Thursday, January 31, 2013

Writing is Elementary with Margo Dill (Part II)

In the photo above, Margo Dill holds a copy of her middle-grade book that takes place in the Civil War. The title of her book is Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg.
Continuing with my last post, here is the conclusion of the notes I took during the Saturday Writers meeting where Margo discussed "Everything You Need to Know About Writing You Learned in Elementary School."
Organization. Margo gave examples of how different types of writing are organized from beginning, middle, to end.
   * At the beginning of a story, catch the reader's attention to make them want to keep reading. Introduce the main character's problem. Wow the reader.
   * Some personal essays and picture books are wrtten as circle stories, such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Some stories start in the present, flashback, then end in the present.
  *  Some memoirs are divided into chapters or sections. Some non-fiction is written in chronological order or begins with a big event then continues from there. 
  * Endings should wrap up the plot and subplot in fiction. Draw non-fiction to a close without repeating the thesis or introducing new information. Be satisfying.
  *  Not every book will have a happy ending, but if it satisfies the reader's expectations and is true to the character, that's okay. Readers like order, so if you set up an expectation, stick with it. Continuity is important.
Voice. Experts say that voice is hard to define, but they know it when they read it.
   * Voice is something that can't be taught, but a writer can work to develop a unique voice. In fiction, it's the personality of the writer shining through. It is natural, flowing, interesting.
   * Voice has a lot to do with sentence fluency and word choices. Some suggestions: do more prewriting, write in first person instead of third, write with the reader in mind. The editor of Margo's book suggested she give more depth to her main character by writing personal journal entries for her.
   * Margo also gave an example of how readers prefer voice after reading books on the same topic. She mentioned two books she used when teaching about Rev. Martin Luther King. The students in her class preferred My Brother Martin, which was written by a family member of MLK, to a biography of MLK, which was written by someone who didn't know him.
Conventions. Proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc are important.
   * Conventions vary depending on the medium. She mentioned some editors use the Chicago Manual of Style while others use the AP Style Manual.
   * She was asked about her pet peeves as an editor. They include: improper use of apostrophe's, being inconsistent when using commas . . . using too many ellipses. . . and Capitalizing Words That Shouldn't Be. (Please excuse my attempt at humor to demonstrate Margo's pet peeves.)
Publication. The +1 portion of her presentation covered publication as well as editing. Some writers write for themselves and don't want to be published, which is fine. But if a writer wants to be published, Margo recommended they join a good critique group or hire a professional editor. Editing takes time and can be expensive. Don't expect to pay an editor $20 to edit a 400-page manuscript in a week. A good editor will be thorough and detailed with suggestions. To find a reputable editor, check out their credentials and get recommendations from other writers.
Hope you enjoyed reading about what Margo had to say about the elementary nature of writing. Next time I begin a story or an essay I'm going to try her potato method to dig deep and watch out for those pet peeves.
Speaking of pet peeves, one of mine is using it's as a possessive rather than its. Inquiring minds want to know: What are some of your pet peeves?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

According to Writer and Editor Margo Dill, Writing Is Elementary (Part I)

Last Saturday I attended the monthly Saturday Writers meeting, which featured an exciting presentation by teacher, editor, blogger, and writer Margo Dill. Margo has a freelance editing business called Editor 911 and is a contributing editor and teacher for WOW! Women on Writing.
The room was packed! In fact, the staff had to add additional tables and chairs to accommodate more than 50 writers who turned out to listen to Margo talk about "Everything You Need to Know about Writing You Learned in Elementary School."
Margo's presentation was energetic and informative and filled with helpful hints for writers to use the tools they learned many years ago, but may need a nudge to remember. She focused on the 6+1 traits of writing: Ideas, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Voice, Organization, Conventions and Publication.
Here are some notes I jotted down during Margo's presentation: 
* Ideas. Sources for ideas can be your life, the Internet, newspaper articles or cartoons, books, just about anywhere. According to Margo, you don't only have to write what you know. You can research a topic or talk to other people. She used the example of traveling to Vicksburg to research her recently released book, Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg. One fascinating tip was using the "potato" method for generating ideas. Don't use the first idea that comes to mind; dig a little deeper to get something fresh beneath the surface. She also talked about how, like potatoes, ideas can become rotten if you don't do anything with them.
* Word Choice. For advice on word choices, Margo recommended reading On Writing by Stephen King, who cautions writers about overuse of adverbs and adjectives. Instead, use specific nouns and verbs. Watch for passive voice. Use word choices that fit your genre. For description of a chacter, don't be like a J.C. Penney catalog, but mention distinct characteristics. When using colors, be specific, don't overuse, and have a reason why one color is mentioned several times. (I took that to mean that, for example, does the color red signify an angry or passionate character?) Send overused words to the "word graveyard, where words go to die." Overused words include: very, good, bad, happy, sad, just, little. Also, watch for repeat words. I found this humorous list on AskMen of overused words, some of which I use more than I should.
* Sentence Fluency. Vary the length and type of sentences, and vary how your sentences begin. During the editing process, study your manuscript. Watch for the first word of each sentence. Always read your work out loud. If writing in first person, watch for starting sentences with the word "I." For third person, don't repeat the character's name too much. Instead, use pronouns--although to avoid confusion, when characters are speaking in dialogue and both are the same sex, it's okay to use their names. To build suspense use shorter entences and action words. Longer sentences help readers catch their breath.
In my next post, I'll share what Margo had to say about: Organization, Voice, Conventions and Publication.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mystery of Writing: Thoughts from Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, and Joyce Carol Oates

When I write a short story or an essay, I hope it will strike a chord with my readers.

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from someone who had read one of my short stories and wrote to say she loved it.  Her e-mail made my day, not only because of her kind words, but also because she is a wonderful writer with a strong and compelling voice of her own.

I love writing and reading short stories, but I'm mystified when a story I thought wasn't my best work is one that has success. Then I'm disappointed when another story I believe will be heaped with praise doesn't make the cut. How does that happen?

I often question if there is a "magic formula" for what makes a story work. To find the answer to my question, I decided to dig deep. After hours of research, I uncovered what some of my favorite short story writers had to say about the mystery of writing.

When Flannery O’Connor was asked about what she thought makes a story work, she wrote: “. . . it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies."
According to O'Connor, the two qualities that make fiction are "a sense of mystery and a sense of manners." 

Eudora Welty also wrote about the mystery of writing. “The mystery lies in the use of language to express human life.” She also wrote, "In writing we rediscover the mystery.” and "Most good stories are about the interior of our lives . . .”
Katherine Anne Porter wrote about the importance of being honest in writing about the past. "Of the three dimensions of time, only the past is ‘real’ in the absolute sense that it has occurred . . . ." She went on to write, “One of the most disturbing habits of the human mind is its willful and destructive forgetting of whatever in its past does not flatter or confirm its present point of view.”

Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience . . . . the short story must also represent a desire . . . the most interesting thing about it is its mystery.”
I'm hoping to digest this information and incorporate some of the thoughts and beliefs of these master fiction writers into my own short stories. I've also reread some of their short stories to experience their masterful use of language and imagery.
How about you? What do you think makes a story work?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Submission Opportunity from Tuscany Press

The 2013 Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction is now accepting manuscripts in the following categories: Novel, Novella, Short Story, and Young Adult Novel.

* What is the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction?

It is a literary prize to promote writers and great undiscovered stories of Catholic fiction.

* What is Catholic fiction?

According to the Tuscany Press website, Catholic fiction is defined as "stories infused with the presence of God and faith — subtly, symbolically or deliberately.Think of Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton and many others whose writings reflected the thoughts of the great writer Gerard Manley Hopkins: 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God.' This is the 'stuff' of literature that wins the Tuscany Prize.'"

There is an entry fee, but prize amounts have increased this year.

Deadline is June 30, 2013.

For complete submission guidelines, visit the Tuscany Press site.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Are You Ready for Some Romance? Last Call - Cupid's Quiver

I received an e-mail over the weekend from Patricia Smith, publisher of Welkin Press.
She is still looking for romantic short story submissions for her latest anthology, "Cupid's Quiver."

Here are the submission details:

Word Count: 2,500-7,000 wirds
Payment - $10 per accepted story, plus royalties on book sales
Deadline: January 15, 2013
Submit to:

I am working on a story I hope to finish today, read at my critique group tomorrow, and submit by the deadline.  

How about you? Do you have a story to submit?

Monday, January 7, 2013

How I Spent Five Dollars and Learned How to Write an Instant Essay

Last Saturday, I spent five dollars and made a great investment in my writing career.  

My friend Lou Turner and I drove across the Missouri River to attend the St. Louis Writers Guild workshop "Write an Essay, Right Here, Right Now " by Catherine Rankovic. We met up with several other writing friends from Coffee and Critique and Saturday Writers who attended as well.

SLWG only charges $5 for non-members to attend their monthly workshops, and it was money well spent.

Rankovic is an award-winning writer who teaches creative nonfiction and poetry workshops in the online MFA program at Lindenwood University. She also is a professional manuscript editor whose website can be found at

At the beginning of the workshop I felt like a student back in college, trying to soak up knowledge from a favorite teacher. Catherine's teaching approach was direct and low-key. I took pages of notes because just about everything she had to say about creative nonfiction was interesting or fresh.


Here are a few notes I jotted down about Creative Nonfiction:

Includes: personal essays, memoir, literary journalism, essays, and narrative nonfiction.

Most people think of personal essays – about writer’s life or experience

 Or Memoir – delimited chunk of memory, a place you remember, dealing with the past

Creative nonfiction is the most publishable genre.

Called the 4th genre (poetry, fiction, drama, creative nonfiction)

Uses techniques belonging to other genres (poetry/fiction), such as similes, metaphors, characterization, suspense, describe the five senses, opinion, reflection

In personal essays, use whole body, not just intellect – use thoughts, feelings, emotions.

Don’t write anything dishonest.

Difference between Facts and Truth.

Facts – anything somebody can look up, e.g. Lincoln was born in 1809.
Truth – can’t prove everything, e. g. my mother is a great cook

Narrative nonfiction – History or biography. Publishers want this type of writing, e.g. Seabiscuit


For the first exercise, we were directed to write a draft on a topic of our choice.
Catherine reminded us that the draft is difficult, but it is the artistic part

We were given time to pre-write and were reminded not to: think, censor, rewrite, hesitate, or lift pen from the page.

Catherine kept repeating “Pen to paper” when she noticed someone not writing.

When your fingers stop moving, your brain stops.

The writing prompt I chose was: I still wish I had . . .

My friend Lou chose: I was taught to . . .


Our second exercise was to use the "Instant Essay Formula" to write an essay, which could continue what we drafted from the prompt or be something else entirely.
First, select a topic you want to write about and explore
Then, with your topic in mind, prepare to free-write about your topic, three minutes per paragraph.

Write in prose and full sentences, each one building on the last one.

Put pen to paper or keep tapping those keys and do not stop to judge; write what comes to mind. Do not censor; do not stop typing or writing. It’s a draft you can correct it later.

During the writing time we were given literary devices to use for each paragraph. These devices included: a similie, dialogue, physical description or movement, humor, mixed feelings, moral values, comparison and contrast, personification of an inanimate object, a list, a definition of a term, a published historical event, and a paragraph summing it all up. After that we were reminded to be sure to give a title to our drafts.

The last piece of advice was if we had a handwritten draft, to go home and type it up that day to make it part of our unconscious repertoire.

After her presentation, I thanked Catherine and told her how surprised I was at the memories that surfaced and how the words began to flow when I began to write my draft essay.

After the workshop several writer friends went for lunch, where we discussed how much we learned and how inspired we were by the workshop. 

On the drive home, I got goosebumps when Lou read her draft essay about being told by her grandmother to speak up and not be quiet (she took her grandmother's advice to heart) and how she saw ghosts while living with her grandparents on the banks of the Illinois River.

This morning Lou called and we talked again about how much we enjoyed the workshop. She asked me to read my essay, which began to be about a pair of candlesticks I wish I hadn't sold at a garage sale but expanded to become something more.

I plan to read "Lessons in Ruby Red" tomorrow at Coffee and Critique then polish it again. The next step is to find a market and send it out, where I hope it will find a home.

Even if it doesn't get published, I have been inspired to use the "instant essay" method to tap into my artistic side and write more creative nonfiction. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

2012 Writing Hits and Misses

As promised in my last post, here is a list of my significant writing accomplishments for 2012.

In addition to my successes, I've included notes about submissions that didn't make the mark.
Contest Wins

1st Place: 2 essays, 3 short stories

Erma Bombeck Global Humor Writing Contest: “Honey, Can I Borrow Your Garter Belt?”

CCMWG Nonfiction Contest: “The Magic of Writing”
MWG President’s Short Story Award: “Under the Bottle Tree”

Coffee and Critique Contest: “Sins of the Daughter”

OWL Mystery Short Story “Sins of the Daughter”

 2nd Place: 1 flash fiction, 1 blog post

MWG Conference /Saturday Writers Flash Fiction Contest: “A Lovely Shade of Pink”

MWG Conference/KC Writers Blog Post Contest: “Writing Tips from a Contest Judge”

3rd Place: 1 essay, 1 memoir

OWL Essay Contest “Twice Blessed”

OWL Memoir Contest “The Latin Book”

 HM:  1 essay

CCMWG Nonfiction Contest: “A Fine Day in November”
Note: Three contests I entered (Highlights, Green River Writers, and Springfield Writers Guild) didn't garner any wins at all. In addition to my wins at OWL and MWG, a few entries in different contest categories did not receive recognition. 

Publications (doesn't include book reviews and author interviews)

Articles: 2

“Writing Tips from a Contest Judge” on Walrus Publishing Website

 “All About Writing” in MWG Newsletter

Essays: 3

“Take Your Clothes Off and Other Critique Group Advice” on WOW! Women on Writing Friday Speak Out

“The Magic of Writing” in Well Versed Anthology

“A Fine Day in November” in Well Versed Anthology

True Stories: 2

“A Just Man” true story w/photograph in Life Lessons from Dad

“Unexpected Joy” reprint in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Gift of Christmas

Short Stories: 5

“Keeping the Faith” in Cactus Country II

“Look Back, But Don’t Stare” reprint in Writing on Walls Anthology

“Time to Get Your Jingle On” in Fifty Shades of Santa

“Canned Beets” reprint in Cuivre River 10th Anniversary Anthology

“Stairway to Heaven” in Shadows after Midnight

Recipe/with accompanying story: 1

 “Donna’s Hot Glow Wine” recipe and story behind the recipe on Panera Bread Co. Website 
Note: I submitted a few other essays to anthologies last year. At least one of the anthologies was published in 2012 without my submission, so I missed the mark there. I'm still waiting for the results of the others. 
Professional Activities

Panelist for “The Story Behind Saturday Writers” at Saturday Writers meeting

Spoke on “Beyond Networking: The Importance of Building Relationships with Other Writers” at Catholic Writers of St. Louis meeting


Open Mic Reading at Sage Books in St. Charles


Presentation “Think Outside the Book: How Writing Short Stories Can Get Your Work Noticed” to Sisters in Crime (St. Louis Chapter)

Read “Honey Can I Borrow Your Garter Belt?” at Washington-Centerville Public Library in Ohio

Special Guest at Erma Bombeck Workshop at University of Dayton, Ohio


Read at Launch Party of Well Versed in Columbia, MO


Attended marketing presentation by Liguori Publications at Catholic Writers of St. Louis Meeting


Interviewed by Jennifer Brinker of the St. Louis Review for Feature “The Pen is a Mighty Sword” about Catholic writers in St. Louis


Evergreen Cemetery Tour/staff discussion in Bloomington, IL, with All Saints Writers Group in preparation for AS 190th anniversary heritage celebration


Workshop presentation on “Structuring Short Stories for Passion and Profit” at the CCMWG Write Direction Conference in Columbia


Participated in “Chicken Soup for the Soul, Canned Soup for the Body” book signing at The Book House on Manchester Rd.
Note: I didn't include my critique group or writing meetings.
While I'm pleased with my accomplishments, the intent of this post is to offer encouragement to other writers and show how the time spent writing and submitting eventually pays off -- and there's always room for improvement.
How about you? Any significant writing accomplishments you're particularly pleased with last year?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Declutter/Enhance: A Different Approach to my Writing Life

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe it’s 2013.

Last year was a productive one for me --- I think because of something I decided to do early in 2012 --- to change the approach to my writing career.

My intent was to declutter my writing life while enhancing it. The plan was to focus on what I enjoyed doing or what improved my bottom line and eliminate activities that created anxiety rather than fulfillment.

With only 24 hours in each day, I knew something had to give.

First, I scaled back on book reviews and author interviews. While I love to read and discover new authors, doing so took away from my personal writing time, so I took on fewer freelance assignments. Understandably, my income from that revenue stream decreased, but my personal writing time increased.

With my newly “discovered” time, I submitted to more markets. While I had my fair share of rejections, I also enjoyed a measure of success. I also entered more contests and happily won a few --- including one big one in the spring.

Next, I cut back on social media time. My blog posts decreased from 184 in 2011, to 117 in 2012. Strangely, my page views during 2012 more than doubled, and for a few months, they almost tripled. The largest increases in page visits occurred after I won first place in the Global Humor Category of the Erma Bombeck writing competition and when I was interviewed in the St. Louis Review. The drawback is that I haven’t visited blogs of my friends as much as I’d like.

Lastly, one of my goals for 2012 was to be a more engaged member of the writing community. This meant participating in readings, speaking to groups, and tapping into the spiritual side of my writing life. While this wasn’t a money-making venture, it has been gratifying. I’ve renewed friendships with writing friends and met some amazing new writers. One surprising benefit has been activities with my parish writing group. Although we are small, we share some lofty ambitions, including writing scripts for our parish’s 190th anniversary heritage celebration in 2013.

Overall, I believe my declutter/enhance approach has worked, and I plan to continue along the same path in 2013, with a few modifications. I will still blog and visit blogs of friends, although not as often as I’d like. With rare exceptions, I am taking a break from book reviews and author interviews. I plan to get outside more, spend time with friends and family, and see more of the world -- which should give me even more to write about!

Later this week I will post the fruits of my 2012 writing labors, broken down by: Professional Activities, Nominations/Awards, and Publications.

For me, this new approach has been a positive experience. How about you? Have you made any changes that have benefitted your writing life or personal life?

Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V - Interviews with Lonnie Whitaker and Dr. Barri Bumgarner

Here is the second installment of interviews with contributors who have stories in Mysteries of the Ozarks, Volume V , from Ozark Writers, I...