Tips for World Building Your Memoir

Tips for World Building Your Memoir

by Nita Sweeney

It might seem odd to see “world building” and “memoir” side-by-side. Many writers think of world building as a tool used only in science fiction and fantasy. The red scarves in The Night Circus or light sabers in Star Wars come to mind. But a compelling story, regardless of genre, should be set in a specific world, a world the writer must build.

Like the novelist, a memoir writer can shape and mold the world the reader experiences. The main difference between world building in memoir and fiction is that the memoirist builds the world from known things, details chosen from the memoirist’s life. Memoirists are limited by reality, but the options are still plentiful. The memoirist carves from reality what the reader sees, feels, hears, tastes, and smells using what already exists.

In nonfiction, world building is sometimes referred to as creating a sense of place. But thinking of it as world building reminds the writer that the process is a series of choices, the same decisions novelists make. A fictional world might include magic, space ships, or time travel, but even in those worlds, the writer chooses which elements to emphasize. No matter how far in love a writer falls with the world she creates, she can’t include every detail.

How shall the writer choose?

Phases of World Building in Memoir:

In Bird by Bird, Anne LaMott referred to an unnamed friend when she explained her process:

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.”

World building follows the same phases.

The Down Draft:

Some writers outline and plan before attempting a first draft. As a “pantser,” someone who writes by the seat of her pants, outlining and planning equals stalling. I head right to the page.

Like LaMott, my first draft is the “down draft.” Using “writing practice,” a term coined by best-selling author Natalie Goldberg, I set a timer and “go” for a specific amount of time. The world that appears in early drafts arises from what Goldberg might call “first thoughts,” the initial detail I remember as I tell the story to myself. I don’t worry about setting the scene. I just get the story on paper. If I get caught up in describing the pattern of bark on the sycamore, the reader may never find out whether I finished that twenty-mile run. It’s more important to finish the initial draft.

As I write, I make notes in the text. I use two “at symbol” marks (@@) to note places where I have forgotten something or if the backdrop feels shallow. Later, I can search for “@@” and fill in the detail. I repeat the timed writing until I have a full first draft.

I trust this organic “down draft” process for three reasons. First, there’s science behind it. A brain structure called the reticular activating system (R.A.S.), filters out the details I don’t need and focuses on the ones that have meaning. The R.A.S. is at work when you buy a new car. You choose the power blue Pinto because it’s special and different. Then, when you pull out of the lot, you see powder blue Pintos on every street. Did they appear out of nowhere? Of course not. Your RAS had filtered them out. Not intentionally. You just didn’t need to see them yet. Our minds cannot handle the number of sensory stimuli we actually receive. When you are creating the world for your memoir, your R.A.S. is also at work. Start with what you automatically notice and easily remember. The result often surprises me. I didn’t know what I remembered until I wrote it down.

The second reason to trust this seemingly random process is because it taps into each writer’s unique take on the world. The lens through which she sees the story is what makes the book special. That writer’s filter will separate her book from the flood of similar works in the market. Head to the memoir section of your local bookstore. Scan the titles. How many books trace the author surviving childhood? The fact that Mary Karr wrote about harrowing family circumstance in The Liar’s Club didn’t stop ‎Jeannette Walls from penning The Glass Castle. While these two memoirs contain similar themes, each book describes a vastly different world, the world each author lived. These sensory images are ripe fruit just waiting for the writer to pluck them off the branches.

The third and most important reason to do a “down draft” is that you can’t edit a blank page. Before I discovered this process, my perfectionistic, anxious mind made writing nearly impossible.

The Up Draft

In the revision phase, I start by searching for the “@@s” and filling in what I thought was missing. Next, I read the entire work with an eye solely for building my world. I ask questions: Where am I? Who am I with? What am I eating, wearing, talking about, thinking about? Was I aware of any tastes, smells, sounds, or feelings? What matters to me? I also think about what else was going on in the world. This could be as complex as the international political scene or as simple as a neighbor child’s bake sale. I ask what is happening outside my world. If I don’t know the name of something, this is the time to look it up.

The following tools help bring memories to the surface:

  1. Eyes Closed: I put myself in the scene again and imagine walking or running or driving through.
  2. Eyes Open: Since I can’t remember everything, I open the laptop or head to the library and research. Again, I trust my gut. Skimming an article about the Olentangy River might remind me of a day the water was so high we couldn’t cross the trail.
  3. Go: If I can, I visit the place. When I was writing a memoir about the last year my father was alive, I couldn’t remember details about a raptor sanctuary I visited. Research gave me an excuse to make the pleasant drive to Yellow Springs where it is located.
  4. Perk Time: I let it percolate. I take the dog for a walk, go for a run, or go to a movie with my husband. If I can distract myself enough to let go of the scene, the best image will often pop into my head.

Using this new information, I weave and polish and add and subtract to transport the reader into my world.

The Dental Draft

Now it’s time to make sure the world serves the story. No matter how lovely, if my “darling” images do not convey meaning, show character, or move the plot forward, they must die. The world I’ve created must put the reader exactly where I want the reader to be.

For example, in one scene in an early draft of my running memoir, I wrote in great detail about the lush vegetation along the Olentangy Trail. I adore the trail, spend hours there, and practically breathe in the green. After many revisions, I mention only the poison ivy. Eighteen miles into a twenty-two-mile run, I could only see the scarlet leaves. When I pointed those out to my running partner, she reminded me not to touch them. I’d forgotten about the rash and itching that would result if I did. Narrowing the focus in this way shows the reader how fuzzy my mind gets on a long run. This choice creates the world I want the reader to experience.

We each have our own writing process and world building is no different. I’ve given you a glimpse of mine. It might sound inefficient, but I afford myself a lot of breathing room to do it the way that works for me. I hope you’ll allow yourself the same space to discover the best method for you.


About Nita Sweeney

Nita Sweeney’s articles and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and books including Buddhist America, Dog World, Dog Fancy, Writer’s Journal, Country Living, Pitkin Review and in several newspapers and newsletters. She writes the blog, BumGlue and publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Write Now Newsletter, which features a short essay, a schedule of the classes she teaches, and a list of central Ohio writing events. Her forth-coming memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, was short-listed for the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award. She was recently interviewed for the radio show and podcast Word Carver. When she’s not writing, Nita is running and racing. She has run three full marathons, twenty-six half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than sixty shorter races. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and her future running partner, the yellow Labrador puppy, Scarlet (aka #ninetyninepercentgooddog).

Mother Nature is My Writing Mentor

Drawing Inspiration From the Natural World

by Cheryl Leutjen

My office mate, a muscular, gray cat named Handsome, slumps over my left hand, purring. I sit at my desk in the attic, which I like to call the “garret” because it connects me with my childhood hero, Jo of Little Women. Here I can pretend to toil away at the craft, just like Jo, slaves to our art. Except that I’m tapping away, instead of dipping pen into an inkwell. Also, my garret is heated, well lit, and features an espresso maker. And, oh, yes, Jo is a fictional character about a third my age. Except for all that, we’re like twins.

The garret is where Handsome and I hole up most mornings, squabbling like a couple of old fusspots every morning about who controls the keyboard—and who needs to go find all the lost rubber bands. But today, we’re mesmerized by the sight outside our window. After months of drought, water pours from the sky, and glistening droplets blur our view. Handsome puzzles over the strange howling sound and jumps as the old window bangs in the wind. As the storm rages outside, I’m thrilled to cozy up here in the garret with my furry familiar. Every excuse to stay in, off the streets clogged by Angelenos struggling to remember how to drive in the Wet Stuff. As a writer prone to wax poetic, this is as good as it gets. Why would I want to go anywhere? 

And yet, one day later, the deluge has ended, and I tear myself away from the garret. I pack up my old kit bag and drive to Arlington Garden in Pasadena. This Mediterranean-style oasis is the living expression of redemption. Countless volunteers have teased its beauty from a dusty, vacant lot, set aside long ago for a stalled freeway construction project. Surrounded by stately Pasadena homes, the park attracts birds, bees, butterflies, and urban dwellers seeking respite. Considering all the eco-guilt I’m carrying, I welcome the opportunity to steep in Redemption.

I’m meeting here with my tribe, those valiant enough to brave the damp and the winter chill. Of  50-some degrees, that is. We’re members of a Meetup I facilitate called the “Natural Muse.” We gather in various green spaces in LA—yes, there are some sprinkled in among all our concrete—sometimes at picnic tables and sometimes perched on creek-side banks. Defying all notions of “nobody-walks-in-LA” stereotypes, we plucky pilgrims sometimes hike to a vista point or hop on a train to gain a different perspective. What devoted artisans we are; just like Jo, obeying our muses, for the craft.

Since beginning the Natural Muse Meetup nearly six years ago, many writers have come and gone. Some come once and scurry back to their own version of the garret. Some pop in periodically while others attend religiously. Occasionally, I’m the only human who attends. Regardless the turnout, I keep this Meetup going because it’s the crowbar that pries me out the comfort of the garret.

Nature herself is an unnamed member of our coterie; we never know what critters will join us.  Right now, a brown bird I can’t identify does a sort of hopping shuffle with her feet, to clear the fallen leaves so she can peck for seeds. I am trying, quite unsuccessfully, not to laugh at her comical efforts to produce a meal. Then I recall some of my own laughable antics in the kitchen, and humility squelches my mirth. At another gathering, some Canadian geese made me guffaw until I feared the white coats would come for me. Since beginning the Meetup, squirrels, crows, coots, ducks, geese, an Irish Setter, pigeons, rats, coyotes, songbirds, jacarandas, a dying sagebrush and more have joined us. Each critter encounter opens new gateways in my imagination.

Though the garret is an ideal spot for editing, providing that all-essential WiFi for research, my book, Love Earth Now, could never have been written there. Every insight that has produced my most creative work has come out of my experiences with the flora and fauna, few of which reside in my home (thankfully). Not that there haven’t been pest infestations in my kitchen that I prefer not to recall.

When I plant my fuming-about-phone books self under a blossoming pomegranate tree and discover a buzzing swarm of bees overhead, I’m rapt. I’m blissfully free of the seemingly nonstop tide of Bad News for Life on Earth. I’m simply witnessing these busy creatures, whose industry makes possible a good chunk of the human food supply, hard at work, not bemoaning the fate of their kind, with so many dying in droves. Each of them showed up to do what bees do, employing all the skills and abilities that Nature has given them. The bees remind me that I have the skills and abilities to do my own work and surrender the travesties that are not mine to address. 

I suppose time outdoors sounds like a no-brainer for someone like me who writes about learning from Nature. But why do other writers do it? Why leave the comfort of their own version of the garret or the local coffee shop to sit on hard benches, squint through the glare of sunlight and let’s face it, deal with the scourge of park bathrooms?

I pose the question to Reni who is writing an autobiographical piece about gifts. For her, creative time in Nature “opens something in me. Every sense is touched, and I become more aware.” Christy is crafting blog posts. Writing in nature reduces her stress about getting the work done. “I can think, feel and write from a place of calm and enjoyment, instead of frustration.” Aliete is developing a memoir of her struggles with mental illness. “Writing outdoors engages all the senses. The sounds, the colors, the smells, the touch. . . even the silence inspires me,” she says. “There are so many unexpected moments,” she continues, causing me an involuntary shudder as I recall that time when a squirrel spat green flesh at me.

However our time in this garden impacts us individually, we share a sense that we are better for it. We’re not alone in this assessment. Recent studies evidence that time in Nature can provide measurable benefits. An intentionally mindful experience in a natural setting— not a sprint around the park while I’m reading my Twitter feed—may lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve sleep and increase energy levels. There’s even evidence that exposure to certain chemicals that trees emit increase the human body’s ability to fight off cancer. That’s some powerful therapy, no prescriptions or co-pays required. I pause for a word of gratitude for the enclave of crepe myrtle trees, dressed in striped stockings and leaflets of red and gold, which surrounds me.

Thinking of how humans evolved in a world with trees and plants and a myriad of microbes already in it, it’s no surprise to me that the natural world stimulates creativity not found indoors. Our ancestors lived eons seeing, hearing, smelling, sensing and relating with a panoply of flora and fauna that few of us know today. Locked into our sterile cubicles, we’re cut off from so many of the cues to which we evolved to respond. Perhaps steeping in our natural surroundings brings us back into a fuller experience of what it means to be human, which opens new portals for receiving fresh inspiration.

None of us sitting around this picnic table are aware of any of this, not on a conscious level, anyway. I can’t tell you if new neural pathways are forming or ancient collective memories have been awakened by this garden. I do know that a little bird gave me a chuckle, and I saw something of myself in her dance. That moment of connection inspired an essay, one that could not have been written in the garret. If you’re looking for fresh inspiration, consider packing up your own kit bag and walking out that front door.  


About Cheryl Leutjen

Cheryl Leutjen is the author of Love Earth Now, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Mango Publishing.

Cheryl Leutjen’s deep love of Earth, as well as her hope for a bright future for her children, fuel her passion for responding to the challenges of our time with heart, hope, humor, and spiritual practice. Cheryl writes to share her experiences about on the razor’s edge between Earth-mindfulness and eco-madness, not because she’s got it all figured out, but in solidarity with anyone else who’s fumbling along the path of more conscientious living.

She draws from her experience as a geologist, attorney, small business owner, spiritual practitioner, over-analyzing-everything Gemini, Midwestern childhood, Los Angeles transplant, wife and mother to claw her way out of the abyss of eco-despair. She seeks solace from the sages in Nature who reveal the wisdom she needs to navigate a more Earth-loving path.

She resides in Los Angeles, where she takes copious yoga classes, digs up the yard and throws a lot of darts as therapy. She lives with her husband (aka her Sanity Supervisor), two children, her muse Atlas Cedar, and three cats who care not one whit about any of her credentials.

Meet Us at the Hyatt: SFWC 2019!

SF Writers' Conference logoThe fabulous San Francisco Writers Conference, after years at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel, has moved to the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero on the waterfront, near the fabled Ferry Building.

Nowhere could you find a more spacious and elegant accommodation for networking and learning the newest trends in the craft and business of writing. Often called the “friendliest” as well as the premier West Coast writers conference, SFWC is now only a BART ride away from SFO or from almost anywhere in the Bay Area.

 

Presidents Day Weekend–February 14-18, 2019

Be among the first writers to experience SFWC’s Hyatt Regency venue this year, where you will discover hidden nooks in the soaring atrium (the world’s largest hotel lobby), and an entire floor of meeting rooms surrounded by glass-enclosed hallways and foyers. You will be steps away from a myriad of restaurants, food courts, and the outdoor marketplace at Embarcadero Center, an iconic and accessible destination. Where better for a writer to find community? Register here.

Top Ten Irresistible Reasons for Writers to Attend the San Francisco Writers Conference

Find sessions that fit your specific writing needs and goals. At SFWC you can choose from a full schedule of workshops and panels.

Meet industry leaders and learn how to play the publishing game. The information at SFWC covers the latest trends and technology to help you get more writing done…and successfully sell what you write.

At Speed Dating for Agents pitch your book ideas one-on-one in a room full of literary agents ($75 option for registered attendees only). Literary agents at SFWC are on the lookout for new clients with great books they can represent.

Learn about a wide range of publishing options from leaders in self-publishing AND traditional publishing.

Receive FREE editorial feedback on your work from freelance book editors. Click HERE for the FAQ sheet!

Build your personal writing community. At SFWC meet like-minded writers from all over the United States…and other countries, too.

Seek innovative writer-related services. Meet with the exhibitors at the conference to find out what’s new for writers.

Browse the onsite bookstore and get the books you purchase autographed by the presenters.

Enjoy SFWC’s over-the-top networking opportunities. SFWC attendees can jump into pitch practices, share their work at “Open Mic” readings, and socialize at our Gala Party and Poetry and Jazz events. This is just a sampling of what goes on during the event. 

You want to go to a conference that offers it all. You’ve just described the San Francisco Writers Conference–top quality information and excellent speakers, yet extremely friendly to writers at all levels. 

The MAIN CONFERENCE registration fee includes four days of live sessions, keynotes and events from Thursday through Sunday. Plus a consult with an editor and publicist, unlimited networking with over 100 presenters (and fellow writers!), a Networking Gala, the Poetry and Jazz party, morning continental breakfasts, the popular Practice Your Pitch event, an attendee bag filled with writer goodies, and more!

Wait, there’s more!

New for 2019!  A One-Day Poetry Track at the San Francisco Writers Conference 
The Poetry Summit at the 2019 SFWC
Saturday, February 16, 2019
Starts at 9 am and ends with Poetry & Jazz evening event.
Included with main conference registration or stand-alone for $195.

And…SAN FRANCISCO WRITERS FOUNDATION MASTER CLASSES!
Pre-Conference: Thursday, February 14, 2019
Post-Conference: Monday, February 18, 2019
 REGISTER HERE

Women’s National Book Association—San Francisco Chapter has been a proud sponsor of SFWC since its beginning 2004 at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, and then followed the conference to the Mark Hopkins. Throughout SFWC’s 16 years, WNBA has been an exhibitor; WNBA members have been volunteers, presenters, pros, freelance editors, and coordinators. Meet us this year at the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero!

Help us promote SFWC with this printable flyer!

 

 

Guest Post: Every Day Creativity

By Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

When it comes to writing, inspiration can be controversial. Some people staunchly believe we shouldn’t need inspiration to write. We must sit down at our desks and get to work—whether the muse is available or not.

Others believe we need to coax, entice and nurture the muse—and if she’s away, it’s best to leave writing to another day. And still others would roll their eyes at me for using the word “muse” in the first place.

The great thing is that everyone has a different take on inspiration—opinions that can be quite inspiring. Which is why I asked various authors to share their thoughts. Below you’ll find a variety of invaluable ideas and insights.

When the muse sleeps, do something else. 

“When my muse is unresponsive, there ain’t much I can do to wake her up,” said BJ Gallagher, author of over 30 books, including the forthcoming title Your Life Is Your Prayer (out in spring 2019). So she waits, and does other things in the meantime: She mows the lawn, washes the car, walks the dog, does laundry, has coffee with a friend, takes a shower, vacuums or takes a nap.

And these are the very activities—especially the physical ones—that help her muse to return.

“When my body is on auto-pilot doing routine physical things, my mind is free to drift and wander and explore. That is usually when my muse awakens and calls to me, ‘Grab a yellow legal pad, quick!’ And I write.”

Be consistent. 

KJ Dell’Antonia, author of the book How to Be a Happier Parent and co-host of the #AmWriting podcast, writes daily—whether she feels like writing or not. Even when it’s not going so well, she still keeps writing.

“I’ll boil it down to how many paragraphs does this need? How many sentences? How many words? And then I will put those things down, no matter how sorry and sad they seem, and most of the time, they’ll spark something. I’ll write something I like. It will start to flow. And if it doesn’t, that’s OK. I’ll be here tomorrow, folks. I’ll be here all week.”

Jane Binns, an artist and author of the forthcoming memoir Broken Wholehas found the same to be true. “Writing steadily is inspiring all on its own. The ideas keep building and refining themselves and returning to this again and again is validating and self-fulfilling.”

Seek out alone time. 

Joan Gelfand, author of several poetry collections, the upcoming novel Fear to Shred and You Can Be a Winning Writer, stays inspired by ensuring she has time alone to think. “It is when I give myself unstructured time that the muse comes to visit.”

She suggested making time every week for a date with yourself. For instance, that’s when you might take a walk, sit by the lake or visit a local place you’ve never been before.

Read different kinds of books. 

Alexandra Brown, co-author of A Year Off: A Story About Traveling the World—and How to Make It Happen For You, draws inspiration from fiction. “With my writing planet generally orbiting the non-fiction sun, I am always in awe of someone’s ability to weave a truly remarkable story.”

Brown is currently re-reading—and being inspired by—The Elegance of the Hedgehog. “It reframes the way a person thinks of language. It’s so imaginative, philosophical and poetic. It also reminds you to never assume things about people because we’re all more complex than we seem.”

Binns reads novels from genres she normally wouldn’t pick up. “I like to read authors that challenge the convention of storytelling and observe how they get from point A to point Z. What devices do they use? Why do they suspend this or that detail until later? How do they keep the tension suspenseful?”

One of Binns’s favorites is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, “because I never knew who was speaking or where or when things were happening exactly. It’s almost entirely dialogue. I would think I had it figured out but then it shifted…Heart of Darkness reminded me of Ulysses which I read years ago. Both of these are written in ways I would never allow myself to do right now. I see them as examples of how to stretch into untraveled territory.”

Travel. 

This is another way Brown fills her inspiration cup. “Stepping into another culture, even if only for a day, can put you into an entirely new, often unknown, context, and there is nothing more inspiring than being witness to all the ways this world is unique, interesting and dynamic.”

You don’t have to travel to far-off places to be inspired. “Even if it’s just an hour’s drive away, there is so much to see when you get outside of your routine,” Brown said.

Paint. 

Binns also stays inspired by painting with watercolors. “It gives my mind a break from thoughts and words, and I can totally relax and muse about color, light, and shadow. I love how the proportion of water and paint mix for a certain effect. The water is messy and has a science all of its own. I love watching it drool into the nodules of cold press paper. There is only a certain amount of time that watercolor can be played with before it sets. That burden of making decisions quickly is a sharp contrast to writing where things can be revised endlessly.”

Get in the right state. 

“Inspiration comes when you stop thinking, writing and creating from a place of stress,” said Greta Solomon, a writing coach, and the author of the forthcoming book Heart, Soul & Sass: Write Your Way to a Fully-Expressed Life. She noted that the optimum state for writing is to be alert and completely relaxed, which is when our brainwaves are operating from an alpha state.

One way we can boost this alpha energy is to listen to music at 60 beats per minute (BPM), she said. “Research has shown that Baroque music can help learning, thinking and creativity because it pulses at this magic number.”

Solomon suggested doing a quick Google search or downloading a Spotify 60-BPM playlist.

In addition to listening to music, we can make our own. For instance, Binns plays the piano. “The mathematics and poetry of music opens doors in my brain that nurture sanity, allowing the world around me to make sense.”

As always, whether it has to do with writing or anything in life, the key is to find what really resonates with you—and to keep checking in with yourself to see if that idea is still relevant.

What insights on inspiration specifically speak to you?

Copyright (C) 2018 Psych Central. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from here.

Happy New Year 2019! Member News from the WNBA-SF Chapter Members

 

As we celebrate the New Year, it is a perfect time to reflect on all the books, events, articles, awards, and celebrations across our community. Sharing successes helps support the WNBA’s mission of empowering women in writing.

We closed out 2018 with the Holiday Showcase at the Book Passage, a celebration of the immense talent of WNBA-SF Chapter with readings from our published member authors. Megan Clancy kicked off the event by reading her book (The Burden of a Daughter; A Novel – https://amzn.to/2CKe1fI), while holding her well-behaved baby. Lynn Dow read from, Nightingale Tales: Stories from My Life as a Nurse (https://amzn.to/2F3DYIL), and entertained us with her story of Jimmy Hoffa coming to the hospital, a memorable event from a 50-plus year nursing career. The fun continued with poems and stories read about veterinarianhouse calls for a pig; the excitement of Paris after dark; mittens on the run; and so much more. The other readings included topics ranging from super agers, feminism, healing through yoga and diet, writing career advice, and getting married for the first time at sixty-two.


In 2018 several members were recognized for their work:

 Judy Bebelaar (And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple from High School to Jonestown – https://amzn.to/2Vqcy5K) is a 2019 San Francisco Library Laureate. Judy also won a first prize, two third place prizes, and the Grand Prize in the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Contest.

Long-time member, Renate Stendhal’s, Kiss Me Again, Paris: A Memoir (https://amzn.to/2H0hQSu) was a finalist at both Lambda Literary Awards and Best Book Awards, and a winner at International Book Awards, in the LGBTQ Non-Fiction/Memoir category.

Barbara Ridley made her debut as an author with the book, When It’s Over (https://amzn.to/2TlYyYP ). She was honored as a finalist for six different awards this year, including Silver Medal in the IBPA Ben Franklin Award, the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and the American Fiction Awards.

Mary Mackey’s ­­new collection of poetry The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams was published by Marsh Hawk Press. Jaguars won the California Institute of Integral Studies Women’s Spirituality Book Award and made the Small Press Distribution Bestseller List. Voetica.com recorded 26 of the poems.


This year we added many new members, including Vivien Zielen who recently published Eyeballing Big Croc: Chasing Dreams Around the World. Her book was recently reviewed by JWeekly in October (https://www.jweekly.com/2018/10/17/new-memoir-nepalese-royalty-the-six-day-way-and-passover-in-japan/).

Another new member, Saeeda Hafiz, whose book, The Healing: One Woman’s Journey from Poverty to Inner Riches, has been reviewed multiple times (http://www.saeedahafiz.com/new-page/).


Whether it’s being published for the first time or seeking an award for a published work, the new year brings a new set of goals for many of our members.

Whether you are a new or long-standing member, it is important to remember that community is critical to achieving your goals. “Community is the sacred ground of the twenty-first century,” former President Joan Gelfand writes in her book, You Can Be a Winning Writer (https://amzn.to/2BVR4Vk.)

For all members, but especially new members, we encourage you to join Joan at her upcoming workshops. The events are based on her new book and will cover the 4 C’s of successful authors: Craft, Commitment, Community and Confidence, in Oaxaca, Mexico (January 14th), at the San Francisco Writers Conference Poetry Summitt (February 16th) and will be featured on a teleseminar hosted by Non-Fiction Writers Association (February 6th).

As Bookwoman Correspondent, it is my mission to share your literary triumphs, small and large, with our local and national communities. As an emerging writer myself, I understand that writing is a career built word by word or bird by bird, as Anne Lammot writes.

For your Bookwoman mentions, please mark your calendars to send me your monthly news for Bookwoman National by the 15th of every month. Also, if you are looking to get articles published, Editor Nicole Ayers encourages all members to send in blog post ideas to newsletter@wnba-books.org. I will continue to publish local WNBA-SF news each quarter on our site, as well.

Looking forward to seeing you for our upcoming events the Holiday Mixer on January 13, 2019 (http://wnba-sfchapter.org/celebrate-the-new-year-at-the-wnba-sf-holiday-mixer-2/) and Pitch-O-Rama on March 23, 2019 (http://wnba-sfchapter.org/pitch-o-rama-2019/).

Happy New Year!

About the Author:

WNBA-SF BookWoman Correspondent Jennifer Griffith is an emerging writer in the process of finishing her first book, Both Sides of Then. She is a blogger, memoirist, and has a new podcast launching in 2019 focused on the topics she often writes about – motherhood, careers, connections, and the meaning of family. 

 

www.jgriffithwriter.com

Twitter: https://bit.ly/2AJvhkv

IG: https://bit.ly/2AKccP7

What Are You Afraid Of? How a Writing Retreat Saved Me

By Joan Gelfand

At one point in my career, I was convinced that my writing life was over. If it hadn’t been for a writing retreat, I would not have finished my next two books.

When I quit my corporate job to write full-time, I worked at home. I showed up at my desk at 9 AM just as I had for my job. I wrote my second novel, three poetry collections and a book of short stories.

And then, one autumn, the wind went out of my well-honed, self-disciplined, super productive sails. I lost my mojo. I felt isolated and uninspired. I found myself lolling, writing emails until well after 10 AM. I was easily distracted. Was it time to investigate another career?

While I was struggling with this question, I signed up for a 10-day writer’s retreat in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had never participated in an organized retreat, but I knew I had at least a few projects that were floundering.

Every day after breakfast we eight writers retired to our private rooms to write. And write I did. I wrote new poems and started a new book. The floodgates opened. In the afternoon we met to discuss our work, listen to a teaching by our instructor and share work.

What had changed? It wasn’t until the end of the retreat that I figured out that being around other writers invigorated me. I was motivated again. Many writers have historically needed the company of others to stay productive. Virginia Woolf lived in a house with other artists and writers, and today, the Grotto, a San Francisco institution, houses writers in all genres.

When I returned home to San Francisco, I realized that I too needed to start working around other people. I joined EcoSystms, a co-working space downtown. Although the folks there are not all writers, simply being around other people in a professional environment made all the difference.


About Joan Gelfand:

The author of You Can Be a Winning Writer: The 4 C’s of Successful Authors (Mango Press, 2018) and three volumes of poetry, Joan has also written an award-winning chapbook of short fiction and a novel set in a Silicon Valley startup.
The recipient of numerous awards, nominations and honors, Joan’s work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Kalliope, The Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, the Toronto Review, Marsh Hawk Review, Levure Litteraire,  Chicken Soup for the Soul and over 100 anthologies, lit mags and journals.

Joan coaches writers on their publication journey by Skype and Zoom.  http://joangelfand.com

Writing is Lonely. Join a Group…

By Marlena Fiol

Jennifer Harris recently reminded us in Warrior Writers that “Writers Need Community.” Writing is a lonely act and being part of a community reminds us that we’re not alone, she said. Beyond that, she reminded us that writing communities provide opportunities to learn and grow, work together and find new readers. No one can argue with that.

She concludes with “There are many writing communities out there, so it shouldn’t be hard to find one.” Indeed, they are not hard to find. I’m fortunate to be a member of numerous online writing groups on Facebook and Medium. I have also been part of smaller writing groups that I was responsible for establishing and maintaining. I’ll refer to the former as a network and the latter as a community. Both provide opportunities to “learn and grow, work together and find new readers.” But they differ in ways that matter.

Community-Building versus Networking

Definition of Network:

  1. An arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines.
  2. A group or system of interconnected people or things.

Definition of Community:

  1. A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  2. A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

To put it succinctly, one promotes an arrangement for intersecting. The other promotes a feeling of fellowship. Both have their place, but confusing them is likely to lead to frustration and disappointment.

We writers are not inherently community-oriented.

I recently read that many people perceive us writers as selfish, ego-driven navel-gazers. And how often have you heard writers complain that other writers are trying to do the same thing they are, and getting a lot more ‘Claps’ for it? In the September 9, 2018 Book Review section of the NYT, Kate Atkinson, author of the forthcoming novel Transcription, was said to recoil at the idea of a literary dinner party: “Oh, lord, I would never invite writers,” she is quoted as saying. ”They’re so competitive.” If we are as competitive as she claims, we’ll naturally be drawn to largely anonymous arrangements of intersecting networks that can help us get ahead, yet reveal only those parts of us that we’re willing to share with our fellow writers and no more. But will that really get us what we want and need?

Three Characteristics of Networks

  1. Exposure: Most of the online writing networks available to us today are vast and highly populated. This means we can gain nearly instant exposure of our little writing gems, something unheard of even a decade ago.
  2. Ease: All we have to do to join an online network is submit a request to an unknown person and wait a few days for the invitation (which might be an automated computerized response). Done.
  3. Safety: Ah, here’s a big one. We risk putting out there only what feels safe to us, and no one will ask for more. We don’t have to really trust any of our fellow writers on the network.

I’m not surprised that writing networks have become as popular as they are today. I love ‘Claps’ just as much as you do. They are an easy and safe way for us to gauge the extent to which we’re reaching our readers across a vast population. But let’s not confuse these intersections with what I’m calling community. Nicole Bianchi began her call for writers to create writing groups with “Writing can be a lonely activity.”

She argues that Mastermind groups give writers a sense of community and a sense of belonging. Nicole suggests that they should only include members who are serious about challenging and learning from each other. And people must trust each other since they’ll be sharing deep stuff. Does this kind of community sound just a bit scary?

Three characteristics of communities

  1. Limited Size: A community is usually limited in size because members need the time to devote to giving individualized feedback to each other. So they are prepared to work hard to keep their community alive. Unlike a network, if a community doesn’t stop growing, its members disengage, no longer feeling like they belong, and eventually it dies.
  2. Common Purpose: It’s usually best if members of a writing community all have a similar purpose in mind. Otherwise, people will be seriously committed to move in disparate directions, which will tear the group apart.
  3. Vulnerability: This is one of my soapboxes and I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I won’t belabor it too much here. We offer only the smallest of glimpses into our real selves on our various mammoth networks. And sometimes it can get to feel a bit artificial: You ‘Clap’ for me and I’ll ‘Clap’ for you. There’s not a thing wrong with this, as long as we don’t imagine that it’s something more personal and meaningful than it actually is.

People on my LinkedIn network see only one tiny slice of my life, while my Facebook friends see quite another. Neither one is really me with all of my good, my bad and my ugly. Only people in my more intimate communities get a closer look at who I really am and what my struggles are.

Communities and networks aren’t mutually exclusive. Rather, they lie on a continuum. Some of the groups I belong to are more like networks; others more like communities. Again, I repeat. Both communities and networks serve valuable purposes. The real problem lies in our frequent inability to distinguish between them and hold realistic expectations about what they can do for us. If you long for deep connectedness with others who share your writing interests, you’re not likely to find it on most online networks. Joining vast networks provides great slices of intersection, but probably not the feeling of community.

So what do you want from your writing networks or communities? If what you want is a safe arena to expose your writing to as many readers as possible, think about energetically interacting on some of the many available online writing networks such as Facebook, Medium and the like. If a deep feeling of connectedness is what you long for, think smaller, think about forming a group with a common purpose, and think about opening yourself up more vulnerably. And if you want both, become a member of both. But know that you will need to show up differently in each one. And each will provide very different benefits.

 

Marlena Fiol, PhD, is a storyteller, scholar, speaker and spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at marlenafiol.com.

Structure: The Secret Weapon to Help You Achieve Your Goals

By Nita Sweeney

I’d been running for five and a half hours through the rural countryside surrounding Xenia, Ohio. My tired legs were intermittently cramping and the bottoms of my feet ached. I’d run out of catchy songs to sing to myself and all the mantras I’d been chanting sounded stale. The trees lining the rails to trails which had looked beautiful earlier that morning closed in. I thought I might suffocate. I was right on schedule, twenty-three miles into my third full marathon. “I really want this to be over,” I thought. “But I still have to get back to the car.”

My next thought made me laugh, “This is just like writing!”

Throwing in the towel would be a relief – for a while. In this marathon, I could easily stop at the next water station and ask the EMTs to haul me back to town. With writing, I could start fresh on a new, more interesting, more marketable writing project. That’s what I’ve done with every other book I’ve begun.

While I’m still looking for the right publisher for my recently re-titled memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, I have some great prospects and the book placed as a semi-finalist and finalist in two contests. Even if traditional publishing doesn’t pan out, I can self-publish. This process is exhausting, but also exciting – just like the final miles of a very long race. It’s no time to quit even though I’m really really tired and everything hurts.

So, I remembered what I know how to do: continue. Just now. Just here. This moment. Feel your feet (even if they hurt). Do one thing and then the next. Right foot. Left foot. Just keep going.

But how does someone who continues to have depressive episodes so crippling they make it difficult to get out of bed some days achieve her goals?

Structure!

In running, I found a training plan and followed it. I joined a group. I took a running class. I signed up for a race. I logged miles using online tools. I told everyone I knew. And, I ran.

With writing, the following similar structures work for me:

1) Classes and Workshops.
In my case, a writing instructor suggested I enter every contest that fit my book. As a result, my book is on the short-list for a big award. Other students might offer helpful suggestions as well. In either case, these people help you do what might not occur to you, what might seem too difficult, or what you might think is a waste of time and money.

2) A deadline.
The final days of a contest or publisher’s reading period is often enough to spark me into action. It’s that pressure cooker effect. There’s no time for perfectionism. I just have to get it done.

3) Tracking Tools.
I love querytracker.net and Submittable. Real numbers don’t lie. I can see my submissions and percentages. The geeky part of me loves this. Plus, Submittable recognizes people who collect the most rejections in a month. Anything like that helps.

4) Accountability Partners.
I tell a friend I’m going to do something. I tell my little writing group. I tell my husband or my neighbor. I tell the regulars at the coffee shop where I write. Eventually, one of them will ask about my goal. I don’t want to let either of us down.

5) Online Groups.
These are a different breed of accountability partners. But be careful with this. Choose wisely. I’m in a secret Facebook group for artists collecting rejection letters. If I’m not entering, I have no rejections to report. Telling these kind strangers is oddly satisfying.

But here’s the true secret. At some point, these external structures become internal. They light a fire inside me and I’m surprised to find myself motivated to attempt things I would never have done before. Magic? Perhaps. But I’ll take it.

After all, I finished that marathon in Xenia and I will publish this book. You have my promise.

What is your marathon? What kind of structure do you need to meet your goal? What will help you not give up? I’d love to hear about it. I want to cheer you to the finish.

Nita Sweeney’s articles and essays have appeared in magazines, journals, and books including Buddhist America, Dog World, Dog Fancy, Writer’s Journal, Country Living, Pitkin Review and in several newspapers and newsletters. She writes the blog, BumGlue and publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Write Now Newsletter, which features a short essay, a schedule of the classes she teaches, and a list of central Ohio writing events. Her forth-coming memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink, was short-listed for the 2018 William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Award. She was recently interviewed for the radio show and podcast Word Carver. When she’s not writing, Nita is running and racing. She has run three full marathons, twenty-six half marathons (in eighteen states), and more than sixty shorter races. Nita lives in central Ohio with her husband and biggest fan, Ed, and her future running partner, the yellow Labrador puppy, Scarlet (aka #ninetyninepercentgooddog).

How to Make Book Signing Events More Engaging

By Bridgitte Jackson-Buckley, author of The Gift of Crisis​ (October 2018)

A few weeks ago there was a book signing event I was incredibly excited to attend. The author recently published a beautifully illustrated informational book, and it was on social media the author would be on book tour at local bookstore. Happily, I put the date of the signing on my calendar, told the kids about it, and decided on my outfit beforehand. Again, I was totally excited to go!

The day of the event, I made preparations to arrive early. My normal modus operandi is to arrive 20 minutes before event start time, hoping I will get lucky with last minute parking and seating. Not this time. I made sure we left home with ample time to deal with L.A. traffic and L.A. parking.

When we arrived at the bookstore, it was packed! There were so many people standing around, looking for seats and buying the author’s book. There were women, men, and children of various ages and ethnicity, the bookstore owners, and friends and family of the author. It was so exciting! There was high energy, anticipation, and good chatter amongst those of us simply waiting to see her, the author.

The author sat in a corner of the bookstore behind the signing table, and watched patrons buy her book and fill seats. Once all the seats were taken, adults stood in corners and children squeezed in between chairs on the floor. When the bookstore owner walked out in front of the audience to introduce the author, you could have heard a pin drop. Silent anticipation filled the space. We were waiting for her. I was waiting for her. The bookstore owner eloquently introduced the author.

With my shoes off, one copy of her book on my lap, my son seated cross-legged on the floor and my daughter leaning against the wall, I watched her move to the front of the audience.

‘Speak! Tell us! Tell us! Give us the backstory! Tell us how you decided upon this creative project! What was your inspiration? Process? Moments of doubt? Unexpected creative surprises?! Speak!’ I thought.

And so it began!

The author stepped in front of the audience and we applauded. She was delighted to see so many diverse faces in support of the book. So were we! She read a few passages from the book (very nice!), took three questions (all that were asked), including one from me, did a sample drawing illustration of how she created the figures in the book, and…30 minutes later, that was it.

Wait.

What about everything else?

I wanted to know so much more about…I don’t know…whatever else I didn’t know!

It’s an incredible undertaking to write a book, to illustrate a book, to market a book and to sell a book. There was a lot of effort made and work put in, on her part, to bring this project to completion. As book readers, one can only imagine; as book authors, we know how much work is involved. I thought she would talk about something behind the scenes, or tell us something we would like to know but didn’t know we wanted to know. I thought it would be engaging, informative, and at minimum exciting.

However, it was… anti-climactic.

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying I went to the signing merely to be entertained. Seeing that most in attendance already purchased the book, the notion of selling the book at the event was redundant. Most people held 2–3 copies of the book! And the line for the cash register was still long.

I couldn’t help but wonder what else could have been done at the book signing in lieu of what is usually done.

With so many in attendance this was another opportunity to be creative and fun, and maybe do something unique. This was the type of signing I would imagine all authors want, an event filled with people who (mostly) all have bought your book! So why not celebrate with the audience? Why not just have fun with the audience since you’ve met the goal?

While I am not a marketing expert, or event planner, I thought perhaps some of the following could have made the event more engaging:

  1. An audience tally of their favorite chapter, scene, character, etc.
  2. Tips for brilliant social media marketing (This is how the author got the book deal!).
  3. A contest, or giveaway for the person who traveled the farthest distance to attend.
  4. Have audience members read a favorite passage in the book and tell why it’s their favorite.
  5. Select three members of the audience to tell their favorite “word of mouth” recommendation for your book. How do they describe your book to someone who has not read it?
  6. Spread the love. Talk about two of your favorite books (perhaps similar to your book) that audience members may not know about.

Despite my feeling that the event fell short, I have to say the author did not. She was gracious, kind and took the time to speak briefly with every single person who waited in line for her to sign the book. There was so much light in her eyes while she interacted with children and adults and thanked them for attending. There is nothing worse that meeting someone you admire and feel blown off by them. I can tell that each person who attended felt they were seen by author and given the gift of her time and attention.

It was apparent the audience, regardless of the perspective in which they attended the signing (as a book reader or fellow author) was excited for her, and for the book.

Bridgitte Jackson Buckley is a freelance writer, author and ghostwriter whose focus includes spirituality, transformational documentaries, and in-depth interviews. She is a former contributor to General Religion on the National circuit of Examiner.com as the National Spirituality Examiner. She’s interviewed many New Thought luminaries including Eckhart Tolle, Iyanla Vanzant, Deepak Chopra, and Elizabeth Gilbert. As a freelance writer, she has written online articles for Examiner, Tiny Buddha, Recreate Your Life Story, Thrive Global, Medium, Gaia and Patheos’ Spirituality Itself. She is a fluent Spanish speaker and has traveled extensively throughout Central America including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Additional travels also include Hong Kong, Malaysia and (her favorite adventure) Thailand. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, three children and Miniature Schnauzer.

Dear Writers: Is an Epistolary Book Right for You?

By Gina L. Mulligan, author, Remember the Ladies; From Across the Room; and Dear Friend

If you lived in the late 1700s, you drank corn whiskey, spun your own cloth, and spent your evenings in the glow of candlelight reading an epistolary novel. If the term epistolary is unfamiliar, you’re not alone. An epistolary novel is a story told through letters, and though it’s not common today, it was the most popular novel format throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson was the Stephen King of his day. Since its heyday, the epistolary format really hasn’t really made a come-back. But there are a few that made it big like The Color Purple, The Guernsey Potato Peel Society, Carrie, Dracula, and 84 Charing Cross Lane. If you’ve only seen the movies, you’re missing out!

Like many writers, I’m fascinated by letters. They’re a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain and so I decided to try writing an epistolary novel. A few years after I started, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I discovered first-hand the healing power of letters so I founded Girls Love Mail, a charity dedicated to giving hand-written letters to women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. My epistolary novel was published, From Across the Room (Five Star 2016); Girls Love Mail has distributed over 120,000 hand-written letters; and the charity published a collection of 100 letters called Dear Friend; Letters of Encouragement, Humor and Love for Women with Breast Cancer (Chronicle Books 2017). I’m now a letter expert. So, what does an epistolary book require? Is the style right for you?

Telling the Story

Fiction or non, because letters are first-person expressions of beliefs and feelings, readers organically develop a quick and deep understanding of characters. Think how much we know from a simple “My Dearest Rebecca,” versus, “Hey Dude.” Letters also have built-in pacing. Short or unfinished letters create a page-turner. To slow down important moments, a longer, intricate exchange or multiple letters with different points of view do the trick. Even setting and plot are advanced because a letter naturally demands some level of description.

That said, not every story works in this format. Maybe you have wonderful World War II letters from your grandfather or you love writing letters yourself. You need to ask yourself if the story (true or not) is enhanced by using letters. To make this call, try sorting them by story arc, not date. Do you see the story you want to tell within the context of the letters? Or will you need a fair amount of narrative commentary to explain what’s going on? The best epistolary stories are the ones where the format itself is either imperative or greatly improves the narrative. For examples, look at The Shirley Letters: From the California Gold Mines (non-fiction), and Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (fiction).

Telling the Reader

Second, you need patience. The pivotal challenge for this format is how to get information to your reader in a way that isn’t forced. Unlike a narrative, you have to know which characters to tell what. If you’ve already told one character, then how do you share it with another without boring the reader? Language is also a big consideration. Would your character write in the same style to a friend as he would his mother? And if letters are going back and forth, how important is the timing of the letters? It’s a giant puzzle. To save time and your sanity, I recommend a very detailed outline of your characters, their part in the story, and their motivations for writing letters. You’ll also want to resolve if you only want to use letters. For example, Dracula has diary entries interspersed with the letters. It’s a wonderful technique to go deeper into the thoughts of the characters.

Finally, you’ll need many draft readers who will be honest with you and let you know if the story is making sense. No friends and family for this. You need the hard truth.

It’s comforting to know that classic epistolary works are still studied in Literature classes, and a few modern authors have experimented with the traditional epistle by creating stories from blog entries, emails, and text messages. These create a wonderful record of our current culture. The ongoing fascination with letters continues because they connect us with our past and provide a means of recording our society with in-depth perspectives and first-hand accounts. They also ideal in helping writers develop story pacing and unique characters.

Overall, trying this format is a great exercise and will only improve your writing. So go for it. We may not live in the 1700s, but Lord Byron’s words still resonates today. He wrote, “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.”

Gina L. Mulligan is a veteran freelance journalist and the author of two historical novels; REMEMBER THE LADIES and FROM ACROSS THE ROOM, and the non-fiction DEAR FRIEND; Letters of Encouragement, Humor, and Love for Women with Breast Cancer. After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a national charity that collects handwritten letters of for women with breast cancer. Since the formation in 2011, the charity has sent out over 140,000 letters across the country. Gina has been featured on The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, The Steve Harvey Show, People.com, Today.com, and Woman’s Day Magazine.