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

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Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

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

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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.

 

Query Shark and Other Thoughts

I’ve blathered a little about queries for the last couple of weeks, but the subject demands mention of the Query Shark, and then I’ll have self-actualized on the subject and can move on. Query Shark is the superhero identity of the mild-mannered metropolitan literary agent, Janet Reid. She’s well-known and respected in the publishing world, […]

via Query Shark and Other Thoughts — In A Tale-Spin

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I have heard tell of the mythical Query Shark, Janet Reid, and was delighted to find links to her infamous blog and website in this post. Again JJ is passing on some pretty important information for authors out there getting ready to query.

I spent a great deal of time reading through the Query Shark’s blog posts- especially the critiqued query letters…so informative. I also signed up for her newsletter which I have come to view as invaluable. You can sign up here.

Once you dip your feet in there, you should head straight to her FAQs page. She has an espoused love of Taylor Branch works. Unfortunately, that is not my WIP. It did lead me to the blog where you can elect to send a query letter that gets posted on the site and critiqued, but you can also pay for a private critique of a query letter and pages. The link to see how this works is here. It helps tremendously if you read the things she directs you to read because I found out “Is your query for non-fiction, or memoir? If so, don’t send. I’ll just email you saying I don’t post those kinds of queries on QS,” and will not waste my time with the public query option.

Ultimately, this site, and all the guidance provided for FREE from Janet Reid is worth your time. If you are an author getting ready to query, don’t waste your time blindly sending out letters. Even if you go buy the Writer’s Market (I did), research all the comp books in your genre (I did), and research your chosen agent’s likes and dislikes to include (I did), it won’t help without a rockstar query letter. You have probably spent a good portion of your time and tears (I did) crafting this manuscript…give yourself the best shot to land an agent who will love your work and help it find a publishing home.

Query Letter Examples & Advice

I wrote last week about the need and purpose of query letters — to get an agent for your masterpiece. This time I have a good article by Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest, which explains a little more about the query concept and also gives good examples of query letters that were successful in […]

via Query Letter Examples — In A Tale-Spin

More sage advice on querying from In A Tale Spin…check out the previous post here.

Query letters are such a daunting task. You must do the research. You must find who is publishing your type of book, who the agent is within that agency, and then decipher what they are looking for. I wrote one query letter about 12 years ago and was just sure I was getting an agent. I had a contact from another author. I had good feedback from beta readers. I felt confident my book was coming to fruition. I spent a long time crafting that query letter. I worked on a platform because I read that was important. I sent my query with high hopes.

Obviously, it did not work out the way I thought. I received a really nice, personal email from the agent explaining she wasn’t taking on any new manuscripts in my genre. She also offered I may need to revisit my sample chapters, and consider some revision to add tension. I was crushed.

Looking back, I see she was generous. My WIP was not ready. It was a good idea, but my writing was not there yet, and like she said, I needed some tension. It was too nostalgic, too giddy. I put it away and did not look at it for over a decade. Now I am in the thick of rewrites and restructure. I feel good about the direction, but I will not start querying until I feel it is ready. I also will send out more than one letter. Most authors I interface with say they sent anywhere from 30-100 queries. I also got some great advice about platform. Yes, they look at it, but it is not a deal breaker. It is better to have a following you grow organically, interact with regularly, and can count on wanting to read your work when it becomes public.

For now, I will keep writing.

Beginner’s Guide To The Query Letter — In A Tale-Spin

Writers write. A pretty basic philosophy, but, sadly, there’s more to it than that. Writing is really all most of us want to do, and then have that writing appear out in the world and bring a nice dose of appreciation and fulfillment…and yes, even a little fame and fortune would be quite acceptable. The […]

via Beginner’s Guide To The Query Letter — In A Tale-Spin

I am not at this point yet, but query letters and the submission process in general, is daunting. I like what this gentleman has been writing about the arduous undertaking of researching and locating the right agent with the right query letter for your manuscript.

Father’s Day During a Pandemic

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Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on Pexels.com

My dad passed away before his 40th birthday. Father’s day is one of those holidays that is always bittersweet for me. I miss him, and wish he could see the amazing grandchildren he has. I wish he knew Dylan did not turn out to be a guitar picker, but he loves music. He is happy playing tennis, and working in a career he loves. He is kind, and generous…just like my dad. I wish he knew Olivia. She is smart, and ambitious. As a freshman in college, she is a NIH INBRE Scholar doing research in a lab alongside grad students and phds. She is passionate about conservation, just like him.

Father's Day

Family Dive Trip in Grenada

Now there is another dad in my life, my husband. He is boisterous, intelligent, kind, and an engineer just like my dad. This year father’s day is different. Our kids are in another state, and everybody is being careful not to contract or spread Covid-19. We have a house in Virginia waiting for renovations so we can sell it. The pandemic happened, and it has been sitting, waiting for us to come show it some love and find its new owners. My husband decided to make the drive this weekend and see if he could go through the meager possessions left there, and enlist some contractors who can start the process of giving it a light makeover.

Our kids will both be in town this weekend, but it is a hard choice about seeing them. They have been careful of exposure, but they are also of the generation without fear of getting Covid-19. They have seen friends, significant others, been out paddleboarding, grocery shopping- wearing masks, but still around others who do not.  But, it is Father’s Day, and we are a close family. I am sure he will take the risk, but use caution.

I don’t think any of us realized how difficult this would be when we undertook sheltering in place. There is an allure to ignoring the numbers, thinking even if we get it, we will survive, the risk is acceptable to see our family, and enjoy some of the comforts foregone for so many weeks. But, that also would mean ignoring reality, ignoring the spikes in infection and hospitalizations across states that have blindly reopened. It would also mean putting those we love at risk. So, my husband won’t go see his mother while in town. He won’t see our close friends while in town. He will hunker down and stay isolated in our house, and see our kids from six feet away as they have a socially-distanced, takeout Father’s Day.

I will be at home in Florida thinking healthy thoughts for him and the kids.

I want to do something special for him when he gets back, and show him how much I admire and appreciate the parent he is to our kids.

He has fond memories of strawberry cake on his birthday. The strawberries are beautiful right now. I am in the midst of testing recipes. It is a good time for some Strawberry Lemonade cupcakes. Recipe and pics coming next week!

 

#1000WordsofSummer Reflections

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

The challenge officially ends today, and I have mixed feelings. It has been a boon to have the accountability of pushing out at least 1000 words every day for fourteen days. I did that. I wrote close to 20,000 words just these last two weeks. That is pretty frickin’ awesome!

I also established a routine- I write every day. Sometimes it feels like a chore. Sometimes I can’t wait to get going, but every day I do it. This challenge forced me to establish a routine, and I am going to stick to it. If you don’t write, you aren’t a writer. Pretty simple.

I am sad I will not have a community of people engaged in the same task as me to check in with daily. We shared book recs, writing advice, pictures of our pets, and personal struggles. A strong writing community makes the solitary task of writing easier. Once this pandemic ebbs, I will find a writing group. I know I need that conduit for feedback and support.

I downloaded all of Jami Attenberg’s inspirational newsletters in case I find my dedication to #stayinit waning. It will not be the same, and I am eternally thankful to have been a part of her group, but it is a touchstone now for taking a serious step towards finishing my book.

#1000wordsofsummer

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Photo by Timothy Paule II on Pexels.com

I started a thing today…a challenge…1000 words every day for the next two weeks. I made my goal! I wrote 1800 words on my memoir. It was not easy, and it is not pretty. I have been thinking about a very private topic I never talk about, but it keeps cropping up. I decided to dive in, open the wound, and see where it went. I am not comfortable with it- yet. But, am going to keep going and see where it leads.

I like this challenge; it makes me accountable to myself to set aside time every day to write. I struggle with thinking I have nothing worth saying. I need to make peace with this and the only way to do it, is to keep writing. Anne Lamott wrote an essay I read when I was younger, “Shitty First Drafts” that was included in her seminal work, Bird by Bird. This excerpt keeps me going when I have doubts.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start
somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of
mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second
draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more
accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to
see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Chronicle of #1000wordsofsummer via Insta

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Links to Jami Attenberg’s newsletters 2020

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

Day Four- #BlackoutTuesday, no newsletter, just writing

Day Five 

Day Six 

Day Seven

Day Eight

Day Nine

Day Ten

Day Eleven

Day Twelve

Day Thirteen

Day Fourteen