Interview with Jill Pertler - Runner Up Spring 08 Flash Fiction Contest
Interviewed by LuAnn Schindler
Jill Pertler is an award-winning writer and photographer whose syndicated humor column, Slices of Life, brings smiles to Midwestern households each week. She was awarded an honorable mention in Writer's Digest 2008 Annual Competition in the personal essay category. She's written hundreds of articles for local, regional and national publications, and like many writers, is working on a book. She lives in northern Minnesota with her husband, four kids and assorted pets.
Check out Jill's story, Holding On
, on the WOW! website. Go on! You know you want to read it!
WOW!: Congratulations, Jill, on being named a runner up in the Spring Flash Fiction contest. Your story caught my attention. Where did you get the inspiration for your story, Holding On?
Jill: I often get my inspiration from real life. You could say I lived this one. I added details to create a fictional story, but many pieces of the story are true – I was a behavior analyst and I did work with a woman who ate things and eventually died because of it.
WOW!: That would be a tough situation to work in. You write a humor column. Was it difficult to switch gears to write such a serious story?
Jill: My column is officially called a “humor” column, but it’s really about my views on my life. Often that’s zany because I live in a busy, crazy household. But sometimes the column is touching or serious, depending on what I’ve observed that week.
I think it’s actually more of a challenge for me to try to be funny versus telling a story in a straightforward manner. Most days.
WOW!: Switching from daily observations to fiction must be challenging. This was your first attempt at fiction. What were some of the easy aspects of writing flash fiction? Difficult aspects?
Jill: In a way, I sort of write “flash” every week with my Slices of Life column. I tell a “story” in a little more than 500 words. I think short pieces can be some of the most challenging for a writer because you have to prioritize and decide what you want to say with little or no fluff. A short piece forces you to edit and then go back and edit again. It compels you to see your writing in a different way because you’ve got to cut those 14 words from somewhere. And in doing so, it improves your work and makes your abilities stronger.
As far as fiction versus nonfiction goes, I have a confession to make. I sometimes take liberties with my “non-fiction” column in order to make it more readable an interesting. I might alter facts just a little bit, or reverse the order of things. Nearly the same thing can be said for the fiction that I write. Many “true life” facts creep into my paragraphs.
Having said that, there is a different mindset between fiction and nonfiction (at least for me). Fiction gives you the freedom to make stuff up! I had to get used to that and once I did, I liked it!
I find that I have either fiction or non-fiction days. Once I get into the fiction mode, story ideas continually pop into my head. When I’m out of that mode, it can be difficult to come up with an idea for a short story.
WOW!: I can relate to having fiction or non-fiction days. You've been writing for nearly 20 years. What type of writing is your favorite and why?
Jill: I love writing my Slices of Life column. I consider it a privilege. First, it’s just fun for me to get those stories on paper. Second, I feel I am leaving a written legacy for my children – sort of like a family memoir. Third, it is rewarding and such a thrill to know that others read and enjoy my words. When they send me an email or stop me on the street to comment on a certain column, it makes my day.
I've also enjoyed experimenting with short stories – fiction. I’m still very new at it, but I hope to get to do more of it in the future.
WOW!: Good luck as you pursue fiction writing. Let's talk about your newspaper experience. What was the process like for syndicating your humor column? How many markets is it published in?
Jill: There are more than a few ways to pursue syndication. It can be a confusing and daunting labyrinth.
Right now I’m self-syndicated. That isn't as glamorous as representation by a national syndicate, but it is a start. I've been writing the Slices of Life column since 2002, but was writing monthly, not weekly. I knew that if I wanted to reach more people and bigger markets, I’d have to put out a weekly column.
In September 2007, I set a goal for myself to write a weekly column for one year. I contacted newspapers about printing it. Currently my column is distributed to 80 newspapers each week. I recently met my one-year goal, and now I feel I have the experience and skills to approach syndicates about representing me. That is my next step.
I also joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and entered their annual contest. I’ll do that again next year. Writing and gaining exposure through other contests, like this one, helps me get my name out there.
WOW!: Meeting a personal goal is so self-satisfying. Great job! Your weekly column must keep you busy. What's your writing routine like?
Jill: I practice two vastly different types of writing. First there is the writing that pays the bills. This might be writing for an annual report, brochure, magazine article, radio ad, etc. That writing has to get done so I have the luxury of indulging in the writing that feeds my soul. Examples of those projects are my Slices of Life column and flash fiction contest entries.
I am lucky, because I write from home full-time. By full-time I mean 4 – 6 hours per day. I am a mom of four kids and although they are now all in school, they take up a substantial amount of my time; I wouldn't have it any other way.
Often the writing that pays the bills takes precedence over the writing that feeds the soul. Life isn't always fair. I seem to do the bill-paying stuff in the morning, and the soul-feeding work in the afternoon. Usually.
I also find myself carving out an hour or two on the weekends to write – usually to polish up a column that’s due on Monday.
My writing career has grown gradually; I started very part-time when my house was filled with babies and toddlers. Now those babies are more independent and I've had more time to devote to writing. I’m finally establishing myself, and am just starting to be able to consider saying “no” to projects that aren't the soul-feeding type. I guess that means I’m on the right track.
WOW!: It seems like you've found a balance between the writing you want and need to do. It can be challenging! Have you entered or won any other writing contests? Any advice for other newbies?
Jill: I entered an essay in the 2008 Writer’s Digest annual competition and received an honorable mention, which means (I guess) that my piece was in the top 100 of 17,000 entries. They even sent a certificate. Very official!
Interestingly enough, I’d previously entered the same essay in a local contest and it did not win. I felt bad, but thought the piece had merit, so I went ahead and paid the $15 to enter it into the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition, and hey – we got a BINGO!
So my advice is to trust your gut. If you feel your words are laced with a little magic, maybe the first editor, contest director or critic will be blind to it. Tweak the piece, but don’t toss it in the trash until you, personally, decide that’s where it should go.
WOW!: That's great advice for anyone considering entering a contest. You are also a photographer. How does that creative outlet help your writing?
Jill: I think it makes me more marketable as a writer. My writing gets me photography gigs and vice versa.
My camera is also a great prop. Like a lot of writers, I can have my shy moments. The camera puts something between my subject and me. It allows me to feel freer with my conversation. When I’m taking photos, I’m working at putting my subject at ease, and therefore I’m more relaxed myself.
And, of course, the camera lens lets me see the world in a different way. It provides perspective, a new angle.
WOW!: Perspective is so important for writing and photography. What projects are you currently working on?
Jill: I’m working on a book that is a compilation of some of my columns, paired with recipes – a sort of cookbook/storybook. The premise is that so many of life’s memories are paired with food. Food and memories are intertwined, and I think there’s something special about that.
And, of course, I need to take that next step with my Slices of Life column – either to expand to more markets or to gain representation by a national syndicate.
WOW!: Jill, you are an inspiration! Congratulations, again, on being named a runner up in the WOW! contest. And thank you for sharing your views on writing.
Jill: I’d like to send a big thanks to everyone at WOW for sponsoring the quarterly contests. They are great. I also appreciate the bulk of useful information and articles on the site. It’s all inspiring and encouraging for other writers like me.
Labels: interview, Jill Pertler, LuAnn Schindler, Spring 2008 flash fiction contest winners
Interview with Rachel McClain, Runner Up
Today, we're talking with Rachel McClain, who won 3rd place honors in the WOW! Women on Writing Spring Flash Fiction contest.
Rachel McClain is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom currently living in Los Angeles but has vowed to find something to love in every new place the Air Force sends her family, even if the next place isn't so sunny. She was recently selected as an honorable mention in WOW! Women on Writing’s Winter Flash Fiction contest and has short stories published in Fuselit and in the forthcoming Cup of Comfort volumes for Breast Cancer Survivors and for Military Families. She has just finished work on her first young adult novel.
WOW: Congratulations, Rachel, and welcome to The Muffin. Your story, Ode To A Grecian Urn, really hit home with me for several reasons. Can you tell us about the inspiration for your story?
Rachel: This one came to me after some time of being blocked and I’d read a list of prompts, one of them about finding something on a kitchen table that didn’t belong there. I was dealing with some medical issues of my own and having to sit on crinkly paper on medical tables and in E.R. waiting rooms watching all kinds of patients walk by, young and old, creating their back stories in my head. The two things just meshed: the prompt and the experiences I was going through.
WOW: That's amazing! The two experiences fit together so well. My husband passed away five years ago and his request was to be cremated. I understand the man in your story wanting to keep his wife close by. How did you go about finding a way to combine the elements of grief and the symptoms of Alzheimer's?
First, let me express my deepest sympathies for your loss. I can only imagine the pain that must be associated with such a thing. There is so much emotion tied with the idea of aging. When we are young, we think of growing old together as some sort of joyous thing but in a bittersweet way, like a romantic ideal. But, the idea of love gets twisted a bit when you throw the realities of aging into the mix, especially with something like Alzheimer’s. We want to believe that we’d never forget ourselves, what makes us who we are in our hearts or who completes us, but would we? When we do, would we grieve for the loss of not only ourselves, but for the loss of our partner all over again…again and again? I wanted to find something that would represent this loss in a physical way. I wanted it to be very real, something tactile and inescapable.
WOW: Thank you. You do an outstanding job of making the situation realistic. I see so many themes intertwined to create the final product. What message do you want readers to take away from your story? What advice can you give a writer who likes to incorporate multiple themes in her stories?Rachel:
This is one of the reasons that I love flash fiction so much. While it's important to tie it up and not leave everything open-ended, you can do so much with so few words, explore so much and leave so much to the imagination, open so many doors for your readers. It's like imagining a road through the woods and taking a reader along with you, and while you stay on one road, you point out that there are a bunch of pretty paths veering off to the side, and some dark ones too. So, all that can be in your narrative in flash and you can tie some of it up, or leave some of it open. I think my main message, or the path I stayed on, has to do with commitment. It's about not forgetting who we are now and who we were when we were at our best and made our best promises to ourselves and each other.
WOW: That level of commitment shows throughout your story. On a personal level, you've made a commitment to fine tuning your craft. You won Honorable Mention in another WOW! writing contest. Any advice to writers about what makes a good contest submission?
Cut. Cut. Cut. Oh yeah, and cut some more. Write your story in the first draft without thinking about anything except getting it out, and then cut a third of it. It sounds harsh but cut at least that much on your next draft. Someone once told me that and I didn’t believe them. I thought that it would be impossible; all my words would be too important. Of course the tree needed to be verdant, green and lush with vegetation. Right? Wrong. Not only does cutting make for a good contest submission, it makes for tighter prose and all around tighter writing. Your writing can still maintain your voice, your beautiful language and be tight. If the words, scenes, dialogue, etc don’t move the story forward, make a point, have some intrinsic narrative voice or say something to a reader other than you, they don’t belong. And, unlike me, never submit it the same day you write it. I’m terrible about that. I just get so excited about finishing and being certain that it’s “done,” that I can’t wait. I sometimes think I should tie my wrists so I don’t hit that send button too early.
WOW: That is great advice! I'll have to see if I can follow it! Have you taken any writing classes? How did your writing career begin?
I haven't taken any formal writing classes, unless you count my English degree. But, I've been writing here or there, all my life. My current career began when I got out of the military to raise my son. I felt a little lost without the job I'd dreamed of since I was a little girl, which was the military. And, while the other job I'd always dreamed of, raising my child, was fulfilling, I felt like I needed something else. I started journaling and getting creative again, and bang, it hit me that this is what I should be doing with naptime. Screw the dishes. It all snowballed from here.
WOW: I certainly relate to the snowball effect! You are part of a military family. Do you incorporate parts of your travels into your stories or use any experiences as inspiration?Rachel:
Yes, definitely. It’s hard not to. You meet so many interesting, wonderful and not so wonderful people when you travel and move all the time. There are certainly characters in this nomadic life of ours. I’m sure one of these days someone will come up to me and be either flattered or horrified to recognize themselves in something they’ve read (hopefully meaning I’ve been widely published). Plus, a family like mine gets to see so many wonderful and interesting places and have such a wide array of experiences. It’s like a treasure trove of ideas sometimes, even just for background details.
WOW: That is great fodder to build upon! I imagine you've used some of those details in your stories. You are published in several anthology series. Do you have any secrets you'd like to share about what editors are looking for in a story for these types of publications?
It pays to know who you are submitting to. If you are submitting to an inspirational series, don’t write a story that’s got a downer ending, even if the rest is uplifting, and expect to be selected. I suggest that if you are trying to get into an anthology series that has been published before in other volumes, read them, or at least selections thereof to get an idea of what they are looking for. It just makes sense to know your market. If you don’t think you’ve got time to read, then you really don’t have time to be a successful writer.
WOW: That's very true! Good writers are also good readers. It's a matter of balance. What's your writing routine like?
First, I turn the baby monitor down so I can’t hear my son crying. Just kidding. Seriously though, my son is eighteen months old, there is no real “routine” except carrying a notebook and a pen around with me. I jot down notes when ideas strike me and revisit them when I have time to explore them more fully. The closest thing I have to a routine is the few hours I get in the afternoon when he naps and that usually consists of a soda on the end table, my laptop and the sofa, with a comfy pillow behind my back and me just banging away on the keyboard until he wakes up. Sometimes I’m typing so fast my fingers are flying and some days, it’s dead silence because really, the mouse is just trolling eBay and I’m blocked. But then, three days later, I’m flooded with ideas again and I’m begging my husband to take my son to the park when he comes home so I can have extra “mommy time,” which really means writing time, to get all those words out of my head.
WOW: Great! You seem to have found a balance between your family and your writing schedule.
I waited my whole life to meet my son. I can’t put it more simply than that. But, I also didn’t realize that I waited my whole life to meet the person that being a writer has made me. So, sometimes it’s hard to balance those two desires: wanting to hang out with myself and wanting to bang on pots and pans with my toddler. Truthfully, banging on pots and pans usually wins. He’s going to turn fifteen one of these days and stop wanting to hang out with me. That will be a sad, sad day. But, one thing that doesn’t seem to happen is the influx of ideas. There are drier days than others, but the ideas come back nonetheless. So, if I bang on pots and pans more than I write every day for a while, I think that’s okay. So, right now the balance weighs more heavily in favor of family. I think that shows in my writing, which often has a lot to do with family. For now, I try to make the simple commitment that I write every day and if that means some days it’s only a few minutes, so be it. So, long as I’m happy and my family is happy, that’s all that matters to me.
WOW: I agree! When you find something that works, stick with it and keep everyone happy! What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished my first young adult novel and I’m alternately going through the motions of trying to find an agent and berating myself for believing that it was good enough to send out in the first place. It’s an educational and fun process if you can take the pain! I am also working on short fiction and have finally joined the almighty blogosphere (http://thelaundryfairy.blogspot.com/
) after much prodding.
WOW: Thanks, Rachel, for taking time for us to get to know you and learn more about your writing. Again, congratulations!
I’d really like to thank WOW, the staff, Angela and Annette, the judges, Wendy Sherman and Seal Press for putting on such a wonderful and supportive contest. It’s an honor to be a part of community of such writers.
Check out our latest personal essay contest, sponsored by skirt! books:http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/contest.php
Labels: LuAnn Schindler, Rachel McClain, Spring 2008 flash fiction contest winners, WOW Spring 2008 Flash Fiction Contest