Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Being the Judge

I've had the opportunity to serve as a judge in a few different kinds of contests in the past few months. I provided feedback and voted for writers to move to the next level in a pitch contest (#SonofaPitch), a contest I've now worked with twice. I read and ranked stories by young writers for a brand new fiction contest (Lune Spark). Next, I'm returning to judge a second year for the Women's Fiction Writers Association Rising Star contest for unpublished novels. 

None of these roles came with a gavel or a cool black robe with a lace collar, but they did come with the opportunity to re-connect with my passion for writing.

You see, writing is work. Hard work. Especially if you want to make a career of it. You've got to produce a lot of words, good ones, and find publishing homes for those. You have to get out there and
shake your tailfeathers trying to get people to notice, buy, and praise your work. In the midst of all that nose to the grindstone, a girl can forget that the reason we do this is because it's fun, because we are passionate about words and story. 

It's a joy to spend time with writers who are fresh to the passion. They can reignite your own fire. 

It's also good for your own word-smithing. 

I've been participating in and facilitating a writers critique group for some years now, and I value the giving of advice and feedback as highly as receiving it. Serving as a judge or critic can really help you learn to articulate what is and isn't working in a piece.

As a casual reader, I might just say, "I like this" or "I don't like this." But as a writer-who-reads, I want to understand why a story is or isn't working for me, whether or not I'll be providing feedback
for the author in question. What's pulling me out of the immersive experience of reading? Is it something I'm bringing to the experience, like exhaustion, distraction, preconceptions, or biases? Or is it something in the piece itself, like poor structure, clunky dialogue, or undeveloped characters? Is it something I can imitate or avoid in my own writing?

Doing this as a judge is the same, but amplified. The pace is more intense, and I have no relationship with the entrants, who are all strangers to me: no history to pull from or basis for trust. Yet I still need to articulate the flaws in their work in a respectful and supportive manner that helps them take their work to the next level. It's a special challenge to do this very quickly, over the space of only a few days. The turnaround time can be quick in a contest setting.

Serving as a judge really helps me look at my own craft in a new light. Participating in events like the
award-giving and talking with the other judges challenges me to define my terms and articulate my views clearly. It's an experience I recommend for any writer looking to take her game to the next level.

Besides, it's always good to spend time with other people living the life of words. They speak your language.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

May Should be Optional

May is not my favorite month. This might be a side effect of my day job (teaching middle school), but this month is always a struggle. I'm tired, overwhelmed, and fighting apathy (my own as well as my students').

In fact, I usually feel like my tail's on fire and the radio's broken, so I'm just screaming out the window: Mayday! Mayday! 



It's called May, right? May which means that are allowed to do something, but don't have to. As in "you may proceed" or "you may discard two cards." Or it has to do with permission: "come what may" or "mother may I?"

Try as I may, I can't summon a devil-may-care attitude about this. So, I declare the the entire month should be optional. What do you say? May I be excused?


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How to Be a Fabulous Panelist

As I move deeper into my writing life, I'm getting invitations to do a variety of things. It's proving to be almost as much fun as writing itself is! 

My favorite is probably participating in discussion panels. I get to indulge my vanity by acting as an expert on a topic, as well as the more altruistic side of me that wants to help others move towards their dreams AND I get to connect with other people with similar interests. 

Since I started doing this (at conventions, libraries, and literary events), I've participated in discussions about writing craft (dialogue, action, characterization, etc.), writing tools (software, storyboarding, editing programs), marketing (social media, blogging, sales), paths to publishing, time management, superheroes, concepts like honor, the importance of diversity, and so much more. 

So, if life hands you the opportunity to be on a panel, here are a few pieces of advice about how to make the most of it: 

1. A little research helps. If you know ahead of time who you are sharing panel conversation with and what the topic is, spend a little time looking into who the other people are and considering questions and topics you might raise if the conversation needs a nudge. This can also really assist you if you're introverted or don't consider yourself as good as thinking on your feet as others. You don't want to go too far and write a speech, but a few notes can be a nice support and keep long lulls from happening. 

2. Be generous. Talk kindly of anyone you mention (if you can't talk kindly about something/someone . . .maybe don't mention it at all). Give the other panelists an "in" to the conversation by throwing them a bone from time to time. If you notice someone is quiet, try to bring them in (even if you're not the moderator) by riffing off of something they said or using what you learned about them in your research. We all benefit if the conversation flows well and stays interesting for the audience. 

3. Be aware. Pay attention to the social cues your audience and fellow panelists are giving you. Are you talking too much? Interrupting or over-talking? Stay focused and "in the moment" giving your companions the courtesy of your full attention. Listen to the other panelists rather than just waiting for your turn to talk. 

4. Take care of you. Self care is especially important when you're going to be in
the public eye. I learned the hard way about accepting too many panels at a convention, then having to struggle to keep myself wakeful and positive by the last one of the day. Plan ahead by bringing layers you can add or remove for temperature comfort. Lip balm, water, and portable snacks like protein bars can be a lifesaver. Allow yourself enough time between events to rest your voice and your mind (especially important if you're more introverted). 

5. Show gratitude. Thank your panelists, audience, and organizers both on the spot and afterwards. Give some social media love by sharing pictures and tagging the other participants. Even if there are only a few audience members, you never know what ripples you've created that will feed your career and networks. Be gracious, and present yourself well even if you feel disappointed. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#IWSG: Moving Targets are Hard to Hit!

It's the first Wednesday of the month, so time to talk about our insecurities . . .

So, what am I insecure about this month? It's really the same thing that I'm insecure about every month: getting it all done!

I see other writers out there who have multiple releases every year, and I wonder why I can't work that fast. Some of these other writers are full-timers with no day jobs, but not all of them . . .which leads me to wonder what I'm doing wrong that I've only been able to manage one book and a couple of anthology stories a year.

On the one hand, I'm proud of myself for managing that much. After all, I have a demanding day job and a family. That doesn't leave much time for slacking, and I definitely work hard to hold onto my dream of "being a writer."

What I've noticed though is that my definition of "being a writer" keeps shifting into something I'm not quite doing yet. At first, it was being published. Then, it was having a novel published. Then it was being accepted as an author guest at a con. Then, winning an award. Now, I'm aiming at being the special guest at a convention and selling enough books each month to pay my mortgage.

As I hit each milestone, I just changed the definition of "being a writer" into something I haven't yet done. I'm mean to me that way.

I keep moving the target, which keeps me feeling like I never get there.

I guess there's a good side to that, in that it keeps me striving forward, aiming higher and holding myself to a high standard.

The bad side is that it can be hard on your confidence when you forget to celebrate your accomplishments along the way.

So, yeah. I am my own worst enemy . . .and my own best friend. Does that make me my own frenemy?
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If you're not already following #IWSG (Insecure Writer's Support Group), you should really check it out. The monthly blog hop is a panoply of insight into the writing life at all stages of hobby and career. Search the hashtag in your favorite social media venue and you'll find something interesting on the first Wednesday of every month.

This month the group asked: What is the weirdest/coolest thing you ever had to research for your story? I tend to fall down the research rabbit hole way too often. There's so much cool stuff out there! Some recent favorites: learning about fireproof materials so that my henchwoman Helen Braeburn could create some fireproof clothing for herself; learning about different methods of flight (birds, machines, balloons, etc.) so I could decide what the mechanics of flight are for my flying hero Jessica "Flygirl" Roark; and learning about discrimination and acts of violence against German-Americans during WWI to decide what might be realistic for my characters in a women's historical fiction trilogy I'm working on. Sometimes I think half the fun of writing is the reading you do to support it.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Z is for the David Traylor Zoo: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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Z is for the David Traylor Zoo

I'm a long time enthusiast of zoos. I grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio, which has a large and famous zoo and I've sought out the zoos in all the places I have been and lived in over the years. Zoos are special to me for the opportunities they afford us to see live animals from around the world and learn about them, as well as for the role they play in rescuing animals and helping bring them back from endangerment and risk of extinction. 

When I moved to Kansas, I found that it was a state with many small zoos rather than one grand one. Every medium sized town seemed to have one. The city I lived in was Emporia, in an area known as the Flint Hills ("hills" being a relative thing in such a flat state). I really loved Emporia for a lot of reasons: the people at the forefront, followed by local landmarks like the Granada (movie theater turned coffeehouse) in the charming downtown, Peter Pan Park, and the David Traylor Zoo. 

The David Traylor Zoo is very small. You can see every inch of it in an hour or so long visit. My oldest daughter was two when we moved to Kansas and five when we left, and she and I whiled away many pleasant hours at the zoo. We'd walk there (or I'd walk, and she'd ride in her stroller) and visit our rheas, peacocks, lemurs, tamarins, and elk. Then get an ice cream on our way home, or stop by the playground (or maybe both!). 

We felt like we had a personal relationship with each of the animals there. We knew their names, and talked with the zookeepers regularly about their health and histories. In some ways, I loved that zoo more than big impressive ones like Cincinnati and San Diego. I'd love to go back and see it again someday. 









Saturday, April 29, 2017

Y is for Yellowstone National Park: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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Y is for Yellowstone National Park

One of the last travel experiences I had before I became a mother was Yellowstone National Park. I went there with my mother as part of a cross country trip down the Alcan and across the United States back to Kentucky. I remember the freedom of that trip almost as fondly as I remember the park itself. 

If you look back at my other A to Z entries, you're going to see that I am quite the fan of National Parks, but Yellowstone is the grand-daddy of them all. 

There are so many different kinds of beauty within the one park. I mostly explored the part in Wyoming. Whether you are into animals, rocks, mountains, water, hot springs, sands, falls, forests, rivers, flowers or skies, you're going to find something to rock your socks off in this most amazing of American National Parks. If you go, I recommend planning for several days of exploration to get to see it properly. 

In our current political climate, I have worried for the protection of our national park lands. I pray these special landscapes will continue to be protected so that generations of Americans and visitors from other lands can be awed and amazed by the glory and creativity of nature. 







Friday, April 28, 2017

X is for Xavier's School for Gifts Youngsters: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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X is for Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters

It's kind of funny that I got this far down into the list before I admitted that some of the Places in my Heart are imaginary places. Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is found in comic books (and TV shows, cartoons, and movies that spun off from those).  It's where the X-men trained and formed as a group. 

Like the Bat Cave or Stark Tower or the Fortress of Solitude, heroes need a hangout, a home base, and this is it for the mutant crowd.  Generally, it's portrayed as the inherited home of Charles Xavier, who besides being a talented mutant with wide ranging psychic powers, is also a rich English boy from the gentry. (It avoids a lot of problems in superhero stories if you write your characters rich, yet without family to object to the way they use those riches). 

Like any good superhero facility, it has large spaces for practice fighting and building specialized rooms to deal with the problems that arise while newly powered folk are figuring out how to use and control their gifts.  

I, unfortunately, did not develop superpowers during puberty, so I am apparently not a mutant. I'm still holding out hope that the second wave of hormones in menopause will give me something special, though. In fact, I'm writing a whole book series based on that :-).  But in the meantime, maybe I'll find out if they need a Spanish tutor at Xavier's. Some of their missions are bound to take them to Mexico or something, wouldn't you think? 







Thursday, April 27, 2017

W is for Weaver Street Market: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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W is for Weaver Street Market

I've been fortunate enough to live in some places with food co-ops before, but none were as lovely as Weaver Street Market. When we moved to Chapel Hill back in 2006, there was only one Weaver Street, in Carrboro. It was a real community hub as well as a G-dsend to people who want organic and local foodstuffs. 

Just as we moved to Hillsborough, they opened a Weaver Street Market in Hillsborough. We like to joke that it was just for us. The Hillsborough store is smaller than the original in Carrboro, but I like it better, maybe just because it's mine. I'm such a frequent flyer there that several of the cashiers have my owner number memorized and most of the baristas know my order already. 

(Later, they added a third in another Chapel Hill neighborhood, so my sister has a Weaver Street, too). 

Weaver Street, besides stocking milk from the local dairy, fruits and vegetables grown at local farms, and a variety of locally made, organic products, also has their own bakery and makes some of the yummiest breads, cookies, and desserts I have ever enjoyed. Since our family lives by our stomachs, we appreciate delicious things made of good ingredients that don't leave us feeling bad. 

There are other venues to get some of the things Weaver Street sells in our area. We have a Trader Joes and Whole Paycheck (our nickname for Whole Foods), but I always try Weaver Street first. It may be cliche to say, but it really is about the people. I so rarely see anyone grumpy or mean at Weaver. And while it's a haven for gluten free, natural sugars only, vegetarian and vegan, or other dietary strictures, there's no snobbery or rudeness surrounding that. Carnivores and sugarhounds are welcome, too. 

If you ever come visit me in Hillsborough, I'll take you to Weaver for coffee and a pastry. You won't regret it. 








Wednesday, April 26, 2017

V is for Vermont: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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V is for Vermont


Ah, Vermont. That liberal little pocket of up East that the rest of the United States envisions as full of Robert Frost worthy scenery, curmudgeons, hippies, and well-educated lesbians. 

Having spent a few summers there, I have to say there's some truth in that. 

I earned my Master's Degree from the Bread Loaf School of English arm of Middlebury College. That meant I got to spend four summers on Bread Loaf's campuses (I spent three in Vermont, and one at Oxford). Vermont in summer really is idyllic. The weather is lovely. The land is lush. It's the home of farmer's markets full of artisan craftspeople and organic foods, restaurants that pioneered the whole "buy local" mentality, and more bookstores than you can shake a stick at. 

If you have liberal leaning sensibilities politically, and want to limit development and growth to protect the green spaces around you, Vermont might be for you. Almost every place I went in the state (and since it's small, geographically speaking, I saw a lot of the state in three summers' studies) is just really really nice. Well kept, cared for, with a feeling that it will endure for generations. 

In fact, I often felt clumsy and a little dirty, like a Greaser at a Soc party. I worried I might knock over a cup. 

That's not to say the people weren't welcoming. They really were. I'd love to get back and spend a summer afternoon in the shade in a small city square, trying a new flavor of Ben and Jerry's. 







Tuesday, April 25, 2017

U is for Ouzinkie: A to Z Blogging Challenge

It's April and you know what that means: The AtoZ Blogging Challenge! For those who haven't played along before, the AtoZ Blogging Challenge asks bloggers to post every day during April (excepting Sundays), which works out to 26 days, one for each letter of the alphabet. In my opinion, it's the most fun if you choose a theme.

My theme this year is Places in my Heart, all about the places I've been and loved and that have mattered to me in a lasting sense.

For my regular readers, you'll see more than the usual once-a-week posts from me this month. I'm having a great time writing them, so I hope you enjoy reading them, too.
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U is for Ouzinkie

I know that Ouzinkie technically begins with an O. But it does begin with a U sound . . .and I was having trouble coming up with place I love that starts with U. So, yeah, I cheated a little. 

Ouzinkie though is a wonderful place. Monk's Lagoon on Spruce Island was the home of Saint Herman of Alaska, a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

It is still a retreat space, but also a pilgrimage stop and tourist attraction, an easy skiff ride over from Kodiak and a great place to spend a peaceful afternoon. 

Herman came there as a hermit, but others were drawn to the man and the place, and a chapel, guest house, and school for orphans were soon added.  

I only visited a couple of times. I myself am not Russian Orthodox, though I am, like many, an admirer or the architecture and iconography. The chapel there, by late morning light, definitely felt like a holy place to me. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I see the diffuse rays of light shining through the windows in the simple space, and it always brings me peace. 

I guess part of me is always seeking retreat, though I'm not quite a hermit or a saint myself.