Sep 232014

Jerri BellThis week I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Jerri Bell, who was kind enough to share some thoughts with us on the process of editing and how she got to this point. Jerri Bell served in the Navy from 1988-2008. Her fiction has been published in Stone Canoe; her nonfiction has been published in The Little Patuxent Review and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and on the Quivering Pen and Maryland Humanities Council blogs; and both her fiction and nonfiction have won prizes in the West Virginia Writers annual contests. She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project.

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Aug 292014
Writing Career with a Muse

Muse Attack

Having rescheduled yet another appointment due to my predilection for getting lost in my writing, I decided that it was time to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with my Muse. Seriously! When I chose a literary career, I thought I was supposed to be in charge of the writing process. After all, many successful authors describe how they structure their days, “reporting to their offices” to write for several hours, after which they go about the rest of their lives as they see fit.

Obviously, they never met my Muse. Like a selfish child, it can clamor within my head at the most awkward times. The following is an example of a recent exchange. Feel free to offer suggestions as to how you would handle my quixotic Muse!

MUSE:  “Hello there! Remember me? I just thought of a way you can improve that chapter you’ve been struggling with!”

ME:  “It is 3:45 am. Can’t I just put in a wake-up call for 7:30? I’ll be fresher, and my fingers should work better then. OK? Good! Keep in touch . . . . “

MUSE:  “’Fresher?’ And how do you think that is going to fix that overwritten, narrative-starved, clunky excuse for writing? I need you edgy. Nervous. That’s what’s missing in that chapter. Now, get your butt out of bed and let’s get busy!”

ME:  “Get busy? I’ve been pounding away on that keyboard until my fingers have gone numb. I’ve had to call to push up meetings with kind and patient folks who have decided that there is simply no way they are going to get me to conform to a ‘normal’ schedule, and even find me mildly amusing in an eccentric way. Besides, who put you in charge anyway? I’m the writer, you know!”

MUSE:  “Really? And who do you think planted Max inside of your head anyway, ‘Madam Writer?’ Who do you think woke you up that morning so many years ago with a little old man chattering away in a Yiddish accent you simply couldn’t ignore? Who do you think presented his entire story, beginning to end like a shimmering rainbow, even showing you the pot of gold on the last page? Who kicked you out of bed and drove you to your computer, so you could quickly record a rough outline of chapters before the Universe reabsorbed the story? ME, that’s who! So, who is in charge here? Do you really think you have much of a choice in the matter?”

ME:  “Well, I agree that you got the ball rolling. But, I don’t see you sitting hours upon end at that computer until your tailbone screams for relief. I don’t see you longing to be lost in Max’s world when your beloved partner impatiently calls you to yet another dinner he’s prepared just to hear, ‘Five more minutes. I just need to finish this paragraph!’ (With me generally appearing an hour later, my plate of food in the microwave awaiting resuscitation). I was the one who went into postpartum depression when I completed the first draft of the manuscript because I couldn’t bear to lose Max. Why shouldn’t I have the choice as to when to write? I’m not a television remote control device, you know. I have never found it comfortable to write, ‘On Demand!’”

MUSE:  “Because of ME! Do you know how lucky you are? Just think of all the people in the world who are asked to write on a subject that bores them to tears. Yet, they have no problem doing it. You’ve been there. I’ve rescued you time and again from linguistic drudgery in dreary offices. And this is the thanks I get? ‘Wake me at 7:30?’”

ME:  “OK, OK. You have a point there. How about we make a deal? You are allowed to wake me at 3:45 am to plant a thought, but as I need all the strength I can get to finish these revisions, how about your letting me hit your ‘snooze button’ so I can get a little extra shuteye until 7:30 instead?”

MUSE:  “I am more than a little bit offended! Likening me to an alarm clock is like comparing a brilliant sunset to the streetlights that go on at appointed times. I can’t give advance notice as to when I’m going to burst forth with some magnificent insight, rain glorious words down upon you like a refreshing shower, or fill your head and heart to overflowing. No, I’m afraid there are no deals if you want to be a writer. Writers aren’t doctors. There’s no vacation time, weekends, or full nights of sleep. That’s simply the name of the game.”

ME:  “But, doctors certainly get paid a lot more. A LOT more when you consider that being a full-time writer often means having to go long periods ‘on sabbatical,’ from any type of meaningful employment!”

MUSE:  “’Meaningful employment?’ Crunching numbers, or trudging to an office with bland people doing bland things while they answer to bland bosses who direct their lives? Writers are on their own! If you want a structured existence, than forget living a life with a Muse to provide you with pictures that dance in your head. It boils down to one simple question. Are you really serious about being a writer? If not, I can look for somebody else . . . . ”

ME:  “NO! Don’t leave me! Without you, Max wouldn’t be jabbering away in my ear and I don’t quite think I’d ever be whole again without him. He takes long walks with me and draws me into his world so I can experience the full flavor of his life and times. We’ve become very close. If you left, I’m not quite certain he’d know how to find me, nor I him. You win. If you can’t wait until a reasonable hour, than I suppose my nickname, ‘The Late Sue Ross’ will have to stand. Of course, I may never have work again, not to mention friends or colleagues who have trouble understanding the way of the writer, but that’s the way it will have to be.”

MUSE:  “Truly, I really don’t want to cost you friends, or employment, but I think you’re being a little melodramatic here. We’ve been working on this book for 14 years, during which time you’ve held down some pretty impressive jobs (with a few breaks here and there). I guess it’s hard for me to hold back when the energy is flowing.”

ME:  “I get that, but keep in mind that when you aren’t holding back, neither can I!”

MUSE:  “True, but if I’m on a roll, and you decide to come along, you’ll just have to accept the consequences. I will continue to wake you up and typing whenever the spirit moves me. You will simply have to accept your lot in life as a writer enslaved to me, your Muse, for as long as it takes. Not really a bad gig. You could have been born into a life as a telemarketer or bill collector! Instead, you are living two lives. Your own, and Max’s.”

ME:  “My own, and Max’s, hmm? Well then, let’s get back to work!”

MUSE:  “Now, that’s more like it! OK, get some rest for now. But, remember . . . I’ll see you in your dreams.” 

(“Muse Attack” created by –

Aug 272014

Poets and WritersFor all of us writers, publishing at least SOMETHING can be the difference in our lives that keep us writing. It’s what makes you feel like a writer, and feel justified when you tell others you are a writer. Today I would like to discuss the process of submitting short stories and poetry for publication.

I am not going to go into the craft of short fiction or poetry, as there are so many great books and blogs out there on this subject, but simply discuss the advice I have received and lessons learned regarding publishing.

Tiered Submissions

One of my early workshop teachers told me a great idea – submit your stories in tiers. For example, tier one would be the big-dogs, the literary magazines that we don’t likely have a great chance of being published in, but what they heck. Why not try?

Tier 1 examples: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, Ganta, Ploughshares, The Paris Review. etc. 

Tier two publications would still be pretty tough to get into, but maybe less impossible. What I mean here, is I’ve known people to get into them, but no one I know has ever been published in a Tier one publication, that I know of. Tier three, even more so.

Tier 2 Examples:The Gettysburg Review, Zuotrope, Kenyan Reivwe, Missiouri Review, Iowa Review, etc. 

Tier 3 Examples: Indiana Review, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The Colorado Review, etc. 

However, I want to get into the reality of publishing now. Until you are awesome (I’m still working on that), getting into any of these publications will be tough. If you have done so, that is terrific. Congrats! But what do we do when we really just want to be published, and the big named publications aren’t giving us the time of day?

Duotrope and Poets & Writers

Two great places to look for publications, and to narrow your search by genre, word count, and other categories, are Duotrope (which now costs money, unfortunately) and Poets & Writers (which is still free, I believe). This is great for those writers out there writing fantasy or scifi, or other niche categories, such as military, nature, etc. Even if you are writing literary fiction, you can find a great deal of publications through these resources.

Niche Publications

As I mentioned above, you may be targeting a niche. That is how my first story was published. I was a Marine for five years and wrote a short story that was inspired by that time and had a military angle going for it, so when I heard of the veteran focused publication “O-Dark-Thirty,” I was sold. You can find it at here, and more information on it and The Veterans Writing Project. I also published my first poem in a niche collection, this time focused on nature. If you have a niche you can target, go for it. I promise, it isn’t cheating.

Writers Conferences

Another great source is writers conferences, where you get to actually meet the editors of these publications. It’s great to chat with these folks and see what they’re looking for, and when you submit you may get some feedback, which always helps! Just to warn you thought, some of these conferences can be very overwhelming. Don’t be ashamed of brining a good book and hiding out in Starbucks for a break from the crowds.

Some I have enjoyed include the San Francisco Writers Conference, LitQuake, AWP, and Conversations and Connections.

Writer’s Market Guides

The Writer’s Digest offers a great resource for getting published, the Writer’s Market. In addition to listing sources of publication, this tomb offers advice for getting published, samples of query letters and all sorts of other helpful advice. The Writer’s Digest also offers advice for screenwriting, novels, etc., and I highly recommend it.


Finally, I would like to discuss Craigslist and other such avenues. Maybe you have a story that you love and for some reason it isn’t getting published, but you’re sure it is complete and you love it. You could always pop on Craigslist and find an up-and-coming publication that may love your story. Are they a big deal? Probably not, but who cares. They may become something someday, it may just be that your story helps them shine, or it may just go on their website and no one reads it except the people who follow the link from your tweet. I say go for it, but only if you’ve tried the other avenues first. A lot of these publications are started by college kids, maybe MFAs, and they mean to go somewhere someday. If your story touches them, you may have just made a connection, and who knows where that can go.


So in conclusion, my advice is to work through the tiers, search the sites and network at writers conferences, and if you just want it out there, give Craigslist or something like it a try. Whatever it takes to get you to keep writing and feel happy with yourself as a writer.

Let me know when you have some success, and I hope this helps.


Aug 152014


Now that there is time you feel as if you have none.

But ignore this. Keep your pace. And take in the serenity of your surroundings.

You don’t realize how absurd it seems until you try explaining it to your child: the concept of cemeteries.

“You mean there are dead people…like, in the ground?”

You nod matter-of-factly and watch as she glances around at the serene and perfect symbiosis of garden and stone. Gentle slopes of green cascade down from hills dotted with statuary and there, against the gathering velvet of dusk, you can make out the coifed gothic structure of a mausoleum on a hilltop. Continue reading »

Aug 062014
Compelling story dictionary

A compelling story according to Macmillan’s.

All writers consider writing about the episodes of their past. It’s not just the aspiring memoirist that wonders, “Is my story compelling enough?”

What started me down this path was reading Anne R. Allen’s How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts.

DON’T include every detail because “it’s what really happened.” Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.”

Continue reading »

Jul 282014

Personality disorderWant to create memorable characters with depth, complexity and an unpredictable capability for danger? Then give them a personality disorder … but don’t diagnose it.

Who could forget the character of Alex Forrest from the 1987 thriller “Fatal Attraction?” Actress Glenn Close’s ability to maintain a seemingly normal façade whilst exhibiting some of the most bizarre behavior is a testament to her power as an actress, but the part of Alex was also very well written. While most might sum her up as being “psycho,” more astute observers have noted that Alex displayed many of the characteristic traits of Borderline Personality Disorder. Since the character was never officially “diagnosed” in the film, it left her behavior and motivations – not to mention her mental health – open to interpretation. Continue reading »

Jul 222014

alternate povI recently finished writing a novel… Or did I? That is a question we often ask ourselves, and in some cases that may revolve around a doubt that what we have is enough and whether a second point of view (POV) would improve our writing or distract from it. Continue reading »

Jul 162014

Recognizing writing flaws helpls with editing Over the last sixteen months, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of having my proposal and manuscript edited and proofread. Through working with multiple editors, I came to see patterns in their corrections and comments. Recognizing my writing flaws has helped me edit and proofread.

I get wordy.

I do it in life and on the page. Now, as I edit, I look for ways to state things more succinctly. I challenge myself to reduce my word counts, even on shorter posts.

My self-doubt results in over-editing.

In life, I tend to start my paragraphs in the middle. When I’m half-way through an anecdote, I’ll remember that I left out why the story matters or is relevant to the conversation. In trying to prevent this potential writing flaw, I go too far in the other direction. I over-edit.

In fact, editors had to edit-out what I had, in a fit of self-doubt, edited-in. In other words, the final version was close to the original. Now when I evaluate an introduction or explanation, I think to myself, “You can lead a horse to water, but you need to give him or her credit for having enough intelligence to drink.”

I use vague referents

My that’s and which’s don’t always refer back to a concrete word or phrase. Or, if they do, it’s not clear to those who don’t have direct access to my thoughts. This one is another result of my jumbled brain, but it’s more laborious to fix. Particularly if I try to write, edit, and proofread in setting, I miss those. Whenever possible, I try to let my writing simmer before I edit and proof.

I like to list things in threes.

I know; writing is not like flower arranging. Things aren’t always better with an odd number.

I like adverbs.

There, I said it. In the above paragraph, I’d prefer to state, “A disturbingly high number of edits…” Now when I edit and proof, I’ll evaluate whether using the adverb brings something other than a lack of grammar to the table. Sometimes I’ll leave them, but often I find another way to structure my sentence.

I don’t vary my sentence structure enough.

For me, proofreading and editing don’t mix. A by-product of reading each individual sentence for errors is failing to evaluate the flow of a page. The fix: one more pass through the piece.

Your Turn:

What are your most common writing flaws? How do they change the way you edit and proof your work?





Jul 062014

People watching and character developmentPeople-watching. It’s a never-ending source of inspiration for fiction writers who might find themselves in need of some good source material. If, like us, you abide by the somewhat cliché notion that everyone’s got a story to tell, then what better place to peruse the wall-to-wall supply of living, breathing, fictional rough drafts than in a shopping center? Continue reading »

Jul 052014

I was recently asked to participate in a Blog Tour  Q&A with Kris Mehigan. You can visit her blog at:

Right now, I am working on:

…a couple of books, actually. The book I recently finished is titled, “The Portraits of Gods”. Here’s the jacket description:

At 49, Bryan Wakefield finds himself at a crossroads in his life. Approaching retirement, he considers what life will be like once he is forced to abandon the daily means of escape his job has provided from the tumult of his personal life. To complicate matters, Jack also possesses superior autobiographical memory; an extraordinary ability that allows him to recall specific events from any given date in his past with uncanny accuracy. It’s this very ability that causes him to dwell incorporeally in the doorway between past and present, comparing the dreams and reverie of youth to the disappointment of his adult life. One day, on his way to work, Bryan misses his exit. But instead of getting off at the next exit, he continues driving, setting into motion events that will force him to strip away his desensitization by pitting past against present and breathe new life into his search for validity and meaningfulness.

Blending beauty and symmetry of language, The Portraits of Gods tells the tale of lost love and one man’s struggle with the slow-acting poison of regret.

The work is currently being shopped around for publishers.

My work differs from others in the genre because of my…

…tendency to blend deep philosophy with events and situations we’ve all experienced. Living’s a hard thing, or at least it can be as long as you’re not blissfully ignorant. 

I write what I do because…

That’s simple: Because I have to.

My writing process is…

I identify myself as a writer, though to help pay the bills, I “moonlight” as a police officer. In the pre-dawn hours, I like to park someplace scenic in my patrol car with a cup of coffee and my laptop and write while watching the sunrise…do it before all the calls for service start coming in. The morning seems to be the time of day when the ideas flow most smoothly for me. It’s also indescribably meditative. Otherwise, I don’t have a set method of writing. Although I keep notes of my work to keep me from running into plotline snags, I don’t do outlines and such. I tend to just write where the wind takes me. And then I’ll do as many revisions as possible until I’m satisfied with it.


Coming Monday: Redwoods Society Intern Cliff Gateflower visits the Mall of America to do some people-watching.  

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