A Writer’s Best Friend

Writing is hard work, not magic. It begins with deciding why you are writing and whom you are writing for. What is your intent? What do you want the reader to get out of it? What do you want to get out of it. It’s also about making a serious time commitment and getting the project done.”

– Suze Orman, finance editor and author.

Serious time commitment.  Getting the project done.  Talk about a couple of freckle-rattlin’ phrases!

Are there times when those words taste like vinegar to you too?  But they’re true, huh?  I think of it this way: A writer’s best friend isn’t the Internet.  It’s not a short-cut, a quick fix or even a thesaurus.    (This following gem of galatic insight will work a lot better if you can scare up a drum roll in your head.  Ready?  Okay.)  A writer’s best friend is – drum roll, please: Restlessness.

Huh? 

That’s right.  Restlessness.  Let me explain.

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Why You Need to Work at Rest

tropical-relaxation

I know, I know. “I don’t have time to rest or schedule any down time” you insist. “I’ve got too much to do!” You are TOO BUSY to take a break. Type A Attila the Hun personalities can raise your hands now. You know who you are. And you need to change. If not for your own sake, then for the sake of those who have to live and work with you. Here’s why, first for the writer and then for everyone else (you know, normal people who aren’t busily cranking out the next Great American Novel):

For the writer, overwork or a stressed-out mind often manifests itself in The Dreaded Writer’s Block. So listen up. Hitting the block wall may be your mind’s way of saying, “Give it a rest. Take a break. Recharge. Disconnect. Let the creative juices have a chance to rejuvenate.” They will return if you resist the urge to run them ragged. Promise.

For non-writers in a culture that worships workaholics and Attila the Hun types and doles out brownie points based on exhaustion and 24/7 work skeds, lighten up. That’s right. Get a grip. That old adage about, “I’d rather burn out than rust out”? Well, whoop-de-doo. Because you know what? Either way, you’re out. So listen up again.

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Are You Doing The One Thing A Writer Can NEVER Do?

Public domain

Public domain

I visited a favorite haunt the other day, the local library.  Prowling the stacks, I noticed that an author I enjoyed immensely a couple summers ago has cranked out several new titles, sequels in a series.  I selected one. Opened it. Started reading.  Talk about painful. That puppy made my teeth ache.  I couldn’t believe the author I so admired had slid so far down the readability-o-meter.

I thought, “Maybe it’s me.  Maybe I don’t get it.  Maybe I’m missing something here?”

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How To Make the Most of a Writing Contest

Snow-draped treesOkay writer, raise your hand if this has ever happened to you.  (It’s okay.  Nobody’s lookin’.):

You’re cruising the internet, local bookstore or writer’s group and come across an announcement for a writing contest.  It may be fiction or non.  Short story, humor, poetry.  Whatever.  You’re intrigued.  You check out the guidelines.  Polish your best material to a solar sheen, submit, and cross your fingers.

The results are announced.  You didn’t win.  Your work of genius not only didn’t win, it didn’t place or show.  The runners-up and honorable mention categories didn’t thaw your tree, either.

When Your Dog Could’ve Done Better

Disheartening, isn’t it?  Especially when the piece that snagged “winner” laurels is as dull as a spoon. As dry as the Atacama in August.  As imaginative as last week’s headlines.

Your dog could’ve done better.

A twinge – or maybe a truckload – of professional envy tugs at your sleeve.  You shake your head and mutter, “If that is a ‘winning entry’, then I’m the tooth fairy.”  Doubt and disappointment grapple with disbelief and discouragement.  You know your work is good.  But you just can’t break into the winner’s circle of a writing contest.

Maybe…

Maybe you need to read the contest rules more closely next time, making sure your submission is a good fit?  A review of past winners can be instructive, too, letting you know what judges (who are these people?) are looking for and why? Maybe you ought to hike into the nearest Himalayan hillside and become a hermit?

Been there, done that.  I’ve won writing contests – usually the type that specialize in smart-alecky – and haven’t even made the first cut in others. So, what’s a writer to do when your best crashes and burns?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t take it personally.  This may be the most obvious, but it’s also the hardest.  Rejection hurts.  Especially when you’ve worked hard to win, maybe for weeks or months, and the trophy goes to some barely literate peasant who’s been at the craft for twenty whole minutes.  Realize that losing may be the result of factors beyond your control: bribery, cronyism, nepotism, lack of name recognition, judicial vapidity, blindness, a shortage of tea in China…
  • Resist the temptation to pillory the judges.  This may be easier said than done. But realize that not all of these folks are residents of Mars or sport red tails and pitchforks.  They may have misjudged your abilities, but blasting back only makes you look small, petty, and amateurish.  It’s also a sure-fire way to get yourself banned from future contests.  Don’t go there.
  • Share your disappointment with a sympathetic ear, like a literary friend, colleague or relative.  I’m not suggesting spending the next twelve years wallowing in a pity party.  But rejection hurts.  Be honest about it with someone you can trust.  Get it out of your system.  Then make plans to move on.
  • When you have your legs back under you, ask a seasoned writer with a successful track record for some honest feedback.  Most will be gracious (notice I said most).  We all have blind spots.  Some honest feedback and tips could open your eyes and improve your chances next time.

Was Going to Say…

Snowy road, sunThis is the part where I’m supposed to say, “Try again.”  I was going to say that. Maybe hum a few bars of “the sun will come out tomorrow, but your bottom dollar….”  But if you’ve gathered your courage, worked hard, polished and submitted your very best to a contest with less than stellar results, the Pollyanna thing rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it?

Not to mention trite.

So rather than sugarcoat disappointment, I’m going to tell you the truth: Writing contests aren’t for everyone.  Only you can decide whether or not they’re for you.  Whether or not you want to risk it.  Whether your confidence as a writer can withstand repeated losses.  If losing a contest or two or three or more is going to make you fade and fold as a writer, you may want to forego that route.  If your confidence in your skills is enough to brush off the disappointment and keep plugging, have at it.  Just choose wisely.

Not the Sum Total

Also, realize that winning or losing writing contests shouldn’t be considered the sole, sum total of your writing abilities.  Contest results may be little more than a contrived compilation of ignorance or lack of imagination.  Sometimes both.  It’s easy to think that contest winners are somehow better writers.  Have achieved a stamp of approval you’re still longing for.  Or that you stink as a writer.  Maybe you have some learning and growing to do, but don’t let that loss rip the wind out of your sails forever.

‘See Spot Run’

I’ve seen clever, beautifully crafted Hemingway-esque entries thrown under the bus because they were four words over the word limit.  Meanwhile, the “winner” was akin to See Spot.  See Spot run.  See Spot run fast, but came in under the magic number.  What does that tell you?

Sometimes there’s just no accounting for taste.  Or the lack of it.

So again, if writing contests aren’t getting you where you want to be, let ’em go.  Take a break.  Plug into other venues.  Maybe polish that entry and submit it to a magazine, an ezine, or a non-profit that fits.  Offer it as a guest post to another blogger.

Keep writing, practicing, polishing and perfecting.  You’ve got something to say.  A story to share.  Keep at it and your audience will find you – with or without that blue ribbon.

Have you entered a writing contest and were disappointed in the results?  How did you respond?

A Note of Thanks

Pumpkins in wagon

I wanted to take a moment to thank those of you who’ve recently joined our little Roads Diverged family. There have been quite a few. Glad to have you. Welcome aboard!

A few house-keeping items:

  1. The holidays are just around the corner. I traditionally focus on the holidays during the holidays. I’m just funny that way. So stay tuned for further flashes of seasonal brilliance and frivolity.
  2. If there’s a particular topic you’d like to see addressed on the blog, holler. Never did get that mind reader thing down very well. You have to speak up. As in, leave a comment.
  3. Writing-themed guest posts are encouraged. More on this soon. Keep an eye peeled.
  4. You can also find me on Facebook. Drop in and set a spell. Love to have you join us.

Thanks again. Don’t be a stranger!

How Not to Write ‘Smart’

Public domain

I was at a conference the other day. Six of us arrived early. Snagged a table and grabbed seats while we waited for the emcee to get the ball rolling. Ninety seconds after we sat down, every other person around the table was buried in his Smartphone (you know who you are). I sat there for a minute, gaping like a cod fish. Then I smiled sweetly and chirped:

“Hey guys. I hear there’s this cool new game out. It’s called ‘conversation.’ I hear it’s kinda fun. How ’bout it?”

Heads snapped up. Electronically-glazed eyes re-focused.

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Anyone Have a Spare Tylenol?

Flickr/CC

If you’ve been writing for any length of time – 20 minutes or so – you’ve seen ’em. Maybe you’ve accumulated a whole stack of ’em.  What do I mean?  Well, the Dreaded, “Your submission does not meet our editorial needs at this time….” Rejection Letter.

Ouch.

These letters are the “Dear John” writer equivalent of taking one on the chin.  Is there anything worse for a writer?

Answer: Yes.  Let me explain.

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Are Your Veins Open?

Public domain

One of my all-time favorite writing quotes is by sportswriter Walter “Red” Smith:

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.  

If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. If not, well. Hang on a min. It goes like, “I sometimes think that if my veins were cut, they would bleed Mount Rainier snow melt.”

12 Top Trails at Mount RainierThat’s because my latest, 12 Top Trails at Mount Rainier, combines two long-time faves: hiking and Mount Rainier National Park.

From the Author’s Note:

Asking a Rainieraholic like me which Mount Rainier trail is her “favorite” is like asking a mom which kid she likes best. So selecting the “top 12” trails at one of the world’s most majestic mountain sites isn’t quite like falling off a Douglas fir, if you know what I mean. But as my dear hubby, Old Iron Knees, says: You were born to write this book.

Why does he say that? Well, either he hasn’t yet had his morning caffeine fix, or he knows I’ve been hiking Mount Rainier National Park since 1964. I have a pretty good view of the Mountain’s trails from my perch here in the nosebleed section of the “50+ yard line.”

I wouldn’t trade it for all the snow in Paradise.

So this little tome is my version of Top 12 Trails at Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP). Kindly note that it is my version of top trails at Mount Rainier. Not yours. Meaning, this list is highly subjective. If you don’t mind, neither do I. Also note that these are day hikes. Not week or month-long adventures or multi-night backpacking excursions. Savvy? …

And just so we understand each other: This isn’t another Mount Rainier trail guide. If you’re looking for mileage, elevation gain, landmarks or where to park, etc., some of that’s included. But 12 Top Trails is more like a trail guide/personal narrative/carpe diem/how in the world can you miss any of these, because your life’s not complete till you do kind of tome. Don’t forget to pack your sense of humor. Just sayin.’

Includes trails in Longmire/Reflection Lakes area, Paradise, Sunrise, and Chinook Pass. Part trail guide, part memoir, part humor. All heart. Or in this case, Mount Rainier snow melt.

Happy trails!

 

 

REAL DADS: Not Just One Sunday in June

Dad Naas Scan 2

It’s Father’s Day. Time for a card or two, a new tie, maybe breakfast in bed or a nice dinner out.  But have you noticed? There’s something off-kilter about a culture that spends 364 days a year  belittling dear old dad, then turns around to “honor” him on one Sunday in June.

Sadly, we live in a time and place where dads are often viewed or portrayed as: 1) Bumbling oafs who can’t tie their shoes without written instructions; 2) Insensitive clods and boorish louts or; 3) Invisible and irrelevant. Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without peanut butter. Or jelly. Or bread.

What Does It Mean?

There’s a fair amount of confusion about what constitutes a “real dad.”  Some equate dadness with volume, brute force, or beer bellies. They think the dude who sires a string of children and then disappears without a trace makes the yahoo a “father.” Or “dad” is the lunkhead who throws his weight around because there’s plenty of it. There’s a word for these kinds of guys. And it’s not “dad.” (Since this is a G-rated blog, you’ll have to fill in the blanks yourself.)

Real Dads

Real Dads can be hard to find these days. There are plenty of fakes. Just turn on the TV. But the Real Deal is still  around.  And often unsung.

A Real Dad is decent, hard-working, and upstanding. A Real Dad takes his family, job, and responsibilities seriously.  He gets outside himself to benefit others.   A Real Dad puts his family first.  Even when it’s “inconvenient.” Sometimes especially when it’s inconvenient.

Faucets, Flicks and Foregoing

Real Dads fix leaky faucets. Hang pictures or wall paper (without killing anyone). Walk on the outside of the sidewalk, nearest the street. Endure chick flicks without complaint.  A Real Dad may toil long hours in a thankless job to keep a roof over his family’s heads and put food on the table. Forego Monday Night Football to cheer a child’s Little League game. Put up a tent in the rain. Do dishes. Clean up dog barf. Teach junior how to slide into second without breaking anything, or stay home with the kids so Mom can have lunch out with the ladies.

Go Get Them

Real Dads take 1:00 a.m. phone calls in the middle of a sleep-over – come get me Daddy, I’m scared – and break every land-speed record on the books in the process.  They attend daughter’s tea parties, scrunch their knees into their chins in those made-for-kindergartener chairs. Down gallons of pretend tea and wear those funny little party hats like they’re dining with royalty. Because they know they are.

Real Dads may not always know how to express themselves. They may have a hard time finding the words to tell the wife and kids how much they mean to him.  So they do instead of say, speaking the language of self-sacrifice, service and grace.

Real Dads:

  • Stand for the National Anthem. They remove their hats, hold ’em over their heart and sing about rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air as their eyes mist.
  • Don coat and tie and conduct somber graveside services for dead gold fish and neon tetras.
  • Burn Christmas Eve and the wee hours of December 25 assembling brand new purple Schwinns.
  • Open those stupid pickle jar lids.
  • Spend an entire afternoon traipsing from store to store in the mall with the wife or kids, pretending they’re having a great time.
  • Say Yes when they can and No when they should.
  • Have arms that embrace, shield and protect. Their shoulders are big enough to ride, cry on, and hide behind.
  • Pray. And teach their kids to pray.
  • Are never quite thanked enough.

Real Dads cement a protective wall around the fam as no one else can. Real Dads stand on that wall, often alone, and patrol. Real Dads put any lurking menace or stalking evil on notice with, “Not on my watch. You’ll have to come through me first, and I’m here for keeps.”

With Dad at Neff How do I know? Because my dad was a Real Dad.  And not just on one Sunday in June.

***

This post was previously published on June 16, 2013.

7 Ideas for Jump-Starting Your NEW Writing Year!

banana split

Ah, January! Twelve freshly-scrubbed new months brimming with potential. So writer, what are you going to do with 2016?

Don’t wait till July moseys across the calendar to start getting serious about sharpening your writing skills and exercising those writing muscles. Start now! (As one husband who shall remain nameless has learned, even when yours truly is looking out the window, she is working. )

Here are seven brilliant ideas to help you work smart, make better use of your time, and do more with your writing this year:

  1. Cut back on social media usage. Now, before you have a heart attack or go into social media withdrawals, hear me out. I didn’t say dump social media altogether. Just cut back. Social media has a place for connecting with your readers and marketing your work, et al. But it can also be a huge time waster – and an excuse to delay or avoid doing the work of real writing. I set a timer before jumping on Facebook. When that puppy dings, I bail. Period. Otherwise, social media can gobble truckloads of time and energy away from real writing. And while tweeting has its place, it’s no substitute for sustained, thoughtful, deliberate writing designed to engage. You’re a writer, not a tweeter or a status-up-dater. Savvy?
  2. Set your writing goals. I know, I know. We creative types hate setting goals. They’re just so…. goal-ish. But believe you me, setting a goal(s) and writing it down will help keep your writing life focused and on track. And save time by avoiding The Dreaded Bunny Trails. Example: I plan to write ____ words per day/week. Or, I will finish ___ chapters by ___ (date). How ’bout: This year I’ll crank out ____ blog posts per week?
  3. Make a plan and take consistent action to meet it. Related to #2. Jot down what you want to accomplish this week as a writer. Next month. Next year. Do you want to publish more ebooks? How many? When? On what topics or stories? Do you want to be published in more magazines? Which markets? Sell more books? How? Each person is unique and your plan of action will be, too. The point is, be consistent. Writing down how you plan to move from Point A to Point B will help you crystallize that plan and take concrete steps toward meeting your goal. It’s a way to make good use of limited time, instead of doing the pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by bunny trail thing.
  4. Take small steps. That War and Peace rewrite? Good luck with that puppy. Ditto cracking the New York Times Bestseller List when you have yet to write a single coherent paragraph. Start small and build. Look for classes, contacts, and coursework to help you learn and grow as a writer. This may seem time-consuming at first, but it’ll pay off later as you learn what to dive in to and how. Ditto what time-wasting pitfalls to avoid.
  5. Rest. Yep. You read that right. Rest. Overwork or a stressed-out mind often manifests itself in The Dreaded Writer’s Block. So listen up. Hitting the block wall may be your mind’s way of saying, “Give it a rest already. Take a break. Recharge. Disconnect. Let the creative juices have a chance to rejuvenate.” They will return if you resist the urge to run them ragged. Promise. Adjust #3 as needed.
  6. Be consistent, but don’t be a slave. There’s a difference.
  7. Most important: Have fun. This may seem self-evident. But it’s easy to forget. If you’re not having fun in your writing, what’s the point? (Tip: Banana split with extra hot fudge. If you’re weight-conscious, hold the banana. Just sayin’.)

Bottom line: You got this. Now. What are you going to do to jump-start your writing this year?