man sat in a folding canvas chair, reading in the shade of a towering elm. Not one living soul in the cemetery, but him and me. Could he help me find John's grave? 

He smiled. "I'm visiting my wife," he said. He stood up. Tall, a tanned, creased face, short blond hair; he wore a navy windbreaker. "Come follow me."  

He led me to the back of a small building near the old cadet chapel, and to an unlocked door. Inside a stone foyer, on a stand, a directory of the deceased, and above that a map. 

At West Point, the graves are set up in a labyrinth marked off by sections, rows and numbers.  He asked me John's name. "Yes. Here it is," he said, pointing to John's name in the directory.  Row VI, Section G, marker 343. John M. Cavalieri, 2nd Lt. US Army.

We walked back outside into the bright sunshine . . . and then he was gone. What serendipitous alchemy led to seeing him, that day, that moment?  A flicker, a curiosity, leads me as I write. 

What about you? Can you share a memory, a moment . . . that flicker of curiosity that led to story?

Monday, June 1, 2015

Literary Fiction: Off Limits Or "Still Alice"?

Are you an author who has considered transitioning from memoir to literary fiction? Writer beware. Unlike memoir or other niche genres, it seems some believe that literary fiction is the gold standard . . . review-driven . . . and readers of the genre want print books they can put on their shelves, reread from time to time, lend to a friend; not ebooks.

I got to thinking about this after reading,
Is Self-Publishing a Viable Option for Literary Fiction Writers? . . . the title of a post on Jane Friedman's blog.
"Even though it’s become quite easy for writers to use Amazon KDP or other platforms to publish an e-book—and use print-on-demand technology to create a professional-looking print book—it’s still rare for literary fiction writers to self-publish."
I guess I’m in the minority as an independent author with A Portrait of Love and Honor, listed as literary fiction. Are those who write literary fiction "not the best promoters of their own work," which is why many seek small publishers, according to the blog? It seems a romantic notion. What author these days gets away without promoting her work?

Writers have always challenged the status quo - now, more than ever, we are reimagining the landscape. And readers have always responded to good books. It's just letting them know they're out there. . . readers, after all, could care less who publishes a book.

There’s the part on the Friedman blog about Still Alice by Lisa Genova. A self-published book  . . . it was classic literary fiction with poor sales, according to the article. By chance a literary editor happened to read it; couldn’t put it down. Ditto her daughter. Forget sales, they said. The story was a page turner.

Still Alice is a story about an extraordinary woman slowly dying at the age of fifty from Alzheimer's. Human. Heartrending. Depressing even.The book was optioned as a movie and Julianne Moore won an Academy Award for the role of Alice.

*****
"According to The Guardian, literary criticism is still heavily male-dominated, and self-publishing is allowing women to break the book industry’s glass ceiling. If this is the case, shouldn’t more female literary writers take the leap and carve a new space for themselves in the indie landscape?

AP: I don’t think self-publishing is the way for women writers to respond to literary criticism being male dominated. I think we need more diversity in the ranks of literary critics and we need to pressure publications to provide us with a more diverse array of voices."
Okay. So how do we achieve "diversity" in the ranks of literary critics? How do we "pressure publications" to hire book reviewers, who, if they get paid at all, are an increasingly rare commodity in newspapers and magazines?

*****

I've attended many writers' groups where people talk about obtaining a literary agent and "landing a contract" with a big name publisher . . . and two years later they're talking about the same thing while a book they believe in languishes. The odds of attracting one of the Big Five publishers is akin to winning the lottery; unless perhaps literary fiction is written to "fit the market". (I'm thinking Nicholas Sparks, who started out as a self-published author and is his own iconic story.)

*****
Maybe, literary fiction is the last bastion of the gatekeepers?

Or maybe it's endemic of a bigger problem . . . reaching the public with a story of merit with larger political and social issues is similar to a Sisyphean task in a book world where the phantasmal, violent or unengaged read is the soup du jour.

But I think - hope - not. After all, who knows? Let's view the cup as half full. Just ask Lisa Genova.

Are you an author of literary fiction or have you thought of  transitioning from memoir to literary fiction? What are the challenges? Love to hear your thoughts/comments.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

De Niro, Angela's Ashes and Being an Artist


This past week, it suddenly got hot and humid here in southeastern Pennsylvania. Summer, with its languorous and lazy touch that slows life down whether you want it to or not, slipped in through the open bedroom window during the night.

I spent much of last week reading. I went to the library and found a copy of Angela's Ashes shelved on the discard table - in fact, it had been signed by Frank McCourt himself. It got me thinking - if a signed copy by a famous author could so casually be discarded  . . . .

Then I  heard Robert De Niro’s commencement address at Tisch, NYU's School for the Arts. I watched the video and listened to his advice to the up-and-coming writers, directors, choreographers, actors, who graduated Tisch.

Tops on his list: A lot is out of your control. Do the best you can. If you don’t get the part, realize it isn’t personal. The director just had a vision, someone else in mind. Move on. Next!

Made me think of McCourt's signed memoir and the reader who said, Next!  . . . the reader who passes over my book, not because it isn't well written, but it's just not what they want to read.

De Niro added that every project he’s worked on has been a collaborative one. Perform your part with excellence.

And always remember . . . you're not an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor or a businessman. You're an artist . . . this  is about passion, not common sense. It's a calling.


Here’s the link to De Niro’s 16-minute address at Madison Square Garden.

For the last month I’ve been involved in promoting and launching my new novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor. People tell me it's my best work yet. In some measure I tend to agree, although each book has its own merits.

De Niro said it. So much is out of our control. Rejection - get used to it.


Sales have been slow, yes. I’ve sold $600 worth of books in the first month, which I consider slow.

I’m not sure why, but I do know that I have developed more patience; patience in setting up signings and talks – I did three talks and signings in six days and it left me exhausted . . . patience rooted in knowing I gave this creative project the best I could.

My advice for writers/authors about to get into this business of authoring:

  • First off, write a good book. If you do that, half the battle is over.
  • Write what moves you, not what the market "demands."  Realize that this can present its own set of “challenges” – A Portrait of Love and Honor does not fall into any one category; romance, literary fiction, memoir.
  • Reviews – If experience is any guide, they come in time. And people often tell you they’re going to write a review, but they don’t. Forget it. Move on. Next!
  • Blog tours – I had crossed this one off my list as too exhausting. Now I’m reconsidering. I need to find some way to connect with audiences. That said, blog tours offer little in the way of tangible stats in terms of whether or not they sell books. Love to hear your experiences with that.
  • Take risks. This week I contacted the cadet bookstore at USMA in hopes they might consider selling the book at West Point. The bookstore manager told me to send her a review copy. It’s a long shot, but one worth taking. 
  • When someone tells you they’ve read your book, encourage them to tell their friends and networks. Word-of-mouth is one of the best ways to sell anything, not just a book.
  • Realize that when you least expect it, a break might happen; an invitation to a signing, a new contact, a chance to promote your work in a new and visible way. Believe in the magic of your art.
  • As De Niro said, keep handing out those business cards . . . that resume. He does. 
And remember, we're all going to end up on that "discard table" some day.  So enjoy, do the best you can and then move on  . . . . Next!

Love to hear your thoughts about authoring, marketing and just putting things in perspective.