Monday, June 30, 2014

Saying no

By Pamela

I'm not sure if you're like me, but I have a hard time saying no. I tend to be a people-pleaser and hate to disappoint others. But the other day, I said no and it felt great. I decided then to be better at determining what I can handle and what needs to be turned down.

I had accepted a freelance assignment I felt was fine--the money was okay, the deadline was reasonable and the scope of the work seemed fair. Then that changed. The two experts I was told to contact grew to eight and I began to panic. I had other assignments. School was already out and that meant even less time with my girl. I mulled it over for a bit and then called the editor and politely asked him to reassign the story. I briefly mentioned my going out of town for the weekend, and he said, "Oh, so you don't have time." I started to give in and then reconsidered. "I am leaving, but I'm really not willing to do the assignment now given the number of people you need me to contact," I said. Before calling him, I decided that even double the pay wouldn't entice me to keep the story. It simply felt overwhelming, and I knew with that many people weighing in, it would be difficult to write a cohesive article.

I did worry that I might possibly get fewer assignments in the future, but ultimately decided if future assignments were of a similar caliber, it was worth the risk. And maybe the editor would respect my desire to be treated fairly.

So, when should you say no to writing work?

  • if the compensation isn't fair--the pay, the reward, etc.
  • if it compromises your beliefs, ethics or principles
  • if you're not qualified to produce the end piece (a tough one to admit!)
  • if you don't have time to produce your best work
  • if taking on the job causes you undue stress
  • if you have to neglect other, more pressing projects to complete the work

I recently had a friend message me with a similar dilemma. She had submitted a fee for a writing project for a new client, and then realized the workload was more than what she anticipated and she had underbid the work. My advice to her was to reach out to the client ASAP and explain. I've yet to hear how that turned out for her, but I hope she was able to renegotiate the contract.

Whether you've taken on contract work or been asked to edit the family cookbook, write the neighborhood newsletter or proofread a friend's manuscript, you should speak up if you feel overextended. I think few people realize the time involved in writing or editing. You need to be fair to yourself and to those who have to live with your cranky self whenever you get stressed out.

Just say, 'No!'

Or, 'No, thank you.'

Image by Christian Guthier, Flickr Creative Commons.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Just Leave It In!

by Elizabeth

When we here at WWW finish a post, we let the others know it's ready and have them proof-read it. So it was for my post yesterday--and Pamela noted that a computer glitch caused the post to repeat after the photo, kindly took out the redundancy, and let me know.

I was out running errands--five stores in two hours--and could not fix the mistake she fixed. The second chunk of text? Was edited to make my point, and she hadn't noticed. I texted her back, and she tried to repair it, but it was gone. No big deal, though; when I got home I re-edited and posted it back to its original state, where it would remain for perpetuity. (The internet is forever.)

Until Joan got to it today, that is. She read the post, noted the computer glitch, and...deleted the second, redundant half of text. And kindly let me know, while I away from the house, without a computer. I texted her back, and assured her the fix was unfixable until I could get home and copy and paste again and so I have.

So, please note, Julie and Kim and Susan and blog readers: Two chunks of text in the post below (which is my real post; this one doesn't count) are intentional! Just leave it alone!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Just Take It Out

by Elizabeth

Three hundred twenty-nine. Just how many times can someone use the same word in a single manuscript? I don't know if it's a record, but I managed to use the word "just," on average, just under once a page in my 346-page manuscript. That's just nuts.

When I sent my work for critique, I hadn't yet done the basic editing exercise of searching for crutch words, even though I had just mentioned to Joan that she search for one of her own fall-backs. She'd found several, enough that she felt justified shooting me a thank-you email. It's not like I'm just ignorant of the need; I just forgot.

Pamela did me the favor of circling every instance of the word on a particularly egregious page. I think it appeared six or seven times. Now, there are times when there's no better word to use--the surviving 144 might support this idea, although I plan to just shave those down too--but seven times on a single page? Just not good writing.

What's funny is that "just" is a modifier, a word meant to strengthen a sentence or idea. As I considered each use of the word, I was just amazed that more often than not, the use of "just" weakened rather than bolstered the thought I was trying to convey, just made it flabby. I'd thought (if I'd thought) as I wrote that I was just making my point. But time after time, when I just deleted the extraneous, or reworked the sentence to eliminate its use, the idea was just stronger, just smoother, just better. Even better than just deleting, sentence restructuring in particular was just excellent at improving the writing and clarifying the communication.

I've been critical of word overuse in published works. I recall a novel I read about five years ago by an extremely successful writer who made me just crazy with his use of "presumed" and "understood." I was bothered enough to take the time to actually count the words in a chunk of the book, though after about a hundred pages I just gave up. Just averaging, one of those two words showed up every other page. Just too much!

The remaining instances are mostly just there because of character voice. I was mindful to make sure that when it was there, it was just because of how my main character thought and especially spoke. Another pass and I'm sure there will be more that just bite the dust, but I am also sure that some just belong there, and will survive. Just a guess.

It's not just "just," either. I have a list next to my computer now with other words that will get the find treatment. I expect to add words to it in days to come. Before I send out the next version, you can bet I will have searched for them. all. As for when it's time to query? If I failed to do this search, that would just be stupid.

The tally sheet (Joan laughed at me for this)

Three hundred twenty-nine. How many times can someone use the same word in a single manuscript? I don't know if it's a record, but the word "just," appeared nearly once a page in my manuscript. That's nuts.

When I sent my work for critique, I hadn't yet done the basic editing exercise of searching for crutch words, even though I had recently suggested to Joan that she search for one of her own fall-backs. She'd found several, enough to shoot me a thank-you email. It's not like I'm just ignorant of the need; I forgot.

Pamela did me the favor of circling every instance of the word on a particularly egregious page. I think it appeared six or seven times. True, sometimes a common word is the best word, and some of the surviving 144 might support this idea, but I plan to shave those down. But seven times on a single page? Not good writing.

What's funny is that "just" is a modifier, a word meant to strengthen a sentence or idea. As I considered each use of the word, I was amazed that more often than not, I'd failed to bolster the thought but instead made it flabby. I'd thought (if I'd thought) as I wrote that I strengthening my point. But when I just deleted the extraneous, or, better, reworked sentences, the writing and ideas were stronger, smoother, better.

I've been critical of word overuse in published works. I recall a novel I read about five years ago by an extremely successful writer who made me crazy with his use of "presumed" and "understood." I was bothered enough to take the time to count the occurences, though after about a hundred pages I gave up. Averaged, though, one of those words landed on every other page. Too much!

In my WIP, the remaining instances remain mostly for character voice. I was mindful to ensure when it was there, it was because of how my main character thought and especially spoke. Another pass and I'm sure more will bite the dust, though some belong and will survive.

It's not just "just," either. I have a list next to my computer now with other words that will get the find treatment. I expect to add words to it in days to come. Before I send out the next version, you can bet I will have searched for them. all. As for when it's time to query? If I failed to do this search, that would just be stupid.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Review of Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper

Kim and Joan with Ross King
By Kim

My correspondence with Ross King began back in 2009 while he wrote his phenomenal book Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven. His research uncovered mention of a landscape painter named Carl Ahrens who, in 1916, verbally attacked certain members of the Group. Intrigued, King found my website on Ahrens and contacted me, hoping I could shed light on what might have provoked his remarks.

I replied with a small treatise on the subject and over the years we’ve periodically traded e-mails. He has graciously assisted me with sections of my manuscript that involve the Group of Seven and the WWI Toronto art community. Needless-to-say, when I heard he was coming to Dallas to give a lecture on Leonardo da Vinci at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, I dropped everything to attend. Joan, a fan of art and all things Italian, did the same. To read an account of the evening, click here.

I mention this background now because I believe I have an ethical duty to do so. Let me also say, though, that everything written below is my honest opinion and not said out of any sense of obligation to a friend. My copy of Leonardo and the Last Supper was not given to me—I purchased it. King did not ask for, nor does he expect, a review. The first he’ll hear of it is when I send him the link.

That said, here we go!

Synopsis of Leonardo and the Last Supper (from the book jacket):

In Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King chronicles how—amid war and the political and religious turmoil around him, and beset by his own insecurities and frustrations—Leonardo created the masterpiece that would forever define him. King unveils dozens of stories that are embedded in the painting. Examining who served as models for the Apostles, he makes a unique claim: Leonardo modeled two of them on himself.  Reviewing Leonardo’s religious beliefs, King paints a much more complex picture than the received wisdom that the artist was a heretic. The food that Leonardo, a famous vegetarian, placed in the table reveals as much as the numerous hand gestures of those at Christ’s banquet. And King makes clear, from a variety of Biblical sources, that the figure to the right of Christ is, indeed, John and not Mary Magdalene, as some have posited.

Many of the myths that have grown up around The Last Supper are wrong, but its true story is even more interesting. Bringing to life a fascinating period in European history, Ross King presents an original and intimate portrait of one of history’s greatest geniuses through the lens of his most famous work.

About Ross King (from the book jacket):

Ross King is the highly praised and bestselling author of Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, The Judgment of Paris, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, and two novels, Ex Libris and Domino. He lives outside Oxford in England.

I confess I don’t read much non-fiction beyond books on the writing craft or references for whichever novel I am currently working on. With limited time to read for leisure, I generally prefer the escapism of a good story over informative reading. The beauty of diving into a book, any book, written by Ross King is that he has an amazing ability to simultaneously educate and entertain. He paints three-dimensional portraits of his subjects, exposing not only their genius, but their passions, quirks, and weaknesses in novelistic detail. Leonardo, for example, had trouble finishing any project and was known to exaggerate or even outright lie about his expertise to potential patrons.

King does not shy away from delving into the realm of (logical and always fully disclosed) conjecture, offering the reader gossipy tidbits that keep the pages turning. There is nothing dry about this history book! By the time I finished the last line of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I felt as though I had both seen Leonardo’s masterpiece through the artist’s eyes and watched the slow process of its creation. I know that if I ever get to visit Santa Maria delle Grazie to see what is left of The Last Supper, I will imagine it as it was, not as it appears today. Tears of wonder will likely be shed.

If you are a history buff, especially if you are fascinated by Renaissance Italy, you will find Leonardo and the Last Supper to be a real treat. 

Have you read this book? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Che Meraviglia!

by Joan

I have never watched the show “The Voice” in America, let alone in Italy. But when I first saw a link on Twitter that Cristina Scuccia, a 25-year-old Italian nun, won this year, I had to click through. After watching several clips of her singing various songs, I found the first time she performed for the judges, when they had their backs turned to her. She’s singing the Alicia Keys song, “No One.” (Interesting, another song by Alicia Keys inspired me to write a post several years ago).

I have watched the clip of Cristina Scuccia no less than 5 times, and have watched her sing other songs as well. It was truly uplifting to see the smiles and nods from the judges when they first hear her lovely voice and then their shock and joy when they turn to see she is a nun. Also lovely to see her smiling sister nuns waiting in the wings. One of the judges, Italian rapper J-Ax, tears up (and so do I – every time). Brava! they shout.

After all the judges critique her singing (each proclaims her phenomenal, I surmise), she picks one judge (no surprise, J-Ax) to work with her for the rest of the contest. To me, what makes watching so special (aside from the performance, of course) is that the dialogue is in Italian. Although I know a few phrases here and there, I don’t speak the language. On one hand, I’d like to translate the clip, but on the other, it is so special in her native language, I’m inclined to leave the words to my imagination. You don't need to speak Italian to see J-Ax is beyond thrilled when he runs up on stage and picks her up in a victory twirl.

When writing The Lost Legacy of Gabriel Tucci, I worried that my twenty-something nun, Gianna Tucci, would be too modern or too young to be believable. But what a lovely treat to see this Cristina Scuccia, a close approximation to how I picture my Gianna.

I don’t sing (better for all of you, trust me!), but as someone who puts her writing out there in hopes of getting noticed, I marvel at the courage it must have taken her to get that far. First to seek permission (if necessary) from her order, then go to the audition and finally sing in front of the world. She LOVES to sing, that much is clear. She has rhythm, spirit, joy, and, yes, an angelic voice.

So I say to you, whatever your artistic inclination, have the courage to share it with the world!

If you want to read more about Cristina, here’s an article The New York Times ran after her first time on the show.

Friday, June 20, 2014


by Elizabeth

I had a plan the other day. Driving school for my son in the morning, with me at the bakery next door editing my manuscript, then home for lunch, followed by errands, dinner, and end the day with yoga.

The first part went great. Then home, pull out the meat to put into the crock pot...and oops. The first blip: the pork I'd bought the day before smelled funny, so dinner plans would have to be altered. Well, that was okay. On with the errands! Which went fine, and then home again, getting ready to fix the revised dinner, when blip two happened: my cell rang. My mom had friends flying in for a visit from California, but the last leg of their journey had been cancelled. Could I pick them up at DFW and then drive east until we rendezvoused? There went yoga. (It was actually my second trip to the airport in less than a week, and if you are familiar with 635 in Dallas, you understand this was no tiny favor.)

The first airport run*
But it was okay, all of it, from the spoiled pork to the lost Savasana. I mean, really, in the big picture, it's not like it made a huge difference to me. Plus, I got a chance to say hello to a couple of women my mom has been friends with over forty years, one of whom she met while pregnant with me.

Interesting this happened on a day I was deep in revisions. The flexibility required, the willingness to alter what has been planned, the ability to adjust on the fly, these are qualities necessary to a writer and useful to a satisfying life.

When I emailed my manuscript to three critique partners last month, I felt pretty good about the shape it was in. I'd written, polished, revised and revised and revised, and I was excited to hear what they had to say. Which was not 100% what I had hoped for, but enough of it was positive, enough to continue my belief I had a good thing going, and the suggestions for changes were doable. (They were also unanimous, at times nearly identical, by the way, so I listened. Boy did I listen!) Totally doable, and what I've been doing.

Even without yoga yesterday, I exercised my flexibility, both in my work and my life. The reward is that my manuscript is getting stronger and I got to play superhero for a few hours. Well-worth a cold dinner and a lost hour of yoga.

Good to remember. Good to be reminded. Good to be available, and listening, and flexible when life requires it.

*Please note that I am unfortunately not flexible enough to stash myself inside a carry-on bag and therefore did not accompany my mother-in-law and daughter on this flight to London. Darn it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Finding Your Muse

By Susan

Susan is currently in residency for her Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa. This is a recycled and updated post she originally published in 2009 about finding the muse. Enjoy!

Sometimes, if I get lucky when I’m writing, something happens and I am in The Zone. It is hard to explain what this means; I just know that my pen flies across the paper as though possessed. My hand can’t keep up with the images in my mind. Sometimes, when I read my words later, I have no concrete memory of writing them.

On other occasions, I might wake in the middle of the night with a dream on the tips of my fingers and get up and write without a thought to what it may mean. I curl into my biggest chair and scribble away. Or driving alone, I may be overtaken by an idea—a bud of a flower that demands instant water, food and sunlight. Sometimes it’s a fleeting thought, sometimes a complete sentence. Regardless, I am compelled to stop and take notice.

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) refers to the Greeks and their daemons, to the Romans and their genius. Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) called it The Spooky Art. Stephen King, the master of modern creative fiction, writes, “Your job isn’t to find these ideas. It’s to recognize them when they show up.”

So what is this thing, that when captured, can pour out of writers like magic? And what is it, that when absent, literally drives some writers to drink?

Therein lies the problem: it’s another story altogether when you summon the muse and she refuses to speak. Your fingers become clumsy, as though this is the first time you have ever attempted such a thing. I’ve sat for nights on end, waiting for something to appear on the page. I think back to my creative writing classes from twenty-five years ago, trying to remember a nugget of instruction to help me summon inspiration.

I buy books on writing (I have a full shelf of writers telling me how to write). Yet reading about writing, I have found, is not writing. Reading about not writing is never the cure for not writing. Just like the only cure for obesity is eating less and moving more, the cure for writers block is whining less and writing more. Just write.

Here are some exercises and suggestions that have helped me. (See? I am now a writer talking about writing to writers who are having a difficult time writing). Keep in mind that the key to all of this is just doing the work. You can write longhand or type, sitting or standing, it doesn’t matter. Just get the words out.

1) Begin a paragraph with the following sentence: “In my mind I see…” and take it from there. If you are working on a specific piece, put this in your character’s point of view. Write at least 200 words, more if you catch inspiration by the tail. One of my favorite pieces I ever wrote started with this exercise.

2) Go stand outside and describe what’s out there. How’s the weather? (Hemingway said, "Remember to get the weather in your god damned book- weather is very important.") How does the air feel: heavy and sticky, or brittle and cool? How will the weather affect your scene? If you are writing about a hurricane, don’t tell me it’s raining. I want to smell it, hear it and feel the hairs stand up on the back of my neck with the electricity of the storm. Don’t shortchange your readers by leaving something this crucial out of your work.

3) Working Papers- The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron recommends journaling three pages each morning before you start the work of the day. Three pages of purging, I call it, shaking the leaves from your trees, shedding the dead skin cells before getting to the flesh of things. “I need to go to the store today,” Or, “I am worried about my mother.” Get these things out of your system before really working on your project. De-clutter your brain matter of all the things that are on your mind. Then you can find your story.

These three simple exercises may help, or they may not be for you. Remember that your writer’s block is your own—not mine, not Hemingway’s or Virginia Woolf’s. Remember that your muse, too, belongs to you. Welcome her and don’t let her pass you by. At the same time, don’t curse her when she is elsewhere. Show up for the job whether your inspiration is there or not. And the words will appear, sometimes in painful jumps and starts, sometimes flowing like a Carolina stream. But show up. There is no easier way to fail at your novel than simply not writing it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Blog that Binds Us

By Pamela

A few months ago the six of us gathered to discuss this blog to determine whether, in a sea filled with other bloggers, we should keep paddling along or abandon ship.

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of this blog and in those years we've collectively written over 760 posts. We originally set up a schedule that divvied up the duties between the six of us, so we'd post M|W|F each week with each of us posting once, every other week. Back then, I don't think any of us looked too far into the future; certainly I never thought that we'd rarely deviate from our original schedule over the next five years. But here we are, hundreds of posts later, still blogging about the writing life--the ups and downs of writing first drafts, editing second drafts, rewriting entire manuscripts, querying, researching stories, researching agents, entering contests, attending conferences, joining Facebook, Tweeting--and sharing it all as a team of six.

Our first retreat
We've now gone away on five annual retreats--with all six of us in attendance! Sometimes, in the planning process, it seems a little dicey that we'll all be able to make it (and this year, we weren't sure we'd get home after being iced in an extra day), but we always manage to make the retreat a priority and my hope is this year is no exception.

So, obviously, that lunch several months ago ended with all six of us still committed to keeping What Women Write out in the blogosphere. We'll continue to review books and interview authors and agents and editors. We're committed to encouraging each other and other women who write--whether she's pursuing publication, keeping a journal, working as a freelancer or just starting to find her voice.

My wish for every writer--male and female alike--is that you have a community of support as we do. That you surround yourself with sources of encouragement. That you pick yourself up whenever you feel like giving up. That when you think, 'there's got to be an easier way' you remind yourself that 'easier' isn't 'better' and if writing were easy, everyone would be great at it. That you take the time to reread your words and marvel how no one can turn a phrase the way you do. That you forgive yourself transgressions including misplaced modifiers and POV confusion. That you commend yourself for caring about the difference between pallet/palette and complement/compliment and stationery/stationary and understanding when others do not. That you love yourself enough to keep writing when doing just about anything else makes more sense.

We're so glad you've joined us on this five-year excursion--at whatever stage you stepped into the boat. Here's to the next five years! Bon voyage!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Writing When You’ve “Got Nothing”

By Kim

Our new dentist loves us. Since switching to her in February, the Bullock family has personally funded a luxury vacation to Tahiti or Paris or anywhere in the world she may wish to go. By June 30th we will have had one bridge installed (me), and five cavities filled (one for the hubby and four for the younger child, the one who faithfully brushes her teeth twice a day.)  We will also have had TEN extractions. Yes, ten! One was a pesky baby tooth I managed to keep for forty years, and the rest belong to my poor kids. Welcome to summer vacation!

Our orthodontist loves us. While viewing the X-ray exposing the disaster that is my youngest daughter’s mouth, I could almost see the glee in his eyes. Look at all those sideways teeth just waiting to break through! What a great challenge! Australia, here I come! Being a good doctor, he completely masked this expression before turning to my child. He showed genuine sympathy over what she must endure in order to achieve the perfect smile, the smile he assured us both she will eventually have. She’s eight. All she heard was “these five teeth need to go now.”

When it was the older daughter’s turn to go to the orthodontist this week, outgrown retainer in hand, she expected she would get a new appliance. Instead she watched the doctor and his assistant compare last year’s X-rays to this year’s. “Are those last four baby teeth even a little loose?” they asked. No, they were not, even though it looked like nothing held them in place. “Well, then, it’s time for your dentist to wiggle them out.” If the new teeth erupt quickly enough she may be sporting a mouth full of brackets and wire by fall. Lucky her!

Lowes Home Improvement loves us. I've had it with the ancient popcorn ceilings in my house and (with the help of my wonderful father) have begun to scrape away the dingy little dust-magnets. I warned the kids that their rooms would be done as soon as school let out so I could conscript them into service, too. This process has begun in earnest.

Of course, tackling their rooms leads to inevitable re-decorations. The younger child, now a fourth grader, is understandably embarrassed by the circus animal border in her room, a remnant of her preschool days. The older child wanted a black and white room so badly at nine that she paid for the paint. Now almost a teenager (sob!) she wants a room that expresses her obsessions with art, ballet, and Paris. It must be pastel pink, of course! Since she is in a ballet company and a demanding art program, this space must serve as both dance/art studio and place to sleep. A tall order, but Lowes is there to help!

What does any of this have to do with writing? Nada. It’s a five hundred word essay on why I’ve got nothing, but it goes to show that even in the midst of all the insanity, I CAN whip out five hundred words in an hour. Even when I sit down with no idea what to write. Even on my desktop computer, where I generally can’t get much work done. Even with a child watching a movie on Netflix ten feet away.

A lot of our readers are writers with children home for the summer. You may be one of them. Do you have any strategies for balancing kid-time and work-time when life keeps getting in the way? 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Books that talk

photo credit: Kristin Bradley's Flickr photostream
By Julie

I was chatting with a friend I talk to online nearly every day, another recently published author who's working on the next book. We often compare notes about the business, about news we've heard lately, about who's doing what where, how a book seems to be doing, etc. In the midst of our conversation, I said something about a book that didn't necessarily catch my attention, but had done very well. I said, "Even if it didn't speak to me, it apparently spoke to a lot of people!"

And then, my friend said ...

"That's what we want. Books that talk!"

I laughed, but then I asked her permission to use that phrase in my blog post. It seemed pretty genius. What are people looking for when they pick a novel to read? Or a novel to represent or purchase if they are an agent or an editor?

Books that talk. 

What does that mean? I think maybe a few things.

1) As I already said, it's a book that speaks to readers. That's a fuzzy term, but I think it means readers feel the story had something in it for them beyond just an entertaining interlude. Not just a way to escape for a few hours, but a means to feeling:

  • Understood
  • Moved
  • Provoked
  • Inspired
  • _____? (What else?)

An obvious example these days is The Fault in our Stars by John Green. I don't even have to explain that one to you. It has obviously spoken to a lot of people, young adults and older adults alike.

2) It's a bit of a ventriloquist. It makes people want to talk. They are so moved or provoked or inspired that they have to tell someone else about it.

For me, last year that was Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I mean, I obviously can't even stop talking about it here on the blog! Others I've heard mentioned again and again at book clubs I attended over the last year are Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

3) It doesn't just talk. It has legs. It gets the attention of more than just a small segment of society, and frequently jumps borders when it comes to target audience. It's a YA book that adults like. A sci-fi book that readers of mysteries enjoy. It has movement. It catches on. It's the right book for the right time. It's ...

The Hunger Games

Here's something to think about, though. Just because a book talks, does it necessarily have a big mouth? I think certain books described as "quiet" have also met each of these criteria and sold very well. A few I can think of right off hand:

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout

What else do you think makes a book talk? What book talked to you lately?

Monday, June 9, 2014


by Joan

I’ve had the good fortune to work with some brilliant and successful people in my career as an accountant. I’m not talking just financial success, but success measured in product quality, job creation and ability to inspire loyalty, among other things. Besides professional success, these individuals also share personal traits, such as positive attitudes, intellectual curiosity and a desire to solve problems.

I’ve been mentoring someone in how to become more productive, how to focus. I’m no expert—I struggle with this myself sometimes—but I’m good at recognizing when to look to experts. 

I came across this fantastic article  in Business Insider by Eric Barker, from his wildly informative (and successful, featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Wired, among others) blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. (Do yourself a favor, and go read his most-shared posts and subscribe to weekly updates.) 

In “Six Subtle Things Highly Productive People Do Every Day,” Eric interviewed Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek. Tim offered six tips (paraphrased here):

1.     Manage your mood –Start the day calm and focused. Don’t let others (email, phone calls, texts) send you into react mode. Stay positive and on track. How you ask? Well…

2.     Don’t check email in the morning. Yeah, I’m guilty of this – not only in the morning, but I check it often during the day. (Anyone on submission knows this too well!) “I’ve interviewed a number of very productive people and nobody said, Spend more time with email.  When  you check email in the morning, you are setting yourself up to break rule #1 and react to the day instead of manage it. Eric writes, “An email comes in and you’re giving your best hours to someone else’s goals, not yours.” Exactly.

3.    Is this task important? “Everyone asks, ‘Why is it so impossible to get everything done?’ But the answer is stunningly easy: You’re doing too many things.” Tim says, “Do what’s important…and not much else.” Joan here: I can still hear a former boss's take on inconsequential tasks, “Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care.” Might sound silly, but he was always able to focus on the key of what’s relevant.

4.    Eliminate distractions In my opinion, distractions are the most dangerous disruptions to productivity any of us face, whether we’re students, employees or full-time writers. “Distractions make you stupid,” Eric writes. Find a way to unplug – stop checking texts and emails for a certain number of hours. (Emphasis: hours, not minutes!)

5.    Have a personal system – “Productive people have a routine.” Find what works for you and do more of that. Avoid things that sabotage your productivity (or creativity).

6.    Plan tomorrow today. "Define your goals the night before.” That way you can start on your to-do list without looking to email to dictate your day. (see #2!)

So how do we put all that in practice? We’ve all heard variations of the rules of forming habits (it takes three days/three weeks, etc. to create a habit). But Jason Selk, author and contributor to Forbes, challenges those rules with some constructive advice

It’s more than just “doing” that makes a habit. It’s how you think about it. Jason writes, “Inspiration fades and reality sets in. A person finds himself struggling with the positive habit completion and old habits seems to be right around the corner.” He says you must fight through the urge to fall back into the comfortable routine of old habits. Avoid disruptions, don’t allow negative results to discourage you (sense a theme here?). 

Most of us have been able to apply these tips to a particular task, whether it be writing a novel or short story, taking an online course or preparing a board presentation. But the most productive and successful individuals practice these tips in every aspect of their lives.

You might consider reading yet another article on productivity as a distraction. But I, for one, am inspired to build these tips into my daily routine. In my mind, increasing productivity will lead to more creativity.

Friday, June 6, 2014


By Susan

Last night my younger daughter graduated from sixth grade, and this morning, my older daughter is taking the last of her finals to wrap up her freshman year of high school.
It's been a year full of adversity for both of them, in very different ways. My eldest is tremendously academically focused. This is the first year that she's been truly challenged by her schedule, and she's survived the combination of all Pre-AP classes and the social pressures of navigating an extremely large high school with only a few completely overwhelming and stressful breakdowns hiccups.
My sixth grader went through changes of a different kind this year. She learned to play to guitar. She completed two seasons of mountain bike racing in both Texas and Louisiana. She dealt with getting out from under her older sister's shadow, and she learned to stand up for herself amidst "girl drama" and how to handle bullies and social pressures with grace and kindness.
As adults, we don't mark our years by the school calendar, or take the time to reflect on our successes and failure for the previous twelve-month period. We don't get a report card to measure our worth, or an awards' night to dress up for.  There is no graduation.
The adversity is there, and the successes are, as well. We have to deal with feeling in over our head, or learning to stand for ourselves, too. Taking the time to recognize what we've been through and acknowledge our own growth is up to us and us alone.
So on this graduation weekend, I suggest we all take the time to pat ourselves on the back for what we've written this year. Our pages count as it's increased, and the number of pages we've edited out. Our acceptances and our rejections. Even the successes of our friends—especially the successes of our friends. After all, writing isn't a competitive sport. We all are in this together, even if we don't get to walk across a stage and accept a diploma.

Happy Graduation!
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