Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Travels With Shirley in Search of Minnesota

by Shirley Drew

In September of 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley traveled across America, driving through small towns, cities and wilderness areas. In his book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, he talks about how peoples’ lives are changing and connects this to his observations of the natural world. And he listens to people. Really listens. He notes their interactions, their rhythms of speech, and their regional accents. He argues that these regional accents are disappearing. He says that the food is bland—clean and safe, but boring.

I do not dispute his experiences, especially since I have not traveled as widely across this country as he did. But I do travel deeply. Every summer I spend five weeks in the Northwoods of Minnesota, right on the boundary waters. And my experience of Minnesota has been anything but bland or boring. I look forward all year to July—to taste the walleye fresh out of Larch Lake and the service berry pies my husband makes as soon as he can gather them from the bushes outside our cabin. I look forward to the sounds of the loons in the late evenings and again in the early mornings. I look forward to the Gunflint Lake Canoe Races, the Fisherman’s Picnic and the view of Lake Superior from the patio of the Dockside Fish and Seafood Market or The Angry Trout Cafe.

And as much as anything, I love the sound of the regional dialect. But then, I have always loved language—the sound of it as well as the magic it can create. What writer doesn’t? I love listening to the elongated vowels, especially the “O's.” Many people will use “V” in place of “W” turning "Well" into "Vell.” The speech has a musical lilt, which contributes to the reputation of the people as open and friendly.

So the next time you travel, near or far, listen to the people around you. Really listen. Listen to the cadences of their talk, notice their mannerisms as they speak, and pay attention to what they talk about. In Travels with Charley  John Steinbeck said that "There are two kinds of people in the world, observers and non-observers...”

What about you? Are you an observer?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Through New Eyes

Post by Jenny

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve experienced two powerful examples of what it means to see with new eyes. The first comes via my mother. Ten-plus years ago, when she had cataract surgery on her right eye, the doctor advised her to have the left done, too. “I’ll be back,” she told him. (It cracks me up to picture her saying it like Arnold The Terminator, in her dark post-op shades.)

Well, she put it off. And off. And off. Her cataract grew so mature that she was effectively blind in her left eye. (Had I known this, I would have stepped up my daughterly pressure for her to just go in and get it done, already.) Last week, she finally had it removed, and it has been fascinating to see how she and her brain are adapting to once again receiving sensory information through the left eye. Sometimes her vision is perfect, sometimes it’s double, but every day, it’s improving.

The second example comes from my writing. I have this manuscript, see. In 2007, it was the second finalist (so close!) in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest. One of the judges wrote a note on my score sheet telling me I’d surely get published. I pitched to an agent who—“I never do this,” she said—asked me to send her the complete manuscript. I left that conference walking on air.

I mailed the manuscript off. Three months later, when I worked up the nerve to follow up, the agent replied that it “wasn’t what she thought it was” and wished me good luck.

The past seven years have been like my personal Groundhog Day. Every few months, I dust the novel off, polish it a little more, send out a few queries, and get one or two encouraging ‘no thank yous.’ I work on other projects, too (and thankfully don’t eat nearly as many desserts as Bill Murray did in the movie) but I just can’t seem to quit this one.

Now for the new eyes part: although I’ve had excellent readers over the years who have given me good, helpful feedback, last week was my first experience with a bona fide critique group. Even though these wise and talented writers have only read the first two chapters, I know that seeing my all-too-familiar work through their eyes is going to help me in so many ways. Like my mom’s eyesight, it will no doubt be a gradual process, but I hope to come out of it with a sharp new perspective.

What helps you look at your writing with new eyes?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Where Have You Been All My Life?

by Kelly Baugh

I’ve been to a handful of writer’s conferences in the last few years, and at every single one of them, I’ve heard someone say, “You should read Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.  

“But it’s a book on screenwriting,” I usually think to myself. “Why would I waste my time reading a screenwriting book when there’s so many other writing books I need to read?”

After I’d heard the recommendation several years running, however, I decided to purchase the book and I’m so glad I did.  As I burned through the pages I found myself wondering, “Why didn’t I read this book years ago? Why did no one tell me about it?” Oh, wait …

The chapter I’ve dog-eared to death deals with the tight constraints of screenwriting and the structure a good story must have. As Snyder says, “Screenplays are structure. Precisely made Swiss clocks of emotion” (108). With my latest manuscript, I know I don’t have a Swiss clock; I have a failing-EU-country one. My story has a good plot, interesting characters, snappy dialogue, but weak structure.

Save the Cat! gives me a great springboard for the structure I need to weave my story around, and the approximate page number it should show up. Snyder breaks down a story into the following segments:
1. Opening Image (1)
2. Theme Stated (5)
3. Set-up (1-10)
4. Catalyst (12)
5. Debate (12-25)
6. Break into Two (25)
7. B Story (30)
8. Fun and Games (30-55)
9. Midpoint (55)
10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)
11. All is Lost (75)
12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)
13. Break into Three (85)
14. Finale (85-110)
15. Final Image (110)

Obviously, my novel may march to a slightly different, less constrained beat, but I’m excited to use Snyder’s list to transform my work into a more Swiss-like manuscript. Also, Save the Cat! will now occupy the coveted nightstand position in my book hierarchy.

What books are your go-to resources on writing? (I don’t have to wait for another conference to get my next nightstand treasure).

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Settling In

by Sarah Sullivan
Coffee Cup and Book
The forest gabbles all around me. Western meadow larks and yellow-rumped warblers call out to one another then wait for a reply. A gentle wind rustles through the trees and scatters woodland debris playfully about. Even at this early morning hour the air is warm and rich with the sweet scent of pine and cedar. The only human sound is the crunch of pebbles under my feet as I meander away from the big house and down the grainy path flanked by moss and stone to the cottage which is really no more than a shed with a large window to take in the water view, a comfortable chair for reading and a slab of maple planed and sanded and stained then secured between two walls so one, who is I, can sit and write. I settle into my chair and begin my day free from the noisy world I have left behind. 

This peaceful scene happens to me exactly never! Between children, dogs, spouses (well, just the one) and an endless to do list, I admit, I find it difficult to hunker down and clear my addled brain long enough write anything of merit. Now mind you, I am not complaining, these are clearly first world problems that we should all be so lucky to have. Instead I am simply wondering if anyone out there has some great tips on how to perfect a piecemeal writing practice. 
Back in May, Dean Miller offered an excellent list of writing retreats from professional workshops to pitching a tent in a park. I loved his ideas because I have always been one who works best when I have large blocks of solitary time to work on one thing from start to finish. But now, in these summer months with children home from school, I simply don't have the luxury of long segments of time to dedicate to any one thing and certainly not to my own pursuits.

So how about it? Who has some great ideas for how to write in dribs and drabs rather than in protracted periods? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Off to Adventure

By Rich

By the time some of you read this I will be on an aeroplane with a gaggle of 7th and 8th graders on an adventure of my and their lifetimes. Yes, you could say two dozen teenagers on an airplane is an adventure in itself, but what I'm talking about is a 10-day trip to Costa Rica. It will be a period of touring the luscious rain and cloud forests, swimming in an ocean, building a playground for underprivileged children, visiting sea turtles and sweating our butts off. I'm guessing we'll all be several pounds lighter by the time we return.

One would think this trip is a perfect opportunity to bring my laptop, flip it open on the veranda of the eco-lodge and type away as the story ideas flow around my cerebellum. However, it's not happening. For the first time in I can't remember, the laptop is not coming with me. In fact, the only electronic object I'm carrying on the trip is my smartphone, and that's because it has a camera.

A week and a half without a laptop. Yes, I'm sure there are going to be a few nights at the start where I wake up in a cold sweat screaming "Ctrl-Z," but I'm okay with that. Save for a few days in Canada or a few hours in Mexico during a cruise, this is my first long-term trip to another country. I don't want to spend it staring at a laptop screen trying to find a wireless signal so I can watch Orange is the New Black. I want to look out the windows of the bus or the boat or the room and admire a totally different universe than I'm used to.

Now, lack of a laptop doesn't mean I won't have story-writing materials available. Pens and pads will be at the ready. And as long as they don't get moldy with rain or melted by heat, I hope to get some story ideas out of my time there. I mean there has to be a young adult angst tale or giant insect horror story in it all. See you in two weeks.

Has there been a time when you didn't bring your laptop on a trip?

Friday, July 18, 2014

No Regrets

By Sarah Reichert

Recently, my daughters began training at the International Black Belt Academy.  I started itching to get back on the mats myself.  I am a completely different woman (mainly older and less spry) than I was the last time I bowed in a dojo, but I had always regretted stopping my training.  Watching them practice, brought up that ugly face of regret.  Where would I be now if I hadn’t stopped?

Regrets are festering things.  They are weights that drag us down into the past, where we lose our power to do much else, but sit alone with them.  We find ourselves looking back over our shoulders, and kicking ourselves for the things we did or did not do.  Sometimes, we’re so busy looking back at these irreparable choices, that we trip on obstacles before our feet, or miss the doors of opportunity that open while our gaze is away.  But how do we let them go?

Overcoming regret can be as easy as saying ‘I made the best choice that I could at the time’.  But sometimes the facets of our intricate minds are not always so easily placated.  Sometimes you know that you didn’t.  Sometimes, you took the easy road. Maybe you were scared or unsure.

One way to deal with the nagging “should-haves” is to pull the decision out from the past and into the light of the present.  If the situation and the desire exist, you could have the opportunity to take a second chance.

Writing can be this way as well.  My good friend and sister is a perfect example.  In her youth she could turn a sentence into a whole, vibrant world.  We knew that writing would be her livelihood.  Only, it didn't turn out that way.  Life does that to you.  It interjects.  It changes the rules and your priorities.  It builds walls too high and trenches too deep.

But one day, when you're wondering how to begin again, you pass by a rope hanging over that wall.  Sometimes there’s a hand waving ecstatically and a voice saying “Come on!  You can do this!”  Life changes just enough to afford you the time and the space to start over.

So take the rope.  Grab on to the hand.  Find the person or reason that inspires you to begin again.  Find that opening, that chance, to reinvest in your passion.  At the worst, you will learn that it wasn’t really yours after all, and you’ll be paid in knowing.  At the best, you will rediscover yourself and come to your old flame a new and stronger person.  You will wipe the regret away like dusty chalk on a board, and the question will cease to be “Where would I be?” and become  “Where will I be?”

Is there something in your life that you’ve given up and always regretted?  Will you revisit it?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Small Steps, Giant Leaps

by Shirley Drew

That's one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind
~Neil Armstrong 

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto on the surface of the moon for the first time. Michael Collins, the third astronaut, stayed behind to pilot the spacecraft. I was just 12 years old as I sat on the floor in front of a black and white television at the house of my friend, Julie. Her parents sat on the sofa behind us watching in awe; we were all mesmerized. Watching this event fueled my keen interest in stories of space travel.

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before—and loved it, though I didn’t really understand much of it. But after the moon walk I saw every movie about “outer space” that I could, both at the theaters and on television. Some of my favorites include, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (also 1951), Alien (1979) with Sigourney Weaver, and the great tag line, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Yikes. By the time I got to college I became interested in the Star Trek series, and later on in its many permutations. Then of course, there was Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, released in 1977, easily my favorite. While these films were different in several ways—some painting aliens as invaders and others as friends (and of course Star Wars was in a class by itself), they all had one thing in common. They portrayed the idea of space travel as something that required not only great bravery but also a willingness to take great risks.

Which reminds me of what we do as writers. While we may not risk our lives as the astronauts do, we still must be brave in order to pursue our passion. We start with small steps—trying our hand, if you will, at writing something. It might be a short story, a personal essay, or even a blog post. We take bigger steps when we alter our lives in some way to make a commitment  to write—to call ourselves “writers.” At some point, we take that giant leap by sending our work out to a publisher or editor, or even to publish our work independently. Risking rejection is tough, but we all have to do it to become “authors.”

On July 20, 2014, it will have been 45 years since the historic moon walk. As we commemorate this achievement of those brave men, we should also celebrate the steps and leaps we take in our pursuit to be writers and authors.

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