Madeleine L’Engle Redux

Just found another L’Engle tribute from a fan like me.  This one is worth checking out because she has links to the New York Times obit, which I couldn’t find yesterday, and a couple other stories.  Check it out here.

Madeleine L’Engle: A Personal Heroine Passes

One of my favorite authors of all time died today.

Madeleine L’Engle died in a nursing home in Connecticut at age 88.  She was best known, of course, for her book A Wrinkle in Time, which my sister and I read and re-read and read again as we were growing up. I read it to both of my children as they grew up, and I’ve re-read it on my own as an adult several times.

It is simply of the best books ever, all about the power of love.  Besides the main characters of Meg and her supposedly "slow" brother Charles Wallace, it features such wonderful characters as Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, and the Happy Medium. 

I love the opening scene, in which a stormy night has awakened Meg and her brother and her mother and they are having hot chocolate in the kitchen of their big, book-filled home, when the door flies open and in bursts one of the Mrs. Ws (my brain refuses to remind me which one.)

"Wild nights are my glory!" she exclaims.

I just love that.  Every time we have a storm I think of that line. 

And of course, the neighborhood on the planet of Camazotz where the children all open the door at precisely the same time, and then bounce a rubber ball in rhythm, is a standard short-cut description for certain places of extreme conformity.  "Just like Camazotz," we’ll say. 

I’ve also read her Austin family books, most of them when I was an adult.  And her Crosswicks Journal trilogy. 

I had the honor of meeting L’Engle when she gave a lecture here in town several years ago.  She was dramatic, and funny, and beautiful, and informative.  When the lecture was over, my sister, who came with me, turned to me, sighed, and said, "I wish I was a writer."

I met her in person at the reception afterwards and she graciously told me that Charlotte was one of her favorite names, and the name of one of her grand children.  She was as wonderful in person as you would imagine she was from reading her books.

If you haven’t read them, go now and do so.    Pay no attention to the fact that many of them are supposedly Young Adult or children’s books.  You’ll love them anyway.  Start with A Wrinkle in Time.

I envy you, getting to read it for the first time.

You can read the Yahoo obituary here.

Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month

I love when this happens.  Here I’ve been up to my elbows in an assignment all day–all flippin’ day–worrying about neglecting semi-important things like grocery shopping, and really important things like my blog, when in pops this press release into my inbox.  (Are there enough "ins" in that sentence for you?)

And now my worries about what to blog are over. 

To wit:

September is Be Kind To Editors and Writers month.  I am both an editor and a writer, so do you think this means I get a double dose of kindness?  Think my family will buy it?  Nah.  But they did go grocery shopping for me.  I suspect mostly because there was beer involved (not for me, for them).

Anyway, I digress.  I learned all this from the press release sent on behalf of Malibu literary agent Wendy Keller.  Now I don’t know Wendy, but I do know Malibu, and even though it is full of disgustingly pretty and thin people I still like it.  My friend Brian, the screenwriter, lives there, and I like him, too.  Most of the time.  Just kidding, Brian.

But I digress.  Back to Wendy.  She offers non-fiction writers tips on selling their book proposals.  She’s got a free ezine and does free teleseminars.

As we say here in Portland, free is a very good price.  Especially for someone who want to be kind to editors and writers.  So go check it out–and thank Wendy for giving me something to blog about.

Critiquing, Part Four: Giving as Good as You Get

Let me tell you right up front, I had no intention of making this series on critiquing into a series.  But I kept talking to people about it, and getting great comments, and so here were are, suddenly on part four.  Quel surprise!

Crystal left a comment to Part Three about how much she hated giving critiques.  Here I’ve been such a navel gazer, so focused on me, me, me and how it feels to get a critique that I completely neglected to mention the other side of the picture.

So here are some guidelines for giving critiques without making the recipient cry or turning them into an angry, raving lunatic (though, trust me, if the critiquee is thin skinned, it is not always possible.)

  • Always start a critique by finding something good about the piece.  Trust me, even the work of the rankest beginner has something to be commended–if nothing else than that the writer showed up to do the work!
  • Couch your criticism in terms of craft.  By this I mean, refer to standards of dialogue and plot and so forth.   You are bolstering your opinion by referring to the “experts” (such as they are).  You can even drop names here, such as Anne Lamott says…or John Gardner recommends….If you need some specific guidelines for this, check out my post on what questions we used for the Mayborn manuscripts here.
  • It really is best if the critiquee is required to stay silent throughout the critique.  This cuts down on defending, rationalizing, and the occasional irate outburst.
  • Don’t just say what you liked or disliked about the piece say why it worked or didn’t work.  For instance, you may point to a line of dialogue that didn’t work for you, but why?  Was it too informational?   Does it sound too slangy?  Is it unnatural?  Going a step farther and naming the why also helps take the criticism away from the personal, ie, “I don’t really know why I didn’t like this, I just know I didn’t.”  That just sounds snippy.
  • Don’t give a general review, focus on specifics.  The more specific you can be, the more helpful.
  • Judge the work on its own terms.  My first writing teacher, Craig Lesley, taught me this years ago.  If it is a mystery, don’t try to turn it into a work of literature, just because you hate mysteries.  If it is a how-to, don’t make it into literary non-fiction.  And so forth.  Meet the work where it is.
  • Meet the writer where he or she is, also.  A new writer is going to need a very different critique than one who has been around the publishing block a few times.   With a beginning writer, you will need to start with the most obvious problems and praise even the smallest of successes lavishly.  And then you proceed to the next level….
  • Above all else, don’t make it personal!  It is vital to adhere to this rule.  Separate the work from the person, and your personal feelings, good or bad for them.  The work is its own entity and deserves being considered as such.

That’s it, at least for now!  Though lord only knows I’ll probably think up something else to do with critiquing.  You can read the first post here, the second here, and the third here.

Things to Write on Labor Day

Some of you out there might have actual plans to write this weekend, unlike moi.  Despite having a long list of writerly things to do, I have so instead, so far this weekend:  been to Friday Happy Hour, spent three flippin’ hours at the new Ikea, watched two episodes of Big Love on demand, cleaned the house (though not my office, which is in dire need), and have been having a blast figuring out my new editing job, which almost, but not quite counts as writing.  And, lest you think I am going to buckle down and write today, nothing could be further than the truth.  I am on my way to go hiking in the Columbia Gorge in just a few minutes.  But, even though I can’t write today, I thought I’d leave you with a list of things to write. 

I mean, if you can’t write, the second best thing is to tell others what to write, right?  No worries, I’ll be back at it with a vengeance tomorrow. 

So, here you go:

  • Write a poem about the weather, good, bad or ugly.  Or write a poem about your weekend.  Or just write a poem about anything.  The world needs more poets.
  • Write your autobiography, or at least start it.   Rumor has it that you can dredge up all kinds of great material for stories this way.
  • In honor of the school year starting, draw up a plan for what you want to write over the next four months.  What do you want to have accomplished by December, writing-wise?  (Okay, this isn’t exactly writing, but cut me some slack here.)
  • Write a character sketch based on a person you saw in your rounds this weekend.  If you didn’t see anyone of note, take yourself to the coffee shop and observe until you do.  Then make notes and create a character.
  • Write down 25 ideas for your writing.  In a perfect world, if you had all the time you needed to write, what would you like to write about?  Write those down.  Then choose one and start writing.

And now, away, away, I must away…until tomorrow.

Being Critiqued, Part Three

I already wrote about being critiqued not once, but twice, (you can read the first two posts here and here.)  But I had another thought about the whole process.  Dying to hear it, aren’t you?  Just what you’ve been desperate to read on this last official Saturday of summer?  Here goes:

It’s all about the work. 

That’s all you have to remember.  It’s about the work, not you.

When my children were little, there were occasional dreadful events that were command performances for parents: pre-school picnics with a bunch of snotty people you didn’t know; birthday parties, field trips where you got paired with other parents to chaperon.  (I may be exaggerating the dreadfulness of it all the wee-est bit, but still.  You get the gist.)

The way I would endure these events was to remind myself, its not about me, I’m doing this for Annie.  Or Lewis.  And once I took the focus off worrying about myself and how I would be getting along and onto my children, my whole attitude changed and usually I ended up enjoying myself (well, maybe not at the birthday parties).

The same thing works for critiquing.  Just remember it’s not about you, it is about the work.  It is about making your work as strong and readable as possible.  I believe that most good pieces of writing come through us as much as they come from us, and believing that makes it a bit easier to disassociate yourself from the critiquing process.

The ideal would be for you to be able to be completely neutral about the writing as it is critiquing.  I am now wiping tears of mirth from my eyes, after laughing for five minutes at the mere thought of that being possible. 

But barring that, try to separate yourself from the work as much as possible.   This pains me to admit, but when my defenses are up during a critique, I start making judgments about the critiquer.  If they are talking about making my dialogue more realistic, I’ll be thinking, as if you use the Queen’s English yourself, sissy.

Or if someone is commenting on a character’s actions, I’ll think darkly, after three divorces and two failed engagements, you think you know about relationships?

You get the drift.

This is the wrong way to handle criticism.  This is taking the critique personally, because in judging others, you are only judging yourself. 

I’m not saying that anyone else ever does this, but just in case you do, stop right now.  Take the focus off yourself and put it back onto the work.  How can you make the writing as readable and clear and lively for the reader as possible? 

This is the only thing you should be focused upon.

And once you’ve mastered this, let me know.  We’ll see if we can bottle it and make a quick million, okay?

How To Find Your Niche as a Writer

The Writing Nag, whose blog I adore because she nags, in an oh-so-sweet-way, writers to keep working, suggested this topic for a post:  How do you find your niche as a writer?

Good question.

Short answer: I don’t know.

No, that’s not really true.  But I do sometimes bill myself as a "Renaissance writer in a niche world," so you might now want to trust anything I say on this topic.  I got that whole Renaissance writer thing from my on-again, off-again (its currently off unless one of you wants to hire me) career as a copywriter.   The topics I covered in writing copy varied wildly, from roof racks to Voodoo to kitchen remodeling to spiritual leaders. 

So it seems to me that a copywriter needs to become a quick study and have the ability to learn about a topic rapidly.  However, I am also keenly aware that most marketing experts recommend niching (is that a word?) ourselves.  That, though it seems counter-intuitive, making yourself an expert in one small area will gain you more credibility and sales than being a generalist.

I have a bit of a specialty in art writing.  I’ve written catalog copy for a private art college, copy for internet sites, and tons of features on art and artists.  However, if I relied solely on my art writing to make a living, I’d starve.  (Not that just the wee-est bit of starving would hurt me, mind you.)

I do think the essence of being a writer is curiosity, and it seems to me that any good writer worth her salt should have enough basic curiosity about most topics to be able to learn enough to write about it.  And while you may want to specialize in a certain niche, don’t be afraid to cast your net farther if need be.

Now, what about the different genres of writing?  Should you specialize in non-fiction, or fiction, or screenwriting, or what?

Here’s the deal: though it pains me to say this, it is very hard to make a living at writing fiction.  So most of us whose reason for getting up in the morning is working on a novel also master non-fiction.   The truth is, with few exceptions, I’d rather be writing than doing anything else for pay, so it has behooved (I love that word) me to find non-fiction markets for my work.  I would love nothing more than to be able to write novels and blog for a living, and I do hope that the day I can do that is not far off.  But it is not quite here yet.

So, if you are looking to find a niche in a subject area, start by making lists.  What are you passionate about?  What do you obsess about?  What do you spend most of your time discussing with friends?  What are your secret desires?  What and who do you hate?  What scares you? Make these lists fast and don’t think about them, just write.  Then go back over them and see if anything pops up more than once.  If so, there’s your subject.  If not, choose five things from the lists and write as fast as you can, ten topics you could write about under each one.  That ought to give you an idea which subject is fertile ground for you.  You can repeat this as often as necessary.  Its also a great idea generator for stories and characters.

If you are looking for a niche in genre, my advice is simple: what do you read?  Do you love novels?  Do you inhale literary non-fiction?  Are you one of the few and blessed people who buy and read poetry? Or would you much prefer to go see a movie than read a book?  Do you read your daily newspaper and the Sunday Times cover to cover? 

Odds are good that you’ll find your genre niche as close as your reading pile.  The movie-goer clearly needs to be writing screenplays, and the newspaper reader might want to consider becoming a stringer (which is pretty easy to do and can lead big places–for instance, Mary Roach, author of Stiff, started out stringing for "shoppers" the advertorial sections that often accompany your daily paper).  The novel reader should write novels and so forth.

Please, if anyone has any comments on this topic, chime in.  I’d love to hear how others have niched themselves and how it is working for you.  And thank you, Nag, for the topic.

A New Lit Magazine and Some Odds and Ends

A new literary magazine that you should check out is debuting soon.  It is called Knockout, and I got an email from the editor, Brett Ortler, telling me about it.  The first issue, due out in in October, is devoted to poetry, and as far as I’m concerned none of us can ever do enough to support poets. 

Poets are the true wordsmiths in our society and they do it all for little respect and less money.   Knockout has National Book Award winners, former poet laureates, and unpublished poets in the first issue.

The other great thing Brett is doing is donating half the money from the first issue to Sudanese relief organizations.  Cool, huh?

So go here and subscribe, or at least buy an issue.  I’m going to.

In the odds and ends department, next week is September, in case you didn’t know, and I’m feeling like the long, slow, dog days of summer will come to an abrupt halt and it will time to ramp everything up again.  Really?  Yes, really.

So, in terms of ramping up the blog, I’ve been thinking about doing another series.  Does anyone have any particular writing topics they would like addressed?  Oh, and what about writing exercises–yay or nay?

Just asking.

Another Award!

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This is the coolest thing.  Walksfarwoman, at Kissing the Dogwood has awarded me the Inspirational Blogger Award!

Walksfarwoman has a gorgeous site and you should visit and read her philosophy page after you find out who I have given these awards to.  Oh, and before I forget these awards are the inspiration of Christy Z at Writer’s Reviews.   You can read about the Writer’s Review Inspiration Awards on this post.

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Just had to put the award button in again, because it looks so cool, and I want to bathe in its glow a bit longer.  Ahhhh…….

Okay, I’m here, really I am.  And now, of course, after thoroughly basking in my glory, it is my honor to pass the award on to five other bloggers.  This is the fun part!  And the really hard part, too.  I’ve met so many amazing bloggers in the last couple months, especially on Blog Catalog. 

As you will see if you read Christy’s post about the award, it is really comprised of several different awards, which I can pass on at my discretion.  So, here goes:

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The Creative Blogger Award goes to ShirleyTwoFeathers at Mandala Madness.  Shirley maintains not one, not two, but five, count ’em, five blogs.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.  Mandala Madness is my fav, though, and it is full of beautiful images and good info.  Go download her Cosmic Chalice image for your desktop wallpaper.  Go, now. We’ll wait for you.

Back now and ready for the next one?

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An Inspirational Blogger Award to Karen Mason at Nameless Grace, because she so beautifully publishes the stories of other writers, and because she is bent on world domination through her Starfire World Syndicate network.  Oh yeah, and she also has this great blog on dogs, which I love even if she doesn’t have any pictures of pugs on it.

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A Thoughtful Blogger Award to Kim Darrell, who also maintains multiple blogs, including Life’s Like That, and Thinking Outloud, because she spends hours doing reviews of other blogs and sometimes people don’t even thank her for it.  So here’s a huge thank you in the form of an award, Kim!

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Another Thoughtful Blogger Award to the wonderful and amazing Renny at Renny BA’s Terella, the most wonderful and amazing blog about Norway.  A friend just visited Norway and said it was much like the gorgeous country we have here in the Pacific Northwest, so maybe that is why I like to hang out at Renny’s blog so much.  But it’s also because he is a thoughtful and helpful blogger, who told me about the Blogging to Fame site, and also once looked up how many Jensens (because it is my mother’s maiden name) there are in the Scandanavian countries!  Now that is thoughtful. 

While we are giving Renny an award, let’s hop on over to the Blogging to Fame site and vote for him, shall we?

Done with the voting and ready for the last award?

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Another Inspirational Blogger Award to Vienne (don’t you just love that name?) at Eavesdrop Writer.   She is so cool that she already got the Creative Blogger variation of this award.  But I just had to give her another, because this is the best idea for a writing blog ever.  It’s full of ideas and inspirations, all from things that Vienne has overheard.  Plus, she’s been great about supporting me, doing nice things like listing me as one of her favorite blogs in a Blog Catalog discussion.  So go read her blog right now!

Be sure to go check out every single one of these blogs, because they are all worthy of your time and energy. 

Perhaps All Writers Should Move to England, Where We Will Get the Respect We Deserve

Back from vacation, trying to pull myself out of the deep pit of relaxation induced by long strolls on the sand and much gazing at wave action, I found myself aimlessly surfing the net (of course, I never, EVER, aimlessly surf the internet normally, oh, no).  And what should I find but the most charming statistic about the lovely British:

"According to a new poll, author tops the list of dream jobs for us Britons, with 10% of us hoping to become one." 

God, do we love those Brits or what?

Can you imagine what we Americans would most want to be?  I shudder to think.  Probably a rock star or a NASCAR driver.  Not that I have anything against either profession, mind you.   I just think it is so damn cool that the English admire authors so much.

By the way, in my endless effort to aimlessly surf the net, I mean entertain you, I found the above link to the Rock Star Name site, where you can enter your real name and receive your rock star name in return.

So from now on, just call me Trixie Stone.  Take that, Brits.

Oh, and double by the way, stay tuned to this very blog tomorrow for a very cool announcement.  It is something that has been in the works (read: on hold) for an entire week and being on vacation had nothing to do with it. 

Not one thing, says Trixie.