Writing Frequently Asked Questions

Given how heavy last week’s blog was, I thought I might lighten it up a bit. In the course of my career, as soon as people know I’m a writer, I’ve gotten a lot of questions, ranging from the concerned “What did your parents do to you?” to the outright rude, “Oh, so what restaurant do you bus tables at?” But some are genuine and interested.

I’ve picked out a few questions not just to give you my personal answers but as a way to think about your own journey as a writer and why having the answers to some of them is important, whether you get asked or not.

Writers Frequently Asked Questions:

How do you come up with your ideas?

I dunno man. It’s part magic and part just paying attention. Sometimes it’s a character from my childhood that I want to reformulate and expand upon. Sometimes I’m watching a nature show on octopods and flip the station to an expo on genetic research. I will say this for the good writers I know. Ideas are everywhere, and it’s all about paying attention to why each story, article, factoid, or fungi is interesting and how they could be moreso. Even though tropes and genres rarely change, the situations, characters, and actions are an endless pool of inspiration.

I’ve written about space captains and cowboys, Krampus’ nephew and Bacchus as a modern-day AA member. I’ve written about a nurse with OCD and a child who was the reincarnation of Peter Pan… Ideas are everywhere. Go on line, find prompts. Read the newspaper. Watch people. Read. Think about what makes a good story—a character you care about, an impossible situation, high stakes, dynamic growth. And give your brain down time to think and daydream (walking the dog, in the shower, at your kid’s soccer game—don’t look at me like that it’s okay to zone out for those once in a while too). Play with the What-If and don’t self limit.

Also—buy a small notebook and a pen (or you could use your phone, ugh) and write down things you notice, articles that were interesting, conversations you overhear, even the strangest ideas from out of nowhere. You never know…

How many hours do you write a day?

Pshhh… Listen, if all I needed to do in a day is write, I’d probably say at least 4 to 5 hours or more. But I don’t know any of us who don’t have some other job, a family, or otherwise adultish tasks to complete. So, I’m going to be completely honest and watch die-hard writing theorists gasp in shock.

Somedays I don’t write at all.

*gasp! How does she even call herself a writer!?*

Somedays I’m so plagued with class planning and familial obligations and oh-my-god-whats-growing-in-the-bathroom-sink, and teaching, and making dental appointments that I don’t get to sit down at my computer until late in the evening when my brain is effectively mush.

But it’s not always about the quantity.

Because sometimes on those nights, in the span of twenty minutes before bed, I can bang out three or four solid pages. Sometimes I only stare bleary eyed at what I wrote earlier in the week. The point is, it isn’t about the hours and hours of singularly devoted time you put in. It’s about concentrating and working with focus for every minute you do get and making it impactful over time.

So—on average in a week, I maybe write 1-2 hours a day. If you factor in editing and rewrites and marketing and advertising my stuff, that probably gets bumped up to about 3. It’s not as much as some…but for now, it’s what I have to work with and I capitalize on all the moments I can.

What are you working on now?

I’m not like other writers. I’m a goddamn, flighty scatterbrain. So my answer is…complicated *wheels out an old chalkboard packed full of a complex theory, diagrams, and stick figures*.

At any given moment I’ve got multiple projects and I’ll tell you why.

Because I get bored. And sometimes I’m tired. (hahahahaha—ah…that’s funny because I’m ALWAYS tired)

I’m not saying I can’t sit down, focus, and write a novel, end to end in about a month. I can. I have. I usually reserve all of November to do that. Or on projects with co-authors as there are expectations and deadlines to meet.

For me, having multiple projects that I enjoy helps to keep me engaged and inspired and lets me cater my writing to the state of my life that day.

Maybe I only have twenty minutes. So I write a poem, or submit a poem. Or both

Maybe I have an hour, but I’m not feeling very fictional—I work on my weekly blog or catch up on emails from other writing projects. Or get a solid chunk of editing done.

Maybe I have an uninterrupted afternoon, I’ve been daydreaming about my characters and what I can do to torture them…I’ll bust out a few chapters on my novel.

Being a writer is a career best done when diversified.

One, we learn how to write better when we give ourselves more variety.

Two, we will burn out less often when we can take breaks from something that’s got us stuck—AND, AND AND…sometimes being able to put down ‘stuck’ projects and work on something else will lead to that magical AHA moment of unstuckness, because your brain has stepped back and can look at it without so much intensity.

Three, in terms of getting paid? You might love your novel, but its your magazine articles that are paying for your PB and J’s while you wait for the next publisher to realize how amazing you are (and you are amazing)…so have something more lucrative if you want.

Four, I hate to say it, but marketing, editing, and submitting count as writing. It’s the new and best chance way to really make it as a writer these days.

So—what am I working on?

3 novels: one in first edits with a cowriter, one is the first in my new urban fantasy/romance series—heavy rewrites but mostly formulated, one is my Kindle Vella romance that I’m writing, frighteningly, chapter by chapter (I’ll plan that out better next time)

A weekly Blog post

3-5 Poems a week

The new Beautiful Stuff anthology

1-2 Submissions a week (leading to new poetry and flash fiction pieces)

Edits for some accepted short stories

Soon: Edits for my first novel coming out with 5 Prince Publishing

You make any money at that?

No.

Not at all.

After editing, marketing, and website fees are factored in, I’m actually, constantly, in a hole. In fact, I love writing so much, I started working a part time job just to afford it.

But this is important to know about yourself as a writer. Why do you write? For the money? Because there are ways to do that—freelance, magazine articles, content writing, textbook editing. But you should also know that getting published right away, with a good book deal and royalties is not common. It isn’t impossible but you’re going to have to work for it.

My suggestion is to write because you love it. Because if you do that, and you throw it out into the world to see if it lands with someone, and it doesn’t get picked up, then at least you loved what you did, enjoyed what you made, and created something that was meaningful. And that’s not nothing.

If you don’t enjoy it and try to meet a trend, or publish some MFA tome that you hated every minute of, I honestly believe that the chances of it ‘landing’ and being picked up, are less.

Stories with heart and passion behind them, are just better stories.

Do you get writer’s block?

I go back and forth about those two little words. Yes, I believe that writers can get blocked. but I prefer to call it “Life Blocked”.

Writing doesn’t get blocked. We block ourselves. We get in our own way. Life gets in our way. The other worries, concerns, judgments, conflicts, and comparisons surrounding us get in our way. The writing is always there, just waiting to come out. It’s not beyond our reach. Until we put up walls of insecurities and excuses in our own path.

Somedays the inspiration isn’t there. Write anyway (see my answer from above about switching up projects, doing something that is still writing but not what’s got you puzzled). Somedays you are burnt out. Take a day off. Watch stupid movies. Take a nap. Keep your hands off the computer until you’re gnashing to get back to putting words down. Writers forget that inspiration is always there, you just sometimes have to clear out the path before it will flow. That might mean writing that scene you’ve been dreading until it turns into one of your favorites. Or sitting in the chair, writing the worst shit you’ve ever written nonstop for thirty minutes via a timer until you realize that it’s not all bad and that you were just afraid admitting that we all write shitty stuff sometimes.

Don’t believe in writer’s block. Believe in normal human emotion and limitation, give yourself grace but don’t give yourself excuses.

Where can I find your work?

Always know this answer and, if possible, have a card with your info on it. You can find my work on Amazon, libraries, in some journals and newspapers as well as on my website. www.sarahreichertauthor.com (and yes, get a website)

How do you finish a book, I just can’t!

How do people climb Mt. Everest? How do people raise children? How do people retire comfortably after 45 years of work?

One step at a time. Always forward. Never giving up. Pause if you need, catch your breath, remember why you’re putting in the work, eyes on that distant horizon and keep moving. You will get stuck. You will want to quit. There will be stories you do have to quit or rewrite completely. Just don’t stop writing. One page a day. One sentence. Six chapters. It doesn’t matter. People who don’t finish their books have let the world win. They let their doubt win. They let the aspect of editing and cutting out what wasn’t working win. They let the fear of finishing a book and what that might mean for expectations on them win.

Don’t let fear or hard work stop you. Just write. Because you love it. Because you love the character. Because you love the journey. Because you love being lost in that world. When it gets hard, shift course, skip over the dark and come back after you’ve written through some light. There are a million ways to quit. But there are at least as many to persevere. Find what makes you keep going and do that.

Mining your memories: A Short Blog About Memoirs

Good morning kids. Today’s blog is about memoir. Before you close out of my page, thinking you’re too young to write such a thing and that it’s for little old people who are trying to recapture the sand slipping away in their hourglass…let me stop you.

Good stories are ones we relate to, and so can come from anywhere, in any time period, in any state. Being able to tap into your memory, isn’t just good for memoirs, it’s also good for descriptive scene setting, character development, and capturing those beautiful ‘show’ moments.

How do I figure?

Fiction or not, being able to recall details, sift through what you remember and why it was memorable, is a skill that will serve you in any genre. The perspective of ten-year-old you is a charming voice that we all, in some part, want to re-experience. Retelling from your memories is a practice that can help you see the world through different lenses, and what you remember tells you a lot about where you were in life and the character you embodied. A mom’s perspective and memory of her child’s first day of school is going to be completely different than her child’s memory of the day. The first breaking of your heart at 16 is going to harken a different intensity than your last broken heart a decade later. Understanding the humanity of your memories will bring you closer to creating depth in your characters.

So, how do you even begin?

Everything has a story and the best stories are told by ordinary people. It’s not about what happened, necessarily, it’s what happened to you. What you remember and what stands out to you from past memories, creates a personal tie to your reader and their own memories. It also shrinks down big events and forces the humanity into view.

Example:

“I remember the spiky Velcro of my sneakers, scratching my legs as I sat criss-cross in the lunchroom (still smelling of sloppy joes and spilled milk) while the third-grade teacher wheeled in the small TV to the center of our circle. The grainy picture of a rocket puffing out into a cloud of white with the trailing boosters snaking off into the atmosphere was confusing and anticlimactic to the excitement in the room. But what was more troubling was the way the teachers behind us gasped, crumpled to the floor, sobbed and looked to one another for explaination that could not be found, before hurrying us back to our classrooms.”

Versus-

“The Challenger, carrying high school teacher Christa McAulliffe, exploded shortly after takeoff, on January, 28 1986”

The biggest obstacle to this practice is, the human brain is often complex and muddled and gleaming the true memory of an event or time can be hard. Having practiced this a little, I can tell you that it’s really shocking how much of my childhood I don’t remember. Because I simply haven’t made a habit of talking about it. Many of us don’t. We no longer live in an oral-storytelling society and it’s a real detriment to how we solidify memories.

When writing from memory, we have to work from both memory and imagination, and reassemble the past with both. We have no other choice than to see it through the lens of who we are now, so even the best memories are filtered by the knowledge and experience we’ve gained since the time we’re trying to remember. We often reframe memories in a way that fits into our whole story, and as soon as we write about it, we begin to shape it. That’s not all that’s funny about memories.

If you’ve ever noticed telling a story and retelling it to a different person or group, the story starts to change depending on the audience. Other factors that can contribute to muddling the memory water are how long its been since the event, who was there, and how we want people to perceive it.

My suggestion to you is to start writing events down that you remember. Big and small (the death of a family member, to the first time you tied your shoes). Pick a year, an event, a memory, just one a day and write what you remember about it. Find a quiet spot. Close your eyes, think of the memory and with pen and paper (or laptop if you simply must) write down whatever comes up. Even if it’s murky, even if its disjointed. These are shadows that exist for a reason. In fact, write down what you can’t remember (I remember the flowers were bright pink and orange, but I can’t remember walking out of the funeral home). Those details speak to the state of mind you were in.

These are the rough drafts of human interest and ways to connect to others. Your essays on memories can be the the bulk material needed for character history, short stories or poetry. And maybe one day, your own memoir.

Whatever your past, however dull or fantastical you think it is, whether it’s 89 years worth of experience and life or only 12, you have a responsibility to put it down.

Flash Fiction: A Raccoon, A Traffic Jam, and Another Call for Submissions

Mornin’

As promised, I’ve thrown together a couple of flash fiction pieces that I’ll be running in the next couple of weeks. Before we get into the fantasy, I want to give you a reminder that submissions are still be accepted for The Beautiful Stuff’s 2022 Anthology, “A Beautiful Twist”. Here are the details (the short version for folks like me with a minor attention span)

  • Dates: January 28th to September 16th
  • Winners notified September 19th 2022
  • Publication Date: TBA Early November
  • Submission guidelines: Short stories (2000-5000 words), Flash Fiction (200-1000 words), Poetry (up to 5 poems allowed per submission), novel excerpts (up to 3000 words), Personal Essays (up to 2000 words). Non fiction, fiction, speculative fic, western, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, erotica, historical, hysterical, time jumping primates, talking frogs, brains in jars, and ANY combination thereof. Submissions translated to English are preferred. Contest is open to domestic and international writers but awards will be paid in US dollars. Please submit your work as an attachment to your email which will be a lovely cover letter about you (name, email, your submission title, brief bio). Email subject line should read BEAUTIFUL TWIST SUBMISSION_name. The submission file (please use .doc, .docx, or another Word friendly format) should be the title of your submission and your last name i.e. “Merry Krampus-Reichert”
  • Top 3 submissions will earn prizes as follows: 1st–$30, 2nd–$20, 3rd–$10 paid via PayPal or Venmo (or check if need be). Runners up will be published in the anthology with a chance to compete in the Colorado Book Awards.
  • You may submit in multiple formats, multiple times (ie poems and flash, or novel excerpt and essay) but each submission must be in a separate email.
  • PLEASE DO NOT submit anything that has been previously published or that you no longer own the rights to. Simultaneous submissions are absolutely fine but LET ME KNOW if your work gets accepted elsewhere as soon as possible.
  • Prohibited subject matter includes: overtly violent or gruesome content that does not further the story, non consensual sexual acts, racist/homophobic/misogynistic/hate filled writing, violent or hurtful actions against children or animals, and anything that judges, stereotypes, or seeks to harm another human being based on their human being-ness.

Whew! Send in your stuff. I’m excited to read it. And now this:

FLASH 1: Raccoons and Moving On

“This is your fault.”

“Mine? How is this even remotely my fault?”

“You wanted to have the dinner party in that stupid farm to table place. With a stupid glamping theme. In the stupid middle of a stupid field!”

“Why is everything I do stupid?” he fired back. She glared over the dinner napkin pressed to her cheek and pulled away the bloodied cloth to show him, once again, the angry gashes that had undone the beauty of her Botox.

“This for one!” She put the cloth back on the wound and crossed her other arm in front of her low cut dress. The ER was always busy this time of the week, but she’d never had to wait for anything, and especially not with the general public, so it seemed even worse.

“I mean—the food wasn’t bad. The whole evening could have been worse.”

“Worse? Mark? Really? How could it possibly have been worse? A goddamn raccoon tried to take my face off!”

“You tried to pet it!”

“I was trying to scoot it out of the tent! Brought in by your ‘not bad food’ buffet!”

“Well, I mean, it was out in the woods. So technically, it was just like having a neighbor come over for dinner.”

“You’re a goddamn idiot.”

Mark laughed. He laughed so hard he doubled over. Hooting until tears came to his eyes.

“Wha—why are you laughing?”

“Just—the way your face looked when that little guy came at you! Eyes wide and—” he gasped for air between chuckles, “and shrieking like a banshee.”

“I want a divorce,” she yelled.

“I know you do. That’s why I planned the evening! To try and start to mend things.” At this he stopped laughing. “But I realized I can’t mend the past. I can only look at the future.”

She grumbled. “What does that mean anyway?”

“I’ve been seeing someone.”

“What?”

“She’s a park ranger, actually. The one that recommended the venue?”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”

“I probably won’t be once the papers get signed. Look, here’s your ride.” She failed to even notice as the nurse came to her with a wheelchair and an exasperated look.

“The doctor can see you now, Mrs. Sinclair.”

“Oh, it’s just Ms.” Mark corrected before helping to move his near catatonic wife, soon to be ex-wife, into the dingy wheelchair and watched it disappear with a squeaking tirade down the hall.

FLASH 2: The Longest Light

At first he didn’t notice when the light hadn’t changed. Louis could always find an excuse to look at his phone, play a quick game of Candy Crush, or text that hot little thing from accounting. He just figured it was a long light.

But it turned into an excruciatingly long light. Three games in and an unanswered tawdry text about how he’d like to ‘spread sheet’ with her, he finally looked up and found that the light had not changed. In fact, nothing had changed. Louis put down his phone and looked over at the driver in the lane next to him. Sipping her coffee. He watched for a good thirty seconds. Still sipping. He looked up towards the person in front of him.

The guy had been reaching into his back seat, not moving since they’d stopped.

“What the—“? Louis paused to adjust his radio, but the same note was still playing. The same long C. Echoing through frozen airwaves. Louis turned off the stereo and got out. That’s when the light would change right. Isn’t that how it always worked? But it remained, stuck on red.

The street was lit in the garish tone of a sun that had seemed to stop. No shadows moved. No sounds of tires against asphalt. No wind blew. He looked up into the sky and caught a strange dark shape. He thought it was a plane, tiny and glacially moving across the sky. But it wasn’t moving.

And it wasn’t a plane. Louis closed his door and looked closer at the pigeon, suspended in mid-air. His heart hammered against his chest, the only beat in the city. He looked at the woman in the car next to him, the drivers in the opposite lanes. Everyone, like some strange flash mob in reverse, was holding perfectly still.

“Hey!” Louis yelled, angry in his fear. “Hey, what’s the big deal! Move your car!” He jogged up to the first car in the lane. A woman, bags beneath her eyes, white knuckling the steering wheel and glazed over stare into the quiet nothing. In the backseat, a toddler, with his face red and sweaty mouth open in a silent and unending scream, clutching an empty applesauce packet in one hand and a sodden blankie in the other.

“What’s the big idea? What is this?” He pounded on her window with a force that have been loud enough to wake the dead. It did not wake her. Louis went from car to car, with the same method and the exact same reaction. Nothing moved.

The world was frozen in time and he was the only one outside the loop. Louis dove back into his car and grabbed his phone. Candy Crush was now dormant, he tried tapping on his messages but nothing budged. As if the moment his hands put it down, it too became frozen. A cold shiver shot up Louis’ spine and he spun in a circle.

“Knock it off! Whatever this is! It’s not funny anymore!” When the strangled universe refused to reply Louis took off down the street, looking for any sign of life, in a world without.

It would be the longest thirty years of his life.

Flash Fic: Weekly Prompt

Hello writers and readers.

Today, I’m stepping out of my normal routine of poetry and serial romancing to bring you a couple of exercises on writing flash fiction and some prompts to help get you started. (Think 1-800 word count, 1000 tops)

Now, I’ve talked in length about the fine art of flash fiction and what its doing in the field of literary wonder these days. Many a journal, website, and anthology are accepting these tiny powerhouses of storytelling as submissions. Their growing popularity, I believe, has to do with our shortened attention spans as well as our lack of free time. (Well, I mean we’d have more free time if we weren’t captivated by tiny screens most of our waking hours, but that’s a soap box for a different day).

A flash fic piece will tell the reader a whole story in a few hundred words and usually pack some kind of emotional, suspenseful, or humorous punch (‘humorous punch’ feels strange to write. Like slapstick?). For more on the logistics and down and dirty of them here’s a great blog on the topic… https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2020/08/06/the-beautiful-writers-workshop-26-flashing-for-fun-and-profit/

So, if you are interested in trying it out, or if you’re an ‘old hat’ in the flash arena, I’m offering up some fun prompts to work with this week, to help boost your submission pool and get you used to the art of brevity. If you find one you like, let me know and I’ll give it a shout out and a bump on the site (AHEM–you could also submit it to my Anthology due out at the end of the year: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2022/01/27/call-for-submissions-2022-anthology-a-beautiful-twist/

I will also post one of mine next week to show solidarity for all of our creative endeavors. You aren’t in this alone, after all. OK–here’s a bullet list because I know how much we like that kind of thing.

  • A man/woman/nonbinary person goes about their normal day, not realizing that they died three years ago.
  • A dog comes back to its owner after a rousing game of fetch, but instead of the ball, it’s carrying a human skull.
  • A dinner party, a raccoon, an affair (don’t ask me, it’s your job to make it work)
  • A parent’s first night in an empty nest
  • Time freezes at a traffic light, for everyone but the man in the third car
  • After kissing a stranger at a party, a woman finds she can no longer lie
  • Maybe it’s puberty, maybe they’re a werewolf
  • A demon finds a portal out of hell, but it empties into the ball pit at a fast-food playplace.
  • A man who can smell colors. And he’s a chef.
  • A lake, a toad, the agony of getting what you ask for

Okay–get writing. Go make something beautiful and strange.

Going Back to School: How Writers Benefit from Classes, Conferences, and Trainings

It’s that time of year again, when the cold crisp air settles around and the light grows softer. The mornings are get-ups and lunch packing and full backpacks. The wind rustles drying leaves and the echo of everything Pumpkin Spice descends. Fall. Probably my favorite season (minus the Pumpkin Spiced everything). Fall signals the slowing down of the bustling summer, a cooling off (we hope), and a getting ready for the winter ahead. It also reminds us of new opportunities to learn, to gain intellectual ground, and to prepare for the prime writing months coming up.

There are plenty of ways to keep your skills sharp as a writer. Last spring, I covered the conference season and this post will be similar in that I’m going to give you some online resources for improving your writing skill, developing a business or marketing plan, and helping to boost your creativity. Just like conferences, a writer can easily blow their budget by trying to train themselves into success. My goal is to offer you a spectrum of options with the caveat that classes can show you how to write better, give you pointers on the business side of things and offer marketing advice, inspire new ideas, and improve your editing. About the only thing they can’t do is write your book for you.

The Long Haul:

MFA/MA Programs: These programs (Master of Fine Arts and Master of Arts) are advanced, graduate degrees that can help to help your overall exposure to the big picture of writing (MA tends to focus more on Literature and less on writing, MFA can be broken down into Creative Writing, Journalism, Linguistics, etc). In these programs you will learn pretty much everything, from plot and structure, to dialogue and character development, to grammar and editing. It will take two years at least, and the cost averages out to about $38,000, not counting room and board. You’ll read an enormous amount of material. You’ll probably complete a novel or collection as part of your Thesis. Not a horrible way to go, but studies are showing that the cost of MFA programs are often not paid back in employment afterwards so–carefully think through that one.

Online Writing Courses:

A number of reputable online courses and classes are now offered through various writing groups, professional/successful authors, and university departments. The courses are less intensive than a MFA and can often be done at your convenience. They cost a lot less (some are even free) and you can often pick and chose the ones that will benefit you the most. Here’s a small list courtesy of softwaretestinghelp.com:

  1. Wesleyan University Creative Writing Specialization
  2. Gotham Writers Online Writing Classes
  3. Reedsy Learning Courses
  4. Udemy Creative Writing Courses
  5. edX Creative Writing Courses
  6. FutureLearn Creative Arts and Media Writing Courses
  7. OpenLearn Creative Writing
  8. SkillShare Online Creative Writing Classes
  9. Emory Continuing Education Creative Writing
  10. Universal Class
  11. Writers.com Online Writing Courses
  12. Masterclass Creative Writing Classes

Conferences, Seminars, Retreats

Feel free to refer back to my older post on conference (you can find it here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/04/01/a-word-or-several-about-writing-conferences/)

For this area of your continuing education I’ll ask that you explore seminars (mini conferences, or a series of five or more classes on one topic, like Novel Writing) and retreats in your area. I’m sure there are beautiful, far-flung retreats in tropical islands that are also available, but with travel restrictions, lack of funds, and a busy life outside of writing, those may not always be attainable, so do a little research closer to home. Some of my favorite retreats and seminars have been offered through Northern Colorado Writers at a very fair cost and are conveniently located. It also helps my sense of altruism to know I’m funneling my money into a local organization that turns around and helps other writers in my area.

Retreats tend to fall into two categories, those with classes/seminars and free-write time, and those with simply free-writing time, punctuated with social hours. You may wonder how effective three or four days, stuck in a lodge, with nothing but time spent writing can be as beneficial as say, a whole weekend of conference classes. Well, young writer, let me elaborate.

Classes, conferences and seminars are excellent resources for enhancing your writing and helping you learn technique as well as opening up your mind to the business side of things–just like I mentioned above. And, just like I mentioned above, they can’t write a book for you. Only you and time can do that. As a mother of two busy kids, with a couple of side gigs, and a whole household to run–I don’t always have time to write. Somedays I’m lucky to get 20 minutes in. So to have four days, uninterrupted by children, husbands, dogs, laundry, volunteering, teaching, or grocery shopping, cleaning, and yard work, just focused on my writing is priceless. I’ve finished novels in that time. I’ve written four months of blog posts and edited entire series. I’ve barreled through plot holes that I thought I could never find solutions to.

The truth is, when there’s nothing else to pull your procrastination strings, you can get some shit done. PLUS, its immensely helpful to be surrounded by other writers while they’re “in the zone”. There is an inexplicable energy that catches you up when you’re surrounded by other souls and brains focused on their art and passion. Plus there’s usually some socializing/decompression hours at the end of the day to give yourself respite.

Okay–that seemed like a lot of info and I don’t want to bore you to tears. Check out some of the ideas above this week for taking yourself back to school. When we invest in our writing, it becomes less the pipe dream, and more of an attainable goal. Good luck out there, writers. Keep me posted on your progress or if you’ve found some great retreats, classes, and resources yourself!

2021: The Master Plan (Also Known As: “Isn’t she cute when she gets all ambitious?”)

First and foremost, I’m rarely, if never, cute.

Secondly, I’m often falsely and overwhelmingly ambitious. Like my brain fails to conceptualize how much time 24 hours actually is, or that I’m a fallible human, or that I don’t live in a vacuum where I can do everything I only want to do every day. Still, consider this my “feeling cute, started as ambitious, I’ll probably delete it later” selfie.

(Thirdly: I hate selfies and actually, most pictures of myself. They’re too–static and flat–I prefer the reality of curves).

So, without further mumbling on my part, here’s the *tentative* plan for The Beautiful Stuff this year.

  • I will be opening up calls for submissions at the end of this month (January 21st to be exact) for the next Poetry Anthology, tentatively titled “Wilderness of The Soul”. Last time it was pretty much all willy-nilly and I broke book up by ‘like’ poems. This year, I picked a theme–well, because I’m all grown up and shit.
  • This year’s Anthology theme focuses on the aspects of Nature, Self-Discovery, Internal Conversations, Growth, Change, and Resilience through Hardship. I’ll be offering the exact details (length, format, bio information and all the fun legal small print) later this month so stay tuned for that.
  • Also beginning this year (also on the 21st–Jesus did I not realize there were twenty nine other days in this month?) I’ll be running a fun little slice of a novella I’ve written on every third Thursday, sort of like the serial stories one would follow in the ancient days of magazine subscriptions. I labeled it Dime Store Novel because the features are campy, light, fun and adventurous. If you are interested in contributing to this experiment, reach out and lets taco about it. Yep. I meant taco.
  • I am entertaining the idea of having guests bloggers (I have a limited number of posts available for those interested and with something Beautiful-Stuff-esq to contribute). More on that to come in February.
  • Lastly, I will be running a poem or two every month and I encourage your feedback, sharing, and comments on those. Other than that, I’m still reserving one slot a week for a writer-writing-about-writing essay to offer advice, tips, and tricks that have helped me.

And that’s my Blog Plan–I won’t bore you with the other list plastered to my wall at my desk about finishing three novels, earning my 2nd degree black belt, continuing to learn two languages, revisiting piano, and 6 to 8 14ers I’d like to climb. Like I said, ambitious to a goddamn fault.

Take care out there kiddies, start dusting off some of your poetry so we can get it published.

Comment, email questions, or contact me anytime through this site. I look forward to a not-too-cute-but-hella-ambitious-year ahead.

Happy Writing.

The Moment of Pay Off

Every year I learn something new from participating in National Novel Writing Month. This year was no different. This year, I learned that sometimes, the project you think is a total loss, is reborn into something amazing with a little time and added experience.

The story idea that I began the month with was an old short story I wrote before my children were born. That’s probably 14 years ago people. Nearly a generation. I don’t know what drove me to pick it up again. I actually don’t know what drove me to keep it. But there it was on my computer—converted from an older version of Word, ratty and thin, barely holding ink on a page.

I’d seen the file, hanging on the end of my groupings of files like an unwanted 41st wheel, always in my peripheral. There’s that really odd one. Yeah, the one I wrote when I was in massage school? All about the herbalist turned witch. The one where I was still clinging to my Anthropology degree and geeking out over the prehistory of Scotland and Norse invasions? The one with the Mary Sue characters that fell flat on the page and fit too perfectly into every stereotype a 20-something inexperienced writer would believe?

Some of you may be asking why I didn’t just start a new project. Some of you are probably wishing I’d just get to the point, since you’re reading this out of a strange sense of obligation.

Well, when I went into a blank document for this year’s challenge, with 2020 hanging like a wet and heavy blanket over my body, squelching (yeah, I used the word squelching—don’t judge me—that’s the kind of word that needs to be brought back into the vernacular) any creative fire that might ignite, I just didn’t feel like I could accomplish the goal. I needed a buffer. A little boost. Something I wasn’t tired of working on, something not always shouting in my face to finish it…

Something in my peripheral.

And there it was—over there in that file innocuously labeled “Scot1”.

On to my point—

Knowing it was a shitty short story didn’t dissuade me. Because, somewhere in my brain, I knew there was potential. And the only reason I knew that, was because (and here’s the point) in 14 years of writing I’ve learned stuff.

Ah, here reposes the introverted house slave–bereft of even her rodent companions.

Since I wrote the story, I’ve taken numerous classes, conferences, and workshops, on everything from plotting and character development, to crossing genres and writing fight scenes. I’ve taken classes on editing and how not to write. I’ve written some novels. I’ve done a lot of hard cutting. I’ve explored different genres and played around with suspense techniques and “aha” moments. So when I saw this shabby little house-maid in the cinders of the proverbial fireplace, I looked past the soot and rags and saw the potential beneath, not because I’m all-knowing about what would work, but because I had learned, through investing in my craft, what didn’t work about it.

And maybe more importantly, that it could be changed.

So, what was lesson number one? Trust in the process of investing in yourself as a writer. Admit you don’t know it all, and that others have good advice to give. Soak all the information in, approaching each class or workshop as a beginner, no matter how many years you’ve been writing.

With knowledge, even the worst story can be made better. Knowledge also loosens the hold of fear that sometimes keeps us from progressing. Knowing how to cut and change becomes less heart-wrenching with the perspective of a better finished product. Knowing what makes a more interesting character, learning to take some of the polish off the Mary Sue, and turn her into more of a Jess Jones.

You can take a Snidely Whiplash and turn him more into…well…

When you give yourself the gift of knowledge, the list of what you can do breaks the boundaries of what you can’t.

Sometimes…you may even discover doorways that will bring over characters from other beloved series you’ve written…

Ladies and Gents–have a little Faith.

So there you go—look forward to a future magical realism/Norse mythology mix up with a delicious little love triangle, and the potential for a new generation of crooked smiles and bouncy red curls.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop: Novelty #5: Point of View

Thank you to the beautiful people at Grammarly for this awesome little image of Point of View.

Whilst (I love using that word) typing up the title today I realized, that all of these blogs on novel writing can also be used in other aspects of your writing. Short stories, flash fiction, non fiction, and even poetry all contain aspects of plot, character, and point of view. In a novel, however, consistency of your point of view is crucial for keeping your reader snuggly in your world. Shifts in POV can cause confusion or jar them out of the story.

So today, we’re going to briefly discuss the typical types of POV as well as which ones are most effective to use.

For the budding writer, I’ll lay down some foundation.

Point of View is basically who is telling the story.

In First-Person POV, then the action is happening to the person telling the story (the narrator is the main character). Here, a writer uses “I/We” mostly while only using “he/she/they” as outward observations. They can tell you what they see, feel, hear, know, etc, but they can’t tell you what anyone else sees, feels, hears, or knows. The best way to show those things are through action and dialogue AND by having faith in the reader to understand by your clues the general idea.

Second-Person is the red-headed step child of writing POV. I’m sorry. I said it. Second person uses “you” and “your” and they narrator speaks directly to the reader. “You were amazed. You’d never seen a chicken with five legs.” They make you part of the story. I suppose some of my blogs have been in 2nd person, non-fiction informative may utilize this POV. I’ve never used this in a short story or my fiction but occasionally it creeps into my poetry. In fiction, it’s very difficult to do well. (“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerey, “The Sweetheart” by Angelina Mirabella, “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern)

Third-person is an outside narrator telling the story from a distance (she/he/they). When it gets closer in (think into the characters’ heads) it’s called third-person omniscient. Third-person is popular with light fiction, serial romance, cozies, beach reads, sci-fi, fantasy etc. The tricky part of this POV is being able to stay focused on one character at a time. If the story dictates it (two or three main characters) I will switch POV in Third by chapter, possibly by section, but never by paragraph or within the same scene.

We discussed each typical type, but how do you know which one is best for you? Well, part of this comes down to your writing style. When you write, are you the character? Are you in their mind, in the arena, in the pilot’s seat? Or are you observing them, building the world around them and telling them what you see from above? Are you walking them through the story, a sort-of inward conscience to their journey? Which genre is your story? What’s the purpose of the story?

All of these factors can make writing in the right POV harrier than my old math teacher at the swimming pool (Hey! Take the sweater off before you get in–oh…wait…sorry!) Some genres are more lenient as to how much you can change or shift the point of view. Some genres really do best when one specific POV is used.

Take memoir for example. This type of storytelling should be first person, past-tense. Period. That’s your story, it happened to you. You are telling it.

Now, romance novels can dance on the edge of third-person, third-person omniscient, or first-person.

Most contemporary fiction these days is first-person (think Hunger Games) or if you’re feeling fancy, 2-person, first-person (look at Gone Girl–a book told in first by two different main characters–very clever)

I am wont to say that sci-fi and fantasy tend to be third person, due to the world building that has to occur. But it can be done marvelously in first as well (check out “The Martian” which tickles both first and third).

The important part about POV (especially when working with third) is that you stick to a strong, non-passive-voiced point of view that stays in its lane.

Check this out:

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled and slammed her fist into the table upsetting the spoons. She’d had enough of his late nights at the track and the dwindling bank account.

Bob jumped back at the sound. His heart fell to his gut and he felt like crying. He couldn’t believe he’d lost their honeymoon money. He was only trying to double up on the winnings so they could have a bigger trip.

Jill paced the room in a fury. How could he? After she had been saving for months and months so they could go away…

Yowza. For one–this is a lot of information dumping out on your reader. You can’t describe your main character’s (Jill) thoughts and feelings about Bob and then in the next paragraph have Bob spring into an inner dialogue on his thoughts and feelings about her. It’s called head hopping and it confuses the readers. Only a few really talented authors can make this happen and not lose the reader (I’m looking at you Nora Roberts).

Don’t cause a ruckus. If the character you are writing for (be it third or first) isn’t a goddamn mind reader then don’t describe things they wouldn’t know.

If you want the reader to have the information, you show through body language and dialogue.

“You’re such a selfish prick!” Jill yelled. “I can’t believe you blew our savings at the tables!” She slammed her fist into the table and knocked over the cup of spoons.

Bob hung his head and swallowed. His voice trembled. “I’m sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry doesn’t even begin–“
“I was only trying to–” Bob started.

“It doesn’t matter!” she yelled. “You don’t get another chance to make this better!”

Here, the reader has enough information to gather how Bob feels without dropping us into his head.

Ok. Whew! Speaking of info dumps, huh? Take a minute to absorb all of that. Think about your story, what you’re trying to do, who you’re trying to follow, and how you want to bring the reader along. If you’re writing short stories, experiment with all the types of POV. I’ve only written a few things in first and its very powerful, but for some reason, it’s very hard for me. My comfort is in Third-Omniscient, but as in all things in life, we have to push our comfort zones to be better. So…push your zones, get uncomfortable.

Pick a POV per project and stick with it.

Until next week. Happy writing!

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #29: The Short Story

Hello! Welcome back to The Beautiful Stuff and todays’ introduction to the well-known and prolific format we all suffered through in high school English.

Ladies and Gents: The Short Story

Don’t get me wrong, I say ‘suffered’ now because everything when you’re a teenager that entails any sort of responsibility not of your choosing is, to some degree, “suffering”. I mean, I could write for hours, holed up in my room, gladly passing the day. But ask me to read a short tome by O. Henry and I’d give you an eye roll and heavy sigh that would have rivaled the most put-upon martyr. Looking back, I actually really liked those stories. I remember dissecting them, studying the elements, and learning what made them so powerful.

Thank you, Joyce for “The Most Dangerous Game” and mining deep into the dark hearts of men. Hats off to the master of short story, E.A. Poe and his “Tell-Tale Heart” among at least a dozen others that gave me a healthy love of the spine-shiver. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was my first taste of apocalyptic fiction. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences and I urge you to go back over those old favorites and see what you notice at a different age/stage of life.

The Short Story is actually lumped in with Flash Fiction and Micro fiction and is defined by a word count of 5,000 to 10,000. Some even dip down to the 1,000 range, occasionally they’ll touch 15,000. But in general, anything above that (30,000-60,000) is considered a novella. I’m giving it its own blog because the short story is a beautiful place to start if you are just beginning your path in writing. It’s not overwhelming but it will allow you to practice a lot of the bigger elements of story-telling. It requires a certain amount of frugality with words and demands a tight story arc which are good practices to hone before embarking on a novel-length piece.

What’s the difference from flash fiction? Well, in flash fiction you are looking at a snap shot of a moment; a defining moment, a quirky flash in the pan. In a short story you have more wiggle room for character development and the ability to tell a complete story.

Why’s that important you ask? Wow, you always come up with so many good questions!

Character development is important in short stories, because often it is the character that drives these stories. That doesn’t mean you get to expunge for 3,000 words on the finer details of Joe Doe’s eleventh grade algebra class. It means you have the opportunity to create a connection to the reader by showing who Joe is using his reactions to the situations presented.

How do you do this most effectively?

Photo by moein moradi on Pexels.com

Well, as in novels, you have to know your character. I once wrote a short story about a woman who’s husband left her on her 50th birthday for a younger woman. I got to know Jane Pearce so well, that I often think there’s a little bit of herself still residing in me. The part that snaps out of her doting-housewife haze and burns the mother-fu$^ing house to the ground, collects the insurance money, and retires to Italy under a new name. The point is, if you don’t know what drives your character then you risk wasting time and words on a vignette that should be tight.

What else do we need to know?

Death follows a Terrier on a Mission.
Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

Well, you need an extraordinary event. A divorce out of the blue. A airship landing in the parking lot of the 7-11. A dog running down the street with a human leg in its mouth. A car crash, a panic attack, an island event where humans are hunted, a lottery to see who’ll be stoned to death. A body buried beneath the floorboards…something. Something that forces our beloved (or be-hated? is that a word? why isn’t it?) character into some tough decisions that make them CHANGE AND GROW. Yes. This can be done in the short span of 7,000 words.

You may, if you’re so plottingly inclined (in my head that sounded very judgmental, I apologize to all of my plotters out there), outline your short story to arrange it with the proper story beats, valleys and arcs necessary. Or, if you’re a slob like me, you can just start with the event and your character and see what madness ensues. Just be conscious this is a finite clip, not the 6-hour extended director’s cut.

I could, literally, go on for thousands of more words about the art of the short story, but I know you have some kitten videos to watch and probably a pants-less Zoom call to get on, so… I’m going to end this first blog (there will be others) with a good starting point for my beautiful writers out there.

The hardest part of the short story, for myself and other writer’s I’ve talked to, is finding a smashing good idea to write about. For this week, I’d like you to try one or both of these exercises and come up with, at minimum, 10 potential short story ideas. If you have the time, pick one or two and try your hand at a short story.

For the first exercise, I would like you to pick up a copy of your local newspaper (or scroll through it online) and seek out interesting or strange headlines that deserve a bigger story. The body pulled out of the river with no fingers. The discovery of pesticide residue in kindergarten playgrounds. Whatever catches your eye. Find a notebook, write down one or two lines on each and keep going. Don’t stop to write the story just yet. Let your beautiful brain simmer.

Secondly, I would like you to take a prolific historical/fictional or not character and ask “what if”. What if Henry Melville had been a modern day fisherman. What if Lizzy Borden had been a nursing home attendant? What if Buddy Holly had survived the plane crash? What if Donald Trump was really an alien? (ok, that one’s not so far of a reach)

Get freaky with it, twist history a little and see what interesting plot ensues. Thanks for playing today. Share your results and ideas, if you like and we’ll be back next week with more on the Short Story!

Happy Writing.

The Beautiful Writers Workshop #26: Flashing for Fun and Profit

Yep. I said that. But in my defense…I don’t have a defense. I’m childish and immature. Please don’t go around “flashing people”. It’s not fun for anyone involved and you don’t make a good profit (unless you’re possessed of certain physical attributes—and even then, nothing in life is guaranteed.)

*for the record…that’s the first time I’ve spelled ‘guaranteed’ correctly on the first try. I just needed  to let every one know, so you’ll understand the kind of writer I am.*

When I say “Flashing” I’m talking about our next topic of discussion which is, of course, Flash Fiction.

If you like the brevity of poetry and quick, hard words that nail emotion to the theoretical wall with brute force, you’ll probably enjoy practicing flash fiction.

Let’s get started with a little introduction.

Ahem, Flash Fiction, these are my beautiful writers *gestures wildly out into the far reaches of the internet* They’re kind, amazing, and talented.

Writers this is Flash Fiction.

Flash fiction sprung up in the 1990s and has become a formidable form of storytelling that appeals to newer generations with ever-shortening attention spans and busy lives. Flash Fiction condenses a tapestry of story into a few short sentences/words/paragraphs. It also serves as a method to condense big ideas into concise writing, especially in terms of reporting (flash non-fiction?) and conveying information.

Ugh, that was dry. Talk about an awkward introduction.

Here are the basics. Flash Fiction is a form of short story that relies on brevity. Specifically, a word count between 1 and 300. If you’re wondering how you can tell a story in under 300 words, or even in under ten, allow me to give you one of the most famous examples:

“For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”

This very simple sentence/story has two commas, one period and a myriad of images that can affect the reader.

Flash Fiction is further divided into micro-fiction, sudden fiction (Wham! Suddenly there was Fiction! Out of nowhere and sudden!), postcard fiction, short story, and the short short story. Believe it or not, there are even sub-categories called drabble which refers to stories that come in at 100 words and dribble that come in at 50 words.

Why Flash Fiction, Sarah?

Well, I’m glad you asked. And…if you didn’t know, that’s what the S in S.E. stands for. The E stands for Enigmatic. Or maybe Exciting. Earnest. Edward. Eggo-(not to be confused with Ego). Who knows? Only my mom and she’d never tell because she’s as loyal as the day is long.

Back on point:

The advantages of Flash Fiction are as follows:

Several websites, literary journals, anthology collections, and magazines are interested in these bite sizes of life.

They are relatively quick to write from an artist’s perspective, which makes them more versatile and easier to explore different genres with.

I personally find flash fiction refreshing to write. For one, when you’re embroiled in a 120,000-word novel, bogged down in outlines and character sheets, plagued with plot holes and flat characters, it feels pretty damn good to step out with a 250-word taster of a completely unrelated character’s flash-in-the-pan dilemma.

Don’t misread. Flash Fiction may have fewer words, but it doesn’t mean that it’s ‘easy’. (She’s fast but she ain’t cheap). Writing more with less is difficult, especially if you’re accustomed to novel length work.

So, to start this little experiment, I’m going to make your first time (or maybe I’m not your first…it’s completely okay, I’m not judging what relationships you had before me) nice and gentle.

Take a current work in progress, a novel you’ve published, a poem you’ve written, and write a flash piece based on the characters or subject in a strange and new situation. Or, maybe six months after the novel ended. Or six months before. Show them in the parking lot with a new baby, or thrown into jail at sixteen, or sunk unexpectedly into a worldwide pandemic (too soon?)

Then…and this is the trick; don’t go on and on.

Think snap shot, not photo album.

One picture will tell us a lot about a person, without needing to see the whole photo album. (have you ever had to sit through someone else’s photo album? No, Sarah, because we’re not three-hundred years old, we have Instagram like normal people…what century are you from?)

Flash fiction is a novel if a novel were poetry. Condensed, potent, memorable.

For sale, baby shoes, never used.

Here’s a little flash piece (a drabble to boot) I submitted that won honorable mention, if you’re looking for an example.

She hadn’t meant to set it on fire, exactly. But now that the heat burgeoned from its windows, charring the leather seats and crackling up through the retrofitted steering wheel, she was glad for the warmth.

It was a shame he’d never get to see the way the flames jumped and swayed in the clear night turning cloudy. It was a shame he’d left it unlocked, parked outside the strip club. A shame he’d said he was at a meeting. What. A. Beautiful. Shame.

She pirouetted against the star-filled sky, and danced along the edges of erupting metal and smoke.

Try it out, have fun, and let me know how it goes. Share or don’t. If you do share and you’d like it featured just make sure you follow my rules against excessive violence/hate speech/rampant eroticism (a little is awesome—too much is…too much) before submitting. I look forward to hearing how it goes!

Happy Writing!