Blogging: To Thine Own Self Be True

Happy 2017 to you all!

For my first post in this new year, I want to introduce another form of publishing that is often overlooked: blogging. For those of you who have been considering starting a blog yet have been too intimidated to try, the experience of Karin Schmidt, my good friend and guest post contributor this month and prolific blogger at A Million Little Memoirs: Life Journey Recalled Through Memoir, will inspire and motivate you, and her advice will give you confidence. Blogging is typically viewed as a means to build your platform and writing résumé. But as you will see from Karin’s story, blogging offers many more joys and opportunities.

 

The first thing I did when thinking about blogging was watch the movie Julie and Julia. It’s the true story of how writer Julie Powell blogged while cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The result was a book deal (2005), a movie deal (2009), and being launched as a writer. My goals were less grand, but her experiences helped me in some surprising ways to find my own path.

In the movie, Julie let the whole experience unravel her life. She worried about who was reading her and if she was disappointing her readers. She had self-described meltdowns that wreaked havoc on her life, her work, and her marriage. This insanity was something I knew I wanted no part of.

I was sure of only one thing. If I was going to do this, it had to be for me. I wanted my work out there and thought this might give me a sense of accomplishment. If I were read, that would be icing on the cake. And if I received comments, that would be the sprinkles. Writing friends reminded me that once a piece is on a blog it is considered published. I decided I could live with that.

Lastly, I found help. I found someone with computer skills and her own blog. We met once a month, and she constructed my site. In between sessions, I began to post my writing and became more comfortable with the program. It was money well spent.

There are several different programs for designing and maintaining a blog with comparable options for layout and easy navigation. The programs keep statistics to check such things as number of visitors and an online support network for questions. I chose WordPress because I liked their layout and choices.

But I don’t think of what I do as blogging. To me, blogging is short, off-the-top-of-your-head musings. And that’s much different from what I do. I consider my site a website. My pieces are essays, personal essays and memoir essays. Each piece is a complete story. I pay no attention to word count; I’m just interested in telling the story.

I have over a dozen pages on my website so my stories can be posted into the appropriate category. I have a page for family stories, another for retirement essays, as well as for work, girlfriend, health, poetry, and even a page about writing. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years and have 135 pieces posted. For any piece that was previously published elsewhere, I’ve included the date and place of publication at the beginning of the post. This process has me writing nearly every day and always working on something.

I was curious about Julie Powell’s life after her blog, and her follow-up story has an interesting lesson for all writers. Julia Child’s editor says that Julia didn’t appreciate the expletives and other personal matters Powell included on the blog. Child would not endorse the book or meet her, saying Powell was doing this as a joke and seemed “flimsy.”

Julie Powell is now famous enough to be on Wikipedia. But perhaps she’s more importantly an example of why it’s imperative to know yourself and your goals before putting your material on the Internet in whatever form you choose. I’m energized and motivated to write all my stories. Now I have a place to put them. I keep doing it because it fits my writing goals. But I’m also careful of the impression I’m making.

 

 

Writing Contests

For my final post in 2016, I’m honored, once again, to have Ed Abell, author of the award-winning My Father’s Keep, to guest post. Writing contests are a commendable avenue for authors to build their platform and their writing résumé, and Ed’s experience shows how gratifying they can be after all those years of toil and tears.

 

I chose to self-publish because I wanted to be on Amazon and Kindle. That’s the marketplace. These days, even if a publisher did pick my book, I’d still have to show them a marketing plan and self-promote the book. The print-on-demand strategy worked for me.

The bad rap on self-publishing is that anyone can do it and so much of it is crap. So the question becomes, how do you differentiate yourself in that arena? Five-star reviews on Amazon help, but those are mostly friends (bless their hearts). Finishing well in writing contests meant validation from peers and recognition beyond my circle of friends and family. That’s, of course, if I won anything at all.

Between ads in Writer’s Digest, surfing the Internet, and Diana Schramer flagging opportunities for me, I chose fourteen different contests to enter. Each one had different costs and categories. They encompassed regional, national, and international. My book is a creative nonfiction memoir. It was entered as nonfiction, memoir, relationships, and sometimes the contest categorized it themselves. One was even mountain-specific because my story is told during a trek to Mount Everest Base Camp. (Just being included in the twenty-two books under consideration for the Boardman Tasker Prize was a victory.)

All had different rules for application and timing. Some wanted several printed books, some a gifted e-book, and some a PDF file. I made a chart to follow all the instructions and, most importantly, the timing of the contest results.

I had no idea about my chances. What I did know is the process of writing had taken four years and thirty-eight rewrites. I had used beta readers (people who didn’t know me to read the book and comment) and Diana Schramer as my professional editor—the last being so very important in producing a quality product amongst the self-publishing mob.

Months later I’m at our cabin. No Internet and undependable 3G. My phone beeps; an e-mail had arrived through the pine trees:

“Congratulations, Mr. Abell. The Paris International Book Festival is happy to inform you that you have received an Honorable Mention in the General Non-fiction category for your book ‘My Father’s Keep.’”

Fourth in the world in that broad category still busts by buttons. In all, I’d win two international and two national awards for both the paperback and the e-book. One of the gold medallions proudly decorates my book cover.

Did my sales skyrocket? No. But my mission all along was to write a good book, now an award-winning book.

I have included a review from a losing effort. I did not place in this contest. Please note the scores and comments about the editing. Good luck to all.

Judge, 22nd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards

Books are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “needs improvement” and 5 meaning “outstanding.”

Structure, Organization, and Pacing: 4

Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar: 5

Production Quality and Cover Design: 4

Plot and Story Appeal: 4

Character Appeal and Development: 0 (Non Fiction)

Voice and Writing Style: 4

Judge’s Commentary:

‘My Father’s Keep’ is beautifully written, well structured, and well edited, a professional and worthy book on every level.

The author tells his story without delving into pathos or cliché and the framework of the trip through the Himalaya works beautifully with the subject matter. The fact that, in the end, he got his dad’s ashes to the summit of Everest really hits it home. And it’s a great testament to the book that the author realizes and portrays what a good conclusion this was for him without any hand wringing about not making it to the summit himself. A lot of writers would have fallen into that trap.

The author weaves in scenes from his boyhood, and it works well as he makes his journey. Despite his family’s challenges and the damage it did, many of those scenes are fond memories and as the book progresses, have much more of an impact in the context of the rest of the material. Both the short scene where the author climbs the cliff near Lake Michigan and the one where his dad drives him back to college after his girlfriend have broken up with him hit the reader in the heart. The author’s skill at selling a scene without overwriting it really works here.

The cover, font and interior structure are all professionally done. The fine and professional editing of the book are also a big plus and a rare find in self-published work.

Overall, it is a beautifully done, professional book that would be at home on any bookstore shelf.

 

 

 

 

 

Critique Groups

This month’s guest post is by Ed Abell, author of the award-winning My Father’s Keep, a deeply moving memoir of forgiveness, promise-keeping, and the power of love and grace over addiction and its deep effect on others. In this post, Ed shares his experience while he was in the process of writing his book and conveys well the importance of critique groups and their many benefits. To learn more about Ed’s journey and to purchase his book, which I had the honor to edit, please visit him at www.wisconsciousness.org.

 

Just the words “critique group” strike terror in most folks. Someone else will judge my work, in front of EVERYONE. They will all be better than me. Do I even belong in the same room as those other writers?

Yes. I know from experience. I had been an industrial designer. I drew pictures for a living. I’d never written anything in my life, but I found myself with a compelling story to tell. I had a book in me. A comprehensive writing class led to honing my skills in a critique group.

To learn to swim, you must enter the water. To write well, you must first find your voice. Where in this wonderful world do you look for that? Simple, you start banging on the keys or scribbling on the pad, writing what you think you should. You read it to the group and get reactions. Of course I sucked for starters, but I’d been a professional designer sitting in front of clients. Criticism wasn’t personal. Additionally, I had this wonderful chance to experiment and I had a very passionate story to tell.

I was writing a memoir so I read other memoirs that I felt had voice. It wasn’t my voice, and it’s not something you can copy, but I began to see what works. The best of them always seemed to be rendered without wasting a word.

My group averaged eight people a session. I learned straightaway that I could depend on good feedback from the group leader and several others. Many members were there to show off or simply read the same things over and over again. Fair enough. I was learning, and I knew who was there to help me.

We only brought 1,500 to 2,000 words with us to each session. Nobody knew the whole story, not even me at the time. That wasn’t the purpose of the critique. We all brought copies for the entire group. Each individual would pass his or her copies around and read it to the group. Then he or she sat in dreadful silence for ten minutes as each member wrote comments on the copies. The group leader would choose two or three people to comment, saving her own opinion for last. The author’s job was to sit and listen, without debating or defending him- or herself. All the marked-up copies was then returned to the author. I would read all the comments on my copies when I got home. Punctuation was generally ignored. (That’s what editors are for later in the writing process.) Sometimes there were question marks. Parts people liked were underlined. Everyone wrote notes in the margin. Those notes were the tiller, private comments, usually positive, sometimes extremely personal, and always a course correction or a steady as she goes. In a little over a year, I found I had a knack for similes (painting word pictures) and syntax (words arranged to create well-formed sentences).

Then came the day when I shared a scene. When I finished reading, the group leader canvased the members, “Who wants to go first?” One of the ladies, whose opinion I trusted, looked up at me from her copy of my paragraphs and said, “This is music.”

On the way home that night I felt like my mission had been accomplished. I could write. My voice turned out to be me, sitting quietly, brutally honest, and writing from my heart. Dipping into the same well of creativity and inspiration I had used as a designer, only using words rather than magic markers and pencils.

Not every critique group is the same. Some are even genre specific. Ask around and do some research. Also, ask yourself why you are joining a group. What do you expect to get out of the experience: learning, sense of community, networking, or perhaps finding your voice?

Our leader at Red Oak Writing paid me a wonderful compliment when my book, My Father’s Keep, won two international and two national self-publishing awards. She said, “You were successful because you came into the group knowing that you didn’t know. You were a sponge, unafraid to learn. That’s not everyone’s agenda.”

Terrifying yes, but it was worth passing through that portal.

 

 

 

 

Writing Is Doing the Hard Work of Justice

I am honored to have Brian Forschner, author of the compelling Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders, his wife, Joyce, and his granddaughter as authors of the guest post this month. I met Brian about six years ago through an online writing group, and three years later, Brian began sharing with me his research for his book, which I ultimately had the privilege and honor of editing. As does Cold Serial, this post conveys Brian’s heart and passion for justice and his belief in the power of the written word.

 

Sixty students had tackled their eighth-grade capstone project. The theme was “Justice and the complexity of story.” The words of Malala, a favorite quote of the class, became a battle cry for the students: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” So sixty “pens” and one teacher went to work. The project entailed searching for sixty “voices,” defined as individuals whose stories illustrate the concept of justice. Students interviewed their “voices” and then wrote a summary of their conversation. These stories were then compiled and published in a book entitled Hear My Story: Be My Voice.

The day to unveil the book finally arrived; the audience of parents, grandparents, and other middle school students did not know what to expect. The ceremony began with a moving ritual honoring the “voices.” Each was met by his or her student “pen,” presented with a white rose, symbolic of hope, escorted up the aisle of the one hundred-year-old chapel, and seated near the altar. A priest and a rabbi then offered reflections, which were followed by the son of an Auschwitz survivor whose story had spearheaded the project. Given time constraints, only a few of the “voices” spoke, each briefly telling his or her powerful story, and the audience was awestruck and deeply moved by their words. The speakers were a Western Saharan woman, ousted from her country by invading Moroccans, now a human rights activist; a granddaughter who spoke for her grandfather, a WWII decorated veteran, who was present; and a high school student who spoke of his mother, a beloved teacher at the school. He told of her long battle with depression, culminating in her suicide. Many in the chapel were brought to tears listening to his words. The audience realized they had just witnessed a sacred moment and responded to the stories in the only way they knew how: a standing ovation.

A minister closed with a prayer. The students then filed out and went to the school cafeteria for a luncheon in honor of the “voices.”

The “pens” may not have anticipated the impact of their efforts. This is true for us writers. We often do not know the impact of what we say. Perhaps that is why and how stories should be told, innocently, truthfully, vulnerably, and forcefully, placing the words upon the page, allowing the reader to digest, feel, know, critique, admire, and act. Then the writer moves on to tell the next story, and the next and the next. This book, Hear My Story: Be My Voice, is a witness to the nature of doing justice. It is telling story after story, each building on the veracity of the previous one, words woven together into a tapestry illustrating justice.

This was hard work for the students and their teacher. Writing is hard work. Justice is hard work. Writing is doing the hard work of justice. A key learning from this project was that, in every era, words can bring about justice and change.

Malala would be proud.