The Practice of Creativity

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It’s been about a month since I’ve worked on my own creative projects (not including blogging). I’m stuck and I know it and I kind of know why. I’m rewriting my NaNoWriMo draft (a mystery) and have been happily buzzing along until I came to a section that I have to write completely fresh. It was great when it felt like I was just revising and had a template in front of me to follow. Also, my writing group loved the last chapter and told me they can’t wait to read the next one. For some reason, I internalized their excitement as SUPER DUPER PRESSURE TO BE GOOD. All the while I have been telling myself, ‘Oh, you’re just taking this inchoate baby NaNoWriMo draft to the toddler level.’ I was having fun with it, not needing it to be GOOD. And, then I felt that pressure and did it tighten up the creative juices.

Isn’t it funny how something wonderful (like readers wanting more) can create inner turmoil? OK, problem diagnosed! Now I just need to start somewhere and remind myself, it doesn’t need to be good on the first or even second round. I’m just putting words on the page. In the famous words of  Anne Lamott, it’s OK to produce a “shitty first draft”.

I’m just going to start putting one sentence in front of the other until I get to the end of the scene and then I’m going to write the next scene and so on.

I found this article a few days ago and it has some wonderful tips on how to come back to writing when you’ve been away for awhile.

And you? How is your writing going? Do you have some favorite ways to get unstuck?

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As many of you who consistently read this blog know, I have been teaching a variety of workshops about the submission process. I started teaching this kind of work because becoming more savvy about submission (and doing it more often), has made such a tremendous difference in my writing life.

My interest and desire in upping my submissions game began with my teacher’s suggestion that emerging writers should actively (and quickly) strive for 99 rejections. And, they should think of those rejections as part of their apprenticeship. As I note in this post, at the time my writing teacher shared this, I thought surely I had racked up 99 rejections. Boy was I wrong! The other reason why I have begun teaching on this subject is that while there are a number of writing books, few discuss the submission process and all that it entails.

Recently, I realized that since December, I haven’t devoted much time to my own submission process. And, time is passing—it’s already the second quarter of the year!

Last Saturday, I sat down and dived in. Wow, was I out of practice with a process that I know well! I was reminded of many of the things that my participants tell me they struggle with regarding submitting their work

It takes time to research new markets (ideally, you’re reading a few issues of the journal or magazine before you submit), it also takes time to adapt cover letters and reformat your materials (there is, unfortunately, no uniform submission standard and every venue wants the materials formatted slightly different—from no contact information in the manuscript to contact information in the manuscript, etc.).

What I thought would only take me an hour or two (as I had several pieces ready to go), took almost four hours from start to finish. This submission thing isn’t easy or speedy.

I wound up submitting work to 5 new markets and 1 market that I already knew. To the majority of these markets, I submitted both prose and poetry. Last year, I had little time to get my poems circulating and I wanted to correct that oversight.

One strategy, however, that I came up with after my four hour adventure was to schedule a reminder in my calendar for the 5th and 25th of each month. Instead of trying to do everything in one sitting, it makes much more sense to spread the work out over the month. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of this before! I also like the fact that on the 5th, I can scan everything I find for the month, bookmark it and make a decision to submit then (depending on the deadline) or later.  If you schedule in twice a month submission adventures then you’re more likely to find great opportunities and follow through on them.

The reality is, if I don’t start scheduling this kind of stuff, I’ll wind up binge submitting and feel exhausted afterward.

I have become a fan of Todoist, a scheduling app. I’ve already added my reminder for the 25th.

Submitting one’s work shouldn’t feel tedious! I’m excited about my new plan.

Do you have tips for managing the submission process? If so, I’d love to hear them.

 

LOCAL PEEPS: This event combines everything I love–talking with other authors, activism, and women’s issues. I hope you consider joining us for what I believe will be an inspiring and lively conversation:


In her only appearance in North Carolina, national leader and former president of Planned Parenthood Cecile Richards will be in conversation with Michele Tracy Berger in The Fearrington Barn on April 15th at 2pm in support of her new memoir MAKE TROUBLE: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead.
Tickets can be purchased through McIntyre’s Books: 542-3030 or online through their website.

I am absolutely loving her book and can’t wait to meet her in person!

I have two lovely pieces of news to share:

The Hugo award nominations were recently announced and I’m thrilled to say that Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler has been nominated under the category, ‘Best Related Work’!

Luminescent Threads celebrates Octavia Butler, a pioneer of speculative fiction. This is a collection of original letters and essays written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans. There are letters from people who knew Butler and those who didn’t; some who studied under her at the Clarion and Clarion West workshops and others who attended those same workshops because of her; letters that are deeply personal, deeply political, and deeply poetic; and letters that question the place of literature in life and society today.

…And psst, I’m in this collection, too!!!!

I’m thrilled for the editors, Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal and for Twelfth Planet Press. Here’s an interview with them from last year.

The second fantastic surprise is that I have been elected to membership in the North Carolina Writers Conference (NCWC). The North Carolina Writers Conference is the best kept secret in the state. It should not be confused with the well-known North Carolina Writer’s Network Conference that is held every spring and fall. The NCWC is an invite and membership only, volunteer based organization that’s been around for over six decades co-founded by esteemed writer Paul Green. It honors a significant NC writer every year at their July conference. The NCWC meets each year to “talk shop, talk craft, and share the problems and joys of writing,” as well as to celebrate the community of writers in North Carolina.

Many years ago, my writing teacher invited me to attend this conference as she was that year’s chair. I had no expectations and felt no pressure as I understood that the purpose of the gathering is to honor a well-known NC author, listen to some academically oriented panels and to connect with writers. This was not a conference about pitching your work to agents. The conference was absolutely lovely and relaxing.

My writing teacher introduced me to several of her writing buddies. At that time, I was early on in my publishing journey and I remember that everyone was so encouraging and supportive. Many of the writers I met that year, I met again at other literary events. At that time, I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be published and be invited into this organization! [A member has to nominate you and you have to have a book published]. I’m excited and honored to be part of this organization and to deepen my North Carolina writing roots.

This isn’t a book review. It’s an appetizer. You know when you start reading a book and you feel like it’s about to reshape everything you’ve thought about a subject? And, you can’t wait to tell everyone about it? That’s me, right now. I’m obsessed with the new book, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.

It’s an amazing book exploring raw vulnerable truths, myths and contradictions about writing and making a living. The collection includes essays and interviews. Every piece moves me.

Last fall, I heard an interview with the editor, Manjula Martin, on the wonderful DIY MFA podcast, hosted by Gabriela Pereira. I bought it and have been devouring it this past week. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about it soon. Right now, please excuse me as I curl up with Scratch until the wee hours of the morning.

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of conducting a compressed version of the ‘Charting Your Path to Publication’ workshop for the Triangle Sisters in Crime organization. A wonderful crowd of newbie and established writers turned out on a warm afternoon. The audience came eager to engage with me and each other.

This is the third time I’ve taught a version of this workshop and every time it’s gone supremely well. On Saturday, I focused a lot on strengthening one’s submitting skills. The reason why I created this workshop is because a vacuum exists in helping writers understand and manage one of the key components of creating a writing career–submitting one’s work. There’s not much about the submission process in writing craft books, except to “just do it”. But this declaration leaves out so much about submitting one’s work including 1) how to build relationships with editors 2) how to find appropriate venues for one’s work 3) how to track one’s submissions and 4)how to cultivate a resilient author mindset, especially in dealing with rejection.

As I say in the opening to the workshop, charting one’s path to publication is not like shooting an arrow and hitting a target.

Getting published really isn’t like shooting an arrow and hitting a target perfectly the first time.

This is the perception I had when I first started writing. It’s more like a series of knocking on doors and hopefully building relationships with editors, publishers and readers behind many of them.

Understanding the nuances in publishing is more like being very curious and knocking on a wide array of many doors.

It can be a long and rewarding process when one is armed with knowledge and support. I wish someone had explained this to me much earlier in my writing career.

Here are three tips for increasing your submission savvy:

  • Always be on the lookout for new venues for your work

You want to create a readership? You want to get paid for your writing? If the answer is yes, you’ll need to find markets where you can submit your work. Make seeking out new venues a playful process and think of yourself as a type of treasure hunter.

There are some tried and true submission market databases. These include Duotrope and Submission Grinder. You can also find a number of groups on Facebook representing various genres that post submissions (i.e. ‘women of color writers’ community’, ‘science fiction and fantasy authors’, etc.)

One fantastic venue is poet, Tricia Hopkinson’s ‘Where to Submit’ website. She updates monthly and includes submission markets for all kinds of genres; her site is also good for finding paying poetry markets.

  • Create a great bio

As a working writer, you’ll need different bio lengths including a 50 word, 100 word and 300 word length bio for various publications (or queries to agents and editors). I spent a lot of time on Saturday making a case for a bio that engages the reader, conveys something compelling about the writer and is more than a laundry list of publications. The bio is not only for your forthcoming publications, but is an important component of your website and other social media sites, etc. Start collecting examples of author bios that you love and study what makes them work. I used author, Jake Bible’s longer bio on his website as a fun example and perfect for the genre he writes in.

  • Create a rejection ritual

It’s going to happen to you, if it hasn’t happened already. You’re going to submit something and it gets rejected. You’re minding your own business, thinking of yourself as a writer, keeping to deadlines and then a rejection letter arrives in an email. Sometimes we forget a piece of writing is out floating around in the literary universe. When a rejection arrives out of the blue it often feels like your head has been plunged in cold water.

As writers, many of us have great rituals for getting ourselves to the page or celebrating when we finish a piece. Most of us don’t have any rituals for dealing with rejection.

I started thumbing through my writing books-all of which talk about the inevitability of rejection-and was surprised to find that few gave concrete advice or guidance about how to take care of yourself when you get a rejection letter. Most just say that you should immediately write a new query letter and send the manuscript back out–very perfunctory.

I asked the audience if they have a rejection ritual. Someone said, “A glass of chardonnay and popcorn and then the next day I get back to work.” Another person said, “I think I need a rejection ritual.”

You can create your rejection ritual around what kind of feedback you receive from the venue. Is it a form letter or is it personalized? What will you need to tell yourself to get the piece back into submission (assuming that the piece is as strong as you can make it)? It can be as simple as having a phrase that you tell yourself. A ritual can help ease the sting of getting rejected. Consider crafting one.

If you’d like to deeply explore your publication path, I’m teaching a longer workshop through the wonderful Creative Writing Program at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro this coming Saturday, March 24th 10am-4pm. I was scheduled to teach this workshop in January, but didn’t because of the snowstorm. I’d love to see you there!

Charting Your Path to Publication teaches strategies to beat the odds of rejection. You’ll learn how to select markets for your work, track submissions, and find great resources.

We’ll also spend time exploring the role of author mindset as vital to publishing success. There is no one path to publication, but we can follow and replicate the strategies of accomplished writers. You will leave with an action plan with concrete steps toward publication (or, if already published with a plan about how to become more widely so).

Writers at all levels welcomed.

Door prizes, too!

Register here

 

As I frequently note on this blog, I am lucky to live in a community (a state even!) known for its writers. Anne Anthony is a writer friend that I know from classes, community shindigs and readings. We often like the same authors and comment on each other’s Facebook posts about writing advice.

I was touched when I read the inspiration for her recent co-edited book: The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. It’s an anthology of flash fiction stories for adults who struggle with memory loss.  The inspiration for the book came after her mother passed away last February. As Anne has said, “[her mother] loved to read, but as her memory declined she switched from reading novels to reading short stories. She could have extended her reading life had she known about flash fiction (stories between 500 & 750 words).”

The Collection is not about memory loss (or aging), but it is a fine volume of 60 evocative flash stories that anyone can enjoy.

Anne Anthony is a full-time writer living in North Carolina. She holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry South, Tell Us a Story, The Mused Literary Review, and elsewhere.

I figured after editing this major project, Anne would have some insights to share about the wonders and challenges of being a newbie editor. And, indeed she does!

I’m delighted to welcome Anne Anthony to The Practice of Creativity.

On Being a First-Time Editor
By Anne Anthony

I remember watching Mickey Rooney in the film, Babes in Arm, and his excitement when he decided to ‘put on a show’ to prove to his parents and those of his friends that these ‘kids’ could make it to Broadway.

I had a similar exhilaration at the start of the anthology project not because I was trying to prove something, but because I wanted to create a book that my mother would have enjoyed reading. Toward the end of her life, my mother lost the ability to hold on to longer plots of short stories and though she could read, she couldn’t follow a narrative from beginning to end.

Taking a good idea and turning it into an actual book was a journey of discovery for a writer who had never edited an anthology before. From writing the call for submissions, to their screening and review, sending out acceptances and rejections, to editing the stories, I learned five lessons for new editors.

  1. Hold to the Submission Guidelines

I’ve read hundreds of submission guidelines since I first began submitting my work. I try my best to follow those guidelines, but sometimes, I slip up. Once I submitted a flash fiction story to a journal which only publishes creative non-fiction. The editor informed me, kindly and politely, of my misstep and suggested a journal I might try.

So it surprised me when several submissions didn’t follow those guidelines. Many submissions were over or under the 500 – 750-word count limitation, or was a poem, or was clearly a memoir piece. I started yelling at my laptop, “Doesn’t anyone follow directions anymore?” which sometimes scared my old dog sitting at my feet. I gained a better appreciation for editors and their frustrations with submissions.

One writer submitted a strong story about a man encountering a beautiful, but quirky woman on the beach. Their conversation was witty and engaging and the only stumbling block to acceptance was the story’s 1000-word count. I loved the story so much that I took a shot at editing the piece down to 750-words. His response was respectful, Good try but I think the story loses too much at 750; 1000 words is more realistic,” but disappointing. I wished him well and sent him a list of the the top 20 flash fiction journals where he could submit his story. I truly wanted others to read what he’d written.

My advice to writers: pay attention to every detail in the guidelines or your submission will likely not be considered.

  1. Define Acceptance Criteria

The stories accepted met the acceptance criteria established prior to the screening phase of the book project. 1) a well-defined plot 2) strong writing 3) engages the reader from beginning to end.

The 81 stories that didn’t make the cut were rejected for several reasons, the least of which was weak writing. I recall wanting to read more of several stories — like the next 15 chapters. The writing was stellar and sharp, but writing 500 well-written words doesn’t mean you’ve written flash fiction. Some pieces were likely the start of a short story, a scene in a longer novel or novella, but it didn’t have the beginning, middle and end to make it flash fiction.

So, what is flash fiction?

Becky Tuch, the editor of Review Review, explained in one of her posts how ‘deceptively complex’ flash fiction can be.

“Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fiction, micro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex. At the same time, writing these short shorts can be incredibly rewarding. Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word.”

As the editor, I gauged every word, every action written into these short pieces checking for relevance, tightness, connectedness from beginning to end. I asked myself: Is the metaphor used here necessary? Does it tie to the overall theme of the story? Is the writer inserting a metaphor that the character wouldn’t know to include? For example, would a five-year-old child describe a hot sunny day as ‘like lying inside a sun tanning booth?’

If you’d like to read more from Becky’s article, click here: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/flash-fiction-whats-it-all-about

  1. Check the Value of Every Word

The third lesson learned ties closely to lesson two.

Every word matters in flash fiction because of its short length.

While editing the anthology, I searched for places where writers used adverbs instead of strong verbs. Or questioned dialogue tags other than ‘said,’ (think: implored, sniffled shouted, screamed, yelled, well, you get my drift.) I’m a strong believer in the ‘invisibility’ of the dialogue tag — don’t call attention to it and consider eliminating it altogether if it’s clear which character is speaking. A reader should focus on the exchange between two characters and gather the tension or suspense (or whatever emotion is) by showing action.

For example, look at the difference in the two variations of the same dialogue.

Dialogue #1

“You never told me you were a man,” Helen shouted loudly.

“I’d thought you knew,” Billy whispered softly.

Dialogue #2

Helen stared at Billy standing naked in the shower. “You never told me you were a man.”

Billy reached for his bathrobe, “I thought you knew.”

In the first version, the writer uses unnecessary adverbs with dialogue tags which weaken the story. The second version gives the reader context with dialogue and no tags, creating a richer scene.

Colorado author, Eleanore D. Trupkiewicz, offers sound advice in her guest post, Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II) on Writers Digest.

“Beats of action reveal character emotions and set the stage far more effectively than an overdose of adverbs ever will.”

If you’d like to read more from more of Ms. Trupkiewicz’ guest post, click here:

http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/keep-it-simple-keys-to-realistic-dialogue-part-ii

  1. Trust Writers to (Mostly) Know Their Stories

Several strong submissions required editing to tighten the writing in certain places. One writer had a terrific story that lead the reader down an unexpected path but in the last paragraph, the story lost its momentum. Our communication about possible changes turned into a delightful exchange when Caren consulted with her fictional protagonist regarding her story which had ended with him saying, “Hmm.”

Here’s what she wrote:

“…I stepped back from the scene for a while and came back and asked, “So Umberto, was that it?”  And he said, to me, “Yes. That was it…Until I heard Genevieve commenting on what had just happened.” I’m not kidding, you, Anne! That’s what Umberto “said” to me! I hadn’t “seen” anyone else in the parking lot until I “asked” Umberto about the ending of his story and Lo and Behold! Another character had shown up! I was surprised but I’m really glad that you inspired me to check back in with Umberto… and Umberto’s glad that I let the story continue a bit further.”

The change Caren made to the ending was brilliant and I truly believe came straight from her fictional character’s mouth.

And though writers know their stories, sometimes they don’t include everything they had in mind. One writer submitted a story about an older jazz musician who returned to the stage for one night. He described the jazz club, the musician, and the indifference of the crowd in such perfect detail that the scene could easily be imagined. But he missed a detail. He never mentioned anyone on stage with the protagonist and then suddenly in the middle of his story, a band appears. His response was telling and underscores the value of a critical eye.

“The entire time I was writing the story, I pictured a full band behind him [the protagonist]. I had several people read the story, including a fellow writer that usually finds my mistakes, and nobody noticed that.”

As an editor, it’s essential to not only look at what’s there, but also to check for what’s missing from the story.

  1. Rejection Really Can Be Subjective

As a writer, I’ve received rejection emails from journals using phrases like, “Unfortunately, this piece isn’t the right fit for us. Please consider us for future submissions.”

I’d learned six months into submitting stories for publication about a rejection wiki that offers examples of rejection letters from hundreds of journals. I discovered that rejection emails are organized in tiers: Standard and Higher Tier.

If interested in reading more, check out the link: http://www.rejectionwiki.com/index.php?title=Literary_Journals_and_Rejections

Until I edited this anthology, I didn’t believe the ‘boilerplate’ language used in rejection emails. What I learned, however, is that well-written flash fiction can be rejected because of the fit. An editor may look across the accepted stories as a whole, once she’s accepted several pieces, and notice the emerging heart of the book. A particular piece really might not fit.

The second sentence in the example rejection above also took on new meaning. Several strong writers whose stories I’d passed on might make it into the next anthology, if I decide to do one.

And perhaps that’s the final lesson I take away from this whole experience — editors really do want to publish good stories. It’s what delights our hearts

Anne at the book launch held on Reading Across America Day, March 2.

Linda Johnson, a member of the writing group I’m in, reading from The Collection.

A full house for book launch of The Collection.

Anne Anthony is a full-time writer living in North Carolina. She holds a Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland and a Masters in Professional Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. She’s been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Dead Mule School for Southern Literature, Poetry South, Tell Us a Story, The Mused Literary Review, and elsewhere.

In 2017, she was a cast member in the farewell performance of the Raleigh-Durham show Listen to Your Mother, in which she read her essay “In My Bones.” Her flash fiction, “Bathroom Break,” placed third in a Brilliant Flash Fiction themed contest. She is the co-editor of an anthology of flash fiction intended for readers with memory impairments, The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory (March, 2018). She is the owner of Anchala Studios, a micro press based in Chapel Hill, NC which selects projects appealing to broad audiences and which enrich the community.

Check out her book on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.com/Collection-Flash-Fiction-Memory/dp/0692991034/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1519046448&sr=8-1&keywords=the+collection+flash+fiction+for+flash+memory

 

 

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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