Hey—I’m Usually the One Asking the Questions

As a freelance writer, I’m usually the one asking the questions and scribbling down the answers in a form of shorthand only I can decipher.

But every now and then, someone asks to interview me about writing, publishing, marketing books, or putting together a magazine. I hold a firm belief that we writers have a duty and obligation to help young and emerging writers, so I agree to the interview, if time allows.

That’s how it happened late last year. I was contacted by Deyse Bravo, a librarian at McKee Library on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She asked me to answer just four questions related to my writing journey, and I obliged. I came across our correspondence this morning, and after reading over my answers, I thought, perhaps, her questions paired with my answers may be of some benefit to my blog readers. I’ve pasted the text of the interview below. Enjoy!

Deyse: What are you working on now?

Amber: As a freelance writer, I have piles of works in progress on my desk throughout the year. Even though it is the end of summer, I am working on articles for the fall and winter issues of magazines. For example, I just completed “The Great Pumpkin,” for Sea Island Life Magazine’s fall issue. I’m almost finished with “Oh Christmas Tree,” an article GEORGIA Magazine will publish in December about the experience of going to a Christmas tree farm to find and cut a tree. And I’m trying to find a magazine editor interested in an article I wrote about growing pecan trees, harvesting pecans, and creating Southern pecan-based delicacies like pecan pie and pecan divinity (Note: I sold the pecan article to GRIT Magazine shortly after the interview. It will appear in their November/December 2016 issue). I pitch ideas to editors several times a month, so that type of work (idea development and sending out query letters) is always ongoing.

At the computer...

At the computer…

I still promote Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), and because I sincerely believe everyone has a keepsake and every keepsake has a story to tell, I continue my quest to help people write and share stories about keepsakes. I haven’t decided whether I will publish a second volume of keepsake stories yet, however, I still continue sharing these magical stories on my blog and through social media.

I facilitate workshops on freelance writing, writing family stories, writing about keepsakes, and other topics. I’m in the process of making my workshops available via podcasts and through interactive web conferencing. Writing is a business, and you have to constantly strive to be relevant and reach readers and paying clients. It’s the only way to make money in the business, unless you are a Rick Bragg, Stephen King, or Anne Lamont, who I am not.

I am also working on a novel with the working title, Daylily. I’ve reached into my background as an engineer for inspiration. My story begins with a horrific industrial accident that takes a man’s life. My main character, a female engineer working in the facility, is blamed for the accident. My story drifts through its arc as the main character runs away to a daylily farm to regain her sanity and figure out how to clear her name. I’ve always been a nonfiction writer, and writing fiction has been somewhat of a challenge for me. I’ve joined a critique group to help me progress through the writing process and get feedback. I hope to have a first draft of Daylily completed by spring next year (Note: I didn’t make my deadline. I’m still working on the novel).

Deyse: How have libraries been a part of your life?

Amber: I credit the public library in Warner Robins, Georgia with planting the “book fever” seed in my soul. Growing-up, I was drawn to books, especially picture books with their whimsical words and illustrations. I loved the way books felt in my little-girl hands and the way the pages smelled. I loved my hometown’s public library, which was connected to our local gym and recreation department. A trip to basketball practice was always followed by a quick visit to the adjoining library. I remember browsing the shelves, collapsing onto the floor to flip through the first pages of books, the mechanical stamping sound the librarian’s machine made that transferred the due dates to the the library card, the hush-hush silence of the library that contrasted with the loudness of the basketball gym and the recreation department’s pool room, and most of all, I remember the euphoria of skipping to the car with an armful of books.

I wanted to share the joy of the reading experience with others, so as a little girl, I often crawled under my family’s dining room table with my stash of library books and read them to a captive audience of disheveled dolls and thread bare stuffed animals.

As a teenager, I spent after-school hours at the library with friends. I grew up in a time before personal computers and the Internet, so the library was my lifeline for research. I also enjoyed plucking novels from the shelves and reading great works such as A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Catcher in the Rye. I feasted on the quirky tales of Flannery O’Connor and felt a special bond with her.

At some point during my childhood and teen years, my attraction to stories and my appetite for reading evolved into the desire to write, but I did not pursue a career in writing—not then. I was a child who possessed strong math skills and an insatiable love of science, so I was herded toward a career in engineering. I tucked my dreams of writing away for several years. But again, it all started at the library.

After my book, Project Keepsake was released in 2014, several libraries around Georgia and Alabama invited me to speak at their “Friends of the Library” meetings and events about the book, storytelling, writing, and keepsakes. I’ve really enjoyed discovering new libraries tucked away on the backroads of Georgia. I was in Hazlehurst, Georgia last week for a book signing, and when I stepped into the Jeff Davis Public Library, the familiar aroma of books greeted me like an old friend.

Deyse: What is your favorite book and why?

Amber: My favorite book is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As a child of the South, so much of Lee’s novel resonates with me—the sultry summer days of the South, the curiosity and mischief of children, the dialogue, the lovable, charismatic members of the community, the unfathomable cruelty of racial injustice, etc. I had never seen myself and my life portrayed in literature until I read Ms. Lee’s masterpiece as a young adult, and it shook me to my core. She so eloquently defined my dilemma—my struggle of loving and admiring my homeland and my beloved family, even though the ugliness of racism whirls around me every day. Just as Scout tries to make sense of it all, I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to reconcile the differences in my head. Strong writing. Strong story. Strong message. I still cry when I read it, and yes, I read it every few years and savor it like a glass of fine muscadine wine.

Deyse: Any advice for today’s college students?

Amber: I have lots of advice for aspiring writers. I’ve written lots of motivational and informational posts for writers on my blog at www.ambernagle.com. For beginning writers, I recommend “The Reality of Writing” and “Hook, Line, and Sinker”.

Here are a few of my general tips:

  1. Read. Read volumes. Read all sorts of material. Reading will make you a better writer.
  2. Write. Write a lot. Put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) and write fearlessly. Make time to write and write!
  3. Find a tribe of writers and contribute—ask for help from those with experience and offer assistance to those you can help.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by rejection or failure. Just smile and know that it is part of the journey and all writers go through it. I often tell students in my workshops that they will never hit a home run if they don’t step up to the plate and swing.
  5. If you fail at something (and you will), learn the lessons from the experience, put the experience behind you, and move forward.

Collaborating With Other Writers

Though I’ve only done it a few times, I enjoy collaborating with other writers. My largest collaborative writing effort is Project Keepsake, where I worked with writers of all skill levels to shape their short stories and publish them in a paperback collection.

In November, I collaborated on a blog with my dear friend and fellow writer, Renea Winchester. She and I are part of a sisterhood of writers who help and encourage one another. After exchanging a few emails, Renea pulled our story together and posted it on her blog at reneawinchester.wordpress.com.collaborationphoto

Today, I, too, am sharing our story (Buckeye Magic) with the world, but before I share our joint venture, I want to offer you a few reasons why you should consider collaborating with other writers.

  1. COLLABORATING IS FUN. Writing can be somewhat of a solitary journey, and so collaborating with someone you like transforms the writing process into a social endeavor.
  2. COLLABORATING HELPS YOU ENGAGE WITH NEW WRITERS. You have one set of readers, and your writing partner has another set of readers. At the end of the collaborative effort, a new audience will view your work. Simply put, working with another writer increases your readership reach.
  3. COLLABORATING ALLOWS YOU TO SHARE THE JOY. If your collaboration is a big success, you get to share the spotlight with someone you like, and that makes the moment even more special.
  4. COLLABORATION BREEDS CREATIVITY. The process of bumping thoughts and words off of one another helps generate new ideas and different approaches. You see the story in a different light, and that helps you grow as a writer.

by Amber Nagle and Renea Winchester

Today’s post is a lesson in friendship—a reminder that we are all connected, even when we are miles apart. It’s also a window into the world of a writer and how book events aren’t glamorous. Sometimes they turn downright ugly.

Amber Nagle: I rose to a familiar nip in the autumn air and dug out a wrinkled sweater from the bottom of my closet. I followed the winding country roads to Goodlet Farm near Rock Spring, Georgia and admired the contrast between the rolling green fields and cerulean blue sky along the way.

I love fall festivals and country fairs, and I was looking forward to participating in the first-ever Goodlet Farm Festival—a fundraiser designed to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research. Festival organizers directed me to the Author’s Barn, where other regional authors and poets had congregated behind tables showcasing their books and promotional items. I sat down at a table with an acquaintance I had not seen in a few years and started unpacking copies of Project Keepsake. I placed a large bowl of buckeyes in front, then settled into my chair and waited for potential readers to sashay by.

amberandbuckeyeProject Keepsake is a collection of stories by several different writers about the histories and memories associated with keepsakes—a quilt, a pocket knife, a cake pan, an heirloom sewing machine, etc. I coordinated the project, wrote two of the stories in the collection, and led the effort to find a publisher. The first story in the collection is “Herman’s Brown Buckeyes” — a story about my father and our relationship.

During my childhood, my dad gave me dozens of buckeyes he had retrieved from the woods. He always followed the gesture by saying, “Keep it. It’ll bring you good luck.” And so buckeyes remind me of my father and his lifelong love of the great outdoors—hunting, fishing, sitting by a glowing campfire, and roaming the backwoods of Georgia on foot.

During book events, I often bring a large bowl of buckeyes to give to passersby. The smooth brown nuggets tie into my book, but they also prompt interesting conversations. Many people respond to the buckeyes and share memories with me from their own lives, and I treasure that connection.

Renea Winchester: Many Southerners and hill-folk alike can recollect with great detail the moment a smooth buckeye was placed in their palm. For you see, a buckeye is just the right size for every hand, because it carries with it a bit of magic. Sometimes buckeye’s come on a whisper, a bent low-lips-to-the-ear moment when someone believes you are special enough to receive the gift. Other times buckeye’s come as a reminder that we all need a little bit of luck.

Buckeye’s trigger memories of special people which is why, upon receipt we are entrusted with the duty to share buckeyes with others. Buckeye’s slide effortlessly into pockets where your finger and thumb caress them for good luck and perhaps even remember that the One who created the Buckeye tree also created us.

Amber Nagle: And so it was on that beautiful fall morning at Goodlet Farm that I painted on a warm smile, handed out buckeyes, and sold three books in the first hour as the writing acquaintance seated next to me sat idle. I felt badly for her. During a lull, I reached into my cache and found the largest buckeye in the bowl. I handed it her way and said, “Here. Take a buckeye, my friend. It’ll bring you good luck.”

But instead of receiving my gift, she held her had upright and said, “No. No thanks.”

I offered again. “Come on. Take it. You never know—it may make all the difference.”

And that’s when she leaned toward me, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “I don’t need your good luck. Jesus is my good luck.”

She seemed agitated. No, she seemed kind of angry.

Stunned by her response, I sat motionless for about ten seconds, then finally uttered, “Jesus doesn’t care if you put a buckeye in your pocket. It’s just a fun Southern thing.”

She held firm in her rejection, and I realized she had misconstrued my gesture.

It had never occurred to me that someone might think I was pushing some sort of witchcraft on them through my offering of a buckeye. Indeed, I’ve never actually believed that good fortune is bound to a buckeye. I find them nostalgic, as do so many other folks.

Not having enough good sense that day to move on, I reached over and placed my buckeye on her stack of books. Yes, I realize that it was a juvenile response, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

She wasn’t happy with me and promptly removed it.

Like moving a chess piece into a check mate position, I put it back over on her side of the table, allowing it to make a heavy striking sound.

She was fuming.

Renea Winchester: Dad and I have been building a goat fence. This little project, which should have taken a week, has lingered incomplete for almost three months. I’m not going to push him, but it is getting cold and the days are growing short. I’d like to look out my window and see a couple goats, before the snow is piled head high to a giraffe, but I digress.

buckeyefenceMy daughter decided to help which makes me smile. Grandparents are our most valuable treasure and time with them is time well spent. When Winchesters launch into project mode we do so in style. Jamie, Dad and I each tied an apron stitched by Rita, who made the apron from articles of my Mother’s clothing. We now carry a piece of Momma with us in our hearts, but we also keep her close. After filling the apron pockets with nails, wire, and tools we got to work.

Amber Nagle: A half and hour after the buckeye incident, civility returned to our table and we actually exchanged a few book publishing and promotion ideas with one another. I’m thankful for that.

Just after noon, each author was invited to read a few pages from his or her book at a lectern positioned in front of tables filled with people devouring barbecue. As my time slot approached, I flipped through the pages of Project Keepsake and landed on one of my favorite stories, “Uncle James’ Pocket Knife,” penned by my friend and fellow writer, Renea Winchester. Her story embodies the essence of the project—that the items we keep hold deep, powerful memories.

I stepped up to the mic and addressed the crowd. “Today, I’ve chosen to read a friend’s story, because I miss her, and I wish she were here with us today,” I said, and then I began reading.

“A memory keeper collects, gathers, plucks important items and hides them in safe places. Sometimes a memory keeper displays mementoes for all to see. Sometimes memory keepers listen, hoard and stack-up stories waiting for the right moment to share them with anyone who shows a hint of interest.”

As I read Renea’s words, I could see her life playing out in my mind—her selecting the knife that bore her uncle’s fingerprints. The audience clapped at the end, and I walked back to my table and my somewhat disgruntled table mate, all the while wondering where Renea Winchester was, how she was feeling, and what she was doing. I made a mental note to tell her I read her story to festival-goers and that another author had been mean to me—rejecting my kind offering of a buckeye. I knew Renea would understand my frustration and melancholy.

Renea Winchester: While Dad and Jamie worked on the fence, I eased into the woods and began picking up sticks. The place has become a haven for briars, brambles and fallen limbs. It is difficult to mourn the loss of a parent and keep up with property maintenance. I bent double and parted the saw-briars, then carefully made my way to the area where limbs were twisted in a pile. I’ve got plans for this place, grandiose ones that – like most of my plans- rarely end like I envision. All I need is time and a chainsaw.  By the way, I always need a chainsaw.

Angry at myself for letting the hayfield go to seed, I pulled and tugged, tossed, and flung, and began expressing my strong displeasure for briars and brambles. The more I tossed the more I missed my mom, my friends and my old life. Then something lovely caught my eye. . . a buckeye, half-buried in the forest floor.

buckeyeAll work stopped.

I picked up the nut and immediately looked heavenward. Now I don’t claim to be a botanist, but I do know that buckeye trees look like, well. . . buckeye trees. The nuts they drop are encapsulated in either prickly balls, or soft leathery balls. Scouring the forest floor, I could find neither. It appeared that this buckeye had been tossed down from heaven just for me. This wasn’t a small nut, this was the biggest buckeye in the whole wide world !!!  I snapped a photo and immediately thought of Amber. She’s the Amber Appleseed of the Buckeye family. If you’ve met her, odds are, she’s placed a buckeye in your hand. Many people know that I rescue flowers from development. That is who I am . . . it is what I do. Sharing buckeyes with folk is who Amber is . . . it’s what she does.

Amber Nagle: My table mate left early, and I continued to hand out free buckeyes to people who paused at my table. An elderly lady ambled by putting much of her weight on a walking stick. I held out a buckeye to her, and she automatically lifted her hand to receive it. She opened her shaky, wrinkled hand, smiled, and said, “Ha! My daddy used to give these to me.”

She paused as if she had slipped into a deep memory, then cleared her throat.

“He used to tell me they’d bring me good luck. I haven’t seen a buckeye in years. Did you find this in the woods?”

“No,” I said. “I ordered these from the Internet. But I’ve found a few buckeyes in my lifetime, and their discoveries are magical moments—like finding an arrowhead or a secret garden.”

The woman beamed and nodded. “Yes, it is, isn’t it? Magical.”

And just like that, I made a new friend. We connected over a buckeye—a buckeye—just as my father and I connected over buckeyes in all of the years preceding his death in 1992.

Renea Winchester: Exiting the bramble pile, I hid my find behind my back and said, “Guess what I found?” Presenting the prize to my dad, for a moment I was back on Bett’s Branch standing atop the mountain rolling timber down the holler. For one moment I was ten years old and my Mom was still alive.

As Dad and I smiled, my daughter didn’t quite understand, being from the newer generation that must Google Buckeyes to learn of their importance. Dad placed the shiny nut in his leathery hand and said, “You know what this means?”

I certainly did. It meant I was tasked with the responsibility of finding someone worthy of the buckeye’s magic.

Amber Nagle: I closed shop and drove home with my mind awhirl with the events of the day. After I returned home, I checked Facebook, and that’s when I saw it. Renea Winchester had placed a photo of a big, brilliant buckeye on my Facebook wall with a message—“I’m thinking of you and feeling like the luckiest girl in the world #lookwhatIfound #itsabigone.” It was glorious—simply glorious.

Coincidences amuse me. Even though Renea and I were in different states that day, I was thinking of her about the same time she was thinking of me. We must have a magical buckeye bond.

Renea Winchester: I helped Dad and Jamie position a couple goat-fence panels (the fence still isn’t finished), then Dad and I searched for another buckeye, or the tree from which it fell. Finding neither, we both smiled understanding the magic of the buckeye.

Amber Nagle and Renea Winchester: We would love to hear your magical buckeye stories. Please do share them with us.

Please check out Renea’s books and short stories. I’ve added links below:
Farming, Friends, and Fried Bologna Sandwiches
Walking in the Rain: A Short Story about a Secret Place
Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half-Truths from Appalachia
In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes
A Hardscrabble Christmas

And as always, if you want to read more of my work, check out:
Project Keepsake
Southern Exposure
Have a Seat 

WARNING: Author Under Attack

Late yesterday, I attended the July meeting of the Calhoun Area Writers group and listened to guest speaker, Sarah Rowan, discuss the development and launch of her first book titled, Authentic Happiness: Devotions for the Slumbering Believer (Westbow Press, 2014). With no experience in writing or publishing, she not only wrote a book, but she sold over 1,100 copies of her book in the first seven months—by hand. That got my attention because I know how difficult it is to sell books out of the trunk of the car.

But it was something else she discussed that resonated most with me. Her account of being under “spiritual attack” weeks before her book was published knocked my mind back to January of 2014, just a few short weeks before my book, Project Keepsake, was released.

Under AttackIn the eleventh hour, I had to ask all story contributors to sign a legal release form allowing me to print their stories in the book. It protected the publisher and me against future lawsuits—standard practice in the world of anthology publication. Three story contributors pulled out of the project.

One writer sent a rather spirited email my way accusing me of being selfish and greedy. She reprimanded me like a teacher scolds a devious little schoolgirl saying, “You stand to profit from my writing, and I will not allow that to happen.”

My character was under attack, and it stung. I lost sleep over the email.

Project Keepsake evolved from my love of storytelling, my passion for writing, and my interest in the objects people keep. I never thought about making a grand fortune from the book. I often joked, “If Project Keepsake becomes a New York Times bestseller, we’ll all be rich.” But I knew there was little to no chance of fame and fortune occurring, even though the book is delightful.

The following morning, I sat in my office in distress thinking about calling off the entire project. “What am I doing?” I thought to myself. “I’m no writer.”

Like Sarah Rowan referenced in her speech last night, I had allowed doubt to permeate my psyche. I was under spiritual attack, and I was going down like a wide receiver being tackled inches from the end zone. That’s when my husband appeared in the doorway.

I said, “My character means everything to me. If this person believes I am a horrible person, how many others are thinking it, too? And what if the book bombs?”

“Are you kidding me? Suck it up!” Gene said in a louder, firmer voice than he usually uses. “This is what you’ve wanted for three years. Don’t let that woman’s email get to you. That’s bullshit.”

He turned and walked away.

An hour later, friend and fellow-writer, Renea Winchester, called to check in on me. I often ponder the timing of her call that morning.

Renea is the award-winning author of In the Garden with Billy, Farming Friends, & Fried Bologna Sandwiches, and Stress-Free Marketing: Practical Advice for Newly Published Authors, so when she shares her wisdom, I listen.

Renea told me that she, too, had experienced a moment of weakness just before her first book was published. She urged me to push through it. She said, “Remember—it is always darkest before the dawn. It will be fine.”

My husband’s tough love and my friend’s gentle encouragement were what I needed to move forward that day.

The book was published, no one called me out for being a despicable person, and everything was—and is—fine, fine, fine.

Do all authors go through these deep trenches of doubt on their way to publication? Apparently most of us do.

I think the take away is this: We must talk about our experiences in writing and publishing with each other, we must reach down and lift up our fellow writers who have stumbled or fallen, we must be teachers and encouragers to upcoming authors, and most of all, we must be kind to one another. I certainly needed “a lift” that day, and two people I love and admire came to my rescue. I hope I can do the same for another writer one day.

The DOs and DON’Ts of Writing Critique Groups

A small group of writers and I met for the first time last month in the back room of a local restaurant and launched a writing critique group. Writer extraordinaire, Karli Land, is our facilitator.

I’ve participated in a writing critique group before when I was active in the Chattanooga Writers Guild, and so I know one of the best things a writer can do for his or her writing career is to join a good critique group. These groups are not one-size-fits-all, so you may have to try out a few before you find a group that fits.

Our critique group is made up of writers of different skill levels, both published and unpublished, working on projects in different genres. The projects range from a book about Jesus, to a historical fiction book revolving around Huguenots, to a collection of humorous stories, to a book about a little girl who goes to church camp, to a book about a defiant man who can’t stand his job, to a work of science fiction with vampire undertones.CritiqueGroup

Me? I’m trying to advance my first novel, a fictional tale that’s been floating around in my head for several years. Writing fiction doesn’t come natural to me, and so I’m hoping that attending the monthly critique group will help me stay on track and complete a manuscript by the end of the year.

Our mission is simply to help each other. We move page to page through each writer’s work and share thoughts. The writers of our group are voracious readers, and so, it is easy for each of us to read a passage and spot what works, and more importantly, what doesn’t work. The challenge is delivering to other members of the critique group honest, helpful feedback without hurting their tender feelings and crushing their confidence.

Here are a few DOs and DON’Ts from our writing critique group.

  • DO show up.
    Everyone in the group has made a commitment to attend and help one another. Even if you haven’t written a word in a month, show up and help the other members with their projects. Writing critique groups are only as effective as their participation. Everyone wins when all members participate in the process. If you can’t attend a meeting, send an email to all members and offer your critique of their projects by phone or email.
  • DO be kind and respectful—or in other words, DON’T be an ass.
    There is no room for mean, disrespectful comments at the writing critique group sessions. Remember the Golden Rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consider your words. Don’t say, “This part is a mess! It sucks!” Instead, start your remark by saying, “I really love this part, but I have a suggestion about this other part…” And don’t have distracting side conversations during the critique sessions. Give the other members your full attention during their critiques.
  • DO critique the works of the other members.
    Dive deeply into the other members’ projects and really try to offer assistance. You won’t help anyone if your only feedback is, “That was great. Way to go!”
  • DO offer suggestions that help.
    If you tell another writer that something is weak or doesn’t work, propose a fix or solution to the problem.
  • DON’T short change other members.
    Every member of your group is deserving of a thorough critique, even if the meeting is running long. It’s not fair to rush through the last critiques because it’s getting late. One way to address this is to determine in advance, how many minutes to spend on each critique. If five people are sitting around the table, and the meeting is an hour long, everyone can have a 10-minute critique and discussion.
  • DON’T be overly sensitive to criticism.
    Remember, everyone has different opinions about books and movies, and so the members of your group will have different opinions about your writing. The key to success is to consider everyone’s opinion, but in the end, make your own decisions about what to change and what to keep. Don’t let the criticism hurt your feelings. Shake it off and keep writing.
  • DO say thank you.
    Remember to thank everyone at the end of the session and encourage the other members to continue working on their projects and participating in the group. And don’t forget to thank the business or homeowner hosting your writing critique group.

If you have other suggestions and tips, please list them in the comments so that we can all learn.

Join Me in Celebrating Pi Day

Pi Day is this coming Saturday.

I first learned of Pi when I was in middle school. Math, up to that point, had been pretty straight forward—adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, calculating hypotenuses of triangles, etc. But then one day, the teacher drew a circle on the chalkboard and started labeling certain points around the circle. At the 3 o’clock position, she wrote “0.” At the 9 o’clock position, she wrote, “π“. When she reached 3 o’clock again, she wrote “2π.” She called it the Unit Circle and explained radians to us, as about half of my classmates began to have what best can be described as math seizures. Hands shot up left and right with questions. Eyes rolled back into heads. I heard the “thuds” of a dozen or more heads slamming into desktops. Friends gave other friends puzzled looks as if they were telepathically communicating the message, “WTF” to one another.

Pi Day is Saturday, march 14, 2015. Let's write Pi stories.

Pi Day is Saturday, march 14, 2015. Let’s write Pi stories.

I, too, was a little confused at first, but my young mind knew that math was about to get really interesting, and it did. Pi and I became fast friends that day.

Pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which happens to be just a little over 3—3.14159265359 and it goes on and on and on. It’s a constant, meaning that for all circles of any size, Pi will always be the same.

Pi Day is celebrated on March 14th, because the date is often annotated as 3-14 or 3/14. Get it?

So here’s my Pi Day challenge for my writer friends. This week, I challenge you to write a story in exactly 314 words and post your story in my comments. Can you do it? And if you are feeling really bold, post a longer Pi story with exactly 3,141 words and post to my comments.

Come on! Let’s join the math nerds this year and celebrate Pi.

I’ll post my Pi story on Saturday, March 14, 2015. Stay tuned.

And as always, I invite you to venture over to my other website at www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

The Reality of Writing

Think you can’t learn anything from watching reality television? Think again. These six reality television shows offer lots of lessons for professional and aspiring writers.

In 2009, the ever-so-uncoordinated Steve Wozniak appeared on Dancing with the Stars, proving that with a little practice, anyone can learn to dance. With practice, anyone can learn to write.

Airs on ABC
I’ve only watched ABC’s Dancing with the Stars once or twice, but the lesson is simple: With practice and determination, even the most uncoordinated among us can learn to do the Tango. The same is true of writing. Few of us are born with the knowledge and natural ability to sit down and compose the next bestselling novel. However, writing can be learned and improved through the simple acts of writing and revising. Want to be a better writer? Practice, just like the celebrities do on Dancing with the Stars. Work on the elements of good writing. Study great writers and their works. Never give up. And always give it your best shot.
—Lesson from Dancing with the Stars: Practice, practice, practice!

Airs on ABC
During ABC’s Shark Tank, entrepreneurs and inventors stand in front of a panel of five millionaire sharks and offer them opportunities to invest in their budding companies. Though brief, these entertaining presentations are designed to wow the sharks and entice a few of them to make strong partnership offers. Each entrepreneur’s pitch covers what their product is, how they’ve sold it to customers, their profit margins, their sales volume, and their plans for future growth.

Shark Tank pitches are similar to the pitches I send to magazine editors each and every day through query letters. I start my letters with a strong hook paragraph designed to grab an editor’s attention. I outline why my idea is a perfect fit for their magazine. I define the word count of my article, what I will include in the piece, and when I can send them the finished product. I also include a little about myself and why I am the perfect writer to write the article. My letters are both professional and entertaining.

Want to amp up your pitches to editors, agents, and publishers? Watch an episode or two of Shark Tank and pay special attention to how each entrepreneur engages the sharks. Notice all the idioms they include in their presentations.
—Lesson from Shark Tank: Make your pitches both professional and entertaining.

Airs on Fox

William Hung? Not the greatest singer on the American Idol stage, but it didn't matter to him.

Remember William Hung? Not the greatest singer to perform on the American Idol stage, but it didn’t matter to him. Write because you love to write, and focus less on how well you write.

Actually, writers can learn two lessons from American Idol. We’ve all seen those contestants—those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, yet they stand in front of the judges and belt out their favorite ballad as if they have a voice like Taylor Swift or Glen Campbell. Being tone deaf doesn’t stop these contestants from singing. They love to sing, so they sing. So the first lesson from American Idol is this: If you love to write, then write. You don’t have to be the next Harper Lee or Stephen King to find immense pleasure in writing.

The second lesson from the show comes from a phrase that is batted around on almost every episode: Make it your own. Some of the contestants have a knack for taking a common song and singing it in a way that makes it sound fresh, artsy, and relevant. In writing, so many of us have similar thoughts and opinions, but we have different ways of expressing our points. The key to interesting writing is to find and unleash your unique writer’s voice. Think about what you want to say and make it your own. But remember, when you put yourself, or your writing, out there for the public to read, some people will offer up judgement, and it won’t always be positive.
—Lessons from American Idol: Write because you love to write, make your writing your own, and learn to accept criticism.

Airs on the Discovery Channel
A film crew follows the daily lives of Billy and Ami Brown and their seven mostly-grown children, as the family lives off the land in a remote region of Alaska. For the most part, they live without the luxuries of electricity and running water. They barter. They build things. They hunt, fish, and forage for food.

The Browns work together to survive. They’re a cohesive tribe, and everyone seems to have a specialty. For example, Noah is the inventor of the backwoods bunch, and the other family members rave about his intelligence and creativity. Gabe is the powerhouse, and when the Browns face a task that calls for brute strength, Gabe is elected to take the lead. Bear climbs trees. Snowbird, the oldest daughter, is the sharp shooter of the family. They support one another and celebrate each other’s strengths.

Like the Browns, I, too, have found a tribe—a tribe of other writers. Some are authors and have books they actively promote, while others write poetry, daily Christian devotions, fan fiction, etc. A few of my friends are editors. And I even have a few writers in my tribe that freelance for magazines, like I do. We are all different with different goals, but we stick together, encourage one another, and help promote each other’s work.

If you don’t already have writer friends, I encourage you to find a tribe. Get out there and meet other writers. Join a local writers group or guild. Attend a writers conference. Network. Share experiences. Encourage one another. Offer your help. Ask for advice. You’ll find great joy and satisfaction in sharing, collaborating, and forming friendships with people who love and appreciate writing the way you do.
—Lesson from Alaskan Bush People: Find a tribe of writers and participate.

Airs on the Discovery Channel
Each episode of Gold Rush follows three crews as they mine for gold. One of the crews is led by Todd Hoffman, a character known for his poor decision-making skills. He’s big, hairy, dirty, and broke, but still, I find Todd appealing. I’ve pondered this appeal for weeks, and I think I finally know why I love Todd: He’s an eternal optimist. In the second season, he missed a lease payment on Porcupine Creek and lost his claim to Dakota Fred. But instead of declaring defeat and heading home, Todd scurried and found another claim—Quartz Creek—and mined a respectable ninety-three ounces of gold from the ground. In the fourth season, Todd led his guys to Guyana, and after mining barely two ounces of gold and a dozen minuscule diamonds, he was forced to pick up and go home in shame. Still, Todd and his crew regrouped and returned this past season, more determined than ever.

Like God Rush's Todd Hoffman, good writers learn to "shake it off" when things are going to Hell in a handbasket

Like Gold Rush’s Todd Hoffman, good writers learn to “shake it off” when things are going to Hell in a hand basket.

My point is this—Todd Hoffman may find himself battered and exhausted at the bottom of a deep hole without a ladder,a rope, or a friend, but the following day, he picks himself up, makes one of his trademark motivational speeches, and claws his way back to the surface for the next round.

As a freelance writer, I encounter lots of setbacks and frustration. I go for days without a “yes,” a decent assignment, or a book sale. This rejection, along with the constant criticism and the low pay writers receive for their work, can be downright demoralizing at times. As I fall asleep some nights, I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” But the following day, I channel Todd Hoffman. I get out of bed, make a cup of coffee, and face the day with new resolve.
—Lesson from Gold Rush: Learn to shake off disappointments and keep moving toward your goal.

Airs on CBS
For fifteen years, Survivor has captivated viewers with its recipe for certain disaster—throw a bunch of strangers from all walks of life on an island far away from civilization, starve them, make them compete in bizarre challenges, and watch as one man or woman outlasts the others. Many times, the strongest and the most competent of the contestants are voted off before the end. Sometimes, sane contestants have melt downs while the camera is running. It takes a lot to be a contender on Survivor. You have to outwit, outplay, outlast.

In my freelancing experience, I’m not always the best writer or the most experienced writer, but I am one of the hungriest and most determined. I keep pitching ideas. I continuously look for opportunities to work, promote my books, and sell my writing. Like the sole survivor, I outlast my competition. I stay in the game without letting the game break me, and you should, too.
—Lesson from Survivor: Outlast your competition and do what you have to do to stay in the game of writing.

Thanks for visiting my writers blog. I invite you to leave me comment. If you are interested in more of my creative endeavors, check out www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

Short and Sweet

I have been a proponent of “shorts” for several years now. By shorts, I mean short pieces of writing—short stories, short personal essays, short narrative nonfiction pieces, blog posts, flash fiction, short shorts, miniatures, sudden fiction, etc. In contemporary usage, the term short story usually refers to a work of fiction no shorter than 1,000 and no longer than 20,000 words, but other shorts can be less than 1,000 words. My narrative nonfiction pieces are about 800 words.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has approached me at one of my workshops or writers meetings and announced that he or she has been working on a book—for years. I congratulate them. I encourage them. But I usually sense notes of despair in their voices.

Sometimes they shrug their shoulders and say something like, “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll finish it one day.”

“What other writing projects are you working on?” I often ask.

As if I’ve offended them with my question, nine out of ten people respond by saying, “Oh, that’s it. I don’t have time to work on anything else. You have no idea.”

Well, yes, I do. I’ve been a writer-for-hire for almost a decade now, and I also have my own side projects going. All writers get bogged down in the deep, thick mud of a large writing project from time to time and spin their wheels for days, weeks, months, even years. It’s happened to me before, and I know from personal experience that it isn’t healthy for a writer to focus solely on one large project for an extended amount of time.

I’m also a realist, and I know that statistics show that most people who begin writing books and other large projects never finish them. They simply bite off more than they can chew, and for some writers, they end up spitting it out.

That’s why I enjoy writing shorts. They are small, fun-size prose morsels—easy to nibble on and easy to digest. Writing them keeps us engaged in the process and reduces the pressure associated with writing larger projects.

Writing shorts gives me the freedom to take an idea and run wild with it for small intervals. They allow me to write about a myriad of topics without investing or devoting a lot of time to one pursuit. I explore a topic, and I finish it in a few hours or days. The sense of accomplishment is almost like a drug for me. It’s instantly gratifying.

Only have thirty minutes to write today? No problem. Write something short and be proud.

But there are other reasons to write shorts. First, writing shorts will force you to write tightly—eliminating extraneous adjectives, adverbs, quotations, descriptions, side stories, and flashbacks. It’s a great exercise.

Also, consider your readers. In todays world, readers have shorter attention spans. People are attracted to tweets offering a thought or idea in less than 140 characters. Readers of online content crave concise stories, even when discussing complex issues, so shorts have an audience.

I’m not suggesting you abandon your novel. I’m simply saying mix it up a little. Take a break from your monster projects from time to time and write some shorts. They are a perfectly respectable, rewarding literary form.

Do you write or read shorts? If so, let me know why you find them appealing. And as always, keep writing and keep sharing. To read some nonfiction shorts, visit my other blog at http://www.projectkeepsake.com/blog/.

Contemplating Writing Contests

I’ve published hundreds of nonfiction articles in magazines, newspapers, and online publications, and I’ve published a paperback book (Project Keepsake) and two eBooks, but I’ve only won one writing contest during my writing career. Just one! Then again, I haven’t entered very many.

Snoopy2Entering a writing competition can be time-consuming and sometimes rather expensive if there is a reading fee associated with the contest. But there are a lot of great reasons to enter a writing contest. If you are thinking about entering a contest, here are a few reasons to complete that submission form and cross your fingers.

  • Winning a writing contest or award can draw attention to your name and your writing projects and instantly propel your writing career.
  • Some writing contests offer cash prizes to the top winners, and that’s really nice.
  • Some writing contests publish the winning entries in magazines, websites, or blogs. Publication translates into exposure. You never know who will see your story—publishing executives, magazine editors, literary agents, famous authors, etc.
  • Winning helps your writing resume and gives you credibility and experience.
  • Winning can give you a much-needed published writing clip to help you market your skills as a writer.
  • Entering writing contests can help you feel like a “real” writer.
  • Winning a writing contest can give you confidence and motivate you to write more.
  • Entering a writing contest can be a great exercise. It can give you a purpose and a deadline to work toward. Some writers need that creative push from time to time.
  • Entering can be fun. Much like fishing, there’s a bit of a thrill involved. You cast your line out (send in your contest submission) and hope a fish swims by and bites your worm (the judges find your submission worthy of a top prize).

Still interested but don’t know where to look for contests to enter? Try looking at the Writer’s Market. Each year, the Writer’s Market categorizes dozens of contests and lists the entry details. You can also look on Twitter using the hashtag #writingcontests. I always see a few opportunities there. Finally, network with other writers and ask them if they know of any contests that may fit your work.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction writer and a keeper of keepsakes, you may want to consider my 2014 Project Keepsake Story Contest. The deadline is Monday, November 21, 2014. First prize is rather modest—a $25 MasterCard gift card + a copy of Project Keepsake + a blog spotlight, but there is no fee to enter and entering is pretty easy (fill out an online form, paste a short story about a keepsake, upload a photo of the keepsake, and hit a “submit” button). For more information, click over to the Project Keepsake site.

If you have more to add about the benefits of entering writing contests or you know of another contest, please leave a comment. Thanks! And happy writing!

Finding Time to Write

It’s a common occurrence. I listen to someone’s story—some tragedy, an interesting recollection, an inspiring story, a story about some miracle, or a tale about some bizarre coincidence—and then I say, “Wow, you have to write that story down.”

My non-writer friends and family members usually roll their eyes at my suggestion then say, “Oh, I can’t write.”hand holding stopwatch

And then I roll my eyes and shoot their statement down. “Yes, you can! I’ve never met another living soul who couldn’t write. It’s a skill that anyone can develop with a little time, a little practice, and a little help.”

And then the storyteller delivers a second excuse: “I just don’t have time to write.”

I reply, “Sure you do.” And then I explain how to find time to write.

I think that a lot of aspiring writers feel that they must find large chunks of time to develop their writing, but in reality, most writers write in short bursts—thirty minutes here, forty-five minutes there, etc. These short writing sessions can add up to big projects.

Think you don’t have time to write? Here are a few suggestions that really work:

  •  GET UP EARLIER—Get up fifteen minutes earlier than usual three times each week, make a cup of coffee, isolate yourself in a quiet room in your house, and write for fifteen minutes. I always encourage aspiring writers to write in the beginning of the day when their thoughts are fresh and before they get bogged down in the daily grind of life. If you postpone your writing to the end of the day, you are more likely to cancel your writing session because you feel too tired or you have to fold one more load of laundry before you can go to bed.
  •  THINK ABOUT YOUR IDLE TIME—Write while you get your car serviced. Write on the bus on the way to and from work or school. Write in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or while waiting to see your dentist. Write at the airport waiting for your flight, then write some more on the airplane. Write at the DMV. Write on the sidelines of your son’s soccer practice. Write during your lunch break. Write while your kids are getting ready for school. Write while your kids are getting ready for bed. Write while your pasta boils. Write when you are a passenger on a long car ride. Write while you wait on your food to be prepared at the restaurant. Can’t get to sleep one night? Pick up your pen and write until you get sleepy.
  •  REDUCE THE ACTIVITIES THAT SUCK AWAY YOUR TIME—Turn off your cell phone for twenty minutes during the day. Don’t read your Facebook newsfeed five times each day. Skip watching one 30-minute sitcom each week. If you are a gaming fanatic, pick one day during the week and don’t play that day. Write instead.
  •  WRITE DURING COMMERCIAL BREAKS—For those of us who occasionally watch real time television, mute the TV during the commercial breaks and write in three minute bursts. There are over twenty minutes of commercials and marketing content per each hour of television programming, so use that time to write.
  •  SCHEDULE A WRITING SESSION—Find a fifteen or twenty minute opening on your calendar and pencil in a writing date with yourself. Don’t blow it off. Keep the appointment.
  •  USE YOUR DVR—Again, for people who watch television, use a DVR to record the news and your favorite programs. When you sit down to watch your programs, you will save a lot of time zooming through the commercials—again, over twenty minutes saved per hour of television. Use that extra time to write.
  •  DON’T MAKE DINNER ONE NIGHT DURING THE WEEK—It takes a lot of time to go to the grocery store to buy food, prepare a meal, and then wash all of the pots, pans, and dishes associated with dinner. So consider this: One night each week, order a pizza or Chinese food and have it delivered to your door. Use the time saved to write.
  •  MAKE A DATE WITH A WRITING BUDDY—One of the best ways to force yourself to write is to make a date with a writing buddy. Combine your social life with your writing. Meet at a library or on a front porch some where, talk for about fifteen minutes, then write together for thirty minutes. And if you are feeling really brave, ask your friend to read what you’ve written and give you some feedback.

Yes, you do have time to write! There are no excuses. And as always, I invite all of you writers and aspiring writers to consider writing a story about one of your keepsakes. To learn more about Project Keepsake, visit my other website at www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

Amber’s Writing Prompts

Aspiring writers often say to me, “I can’t think of anything to write about.”

This remark always perplexes me, because when I look around my house or think about the world, I find infinite topics that interest me.

But as I’ve worked with writers of all skill levels in the last few years, I’ve come to realize that some people need writing prompts to spark their imaginations and get their creative juices flowing. And so, I’ve become known for my long lists of writing prompts (for nonfiction writers) that I hand out at my workshops.

For me, keepsakes, heirlooms, souvenirs, and old photographs often ignite a strong desire to write. I feel the need to capture the histories and memories associated with these very special items. In fact, writing stories about keepsakes is the premise of my book, Project Keepsake. Simply select a keepsake and answer these questions: Where did it come from? Why do you keep it? Who or what does it remind you of? Tell the story—or stories—behind the keepsake.

But if keepsakes don’t inspire you to write, there are thousands of other topics to consider. Write about a job. Write about an aunt or uncle. Write about a favorite book. Write about a vacation. Write about your favorite shoes. Write about getting your first pair of glasses, braces, dentures, a hearing aid, a wig, orthotics, etc.

Still uninspired? Browse the words and phrases on the following list until one triggers a strong memory, close your eyes for a few moments, then write everything that pops into your mind. Don’t edit your work at this stage of your writing. Just get your thoughts and memories down on paper.

  • Popsicle
  • Hot Dog
  • Fireworks
  • First Kiss
  • Lemonade
  • Lightning Bug
  • Trampoline
  • Swimming Pool
  • Swimming Hole
  • Poloroid Camera
  • Tire Swing
  • Blowing Bubbles
  • Marbles
  • Lite Brites
  • Paint-by-Numbers
  • Etch-a-Sketch
  • Parade
  • Deck of Cards
  • Crows
  • Flat Tire
  • Tomatoes
  • Pickles
  • Hot Pink
  • Casket
  • Cigarettes
  • Canoe
  • Jar
  • Dirt Road
  • Sunburn
  • Soap Opera
  • Boom Box
  • Flip Flops
  • Police Officer
  • Emergency Room
  • Train

Did any of my writing prompts help you? If so, please let me know. And whether you wrote a single paragraph or a short story on one of my topics, I’d love to see an excerpt. Please paste in the comments at the end of this post or send me an email message.