Advice on Writing, Vol. 3

Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Now, everyone always asks me what the secret to great writing is," Chuck Sambuchino began at the end of an all-day writing conference in Milwaukee. My ears perked up, "And for the first five years of working for Writer's Digest I honestly answered 'There is no secret.'" My ears perked down. (Is that a thing?)

"But, I've worked there for ten years now, and in the last five years, I've noticed something. A distinguishing 'secret' so-to-speak that sets apart wanna-be writers from actual writers. I also know that, from teaching this workshop many times, that this is the piece of advice you are most likely to ignore."

What is it? Whatisit? WHAT IS IT?

"The secret to writing is to put down the remote."

Womp, womp.

Of course, he had a point. He had THE point, really. Great writers make time for writing. You make time for writing by taking time you are spending on something else (cough *bingewatchingshows* cough) and repurposing that precious time for writing.

I did smile a little when he said 'put down the remote' because it seemed just a tad out-dated to me. Remote? I hardly use a remote. We don't even have cable (Just Netflix & an ESPN/HBO password). The remote is not my arch nemesis when it comes to writing. I still have one, though. It's smaller than the remote and much more powerful. Enter: the iPhone.

So, I started doing this incredibly bizarre thing when I want to write, uninterrupted. Turning off my iPhone, and turning off the internet.

Wait? The internet? Don't you need it to research? 

Short answer: No, not really.

I keep a pen and paper by me where I write down any questions I want to look up later online. I use a thesaurus (a real paper one!) if needed. Sounds crazy, but the benefits (uninterrupted writing time) far outweigh the costs (can't Google something in the name of "research"). From experience, 'researching' online seldom leads to great ground-breaking content for my book and often leads to me reading the entire life story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the backstories of all the actors/actresses on Little House on the Prairie for no reason whatsoever.

Often, I give myself a one or two-hour all writing, no phone, no internet block. Even better if I'm in a public place (coffee shop) so I can't spend the entire 2 hours petting Tywin.

My only goal now is to do this much more often. I think if I did this four of five times a week I would be much more productive as a writer.

I do think this advice applies to really any goal, not just writing. For example, if you want to be an amazing cook? Put down the remote/iPhone. Do you want to be an amazing runner? An amazing singer? An amazing piano player? An amazing yogi? :) The opportunities are endless.

Do you have any good tips for making writing time or controlling iPhone addictions? Would love to hear!

P.s. I found this Lively Show on How to Get the Most out of your Fringe Hours helpful!
P.p.s. Writing advice from Cheryl Strayed.

Read This: The Art of Fielding

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Occasionally I read a book where I get entirely lost in the world the author paints. Usually, this happens with fantasy (Game of Thrones*, Harry Potter, etc.). But when I get absorbed in a fictional (but not fantastical) world built by a realistic book, it's even more enchanting because it feels SO REAL. That's exactly what Chad Harbach accomplished in The Art of Fielding, his debut novel.

*Aside: I wore black the entire weekend after I suffered the first "big death" in GOT.

If you're assuming this is a book about baseball, it is. It's also a book about unconventional relationships and Moby Dick and uncertainty and codependence and transitions. It's a book about art; it's a book about love. It's an astoundingly compelling book. It's my favorite book I've read so far this year.

First, baseball. Harbach follows the collegiate career of Henry Skrimshander, a quiet, smallish Short Stop with an exceptional talent for fielding, an obsession with St. Louis Cardinal's Hall-of-Famer Aparicio Rodriguez*, and a complete dedication to improving his game and taking it to the next level beyond being the star player for the Westish College Harpooners.

*Sadly, Aparicio Rodriguez is fictional just like Westish (a small liberal arts college on Lake Michigan in Wisconsin I wish I had attended).

Skrimmer's fire is fueled by the coaching and direction of motivational catcher Mike Schwartz, who may not be as infallible as Skrimmer assumes.

Full disclosure: Yes, compared to the rest of the world, I'd be considered a "sports person." I played basketball in college, for goodness sake. And, reading about Henry running bleachers brought back some all-too-specific memories. However, I am by no means a baseball person. My favorite part of baseball? Undoubtedly the bratwursts. 
One of those moments when you think "I love Wisconsin!"
Harbach defied the odds: He created a bizarre passion for baseball in me that I'm having trouble shaking off. Recently, I drove past a uniform-clad little league team, walking toward a baseball field and I got all nostalgic about memories that a.) weren't mine and b.) never actually happened.

Example #2: Stephen was playing a Ken Griffey Jr. baseball video game (ha!) the other night, and when I watched the Short Stop make a throw to first, I thought of Henry. Of course.

But who doesn't think of Henry at Westish? The school's first-ever prospect has an immense amount of pressure on his slight shoulders, and things don't go entirely as planned.

Lest you think the story is entirely about sports, the President of Westish, President Affenlight, has some secret personal involvement with the baseball team and his daughter, Pella, moves back to live with him as she's going through a divorce.

Pella provides a much-needed "big picture" perspective. With most male characters obsessively focused on a single goal (not unlike Captain Ahab in Moby Dick) Pella is more of a free spirit. The complex characters, Herman Melville undertones, and clever writing are sure to draw you into this unforgettable story.

When I set out to write this review, I knew I wouldn't do the book justice, but hopefully I've inspired you enough to give it a try! Or, at the very least, eat a brat. :)

What's your book you've read this year so far? Would love to hear!

p.s. Another page-turner with an underlying sports story.

The future freaks me out

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's obviously difficult for me to think about the future without thinking about Motion City Soundtrack. Didn't see that one coming, did you? ;) But really, is there a more aptly-named song than the future freaks me out? A friend burned me their CD in high school and gave it to me on the school bus (thanks Jenn!) and the song always makes me conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This month, The B-Bar asked these questions for their monthly link up:

What are you doing (now) to prepare for your future?
What do you think you should start doing to create a better future for yourself?

Right now, I'm focusing on two big areas of my future: writing and wellness.

Recently, I've written a lot more than I had in the past (not just this blog, I've finished a fiction manuscript and began another). I've also written a lot in this book: 642 Things to Write About. Yes, those in-the-book-writings are just pen-to-paper, and aren't published or even shared anywhere, but it's been a great way to leave writer's block in the dust. I've attended two incredibly educational writing conferences and pitched my book to four agents. I'm eagerly waiting to hear back!

Wellness-wise, I've been really trying to prioritize yoga and mediation. In general, I've been working on feeling more calm, and being more compassionate. I'm trying to use my 20's to build my "eulogy qualities" just as much as my "resume qualities." Now, it hasn't been an overnight transformation, by any means (I'm no Mother Teresa), but I'm trying. Taking small steps towards being a more compassionate person each day is important to me.

As far as question 2—I don't have all the answers, but I think it starts with continuing to show up for, and connect with, other people. Continuing to work hard at writing, and, perhaps most importantly, being open to change and vulnerable with others. Putting myself out there, whole-heartedly, without regret. Yes, those are all a little general and not very concrete, but I think that's okay. I've never been big on life plans, but I never regret time spent connecting with and learning from other people. This book has provided key insight on redefining success for me as well.

Another future goal: spend more quality time with my cat. Duh.

I'm going end this post with perhaps an overused quote, but one that resonates with me:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." —Mark Twain

Now, make sure you pop on over to read everyone else's posts! I'm sure they'll be chock-full of Wednesday inspiration to make for a less-than-freaky future. And you might even find some awesome blogs you'll want to follow! xx

How to pitch a book

Monday, May 18, 2015

I drove over to the Milwaukee Writing Workshop on Friday, where I attended a day-long class by Chuck Sambuchino of Writer's Digest, and pitched to two agents at the end of the day. I'm looking forward to sharing some writing advice from Chuck later in the week (he offered many great tips!) but today, I wanted to talk about pitching your book to an agent. Talking about your book is a critical step in publishing a book—so practice, practice, practice (on anyone who will listen!) and get comfortable answering questions about it.

Pitching is a peculiar thing — it's exactly what you think it is, unless you're thinking about baseball, in which case, it's kind of like that, too. You throw your idea at an agent, who sits across the table from you, and strategically decides if they're going to take a swing at your idea, or not. If the rumors are true, usually agents choose to stand at the plate and watch your idea land in the catcher's mitt that's already overflowing with book ideas which weren't swing-worthy.

I would imagine the success rate for an agent hitting your pitch is lower than the .333 batting average which earns a hitter respect. Of course when pitching your book, you desperately want the agent to "take a swing" at and, if you're really lucky, "hit" your book idea, so there the baseball analogy fails. (Thank goodness, it was already quite the stretch ;)

You are the pitcher, who WANTS to be hit, which makes no sense. Just another time sport jargon fails to translate into real life.

Tangent: My favorite example of sports jargon failing is "par." In golf, of course, you WANT to be below par, but—in life—deeming a restaurant or hotel "sub-par" is decidedly a bad review. Why? Isn't sub-par good? Answer: only in golf. But doesn't par stem only from golf? Even if not, still, isn't golf the context we most associate par with? If you hear "par" and think of something other than golf, what is it? That last question is not rhetorical, I'm genuinely curious.

Back to pitching, sans baseball.

You sit across the table from one agent in a room full of agents for your time slot (probably 8 or 10 minutes), and now, it's your chance! Your chance to sell your book idea!

Of course, selling a book is nothing like writing a book. It is also a critical step in publishing a book. Everyone wants to write a book, that gets published, but no one wants to sell a book. People (especially non-writers) seem to think these are the steps: write a book --> publish a book. But it's more like write a book --> sell your book idea --> publish a book. And, if we're getting really future-thinking here, and a tad more descriptive:

1. Write a book (and edit extensively)
2. Sell your book idea to an agent
3. Agent sells your book idea to a publishing house
4. Edit your book with help of editor at publishing house
5. Publish your book
6. Sell your book to readers!

(Note: this is traditional publishing, not self-publishing or e-publishing. I see the merits of both types of publishing, depending on your goals, but I chose to pursue the traditional publishing route.)

Some people hate selling things, but I actually don't mind it. I think double majoring in both English and Business and working for a large corporation for 3+ years has allowed me to approach book-writing a little more realistically than I might have otherwise. 

I have now pitched four times and before each pitch I was incredibly nervous. Like doing-power-poses-in-the-bathroom nervous. But, I survived each time, and learned expert advice from agents each time, and was glad I did it each time! Writing conferences will provide info on agents beforehand: make sure you choose an agent who represents your genre. E.g. some agents represent only non-fiction. It's a waste of time (and money) to pitch your fiction book to them.

Rather than attempt a witty hook that could fall flat, I started my pitch with the facts after introducing myself: "I wrote a middle grade contemporary fiction book called (title) that follows (protagonist) as she..." and then went from there. The agents are sitting there (all day, sometimes!) listening to pitch after pitch after pitch of all kinds of genres, so I didn't want to make it too hard for them to follow. Also, things not to mention: This is my first book! I had friends beta read it and they liked it! I extensively edited it! The latter two are a given. The agent sure as heck hopes you edited it and had beta readers. If not, you're pitching it too soon. Also, mentioning it's your first book won't help your chances (and could hurt them), so best not to mention it!

After that, I dove into my pitch (I tried to keep it around 90 seconds) and then waited for feedback. The minutes following the 90-second-or-so pitch, were very conversational. Be prepared to answer incredibly specific questions. If the agent is interested, she'll likely ask you about word count, so know that too. Each time, the agent asked me thoughtful, specific questions (even if she wasn't interested in reading the manuscript), providing valuable insight into what agents look for.

While pitching, I focused on the very next step with pitching: convincing the agent its worth her time to read my book. 

You aren't (yet!) trying to convince her to publish thousands of copies and sell the foreign writes and—hey!—what about making it a trilogy with a three-part movie deal, maybe four, depending on box office success? ;)

So, if you walk away from your pitch with an agent asking for sample chapters, or a sample manuscript, yay!!!! But, if you walk away with valuable industry-expert advice for honing your story (or your pitch), it's also great, because you put yourself out there. You made yourself vulnerable. And only out of vulnerability can you really grow as a writer. 

Hopefully this was helpful if you're considering pitching—and, if you aren't, I hope it offered some insight into how traditional publishing works and some weird sports analogies to boot. I would love to answer more specific questions if you're prepping for pitching at a writer's conference! Feel free to contact me.

p.s. Writing advice from Cheryl Strayed and writing advice from John Dufresne that helped me manage "step #1."

p.p.s. Since I'm still (always) thinking about this — Does a sub-par golfer hit above par? Or is calling a golfer sub-par a compliment? Real questions, you guys. :)

Field Trip: Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Thursday, May 14, 2015

If you have a free hour or two this weekend and live in Madison, I highly recommend wandering the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. It's the perfect place to sit on a bench and read a book or go on a walk with a friend. As shown:

I read recently that exercise is the new coffee date. So, instead of grabbing a coffee (or a beer) with co-workers and friends, people are hitting yoga and cycling classes. I was recently talking to a friend whose brother works in private equity in New York City, and she said they'd even take clients to exercise classes instead of the usual wine-and-dine treatment. Crazy, huh? 

It's nice to see a shift where people care about fitness collectively, but, to be honest, work out classes can get expensive. The can also be hard. (Ha!) A walk in the FREE Olbrich Botanical Gardens sounds like a happy medium to me. :)

The gardens are right across the street from Lake Monona, so it's a really bike-able destination if you're feeling extra motivated. There's also lots of parking! There are all kinds flowers and trees, as well as pretty paths, benches, and even an ornate golden Thai Pavilion.

I recommend wandering as a fun way to spend an hour or two. When I'm feeling a lack of inspiration, I find spending some time in nature often does the trick.

Wherever you live, I hope you're surrounded by blooms this weekend and get to spend some time outside! xx

An Old Love Story and a New Puppy

Monday, May 11, 2015

On June 25 of 1946, Don was discharged from the U.S. Navy. He had just finished a 30-day "cruise" from Japan to San Francisco, with 4,000 other passengers. He slept on the sixth bunk on an eight-bed-high bunk bed. 

A month later, in Nebraska City, Nebraska, he met Mary. Three months later, on October 25, they got married in Omaha at a courthouse. They found a pastor from a random church to marry them, and pulled two little old church ladies from a simultaneous church pot luck to be their witnesses.

They have been married for 68 years.

Doesn't that sound like something a couple would say at the beginning of When Harry Met Sally?

That's the story of how my Great-Uncle Don and Great-Aunt Mary met. Mary is my dad's mom's sister. My parents and I drove out to Nebraska this past weekend to visit them, and a slew of other Nebraskan relatives. I was born in Omaha, but haven't lived in Nebraska since I was 9 months old.

I've always enjoyed traveling, even from a young age, but it took me a while to realize it really is the people I meet and interact with while traveling, even more than the places I've seen, that stay with me the longest.

Everyone has stories to tell — and hearing other people's stories helps me make sense of my own :)

I'll be driving back to Wisconsin from Nebraska tomorrow, but hope to be back to posting on Wednesday!

p.s. The pictures are of my cousin's new puppy, Cope. Isn't he adorable? I realize they are not in anyway related to the story (except, of course, I met Cope in Nebraska on the same trip I heard this story), but to me, one of the most challenging parts of blogging is this NEED for high quality images. If I have a good story, I want to share it, whether or not I have a high-resolution edited image. So, I decided to take this stance: If I have a good story, I'll share it. And if I have no new related pictures, I'll share dog or cat pictures. Because, if you don't like dog or cat pictures, what is wrong with you? :) And, of course, I'm an adamant a cat person, but this little guy is trying to make me a convert! 

Ingenious Empathy Cards

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Remember around Valentine's Day when I confessed my girl crush on illustrator Emily McDowell? Well, she's done it again with the most heart-warming empathy cards! When I took the "Strength Finder" assessment for a class back in the day, one of my top 5 strengths was "empathy." Still, when a friend is in a particularly tough situation, I find myself stumped as to what to say or do.

Enter, these cards:

I love how Emily captures sentiments that can be hard to put into words. I also (secretly) loathe the phrase "Everything happens for a reason!" so adore the middle card. I think it'd be applicable even for the "less serious" struggles of everyday life. She offers some cancer-specific cards, too. I think many of these would be a compassionate gesture towards someone struggling with mental illness, too. It can be tough reaching out to someone when you don't quite understand what they're going through — but that's okay! We're only human, and admitting you don't know exactly what to say is perfectly fine. Just don't let fear prevent you from reaching out!

 Just thought I'd share with you all, as I know many of us are supporting friends/family members through hard times, or are going through those times personally! Sending a little empathy your way! xx

Mom's Meals: Spinach Salad

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mom's meals is a series where I share recipes from my kitchen-wizard mother that I have managed to replicate, even though I once started a fire boiling water.


Before the world went crazy for kale, there was spinach. The original leafy green. Today I'm sharing a super easy, super delicious spinach salad recipe that my mom would often whip up for a side dish. 

What you need:

1 Bag Slivered Almonds
1 Red Onion
1 Can Mandarin oranges
A splash of Red Wine Vinegar
A little Olive Oil

What you do:

It's a salad, so you don't do much! 

Rinse spinach and cut onion.

Mix the juice in the can of mandarin oranges with a little red wine vinegar and olive oil, and lots of sugar. Taste until you decide you like the dressing!

Combine spinach, onion, oranges, and almonds, and toss in the dressing you just made.

Any other delicious summer salads you recommend? As long as it's easy, I'm game to try it!

And, fair warning, if you have a cat and attempt to make a meal involving a mixing bowl, expect this:

His expression says: You couldn't possibly need this bowl for anything.
Enjoy this delicious (and potentially healthy) summer salad!

p.s. Have you Googled food comparisons? It's a pretty nifty Google Easter egg. Here's kale vs. spinach.

Read This: The Dog Year

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I got the pleasure of meeting Ann Garvin through a Dream Bank event, and she was instrumental in helping me write my middle grade manuscript! She is an incredibly kind, energetic person so I couldn't wait to read her book, The Dog Year — it did not disappoint!

The Dog Year by Ann Garvin

The plot of The Dog Year is fast-paced, and the book is certainly a page-turner, but it's the fascinating cast of characters who stuck with me after I finished it. Our protagonist, Dr. Lucy Peterman, is a straight-A, type-A surgeon who's used to working hard and reaping the benefits, when her world is turned upside down by a tragic accident.

She handles this traumatic event how, I assume, many of us would handle such a terrible event: not well. Although she's financially stable, she starts shoplifting, a lot. She lives in denial about the loss of her husband, and struggles to connect with people, since she doesn't want to move on. She desperately wants her old life back. Is that too much to ask?

While dealing with the consequences of "trying to fill the void" post-accident, loner Lucy is forced to meet a cast of memorable characters — some from mandatory AA meetings, some from therapy — all who are flawed. She ultimately connects with these people, broadens her worldview, and learns she is not the only one with struggles. And she rescues a dog!

One thing I adored about this book was how, in a story of grief and struggle, Garvin was able to include hilarious one-liners. Whether it be the funny way she described a house, an analogy used to describe a reaction, a snarky comment from Lucy, or even just a quirky detail from the setting, Garvin continuously made me laugh on this healing journey with Lucy.

The Dog Year is a poignant story of overcoming grief and accepting a different reality than the one you imagined, and how connecting with people (and dogs!) can help you do just that. It also made me laugh. I highly recommend reading it, even as an adamant cat person.

Have you read any good books about grieving lately? I find it such a compelling topic, since everyone handles grief so differently. Cheryl Strayed's Wild is another favorite on the topic.

p.s. The Dog Year is Ann Garvin's second book. Her first is On Maggie's Watch. I haven't read it yet, but it's now on my list!

Weekly Favorites: It's Gonna Be May

Friday, May 1, 2015

Happy May, homies! When I was little, living in Iowa (until I was 7), we used to celebrate May Day on May 1. Aka playing ding-dong-ditch at friends' houses and leaving them cups of candy! After I moved to Pennsylvania, it was disappointing that May Day was no longer a "thing" there. Whether or not your hometown celebrates May Day, I strongly encourage candy consumption today!

Although my instagram is biased to Lake Monona, Madison's Lake Mendota is also beautiful this time of year!

Here are a few links for your (hopefully warm!) weekend:

Are you part of the 6.7% of American adults who read poetry? (The fewest readers, ever.)

I'm not a poetry snob (nor a poetry expert), but as I mentioned here, I have started reading it. If you're looking for a great place to start, I highly recommend this book.

My girl Becky* is nominated for Redbook Style Award**!! Vote for her, if you'd like.

*not my twin sister, Becky, Stephen's sister, Becky.
**I've decided this makes me stylish by association.

I made this pasta dish for Stephen and he proclaimed it the best dish I ever made! (Not saying too much, ha.) Had to share because (secret) it's really easy. This one was good too!

On important texting matters: hahaha vs. hehehe in the New Yorker

Uber drivers can now deliver you food. (In select cities.)

I attended a Count to Kicks luncheon on Wednesday —  I'm not pregnant, but I met Glennon Melton Doyle (!!) — but, if you know someone pregnant/in her last trimester share this site with her! It's really important to track movements in the third trimester, and I had no idea. (They have an app too!)

TED talk of the week: "Every single life matters equally and infinitely." (Warning: I cried a bit watching this.) And, I got the app.

Utah is a state I "need" as I attempt to go to all 50 — and Lauren's Salt Lake City post solidifies that!

Throwback rap song of the week :)

Happy weekend, homies! And Happy May!