Inquisitive Adventures

RamonaGravitarI took a walk on the wide side this past weekend and wrote a haiku. I also made a handmade book.

A course on haiku and micro-books was taught by my friend and writing colleague, JM Reinbold. Joanne and I go way back, all the way back to this:

ink-slingers

Stories from the Ink Slingers is/was my first story published in an anthology. It was also the first anthology I contributed to as an editor. It was published in 2007, and it was this (and my 50th birthday a few years later) that led to my decision to pursue a second career as a professional editor. When Joanne invited me to act as co-editor for the Ink Slingers anthology, I had no idea it was the first step on a path for a new career.

Thanks, Joanne.

Back to the haiku and handmade book class.  Writing haiku intimidates me. I have a mental block that, even with Joanne’s excellent and encouraging guidance, leaves me struggling. I have yet to fully understand, much less capture, the “haiku moment.” I have difficulty with choosing words because I focus on form. But I took the course and tried out a few haiku because I wanted to try something new.

When’s the last time you tried something new?

In my post-haiku glow, I thought about the inquisitive adventures I have taken since 2007. I use the term inquisitive adventures because I am not physically daring, but I am mentally curious. Combine those two and you get a person seeking experiences not found at a snowy mountain top, perhaps, but that take her out of the daily box of life.

Here’s a partial list small new things I have tried in the past few years because I wanted to have an inquisitive adventure.

~ Went away to an artist colony (x3)

~ Made a soul collage

~ Led and participated in public Free Writes

~ Walked a few labyrinths

~ Began to practice meditation

~ Investigated Healing Touch

~ Took a Reiki workshop

~ Took a Wellness for Women workshop

~ Spent a week alone at a beach hotel in winter

~ Began a Writing as Healing course at the cancer center

~ Made a Christmas tree out of a discarded book at a paper crafts class

~ Did a 6-week The Artist’s Way course

~ Scheduled a tarot card reading

~ Drank a specialty martini at the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club

~ Ate pig cheeks

~ Made a micro book

~ Wrote this haiku:

windowsill cactus

summer afternoon sun blasts

benign neglect death

I also made curtains out of distressed vintage tablecloths for my kitchen and guest room windows. The third talent I have with my hands—after typing and twirling a baton—is sewing. I only sew straight lines, but you can do a lot with straight lines, if you take the straight lines out of their box. Some people look at a 50s tablecloths with a few stains and small holes and think, trash. I look at it and think, curtains!

Inquisitive adventures—have you had any? And what do you think about my handmade micro-book? Pretty adorable, if you ask me.

haiku book

A Down the Street Writing Retreat

RamonaGravitarLast week, my neighbor, aka Walking Friend, went off to a tropical vacation. I stayed home and fed her tropical fish.

My friend is organized. She left out pre-measured cups of fish food, a bag for mail and newspapers, and an invitation to me to eat the strawberries and pineapple in the fridge; to drink any and as much of their liquor as I’d like; and to “stay a little while and write, if you want to!”

Free fruit, unlimited booze, and a writing retreat, all in exchange for checking mail and feeding fish. Yippee!

I went home, packed a bag, and disappeared for a week. In my neighbor’s house, I locked the doors and ignored the telephone. I set up my laptop on the dining room table and didn’t move it. I subsisted on wine and strawberries and never turned on the TV. I wrote, wrote, and wrote some more, and when I got tired, I relaxed into the oversized chair near the fireplace, and let the bubbling of the fish tank lull me to sleep….

Well, not really.

The invitation didn’t mention sleepovers, and I didn’t want a middle-of-the-night confrontation that included, “I’m not squatting, officer, I was asked to take care of the fish so I’m providing 24 hour protection.”

Fantasy aside, what I actually did was carry my laptop across the street for a couple of hours each day. I self-retreated in a quiet, unoccupied house where there really was fruit in the fridge, the fish tank did provide bubbly background music, and the phone calls were not mine to answer.

I can write almost anywhere. I sit in coffee shops and the chatter fades away. Give me a corner in the airport and a layover, and I’ll use that time productively. Free writes in the public library? A bench at the playground? A picnic table at the park? A balcony at the beach? DIY weekend retreat, solo or with a friend? Done, done, done, and done. My big kahuna getaway is leaving behind my family, work, and responsibilities to spend 2 or 3 weeks at an artist colony every winter.

I write this blithely enough, but the trick of writing in any given space is learned behavior. I taught myself how to write anywhere because, from time to time, in my home office where everything I need to be productive and inspired is within reach, my inspiration–imagination, determination, muse, magical mystery writing guide–deserts me.

It’s not SAD. It’s not writers block. It’s home office fever.

I love being a writer. I don’t love sitting in the same chair, looking at the same view, twelve hours a day. In addition to the fear that long-term sitting will shave off years of my life—sitting is the new smoking, you know—the same spot, same space gets boring. Don’t misunderstand me—I acknowledge my good fortune in having a dedicated work space (and the tax break that comes with it). Nevertheless, from time to time the walls close in, and I need a new room with a new view.

There are all different kinds of fatigue—mental fatigue, physical fatigue, creative fatigue, compassion fatigue. For me, creative fatigue hits for different reasons, and one of those reasons is the Same Four Walls Syndrome. So I’ve learned to take it on the road, sometimes for a couple of hours, sometimes for a couple of weeks.daisies in pink planter

And a funny thing happened after four days blissfully writing across the street. On the fifth day, I noticed all the fruit was gone. When the phone rang, I listened to voice mail messages in case it was important or an emergency. And I began to tune out the fish tank. When the bubbles go from lovely and soothing, to white noise, to sounds to be tuned out, it’s time to move on. All good things, and all that.

I bought a bouquet and left it for my neighbor to show my appreciation. Now I’m back in my own home with my own food and phone calls. The break was good. I am content. No home office fever.

But if you have fish to feed, call me.

Do you ever suffer from creative fatigue? If so, what do you do about it?

Other writing inspiration and getaway posts:

Writers Getaway Weekend

SAD in the Studio

Postcard from Writing Camp 1

Postcard from Writing Camp 2

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The 10 Task To-Do List

RamonaGravitarOn an otherwise dreary morning, I ventured into an office supply store determined not to buy all of Aisle 9. I get into trouble around shiny pens and pretty pencils, whimsical sticky notes, glossy-paged journals, and fancy scissors. I would say the siren’s call is worse when Mercury is in retrograde, but it doesn’t matter what Mercury is up to when it comes to my weakness about office supplies. I’m thinking about starting a support group.

But I’m not quite at resistance-is-futile level, so I hit the store with a 5-item plan. I needed 5 items. It should take 5 minutes to find them. Five items, five minutes. That was the plan, which worked until I reached checkout, aka the Island of Impulse Purchases. There I saw this innocent-looking 10-item Things to Do pad.

to do list upright

It’s a to-do pad, one of a zillion other to-do pads, but this one stopped me in my tracks. Why? Because right there in the impulse purchase zone, I had an epiphany. This pad was for 10 things. If I bought this pad, I’d only have to do 10 things. Ten things, as opposed to my usual list of…Let’s just call it an impossible number.

The self-defeating effect of never-ending tasks:

Last month, at the Pennwriters Conference, I presented a workshop on the Writing Hour. Writing for an hour a day, every day, same time-same place, is my work-related religion. I write first thing in the morning, which means my daily writing goal is accomplish by 8:00 a.m. Everything else I accomplish is gravy.

Unfortunately, that gravy is sometimes lumpy. This is what my to-do list generally looks like:

to do list long

There is no way a single human can knock off this kind of list in a single day. I’m not sure a squadron of humans could do it, but I had fallen into the trap of reminders. As if I needed a daily reminder that my website needed upgrading and I had to answer email. In addition to what I had to do today, I was noting tasks that needed doing…someday.

In prepping for the workshop, I researched time management, particularly the effectiveness of multi-tasking and list-making. Turns out, these are not always the organizational gems they are touted to be. Multi-tasking undermines your productivity because, simply put, you can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. I can testify about the benefits of single-focusing via my Writing Hour.

Equally, list-making is tricky. If every day you list of everything you need to do, every day you will fail. Every day, you will carry over more tasks you didn’t accomplish yesterday. This is what I call the self-defeating to-do list. You can never cross off every item on the list if you list too many items. You’re setting yourself up for failure. Every day.

Much of writing is a mental game. The appeal of my Writing Hour is two-fold: I’m a lark, so my most creative time of day is first thing in the morning. Second, by 8:00 a.m., I’ve accomplished my most important and satisfying task of the day. No matter how awful the rest of the day turns out to be, nothing can take away the hour I wrote. That’s winning.

How do you create a winning to-do list? By writing a list you can actually accomplish in one day. Maybe, if you knock off your list, you’ll enjoy the same psychic satisfaction I get from my Writing Hour.

tiger scissorsI bought the 10-item list pad. (I also bought scissors with a tiger theme. Really, I need the support group.) Now I list 10 tasks I need to complete  today and only today, with one exception. My website needs work, but I don’t have the time—or desire—to spend a solid week at it. So I tinker at it a bit every day.

This is my new approach to the daily to-do. #1 is static: Writing Hour. #10 is static too: Work on Website. In between are 8 tasks I must and/or can accomplish today. The list is short. It’s specific. It’s doable. It’s winning.10 task to-do photo

Do you write short lists? Long lists? No lists? Tell me!

Q&A at Writers Who Kill

RamonaGravitarToday, I am answering questions about editing, working on anthologies, writing, my writing, and what I like to read on vacation at the Writers Who Kill blog.

The Writers Who Kill are a group of mystery authors who post each day. Their Welcome Wednesday spot presents a Q&A to guest authors, agents, and editors. I’m pleased to be their guest today.

Tell Your Arts Story

RamonaGravitarIn 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, and so created two agencies dedicated to the development and preservation of arts, culture, and history in the U.S.

On September 29, 2015, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities will celebrate their 50th birthdays. If you are an artist or historian, you are invited to be part of this celebration.

The NEA has issued an invitation to artists to share how art influences and inspires you, your family, your community. The project is called Tell Us Your Story. You can submit an essay, audio, video, and photos. In September, the NEA will begin posting stories on their website.

As the grateful recipient of fellowships and grants funded in part by the NEA, I wrote an essay and submitted it. I was thrilled when, last week, the NEA made a poster from my essay, sharing comments about how writing every day has become so ingrained in my life, my day–and my life–would be missing a piece without it.

The poster appeared on the NEA’s Facebook page and Twitter feed. Here’s what it looks like:

NEA writing hour quote

Awesome, right?

Please share your story and support the NEA and NEH’s mission to preserve, protect, and promote our culture and creative history.

What Do Judges & Jurors Want? Part 3 of Writing for Contests and Anthologies

RamonaGravitarThe judges and jurors quoted below won’t be evaluating your criminal activities. They’ll be evaluating your mastery of the writing craft, your interpretation of theme, your narrative voice, your ability to hook a reader with a well-crafted opening, your skill at creating an emotional connection with a character.

To round out this short series, I contacted people who read submissions and select stories for inclusion in a couple of regional anthologies. Most of the folks below are also writers, so they understand the joy of acceptance and the disappointment in rejection.

I requested quotes on what, as a judge or juror, they’d look for when reading through submissions for a contest or anthology.

beach daysThe following judges are from the Rehoboth Beach Reads contest. For writing tips and more info on RBR, read yesterday’s post from Nancy Sakaduski.  Here’s what the RBR judges past and present have to say:

“When I’m judging a short story, I’m always happy to meet interesting characters and to listen to zippy dialogue.  It’s also nice to jump right into a story without having to sit through a lot of set-up.  Some great advice I once got is that if you’re going to tell a story to one of your friends, you don’t say, “Hey, I’ve got a great story for you, but first I’m going to tell you a bunch of background information so that you understand what’s happening.”  You just tell the story!  Sure, sometimes you have to start with a little exposition and explanation to get things going.  But then we should be off and running!” ~ Dennis Lawson

“The first thing I look for in a story is a strong voice in the narrator (memoir) or main character (fiction). I wish I could describe this voice, but the best I can say is I know it when I “hear” it.  I think writers should always read their work aloud to hear how their voice is coming across and to ask themselves, “would I follow this person anywhere?” ~ Sarah Barnett

“The number one thing I am looking for is a creative take on the theme.” ~ Alex Colevas, Browseabout Books

“When evaluating a short story I look first for the basics: a strong hook that draws me in and a smooth setup that leads to a satisfying payoff. A good story will make me care about at least one strong character. A GREAT story will show me some character development. Being a genre writer, I’m also drawn more to a story with a clear conflict that needs to be resolved.” ~ Austin Camacho

“One of the first things I look for when reading someone else’s work is how the author approaches his/her reader. As writers, we all have that story bubbling around inside of our heads and we know what that story is, but that does not mean that the reader is reading the same story that the writer is writing. My first advice to a writer is to be sure that s/he understands the creative writing techniques that are stored in his/her toolkit and that s/he uses them correctly, to ensure that the story from the writer is the same story to the reader.” ~ Judy Reveal, Just Creative Writing & Indexing Service

“With stories that have a primarily true basis for being — writers seem to succeed most often when they find a way into their story that is somehow intriguing and even perhaps a little quirky. That first sentence and first paragraph need to set up the essence of the tale and imply that something needs resolution that is, for the moment, up in the air….How a writer does this depends upon how acutely he/she understands language — all the ways it can be used to create a fully developed world in a few thousand words. And while point of view, pacing, story arc, thematic integrity, and more are all very important in creating that illusion, for me at least, the most important part is how language is shaped and molded. Words are everything, in other words (!), and especially so in a small-form work.” ~ Laurel Marshfield, Blue Horizons Communications, Editorial Consultation for Authors, and Blue Horizon White Pages

“As a reader and writer of short fiction, I find the first paragraph (and the last) critical in keeping the reader interest, and the story flowing. Economy of language, control of the story, use metaphor and character development consistent with the theme of the piece are important and so is that exhalation of satisfaction at the end….A short story should culminate, and feel inevitable, not because the author wishes it to be so, but because character choices take the reader to the end.” – Mary Pauer

“I look for a story with a unique voice and an authentic Rehoboth Beach connection.” ~ Rich Barnett

roguewavecovermediumThe following quotes are from editors at Level Best Books, an independent publishing cooperative which produces an anthology of Crime Stories by New England Writers annually in November.

 “We’re looking for what everyone is looking for–a distinctive voice, strong premise and a hook that grabs the reader from the beginning. And, maybe because our focus is crime fiction, we’re also looking for a surprise or a twist at the end. If we can see the ending coming from 5000 words away, chances are we won’t go with that story….We do no developmental editing and very little copy-editing. We don’t have time. We proofread like crazy and correct mistakes and typos that creep in during the production process, but that’s it. If you send us something, you better be prepared to see it that way on the page….Every year we reject dozens of stories that might be published in another year. “Not for us,” means just that. Don’t take it to mean we think your story is terrible.” – From Barbara Ross, co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books

“As the long-time judge of a mystery short story contest and now a co-editor of the anthology that publishes the winning story, I’m always looking for a fresh take on a familiar tale, a strong voice, and writing that either sends chills down my spine, or makes me smile and even laugh out loud, which is to say, I’m open to either light-hearted or noir stories. For the contest, longer is better (3000-5000 words), because we want a story with some substance and complexity rather than the “quick hit” of flash; for the anthology, on the other hand, we welcome shorter stories and flash in addition to longer ones, because we seek variety in length as well tone and subject matter. Although both the contest and the anthology call for crime stories, the crime does not have to be murder; it can be a trick someone plays on someone else, or a failed bank heist by a bunch of bumbling crooks.” – Leslie Wheeler, Chair, Al Blanchard Award Committee, and Co-Editor, Level Best Books

Submissions to the Al Blanchard Award Contest and to Level Best Books’ thirteenth anthology, Best New England Crime Stories 2016: Red Dawn, are open now with deadlines of April 30. 

Many thanks to these judges and jurors for sharing their thoughts, for promoting short fiction and regional authors, and for fighting the good fight for quality writing.

Why Enter a Short Story Contest? Guest Post by Nancy Sakaduski

RamonaGravitar

Today I am welcoming Nancy Sakaduski, owner of Cat & Mouse Press and creator of the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest.

The RBR contest is in its third year and is currently open for submissions. This year’s theme is “beach days.” I had the pleasure of judging last year’s entries for Rehoboth Beach Reads, published in The Boardwalk. Although the beach and Rehoboth are tied into the stories, the contest is open to all writers, from anywhere.beach days

Below, Nancy shares her thoughts on why entering a contest helps you as a writer. She also shares what to do, and what not to do, when entering a competition or call for entries.

 Why enter a short story contest?

  • It forces you to read guidelines and write to a deadline and word count, which is good practice for becoming a the_beach_houseprofessional writer.
  • It gives you experience with editing, revising, and proofreading your work.
  • Writing a short story is less of an investment than writing a novel.
  • Short stories let you try new genres and test out characters, settings, concepts, and different points of view.
  • Contests are generally inexpensive to enter.
  • It’s a chance to have your writing evaluated objectively.
  • If you win, you may win cash, publication, or both.
  • Publication gives you credibility as a professional writer and adds to your bio for future projects.
  • Publication gives you experience with the editing and publishing process.
  • Winning a contest can get your writing noticed.
  • Publication gives you publicity opportunities and networking potential.
  • Additional publications help you build a fan base.
  • You maintain ownership (check the guidelines carefully to confirm) and can sell your work elsewhere, so you are not giving anything away.
  • The odds of winning a local contest like the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest are actually pretty good. Unlike with national competitions (or with large publishers and literary publications), the pool of entries is small, so you have a much better chance of having your work accepted.
  • You will have a sense of accomplishment from successfully writing, polishing, and submitting your work.
  • Entering a contest is fun!

Contest Dos and Don’ts

 Do

  • Read the guidelines carefully and follow them. Guidelines are how publishers tell you what they want.BR2014-Boardwalkcover_0519_0
  • Look for an interesting way to connect with the theme and the location. Judges (and readers!) appreciate creativity and variety. Make your story stand out.
  • Try a genre (mystery, romance, humor).
  • Polish your writing. Edit to make the story nice and tight, not just to fit the word count.
  • Remember that this is a contest for beach reads. You can deal with a serious subject if you do it in an uplifting or inspirational way, but please save stories about suicide, sick children, tragic accidents, and other calamities for a different contest!

Don’t

  • Give your story the same title as the contest theme (or worse, no title at all). The title is an opportunity to spark interest in your story.
  • Take a story you wrote ten years ago and add “and then they went to Rehoboth.” Take the time to write something fresh that fits the theme.
  • Just write a series of scenes or remembrances. Tell a story. It’s right there in the name: short story.
  • Submit the story in a form that makes it difficult to read (odd fonts, colors, formatting) or difficult to manipulate (pdf, pasted into an email, mailed in printed form).

Above all: have fun!

Nancy Sakaduski owns Cat & Mouse Press and runs the Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest. The contest invites writers to submit stories of 500-3,500 words that have a connection to Rehoboth Beach (full details are available here: http://www.catandmousepress.com/contest-guidelines.html

Nancy is the author of 100+ articles and 21 books (many written for young people under the name “Nancy Day”). She has also published dozens of business and technical articles; co-authored the third edition of Scientific English: A Guide for Scientists and Other Professionals, published in 2011; and was the developmental editor for Global Energy Innovation: Why America Must Lead by (Nobel Peace Prize winner) Woodrow W. Clark II and Grant Cooke. Managing Volunteers: How to Maximize Your Most Valuable Resource was published by Praeger in March 2013.

More information on Cat & Mouse Press can be found here: www.catandmousepress.com

Amazon author page: www.amazon.com/author/nancysakaduski