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Braving the publication journey

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I don’t think you have time to waste not writing because you are afraid you won’t be good at it.

Anne Lamott

Have you ever finally gotten up enough nerve to send out pieces of your creative writing to literary magazines only to receive a declined notice in Submittable so fast it gives you whiplash?

Or maybe you have a secret list of favoured publications that you dream will one day accept a piece of your best work. So you finally get enough nerve to take the plunge, hit submit but then wait for weeks and weeks. When you are just about to give up, you decide to send a query about the status of your submission. And receive a warp speed response that is a combination apology/rejection note.

Perhaps you have worked hard to complete your edits, have carefully reviewed the submission guidelines, and crossed your fingers (arms and legs) as you hit submit. Then a few days later you take a peak in your Submittable account and discover your work is “In progress”. And you have read somewhere that the longer it takes to be reviewed the better the odds are that you are going to have your work accepted. So having your prized piece of work linger in that state must mean something is going to happen. Right?

You just know that this is it. This has to be your moment.

And then, it happens, the rejection that reads like a form letter. Or worse yet, a hastily written personal email that actually has a typo in it!

So you decide then and there, that you are writing only for yourself, to learn the craft, to honour and express what resides deep in your heart and soul. You will learn to become content to leave the publication racket for those who have more gumption than you have. You know you should have gratitude that you were published some time ago so resign yourself to this uneasy state of acceptance.

And you carry on, writing often but at the same time growing uncertain about what you will do with all of the work that now languishes in draft Word folders.

As time passes by, you forget the sting of rejection and the emotional roller coaster that accompanies the submission process. You have read that all writers go through this and that it should be considered part and parcel of becoming a published writer. A real writer would face the risk of rejection head on, leaning into the idea that this is growth oriented and actually a positive.

So you submit three pieces of flash fiction to a magazine that you respect but you aren’t convinced will result in publication success. But it is part of learning so you treat this as an educational opportunity. You have read that collecting rejections can be an important aspect of the writing process.

Some time passes and then, suddenly in your list of new emails, you receive a notice of acceptance. Unbelievable! Your work will be published in a print literary magazine and you may agree to read your work at the launch. A launch, what!

So you go through a new process, working with an editor to prepare and ready your work to shine in the best possible light in a print publication. Along with the work of so many amazing writers.

And then the day comes, you open the mail and find two complimentary copies of the literary magazine, spring, Volume 13 which contains two of your flash fiction stories. You sit down to flip through the magazine, admiring the beauty of the cover art and the layout, breathing in that new print smell. You close your eyes in order to fully capture this moment. Then you quickly scan through the table of contents and find your name. Twice.

You do that smiling and crying thing at the same time. And a single thought occurs to you – this risk/reward publication thing in the field of writing – it is really worth the journey!

happy writing!

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Re-thinking word count goals

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Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.

Strunk & White, The Elements of Style

Have you ever tried to force yourself to write in order to meet an arbitrary word count? It is a ponderous, painful exercise. I have been attempting to follow an oft repeated suggestion that setting a word count is an effective way to establish a daily writing practice. Not only is it purported to be helpful but should be considered an important guideline.

But learning to develop other aspects of craft can fall by the wayside as you grapple with the energy to meet this goal.

And if you are writing flash fiction, it becomes counterintuitive when trying to cultivate aspects of compression in your writing. Learning how to capture the essence of a situation with a brevity of words is a critical micro skill that doesn’t come easily. Especially to someone like me, who trained academically in another field where being wordy was both accepted as well as expected.

Writing is about showing not telling. Which can be hard to learn to do if you have a tendency to ramble. Sometimes it seems that adhering to goals that no longer serve us should be easy to let go of. But somehow that dark shadow of perfectionism creeps into your head reminding you to achieve a daily word count. If we aren’t mindful of this tendency to hang onto goals that no longer serve our purpose, it can haunt our efforts to learn to tell stories well.

Learning how to use very few words to tell a story that generates a complexity of emotions is more difficult than it sounds. Compression techniques are the underpinning of flash fiction. So my writing goals are evolving from trying to achieve a specific number of words to experimenting with other ways to develop and build my “compression” muscles.

Whether I practice writing 50 or 100 word stories or attempt to create a story in the format of a bingo card, I am feeling more confident with the focus of new writing goals. Learning to honour the elusive art of compression rather than the length of story seems a worthy alternative to monitoring word counts.

And writing goals just like any goals we establish in our lives should serve us in our growth and development. Learning when we have outgrown a disciplined habit requires flexibility and patience.

Now if only I could remember to stop myself from clicking the drop down box to reveal my word count before I leave my computer!

happy writing!

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Titles: Discovering the soul of your story

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A title has a big job. It is the first thing we read. It gets our attention and highlights the tenor of the piece. It’s shorthand for the tone, perspective, and content.

Bonni Goldberg

Having spent the past couple of days editing, reworking, and in some cases, re-writing pieces of flash fiction that have been languishing in a folder, titled, “not finished”, it dawned on me that choosing a title is a critical part of craft. And it is one that presents as simplistic but is more difficult than it sounds.

For many of the pieces of short prose that I had abandoned, the working titles chosen no longer seemed to fit. Like a broken puzzle piece, a poorly crafted title leaves a gap, a tiny void that grows larger through the distance of time. Flash fiction could be characterized as a full story living in a tiny space where the economy of words requires each choice be meaningful.

And the title is not merely the beginning but should reflect the essence of the story’s meaning or its soul.

So I took time to approach this task with a sense of playfulness – drafting at least ten titles for each story and then leaving it for a day before returning to see how these new possibilities lined up with meaning of what I had written.

My discovery through this process led me conclude that titles are a bit like shapeshifters. Through the kaleidoscope of reflection, there are different ways to present the meaning of your story and titles do in fact, play a leading role.

This seems somewhat parallel to the manner in which we use titles in our day to day lives. We frequently describe ourselves through title, usually with intent to announce to the world our successes or achievements. Rarely do we refer to ourselves based on our relationships, our place in the world, or the things that have the most intrinsic meaning to us.

Imagine attending a meeting, or some type of social event and introducing yourself as who you are – a mother, a wife, a daughter, etc., rather than what you do or where you work.

So if a title reflects the soul of story, whether it is one we have written or our own work in progress, it makes sense that considerable time, energy, and thought go into what it should be.

Happy writing!

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It’s a wrap

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It is always important to know when something has reached the end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.

Paulo Coelho

Bitter arctic air has descended bringing dangerous temperatures that are forcing prairie people to hunker down in our homes. What better time to reflect on the year that has past than now? Listening to Joni Mitchell’s, the River on repeat interspersed with Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah serves to set the background for my year end reflection and introspection.

This year has been a rollercoaster and I vacillate between thinking about those moments when the virus retreated which were far too short along with those longer times when it seemed like it would never end. But there is something healing about making the effort for reflection. It seems right to stop and think deeply about where you have been and what the meaning of this journey has been over the course of 2021.

Flipping through sporadic journal entries made over the past twelve months reveals that I did in fact accomplish everything I set out to do to further my goals as a writer. Seems ironic as my recent mindset has been stuck in a place of agitation and frustration that I haven’t accomplished what I wanted to this year because of the pandemic.

But like so much else this year, that is an illusion. My writing practice definitely was strengthened by participating in two excellent immersive flash fiction courses this past summer. At times these generative writing activities flowed like a summer river producing some interesting pieces of work. I published one single story this year and have decided that is cause for some celebration.

And I realize that if you procrastinate and don’t submit pieces of writing that seem finished, your work will never be released into the world.

At other times, working on other projects, taking a break and laying fallow produced surprising results. So that needs to be considered as a necessary part of the work of a writer. Being creative in other ways results in a combustible spark that pays off if you don’t give it too much thought. And really working to achieve a level of focus needed to edit a piece of writing is as important as the generative stuff. Maybe even more so.

Connecting with fellow writers eases the strange world we find ourselves in. It is uplifting to know that we are not alone. My gratitude and heart felt connection to the members of my writer’s group tethers me to this craft and to them in ways I never anticipated. And taking time, of which I seem to have in abundance, for reading also connects me to the world of writers. Writing once per week here continues to anchor me and gives me courage to set my words free.

So although 2021 is ending and I am not sad to see it go, there is much that has been learned through this year, and much indeed to feel thankful for.

Happy Writing and Happy New Year!

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Breathe first, write second

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I wish somebody had told me that I could slow down and take writing at my own pace. If you feel like you’re getting left behind…take as much time as you like

Danez Smith

Writing prompts are a curious tool in a writer’s tool box. They provide an inspiring jumping off point and the associations created in your mind may lead the way forward to a surprising piece of work. But if you rush to respond to the prompt by putting words immediately on the page, you may find yourself fumbling and then faltering.

It can be off-putting to say the least.

During this year’s Flash Nano, I discovered that if I let the prompt roam around in my mind before sitting down and attempting to write, I was able to turn over story possibilities until all of a sudden an idea would affix itself to what needed to be written and then words would flow with ease.

I experimented with this throughout the month of November and also learned that I could apply a similar principle to other pieces of work. Spending some time in mental preparation would invariably lead to a much better result. This is much the same as what athletes do prior to a big game event. They spend hours in mental preparation by visualizing what will transpire while in a state of relaxation in order to achieve a better result.

Writers often place an inordinate amount of pressure on themselves rather than letting the process of creating a piece of art unfold in the mysterious way that it does. Forcing words on a page without preparation may work for some but it definitely doesn’t do anything for me.

Even in a free writing situation, I have discovered that it seems better for me to relax first and consider what I want to explore during the writing session. I seem to need that tiny bit of preparation for the words that I need to write and the stories that I need to tell to move from my mind to the page.

So in addition to completing at least one piece of flash fiction every day for 30 days, I was able to learn more about what my brain needs to produce a creative piece of work during the month of November. Definitely a win/win this year!

Happy writing!

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One writing prompt, so many stories

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I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations

Ray Bradbury

Today is day 24 of Flash Nano, where during the month of November some writers are attempting to create thirty pieces of flash fiction in thirty days. With a burst of eager anticipation, I signed up again this year seeking to continue this voyage of discovery as a beginning writer. And this is the exact same spot I faced last year where I felt my enthusiasm wane and began to struggle to put words on the page in response to a writing prompt.

But I have been experimenting this year, taking one prompt and trying to create two separate flash fiction drafts – one in the morning and one in the evening. And it is fascinating how your creative brain can take the same prompt and deliver different responses, sometimes the divergence is drastic and astonishing.

Maybe this is like the snowflake phenomenon, where every snowflake in the world is precisely unique in some mysterious way. Writing stories that emerge from that unknown place that resides somewhere inside of us tells us more about how we think about our world than we may be mindful of. The best part of this experiment was the realization that as I have developed a writing routine, the spark needed to begin doesn’t have to be particularly special or profound.

It feels as if there are an infinite number of stories in us that we just need to gently nudge to bring into the world.

Picture prompts, first sentence lines, a snippet about a bizarre circumstance, all of these types of writing prompts seems to propel us to create something that is individual only to ourselves. And it is a worthy exercise to pay close attention to how other writers respond to the same prompt. It seems that we all have stories that need to be told.

When our writing group uses a prompt for spontaneous generative work, I love hearing how each of us approaches the words on the page. It is a marvel to listen to how other writers using exactly the same prompt have such diverse results. I learn something new each and every time we do this. Storytelling satisfies both our curiosity and that need for knowledge that we all have about each other and how we see the world.

The beauty of a writing prompt is that provides just a tiny push forward to release our words out into the world. And anything that helps us kickstart the writing process can only be a good thing.

Happy writing!

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Write on! It’s November

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There is something about just setting the pen to paper that lifts me and helps to focus my energy and thoughts

Susan Elaine Jenkins

With pen poised and in anticipation of all the amazing writing events that take place during the month of November, I feel like I am bubbling with ideas and good writing energy. Whether you are writing a novel or memoir in a month, a poem or a piece of flash fiction each day, there is no better opportunity than right now to kickstart a writing practice that might last through the long months of winter.

Although writing is a solitary practice, the community of writers in a multitude of genres who come together in November to encourage, cajole, and support one another provides the perfect backdrop to solidify a writing routine. It typically takes three weeks to develop and form a habit. So it doesn’t get any better than right now to join like minded writers from across the globe in this month long frenzy of sending your words out into the universe.

This is my second year signing up to participate in FlashNano! with Nancy Stohlman, who does a fabulous job of encouraging writers dabbling in flash fiction with amazing prompts, daily motivational emails, and providing a safe space for writers to connect and share their work. The creative sparks which radiate from this community infuse my daily forays into flash fiction.

And I know that when fatigue sets in in about two and half weeks, there will be a community of flash fiction writers to help with the final push to make it through to the end of this month. Regardless of the work I produce, I know that I am taking away so much more than thirty first drafts of short short stories. That is just the icing on the writing cake. What matters most is the felt sense of connection with story tellers from around the world.

Happy writing!!

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Dreams vs. Deadlines

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The difference between a dream and a goal is a deadline

Gina Raimondo

Do our dreams move forward more easily when they have deadlines attached? I have been thinking about this a lot lately. One of the interesting aspects of my writing life has been my tendency to procrastinate which was not something I did when I worked full time. Although deadlines in my past life were at times stressful, the urgency with which they propelled me forward and kept me focused on meeting goals and task completion wasn’t something I ever thought much about.

The past couple of years have been remarkably deadline free but I have noticed when I am in a situation where deadlines are in play, I am considerably more productive. I just finished a flash fiction writing course that was likely one of the best I have ever participated in. In a week I produced six stories that with edits and time will likely be pieces that I will submit somewhere for publication.

Having to post a story each day was the impetus to move my writing craft forward in a way that I previously thought was missing. And I think it is all about the deadline. An externally imposed deadline. Being accountable to people in the course and the instructor by having to create new material in a short window of time was beyond motivational.

Although I had moments of doubt when words wouldn’t come or ideas didn’t gel, writing to deadline seemed to fuel my creativity. It would have been such a struggle to fall behind or to give up and miss the opportunity to receive feedback on my pieces and to lose the connection that was formed in the writing community that developed during the week.

When every member is working towards similar goals, there is a sense of collective support and camaraderie that develops quickly. And everyone is faced with the same deadline urgency so being productive and taking risks to share your fresh and raw work seems to heighten the process. Being able to comment, share and receive feedback on the work of group members also plays into the generation of creative energy.

Deadlines often have a negative connotation but I realize that they have an important place in a creative life. And if taken seriously they can elevate a writer’s work to new levels. It seems that externally imposed deadlines might actually drive dreams and take you to the place you truly wish to be.

Stay healthy and safe!

Discovering abandoned writing

Art is never finished, only abandoned

Leonardo da Vinci
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Frigid winter temperatures and pandemic isolation have forced me to embark on another phase of clearing out clutter that mysteriously accumulates in my home. Discovery of a box placed high up on a shelf, both out of reach and out of eyesight, recently led to an interesting find.

Blowing off decades of dust, I opened this innocuous cardboard box, both puzzled as to what was inside of it and wondering why it was languishing in that spot unnoticed. Curiosity welled up inside of me. Along with a small buzz of excitement as recognition dawned about what it might contain.

Dozens of cheap notebooks were neatly stacked inside. Hilroy brand with narrow lines, three holes punched in them while sporting traditional colours: yellow, blue, green, and an odd dull shade of red. Reminder of a time when I had once poured my heart and writing soul into the craft of writing.

Flipping through them, I read past attempts at short fiction, poetry that badly needed line breaks, and pages of ideas for essays. Today I guess we would call that genre, creative non-fiction. Some random journal entries, typically melodramatic rather than upbeat but clearly delineating the timeline of the writing. Decades old from my university days and slightly beyond.

Character sketches. Plot outlines. Prose written with far too many adjectives. Ideas for a novel. As I read, becoming rather engrossed in the words written by my much younger self, I knew that my clutter clearing project was going to be placed on hold. Most of the notebooks had many blank pages. It was almost as if I must have started to use a new notebook whenever I made a renewed commitment to developing a writing practice.

As I read through these notebooks, I felt an emerging sense of creative energy. Looking at one of pieces of short fiction, I wondered if it would better lend itself to a flash fiction piece. Moving quickly to the computer, my now preferred way to craft prose, I began reshaping the words that once were in my mind so many years ago. And realized how thankful I am for this unexpected opportunity to rediscover these abandoned words.

Stay healthy and safe!

Creativity: Getting tiny sparks to burst into flame

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The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Doubt. Negative self-talk. Despair. We have all likely experienced those moments when we are certain that our creative wells have run dry and that we have no more words to offer up to the world. When we are beset by those times sometimes referred to as writer’s block, how do we regain those sparks of creativity and find the kindling needed to encourage them to burst into full flame?

Last month, I attempted and (actually!) finished a writing event during National Novel Writing month. Flash Nano, an event created by Nancy Stohlman who asked participants to sign up to receive a writing prompt every day and to then write a story of up to a thousand words. Each morning last month, I found myself trying to bend my mind around some unusual ideas, very quirky prompts, and then proceed to create a piece of flash fiction.

I must admit that as the month progressed, I actually eagerly looked forward to what that morning email would bring. And although it’s wonderful to now have a file folder with thirty flash fiction stories, some of which I will definitely invent the time to edit and polish while others will linger in that folder forever, my biggest takeaway was learning more about creativity. Specifically, how I became attuned to the role creativity plays in my writing life.

This was a private experience for me, I did not post my stories to social media sites, or share them with others. It was instead a journey down a path that led to internal examination and discovery. Each morning I found myself considering many divergent ways in which to approach a story based on prompts that sometimes didn’t even make sense to me. This creative discovery process was something I have never fully appreciated or spent much time in reflection about it.

Through this discovery journey, I have come to understand that many aspects of daily living are in fact creatively inspired. It seemed that from one day to the next, my sense of creativity was heightened and I began to notice how this permeates all aspects of my life. From what clothing I would choose to wear that day to what foods I decided to prepare and even extending to what type of exercises I would choose to engage in. Creativity is afoot even if we think it is not.

And the best part of this entire writing exercise, was that the more time I spent working on these ideas, the quicker they came to me. By the last week of the flash fiction event, my writing came more quickly and with much less struggle. It almost seemed as if the more creative sparks I experienced, the more these ideas became like pieces of kindling. And for all of the ideas that I didn’t actually use, I have set the remainder aside in a notebook for some day in the future.

Hope you are experiencing the warmth of the creative path in your life! Stay healthy and safe!