Byline Brag

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Exciting news! My first real piece of food writing is out in the world 🙂 Yes, I published a couple of food tours, but this is genuine food writing with narrative arc and I am so thrilled!

I wrote about gardening as a kid, opening a restaurant and my first soup…Butternut Squash Bisque. I am so proud to have my work in this publication. It is small, New England-based and wow am I in the company of some amazing writers.

Please read it, let me know what you think, try the recipe and share your favorite soup memories in the comments 🙂

“Plant a Victory Garden; Make Soup,” Farmer-ish, Fall 2020 Issue

In Defense of Teachers

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Not everybody knows I am a former teacher. I loved the students, the people I worked with, the relationships that last far beyond the classroom. But, I am thankful every day I am not teaching this year.

I opened Twitter this morning to check and see if an app I linked was functioning properly and was caught by a teacher tweet in my feed.

“I need to write this down so I don’t forget: if we are still in this mess at the beginning of the next school year…I’m taking a leave of absence and working at…Trader Joe’s or Target or wherever. I love teaching AND I love my mental health more.”

@scmaestra

It makes me sad and angry at the same time that so many of my friends, colleagues are leaving a profession they are passionate about because they feel devalued, attacked, in danger of infection, and generally bone-tired. I remember those feelings and that was before a pandemic. I have tried for years to figure out what it is about teaching that draws disrespect from the public that depends on educators to raise and enlighten the next generation. Many times teachers are treated like servants- pay is low, expectations are high, burnout is certain.

This photo was taken one of my first years teaching in Virginia. It is important to me. It stays on display in my office/library to remind me of the good things about teaching. So, I looked at it this morning and remembered all those students whose college essays I read and collaborated on, whose games, plays, and debates I attended to support them, whose worlds I had the privilege of being a part of, whose friendships I still have today. Teachers are people too, with dreams, responsibilities, families, student loans, car payments, child care issues, depression, loneliness, and stress just like the rest of us trying to navigate this upside down world we find ourselves in. I hoped back in March when everybody was praising teacher courage and resilience it would bring change in how we treat and value teachers. I hoped we would start recognizing the great burden society puts on them. Unfortunately, here we are.

I understand when friends reach out to let me know they are leaving the classroom. They have children to worry about, elderly parents to worry about, their own health to worry about. Just.Like.Us. We need teachers who are passionate about their mission, who do it because they love it, who know their responsibility to the next generation. But, I am scared many of those teachers will be leaving the profession, if they have not already.

To those sticking it out, adapting and finding ways to connect with their young charges, I see you. To those who elect to leave because the burden is too great, I see you as well. I know you are all the quiet heroes of many kids’ lives as you stock a fridge with snacks and food for those who have nothing to eat at home, or have a few dollars in your wallet to slip to the kid who can’t afford a ticket to the school play, or buy extra school supplies for those who can’t afford them, but don’t want the stigma of going to the school supply closet for the needy, or buying a couple extra copies of books so the kid who is scared at home has something to keep him company, or letting the boy in the back lay his head down for a few minutes because he works nights to help support his family. You are the caretakers and I see you.

Maybe one day the rest of the country will see you as well.

Freelance Writing: The Importance of Self-Care

For some reason I am always drawn to careers that inspire huge personal commitment, long hours, and pieces of my soul. Owning and operating a restaurant was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year labor of love. Teaching never stayed at school- it was nights, weekends, and vacations filled with inspiring the next generation. Professional Writing seems to be following that trend, but I have the unique opportunity to follow my dream decades after I put it away for careers that were more certain, and that is a great gift. I am grateful.

As I have been reading, teaching myself, and taking classes on the art of writing, pitching, querying, and organizing a successful freelance writing life, I have seen lots of posts about self-care. I just skim these usually, moving on to other items on my to-do list. But, this has been a huge week. I pitched nine articles, submitted two essays, and received five acceptances for some exciting bylines (eeekkk ;)). I also interviewed two sources, and did a ton of research. And, it is only Thursday.

So, when the kittens went down for their nap this afternoon, I decided I was going to take a few minutes for me. I can see why self-care is so talked about- I feel invigorated, cared for, and excited to keep traveling this writing journey.

  1. First up was a little meditation. I like the app Calm.

2. Next came some fresh nail polish. I love OPI, in fact it is all I buy- see what I did there 🙂

3. Then came the wine. I have been watching my consumption because you know, I may have been drinking a little too much since staying-at-home with my kittens and husband to talk to…Back to the wine, Orin Swift, always Orin Swift if I have a choice. They make UH-mazing wine that is a little pricey, but not outrageous. This is the their latest, and my current fave, 8 years in the desert, which ironically feels like this moment.

4. Now for the really good stuff…face masks! I never do these because they usually involve a lot of time with messy stuff on your face. But, my daughter introduced me to these little gems while she was home. Sheet masks are gold! I am staunch in my cruelty-free stance and The Body Shop has been my go-to since I was 13 years old and had my first editorial published in The Burlington Free Press. It was all about the cosmetic industry and testing on animals. When it came out, everybody sent me gift cards and baskets to our local Body Shop, and after trying their products, I was hooked.

5. To round out my interlude of self-care, chocolate was in order. If you know me, you know my love affair with everything chocolate. In fact, our last family dive trip to Grenada included a day at a chocolate estate- I picked cocoa pods, ground it with my feet, saw the processing, tasted an obscene amount, and bought an obscene amount. It was a great day. The place was Belmont Estates and a must-do if you are in Grenada- check out my post on it here.

That’s it. Just a little over an hour, but it was all about doing things for myself. As we weather this tragedy in our country, remember to take a few moments for yourself.

Check out my other posts about the Freelance Writing Life:

The Importance of Networking

Instant Byline Gratification

Tools for the Freelance Writer

Query Shark and Other Thoughts

Query Letter Examples and Advice

Beginner’s Guide to the Query Letter

Transitioning out of Teaching to Freelance Writing

The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts Review

Birkerts

Reading craft books has been a priority lately as I try to hone my personal essays and memoir in progress. The latest book is by Sven Birkerts, Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. The Art of Time in Memoir was more academic-leaning than the last couple I read. Birkerts spends time analyzing various texts for how they utilize time. He also wrote about the different entry points of memoir, such as the mother-daughter relationship, the father-son relationship, relationship to trauma etc. I liked his commentary about reflective vantage points and how important this is to successful memoir writing.

“I need to give the reader both the unprocessed feeling of the world as I saw it then and a reflective vantage point that incorporates or suggests that these events made a different kind of sense over time. This is the transformation that, if done well, absolves a memoiristic reflection from the charge of self-involved nave-gazing”

It is the reflection that shows self-awareness. This is something I need to be wary of in my own writing- finding those moments of reflection that can make experiences and lessons resonant to an audience beyond myself.

Birkerts also reminded me of the importance of crafting the narrator, even in memoir. To the reader, the narrator is a character much like in fiction, and as such must have an identity on the page. The reader must be introduced to the narrator and learn to trust her.

Probably the most important nugget I took away was one I have read about in Vivian Gornick’s and Mary Karr’s craft books. “So much of the substance of memoir is not exactly what happened but rather, what is the expressive truth of the past, the truth of feeling that answers to the effect of events and relationships on a life.” Sometimes I struggle with the fact that I don’t remember every detail about an event I am writing, but I remember the feelings, the moments. This is what is important though, and I need to remember that. It is not about recounting an exact event like nonfiction. It is about recounting a feeling, an emotion, something that touches readers and reminds them of the universal human experience. That is what makes memoir creative nonfiction.

The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick Review

Situation and Story

Back in May I submitted an essay to the Modern Love column (I still have not heard anything so I am taking that as a good sign). I read ALL of the advice about how to submit and what to submit, including the editor’s wisdom on books to read. I followed him on Twitter to soak up whatever he had to say. Daniel Jones recommended Vivian Gornick highly as a guide to writing resonant personal essays, ones like he chooses to publish. Here is a link to the Google Doc Holy Grail. I ordered the book immediately and skimmed before sending my submission.

Now a couple months later, I have had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Gornick, and I have to agree with Mr. Jones- she is wise. The slim volume offers some wonderful examples of essays and memoirs the author admires, as well as some sage advice about how those works became great. I really appreciated how she defined the task of identifying the situation you are writing about and the story you are conveying. The situation is, “…the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In thinking about my own writing with this lens, it is much easier to see what is important to the emotional experience, what is the why of telling the story.

This is a worthy read for anybody embarking on the often painful task of writing personal essays or memoir. At the end there is a discussion guide that would be useful if you were using the book to teach a class. Below are some of my favorite quotes from Gornick.

“Nonfiction builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” (35)

“The narrator in a memoir must always be reliable, always working hard to get to the bottom of the experiences in hand…” (117)

“For drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.” (35)

 

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr Review

Mary Karr

I LOVED this book. I am currently in the throes of writing a memoir/collection of personal essays. I know the best way to improve your writing is to read. As you travel the worlds of other authors, you begin to see the styles and lines you admire accumulate. They add to your cadre of mentors. I read a great deal of fiction, nonfiction, poetry etc., but I have been remiss in reading craft books. Enter Mary Karr. Her name kept popping up in discussions so I picked up her book, The Art of Memoir.

Karr affirmed for me the issue I have been suspecting in my own writing, presenting a false self. We all want to see ourselves a certain way, and when we write about ourselves, that ideal can take over. But as Karr asserts, “You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention. Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off a whiff of bullshit.” I needed that shot of truth to start evaluating my own nostalgic vision of myself.

This slim volume is packed with advice for those seeking to write memoir or personal essay. There are beautiful passages from memoirists the author admires, such as Maya Angelou’s and Maxine Hong Kingston, with critique about what worked in the passage, and why it is important to your own forays into writing. Karr’s voice throughout is a comfort. She is self-deprecating, generous with her writing heroes, and pragmatic about things like “keeping your ass in the chair.” She also provides some lists for those that decide personal writing is their mission. I particularly liked her “Incomplete Checklist to Stave off Dread,” which includes “the self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time…,” something I personally am still growing accustomed to.

As the pandemic widens, I know writers are seeking classes, webinars, and books to hone their WIPs. The Art of Memoir is a must-read, and annotate, pseudo-guide to personal writing. Plus, it is entertaining and judicious with the swear words 🙂

Writing Challenge Roundup

white paper with note

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I didn’t realize how effective a writing challenge can be for keeping you accountable to writing every day until I embarked on #1000wordsofsummer. I wrote…a lot. Reading the newsletters Jami Attenberg sent out inspired me daily to sit down and do the work of writing. The challenge started a habit of writing every day and I was hungry for more accountability when it finished.

As some others did, I tried just posting my daily word counts and a little about what I wrote, but the lack of a community engaged in the same challenge as me made it less fruitful. I looked for another writing challenge that would prod me to keep up my routine and found Camp Nanowrimo running for the month of July. I tried Nanowrimo in November a few years ago, but was not so successful. The goal is 50,000 words in a month. I was not quite up to the challenge. The July Nano Camp is a little looser. You set your goal, and it can be a daily word count or overall word count. They do another one in April set up the same way. I like the community aspect. I joined a group of fellow memoirists and we post our word counts, give each other moral support, and talk about writing.

Nano is not the only challenge out there. Here are a few others I checked out:

Shut Up and Write– Every month they host a prompt-based writing challenge. You have the option of working on your own, or posting your work in their community forums. They also host writing sprints on Twitter every day at designated times. They have lots of writing resources on their site, and an optional newsletter.

Scribendi– So for those who might be intimidated by the scope of a Nano challenge, Scribendi offers a month-long writing challenge that follows a set of writing prompts/exercise. You write however much you want without the guilt of not meeting the Nano goal. I particularly liked Day 11: You are now a dragon. Describe your hoard. I like the prompts from this site. It definitely helps with developing character and world-building.

10 Minute Novelists– I LOVE THIS GROUP! I stumbled across this one as I was looking for online writing communities. It is Facebook-based and you do have to request and invite. They have a website, and it has a blog which has some great tips, but the FB group is where it is at. I actually just registered for a free literary seminar that another member posted this morning. They also have the 365 day challenge which is a very organized group of writers committed to writing every day. You do have to pay to become a member of this challenge group, but their testimonials are fantastic. I was drawn to this group because sometimes I can’t devote two hours of uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes, writing happens in snippets around life. That is the core of their philosophy- write when you can every day.

Writer’s Workout– This site has a number of challenges. There is a bi-annual short story challenge, a monthly micro-challenge, and a prompt-based series. Their site promotes the idea that to get better at what you do, you must practice. They provide lots of avenues of writing practice.

Yeah Write– This site offers three types of challenges. There is a weekly free challenge grid that is open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each grid has specific submission guidelines and are judged by popular vote. There is also a monthly microprose challenge: 48 in 48. Yes, you read that correctly, 48 words only. There is a prompt  and submission guidelines posted on the first Saturday of each month. This one is a lot of fun, especially if you are trying to train yourself to write small. They also have a quarterly super challenge that requires an entry fee and is eligible for cash prizes.

NaPoWriMo– This was a new one for me. I am familiar with Nano, but did not realize there was one devoted to poetry held during National Poetry Month. It is not affiliated with the official Nano site. This challenge asks you to write a poem a day for 30 days. You can either do this just for your own personal viewing, or you can submit your site to NaPoWriMo and they will list you with their participating poet sites roundup.

NaNoWriMo– From their site…

National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.

I am certain there are more out there, but as I started poking around, these were the challenges I decided to give a try. Write on!

Tools for the Freelance Writer

business-computer-connection-contemporary-270640

I have been at this for a few months now, and picked up some tips that make life for a freelance writer much easier. When I went into this I thought it would just be writing, submitting, editing, writing. I was wrong. There are all of those things, but there is also this looming issue of social media hanging over you. As a 47 year old woman, social media is still somewhat a mystery to me. I am maybe more savvy than some, but def not an expert. There is so much controversy over whether a platform is important to getting publishing deals, and if you blog like me, you want readers and followers, so unless you have a teenager in the house willing to teach you, you need to learn how to navigate the waters of self-promotion.

The paradox I have encountered in this world so far is to get an entry level writing job, you must provide links to published pieces. But to get published pieces, you must have an entry writing job. It really is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I think this is why so many writers take on work as unpaid interns, or agree to contracts where they are paid through social promotion, and portfolio building.

Add to this we are currently in a moment where publishing houses, magazines, and writing gigs in general are cutting way back. Which means the market is flooded with writers looking for work. It is interesting to be starting this career during a pandemic.


Here are a few sites and apps I have found really useful:

Canva

For those without graphic design software, this is a game changer. Back in my teaching days I had the whole Adobe Creative Suite, but since going solo I am getting creative about finding free alternatives. Canva can be used on your phone or computer and it makes creating a post for any social media easy. There are thousands of free templates that you can customize to your needs. It is more limited than InDesign, but it is also free. Once I started using it to create beautiful posts, I noticed how many other influencers were using it as well. It will up your social media presence, just make sure you customize it so you don’t start looking like everybody else.

Temi

One part of my recent intern job has been author interviews. Temi is a godsend! The first interview I transcribed, I did by ear. It took me three days of listening, typing, going back and listening again, editing, and on and on. It was excruciating. And that was with an author who spoke loudly, clearly, and without accent. My editor turned me on to Temi. Sign up is easy, and they offer a free trial for the first transcription. After that it is….per minute. Even though it is not free, it is indispensable for transcription. The quality is excellent and the in document editing options are very approachable. I finished an interview transcription with an author who spoke at very low volume with a strong accent in just a couple hours. the interview itself was one hour.

Voice Recorder on PC

This seems like a low-jack solution to record, and it is, but I came to it after various apps failed me. Obviously, if you are doing an in-person interview, use your voice memo option on your phone. But, as we shelter in place, interviews are happening more frequently over the phone. I tried NoNotes first, and was sorely disappointed. The sound quality is poor, and I did not realize there were only 30 minutes of free trial. It cut me off in the midst of an interview- really embarrassing. The transcription of that portion of the call was also poor. I probably should have researched the app more, but my editor told me to use it, so I did. After the cut-off, I called the author back, apologized profusely, and recorded the rest of the convo with my phone on speaker and my computer voice recording on. The quality was really good- much louder and clearer than NoNotes. It also easily downloaded to a file I could feed into Temi. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.

Instagram

I got some good advice about how to use Insta from some other writer friends. It is a great venue to introduce yourself, your life, what you care about, what you are reading & writing to a large audience through image-driven content. I try to do this- though I am still learning. I create posts through Canva or on my own and try to post daily. Sometimes it is not as often, but I at least repost other’s content daily through IG Stories. Also, make sure you get a business account. This allows you to see analytics. Many people in my writing community are bookstagrammers. They read and review books and post about them on IG. They also post challenges, stack shots, and other windows into their reading world. My writing centers mostly on food as a lens for social & political commentary so I post lots of food pics, and links to my food blogs. I also follow chefs, restaurants, and other food writers to stay active in the community I write in. With Insta, image is the king. Make sure you have beautiful photos, a pithy caption, and hashtags that don’t look spammy. I always search “Best Hashtags” for whatever I am posting and add my hashtags in the comment section so they do not crowd up my post.

Twitter

I use Twitter to post about my daily writing, connect with authors and publishers, and participate in writing/publishing challenges. I follow writers I admire. I comment on their posts, even if they do not comment back. I engage with those who comment on my posts. I try to use it as a platform to build my writing community. I have found other online writing groups through Twitter that I will discuss in my next post. For me, Twitter is all about the writing and connecting to other writers.

Facebook

I have to say I came late to this one. I eschewed FB for years because of the rampant bias in ads and the unrestrained running commentary about everything from politics to going to the bathroom. I started being more active since freelancing. There are some great groups for writers that offer supportive feedback and a community when face-to-face is not an option. Also, my blog following has grown the most through FB. If you are trying to grow platform, I don’t think you can ignore FB, especially if you are a middle-aged writer like me.

Snapseed

Let me start by saying, I love Adobe Lightroom & Photoshop. If money was no object, I would certainly use them. But, as a mostly unpaid, entry-level writer, money counts. Snapseed was suggested to me by a photographer friend who uses it regularly with phone pics. I love it. The “looks” edit is pretty straightforward- lighting and colorwash. The “tools” are less approachable. The app gives you the ability to do many of the edits you do in LR or PS like white balance adjustment, curves, perspective correction etc. But, like in Adobe there is a learning curve. There are lots of great tutorials here. Once you become comfortable with Snapseed’s robust capabilities, photo editing will be fun and seamless. I have had many comments on photos I edited with Snapseed, and it made my blog posts much more attractive.

Pexels

Sometimes you don’t have a fantastic image to go with your blog post or social media. It happens. I have found Pexels library of free photos a lifesaver on those occasions. There is an easy search bar that leads to hundreds of high quality images within the topic you are searching. If you have some great content you want to get out, but no images to go with it, do yourself a favor and give Pexel a look. Images are really important no matter what your are posting. In fact, the image at the top of this post is from Pexels just as an example.


Here are ways to get those coveted ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies, digital and physical), if book reviews are part of your repertoire:

Net Galley

Let me first say, I prefer print books. I have tried for years to make the jump to digital reading, and my brain just doesn’t like it. But, sometimes you cannot get a physical ARC of that book you really want to read and review. Enter Net Galley. I have received ARCs through Goodreads, from publicity agents directly, but Net Galley makes it easy to request titles you genuinely want to read. You must sign up for an account, create a profile, and agree to review the books you receive. I have gotten all the books I requested thus far, but I am picky and only request books I know will be hard to get physical copies of. If you enjoy digital reading, this is a treasure trove of great titles in all genres.

Publisher Sites

You have to do a little research to find the publishing house and imprint the book you want is being published under. Then you need to locate their publicity contact. You also need to be attractive to the publisher which entails a following on social media and your blog. I was really lucky; I established a good relationship with my local independent bookstore, Sundog Books, and not only have they given me ARCs they received, but when a book I want is not being released for a while, they give me the contact to request an ARC. Moral of the story is that relationships matter. Build your following through organic conversation online, and develop those in-person ties to people who love books as much as you.

Novel Knight lays everything out about requesting ARCs very clearly, including an email template on this blog post.


These have all been helpful for me as I work to establish my voice in the writing world, but it is also important for writers to find their people. Next post I will write about establishing a community, and finding ways to hold yourself accountable to writing every day.