Tuesday, August 05, 2008

 

Mistake Noted

Not too long ago in my zest and zeal to send out query letters, I began coming up with ideas for queries that related to life as I was living it. And how was I living, you may ask? During this rampant, query-writing fest I had a two-and-a-half year old running around and a two-month old nursing every 3 hours. Life was crazy, and maybe I can blame the query faux pas I committed on sleep deprivation and hormone fluctuations.

I came up with what I thought was the greatest idea for a story: how to breastfeed in public. My own mom didn’t give me many tips except “Just put a blanket over your shoulder,” and the lactation nurses weren’t much more helpful (they told me to just wear big shirts). I figured if I was having a hard time other moms were probably having a hard time, too, and would appreciate a how-to article that showed them the ropes.

I had my sources lined up, a body of research and I knew which magazine I was going to pitch the story to: American Baby Magazine. I looked through old issues to make sure that they hadn’t covered my exact topic but found that they did lots of articles about feeding new babies.

I wrote the query, thinking that I had the golden ticket for making it in the glossies with this pitch. With trepidation, I mailed off my query and began to wait. The odd thing was I didn’t have to wait very long.

I received back a letter a week later that said thanks but no thanks. Instead of being devastated, truthfully I was a little relieved. After all of my research on different tips and tricks for breastfeeding in public, I had exhausted my brain on the topic and it was no longer very interesting to me. I was glad was not to be required by an editor to make that story happen.

My relief aside, I did want to understand why the story was rejected. I don’t know for sure but some clarity came a few weeks later when I was telling a friend about that particular query. I told her it was about breastfeeding in public and she looked at me almost startled.

“Omigosh, Sue,” she said, “that is such a controversial topic. Ask three women about it and you’d get four opinions back. If I was an editor I wouldn’t want to touch that topic with a ten-foot pole.”

I sat there a little more than stricken by my friend’s bluntness, but I thought she was right. In all my research, in all my consideration of whether or not women would want to hear about my topic, I had not taken into account that the subject of breastfeeding in public was too taboo for that particular magazine. Now, if I had pitched it to, say an OB nurse quarterly, or a publication of the La Leche League, perhaps I would have gotten a different response. Since I chose to pitch it to a national magazine that needs to carefully take into account the sensibilities and opinions of a wide audience, I’m not surprised that this one was quickly overlooked.

Of course, I don’t know for sure why this query was rejected by that magazine; there could have been many other reasons besides the topic being controversial. Through the experience, though, I learned to take into consideration a different aspect of what a publication may look for or avoid in an article.

-Susan L. Eberling

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

 

Writing and Wanderlust

by Susan L. Eberling

I love to travel. I even love to fantasize about traveling. Sometimes I borrow Rick Steves’ travel videos from the library and watch them while I fold laundry. When my husband gets home I demand that we start saving for a 21-day backpacking trip through Great Britain and Amsterdam. (I think my husband is going to try to hide my library card soon.) When I read Barbara Hudgins’ article, How 2 Create a Travel Piece from Your Visit, in WOW’s July issue, I was once again smitten and glassy-eyed at the thought of combining my two great obsessions: writing and travel.

I have been stymied from becoming too excited about travel writing for a number of reasons. First of all, who doesn’t want to get paid to write about their vacation, thereby paying for some of the Mai Tai’s consumed at the pool or for Swiss chocolates nibbled on while gazing at the Jungfrau in the Alps? Travel writing is a competitive market, requiring writers to produces copy that snaps, is distinctive and informative all at the same time.

Another reason I’ve been hesitant to avidly pursue travel writing is because, when I do go on vacation, I want to relax and not think about deadlines or keeping research straight. What would I do if I get back home and forgot to see something or talk to someone significant to my story? This seems a bit stressful. Are there any travel writers out there who have found a good balance between work and play when vacationing and working on a travel writing piece?

After reading Barbara’s article I did a quick Google search on travel writing and found what seems to be a very alluring conference for the beginning travel writer. The Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference will be held in Corte Madera, California August 14-17, 2008. If you check out the conference schedule, you will find a diverse set of sessions taought by professionals in the craft of travel writing.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

 

All Hail the Mighty Librarian

Librarians are beautiful, noble people.

I’m sure this statement needs a little qualification. There is this rogue rumor out there that librarians are stuffy, book guardians or silence- mongers intent on throwing you out of the library for the smallest audible infraction. But watch the face of a librarian when you say, "I want to learn how to research better." Their eyes will light up like Christmas morning.

When I began my freelance writing career in earnest, I called my local library, desperate to find out the best and fastest ways to find research for articles. I realized that five years of college had only showed me how to research to please professors, not produce a thoroughly researched piece of writing that would be scrutinized by hundreds, nay, thousands of pairs of eyes. Because of my “mommy-hiatus,” there were new, more powerful research tools available that I knew nothing about.

So I met with a librarian one-on-one. (Make note that if you would like to do this, call ahead and make an appointment to make the best use of your and the librarian’s time.) He showed me two library sections and one electronic resource that has helped me gather the information I need for writing.

#1 Where the Style Manuals Dwell

In the Dewey Decimal System (D.D.S) you will find writing style manuals starting roughly at 808.2. You can go to the nonfiction books and find style manuals to check out, or go to the same call number within reference section. I found it great to be able to test drive these often colossally priced books by looking through them at the library. Usually, the reference section will offer the most current edition of any of these books. On the self at my library were titles such as 2008 Writer’s Market, 2008 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, The Chicago Manual of Style and the AMA Manual of Style (this is used primarily in medical and scientific writing).

#2 The Marketplace

Around 050 and on in the D.D.S. is a section that contains books primarily about the publishing industry. Here lies the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media which could be considered a phonebook of sorts for print, radio, television, and cable companies. Nearby is also Literary Marketplace 2007, a contact book for over 14,000 listings of publishers, literary agents, distributors and events within the U.S. publishing industry. If you wanted information on the on the world-wide publishing industry, you could also look at the International Literary Marketplace 2007 on a shelf nearby.

The Encyclopedia of Associations lives in this section as well. This set of books is helpful to writers for two reasons: not only can you look through the book by topic to find a source for an article, but you can find associations with newsletters or publications within a certain field that you may want to query.

#3 Research in Your Underwear

The last, and I believe most helpful, tool that I discovered was my library’s online research database. An online database is a search tool that allows users to access millions of periodicals and academic journals. For instance, I did a quick search on breast cancer. I entered that exact term into my library’s database search field and it came up with 44,195 article s. Obviously, you would want to narrow that number so you can easily view the information specific to your article. The database offers suggestions to add to the breast cancer search, such as risk factors, treatment, and genetic aspects. When I click on risk factors, my results went down substantially to 1529. I can then pick between academic journals, magazines, or newspapers, sort by date or add another keyword to be more specific.

For me, as a wife and mom, having an online database at my fingertips means I do not have to drag two toddlers to the library for research. Most databases can be accessed via the Internet from home. All I need is my name and library card number to use the database (of course this can vary from library to library, so check it out.) I can put my hair in curlers, eat some chocolate, blare Norah Jones, and do research for my article without annoying one single, librarian.


While doing research for this blog, I spoke with a librarian who said they took whole, semester-long classes on the best keywords to use within database searches. (Can you even imagine?) I believe that most librarians are excited to share their knowledge of how to research effectively. After all, that is what they went to school for. Let these beautiful, noble people give you the tools to research well.

-Susan L. Eberling

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

 

Walk the Line: Critiquing Another’s Work

by Susan L. Eberling

“ ‘. . . George took Christina into his arms as the sun set into the ocean. They kissed and they knew they would always be together.’ Well, that’s the end of my story. What do you think?”

A good friend sits before you, waiting for an answer. Her eyes are full of hope, expectation, and a twinkle of fear. This writer has waited all day, all week, maybe all month to come to writers’ group and hear what you have to say about her short story.

So what are you going to say?

Critiquing another’s work can feel like walking on a dangerous precipice. On one hand, no story in its first draft is complete or perfect, major revisions are always needed. But, if careful, you can point your friend towards tightening the plot, increasing suspense, or developing characters. On the other hand, a story just shared is like your friend’s baby, her emotions will be tied up in what you say about her writing, both good and bad.

So how do you walk this high road of giving honest criticism that makes a piece of writing better and while being sensitive to the writer’s feelings? Here are four suggestions for careful walking as you give feedback and criticism:

• Use a checklist

Plot, setting, point of view, conflict. These are objective aspects of any piece of fiction. You can evaluate the plot of your friend’s piece without foisting your opinion on her work. Plot is a literary device that needs to be strong and clear in any piece of fiction. Help your friend evaluate the strength of her plot, or the details of her setting, or the reasonableness of the conflict. By focusing on these devices that create good fiction, you will be giving her thoughtful, specific suggestions to consider. Victory Crayne has a great checklist and tips for critiquing at www.crayne.com.

• Admit your filters

Your friend just shared her romantic short story with you, but you hate romantic literature. Tell her. Crayne says, “Let the author know if this is not your favorite type of story. This may help them better understand your viewpoint. Things you do not like in the story may very well appeal to a fan of that genre.”

Let your friend know that in your world romance is not on your top 10 list of things to read. This way if you start to seem disdainful, she will know that it is not about her and her writing, it is about your own style and preferences.

• Create a safe haven

“It’s easy to easy to tear a piece of writing to shreds,” say Charlie Schulman in The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, “but being critical in a positive, tactful and constructive manner takes time and careful consideration.” Set aside a good chunk of time to hear the writer’s story or to read a copy of the story on your own. Simply skimming the piece or not listening attentively could lead to snap judgments or misunderstanding of the style or theme of the piece. Also, create an environment where risk is tolerated and even bad writing can be nurtured into good writing. Schulman encourages critics to “balance support with challenging suggestions”.

• Major on the majors

Unless your friend’s story is on the way to the publisher’s in the morning, use your critiquing opportunity to analyze the bigger issues of style, characterization, plot and theme. Leave grammar and punctuation until the end of a critique or a later draft.


Critiquing is about encouragement and calling each other out to be better writers. Everyone wins when you are honest about the faults and flaws of a fellow writer’s story yet able to keep her hope alive that someday, after revision, she will have a draft of a story that she can be proud of. Hopefully, through your example, others will walk the same line for you as you share your work.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

 

Interview with WOW! Runner Up Julie Anderson Slattery



Julie Anderson Slattery enjoys a good challenge. This WOW! Fall Contest runner up moved from Missouri to New York City. She also changed jobs from trade magazine writer, to editor of consumer magazines and now writes fiction. “Ferry to the Show”, her beautiful, rhythmic personal essay about the Big Apple and being alone in the big city, drew us in and touched our hearts.

*****



WOW: Julie, in your winning story, you write about your first impressions of New York City. Was it therapeutic to write about “your city” in light of the 9/11 tragedy?

Julie: Always! I've written about 9/11 several times. My husband was working in the World Financial Center and we were on the phone when the second plane hit. Our call was disconnected and I didn't talk to him again until he arrived home just after lunch. We were really lucky, but so many others, including people in the town we lived in, were not. In addition to the loss of so much life and humanity, I mourn the skyline a great deal. The towers were the anchors of gold I would see on a sunny day on the ferry, and their outline had enabled us to see the city more clearly from New Jersey. It had been so reassuring to see those twin rectangles and know that even if I'd left the city I loved so much, it was close by and visible.


WOW: That was a tragic day for everyone, especially for those living so close. In reading your essay, I felt like I was there with you experiencing the city through your eyes. Do you feel like your experience as the new girl in New York City is pretty typical?

Julie: Certainly, it's typical for the girl who is a stranger to the city. Many of the friends I made had grown up near the city, or were being subsidized by parents, and I think their experience was different; they had a safety net. While these friends are savvy and fun, my bond to the friends who arrived like myself, clueless and alone, is probably stronger.


WOW: Well put. Being alone without a safety net is pretty scary, but it causes you to toughen up pretty quickly. I bet that experience fueled other areas of your writing as well. Julie, you said that you have written in the horror and young adult genres. What draws you to those two categories of fiction? What other genres do you write?

Julie: I was raised on Stephen King. I remember trying to study for an exam in college, and alternating a half hour of review, with an hour of "The Stand." There is something about horror and supernatural themes that help me escape more completely. Perhaps I find life a bit mundane? I always love believing that anything can happen; that anything might be out there. I've written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and still feel compelled occasionally when a topic entices me. I've also written two children's books that I'm trying to publish. The first is about a reluctant flowergirl who learns that weddings are about more than the chicken dance; the second, ironically, is a humorous book written to help young girls with divorced parents see their romantic futures with more...um, optimism. While there are many divorce books out there, I think older girls need to know that romance isn't a one-time shot. As a child of divorced parents, I feel pretty strongly that girls need consoling in this area.

WOW: Definitely. When I was growing up, I had several friends whose parents got divorced, but at that time, I don’t remember a book out there on the subject for girls to relate to. Surely, not a down-to-earth humorous book. What a great idea! You also said in your bio that winning a short story contest propelled you into fiction? What did winning that contest do for your writing career?

Julie: I entered the contest as a writing exercise. I'd always thought about writing fiction, but hadn't had the time and more importantly, the confidence. I saw the announcement for the contest, sat at my computer and tried to think of what really scares me. "The Quarry" wrote itself and I sent it in, and forgot about it. I was absolutely overcome when I won, but still so insecure that I placed the critiques I received in a drawer for a few days. When I had the nerve to read them, I was thrilled that the judges, (published writers!) wrote such encouraging comments. It gave me the confidence I needed to try a longer project.

WOW: We’re glad you did. It takes a lot of determination! In fact, you now have a young adult book that you are marketing to publishers. Can you tell me briefly what it is about?

Julie: "The Visitor" is about a Manhattan teen and an alien. Think a sexier "E.T." for today's more sophisticated kid. It's almost finished, and I anticipate a rather painful rewrite. As I've progressed, from say page 30 to page 200, I've read a lot more young adult fiction, and my character has matured a bit. I'm trying to follow the adage of plowing through before perfecting. Hope it works.


WOW: That’s the best way to do it. It’s always good to read others’ works, as long as it doesn’t cause you to doubt yourself and stop progressing on your own work. If you get that first draft down, you can keep your original train-of-thought and rework it later. So, was transitioning from non-fiction writing to fiction writing difficult? What resources did you find that helped with the transition?

Julie: Completely difficult! I have a hard time with voice. I had thought that pulling everything out of my head, and not having to interview experts, would be cake. What I didn't realize is that my brain can go in about a thousand directions at once. I have to follow the strongest ideas and not question the path. I also learned that good writing takes research, no matter what genre. Probably the best resource I've found is reading other writers' suggestions and always, always finding the time to read the kinds of books I want to write. I also joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and their workshops are wonderful. I read Writer's Digest, too, and find the interviews with writers very encouraging.


WOW: Those are great resources, and author interviews are definitely inspiring! But what ultimately brought you out of the journalism/trade journal world and into the world of fiction?

Julie: Well, I almost got back into newspaper writing when my son was small. I did a few pieces for our local paper and they liked them a lot, started assigning tons of stories. I was swinging with my son in our backyard, he was probably five, when I realized I'd been ignoring him as I thought about an article I was writing. All day as I looked at him, I couldn't focus because I was excited about the piece. I finished it and decided only to write non-deadline work while he was in my care. Maybe a stronger person can separate her life better, but I tend to get married to projects and block everything else out. Of course, with fiction writing I need some work on my self-discipline, just about ALWAYS. With no strong deadline, I tend to dawdle to an amazing degree.

Another reason fiction was a natural choice is that I had lots of surgery after my son was born, and I knew I could only handle the parenting aspect of my life while I recovered. (Parenting, not domestic, if you could see how I keep and have always kept my house! Plus I don't cook. Not well, anyway.) Fiction is something I can do when I want, without pressure.


WOW: (laughs) Well, that’s one tip I’ve heard often from NaNoers—let the house go! So, do you think that your experience as a journalist has helped you with your fiction? Will you ever go back to writing non-fiction?

Julie: Absolutely journalism was helpful. I learned how to research, write dialogue and introduce myself to anyone at anytime. If the cause is important enough to me, I could see writing a feature here and there. I would like to get back into travel writing a bit, because I love to travel anywhere anytime. Again, though, I have trouble separating my attention, and on a writing "vacation" I tend to get a bit obsessive about seeing everything. My husband and son are pretty laid-back, so they're not keen on my agendas. I may travelwrite on my own, sometime. I also write columns in my head just about everyday, on parenting, my dog, marriage (in that order!), small town life, politics...maybe I'll get industrious one day and actually type them up. For now, they entertain ME.


WOW: That’s the mindset of a writer, always crafting possible stories throughout the course of a day. Hopefully, we also write about them! What is a typical writing day for you? How do you juggle writing and family?

Julie: I used to fill my days with a few hours of writing, walking my dog and trying to keep up with the house and learning to cook a bit (it didn't take). I was also a room mother for five years (do you need cupcakes for this party? okay, I can bake) and I initiated and led a newspaper club at my son's elementary school for three years.

As my young adult book grew, and my son grew older, I decided to become a substitute teacher and learn the slang of today. Even though the story is in New York, my character is a bit unsophisticated, so I'm hoping that suburban slang will work for him. I didn't know that working with middle and high school students would be so much fun, so engaging. I find that I write more and with a more authentic quality after I've spent a few days listening to teens slam and adore each other. It does take a lot out of you, however, so my days are varied. I seem to be always sneaking in an hour or two here and there on my laptop, when I know it should be my priority. I haven't grown up enough as a writer to claim my time. I also help my son (7th grade) with homework and transport him here and there a lot, and I am always, always, always sneaking off with two or three good books (I rotate according to my mood, a mystery, an award winner, a teen novel) and losing hours in them. Somehow, I'm back to where I was in college, one more chapter and I'll open the laptop, or do the laundry, or maybe try cooking dinner and if it doesn't work this time....!

I'm really lucky that my writing isn't essential to my income, but that's also a negative, because my writing isn't essential to my income....if it was, I think I'd be just super successful by now! Ha.

WOW: I think many of us can relate! But it’s good to set small goals and accomplishments as well. What are your short and long-term goals for your writing career?

Julie: I have to finish and publish this science fiction novel. It has haunted me for so long and must be birthed. Just writing it isn't enough. I really want to publish it: probably it's vanity, but also I want to share it with kids who think like I do, and I want to show my family that I haven't been typing nonsense all day. I also want to add to my short horror story and perhaps write it as a screenplay. This was a suggestion by one of the judges in that contest and I think it would make a fun horror movie. Of course, I'd need to take a quick course in script writing and that will have to happen after "The Visitor" is finished.

And when both of those projects are finished? I have an absolutely thrilling time-travel story in my head, that's just dying to get out.

*****



If you haven't done so already, please read Julie's story, Ferry to the Show.

And remember, every Tuesday we'll be featuring an interview with one of the top 10 winners from the Fall 2007 Essay contest. So, be sure to check back and see who's up next!

For more details on WOW! Women On Writing's current contest, please visit:
http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/contest.php.

*****



by Susan L. Eberling

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Monday, November 26, 2007

 

Burn the House Down

By Susan L. Eberling

On my journey back into writing after a long, motherhood-induced hiatus, I encountered fellow writers along the way who have served as guides to me. Ray Bradbury and Anne Lamott inspired me to turn off my inner critic that says I have to crank out a wonderful piece of work in the first draft. Really, they unchained me from myself.

“The first draft is the child’s draft,” Lamott wrote in her book, Bird by Bird, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Anne Lamott advocates writing “crappy” first drafts. (This is not the exact language Lamott uses, but for now it will suffice.) Ray Bradbury encourages writers to “burn the house down” as they generate a first draft. He teaches to write what you love, what you hate, your passions, dreams and desires. Don’t write what you think you should write or what will get you published. In a 1956 article in The Writer, Bradbury says, “If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market . . . that you are not being yourself.”

Why is getting a first draft out so pivotal? Simply this: the rough draft is the clay from which we sculpt our finished work. Without a rough draft, no matter the quality, we have nothing to work with except growing anxiety and writer’s block. Both Bradbury and Lamott encourage writing first drafts with gusto and abandon. (Incidentally, this is largely the concept behind NaNo. If you look in their FAQs, someone asks what good could ever come from writing a novel so quickly? For NaNo’s answer, follow this link: http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/node/402759) Sit down at your computer and tell yourself not to expect anything except a bad first draft. It takes the pressure off. When the pressure is off, your inner editor is silenced and you can more easily find your voice and tap into your creative wells.

One day I decided I was going to “burn the house down” as I wrote a “crappy first draft” of an article I needed to write for a newsletter. I penned those phrases on a sheet of paper and put it next to my monitor where I could see it as I wrote. It worked. I quickly cranked out the draft that I needed and set it aside for a day to age like a fine wine. The next day my husband sat me down after lunch. “So, I found a strange note next to your computer, are you doing okay?” he asked, somewhat pensively. Seeing my note by the computer, he thought that I was about do terrible things to our home because of writing angst. It took some convincing to let him know that I was actually trying encourage and motivate myself.

So, what’s the bottom line? As writers, let’s release ourselves to write from our passions with zeal. Don’t hold back. Write everything that comes out of your brain. Everything. You can hack your work to pieces later, but go for the gusto, write a crappy first draft and burn the house down as you go.

Susan L. Eberling

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