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Friday, December 26, 2014

The Horror of the Blank Page, Blank Mind

Have you ever stared at a blank page and wondered what the heck you were going to write? That's what I faced today when I realized I had not written a blog entry in a while, so it was time to reconnect with my fellow writers.

Many writers face the dreaded blank page with a blank mind, especially those who want to write a book and do not know where to start. I teach writers a terrific technique for never having to face a blank page with a blank mind. Here's my secret: Before you begin writing a book, make a list of all the major points you want to make. You may add to, subtract from, change, revise, reorganize, or even ignore the list later, if you want, but if you have a book in mind, start with a list of main points.

The best memoirs feature events and vignettes, rather than a litany of highlights. If writing a memoir, rather than listing a birth date, important dates, names of schools attended, or awards received, your memoir list might go like this:

Mother nearly dies giving birth to me in 1945

First day at grammar school in 1951, got lost in hallway

What I was doing when I heard I won the Lictersphincter Award

The day I met my spouse

The time I broke my leg

The events that led to my being fired from Jonston Company

Each event can then be written as a scene with action, dialogue, setting, setup, story, and resolution, which makes for much more exciting memoirs.

If you plan to write a how-to book, your list might go like this:

Skills needed to make a wingding

Tools needed

How to prepare to make a wingding

Problems to avoid

Possible solutions to issues that might arise

How to help the community with your new wingding

The same formula works for fiction. You could write a list of scenes or plot twists you plan to cover. Here's an example:

John meets Dorothy

Dorothy ends her relationship with Alfred

Alfred lies in wait for John

John hires a bodyguard who turns out to have his own agenda

Many people hate to outline projects before starting, but a list is not an outline. It is simply a bendable, moldable, changeable list to help writers avoid facing a blank page with a blank mind. After you have made such a list, whenever you sit down to write, you simply have to peruse the list and decide which of the subjects speaks to you that day. As a result, you are off and writing with ease.

No one ever said your book has to be written in the order that it appears. With today's technology you can start anywhere and later move things around to your liking.
I faced a blank page this morning when I wanted to write my blog, but I think I'll now make a list of subjects I want to cover in future blogs. Wouldn't that be a clever idea? Why didn't I think of it?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Giving Thanks for Open Minds and Happiness

As I write this, I am still swooning with love for my family and thankful for all my blessings. After a huge family wedding a few days before, when our cousin Bryan married Michael, his partner of eighteen years, some of us gathered again to celebrate Thanksgiving. There is a Yiddish word, kvell, which means to swell with pride and happiness. It's the only word that describes how I felt, looking from face to face over the table at our Thanksgiving dinner.  

Our family is, as my brother describes it, a modern family. My sister and her husband have shared forty years of the happiest marriage anyone can ever hope to imagine. They found each other, however, while they both were married to others, and it took them a long time to admit their love for each other and disentangle from their first marriages. It took them very little time after that, however, to marry each other.  

My niece and her husband are happily living in separate homes and still the best of friends, so both came up from Florida for Thanksgiving. The husband, stepfather to her son, is helping his stepson, my great nephew, repair and upgrade the new house that the twenty-three-year-old just bought in our area. My great nephew and his girlfriend plan to live together in that house as soon as she finishes nursing school. Remember when people used to gasp when told a couple was living together without benefit of marriage? I certainly heard it in my generation, but thankfully all that prejudice and condemnation never ruled our family.  

My great niece could not make it for Thanksgiving. She and her domestic partner live in California. Our family never blinked when my great niece admitted to being gay. So what? She was still the lovely, sweet woman we all loved, and now she has a partner we all love, as well. 

Another niece and her husband hosted the dinner, to which we all contributed. She is an artist and jeweler and he is a woodworker and a chiropractor. Their home is a gallery of artwork, with even more artistic and architectural touches everywhere. The couple, happily married for many years, met after the end of their bad first marriages. 

I brought my new boyfriend to the event, the first time I've introduced him to family, because he and I have been dating only two months. We met over the Internet and connected through his beautiful letters long before we met in person. By the time we met in person, we already liked each other, and after only a few months of dating, we are in a happy, committed monogamous relationship. We truly enjoy each other, even though (or maybe because) we're both in our seventies. It's never too late! My boyfriend is black, and not an eyelash was batted when I introduced him to my family members. Instead of prejudice, all my family cares about is happiness, and when I looked around the room, I saw happiness everywhere.   

Our family situation, however, is rare. I know families with rifts, estrangements, prejudices, and conditional love, rather than unconditional. What a shame! What a waste of time, when love is all that matters in this world. I am truly thankful for my family. Whenever we gather, I feel love swirling around the room in an almost tangible fashion.  

Obviously I have a great deal to be thankful for. I hope all my fellow writers feel the same way. Here's to happiness, health, and lots of love for all my readers, no matter what the season.


Monday, November 17, 2014

Query Letters: Do's and Don'ts

     While clearing out old papers, I ran across a few items I collected many years ago. For a time, I helped a literary agent sort through copious submissions. I evaluated submissions, passed only the best on to the agent, and returned the hopeless ones with an explanation and rejection. Sometimes I did not have to read past a few lines in the query letter to know the book would have no value. Here are a couple of direct excerpts from letters I found in that old pile, typos and other errors included:
     "I've created an interesting fictional story, titled [title deleted]. About a woman who must be true to herself and to everyone she loves …. If you are interested in my manuscript, do not hesitated in replying back to me."
     "With the most respectful manner in which you deserve I address myself to you, at the same time I most cordially salute you for your excellent and expidiant labor …. Without other undue motive present I remain most attentivelly appreciative to you for attention that it deserves."
     A query letter represents the author and the manuscript, so query letters must be perfect. If you want an agent or acquisitions editor to read your query, be sure it is a good reflection on you and your book.
     I attended a session called a Gong Pitch Fest at the 2014 Florida Writers Conference. During the gong fest, writers stood before a panel of seven or eight agents and publishers and pitched their books. If anything struck a panelist as a negative, the panelist struck a gong. After three gong strikes, the presenter had to stop. At the end of each pitch, panelists reviewed the good and the bad about the pitch. The event entertained and informed a large roomful of writers, and I learned a thing or two myself.
     Few of us get to pitch our books in person, so our query letter has to be our pitch. The mistake that brought the most gongs was what the panelists called "going into synopsis land." Although the query letter must give the gist or the hook of the story, it should not give the entire story.
The next thing that drew the most gongs was a pitch that failed to give the word count and genre of the manuscript. Some presenters even forgot to give the title of their book.  
     Like a pitch in person, a query letter must be short, tight, and to the point, yet entire books have been written on how to write a good query letter. If you're not sure about your query letter, read about query letters in any of the sources available in books and online, before you craft your query letter.         
     Once you have crafted the best query possible, have someone professionally edit the letter, to ensure that every comma, capitalization, word choice, and spelling is correct.
     If you have questions about your query letter, or if you want someone to edit it, contact me at

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Today's Conundrum

One of my wonderful clients just sent me a copy of her memoir, Wife of the Deceased. Last month, a client gave me two of her books that had recently been released by well-known publishers. I get all jittery and excited whenever one of my clients gets a book published and then sends me a copy. I take personal pride in my clients' accomplishments. I sometimes look over the shelves of books in my house that feature books I edited that have been published, and it gives me a warm feeling to know that I have helped so many people get their books out to the public.
I also know that my clients don't get books for free. The copies they give me cost them money, so they represent a true gift, in every sense of the word.
A while back, though, one of my clients went through the editing process with me, and he went on to self-publish his book with a print-on-demand company notorious for charging too much for its books. The client sent me a link, hoping I would purchase a copy. I had already read the book several times during the editing process, though, and did not feel the need to pay what I considered an inflated price for a copy. When I did not buy the book, the client, who surely will never hire me again, wrote me a nasty e-mail, complaining that after he paid me to edit his book, I wouldn't honor him by buying his book.
He had a point, even if the note was harsh. On the other hand, I stand by my decision; I will not pay for a client's book that I have already read, sometimes several times.
Maybe I should buy all my clients' books as a way of supporting them financially. If I did, though, my expenses would rise and my house would be even more overflowing with books than it already is. I have edited hundreds upon hundreds of books that have been published over the past twenty-three years.
Instead of buying my clients' books, though, I prefer to feel the warmth spread in my heart when a client goes to the trouble and expense to give me a copy of a book I edited. I also gladly promote my clients' books in this newsletter and sometimes on Facebook, as well.
I see both sides of the issue clearly, though, which leaves me in a conundrum. Should I buy a copy of every book I edit? Should I wait and allow the clients who wish to send me a copy do so? What do you think?

Monday, October 6, 2014

What's an Editor to Do?

As I write this, I just finished reading a blog posted by someone who claims to be an editor. While her blog information makes sense, I found two blatant errors that are driving me crazy. What's a fellow editor to do?

My initial reaction was to write to the originator and tell her that because of the way she used the word "insure," it should have been spelled e-n-s-u-r-e. Insure means to cover something financially. Ensure means to make sure something happens. I wanted to add that she had spelled the word "acknowledgment" the British way, with the extra e: "acknowledgement." In America, we must spell it "acknowledgment," without the e between the g and the m. Spell checker programs won't catch and fix either of those errors; it takes the eye and mind of a skilled editor to catch those things. I would hope that someone who calls herself an editor would catch them in her own work, though.

My ego wanted to rise up and prove to her that I'm a better editor than she is, but such impudence could lead to major conflict and resentment. I'm sure that in this small world, such an attitude would come back to hurt me, and I don't want to hurt her, either. 

I have always had difficulty reading anything with errors in it. My editor's heart goes into spasm over every typo, dangling modifier, wrong word choice, and punctuation error. It has almost ruined my ability to enjoy reading contemporary novels or even a newspaper, especially now that few publishers have in-house editors and more errors than ever sneak into print.
What's an editor to do when a person claiming to be an editor makes egregious errors in a blog post on the Internet? Unfortunately nothing, but I can vent to fellow writers, as I have done today. Thank you for listening, and oh, thank you for overlooking any of my own errors. I am, after all, only human. Oh, why then do I expect other editors to be super human? Down, ego! Down!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lifelong Learning

Once I became a senior, I discovered endless opportunities to travel, take seminars, attend lectures, and join in mini-adventures. Woodstock has two senior centers that offer programs, and the Cherokee County Recreation and Parks Department has a group called Silver Roamers that offers day trips as well as three- and four-day trips, all of which include guides that inform participants of the history and culture of each location we visit. The community apparently wants to keep us "oldsters" entertained and educated, but I am sure that many things are also available for "spring chickens" under the age of fifty-five.

Most recently my sister and I traveled to Tallahassee, Florida, where the senior center there puts on a five-day Lifelong Learning Extravaganza each year. In partnership with a retirement community in Tallahassee, the event offered more than fifty events, lectures, tours, trips, and activities, from kayak fishing to the history of hand bells, and from a songwriting seminar to an improvised concert by a fabulous jazz musician inspired by artwork created by members of the senior center. Many events take place at the same time, which helped my sister and me whittle the list down to twelve events that did not conflict and that sounded interesting. With a dozen things to attend in four and a half days, we stayed busy from morning to night. To name a few of our adventures, we took a tour down the St. Marks River, all the way to the lighthouse in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way we spotted a bald eagle, a manatee, a heron, and more, and on our way back, a dolphin cavorted beside our boat for a long time, as if escorting us.

Later we climbed aboard a comfortable bus and rode to Thomasville, Georgia, where we strolled for about a mile while a guide told us of the history of the area, pointed out significant buildings, and took us to some of the finest restaurants, where we had samplings of grits and shrimp, sourdough pizza, crab cakes and fried green tomatoes, fresh-roasted coffee, handmade cheeses, and more.

In other events, we took a seminar that covered harmonies from the days of Plato through the music of Elvis. We watched a terrific slide show and learned about the sight and sacredness of India while dining at an Indian restaurant. We listened to the intense adventures and watched videos and slide shows from a man who seeks and often finds the world's rarest mammals. We also attended a concert of contemporary Jewish music on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. We did much more, too. If you are my friend on Facebook, you saw some of the postings and pictures from this past week.
You don't have to be old to learn more about the world around you, though. You don't even have to be a writer to explore areas and subjects that are new to you. You simply have to want to learn, and opportunities will open to you. Here's to lifelong learning!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Mighty Pen -- and an addendum

I wrote the following as my letter from the editor in the latest issue of The Writers Network News, but even if you read it in my newsletter, please read it again and note the addendum at the end.
Facebook fascinates me. I admit it. I probably spend more than an hour a day checking, reading, and rereading posts from friends, relatives, and fellow writers. Sometimes the posts have cute videos, which always lure me into taking time to watch people, cats, dogs, bears, raccoons, squirrels, and even foxes doing funny or astonishing things. My next-door neighbor and I joke that the only way we know what the other is doing is by checking Facebook, which thankfully is not completely true.

Most Facebook postings are happy, upbeat, playful, and entertaining, but sometimes I see a mean-spirited posting, and those make me shake my head. What type of person feels the need to post ugly things on a public forum? How does it reflect on the person who posts those things? The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but in my opinion, nasty posts on Facebook or Twitter only make the one who posted the note look bad.

Facebook has helped me connect with friends from the past, and most of the time those reconnections are delightful. One ex-boyfriend, though, after reading some of my Facebook posts, commented that I made my life seem idyllic. At first I felt a little hurt, until I realized he is right, because my life may actually be idyllic. I have pursued a career I love, and it has been financially rewarding to me and helpful to hundreds of writers. I wrote a book that I sold to a publisher that gave me an advance and paid me royalties, while the book was in print. I've successfully self-published a few other books that are still selling. I live in a comfortable house I bought on my own and have paid for in full. I have a dog that loves to cuddle with me, so we nurture each other. I have a loving family, and two of my siblings live close enough now that we get together once or twice a week and always have a blast together. I have checked off most of the items on my bucket list. I have traveled the world on planes, trains, automobiles, cruise ships, barges, feet, and more. I am blessed with supportive and loving friends. I have a great reputation among writers. I am the mother of an accomplished, handsome man who practices veterinary medicine and who married his best friend, a woman I love as much as he does. So yes, if my Facebook comments seem all too upbeat, blame it on me. I am an upbeat person.

Of course I have suffered setbacks and sad times. I've lost many people I loved, including a child. I spent time in poverty in the past. I endured two divorces. I don't write about those things, though. They did not stop me from moving on with life and building the life I wanted to live.

I feel sorry for those who are not upbeat, who resent other people's successes or good attitudes. I feel sad that some people try to make themselves feel better by spending time and energy trying to hurt others with their poison pens. I think those folks are only poisoning themselves, though. I'm too busy being happy to let negative people pull me down.

You can become my friend on Facebook through either my personal page or my Zebra Communications page. Hey, join me on both, and you'll get to follow my personal posts, which are usually upbeat, as well as my professional posts, which are entertaining and educational. You might see me groan about having a cold or stubbing my toe, but for the most part, I hope my posts are uplifting.
A colleague of mine read the above letter and wrote to me to say he lives with a mild form of bipolar disorder. He explained, "[Viewing Facebook posts] when depressed makes me even more depressed. As mostly joyously positive posts (and self-promotion) predominate, it makes me feel that everyone else in the world is having the greatest time with their lives, with only ecstatic things happening all the time, and here I sit in the middle of an episodic depression which feels like the end of the world. When I feel like that, it's impossible to feel joy for others, and the main feeling is one of jealousy. I know that the mood is likely to pass, but I wanted to let you know that such a perspective might be more common than you would think."
I appreciate the fresh perspective my colleague gave me. Although I am sorry that anyone suffers with difficult mood swings, the information gives me hope. Now I hope that all negative posts, especially those directed at me, are the result of an organic issue in the brains of others, rather than an indication that there are truly mean people in the world. I won't stop posting happy things and thoughts, but if I meet with negative reactions, I will try to understand the issues behind the words. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Vague Nod to Astrology, and How it Affects Writers

Over the years I have had a few friends who studied, swore by, and lived by astrology. Mostly I found their comments to be a waste of my time, and certainly the generic horoscopes in periodicals always made me chuckle at their ability to apply to anyone in any situation.

I am not a superstitious person, and I often go against convention. I believe Friday the thirteenth is my lucky day. I don't think a black cat or broken mirror will do me any harm, unless the cat scratches me or the mirror cuts me.  

The one thing I do pay attention to, though, is the planet Mercury, especially when I find myself in the middle of a muddled conversation or am involved in a frustrating attempt to resolve an issue with a service or a purchase of some kind.  

Astrologers say that when Mercury is retrograde, writers should use the time to be creative, but should not submit a book for consideration. The planet is considered retrograde when it appears to be moving backward in the sky, because of its position while orbiting the sun.  

According to astrology, the planet Mercury rules travel, literature, poetry, and merchants, so during periods of Mercury retrograde, it is better for writers to stay at home and write. It's supposed to be a good creative time, but not a good time to try to sell your literature or sign literary contracts. The claim is that when Mercury is retrograde, which happens a few times each year, communications get screwy, manuscripts could get lost in the mail, sales contracts can fall through, and (pardon the pun) heaven only knows what other things may happen.  

I was not a believer, until I unknowingly bought (sales/merchants) a new sound system (literature/communications) for my car (travel/transportation) during Mercury retrograde many years ago. Holy cow! The thing barely worked from the start, and then blew a speaker within weeks. A friend who was an avid astrologer wagged her finger at me and explained that I should have been aware of Mercury and its ability to affect travel, sales, and communication. I had to have the entire system torn out of my car and replaced with a new system, but I waited until Mercury was direct again.  

Now I pay attention to Mercury, and when it goes retrograde, I don't buy things like cars, computers, radios, or telephones, and I don't send queries or submissions to agents or publishers. Yes, I'm a little superstitious, but why mess with astrology, which has been around for centuries? 

For those of you who know I recently bought my first new car in twenty-four years, I began my search while Mercury was retrograde, but I told the first salesperson that I would not buy a car until after a specific date. He tried his best to get me to explain my reason so he could attempt to overcome my objection, but I refused to reveal my secret. I waited until Mercury was direct, and by then I had test-driven almost a dozen other cars and dealt with half a dozen other salespeople. By the time Mercury went direct, I knew without a doubt which car I wanted. I bought it from the original salesperson, and I have been most pleased with my decision.
Check the Internet or just ask Siri on an iPhone if Mercury is retrograde, and if it is, find out when it goes direct. Wait at least a day or two after that, before submitting any proposals or manuscripts to publishers or agents--that is if you have become a believer like me. Meanwhile, hole up and enjoy the creative time when Mercury is retrograde.