Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unlock Creative Potential by Asking, "What If...?"


Last month, the new Broadway musical If/Then came to San Francisco, and one Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I took the BART train into the city to see it. Legendary vocal powerhouse Idina Menzel is the star of the show, which in itself was enough to convince us to buy tickets—but I was also intrigued by the premise of the story.

The central question that winds its way throughout the entirety of If/Then is “What if…?” The musical explores the two divergent paths a woman’s life might take based on a single decision made at the show’s beginning: whether she goes to a concert with one friend, or to a political demonstration with a different friend. It might seem like a small decision, and yet the two paths veering off from this one everyday, spur-of-the-moment choice lead her in altogether different life directions.

In real life, of course, we have of way of knowing “what if…?” We make our choices, and life takes us where it will. We deal with the consequences of our actions, large and small, the good and the bad.



However, this question of “what if…?” is something that drives me as a writer. Numerous story ideas have been sparked to life when I observe something in the world around me and ask myself, “What if..?” Another version of this question is, “What would it be like to be that person, to go through that experience, to feel those emotions, to live that life?” Asking the question, “What if…?” unlocks our imaginations, and thus also fuels our empathy and understanding for others. And that, I believe, is the central purpose of reading, writing, and creating art: fostering empathy and connection among human beings past, present and future.

By asking, “What if…?” you can also spur your creativity by challenging yourself to stretch as a writer and try something new. For example, asking myself, “What if I tried telling a story in reverse chronology, from the end to the beginning?” sparked an idea for the unique braided-narrative structure of my latest novel.



In the beautiful and thought-provoking book a picture is worth... (Arch Street Press) young people tell their own stories in their own words. Woven into their narratives is the implicit question, "What if...?" Their futures are wide-open roads brimming with possibility. You can feel the energy behind this "What if?" question when reading this book. As the young writers reflect insightfully and powerfully on their past experiences, we can't help but wonder -- with hope and excitement -- what is next for each of these brave, strong young people.



I loved this chapter epigraph midway through the book, a quote by Paulo Freire:

"For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." 
In other words: "What if...?" Let us all continue to ask and dream and create with this question guiding us through our imaginative lives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What a Hay-Bale Labyrinth Taught Me About Writing

Shortly before Halloween, my boyfriend and I went to Arata Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, to pick out our pumpkins. Arata’s is a famous autumn spot in the Bay Area, and not just for pumpkin selection -- every year, they build a maze attraction out of hay bales. This year, the design was a labyrinth. Believe me, folks, this was not a kiddie maze. This thing was enormous!


Still, before we ventured inside, I was not too concerned. “I bet this will take us half an hour, tops,” I remember thinking as I watched an exuberant group of pre-teen girls run out of the maze’s exit, cheering their success for all to hear.

Not only did the hay-bale labyrinth take us much longer to complete than I expected (and there were moments of despair when I thought we might never make it out!) the experience also illuminated a great deal of truth about being a writer.

Here are the lessons I learned:

1. Often, the best way to start is simply to plunge in. The entrance to the labyrinth is intimidating: a huge minotaur greets you with his battle ax at the ready. Starting a writing project can be similarly daunting. Whether you are preparing to write a short story, essay or poem, or preparing to tackle a longer work like a novel, play or memoir, the blank page can be frightening.

The best strategy I have found is to simply begin. Push past the self-doubt and let your fingers scurry across your computer keys; pick an opening in the maze, scurry past the imposing minotaur, and off you go!


2. There is no map. Before entering the maze, we climbed a staircase outside the entrance to look out over the entire labyrinth, hoping to get an advantage -- to plan our route. But the vantage point was not much help. We could not memorize the proper route to take, and although we could make a general plan, we had to dive in and discover through trial-and-error how to make it through to the end of the labyrinth.

The same is true for writing, or any creative pursuit. You can plan up to a point, but then you must dive in and try it out for yourself. There is no map you are given; you must create the map yourself.


3. Discouragement is not only normal, it is inevitable. There were times when it seemed like we were just wandering in fruitless loops through the maze, retracing our steps over and over again, and discovering a new path through the intricate labyrinth felt impossibly out of reach. I wondered if we would ever find our way out!

In her luminous book of aphorisms Excess of Being from Arch Street Press, artist Lera Auerbach muses:
"An artist's
entrance
to eternity
requires a fee
in disappointment."

Yes, we all inevitably face disappointment, rejection, confusion, and discouragement. That is a part of life. But only by persevering through the maze can we attain new successes and joyful discoveries!
 

4. Feeling challenged is a good sign because it means you are pushing yourself to grow. I had never attempted to make my way through a labyrinth before, so the whole experience was new to me. This made it more difficult, because not only did I not know what to expect, I did not know what to look for. Nor did I have the experience to trust in myself and my knowledge. All the same, undertaking this new challenge pushed me to go with my instincts. It made me grow.

The same is true for writing. It would be easy to write the same stories over and over again. Growing as an artist means trying new things and risking failure. As Lera Auerbach writes:
"I love
what I do
but it's not mutual."

It might not always feel like our art "loves us back" but often that feeling is simply growing pains!

5. Struggle makes the elation of success that much sweeter. When we finally made it out of the hay-bale maze, I felt full-to-bursting with pride. Because the challenge was so difficult, when we finally succeeded, it meant so much. If we had flown through the maze without a hitch in ten minutes, the thrill of success would have been minimal.

The same is true for writing. This is something I must remind myself over and over again, every time I face discouragement or rejection. For example, there is a wonderful literary magazine I have admired and submitted my work to for years. Years! And I received nothing but rejection letters. Still, I kept submitting. Last week, I received an acceptance letter from them! I started crying, I was so overjoyed. The success was made sweeter because of the years of struggle.

 
"Being passionate about your work is 80% of success, but that passion must be sustained over a lifetime. Otherwise it's just an infatuation." - Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Our Collective Humanity in the Individual Details of Our Lives


A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a friend. We email back and forth frequently, to stay in touch and up-to-date on each other’s lives. This friend was trekking through a problem at work, and wrote a very insightful explanation of the issue: what he was struggling with, why this was difficult for him, and the potential solutions he planned to employ.

In my email response, I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he put his feelings and motives into words. I think many people would be able to relate to this, I wrote.

I was surprised when he dismissed my compliment. Oh, he replied, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself. He seemed to think that, because he was telling a story about his own life, his thoughts, feelings, ideas and insights would not be resonant or relatable for other people.

To me, this could not be further from the truth! Details from our own individual lives are, I believe, where we find our collective humanity. However, I think many, many of us fall into the same trap of self-dismissal as my friend did, at one time or another.


As a fiction writer, I have learned a counterintuitive principle: if you want readers to care about your characters, you might think to make your characters “everyone”—more vague, and less clearly defined, so that everyone can relate to them. But instead, the exact opposite holds true. The more detailed you are about specific, unique experiences, the more readers see themselves reflected in your characters. It is the stories that connect us; stories that make us care. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Power of Myth, stories have the unique purpose of passing down myths through the generations. There are common themes found in stories, from all societies, races, religions, time periods—threads that link us together as human beings.
 
In Lera Auerbach’s luminous book Excess of Being, published by Arch Street Press, this idea of details connecting us and getting to the heart of our common humanity is illuminated beautifully through her finely wrought prose. A Russian-American artist, this is Auerbach's first book in English, and she uses aphorisms to tell her story and examine her life. I found myself wanting to underline nearly every line on each page; this is a book bursting at the seams with honest beauty and wisdom. I found hope even in Auerbach's moments of darkness and irony, because I saw myself and my own experiences--my doubts, my fears, my frustrations--reflected in hers.

Not a single word is wasted. This is a book that begs to be read slowly, savored, and read again.


Here are some of my favorite aphorisms from Excess of Being:

"If you have a flaw -- make it part of your legacy."

"Music happens within. A performer allows others to hear what is already sounding."

"Finally
I listen to the other silence--
the one that wells up
from within.
Finally, I'm listening."


Back to my friend. Oh, he had written, it wasn’t meant for other people. I was just writing about myself.

I replied to him that writing about yourself, and for yourself, is the best kind of writing. Writing about something that matters to you or helps you in some way ensures that it will matter to someone else and help someone else.

Monday, October 5, 2015

5 Steps to Organize Your Workplace

Guest Post by Emily Johnson 

The writing process needs both research and creativity. While finding a good idea for your masterpiece takes a considerable amount of time, you may notice that writing, editing, and proofreading can also be labor-intensive. It means a good writer needs to stay focused.

Answer these three questions:
• Do you want to stay productive?
• Do you need inspiration?
• Do you have a back pain?

If the answer to one of these questions is yes, you need to pay attention to your workplace. 

Workplace organization is more than just cleaning up your writing place. It is the art of proper decoration and renovation. As soon as your workplace is well-organized, you'll see your productivity growth.

When it comes to workplace organization, people crave for actionable examples. Being inspired by this infographic about writing cabinet organization, we've prepared a list of steps every person should take to organize a perfect workplace.

1. Get rid of extra stuff. If your table is clean, nothing distracts you.

2. Upgrade your gadgets. Optimize your working process with the help of up-to-date gadgets.

3. Demarcate two zones. Your workplace should have two zones: computer and non-computer ones.

4. Hang a picture. Find something that can inspire you: paintings, quotes, or books.

5. Buy a comfortable chair. Your office chair should support the lower back as well as promote a good posture.

One way to stay productive at home is to organize your workplace. These steps are easy to take, so don't hesitate to create a perfect writing environment around you.

ways to organize your writing cabinet

Bio: Emily Johnson is a blogger behind OmniPapers, a website about writing life of students and everyone who creates content for the Web.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Playful Imagining: My First Time Doing Improv Comedy

Source
“You’re second cousins,” the instructor said, pointing definitively at me and at Kelsey, a young woman I had just met twenty minutes earlier. The rest of the class backed away into an audience, leaving Kelsey and I alone together on our makeshift stage. “And you’re waiting in a loooong line for a roller coaster. Go!”

Kelsey sighed and began tapping her foot, glancing at her imaginary watch. “How much longer is this line?” she whined.

I took her lead and impatiently crossed my arms—and my legs. “I have no idea,” I said. “All I know is, I reaaaaally have to pee.” The rest of the class laughed, and I felt encouraged. I had acted out a character, in a spur-of-the-moment situation, and made them laugh!

I never would have thought I would take part in an Improv Comedy class. I love watching comedy and live theater, and in college my roommates and I would go to Improv shows nearly every Friday night at a coffee-shop on campus. But getting up onstage myself? No, thanks! My stomach knotted up just thinking about it.

Then one day, my boyfriend asked if I would like to attend a beginner’s Improv class with him. I was scared, but it seemed like the kind of scared that begs to be challenged. Plus, with my boyfriend by my side, I feel like Superwoman. I could do anything! Even Improv! I told him it sounded like a fun date night idea and to sign me up.


As the date of the class approached, I grew more and more apprehensive. While I enjoy public speaking, I do not consider myself to be an actress. And while I love writing about characters outside myself, actually personifying other people and characters does not come easily to me. I also like a sense of control. I was especially intimidated by the "not-knowing" aspect of Improv. What if I can't think of any good ideas? What if I have a mind-freeze? What if I ruin the scene and let down my partner?

When we arrived at the studio where the class would be held, I made an intentional decision. You might call it a promise to myself. I consciously pushed these worries aside and focused my energies on having fun and soaking up a new adventure.

In the book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul (Arch Street Press), David Castro writes: “In normal usage the word playful signifies frolic and humor, and suggests a context of recreation. Genership, however, focuses on a particular definition of the verb to play: to move or function freely within prescribed limits. Within genership and CoVisioning, the word playful conveys commitment to free experimentation and movement, in the sense that someone might play with a control panel or software package to learn how it works and discover its full potential.”

This is Improv at its essence: moving and functioning freely within the prescribed limits of the scene. Only when you allow yourself to be free within the parameters of the situation you have been given, do the ideas begin to flow into your mind.


Castro continues: “To play and be playful in this sense means to explore and exploit a situation’s full potential. … Genership promotes enthusiastic playfulness, whereas the leadership paradigm tends to restrict it. … To play a game is to enter into it and explore everything that can happen within its environment as we move and manipulate its features. The opposite of a playful orientation is one that sees the world as given and something with which we should not interfere. When someone tells us, 'Don't play with that!' what he admonishes is Don’t touch it, don’t manipulate it, let it be only as you find it. A critical part of the creative orientation required for genership is to explore the environment together, testing the application of the will to all parts of it in a playful way—manipulating, risking and examining what happens when we attempt to make changes.”

In class, we learned that the first rule of Improv is never to say, “No.” Instead, when discovering a scene with your partner, you always say, “Yes, and…” This is what allows the scene to grow and expand and gain life, rather than stagnate and die on the vine. Yes, and. Exploring, manipulating, creating. Why is this group co-creation so important?

In Genership, Castro explains, “Playing together in groups expands our ability to explore the potential environment for change. One person playing alone can only apply his personal thinking and activities. A team of people creates the opportunity to apply a spectrum of ideas and abilities to the world, yielding infinitely greater potential for change.”


Improv class ended up being one of the best date nights my boyfriend and I have ever shared. I loved seeing him jump into a new endeavor, just as I could tell he was delighted each time I raised my hand to volunteer and bounded onstage. The wonderful instructor created an environment of energy and creativity in the class, and people were very supportive of each other.

To be sure, I was definitely a little nervous and uncomfortable the entire time… but, you know what? It was exhilarating to get up in front of people and act out a zany scene on the fly. It made me feel proud of myself. Indeed, I ripped off the label I had always put on myself as "someone who could never do Improv." Now that label is gone. In fact, my sweetie and I are already talking about going back to Improv class again soon!

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

International Literacy Day

I'm teaming up with my friends at Grammarly today on International Literacy Day!

Brittany Ross of Grammarly writes:

Since UNESCO celebrated the very first International Literacy Day on September 8, 1966, the plight of millions of people around the world has improved through programs dedicated to helping marginalized populations become literate. But there is still a long way to go.

Illiteracy is more than just a lack of reading skills. Around the world, it is a clear predictor of poverty, illness, and disempowerment. It’s not a problem confined to the developing world, either. Even in the United States, there are thirty-two million adults who cannot read, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

To celebrate International Literacy Day and help raise awareness about the importance of literacy, we have gathered the latest literacy statistics from around the world into an infographic.

Literacy Day


Infographic credit: https://www.grammarly.com/plagiarism-checker

Monday, August 31, 2015

Interview with Poet Mary McCall

When I was a graduate student at Purdue University, I was fortunate to meet many amazing people who shared a passion for words. I remember the first time I met Mary McCall, I immediately wanted to be her friend. (And not just because she bakes legendary cupcakes!) She is a beautifully insightful person, which shines through in her poetry. (You can read three exquisite examples here.) I was thrilled to learn her debut poetry chapbook, SINGING FOR SIRENS, was recently published by Maverick Duck Press -- you can order it directly from the press here for about the cost of a fancy Starbucks drink. These poems will boost your spirit much more than coffee ever could!

Mary is pursuing her PhD in composition/rhetoric at Purdue University where she also teaches first-year composition. Her work has been nominated twice for Best of the Net and appeared in Decompression, Chantarelle’s Notebook, The Storyteller, Thick with Conviction, and elsewhere. I am absolutely delighted to have her visiting the blog today to share more about her new book, writing habits, inspirations, and more!



Tell us about your book and how it came to be. 

My chapbook has been a work-in progress since college where I started taking poetry and fiction classes as an English major/creative writing minor. Even after graduation and during graduate school, I made it a point to take online poetry classes during the summer to keep up with the craft. Being a professional writer has always been a dream of mine, but I wanted to follow this dream step-by-step. I first focused on getting some of my work published in print and online journals and then I turned my sights to putting together a chapbook. However, I wasn't alone in this endeavor and appreciate all of the support I received along the way from fellow writing friends, classmates, professors, and editors who helped me produce and shape the work that ultimately went into this chapbook. I couldn't have done it without them.

What inspires you? 

I’m a Jersey girl at heart, so I've always found the ocean to be a great source of inspiration. Many of the lines and ideas for the poems in my chapbook came to me while I was swimming at the beach near my grandparents’ shore house that I've visited every summer since I was 2. There’s just something about the salt air and crest of a wave that sparks my muse. My love for books is another source of inspiration as I’m a fan of wordplay à la Lewis Carroll. I enjoy weaving literary references into my work at times, which hopefully you can get a hint of in my chapbook!

How do you find time to write in the midst of a busy schedule/life? 

Good question. There are times where I’m better at juggling graduate school and poetry than others, but overall, I try to set easy goals for writing during the school year so that I don’t become too overwhelmed. For instance, I may intersperse reading a new collection of poetry with grading or reading for classes. Or I might try to finish a draft of a poem in a week. During the summer, I try to sign up for a 6-8 week online poetry course to join a workshop setting again and get feedback on my work. The Gotham Writers Workshop has been a wonderful place to sign up for classes, and I would recommend Gotham’s classes to anyone interested in creative writing. In addition to poetry classes, they also offer classes in fiction, nonfiction, scriptwriting, and many others. They offer classes for teen writers, as well.

Who are some of your favorite poets? 

I’ve really enjoyed reading the work of Jeannine Hall Gailey. If you’re interested in modern takes on characters within fairy tales, I would recommend reading her book, Unexplained Fevers. She also writes from the perspective of superheros and spy girls in Becoming the Villainess. Another favorite poet is a former poetry professor of mine, Kim Bridgford. Her teaching and her work showed me how a writer can be creative with structured poetry. A good example of this is her book, In the Extreme: Sonnets about World Records. This is a fun and clever read and I especially enjoyed her sonnet about the woman with the longest fingernails in the world.



Do you have a favorite poetry prompt to share? 

This prompt was the inspiration for my poem, “After-Prom at the Diner,” and comes from poet Matthew Lippman, who taught one of my Gotham poetry classes and offers his own one-to-one poetry workshops: I would like you to locate something iconic about your country/state/city and write about that place by using the image of that “thing” to convey the geographical, political, cultural, social landscape of that place.

What is your biggest advice for other writers and artists? 

As writers, we all have big dreams about where we want to take our writing—and this is great! We need these dreams to motivate us to write that next paragraph, sentence, few words when we’re tired and feel blocked. However, it’s easy (at least, for me) to become so fixated on these dreams that we focus less on how we’re actually going to work towards them. So, I’ve found it useful to break down any writing aspirations I have into smaller goals. For instance, when I realized that I wanted to publish a chapbook, I decided to work on writing and editing individual poems for this collection. I researched presses and bought chapbooks from them to both support the press and its poets and to learn more about the type and style of work that they preferred. Overall, I hope that my experience with publishing a chapbook will be a stepping stone towards my first full-length book of poetry. For me, it’s easy to compare myself to others and to feel like I’m not doing enough when it comes to writing. However, there is no set timeline for writing and I use the smaller goals I set for myself to remind me that every writer has his/her own pace—it’s not a race!

Is there anything else you would like to add?

First off, thank you for showcasing me on your blog! I’m honored to be featured here and hope that my responses help other writers as all of my writing friends and teachers have helped me. I would encourage anyone reading this to continue to write and read what you love and to find a fellow writing buddy to share drafts with and bounce ideas off of. You could even schedule a time to meet with him/her once a month or every other week to read other’s work either in-person or online if (like me) you need deadlines to keep you focused. I find this to be a great means of support when classes or workshops aren’t easily available. And, finally, pay this support forward. Read a chapbook or collection of poetry (or fiction) from a new author and/or press. Presses always need more readers and you may find a new source of inspiration in the process! A win-win for all.

Order Mary's Chapbook SINGING WITH SIRENS here: 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guest Post by Mary E. Martin

Exciting news, everyone: today we are being visited by a virtual blog tour celebrating the completion of author Mary E. Martin's second series, The Trilogy of Remembrance. A special welcome to followers of the tour joining us from Book Readers Heaven, http://gabixlerreviews-bookreadersheaven.blogspot.com/ and from other sites on the tour.

Followers of the tour have an opportunity to enter in a $200 Amazon gift card giveaway! Entries will be accepted until midnight on August 31, 2015 with an announcement of the winner posted from Mary's Blog on September 1, 2015. Anyone submitting a proof of purchase entry in the giveaway draw will receive as an added benefit the tour purchase incentive rewards package of free e-books and discount coupons donated by tour hosts. For a full tour schedule of events, as well as details on how to enter, visit Mary E. Martin at http://maryemartintrilogies.com/virtual-tour/

You can also tune in to JD Holiday's World of Ink Network interview with Mary and guests, over BlogTalkRadio at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/worldofinknetwork.

 

What Makes a Novel Great?

a guest post

by Mary E. Martin

Because everyone has his or her own personal taste, it’s hard to answer this question. What appeals to me, you might consider dull, boring or even downright ridiculous. And of course, vice versa. It’s the same with a painting or a song. Personal taste. I might love Anton Chekhov’s stories and you might think they are too dated to be relevant in today’s world—NOT great for a writer who wrote almost two centuries ago. You love Stephen King, but his work might leave me cold and eventually bored which would not be good for a horror writer.

Does this mean neither writer has written a great novel? Of course not. You can devise all sorts of rules to determine whether a piece of writing is great. Is it a page turner with an interesting plot? Do the characters seem real? All that is helpful, but lots of novels are like that.

Will it be read one hundred years from now? For me, that’s the real test. Unfortunately that means we’ll not be able to apply that test to novels written today. But we can look at the old ones still popular today and try to figure out why we still love them. Some examples? Take any one of Dickens’ novels. Even if you haven’t heard of his novel, Bleak House, I’ll bet you know about Scrooge. Why? Scrooge was such a powerful character and his story was so transfixing that some of us read his novella every Christmas or at least watch the movie. Why? Because the character Scrooge is embedded in the consciousness of popular culture and has been from the beginning.

When I was a child, I was extremely impressed with Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge. In one of the dream sequences, Scrooge was confronted by an apparition in a long black robe. When he drew it back, small children were huddled underneath representing “ignorance and want.” If that can’t frighten you, what can? What is it about Scrooge that sticks? He’s intensely unlikeable, stingy with a flinty disregard for his fellow man. Do you know anyone like that? Sure you do! He’s your boss. Or maybe he’s even closer to home. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we all have a bit of Scrooge in us.



No one wants to be like Scrooge. When his employee Bob Cratchit tries to speak well of him, we see compassion at work. We all want a world with second chances to do better. It is one of the very best redemption stories ever written which was published just in time for Christmas in 1843 and to this day has never been out of print. With his characters and the dream sequences, the story strikes something very powerful—a universal and timeless chord. The story asks—what does it mean to be human and how do we deal with the many complications of our own nature? The characters are as real to us as our spouse, child, neighbour or—ourselves.

The writer and his characters make us think about what it is to be a human being in the place, time and circumstance he or she is in. And if it is truly universal and timeless, then it may stay with us forever and speak to future generations. The next question is: how to do this? Maybe it’s not so hard. I wonder just how much human beings have changed over the aeons. We still love and hate. We still suffer from greed, ambition, pride, lust, envy, wrath, sloth and gluttony. Paradoxically, at the same time we are still capable of great acts of kindness, forgiveness and love. If you look at that list of failings and attributes, you can easily see hundreds if not thousands of opportunities for terrific stories.

But it’s not just confined to characteristics of humans. Those characteristics drive plots. One of the most fundamental is the quest. Scrooge was dragged through dream sequences which were a hair-raising quest. We often say that Shakespeare’s characters were very powerful. Just think of Macbeth and his Lady. Ambition drove them to murder the King. Lear, the near feeble but once great King, is blinded with pride as he turns upon his daughters. But think what his pride did to him. Because of that foolishness he was turned upon viciously by those who should have loved and cared for him. Old age was never so terrifying!

If we start thinking of our characters and plots as embodying some of these characteristics, they may have a chance to survive. Why? Because humankind has not really changed all that much. In 2015, we will still be captivated by a character who is driven to a bad end by lust or avarice. He or she might be just like that person across the desk from you at work. Or if you look closely, a tiny bit might be found in our own hearts. When we’re writing our stories and want to strive for the top, let’s be thinking about what it means to be human and driven (even mad) by high emotion. Those are the questions to explore when creating our characters and plots if we want them to survive.

BIO: Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.

 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Try, Try, Try Again, Try Something New

One of my favorite things is teaching a writing camp every summer in my hometown for kids and teenagers. For a couple hours over two back-to-back weekends, we all sit together in a purple-walled conference room and write. (Still mostly with pen and pencil on notebook paper, although I allow the kids to bring laptops and iPads if they wish. A few do; most opt for old-school notebooks.) I write a prompt on the whiteboard, turn on some Norah Jones or Jack Johnson, and they are off and running.

It’s nothing short of magic, being in that room. It’s calm, peaceful, with a quiet energy buzzing below the surface. You can practically hear the ideas whirring around the room, as surely as you can hear the pencils scratching their ways across sheets of paper. You can feel the ideas, swirling around. This is perhaps my favorite thing I have ever created, my proudest accomplishment—this classroom of young writers.


My writing campers inspire me in so many ways. They are passionate, driven, unabashedly enthusiastic. They are ambitious. (Do you know any 9-year-olds writing 300-page novels? I do!) They are creative, and well-read, and perceptive, and supportive of each other.

Perhaps most of all, these young writers inspire me with the way they embrace new challenges and take risks in order to push themselves to grow. I have taught writing classes for adults as well, and always need to plough through much more resistance before getting down to business. As adults, we too often become set in our ways. We become afraid to try something new because we might not do it the “right” way – we might make mistakes, do something wrong, have to stumble our way through a learning curve. Kids, in general, seem much less concerned about stumbling.

Time and again, I present to my young writers an utterly new idea or wacky concept, intended specifically to push them out of their comfort zones. And what do they do? Embrace the new challenge. They dive right in. My writing campers are adventurers. They explore.


One small example is an activity relating to structuring a short story. My only guideline is for them to try something they have never attempted before. Write a story in reverse chronological order, from the ending to the beginning. Write a story with alternating perspectives of two characters. Write a story from the perspective of an animal, or an insect, or an inanimate object. Write a story in poetic verse.

My amazing students try it all. They inspire me with their bravery. The way they eagerly raise their hands to share the yearnings of their hearts and minds, ideas that they only just scribbled down onto paper moments ago, their just-birthed words still fragile and new—nevertheless, they are unselfconscious and unselfish in their sharing. They are generous, both in confidence and in spirit. When do we lose this, us grown-ups? When do we cross that threshold and become shy, stifled? Why are we so terrified of looking foolish that we keep our voices silent? Why do we stop daring to try?

The inspiring and beautiful book a picture is worth: the voice of today's high school students(Arch Street Press) is an anthology dedicated to the importance of sharing our voices, of being brave enough to shed light on our stories and bare our truths to the world. Featuring personal narrative essays from high school students at the I-LEAD Charter School in Reading, Pennsylvania, each essay in this book is brimming with meaning and relevance -- not only to students and teenagers of today, but for adults as well.



In the book's introduction, David Castro and Alisa del Tufo write:

"By sharing these stories brought to life through the faces and voices of our young learners, ILCS expects to inspire new learning and new educational pathways for their peers. In studying the personal narrative essay, we must question why it should be necessary to reach far away -- to places remote in time and culture -- for strong examples of the essay form. We can make a different choice that contributes highly relevant and engaging content to present school curricula. Powerful stories, shining examples of the personal essay, arise within challenged communities; they spring from the minds and hearts of the learners themselves. We know why. Art and genius beat in every human heart."

Art and genius beat in every human heart.

I could not agree more. We all have the capacity to write down our own stories, share our own lives, create our own magic. You don't need to be a writing camper to do so. You don't need anyone's permission. All you need is a pinch of bravery and the willingness to try, and try, and try again, and try something new.

I don't know about you, but I'm going to smooth a fresh new page in my writer's notebook, turn on some Norah Jones, and get to work writing what matters to me.



Monday, August 3, 2015

Anatomy of a Grammar-Lover

My friends at Grammarly recently sent me this fun infographic about their users that I thought was interesting, so I wanted to share it with you. What do you guys think? Does this statistical representation agree with your observations?



“Anatomy

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Interview with Textploit: Part II

Last month, I learned about Textploit, a new literary journal that exclusively publishes work by young people (writers and artists under age 20, to be precise.) I was blown away by the talent, variety, and sheer bravery of the work in their debut issues. Earlier we had two of Textploit's Editors-in-Chief, Natasha Lasky and Ella Bartlett, on the blog -- you can read their interview here if you missed it. Today I am pleased to feature an interview with Textploit's third Editor-in-Chief, Siqi Liu!



How would you describe Textploit, and what gave you the idea to start it? Could you give us a peek inside your path to founding this journal?

Siqi: Textploit is an inclusive platform for young writers and artists to share their voices. After being an editor at other literary magazines, I became very passionate about the process of creating high quality literary arts productions. When Natasha and Ella told me about the initial idea of starting our own magazine, I became enamored, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that.

I'd love to hear more about your various writing projects. What inspires you?

Siqi: I’m always starting one short story or another, and I’ve recently been venturing into poetry. I’m also thinking about starting a novel this summer, so I’m excited about that. I’m usually inspired by personal experiences; I like taking bits and pieces of my own life and extract something beautiful and coherent out of the banal chaos.

What made you want to become a writer?

Siqi: I love people, and I think my desire to get to know people better was and still is why I write. I’ve always had an impulse for telling character-centric stories. By writing, I can try to understand human nature.

Could you give us a sample "day in the life"? In particular, when/how do you find time to write?

Siqi: I’m kind of a seasonal writer. I’m most productive during school breaks because I find it difficult to be creative under stress. However, when I do write, I tend to sit down for a large chunk of time (at least several hours) on the weekend and try to churn out X number of pages. But I don’t really set a goal for myself. Sometimes I can write five pages in two hours, sometimes only five paragraphs. And that’s okay.

What is your biggest advice for writers submitting their work, and facing the inevitable rejection that comes along with that? Any tips for submitting to Textploit in particular?

Siqi: As someone who has been rejected plenty of times, I would say that it’s more important to think about the journey than the result. Every piece we produce as writers came from somewhere within, and during the process of spilling out that chunk of our soul on paper, we have grown -- both as writers and as people. Don’t regret or dwell on rejections because the journey is always worth it. As for tips for submitting to Textploit, I would say to submit the piece that has your bravest voice. We love fresh styles, experimental forms, and daring tales.

Why is it important for young people to have a voice in the publishing landscape?

Siqi: Grownups are constantly trying to get into teenagers’ heads. Adults write about us, sing about us, make art about us. So why aren’t we hearing from young people themselves? I think it’s important for teens to have a voice so the world stops thinking of us as projections from the imagination of thirty, forty, fifty year olds and start seeing us as who we really are.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Siqi: We are currently looking for art, music, and film editors! Contact us at admin@textploit.com if you are interested.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Interview with the editors of Textploit, a new literary journal for teens


Last month, I learned about Textploit, a new literary journal that exclusively publishes work by young people (writers and artists under age 20, to be precise.) I was blown away by the talent, variety, and sheer bravery of the work in their debut issues. Two of Textploit's editors, Natasha Lasky and Ella Bartett, were kind enough to answer some questions here on the blog today. Their words will no doubt inspire you -- perhaps to submit some work of your own!

Ella

Natasha

Textploit is a literary journal unique from anything else being published today. How would you describe Textploit, and what gave you the idea to start it? Could you give us a peek inside your path to founding this journal?

Natasha: I was drawn to Textploit for one simple reason: most publications for teens are lame. They either feel condescending, like a talent show where adults showcase “teen voices” instead of actually listening to what teens have to say, or they feel dry and elitist, as if a teen writer has to act like a mini-adult in order to be taken seriously. Neither type respects the fact that teens view the world in a unique, raw, even beautiful way, and that they deserve to speak for themselves. Not to mention that most publications only accept writing and art while ignoring music, photography, film, and all the other ways adolescents express themselves. I wanted to help create an online space where teens can be represented with the passion, seriousness, and sense of humor that they deserve.

Ella: We wanted to create a magazine that allowed teens to publish their work without judgment on whatever topic they chose. To echo Natasha, we want teens not to feel like they have to write (or draw) about “proper” adult things. We publish quality work, and we focus on letting teens write what they want to write about. In that vein, we also are online only, which makes all our work easily accessible to our target audience.

In addition to being editors and publishers, you are all writers too. I'd love to hear more about your various writing projects. What inspires you?

Ella: I am inspired by the smallest thing: a conversation on the subway, the way someone holds a pencil, a cool European accent. I take these things and create characters out of them. The stories form kind of on their own from there. Most of my stories are flash fiction, but I attempt poetry when I am in a certain mood, and I love the satisfaction of working on a longer short story.

Natasha: I am inspired by discomfort. Relationships I see, thoughts I have, stories that people tell me -- if it makes me uncomfortable in some way, I can write about it. I wish there was a better word for it than simply “discomfort,” but I’m talking about that area on the emotional spectrum between contentment and extreme suffering, the subtle kinds of pain that we experience every day but that there really aren’t good words for. It makes sense why nobody has come up with the right words for them, because those feelings are the most complicated feelings, and therefore moments of discomfort are the most interesting for me to write about. In terms of genre, I don’t have the brain for poetry, though I enjoy it. I prefer to write essays, fiction, and screenplays. Fiction is the hardest, but I love it the most.

What made you want to become a writer?

Ella: My third grade teacher, Mr. Barloon. We did a mini writing workshop in his class, and I found I loved it. Then, once I began to read great writers like Hemingway or Carver or Lahiri, I began to realize how serious and influential the craft can be. When you share your writing, be it in the form of reaching out for edits or even publishing, you can change someone’s life.

Natasha: This will sound weird and cliche but I feel like writing is part of who I am. I never really wanted to be a “writer,” and I still don’t really know what that means, exactly, to “be a writer,” but I know I’ve always wanted to write. I read obsessively as a kid, and I liked (and still like) that writing has the unique ability to speak to us in the same way we speak to ourselves. When you read a book you can get out of your own mind and live inside the mind of Humbert Humbert or Holden Caulfield or Katniss Everdeen for a while instead. It’s a tool for empathy, in a certain way. I also like spending time alone, in my own head, and writing definitely suits that disposition.

Could you give us a sample "day in the life"? In particular, when/how do you find time to write in your busy schedules?

Ella: That’s tough. I write when I can. Especially for teens now, with all the other pressures we put on ourselves academically and socially, it’s difficult to find a specific time of the day to dedicate solely to the craft. I journal every single night, sometimes for ten minutes and sometimes for half an hour, depending on how early I have to get up the next morning. I also often prioritize writing before other items on the long to-do list, especially when I need the release it gives me.

What is your biggest advice for writers submitting their work, and facing the inevitable rejection that comes along with that? Any tips for submitting to Textploit in particular?

Ella: All art (writing, painting, film, etc.) is so subjective. We are dealing with humans and human experience here. Writing is often so personal that you have to not take rejections personally. Just keep writing/drawing/etc. You’ll find a way to tell your story in a voice that is able to touch more people the more you write. As for Textploit, just be honest. We look for art that speaks to teens, and chances are you’re going through something that another teen is going through. If you illustrate your mind through a haiku, a watercolor, or anything else -- just make sure it tells the truth.

Natasha: Rejection sucks. There’s no way around it. If you really care about your writing, it will feel terrible when it gets rejected. And so I guess my rejection advice would be to feel the sad feelings that come with rejection, but recognize that those feelings are a good sign -- since it means that you love your piece and want people to see it. Then funnel that energy into making the piece better. As for submissions to Textploit, I will just reiterate what Ella says, since she is completely correct (as she often is). Follow that old (perhaps cliche) adage: write what you know. Don’t try and be H.P. Lovecraft or Hemingway or Emily Dickinson or Toni Morrison, just be you and be honest. We’ll love you just the way you are, I’m sure of it.

Why is it important for young people to have a voice in the publishing landscape?

Natasha: The fact is: teens see the world differently, and it’s cool. The liminal space between adulthood and childhood is inherently interesting, and that’s why YA is such a powerhouse genre, that’s why The Fault in Our Stars makes millions of dollars, that’s why we still read Romeo and Juliet. Teen issues are everyone’s issues. And that’s also why it’s so frustrating to me when teens feel like they have to write about “adult things” to be taken seriously. We should let teens speak for themselves about their experience, and respect them for that.

Ella: When young people are able to get their work out “into the wild” so to say, it is not only exhilarating for the artist. It is essential for others to understand what it is/was like being a teen. We want to make an imprint on the world by sharing these stories, to remind people that no, it’s not easy to be in this age group. I agree with Natasha: we think differently. Things that seem insignificant are not. They’re real.


Connect with Textploit:

Friday, July 10, 2015

Creating -- and Re-creating -- the Past

One interesting thing about being a writer is that each day sparkles with potential for delightful surprises and wonderful news. At any given time, I have short stories and essays submitted to a dozen different journals; my collection of short stories submitted to two or three book contests or small presses; and queries for my novel manuscript out to a variety of agents. With each submission I send out, my heart leaps with possibility. I carefully choose where I submit individual pieces and projects, and I take the time to read publications and research editors who seem to be a perfect aesthetic fit for my work. When I click the "submit" or "send" button, I always feel excited, dreaming that maybe this will be the one that gets the response of YES.

But, inevitably, most of the submissions I send out are rejected. It's the name of the game; simply part of being a writer. Still, when I get a rejection, it stings. It is disappointing, every time.


Usually, I shake it off and find another journal or editor or agent to submit to. Keep things moving along, keep pushing forward, keep hoping. Every "no" is one step closer to a "yes." Get knocked down seven times; stand up eight.

But sometimes, on low days, or days when the writing isn't going well, or days when something else annoying or upsetting happens, it can be hard not to let one more rejection -- one more disappointment -- steamroll my thoughts towards all the other rejections I have gotten over the years. When you put them all together in a row like that, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless. It's easy to think, Why bother submitting at all? Why go through the trouble of putting my work out there, if it's just going to get rejected again?

Of course, when my thoughts go down this rabbit hole, I'm choosing not to think about all the acceptances and good news I've received over the years: the contests won, the stories and essays published, the nice emails and praise from readers and editors alike. If you could reach back through time and tell my writer self of five years ago where I am now, she would giddily jump for joy at all the excitement I've been fortunate to experience.

In his book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, David Castro calls this type of selective remembering "Creating the Past." He writes:
"Those not trained as historians may find it difficult to come to terms with the idea that we create the past. But modern psychological experiments speak powerfully to this concept. Mental models or mind maps exert a palpable, constructive influence on perceptions of the past; we tend to see evidence that conforms to our mental maps while we discount or omit whatever does not. An experiment conducted by Brewer and Treyens (1981), one among many, asked each participant to wait in an office for about 35 seconds for another laboratory room to be prepared. They were then moved to another room and asked to recall everything in the office. Participants showed a strong tendency to recall the presence of objects consistent with a typical office. Nearly everyone remembered a desk and the chair next to it. But only eight of the 30 recalled a skull visible in the office, few recalled a wine bottle or the coffee pot, and only one called up the picnic basket. Some recalled items that had not been there at all: nine remembered specific books not present in the office. These findings, consistent with many others on the subject, show that people tend to project their ideas onto the record of the past, thus creating narratives and imagined incidents consistent with their mental modals and beliefs. We construct the past in this way." (pgs. 138-139)
As a writer, I believe wholeheartedly in the importance of stories. I believe they connect us to one another, expand our empathy and knowledge, and help us understand each other and the world around us.

What I sometimes forget is that the stories we tell ourselves are just as powerful as the stories we tell each other. We choose the past we create for ourselves. We choose what details to emphasize and what to leave out of the telling. Just as the people in the experiment were most likely to see the things they expected to be in the office, we are most likely to see and remember the past events that fit into the narrative we are telling ourselves about our lives.


So: are you telling yourself a positive story, or a negative one?

Are you seeing the skulls and wine bottles and picnic baskets, as well as the chairs and the desks?

Are you sliding some books onto your past bookshelf that were never even there in the first place?

Next time I get a rejection, I am not going to give it more power by adding on all the past rejections I have received. Instead, I will purposely choose to remember all the acceptances and successes I have experienced. In this way, I am creating a past that is empowering for my future. I encourage you to do the same!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Q & A Friday: How to Teach Poetry to Kids

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Q&A Friday here on the blog! 

So, what is Q&A Friday? Often I get emailed questions about writing, teaching, editing, book recommendations, and general questions about the literary life, and I was thinking that other people might be interested in these questions, too! Q&A Friday is where I will answer one of these questions every other week or so. I hope you find it to be helpful and inspiring! 

 If you have a question, please feel free to email it to me at dallaswoodburn gmail com with "Q&A Friday" in the subject line. Also, if you have thoughts to add to my answers, I would LOVE if you would share your ideas in the comments section below! My aim for this blog is for it to be a positive resource and community-builder for readers, writers, teachers, and book-lovers of all ages! 



Question: I love reading and writing poetry myself, and I have an opportunity coming up to teach a group of kids. I would love to teach a brief lesson about poetry and maybe even write some poetry together, but I have no idea where to start. Do you have any experience teaching poetry to kids? If so, can you suggest any activities that work well?

What a worthy endeavor! Yes, I definitely teach poetry to kids. In my experience, most kids seem to really enjoy reading and writing poetry. One thing I've noticed is that many young kids believe all poetry needs to rhyme, which can be very restrictive when trying to write a poem. So, one of my goals as their teacher is to try to broaden their view of what poetry is and can be. 


Here is a website that I like with different viewpoints from kids of what poetry is: http://whatispoetrytoyou.tumblr.com/ (Note: in the group shots it is hard to read the posters, but if you scroll down a bit you get to singular shots, and some have translations of the kids' handwritten words typed out below the photograph.) 

Perhaps a simple activity you might start with is asking the kids what they think poetry is, and on the board you could brainstorm a list of their responses. In this way, you create a "poetry collage" together! I would encourage you to format this lesson as a discussion among everyone. Instead of telling them what poetry is (or telling them that poetry does not have to rhyme, for example) ask them questions and share examples of different types and styles of poetry. 

Another fun activity would be to write a poem together as a group, or help the kids write their own poems individually. An easy poem that works well for beginning poets is an "I love you" poem. It is basically a series of "I love you more than..." statements, using descriptive language or metaphor, addressed to a person, place or thing. 

When I was in elementary school, I wrote a poem like this for my grandfather "Gramps" which is included in my collection of short stories and poems, There's a Huge Pimple On My Nose:

Dear Gramps,
I love you more than a boxer puppy loves his bark.
I love you more than a loaf of yummy cinnamon bread loves to bake.
I love you more than a gardener loves his red, red rose.
I love you with my whole little-girl heart.
Love, Dallas

Below is a template you could use to help kids come up with their own "I love you" poems:

Think of a person you want to write a poem to. This might be your mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, brother, sister, or friend. 

Brainstorm a list of things you like to do with this person. Try to be as SPECIFIC as possible! For example, in “My Monday Guy” the author describes baking “yummy cinnamon bread.” 
 1) _____________________________________________________________ 
 2) _____________________________________________________________ 
 3) _____________________________________________________________ 
 4) _____________________________________________________________ 
 5) _____________________________________________________________ 

Now, brainstorm a list of SPECIFIC things this person likes or that you associate with this person. For example, in “My Monday Guy” the author describes “a boxer puppy” and a gardener’s “red rose.” 
1) _____________________________________________________________ 
2) _____________________________________________________________ 
3) _____________________________________________________________ 
4) _____________________________________________________________ 
5) _____________________________________________________________ 

Go back and read through both your lists. Draw stars next to your favorite four or five items you brainstormed. Now it’s time to weave your ideas together into a poem! 

Title: ______________________________________________ 
Dear _______________________________________________,  
I love you more than ______________________________________________ 
I love you more than ______________________________________________  
I love you more than ______________________________________________  
I love you with my _________________________________________________  
Love, ______________________________________________

Good luck, and have fun! If you liked this poem and activity, you might want to check out my children's book There's a Huge Pimple On My Nose and accompanying Teacher's Guide!

Previous "Q & A Friday" posts:
- How to manage class time as a writing teacher
- How to build a platform as a freelance writer

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

We Are All "Creative People"



Occasionally when I tell someone that I am a fiction writer, a stunned expression crosses their face -- as if I confessed that my day job is being a Superhero.

"Oh, I could never do that," they say. "I could never make up stories out of thin air. I'm not that creative."

However, if there's one thing I've learned from teaching writing to people of all ages for the past eight years, it's that everyone is indeed creative. Some of us just might have more trouble accessing our creative selves. And others might not recognize their own creativity, even if they use it all the time.

We all possess imagination; we all solve problems; we all daydream. Sure, the problems I solve at work often revolve around fictional characters in made-up situations. But I don't think there is much difference between a fictional character's problem (for example, trying to solve a crime before the murderer strikes again!) and a real-life workplace problem (such as trying to put together a business strategy the client will love, in time for a big meeting with the team.) I think we use the same problem-solving, creative muscles to do both tasks. I guess a main difference is that as a fiction writer, I create both the problems AND the solutions! (And believe me, sometimes I manage to create real doozies for myself and then have to try to wrangle my characters free...) ;)


A real-life problem I am trying to fight is these boxes many people drop down around themselves, labeled as "not creative." It makes my heart ache every time someone tells me they could never be a writer, because they are "not creative enough." It's not true! Don't believe it!

This is a serious matter. Because to accept that limiting, false belief -- to hunker down into that "non-creative" box -- is to turn away from your inherent gifts as a human being.

In his ground-breaking book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberating the Creative Soul, leadership guru and business expert David Castro approaches creativity and leadership in an entirely new way. He transforms the way we think of organizations, communities, and "progress" in general. He writes:

"What if our most critical human goal, the most fundamental human activity, is not to know or to understand, but rather to create, to generate? What would it mean if at the heart of human nature we discovered not reason, not rationality, not the capacity to grasp the world in the mind, but rather the capacity to imagine and invent that world?"
(pg. 3)


In Genership 1.0, David Castro explores exciting, freeing new definitions of leadership in the 21st Century. He coins a new term -- "genership" -- defined as: "The capacity to create with others; the community practice of creating." What would this approach mean for our businesses? Our schools? Our politics? He guides the reader into a new way of thinking about leadership that transcends limitations.

To me, this book is not only about being a leader in a business sense; it applies to our personal lives too. It inspires you to reflect on how you see yourself and how you live your everyday life. Here are some questions I jotted down:

  • What world do I want to create and invent? 
  • How can I take the steps to get there?
  • What does it mean to come together and lead as a team?
  • What can I generate, for myself and for others? 


I want to close with a poem that Castro quotes in his Preface, from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and
try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms
and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them. And the
point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will find them gradually, without noticing it,
and live along some distant day into the answer.

Maybe leadership -- or knowledge, or adulthood, or teaching -- is not about "having all the answers" but rather about helping others to learn to embrace life's uncertainties. Maybe true wisdom means cultivating an insatiable curiosity.

Here's to living the questions.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Q & A Friday: How to Build a Platform as a Freelance Writer

Hi, everyone, and welcome back to Q&A Friday here on the blog!

So, what is Q&A Friday? Often I get emailed questions about writing, teaching, editing, book recommendations, and general questions about the literary life, and I was thinking that other people might be interested in these questions, too! Q&A Friday is where I will answer one of these questions every other week or so. I hope you find it to be helpful and inspiring!

If you have a question, please feel free to email it to me at dallaswoodburn <AT> gmail <DOT> com with "Q&A Friday" in the subject line. Also, if you have thoughts to add to my answers, I would LOVE if you would share your ideas in the comments section below! My aim for this blog is for it to be a positive resource and community-builder for readers, writers, teachers, and book-lovers of all ages!




Question: I'm just starting out as a freelance writer and want to expand my areas of expertise, and also build my platform... but I have no clue where or how to start! It's overwhelming. Do you have any suggestions?

My Answer: Yes, I have been there and I know it can feel totally overwhelming! My biggest advice is to try to pick one small thing to do a day relating to building your platform... maybe that means doing some online research of markets you can send your work to; or reading and taking notes on a writing newsletter; or writing an article or blog post; or even starting a page on Twitter or Facebook for your writing career.

Here are some places to start that have been helpful resources for me:

  • One newsletter that I subscribe to that I love is Funds For Writers. It's free, comes out frequently, and lists a variety of publication opportunities and contests for that time frame. I like that it's manageable; if I happen to be really busy and "miss" looking at an issue, I can just move along the next one and boom! I'm up to date again. 
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul is always looking for stories for their upcoming titles, with a variety of themes and topics. They list their upcoming topics and guidelines on their website. Note: there is definitely a specific Chicken Soup for the Soul "type" of story they are looking for... basically, it should be first-person, a true story, and about an event or a person that shaped your life in some way, made you think, made you better, gave you a new appreciation, etc. I would definitely recommend reading a few of the books before you submit. They pay $200 and 10 copies of the book. 
  • Another strategy that has worked for me to build my platform is to reach out to bloggers I admire and offer to write a guest post for them for free. It's a great way to build connections and expand your exposure. 
I hope this is helpful. If anyone has some additional resources to add to the list, please add them to the comments below!

The most important thing I have found when it comes to freelance writing -- and writing in general-- is to keep your spirits up, stay motivated, and believe in yourself. Perseverance is the name of the game. Remember that every "no" is one step closer to a "yes." Little by little, big things happen!

Previous Q&A Friday posts:

- How do you manage class time when teaching creative writing?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interview with Writer & Filmmaker Marjory E. Leposky



Tell us about your various writing projects. What inspires you? 

To date I have written two feature films: Reasons? and Getting To The Game; two TV pilots, Gables and Who's Jared; one short film, La Fuente (The Fountain); and one animation script/children's book about a cat named Mr. Grumbles. Reasons?, Getting To The Game, and Gables -- the first three -- were written from anger over what was going on in my life and my world at the time. Who's Jared, La Fuente (The Fountain), and Mr. Grumbles were written a few years later, inspired by ideas that came to me and events that happened to me. For me personally, it is a lot easier to research and write from anger than from inspiration.

What made you want to become a writer? 

My parents are non-fiction writers. I never really had plans to become a writer, too. I'm really a filmmaker. I've been told that if I want to move up in my career, I should write my own projects -- but no one explained what went into getting them made: finding an agent or publisher, and raising the necessary funds. So I have had to learn all that myself.

Can you give us a peek into your writing schedule?  

I have not written a script in the past five years. I have spent this time grant-writing and fund-raising, looking for an agent and publisher, and trying to decide if I want to self-publish Mr. Grumbles, which would lead to more grant-writing and fund-raising.

When I am in a writing mode. I just sit down with good music on, and I write in Finaldraft. I do not write the old-school way with cards and strips. I might write an outline. Most of my characters just talk to me, and I write. I find that most of the time I have to do research on the subject I am writing about. I do interviews and "hang out" with the subject.

What is your biggest advice for people who want to write films? 

Don't waste your time and money on those $1,000-dollar writing programs. With screenwriting you need to know the rules before you start to change or break the rules of screenwriting. Do take a screenwriting class at either a community college or university.

What are your favorite children's books? 

The Giving Tree and other poem books by Shel Silverstein; and Tikki Tikki Tembo by Arlene Mosel and Blair Lent.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Start with writing from the heart. Then you need to do re-writes, which no one wants to do. Also, always have a good proofreader.

Connect with Marjory at the links below: 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Interview with Young Author and Entrepreneur Chental-Song Bembry

Chental-Song Bembry is the creator, author, and illustrator of The Honey Bunch Kids series, which she uses to promote literacy and entrepreneurship in youth. The Honey Bunch Kids is a humorous book series for boys and girls ages 7-12. The series follows the adventures of a group of middle-schoolers who learn the meaning of true friendship, respect, and getting along with others. You can purchase her books directly here.

Chental-Song was recently honored at the 2015 BET Honors as an "Early Riser" for her accomplishments as a young author and motivational speaker. Last month, she was honored as a Making a Difference Girl at the 2015 BET Black Girl's Rock awards show for her commitment to community service and education. 

Tell us about your book series THE HONEY BUNCH KIDS. What inspired you to write these books? 

I created The Honey Bunch Kids when I was 10 years old. At this age, I loved to read, write, and I loved to watch cartoons. I created three cartoon characters of my own and called them "The Honey Bunch Kids." When I turned 11, my mother sent me to a writing camp at Middlesex County College, where I wrote a story about my three characters, and I called that story The Honey Bunch Kids. In April 2010, The Honey Bunch Kids was published, and based on the overwhelmingly positive feedback I received from boys and girls, I wrote two more books: The Honey Bunch Kids: School's In Session (Book 1) and The Honey Bunch Kids: School's In Session (Book 2). Throughout each book, I highlight elements of African-American history, group dynamics, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

In addition to being a writer, you are also a literacy advocate. Why are reading and writing so important, especially for young people? 

After publishing the first book in The Honey Bunch Kids series, I started the "Chental-Song Literacy Campaign," which allows me to travel to schools, libraries, and churches to speak to youth on the importance of literacy, goal setting, and the impact of reading on academic success. I believe that reading and writing are so important for young people because with reading comes knowledge, and with knowledge comes confidence. High confidence levels create the drive to achieve any and all goals in life. Writing allows freedom of expression and a chance to showcase creativity. It is an escape, and when people write, they discover stories inside of them that might have never gotten a chance to be exposed. The better the reader, the stronger the writer. When young people embrace literacy, they will be more inclined to tackle difficult homework assignments, and will be able to converse with others at a higher level. Literacy and education are crucial components to the success of a young person, and this is why I am so dedicated to the advancement of literacy in all children. 

You were a busy student in school when you first published THE HONEY BUNCH KIDS, and now you are a college student. What is your writing schedule? When/how do you find time to write? 

Currently, I attend Hampton University as a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major with a minor in Leadership Studies. Before sitting down to write anything, I make sure that my assignments are completed. I write (and draw) whenever I have the free time, and whenever a great idea hits me. If I cannot sit down at the computer to fully flesh out an idea, I will jot it down in my notes. I usually have more time to write and develop story ideas during Christmas, Spring, and Summer breaks. I always make sure to put energy into my craft each and every day, because energy creates movement in a positive direction.

Very true! What is your biggest advice for people (especially young people) going after their dreams and facing their own challenges in life? 

My biggest advice for young people (and all people) who are going after their dreams is to push forward, never settle, and do not give up. There will always be roadblocks and challenges along your journey to success, but you must remember that each challenge is put in your path to help you grow and develop into a stronger person. Do not fear challenges. Embrace them. Always remember that nothing of greatness comes without struggle. It is through hard work and difficulties that you become humbled and more prepared for the next chapter of your life.

Another piece of advice I have is a quote by Louis Pasteur: "Chance favors the prepared mind." You will only get your greatest opportunity in life when you are both physically and mentally prepared for it. You must always trust God and know that He has ordered your steps, and through Him, you can do all things.



Who are some of your favorite writers? 

Some of my favorite writers include Nancy Farmer, Virginia Hamilton, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou. I grew up reading fantastic pieces by each of these authors, who influenced my passion for writing a unique story that all children can enjoy. 

What's next for Chental-Song Bembry? 

As I finish out my remaining three years at Hampton University, I am currently developing The Honey Bunch Kids book series into an animated series and a global brand, which will be featured on a major television network. From the animated series will come more books, and I will continue the literacy campaign I have started.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I am so grateful to God for each and every opportunity He places before me. I am looking forward to expanding The Honey Bunch Kids brand into an entertainment source that children around the world will enjoy, because I believe it is so important for all children to have positive role models within their cultures.

Here are links to connect with this amazing writer, illustrator, entrepreneur, and literacy advocate, Chental-Song Bembry: