Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What Is The Best Advice On Writing You Ever Got? (02/15/04)



Featured writer: Betty Winslow



Contributors this month:
Anne Silber
Betty Winslow
Charlene Bunas
Christine Falcone
D. Jayhne Wilson Edwards
Elizabeth Kern
Marlene Cullen
Rodney Merrill
Susan Starbird


Betty Winslow



Commonplace books (blank books to fill with quotes and snippets of writing that inspire, enlighten, and bless the collector) used to be... well, commonplace. Lots of folks had them and you could learn a lot about someone by what they chose to collect. Today, they're not so popular, but I have two that I would grab in case of fire or flood (after my children, my husband, and our family photographs.)

One book, covered in glossy white paper spattered with pastel flowers, is filled with words to help me survive the grief of my oldest child's death: Bible verses, prayers, poems, song lyrics, book excerpts, and quotes from others who've also survived great loss. I used to keep this one by me at all times, but now it's shelved where (when I need to, when the dark comes back around and grief lays in ambush) I can find it easily, to read the things I've written in it or add another weapon for the next attack.

The other book, given to me by a friend, is spiral-bound, with a marbleized brown cover and the title, "Millennium Memories". My friend inscribed it, "To Betty - I thought you might like a special book to put some of your writings in," but instead, I decided to immortalize the writing-related nuggets of gold that I run across from time to time, words that fire me up and remind me why I do what I do.

In it, I have lots of good writing advice. Let's see:

"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist." ~Isaac Asimov

"Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it's accompanied by a punch in the nose." ~ Ron Goulart

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise the muscles seize up." ~ Jane Yolen

"You are not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you...or your story. Do not take rejection personally." ~ Meg Cabot

"The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home." ~ John Campbell

"Reading and weeping opens the door to one's heart, but writing and weeping opens the window to one's soul." ~ M. K. Simmons

However, the best writing advice I ever got - short, succinct, and true, as all really good advice is - wasn't from a writer, it was from a company that makes shoes.

"Just Do It!" ~ Nike

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio, collecting quotes to avoid writing.

Anne Silber



I sought advice from many sources when I determined to publish what I wrote. Editors, Critics and English majors all had one perspective: what you write should appeal to Editors, Critics and English majors. I saw my work picked apart by its usage of participles, adverbs, and even gerunds. Recently, adverbs have been attacked as useless appendages, to be avoided like the Plague.

I attended critique sessions which focused on the technically perfect work which would appeal to Editors, Critics and English majors. Somewhere, I found myself asking, "what about the readers?"

The issue was who I was writing for, and why I wrote in the first place. I finally targeted my real reason for writing: my readers. When a reader writes me that she/he loved my style, loved my story-line or the depth I brought to an article, I am in writers heaven. I no longer care two figs whether I successfully play the game with Editors, Critics and English majors. And, (shouldn't use that at the beginning of a sentence) I know the price I pay for following my own heart and writing instincts. I may never get published by a major House. I will not bend my knee to their rules. I market my work to readers who are looking for the gist of the story, the point of the article, and who sense that the human being behind the written words is speaking to them in a natural, intimate manner. I am no longer interested in what an Editor might think of my "construction". You want construction? Go build a bridge. I've read many works that were written to literary perfection. These writers are writing for publishers, not the public. I made a different choice.

So the best advice on writing I ever got came from within me. It started in my heart, and came out my fingertips as I wrote.

I don't foresee any awards in my future, but my rewards have already been great.

And ( there it is again!) I still use adverbs…sparingly, but decisively.

Anne Silber lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has published one Young Adult novel and is working on a General Fiction novel, her autobiography, and a collection of short stories.

www.annesilber.net


Betty Winslow



Commonplace books (blank books to fill with quotes and snippets of writing that inspire, enlighten, and bless the collector) used to be... well, commonplace. Lots of folks had them and you could learn a lot about someone by what they chose to collect. Today, they're not so popular, but I have two that I would grab in case of fire or flood (after my children, my husband, and our family photographs.)

One book, covered in glossy white paper spattered with pastel flowers, is filled with words to help me survive the grief of my oldest child's death: Bible verses, prayers, poems, song lyrics, book excerpts, and quotes from others who've also survived great loss. I used to keep this one by me at all times, but now it's shelved where (when I need to, when the dark comes back around and grief lays in ambush) I can find it easily, to read the things I've written in it or add another weapon for the next attack.

The other book, given to me by a friend, is spiral-bound, with a marbleized brown cover and the title, "Millennium Memories". My friend inscribed it, "To Betty - I thought you might like a special book to put some of your writings in," but instead, I decided to immortalize the writing-related nuggets of gold that I run across from time to time, words that fire me up and remind me why I do what I do.

In it, I have lots of good writing advice. Let's see:

"You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you're working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success - but only if you persist." ~Isaac Asimov

"Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it's accompanied by a punch in the nose." ~ Ron Goulart

"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise the muscles seize up." ~ Jane Yolen

"You are not a hundred dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you...or your story. Do not take rejection personally." ~ Meg Cabot

"The reason 99% of all stories written are not bought by editors is very simple. Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home." ~ John Campbell

"Reading and weeping opens the door to one's heart, but writing and weeping opens the window to one's soul." ~ M. K. Simmons

However, the best writing advice I ever got - short, succinct, and true, as all really good advice is - wasn't from a writer, it was from a company that makes shoes.

"Just Do It!" ~ Nike

Betty Winslow, Bowling Green, Ohio, collecting quotes to avoid writing.

Charlene Bunas



OK, five minutes is what you ask of me. For you, five minutes is nothing. I could expand my thinking on deadlines and my flying fingers for at least eight minutes.

We'll see.

In consideration for the respect of deadlines, I'm going to tell you about the party I hosted for my 90 year old father two days ago. As you can guess, when the honoree is 90, not too many of his peers are around to honor him. Because most of my dad's friends are dead, I invited his neighbors and our nearby relatives, nieces, nephews and a four-times removed sister-in-law. I even included two of my high school buddies and hubbies on the invitation list. All together we asked about thirty-five folks to join us for a gourmet lunch. My dad didn't want presents. He was excited about sharing his special day.

And herein lurches advice for guests and writers alike: respect deadlines. My party-food deadline would be days before the Saturday afternoon party. I had a cake to bake and decorate, lavosh to roll, sandwich trays to fill, shrimp to order and vegetables to peel. Will extra chairs be needed? How many "happy birthday" plates and cups should I buy? Father nixed bottles of wine or champagne for a party punch. After I washed and dried the ole' punch bowl set, I set out to find a recipe. Do I prepare for ten or thirty-five?

Four people responded "yes," two "no." No one else called, emailed, or smoke signaled. How discourteous. How rude. How classless. Whoops, wait a minute; I'm talking about my family.

The party was a huge success because I'd planned for the maximum. It's a good thing. Everyone, over the course of two days, came (except for the two who had responded their "no.") The cousin who has lost 170 pounds via a gastrointestinal by-pass arrived with her party-crashing tattooed new beau in tow. Of course she didn't eat much, so his sandwiches balanced out her carrot nibbles.

My point? Yes, it's taken over five minutes for me to make this point. For the hostess or the editor, stressless success is the goal. For everyone concerned, respecting deadlines aids in that endeavor.

Those of us who claim maturity step up to the plate of being an adult. Owning accountability, responsibility and consequences is to live life as an honest adult. It's not always easy. Actually, it can be granite hard. But, it's pure: it's a clean way to live.

I've severed two friendships in the name of deadlines. In both cases, the women were stimulating and fun. Too bad. They wore me down with years of tardiness. I got tired of waiting in restaurants for lunch dates or quick coffee klatches. I got tired of hearing lame excuses. I grew weary of feeling low on priority lists. Finally, I got wise and decided if they wanted the stimulation and fun of my friendship they needed to meet me on time. If not, fini.

We moved on.

Deadlines define importance. If my participation is important (to me) I rise early, with excitement and expectations. If I miss a deadline, too bad for me. I miss out. I want no special favors. Next time, I am a bit more alert to my priorities, my abilities and my timing.

Am I woman enough to pay consequences of missing a deadline? Should I expect any colleague, editor or friend to wait for my personal inadequacies. Over and over and over? I tell you the answer is "NO."

When invited to a party, my responsibility as a guest, is to RSVP. When committed to a writing deadline my responsibility is to submit before or by the due date. I give respect to both my hostess and to my editor because I expect the same. It's a matter of honor.

Most of the time, I'm on time...except now. This submission took 56 minutes, 51 minutes over deadline.

Charlene Bunas

Santa Rosa, CA


The best writing advice I ever got . . .

  by Christine Falcone

I can still remember the blue and yellow cover of the slim volume, a gift from my Aunt Virginia when I turned ten. By that age, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to be a famous singer, that indeed I had no voice whatsoever accept the one that found is way to the page in ink. For my birthday that year, my daughterless aunt - who, for some reason, had taken a special interest in my dream of becoming a writer - gave me a book entitled If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.

In her book, she talked about the importance of believing in yourself - Don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough. Just keep writing and you'll get better until one day, people will be saying the opposite. I also remember there being something about writers write - period. It went on to say that you can't be too concerned with what others think, worry about what they would want from you or expect you to write. You must let your words come through and be a channel for that authentic voice that, like an underground river, is always there.

I remember studying the photo of Brenda Ueland at 95, and comparing it to the picture of a young Ueland at about 30. It was as if time had magically transformed her over the years. She had so many age spots and wrinkles, gray wiry hair and a smile that showed darkened, crooked teeth. At ten, I was dumbstruck at how a life lived could so alter a person physically, shrink them and diminish their spark. But the one thing about Brenda that impressed me was the flair with which she still chose her clothes at 95, and the way that her eyes still shone bright.

Christine Falcone

Novato, CA


D. Jayhne Wilson Edwards



In the 60s and 70s, I was taking classes in "Writing for Publication" with Helen Hinckley Jones at Pasadena City College . Mrs. Jones made it quite clear that her classes were a very different breed from the "Creative Writing" classes that were popular at the time.

The tip from her, which has meant the most to me was: It's important to be objective about your own work. No matter how much you are in love with a given word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, if it does not add to the piece, GET RID OF IT!

I was so excited to read similar advice in a story in the "Music" section of the Press Democrat's "Q" supplement on February 15 that I was inspired to send in my answer to the current Searchlights & Signal Flares question. John Beck ,writer of the article about Larry Potts, a singer-songwriter in Petaluma, said, "Returning to the workshop week after week, Potts learned to scrap lines he had fallen in love with and rewrite verses over and over."

Move over, Mrs. Jones, you can pass the torch to Mr. Potts!

D. Jayhne Wilson Edwards, Santa Rosa , CA

You're Talking to Me

  by Elizabeth Kern

In the past 15 years, I've attended writers' conferences everywhere from rural Vermont to rural California. I've read what hundreds, nay thousands, of famous and not-so-famous writers have said......blank......blank.....blank, like, "Write what you know." Hah! Then some man writes a book about being a Chinese courtesan and is a huge success. Go figure.

Blank....blank....blank......clank.......clank.....clank...Don't use indefinite pronouns like "it".....thud....thud.....thud... Don't write poetry with "I" or any part of the verb "to be" .....blank.....blink.......wink.

I guess one trick is when I get stuck, I just repeat the last word--------word-----word-----------word-----word until a new thought arises.

Arlene L. Mandell is prone to muttering aloud and pulling her hair when she writes.

The best writing advice I ever got is to keep writing--even when I think I have nothing to say, even when my muse has left town on the bullet train. And I guess with that advice comes a truth I've uncovered: that kernels of wisdom lie buried somewhere in the muck of nothingness. They lie there waiting for the sharp shovel of persistence to dig them out, clean them off, and polish them into more perfect prose.

The second best advice I ever got is to stop editing along the way. This is a hard task for someone slightly compulsive like myself, who has been taught to clean up as I go along. Even now it is so tempting to cross out a word for a better one, to delete all of this and start over again. But I resist. Instead, I picture myself gliding across the dance floor like Ginger Rogers with my heels clicking like typewriter keys and my eyes watching anything but my footwork. You can't dance when you're watching your feet.

Elizabeth Kern, Petaluma, CA

Marlene Cullen



Besides sit in the chair and just do it, the best advice on writing, for me, is to answer the question, "Why write?" I'm a compulsive achiever. I seldom do anything without being aware of the consequences. So I need to answer, "why write?" to get my butt into the chair. Antwone Fisher eloquently answers that question for me, from an excerpt in The Writer magazine, March 2004:

WHY I WRITE . . .

"Life often has a way of making people feel small and unimportant. But if you find a way to express yourself through writing, to put your ideas and stories on paper, you'll feel more consequential. No one should pass through time without writing their thoughts and experiences down for others to learn from. Even if only one person, a family member, reads something you wrote long after you're gone, you live on. So writing gives you power. Writing gives you immortality."

And, so far, that's the best writing advice I have ever received.

No, wait, what about all those books on writing I have read? Yes, very valuable, that's why I keep them on my shelves. What about all those workshops I have attended? Yes, that's why I continue to attend them.

I guess, bottom line, the best advice I have received on writing is, ultimately, what I tell myself, and that is, "Just sit down and do it."

Marlene Cullen reads and attends workshops in Northern California.

Waiting for the Muse Mule

  by Rodney Merrill

Like others, I've played the flighty artist-writer. I've waited for the inspirational mule to kick me in the head. Waiting for the muse-mule is a lark. It's fun: as wearing nautical garb on a skiff or a beret to art class is fun. But it's also horseshit. Writing is not magic. It's not mystical. Writing is hard work.

Nobel Prize-winning writer Richard Rhodes credits much of his success to an early mentor --Conrad Knickerbocker -- who offered this terse and crusty advice: "Rhodes, you apply ass to chair."

Alacazam! It works for me.

"Applying ass to chair" lets "your muse" know you're ready to work. If you are to write -- as opposed to fantasizing about writing -- you must find a time and place for writing. Then, short of a stock market crash or armed revolt, you must write.

Habit follows repetition. For this reason, writing at the same time and place each day is best. I work around the 50-minute clothes dryer cycle. I twist the "start" knob and the dryer manages quite well without me. After a 50 minute cycle, I'm ready for a break. I "remove clothes promptly for best results" then strew them across the bed to cool down. (Who am I kidding? I hate folding and I'm simply procrastinating.) Then I go back to writing.

Midday, I scratch together a huge pot of something that can simmer until dinner time. If I believed in a writer's muse, I'd posit mine in the kitchen cutting boards. A few moments of uninhibited carnage -- slashing through defenseless members of the plant kingdom with sharpened cold-forged steel, the smell of freshly spilled chlorophyll!

It takes a month to establish a new habit, sometimes longer. Don't quit! Even if you miss a day and take to bed with pound cake and ice cream in a fit of despair, pull yourself together as soon as you can and get back to work. In the beginning, the habit is more important than attainment. Apply ass to chair. Write. These are achievements enough.

If you have trouble getting started, don't wait around for omens and muses. Write. Write about how your ass gets unbearably sore when you are sitting in a chair with nothing to say.

Anne Lamott's advice ties for first place. "For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts."

It's OK to write something that no one will see or read or critique. Generate boxes and boxes of really stinky stuff. Mound them into great putrescent heaps. In writing, compost and bilge water contain the seeds from which you can root and nurture a lush and fruitful tree.

Rodney Merrill lives in Astoria, Oregon with Kate, the best wife and friend a guy could ever want. He writes constantly and occasionally has something to say.

Susan Starbird



Practical writing advice comes in pairs, contradicting itself in the same breath. "Make it new" and "give up trying to be creative." "Say who-what-when-where-why-how in the first paragraph" and "intrigue the reader in the first paragraph." "Full sentences" and "sound like people really talk." "Tell the reader exactly what to do as a result of reading this" and "leave something to the reader's imagination, create wonder." What you get is a nice collection of rules to break. Make it new (that's for poetry). Tell the reader what to do (that's advertising). Look for trouble in the very first sentence (fiction). For journalism (and this is why I never got a second job in news media), tell a story, don't regurgitate all the facts in the first, pyramidal paragraph. For advertising again (and this is key to survival in the ad world), just sit down and pound it out - all the creative ideas for selling tract houses have already been used. Say sayonara to making it new.

There's one rule that applies to all, regardless. It tells a writer exactly what to do. Cut, cut, cut. That's what good writers get paid for: each of the unnecessary words they eliminate as they make it new, pound it out, blurt the facts, create wonder.

Susan Starbird, hack and flack, Sebastopol CA

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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