It all started on a walk with my dogs. Which shouldn’t be that surprising, as every day starts with a walk with my dogs. We eat breakfast, leash up, and head out. Every day begins with a dog walk–and so do many of my essays, poems, blog posts, and book chapters. One of my essays, about to appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog (in bookstores April 9), was not only inspired while I was walking my dogs, but is also about walking my dogs. It tells the short tale of how letting Jack take the reins (or should I say, “leash?”) and determine our walking route one morning led me to a beautiful view–and taught me a valuable lesson: I don’t always have to be in charge.
The essay had humble beginnings. It started as a January 2015 diary entry, penned after returning home from our walk, and eventually morphed into a blog post on my now debunked, little-read personal blog, where it sat for several years, largely unnoticed. In 2018, while scrolling through a Freedom with Writing e-mail (if you’re a writer and you don’t subscribe already, you should), I learned that Chicken Soup for the Soul was accepting submissions for several upcoming books, one being Life Lessons from the Dogs.
I remembered my diary-entry-turned-blog-post, and, after a few revisions, submitted it. Almost a year later, I received one of the most exciting e-mails of my life to date. The essay I wrote, at the time called “Northern Neck Dog Walk,” had been shortlisted in the selection process for the upcoming Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons from the Dog.
Trying in vain not to get too excited, I started a group text including my parents, three siblings, in-laws, and half a dozen friends, and texted out my happy news, complete with far too many exclamation points and smiley face emojis. I e-mailed all of them, too–to make sure they got the message. Though it was difficult, I did manage to resist the urge to post my good news to social media, in the event that, in the end, nothing came of it.
Then, I waited–telling myself it was a big success to have made it even this far.
A few weeks later, I received official word that my essay had made the cut, and would be featured in the book, a fact I quickly plastered all over my Facebook and Instagram accounts.
My complimentary copies of the books arrived last week, and I have been busy setting up fundraisers for Richmond Animal League, where my dogs inspired me to volunteer in their honor for roughly five years, and the Richmond SPCA, where Jack and I completed (and LOVED) several agility classes.
I should’ve known everything was going to fall into place when, Friday morning, my dryer finished drying my clothes at the same instant I unlocked my back door to leave for the Master Classes I’d registered for as part of this year’s James River Writers Annual Conference. (I don’t like the washer or dryer running when I’m not home.)
The James River, viewed here from Floodwall Park, is still high from the rain produced by Tropical Storm Matthew.
The James River, which gives the James River Writers its name, is still swollen today from Tropical Storm Matthew.
Actually, my first sign that the universe is in harmony came about a week earlier. When I registered for the conference back in September, one of the two Master Classes I wanted to attend (like, really, really wanted to attend) was full. Just a few days before the conference, though, I got an e-mail informing me a space had opened up, my refund hadn’t yet been processed, and I could attend the class after all. It was perfectly serendipitous.
I attended both of the Master Classes I had hoped to attend on Friday, and went home, thinking no more about it.
As with the Friday Master Class I had wanted to attend, every single literary agent with whom I had hoped to meet had been completely booked. My first stop upon arriving at the conference Saturday morning was the pitch table, where I wanted to add my name to a waiting list to pitch to an agent at some point during the weekend. I was hoping for a particular agent, but I was willing to meet with any agent who might have an opening, so long as I got to meet an agent and practice my pitch.
“Which agent’s waiting list do you want to be on?” the man behind the table asked me.
I hadn’t even finished saying her name before the woman behind me jumped to my side.
“Well this might help you out,” she said, and then turned to the man. “I’m actually here to cancel my 2:10 appointment with that same agent.”
And voila! Just like that, I had my spot.
“Get over the idea that other writers are your competition. All writers are your tribe.” —Laurie Gwen Shapiro
I should probably also mention that this particular agent was the same agent presenting at the Master Class that had originally been full, but in which a slot had seemingly magically opened up for me at the last minute. That was the same class during which I sat beside a man who happened to have the 2:00 appointment with the same agent with whom I had a 2:10 appointment the following day. When I sat down in the seat he had just vacated, I noticed he’d dropped something important. I picked it up, and what are the chances I would run into him in his car in the parking garage, pulling out of his spot at the exact instant I pulled past? I was able to get his attention and return his lost belonging.
To top it all off, driving home, I hit all but the last two lights on Broad Street, green. That. Never. Happens. In fact, it was the green-light experience on Broad Street that got me reflecting on all the other pleasant coincidences I’d experienced since the conference’s beginning the day before.
That night, I experienced another coincidence, though this one belonged to someone else. My husband and I attended a good friend’s (also a writer) wedding, where we met the best man, whose name was Ryan. His girlfriend’s name? Also Ryan. What are the chances of that?
And that brings us to today.
Just as the dryer had finished its cycle right before I left for the day Friday, the eggs I was boiling on the stove top for my dogs (their staple treat isn’t Milkbones, but chunked up hardboiled eggs we call “egg bites”) this morning finished boiling at the exact instant that
I was pulling their leashes from the laundry room so we could take our morning walk. By now, of course, I was used to the universe playing directly into my plans, so I smiled to myself and carried on with my morning.
A few hours later, I found myself back at the conference, with hundreds of other writers. Now, what is the likelihood (and don’t actually tell me, because the math would ruin the magic) that, in a popular plenary session, I would sit down and look up to see that three seats away from me sat a former student of mine? Or that the only other woman who got lost trying to find the restroom in an empty hallway of the Greater Richmond Convention Center would be the wife of a woodworker my husband is dying to take a workshop with, who we’d met at Makers Fest last weekend? Small world, huh?
To top it all off, on my way home from the conference today, I turned on NPR. The Hidden Brain episode I heard promoted a few days ago, made a mental note to listen to, and then forgot the mental note, was airing. The topic? Coincidences.
(Don’t read too much into it.)
All that said, here are some pearls of wisdom from one of my favorite panels, Replenishing Your Creativity Toolkit.
“If it [writing] was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it good.” —Moe Ferrara
“You don’t get inspiration, really. Your inspiration comes from your dedication. If there is a muse, it’s you.” —Pavana Reddy
“You write. You read. You let others read what you write. That’s what you can control. Keep swinging the bat. You have control over how many times you swing. Even if your batting average is low, if you keep swinging, you’re gonna hit something.” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
On Creative Space and Process
“You have to be nice to yourself because no one else is going to be. You can’t sit down and tell your brain, ‘Write now or else!'” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
“If you’re really excited about your ending, write it. It’s probably your beginning.” –Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
“Write every day. There is no inspiration. You are the muse.” –Pavana Reddy
And one more pearl of wisdom from another favorite panel, Think Like a Word Entrepreneur:
On Writing Community
“Get over the idea that other writers are your competition. All writers are your tribe.”—Laurie Gwen Shapiro
Earlier this month, I posted a piece about what to consider when you prepare to submit your writing to literary magazines and/or writing contests. Now, let’s focus on considerations you should make depending on the type of writing you do.
Rules of Thumb
Before we break down what to do when submitting poetry versus prose, there are some general rules of thumb to follow for any genre. The following tips come to you from Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. In April, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop she led in Richmond. She provided some really helpful advice.
Research your opportunities. Figure out what publications or contests are out there, and which might be the best fit for your work. After you’ve done that, tier your top choices and start high! When you applied to college, you likely applied to a dream school or a reach school, as well as several backup schools. When you submit your writing, you can use the same principle. First, submit to your absolute top choice contest or publication, but have some second and third choices in your back pocket.
Keep track of your submissions. Some publications allow simultaneous submissions. Some don’t. Even those who do will likely request that you let them know if your work is accepted elsewhere. For these reasons, and others, it’s important to keep records of where you’ve sent your work, and whether or not it was accepted.
Decide on a budget for each piece. What are you willing to spend on submissions in total, and on each individual piece?
Compose a cover letter. Keep it short, and be specific to each publication or contest. If you’re submitting to a journal or magazine, you will also want to devote one or two sentences to explaining why your work is a good fit for the magazine.
For most journals or contests, select three to five poems of various tones, lengths, and topics. Some journals and contests require a specific number of submissions, or cap the number of submission you may send, so be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully.
When you submit a batch of poetry, think of it as a whole, and organize your submission wisely, with your best work at the beginning. Think of your first poem as the hook that will get the reader’s attention, and entice her to read more.
Before submitting a short story to a contest or publication, make sure it features a strong beginning, or hook. A strong start is absolutely critical, as you’ll need to get and keep your reader’s attention. After all, she likely has a stack of other stories waiting for her time and focus. Ms. Isokawa suggests two effective ways to craft a strong start: Begin with action, or write with really strong voice.
When you submit a novel excerpt, your chosen piece should be able to stand alone. A flashback or decision scene might work well. You can also consider adapting an excerpt of your larger work by taking out references to parts the reader won’t get to read.
Should you be fortunate enough to find a publication home for your work or for your work to be honored with an award, be sure to thank the editors, and share the journal, publication, or contest on social media. They’re helping promote you; help promote them.
If your work is not accepted, you might still be lucky enough to get a rejection with feedback. If an editor is kind enough to provide any feedback at all, say thank you–don’t ask for more feedback.
If you ever resubmit to a publication that has previously rejected but offered feedback on your work, be sure to mention their note with your new or revised submission.
Don’t allow rejection to discourage you. Try again. Even the most celebrated writers have dealt with rejection, and many still do. To help combat the temptation to give up, always have a piece of writing “in waiting” or “on deck,” one you can send out to contests and publications as soon as its predecessor gets rejected.
Back in April, I attended a submissions workshop put on by the James River Writers and led by Dana Isokawa, Associate Editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that being in the same room as Ms. Isokawa was a pretty surreal privilege, but I probably do need to tell you what I learned, which why I’m writing this blog post, as well as a follow-up later this month.
Submitting your writing–particularly your poetry, which can be deeply personal and painstakingly crafted–is scary, to say the least. You’re sending your work (AKA your soul) out into the world for all to see, and it’s probably going to get ignored (best-case rejection scenario) or bludgeoned (worst-case rejection scenario) for years before it ever finds its publication home (if it ever finds its publication home). Despite the vulnerability submitting your writing entails, there are many compelling reasons to put on your big-girl pants and start submitting. Here are a few:
Submitting your work helps get your work and your name out there.
Submitting your writing helps it–and you–find an audience, and once you find one, you can work to keep it.
Sending your writing out into the world, while it may open it up to abuse, is also one of the best ways to support your writing. You’re putting your stamp of approval–your faith–in its merit, and if you don’t believe in it, who will?
One of the most effective ways to network and build a writing community is through sending your work off.
Submitting your work such as poetry, essays, short stories, or articles can help lead to the accomplishment of larger publishing goals you may set–such as a book deal.
Sending your writing to contests, journals, and magazines can help motivate you to write, revise, and keep writing. Contest and submission deadlines, as well as the sense of validation you’ll feel when one of your pieces does get accepted, are excellent motivators.
Knowing When a Piece is Ready
Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you of the worth of risking not only your ego, but also your sense of identity as a writer, in submitting your writing to publications. But how do you know when a piece is polished enough for potential publication? Here are some signs:
It has successfully undergone an editorial review
Other people–readers and fellow writers alike–have read it and liked it
You have set it aside for a while and you like it when you reread it–you impress yourself
Your sure your own skin is thick enough to handle potential rejection
You’re ready to share and prepared to have people read and react to it.
Finding the Right Journal or Contest for Your Writing
You can increase your chances of acceptance and decrease your chances of rejection by finding the right home for your writing before you send it off to knock on journal doors. Instead of just sending your writing off blindly, do some research first, and find the publications most likely to welcome your writing inside. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Know the publication. Be familiar with its style, layout/organization, types of work it tends to publish, sections, etc. Read it. Be familiar with its tone, voice, and subject matter. Make sure the work you plan to send aligns with these qualities in the publication.
Know your own genre, form, style, voice, and subject matter. Do they align?
Consider your background as a writer and a person. Think about factors like your location, your career, or your religion, for example.
Look for publications that focus on specific themes or styles. For example, journals that focus on a certain place, on nature, on conservation, on sports or a particular sport, etc.
Consider your subject matter.
Submit to publications where you find writers you admire.
Consider your form (flash fiction, short story, poetry, long-form essay, etc.).
Consider your genre (sci-fi, speculative romance, crime, etc.).
Vetting Journals and Contests
While you may be eager for the sense of recognition, validation, and success an acceptance provides, don’t be so over-zealous that you miss important red flags. It’s best to avoid sending your work off if:
The contest of publication requires you to pay a high fee to submit your work
A high fee is required–and paired with comparatively low-value prize or award
The fee is over $10 and the contest of publication offers no payment
The contest or publication has no “about page” or masthead.
If the publications you are considering pass the above tests, there are still a few items to consider. Make sure, for example, that the promised prize is actually awarded consistently by checking past winners’ page.
While there are red lights, there are also green lights that should encourage your submission to a given publication. Here are a few:
Your read the publication and like it.
You admire the work it offers.
It promotes its writers.
Its entry fees for novels cost more than those for poems.
There is not more than a $10-$20 fee for prize of $1000 or more.
If you are submitting a book or manuscript, a $40 fee or less for a prize up to $10,000 is appropriate.
If all this talk of publiation has you rearing and ready to submit some writing (and I hope it does), The Avocet, an online literary journal of nature poems, is currently and actively seeking submission. See their guidelines and several opportunities below.
Time to share a Summer-themed poem
Please read the guidelines before submitting
Please take a minute to pick a poem of your choice and send it to us.
Please send only one poem, per poet, per season.
Let’s do Summer-themed poetry for The Weekly Avocet.
I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teethat the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.
One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.
If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).
The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.
In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).
In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.
When I was working on my capstone project for my graduate degree back in 2013, my husband came home from work one day to find me surrounded by books, index cards, highlighters, and notebook paper. I was scribbling away–in pencil–in one of the books. My potty-mouthed, inked-up, motorcycle-riding husband was horrified.
“Are you writing in that book?”
I looked up from my pile of research materials. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.
“You can’t write in books!”
At that point in his life, my husband had yet to read a single book all the way through, so I struggled to imagine the reason behind his disgust. That he, of all people, should care whether or not I wrote in my books was a bit perplexing. I shrugged. “I mean, I’ll erase it later–since they’re library books.”
“They’re library books?! You can’t write in library books!”
I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text.
But I can, and I do–all the time. I write in almost every book I read. You’ll never find me reading a book without a pen in my hand.
All of my books look like they’ve been through the wars. Their pages are dog-eared (I use bookmarks to mark my spot, but I dog-ear pages to mark spots I want to revisit). Their margins are full of scribbled questions, ideas, inspirations, criticisms, and exclamations. Words are underlined. Typos are corrected in blue or black pen. If they’re paperbacks, their spines are cracked and broken. They are well-loved, if not ratty.
I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath.
For years, I figured everyone read like this–pen in hand. How could it be otherwise? How could anyone resist scratching down an idea inspired by a passage, or underlining a particularly delicious turn of phrase? How could anyone not circle an unfamiliar word for later exploration? How could anyone read actively, critically, or analytically without writing in her books? Impossible.
It was only recently I found out I was wrong–and that a group of readers very unlike me exists. My fellow blogger, Charlene Jimenez, of Write. Revise. Repeat., is one of them. These readers refer to readers like me as “monsters.” Readers like me destroy our books as we devour them. We can’t help it; it’s how we read.
In addition, I actually enjoy reading books fellow monster-readers have written in. I like reading their notes almost as much as the book they pertain to. I feel like I am having a conversation not only with the author, narrator, and characters–but also a like-minded friend, one who writes in her books–just like I do. Sometimes I agree with the previous reader’s assessment; sometimes, I don’t. Oftentimes, I feel like I get a sense of who the person behind the notes is–her outlook on life, her general mood, her beliefs and questions and insecurities. I specifically remember the very cynical notes I read in my used copy of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.It was as if the reader who read the book before me were quipping back at Gornick’s every idea or assertion–a disgruntled child talking back to his mother under his breath. While I agreed with very few of the marginal notes that graced the pages in a fading, gray pencil scrawl, I found them amusing–and they told me a lot about the previous reader.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. Not out of obstinacy or spite–but out of necessity. I don’t see writing in books as delinquent or destructive. I see it as proof of engagement with the text. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
Despite the disdain it apparently draws–from bibliophiles and bibliophobes alike–I won’t stop writing in my books. I don’t read like a monster; I read like a writer.
I don’t get to read much during the school year (unless, of course, you count the nearly never-ending string of my students’ persuasive essays, journal entries, literary analyses, and research papers). But last month, I spent several hours in the Bozeman airport waiting for my travel companions’ plane to land so we could make the trip to Big Sky together. Though I admit to reading several persuasive essays during my wait (yes, during my vacation…), I also perused the little airport shops.
And I found books. Lots and lots of books.
There were at least a dozen I wanted to buy–and probably would have, if my luggage had not already weighed 52.5 pounds when I left home that morning. I always have a long Summer To-Read List, so this year, though I limited my Bozeman book-buy binge to three books, I decided to get started early. Most nights of the week since I’ve been home from Montana, I’ve been allowing myself 15 minutes before bed to read for pleasure. Currently, I’m about 100 pages in to Yellowstone Has Teeth, and in the beginning chapters of Salt to the Sea, which I’m reading as part of the novel-writing class I’m taking (and loving!) at The Visual Arts Center of Richmond.
Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler
One of the planned activities I was most excited about during my trip was a day-long coach tour of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see the park and its feature in the snow. The last time I visited, it was summer and I was in elementary school. I was looking forward to the spectacular juxtaposition of colorful hot springs with white snow. I bought this book thinking I’d have time to start reading it before our visit to the park, but all I managed to read during the entire trip were persuasive essays. Still, starting the book once I returned home has been a nice way to savor my memories of our snowy day in the park.
I also bought this book because I love books about people’s lives. I am incredibly nosy about everyone’s routine, right down to the most mundane details, so I’m enjoying reading about how Ambler and her fellow winter residents managed to tote groceries home on snowmobiles, the ways they managed to keep warm, and what their day to day job obligations were.
If that weren’t enough, I always love books about nature. Reading about other peoples’ observations in and connection to nature helps me better appreciate my own time in the out of doors, enhances my own ability to be aware and open and in touch. I enjoy the introspective reverie of one alone in nature.
Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys
A fellow writer in my novel-writing class who happens to work as a librarian recommended our class read this book as an excellent example of writing craft. It’s a Young Adult (YA) novel about four teens during World War II. So far, it’s an incredibly fast read. It’s riveting. The book is impressively thick, but the chapters are incredibly short and it’s not hard to read several in one sitting–not only because of their brevity, but also because of their pace. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of each of the four characters. So far, each chapter is a first-person account of the same experience or moment.
My To-Read List
A Modern Dog’s Life: How to Do the Best for Your Dog, by Paul McGreevy
You can probably tell from this blog and my corresponding Instagram account that my dogs are a huge focal point in my life, so it’s no surprise that the title of this book caught me eye. It seems to promise A) that will learn about how my dogs experience life and B) that I will learn how to make their lives the best lives possible. I actually came across this book while I was conducting research for an article I was writing for ScoutKnows.com, and when my brother asked me a few days later what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for this book and he delivered. I can’t wait to learn more about my dogs and how to make their lives better, and I have a feeling the information in this book will also help with my writing for Scout Knows.
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, by Jon Young
I want to know the secrets of the natural world–and I like birds–so this book seemed like a no-brainer purchase. It’s another that I bought at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman airport. I’m excited to read about what I can learn from my backyard birds.
I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, by Maggie O’Farrell
I haven’t purchase this book yet, but I first heard about it on NPR a few weeks ago, and then read a review of it in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In both cases, it sounded intriguing and thought-provoking. I have a feeling it will alter my perspective on many things.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
I think my cousin Katie originally told me about this book, and it’s another my brother bought me for my birthday. As I wrote above, I love introspective writing like I expect to read here.
Ol Major’s Last Summer: The Story of a Very Special Friend, by Richard Sloan
This is my third Bozeman airport book buy. Each purchase of this book donates money to animal causes, and it’s written by a local writer. Plus–it’s about a dog. How could I resist?
I do expect this book will make me cry, so I have to plan my reading of it wisely.
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
One of my best friends bought this book for me for Christmas last year. He hates reading, but this is his favorite book, so it must be good. I’ve actually already read it, but I was a sophomore in high school and remember very little.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I’m a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie (or, in this case, show), but I let my husband talk me into watching Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale before I read the book.
I am also a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie (or the show)–so I have got to read this book. If the show is any indicator, the book must be mind-blowing.
Lastly, the novel I’m currently writing is, according to my instructor, speculative fiction, so I am sure I can also learn something about craft from reading this book.
Recently, one of my free-spirited, creative friends and her equally creative husband spent the weekend with my husband and me at an old house we purchased and are working to rejuvenate. My friend is a talented and passionate teacher with a penchant for languages and writing. Her husband, though he works in the technology field, is a gifted painter. My own husband builds lamps from
re-purposed materials and has recently begun creating beautiful stained glass pieces. And I? Well, I identify mainly as a writer, though I dabble in painting and amateur photography from time to time.
As the four of us painted the front foyer of our 1919 farmhouse, my friend gave me candid feedback on my novel, which I recently asked her to read, giving her free rein to rip it apart if necessary. She gave me some really insightful advice, and admitted she felt relieved that I had taken her constructive criticism so well (granted, she did an excellent job tempering her criticisms with compliments, but I digress).
She followed her critique of my novel with the admission that she had decided she was no longer going to identify as a writer, in part because she needed more validation than she felt writing could offer her, and in part because writing simply offers less tangible and fewer results. When you paint a wall, for example, you can see the effect of your efforts almost immediately–as proven by the way our foyer brightened up with every coat of paint. When you write a story or a novel, the progress is often much slower, and much less noticeable. In addition, while a newly-painted room is sure to get oos and ahhs, a story or novel is likely going to face dozens and dozens of rejections before it ever sees an acceptance (if it ever sees an acceptance).
You can show people a painting, a sculpture, a photograph–and they need only seconds to get at least a cursory appreciation of your work. But someone has to invest a lot of time and energy to read your poem, story, essay, or novel. And lots of activities vie for our time and attention. Writers compete for an audience with TV shows, movies, sports broadcasts, sleeping, errands, etc. We must not only write our story, but then convince people to commit their limited time and energy to reading it. After all, more energy and time are required to read a book than to look at a piece of artwork or watch a film or play.
Plus, producing a tangible product, like a painting or a sculpture, can be satisfying. You can display it. You can sell it. You can hold it, gaze at it, touch it. All of these things are much more difficult, if not impossible, to do with a poem or novel–not to mention the fact that a written work never feels finished. We feel always like we could find a more perfect word, more effectively structure our chapters, more expertly develop our characters or write our dialog or set our scene or or or…. At a certain point, we just have to decide it’s done, whereas other artistic endeavors we can more definitively finish, and that completion is satisfying and fulfilling.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I love writing, and identify as a writer, finding new creative outlets is satisfying.
For the first time in my life, I am painting a piece of furniture. So far, so good! While I identify as a writer, finding new creative outlet is fulfilling.
I understand what my friend is saying. I have often questioned my drive to identify as a writer. Is it really necessary? Why do I care so much? Why do I write? It’s really hard, and I enjoy many other forms of creative expression–painting, singing (though I can’t say I’m any good anymore), sketching, design, photography, and even theater at one point in my life–and these open me up to far less criticism and rejection.
As a writer actively seeking publication, rejections have become routine for me. Getting published is like winning the lottery–just as rare, but just as thrilling. I think maybe that’s one reason I keep writing: It’s hard (really, really hard sometimes), but the sense of accomplishment and elation I experience when a publication accepts my pitch, when I see my work in print or on-line, or when I get that long-awaited paycheck for an idea hatched a year before, far outshines the sense of disappointment that accompanies (yet another) rejection. Maybe I have come to accept that rejections are part of writing–at least for someone who seeks publication. I am no less a writer for having become more familiar with a sense of resignation at another thanks-but-no-thanks than with a sense of validation and accomplishment. In fact, another rejection at the very least means I’m producing enough work–enough writing–to send out into the world. The real fear sets in when I haven’t written anything new in a while–when my list of rejection e-mails shrinks because of a dearth of ideas, a sort of writing drought. My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.
My fear of having nothing to write far outweighs my fear of rejection. So, really, maybe that’s how I know I’m a writer.
Most people have no trouble understanding the simple, surface difference between a simile and a metaphor. They both serve to make comparisons, but similes use comparison words such as “like” or “as,” whereas metaphors do not. Two examples of simile from my second novel-in-progress, The Experiment, are:
Maybe he could make more of the next 23 hours … if he weren’t so aware of the minutes peeling away like sheets on a desk calendar.
Her pen moved slowly, like her morning thoughts.
To help express the character’s sense of time passing too quickly, the first example draws a comparison between minutes passing and the sheets on a desk calendar being ripped away and discarded. The second example compares the pace of the writer’s pen to the pace of her thoughts–both slow in the early morning hours.
An example of a metaphor from the same work is:
…the sky had exchanged its vibrant afternoon blue for a pale lavender nightgown.
In the above example, dusk is compared to (almost equated with) a “pale lavender nightgown” the personified sky dons before nightfall.
When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile. As a reader, paying attention to this subtle difference can help you ascertain author’s purpose and better comprehend a character, scene, and so forth. As a writer, be aware of the fact that making comparisons through a simile or a metaphor can produce different effects. A metaphor creates a more direct comparison than does a simile. The choice you make as a writer depends on how close a comparison you intend to draw, or how close a relationship you want to create between the two subjects.
When a writer employs a simile, she allows for a degree of separation between the items she compares. They are similar, alike–but not the same. By contrast, a metaphor essentially equates the items it compares. When a writer uses a metaphor, she is implying a much closer comparison than if she uses a simile.
To see a visual representation of the subtle differences between simile and metaphor, please see this Venn Diagram.
Recently, I got to spend some time with my niece from Florida, who, just having reached the age of five, will begin kindergarten in about two weeks. She knows my husband and I collect sea glass, and as we were walking down a sidewalk in town, she picked up a broken glass bottle and held it up, exuberant.
“Look! I found some glass for you!” she exclaimed, impressed with her find.
My sister, her mother, quickly told her to put it down.
“But she gathers glass,” my niece said, clearly confused about the difference between sea glass and any old glass you might find in the street. After we cleared up the confusion, and her protest echoed in my head, I thought, “‘Gathers?’ What five-year-old uses a word like ‘gathers?'”
Other words I heard her use over the course of the next day or so included “scurry,” “scuttle,” “scamper,” and “scepter,” all of which she would casually and correctly use–just as if she were using the word “run” or “walk.” I started keeping a list. My niece knew about this list, and a few days after she returned home, I got a call from her.
“Hi, Aunt Amanda,” she said. “I have another word for you to add to your list.”
“Oh, you do?” I said, amused–and touched that my list had made such an impression on her.
“‘Glimpse,'” said my niece.
“‘Glimpse,'” I repeated. “Can you use it in a sentence?” My niece knew that in order for one of her words to qualify for the list, she had to use it correctly in a sentence. A few days prior, I had denied the inclusion of “humiliated” on the list, because although she had used it in a sentence, it hadn’t made any sense. (Though I must admit, I was impressed at her attempt, and told her as much.)
“I could barely see the bunny–I only caught a glimpse of him,” she said.
“Very good! You’re right–another one for the list.”
My sister’s voice came over the phone.
“Where does she get all these words?” I asked her.
“Well, we read to her all the time,” my sister said, matter-of-factly. And of course she’s right–the regular reading sessions every night and at various points throughout the day, as requested, no doubt play a significant role in my niece’s impressive and ever expanding vocabulary.
Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book.
My niece’s enthusiasm for her growing vocabulary reminds me of my own experience with words. I can remember in third grade learning to use and spell the word “conservatory.” I felt so important, possessing such a large, polysyllabic word. Later, I can remember encountering the word “alabaster,” specifically in the phrase “her alabaster brow” (I think it was in an Anne of Green Gables book), and using it in my own writing every chance I got. It was exhaustive, really. The number of times you’ll find that phrase in my early writing is laughable.
When I first started this blog, I was rather good about composing a weekly Word of the Week post, and though I haven’t been very consistent with that recently, I still keep my eye out for new words, many of which I find in my reading. Currently, I’m (still) reading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and in my last sitting alone, I became acquainted with the following new words:
impecunious–habitually poor (a word I can, unfortunately, employ regarding my own circumstances!)
philatelic–having to do with the study of postage stamps
crepuscular–relating to or resembling twilight (which might be my favorite of these newly acquired words),
just to name a few.
And, as it past my bedtime (my niece might say I should have scurried to bed long ago; I might say I should have started my crepuscular routine before allowing myself to grow this tired and the night to grow this old), I’ll wrap this up simply by saying: Read. If you want to learn, read. If you want to escape, read. If you want to relax, read. But, most especially, if you want to write, read. Words are the most powerful tools we writers wield–and we can acquire more of them simply by opening a book. The stronger our individual words are, the stronger our overall writing, and the more striking our impact, will be.