Monthly Archives: March 2017

Transitions

Living the high desert of Southern California, I hear two things consistently:

“I’m sorry.” Yes, people apologize to me when they tell them I live in Victorville. For those who live down the hill in San Bernardino or Los Angeles, Victorville and the High Desert Communities are the middle of nowhere. But the truth is, it isn’t. I live ninety minutes from some of the best skiing, camping, and hiking in the country. It’s two hours from the best beaches in the world.  And sixty minutes to three hours, depending on traffic, to some of the best music and theater venues in the solar system (okay, maybe I exaggerate a little.) I like that I easy access to both nature and culture.

“The weather must be boring. You’re either roasting or freezing.” Most think Southern California as a whole doesn’t have seasons, but that is misconception held by those who live in a place where the seasons are spectacular. Yes, it can be extremely hot in the summer, 120o degrees Fahrenheit, but it will cool down at night, unlike Las Vegas, NV. Autumn is cool, crisp, and golden as the mulberries and cottonwoods turn bright yellow; if we’re lucky we might get a little rain. Winter is our wet session. The surrounding mountains are blanketed with snow. Sometimes the desert valley will get snow or frost and when the sun reflects off the Joshua trees the effect is a crystalline landscape. This year, the rains were plentiful, so that means spring will be colorful, and so it has.

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Joshua Tree in Winter

We are transitioning from winter to spring, and the desert is draped with wildflowers. This brings the big city folks out into the desert and with them a few traffic issues.

I went out into the desert this week, early before the tourist arrived, and enjoyed the colorful show. They are starting to fade and may only last another week or so.  The most crowded location was the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve State Park, but I also visited the empty Saddleback Butte State Park, Old Route 66 between Victorville and Barstow, and Rabbit Springs heading east toward Lucerne Valley.

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If you decide to come out, remember to bring water and sunscreen, stay on the paths to not only avoid damaging the flowers but also the emerging rattlesnakes. Also, if you are blessed to see a desert tortoise, DON’T TOUCH! The tortoise is very susceptible to human bacteria.

The seasons are not the only thing in transition this time of year, so are the people. I have three friends beginning final preparations for retirement in June. This moved me to look at my planning, if all goes well, I will retire from the school district June 2022. It seems so far away, but it’s only six years.

And what will I do when I retire? Write, of course. At this time, I only write about fifteen hours a week. I look forward when I can do it full time.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Crossroads

I’m at a crossroads, staring at the intersection in front of me wondering which way to I go. I can even imagine the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz telling me, “That way is very nice. It’s pleasant down that way too. Of course, people do go both ways.”

I’ve just finished my most recent draft of The Princess of Sweetwater. It’s been through my critique group, beta readers, and historical fact checkers. I have been working on this story off and on now for six years. It’s ready for me to send to the editor for final revisions before submitting it for publication.

It begs the question, what do I do while I wait for the editor to complete her part segment this journey?

I can stay where I am. Sitting on the fence, waiting, and stewing about what the editor is doing, while I work on query letters and pitches.

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I can march on straight ahead into the high plains of New Mexico to start researching and outlining my next novel.  I do have a research trip already scheduled for October on my calendar. I also have a stack of books to read on ranches, trains, and the state of medicine at that time.

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I can turn right and cross the bridge to focus on writing short stories. I have two stories that need revisions, they have been rejected by one publisher but with a little tweaking could be sent to another. It would be a challenge and a little scary. I’m not used to writing short.

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I can turn left, go down into the valley, and pull out an unfinished, abandoned project.  Maybe it could be revitalized and finished. I have at least three of those in the files. Okay, it’s more like six or eight, but who’s counting?

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These are all constructive. They are moving me toward my goal. Each has a purpose.

There is no shortage of writing I could be doing, the problem is getting passed the paralysis of analysis. That’s what comes a map full of options. Working on the new versus revising the abandoned is the main conflict here. The new is exciting, but eventually, I must run back to adjust the manuscript from the editor, putting the project on hold. The old may have possibilities, they could be rescued, but they were left behind for a reason – they were either bad or boring – could they be fixed?

It is a conundrum. Pick one thing to do or juggle multiple projects?

I know I’m babbling here, partially because my teacup had been substituted with a wine glass – Vino Blanco from Joseph Filippi Winery – partially because I want to do everything. I know if I take on too much the writing will suffer. Perhaps I should focus on those pesky query letters and as well as read my research for the next novel, Sally of Terra Linda. But, April is Camp NaNoWriMo! Dang it, there’s another direction I could go.

So while I bang my head against the wall trying to figure it out, here’s a scene from The Princess of Sweetwater:

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 At the Oakland train station, Fernando led them to the train platform.

“Our car is the last one,” he said. “Yes, there it is. They are getting our trunks loaded. Let’s get on board.”

He helped the ladies climb the steps.

Once on board their private Pullman car, Princess Victoria removed her cloak and laid it on the settee. “Excuse me, I think I’ll freshen up.”

“Please, Your Highness,” Countess Josephine whispered. “May I go first?”

“Of course.”  The princess smiled.

“The train should depart shortly.” Fernando checked his watch. “We just need our staff to arrive.”

Princess Victoria paced the parlor and rung her hands. She hoped the train wouldn’t depart before she had a chance to try for the service door at the opposite end of the car.

When Countess Josephine returned, Princess Victoria moved toward the lavatory.

“Anna, accompany Her Highness.” Fernando propped the parlor door open giving him a clear view of the corridor.

“Pardon me, sir?” Two uniformed railway staff boarded the car, blocking Anna’s path. “I’m Jordan, your steward, and Philips will be your chef.”

Princess Victoria continued toward the lavatory at the end of the car, silently thanking the railroad staff for the distraction. She stopped, her hand on the lip of the open service door, her heart pounding like a sledgehammer on steel. The train whistle blew, she held her breath for a moment. With a final look over her shoulder, she slipped from the train and pushed the door closed.

A station attendant stopped her. “Miss, you need to re-board. The train is departing.”

“It is the wrong train,” she said, ducking into the depot as the train began to move.

The train would be several miles down the track before they realized she hadn’t returned.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Books to Write By

 

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Writers are always working to hone their craft. We never stop looking for ways to reach beyond our natural gift of storytelling. It can be taking formal course work to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or attending conferences, but it can also be to listening comments of other writers as they critique our work, or working with a mentor.

I have also found books on the topic of writing to be helpful. There are a few old favorites that I return to when I have a question or need to review.

Earlier this week, someone asked me which “writing books” I have found helpful, so here are seven of my “go to” books:

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The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: Inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell,  Mr. Vogler take you through the fundamentals of the hero’s journey, character archetypes, and power of myth to tell a compelling story. I found that even romance stories have these elements which have been used by storytellers since we first gathered around the fire and spun tales to entertain and educate.

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No Plot, No Problem by Chris Baty: Written as a resource for National Novel Writing Month  Mr. Baty takes you through the process from the blank page to the first draft in thirty days. Written with humor and solid advice, I found it got me through the first draft of my first novel without going crazy.

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Firsts in Fiction: First line Hooks, Hints, and Help by Aaron Gansky:  This slim volume looks at that all important first line of your story. As a writer and teacher, Mr. Gansky uses this little book to make the process a little less scary. Beautiful examples of the worst and the best first lines are given in the text.

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The Irresistible Novel by Jeff Gerke:  We all want to write that “can’t put down” book. Mr. Gerke takes you through “the rules” of writing. He explains the reason for the rule, gives arguments for and against, and then lets you decide if you want to follow or break the rules. He also discusses how to emotionally engage your reading and psychology of storytelling from Jung to Campbell.

These last two are by the same author, James Scott Bell. It was hard to narrow down which of his excellent books in my library which to choose. As an author and instructor, all of his books are informative.  Here are my two favorites –

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Write Your Novel from the Middle  – This looks at the structure of the novel, finding that one point in the middle that defines what the story is all about. When I used this to do the last draft of my novel The Princess of Sweetwater, it took on a new, unanticipated direction when I defined the “mirror moment” in the story, and I fell in love with it all over again.

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How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career – This is one of the newest additions to my library. After participating in a webinar about the book, I decided to purchase it. Writing short for me is a challenge, rarely are my stories shorter than seven thousand words. Since reading this, I have finished two short stories and am submitting them to anthologies.

So how do I chose which ones to plunk down my hard earned cash and take home to read? A quick search online reveals thousands of books on how to write anything. It’s hard to narrow it down. I look for books written by people I like and respect.  If a book is written by someone I’ve never heard of, I will do a little research into who they are and what their credentials are. Also, I have found that recommendations from my writer friends often prove to be good choices.

What are some of your favorite writing craft resources? List them in the comments below.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open, and the kettle is always on.

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Criticism and Rejection

Rejection is part of the writing business. I found I need to have a thick skin, or I won’t last long. It is a given there will be things said about my writing that will cut deeply.

Critique groups are one of the places you may feel the sharp knife of criticism and rejection. I hand over my precious manuscript to be read by members of the group, and I have copies of theirs. I spent hours carefully reading and noting, what I believe will be helpful, constructive criticism.  I hope they will do the same for me. Then we meet on the appointed day, sit and wait for them to tell me how wonderful I am.

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There are two types of groups – the first is the ones I sat through in college, there are forty or so students and somewhere is that one person who just wants to see if they can make someone cry. They often don’t comment on the writing but attack the writer. Saying things like – you’re the worst writer I’ve ever seen, this was a waste of paper and/or my time, or seriously, you call yourself a writer? The whole time I sit holding back the tears wondering why the professor or grad student who’s the moderator is allowing this verbal abuse. It was because of this type of group I stopped writing for nearly twenty years.

The second critique group is preferable. This is a smaller group, generally no more than five (but there are exceptions.) These are real writers, who want to be their best and want me to also be a better writer. They can be tough. If something in the story isn’t working they tell me with bare-naked honesty. Yes, it still hurts, but it’s the writing, not me as a person. I have gone home several times, mad as a cat forced to take a bath. I lick my wounds for a few days, telling myself they are wrong, wrong, WRONG! Then I look at the chapter and, damn it, they were right, and I make the changes. Real critique groups are a blessing.

Then, of course, there are those dreaded Rejection Letters. I’m sitting here right now with my first rejection in front of me. I’ve re-read it a dozen times, sipping my English Breakfast Tea, and wondering what was wrong with my story? The letter doesn’t give me much of a clue.

March 1, 2017

Tess DeGroot,

Thank you for submitting your short story, Ghost of Tanager Lodge, to XXX’s 2017 annual anthology edition of the ‘XXX’ series, “XXX.” After reviewing your submission, we have decided not to include your story in this installment; however, we look forward to any other stories you submit to future ‘XXX’ compilations. The 2018 volume’s theme, title, submission guidelines, and deadline will be announced April 1, 2017.

Some of the possible reasons for receiving a “1” may have been: more telling than showing, high rate of predictability in the plotline, lack of or ineffective storyline/plot/characters, or poor editing (or not edited at all by a second-party editor), and some failed to meet the minimum requirement of containing a ghost or haunting. You are encouraged to continue to hone your skills and submit again to future ‘XXX’ editions.

Thanks again for submitting.

I’m sure it will be the first of many.

My friend and fellow writer, Brent A. Harris, has been commiserating with me as he got the same later for the story he submitted. He’s been writing longer than I have and has received his share of rejection letters. He said it “took a year and 30ish rejections” before one of his stories was accepted.  He now has two stories published in anthologies, Tales of Wonder  and Tales from Alternate Earths

But we’re not alone in facing rejection. Isaac Asimov displayed his rejection letters on the wall of his office. Stephen King hung his on a nail next to his desk until the nail fell out of the wall. J.K. Rowling recently tweeted some of her rejection letters to encourage new writers.

Nobody said being a writer was easy. When I write, I risk being cut to my very soul every time I share my words. Yes, there will be criticism, rejection, and even have a few bad reviews along the way. But as Brent said, he “will dust it off and revise it to submit elsewhere,” and I will do the same.

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Brent recently shared a writer’s prayer with a group we belong to on Facebook:

The Writer’s Prayer:
Grant me the words to write the story
The wisdom to revise and edit
The success to keep me going
And the rejections to keep me humble

These words are now on a card on my desk, a reminder to keep telling stories, to keep taking risks, and to take the writing seriously but not myself.

Until next time . . .

The door is always open and the kettle is always on.

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