You Be the Judge

j0438678Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).

I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.

So, I opened the box and opened the first book….

Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.

Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)

I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.

Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



In Praise of the Handwritten Thank You

Handwriting - fantasistaEven though many people feel awkward or embarrassed accepting thanks face to face, everyone likes to be appreciated. In addition, a great deal of research shows that expressing gratitude has both physical and psychological benefits (see links below). That’s why I love mailing handwritten thank you notes. I feel good sending them, and those being thanked feel good receiving them.

Handwritten notes take a bit of time and thought to create. That’s a good exercise in gratitude for me. It helps me slow down and focus on the positive things in my life, if only for a few minutes. When a note arrives unexpectedly in your mailbox, you get a pleasant little endorphin boost and you can bask in the appreciation without feeling self-conscious about your response.

Oh sure, Jessica, you may be thinking. That’s easy for you to say. You’re a writer.

It’s true, I have a fondness for putting words to paper, but that is not a requirement for writing a thank-you note. In fact, a thank-you note from someone who hates writing is likely to be valued even higher by the recipient, for the extra effort it required to create.

Give it a try. Send a thank you for that birthday gift. Express your gratitude to the doctor who squeezed you into her busy day when your baby had a fever. Thank the co-worker who stepped in to assist with a difficult client or customer. Write a note to the person who cleans your house, or delivers your mail, or mows your lawn.

Here are a few tips that will help make the task easy and rewarding:

  • Don’t stress over your handwriting. Many people worry about this, and they send an email or online message to say thanks. Electronic thank yous are fine for many situations; but, when it really matters, handwritten notes show you made an extra effort to express your gratitude. That effort trumps less-than-perfect penmanship. Always.
  • Keep it short. You don’t need to write a novel. Three or four sentences are plenty, and keeping it short will help you fend of procrastination of the task.
  • Be specific. For example, if writing a note to your child’s teacher at the end of the school year, say thanks for something unique the teacher did. Rather than writing, “Thank you for making third grade a great year for Sally,” write, “Thank you for the allowing Sally extra time in the library to pick out books. Your patience this year enabled her interest in reading to blossom.”
  • Close with an opening. End your note with an invitation. “Let’s make an effort to meet for coffee or lunch sometime soon. I’ll give you a call next week.” Or, close with a sentence that addresses the future. “Best wishes to you and Jane for a fun-filled summer.” “I’m looking forward to seeing you at church Sunday.”

 

Additional reading:

University of California – Davis professor Robert Emmons has conducted multiple studies and done extensive writing on the link between gratitude and well-being.

A George Mason University study found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In this Entrepreneur article, Jacqueline Whitmore highlights several tangible benefits of the handwritten letter. 

Photo courtesy of Fantasista and freedigitalphotos.net


Learn from Great Memoirists

Memoirs photo 3Memoirs have always been in my reading repertoire, and Mary Karr’s The Liar's Club is among my favorites. She grew up in a small, poor Texas town in a family rife with alcoholism, violence and mental illness; through it all, despite it all, she maintained a fierce love for and gained a keen understanding of her family. Karrs’ latest book, The Art of Memoir, is technically a how-to writing book, though it also feels part-memoir. She shares many insights about how she wrote and revised her other work — the internal struggles she faced in realizing the truth, coming to terms with it and sharing it with the world. There is much we can learn from great memoirists.

Karr explains many elements of memoir writing – what works, what does not, and why.  As a reader, it explained a lot to me about why I have been deeply touched by some memoirs and have been turned off by others. As a writer, it confirmed my notions that many elements of strong writing cross all genres.

This author has a sassy, smartass writing style, which I love. Karr pulls no punches with the reader, nor with herself. She is honest and real, flawed and relatable. It takes great courage to bare your life and soul in a public way, with the hope for personal healing and the belief that it may help others heal as well. Karr not only rises to this challenge personally, she also highlights and applauds many other writers who’ve done the same in this risky and demanding genre that she loves. Her analysis of their works is enlightening.

I have no desire to write a memoir (pause for collective sigh of relief from family and friends), but this is a book I will keep and reread. If you are a writer and/or enjoy reading memoirs, I highly recommend this insightful tome. I added several titles to my to-read pile, thanks to her recommendations. Her insights also got me thinking about some of the memoirs that have moved me. Here are a few of my favorites (in no particular order):


Writing Podcast: On freelancing, novel writing and life

It was so much fun recording this interview for the Writer’s Market podcast. We chatted about maintaining a successful freelance writing career while pursuing the goal of becoming a published novelist. I also shared some personal stories about my writing journey, as well as general freelance writing and business tips.

The podcast is about 60 minutes, perfect for your daily commute or workout on the treadmill. Click below to listen.

Big thanks to Writer’s Digest Editors Robert Lee Brewer and Brian Klems for inviting me to share my story and insights.



On Writing Inspiration

41 View from DiamondheadThis quote from novelist Elizabeth Berg is so wise, so true. On writing inspiration:

“Like love, you can’t force it.

Like love, it will find you when it’s ready.”

 

And yet, while you wait for that inspiration to find you, you must keep writing.

The writing is the light, the beacon for inspiration.

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A Mantra for the New Year

“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.” 

~Christopher Morley (American journalist, novelist, essayist and poet)

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Video Blog: Revising Your Novel

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Photo by Kevin S. Moul

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction.

Click links to view previous segments of the interview: 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~  Part 3  

Here is the final video in the 4-part series.

Question 4:  What is your revision process? 

 

 

 

 

 

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Video Blog: Creating Authentic Voice When Writing Dialogue

Recently, I sat down with the folks at ASU’s Piper Center for Creative Writing to talk about writing and revising, and the challenges and joys of writing historical fiction. Here is part 3 in a 4-part series from that interview.

Question 3: How conscious are your choices regarding language and diction? How do you use it to create the right tone in your work?

 

Part 1   ~   Part 2   ~   Part 3   ~    Part 4 

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