Practice Makes Perfect

Writer’s Tip#2

It’s no secret that running every morning, taking time at the ball field to swing or pitch, playing scales on a piano, riffing through chords on a guitar, or well, any skill that requires physical coordination, improves with practice. But practice writing? Not just writing and revising a project, but actually just writing for the sake of practice?

I had the first ten pages of my current project critiqued by Eric Witchey (http://www.ericwitchey.com/). I have to give a plug for his critique service. I’ve not had a review of my work done more professionally and thoroughly, ever. Worth every penny and then some. I gleaned several tips and recommendations but one that surprised me was to practice writing techniques.

I’m not very good at casual writing. My current project started with the intention of writing a short story to enter in a contest so I could build credits. I don’t how it turned into a novel except that I couldn’t stop writing my character’s lives. There was more to tell than a few thousand words.

So how does a novel writing addict reign it in and just ‘practice’ creating characters and scenes? Before I answer that question, I need to mention that studying characters by putting them into the same situation and writing the scene of how each would respond is a tool I have truly enjoyed. There’s no separation anxiety with that exercise. The characters are on my stage and I’ve got a plan for them.

Back to the question, how to practice without engaging the passion of a project. I found a way by accident. I’ve been known to wander through flea markets with tables piled high with junk, true junk. Chipped coffee cups, mustard yellow electric can openers, rusted adjustable wrenches frozen a quarter inch open, five crock pots in a row and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll find the mother lode, a dirty, ragged cardboard box of books.

Last time this happened, I plucked out three, would have been ten but my husband was hovering nearby and although he would say nothing if I bought ten, he would have shook his head all the way home and mutter ‘you don’t have time to read all those…”.

One of the books I bought was “The Gazebo” by Patricia Wentworth, a British author. I started reading it in the car on the way home from the flea market. The set-up of the story was stellar. Then it hit me. I’ve only read the first thirty or so pages. I’ve met the main characters, but I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. Why not practice with these? Write them into the scenes I think will happen. I don’t have any other connection to this story except my entertainment.

So, that’s the tip I received and the way to make it work. Pick up a book. Read the first thirty pages or so then play with someone else’s kids. Write on! The world awaits your voice.

Didn’t Expect That

Have you ever watched a show with funny video clips like “America’s Funniest Home Videos”? If not, picture these scenes and guess what comes after the first few seconds of footage:

Fearless
  • A man is vaulting through the air toward a horse, arms stretched
  • A teenager starts down the handrail of a flight of concrete stairs on a skateboard
  • A grandma dressed to the nines with a plaid skirt, bleach white top and sneakers, raises a golf club

Did you guess that in all three scenes, the unexpected happened? The man does not make it onto the horse, he misses and lands in manure. The teenager slides off the handrail and saves himself in a somersault. The grandma raises the golf club and swings like her life depends on it, does a couple of spins only to find the ball hasn’t moved.

What do all these instances have in common? Someone is trying very hard to go beyond the typical, pushing themselves to do the amazing. I’ve noticed in these video clips that when people really want to do something and believe they can do it, they put it all out there. Though that is oddly (dare I say uncomfortably?) the source of the humor. Watching a person focus like a pro and then fail tickles the funny bone. Still, a person that intends to jump on a horse from behind must leap with all his strength. Same for doing a crazy stunt on a skateboard or swinging a golf club at eighty years old.

All these funny video clips chronicle the diehard spirit of humans to give whatever they truly want to do, the best shot ever. It’s inspiring. That is exactly my point. Be inspired. People make themselves the brunt of a ten second joke that at best might win them a T-shirt from a television show. They do it again and again because if it’s worth trying, it’s worth risking failure, even laughter, even the mocking of a gaggle of naysayers that seem to be at the periphery of everyone’s lives.

So put your all into whatever project you’re working on. Don’t worry about if you’re the right stuff or not. You are part of a community of people who jump high, slide fearlessly and swing like champions.

That’s something to be proud of.

How to Get the MOST out of a Virtual Conference

Photo by Jaymantri on Pexels.com

We’ve all been pushed to the outer reaches of cyber-space by COVID-19. Thankfully, it isn’t an alien species. Science can push back and bring us back to near normal earth again. Meanwhile, we regular humans are learning to live in a way that is not our preferred style of social interaction. So, instead of the melee and crescendo of creative energy that normally accompanies a writer’s conference, there is the potentially sedate, introspective experience of a virtual conference. (See my last post “The Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference” for my observations about this.)

To get the most out of this kind of conference, some planning and foresight are needed. Here are my recommendations, some are my ‘should have’ and others are ‘glad I did’ actions from the last virtual conference I attended:

  • Schedule management
    • Be very clear on what classes you are signed up for or are available to you by printing the schedule or having it on screen.
    • Forward the registration confirmation with final class information / Zoom links to the top of your email.
    • Print out or write out your schedule / highlighting breaks in between and post in a prominent place in the household (kitchen/ refrigerator) so that everyone knows your schedule.
    • Keep handy the zoom class id#’s and passwords. (If you are rushing back to start a class, you don’t want to have to scroll through a class list that has extraneous information. All you need are the 2 numbers to pop into the class.)
  • Set- up / Environment
    • A secluded/private location is a must. That may mean going to a friend’s house or the library. My experience was that there was not a lot of verbal interaction with the presenter so a public location could still work.
    • Make it fresh. I am working from home 75% of my work week. I didn’t want to feel like I was at work. I set-up another office space that looked and felt different. This could be a corner of your bedroom using a folding table. I have a vintage cabinet with a pull-out counter. Be creative! It’s what you do. But make it so that you can shift into a different mind-set than the normal everyday situation.
    • Splurge on treats; the best coffee creamer, fancy tea, a box of chocolates…whatever makes it feel like you’ve traveled to a new place and you’ve thrown some inhibitions to the wind…safe throwing people, don’t build a path of regrets!
    • Have snacks, beverages, tissues, basic necessities at arm’s reach. It only takes a few minutes to miss that key point a presenter makes or a comment from someone in the class; the one nugget that would save you from failure. You’ll have access to recorded classes, but truth be told, the likelihood of going back and listening to a class to make sure you didn’t miss something is slim.
    • Set-up two monitors/keyboards if you can; one to view class and the other to type notes (a laptop with a desktop and monitor, tablet or second laptop)

  • Pre-conference actions
    • Download the platform being used (ex. Zoom / Teams) and verify it works.
    • Attend any pre-conference gatherings to get inside information
    • Set-up monitors; prep to have a mouse for each situation (meeting & notes/hand-outs/email)
    • Create a notes file/document. I used Microsoft OneNote. Days before the conference, I created a file for each class with the class time/title/ subject and presenter. This way I don’t have a mish-mash of notes.
  • Other Pointers
    • Have a contingency plan – Where can you go if WiFi goes down at your location?
    • Take notes on classmates that share during a class that seem like you might have a genre or style in common. Later when class list is shared, you might be able to reach out that person and find a beta-reader.
    • Like any meeting, in-person or virtual, take some time on your appearance on camera.
    • Like any virtual meeting, be mindful of what is in the background when video is on.
    • Don’t hide! Use the video. This not only psychologically makes you feel more like you are present at the virtual location but is considerate to the presenter. It is truly difficult to teach to a class of printed names. It may seem unnecessary, but I believe there is value in human interaction that includes facial cues.
    • Press off video when you leave the room; have to interact with an actual human in the room or any other time that it’s best people are not getting a cinematic view of your activity.
    • Have a scratch pad handy to jot down thoughts/lists/ questions. Sometimes old-fashioned manual writing works better but not if you have to hunt for paper and pen.
    • Pull PDFs of any class handouts up on your screen. This way you can follow the class presenter but will be able to scroll up or down.
    • Read class description and pay attention if there is pre-work to be done. I missed this with one (the only) class that had a pre-read of an article which meant I was less prepared.
    • Set alarms/timer for class times. If you divide your attention between the conference and things going on in your household, you’ll need a reminder to stay on track.
    • Don’t hesitate to share….which means start typing in the chat box as soon as a question is asked or an exercise is finished.
    • Don’t be a share hog…if you have fast typing skills and shared a few times in a class, hold back and let others beat you to the mic. There were a couple of classes where the same person shared over and over. When finally, a different person got a chance, it was a refreshing point of view. (I swear it wasn’t me who kept sharing).
    • Finally, have fun…actually that’s just the trite ending to an article like this so….Finally, be thankful, you’re a gifted writer! That makes you special in my book. Write on!

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Writer’s Conference- full article.

I could never have imagined that half my life would be lived on Zoom, didn’t even know what it was less than a year ago. Yet I spent a long weekend ‘attending’ a writer’s conference entirely as a virtual experience. What does ‘virtual’ mean anyway? One definition on vocabulary.com said “exists in essence but not in actuality”. Hmm try to live in the essence of something meant to be actually there. It’s a challenge but surprisingly there are some benefits when it comes to a writer’s conference.

There are obvious advantages like eliminating the cost of travel, hotel, and meals and in these COVID times, not needing to wear a mask or use excessive hand sanitizer. But there are also lesser positives that altogether make a nice package. Here are a few I noted:

• Don’t need to rush to a class or cross a campus to get there or wonder if you’ll get a seat close enough to hear, see or get a chance to share.
• All you have to do is be quick at typing in a chat box to be able to share
• Don’t need to figure out where the next class is
• Can see all the names of the people in a class – might see someone you know. In a classroom you can’t look around too much or people will think you’re weird(er)
• Always have hot coffee in your favorite mug (or a cold brew)
• Can eat a meal if you turn video off as opposed to being hungry because classes are back to back and you don’t want to be impolite and chomp away while the presenter talks about the spiritual nature of writing.
• You can leave, quietly, without worrying about the people around you and hearing their silent questions, ‘what’s wrong with her? This class is great’ or ‘she looks like she might pass out from hunger’ or ‘wish she would stop making so much noise packing up her stuff…’. Just turn video off and slip away back to the familiar actual location of your comfortable home.

I guess it could be summed up that a virtual conference affords convenience.

There are some things lost however. For example, if there are handouts, the printing is on you. You’ll not walk away with any freebies either; prizes, literature or writing themed merchandise. You have to have decent equipment, two monitors (a laptop and a monitor works) so you can view PDFs if not printing them, take notes and also view the class and presenter. You need a reliable internet connection. If you have IT issues, you’re going to miss live classes and only have recordings. On the flip side, there are recordings, so if your dog chews up your router, no worries, all is not lost.

You should consider when you’re in a video classroom, the presenter has as much ability to look around at the faces on the screen as you do. If your eyes are closing or you roll your eyes, mute won’t save you. The presenter may be staring straight at you…kind of feels that way even if faces are spread out over three screens. One of the biggest drawbacks to virtual from live is that you can’t just get up and leave class (enduring the silent attention) and find another class that is better suited for what you want to spend your time on. You only have access to the classes you signed up for.

That is a problem if the class is small and the presenter is painfully ill prepared or just has that kind of creative mind that strings all kinds of thoughts together and nods, ‘okay, as you can see it’s really quite easy to learn these principles for success’. Yeah, not so much. Another soft miss with virtual is that the presenters don’t fraternize any more than participants. That means that when you share your story idea with one person he won’t be connecting with the editor he knows that told him at breakfast that she’s looking for exactly the type of story you’re writing. That’s probably a long shot that such a miraculous connection could be made, but it’s not happening in a virtual setting. In the same way there’s no connections with other writers. Okay so there could be and maybe larger conferences handle this better. There was one event for ‘socializing’ and there was a ‘break out’ room but I stopped by and it wasn’t the chatroom I had hoped for, more like a crossroads between classes.

However, though I know it’s supremely important to network as these events, I didn’t miss the opportunity to mix all that much. Enjoyment of the company of strangers wanes thin super fast for me. Especially when those people are often subtly competitive. There is always a person dominating conversation who finds a way to mention how their book is about to be published or they just landed a job with a major publisher or they have three agents fighting over their manuscript. Then there’s all the posturing and arranging to sit with agents and editors. By the end of a live conference I’m exhausted from all the information and ideas and stressed by all the social failures I’ve had. I almost always battle a bout of depression just after.

Not so this time. Being able to sleep in my own bed. Being able to retreat from the eager, ambitious faces of my classmates every night, I was more focused on learning, less tired and worn out which leads to my conclusion.

If you’re an extrovert and people energize you, a virtual conference will fall flat but you’ll get something out of it. If you can skip the social networking and won’t miss that you don’t have five new friend requests after it’s all said and done, then a virtual conference is a very good use of your time.


Clare’s recommendations to get the most out of a Virtual Writer’s Conference coming in next post.

A Market for Your Work

Did you know that there are cities in America that from a business perspective represent target marketplaces? These are the testing grounds for new and fun products. The principle is, if the product does well in a target community, it is likely to do well across the nation. (You can read more about this and check if you’re near one of these cities at https://smallbusiness.com/product-development/best-u-s-cities-to-test-market-a-national-product/ )

The downside is, if you happen on that perfect flavor of mango peach chocolate chip sorbet one week, you won’t find it two weeks later (or two days later if it became your go-to binge desert). There’s nothing more frustrating than falling in love with a product, romancing it for months, even years and then one day, you show up at your regular meeting place and see “discontinued” on the empty shelf. Its worse than a “Dear John” or “Dear Jane” letter. At least with a broken human relationship you can hope, dream, write that it will all be okay one day. Things will work out. That person is not really gone from your life. But a product, forced off the market by failing gains, falling profits, rising production costs! Say it ain’t so!

I have watched beloved products disappear, knowing that generations after will never experience the joy of for example of a Drake’s Yodel with real chocolate and vanilla cream that wasn’t soybean oil, root beer flavored Wylers drink mix, Taster’s Choice Instant coffee (the original), Loreal micro eyeliner pencil, Bubble Yum sugarless bubble gum (my husband’s favorite). I’m sure you can think of at least one product ripped from your life, leaving you stranded, grasping for a replacement, or just drowning in the sorrow of utter loss.

It feels bad. It may be true that the financial value of that product is lean but for those who love it, there is a kind of grief that it can’t ever be bought again, not even for an exorbitant price. But wait! There are small companies who sometimes pick up these products and eek out enough monetary value to make it worth their while to serve the few who can’t do without. This is especially true when it comes to pharmaceuticals, something I know a little bit about.

There are products that are made called ‘orphan drugs’. There is a small patient population that relies on a drug to sustain or improve their lives. Companies continue to make these long after it is clear they will not be blockbusters and their patient pool is very limited. I used to work for a company that made a product every five years for the single patient who had benefited from a clinical trial. For that one man, the effort to maintain the process to make one lot every five years was worth it.

Now for the thread I’m pulling together toward your writing. You know what I’m going to say. You may not be writing something that is highly marketable. Be honest. There’s a lot of business in this craft and business doesn’t pull any punches. How easily sold your work is shines a lot brighter in a pitch session than even how well it’s written. That’s a fact, stark and cold. However, that does not mean that the small, marginally golden audience you are writing for is not worth serving.

There is someone or maybe a few hundred, that your voice speaks to what they want, what they need to hear. A message told in a way that no one else has understood to be a symphony of thought. For them, what you produce is priceless. A smile, a tear, a laugh (don’t we all need more of that?), an inspiration, a direction, an answer. I know that the idea of uplifting another human being while noble and soul satisfying does not pay the student loan, but I have learned that one step always leads to another and the destinations are infinite. Pouring your passion out will always lead you to a life that is full, rewarding and deeply appreciated by you and the fortunate few who have become your circle of friends.

Super Powers to the Rescue

I commute to my day job over an hour. When I first took this job, I thought I would invest in a Rosetta Stone program and learn a new language with all that drive time. Wouldn’t that be great? Linguistics always captured my attention. The opportunity made me giddy with hope.

“Oh, the things you will do.”

Dr. Seuss


I’m going on three years. I speak English, bits of German, and childish Spanish, none of which I learned while driving twelve hours a week. I have listened to audio books as varied as the “Little House on the Prairie” (serious wisdom in those books) to a biography of Hamilton. I’ve tuned into anything to fill the time, and allow my brain to detach from the trials of the workday and transition to the sanctuary of home. Learn a language after the daily toil of a new job. What was I thinking?

I bring this up because my aspirations remind me of how sometimes characters in books can do amazing things. They can diffuse atomic bombs with two broken hands. They have convenient gifts that allow them to see through walls (I once thought I had this gift. Okay, people be nice I was six). I’ve known some amazing, productive people and I applaud the ideal that they represent. But I find it tiresome that so much fiction is based on superpowers or feats of learning and physical stamina that leave no hope for us normal mortals to see ourselves in them.

Regular people can be truly inspiring without being the strongest, most adept or the top of their game. My point is, let’s try to keep it real, or at least not resort to the ‘special powers’ or ‘super skills’ every time our characters get in a bind. Write on! The world awaits your voice.


Confession

In the speculative Sci-Fi arena there are at times, stretches of humanity’s traits. Two of the four projects I’m working on involve people with abilities that we don’t (currently) have, but they are plausible, and some might say probable.

Vote for Paul

Writer’s Tip #1

Paul was one of my older sister’s friends, but he was a gregarious type and didn’t mind hanging around teenage girls a couple of years younger than him. He was preppy when preppy was a thing. He had a real boyish charm, at ease, open. I remember him not because I had a crush on him, that would be wasted puppy love. He was graduating in a few months, and going off to Georgetown university. No, he is part of my story because he shared a writing tip with me on the evening before I would take the SATs (aka college entrance exams).

He said just before I needed to write well, I should read from a good book. Good writing prompts the brain to produce good writing. I took his advice. I did very well on the Verbal part of the exams. (We won’t talk about the math portion. Paul had no tricks for that). I continued to use that advice through college, work and now as a writer of fiction. I remember Paul, his smile, his willingness to share his knowledge. I would vote for Paul if he ran for president. I always expected to see him on the ticket one day. (Now would be a good time Paul!) I pass this tip on to you. If you’re stuck in a jam, and nothing seems to flow, stop writing and read, read, read. Then see what happens next time you sit down at your keyboard. You may find your best words ever pouring out with ease. Write on!

The Protagonist

You don’t look for trouble. You work behind the scenes, unseen. Not everyone’s favorite, depending on who you ask. Though some say, ‘super nice’; others say, slow, aka dumb, weird, too quiet. When people talk about the road to success, you’re never on it, as far as they see. No one expects you to do well, it doesn’t even cross their mind. They step right over you or worse on you because after-all, you won’t say a word but just go on. Every day. You wake in the morning, get up and get back out there doing what is right with not one pat on the back. Silently, almost invisibly, doing unto others as you would want them to do unto you, just because. You are the hero of the story and someone is reading you.

Power of One Hundred

A Story Form

There are lots of things counted by one hundred. There are hundred-year storms, hundred-year floods, one hundred pennies in a dollar, one hundred “bottles of beer on the wall” according to the song and then there’s the one-hundred-word story. Not a child’s book, an actual story. I want to thank a recent visitor to my blog for introducing me to this amazing form of storytelling (check out her website at ladyjabberwocky.com).

My first thought was, “How can a story be told in just a hundred words?” How indeed. The same way any story is told, one careful word at a time. The challenge is energizing. I couldn’t resist. So, here’s my foray into the hundred-word story realm:

Isabella Lived

Isabella claimed the honor of ninety -seven years old although many heard her say over the last ten, she was ready. She said it with a smile and meant it to be a happy passing on. There were not too many flowers, not too many tears, just quiet reflection of the days with her in them. Goodbye came from those that knew her as auntie, as nana, as friend who always had a kind word, a prayer, a warm squeeze of the hand. The day ended. Pumpkin purred, sleeping on her bed with her picture turned toward his whiskered face.


Think you have a good super short story? Coming soon, a 100 word story contest.