Westbury Falls: Episode #3

Good morning! Here’s the next installment for your reading pleasure. If you feel a little lost, please see the links to the first two episodes here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/08/26/a-little-excerpt-westbury-falls/ and here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/?s=westbury+falls

Enjoy a little head-hop into the good doctor’s thoughts on his difficult patient, and have a brilliant day!

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Matthew paced in thoughtful contemplation in front of the parlor windows, pausing to gently touch the top of the piano forte. His cousin had spoken of her beauty. Matthew snorted and turned to pace the opposite way. Beautiful was not nearly a sufficient nor apt description. Lillian Byrne was a statuesque angel, though muddled in her manners and strange in her speech. He could hardly blame her after the fall she’d taken. Her mind was still trying to sort itself out after the contusion.

His cousin, his bumbling dolt of a cousin…far too old to rightly marry such an innocent young lady, had not warned him well enough. He stopped again at the instrument. Frederick Blackwell Sutton had said Lillian was also an accomplished pianist, that her long and delicate fingers were like graceful swallows, deft and quick. They had indeed been long and entrancing, holding so strongly to his shoulder and chest. Stronger than he’d thought a woman could be.

Then again, Lillian Byrne was a lot of things he didn’t think a woman could be. Definitely a few things she shouldn’t be. He thought of her direct and improper English, the way she’d come in and out of consciousness all morning, the strange things she’d called for, asked for. What was Advil? Morphine? Could that be the opium derivative he’d heard whispered about in the medical wings of Oxford?

He knew that the effects could be quite addictive and that he had a dear second cousin nearly ruined by its affects. Where he could have asked his father for a dosing to assuage her pain, he thought better of it. She was well enough to argue and to stand, what she needed most was time. He’d seen patients come out of such contusions and not be affected too greatly. Perhaps that was what was responsible for her impropriety? As she healed, he hoped that she would remember her station, her manners, and that she was indeed, his cousin’s fiancé. For if she were a single young lady… the line of suitors, himself included, would be a bane to endure.

He flushed beneath his high collar and stopped to adjust it, wishing he was on call in the country as he had been all week, in the east of England and southern Wales, interning with the poor, much against his father’s wishes. There he could loosen the buttons of his collar. There he could be more himself, practice medicine and have the community respect and revere him instead of always living in the cold shadow of his father’s profound reputation.

There, in the rural hamlets, where he stayed in sublimely unfettered accommodations and even at times, cozy and warm barns, his smile was easy and he breathed freer out from under the tight thumb of his father and the expectations of his station. He’d been set upon by several of the young farm girls and had enjoyed their attentions but would never consider besmirching their innocence, nor would he ruin his own reputation with ill behavior towards the fairer sex. Some of them clearly made it much harder to accomplish such feat of will. He touched his lips without thinking of anything but the gentle pads of Lillian’s cool fingers on his skin. A sparrow dived outside in the garden and broke the spell.

When he’d been riding past the Byrne estate, a parcel of land just down the road from his cousin’s and on his way home from nearly a year away, he’d seen a flurry of activity at the gate and the housemaid calling in severe tones to the old butler, nearly shambling off his horse as he was in such a hurried frenzy to seek help.

Was it serendipitous to cross paths with Miss Byrne in her time of medical need? Or was it just a test of his will power, he thought with a sigh as he replayed every aching moment of carrying her to the bed, inspecting and cleaning the deep gash as well as the bruising along her ivory perfect skin. He had kept the maids within the room as each part in turn was inspected, and kept his cool aloofness even as his heart hammered at the sight of her slender ankles, long legs bruised but not broken, and scraped and scuffed arms and shoulders. The maids had shooed him out as they inspected her more…delicate areas and declared that, besides a few bruised ribs, everything was ‘as it should be’.

He’d been entirely over careful as he’d draped her to inspect the ribs which had been struck rather hard. He remembered the slightness of them as he ran his thumbs over each in turn with great care. She’d moaned and shifted away and he declared two of the ribs indeed broken. Together he and the staff carefully wrapped her tightly in order to immobilize the area. The bleeding on her forehead, from a cut that stretched into the hairline of her raven tresses, was staunched as he carefully washed and stitched the delicate skin together.

She had affected him without words and in ways he wasn’t prepared to deal with, and that was before she’d even opened those lovely violet eyes. He’d never seen such a shade of soft and heather blue. Never seen such a wide and full mouth on a woman. Never a delicate and pert nose. The small beauty spot below the corner of her right eye, long and thick black lashes that fluttered down over her cheeks as she fell in and out of fevered sleep. First, he had placed his fingers alongside her beautifully long and graceful neck to find the flutter of pulse until the maid had cleared her throat from the improper touch. In the country, he could use the most efficient and accurate means necessary and was not questioned. Perhaps it was the way he’d inadvertently graced his fingers over her statuesque collarbones or the pleased gasp she’d let out at his touch.

To the Almighty above, he was nothing more than a cad! He surely would burn in eternal damnation for the thoughts and desires that had plagued him since first laying hands and eyes on Lillian Byrne. He leaned against the windowsill and stared out at the modest grounds. He must do his best to remember that his cousin’s fiancé was not a woman. She was a patient.

And an angel fallen from the heavens. Or at least from the second-floor landing.

The sooner he could visit his father, acquire his blessing to move to the Southern peninsula of Wales to begin his own practice, the better for him. Perhaps he would find a quiet and humble wife whose eyes weren’t the dusky hue of starry nights, one that knew her place and appreciated the strength of a man to compliment her softness. Matthew’s brow gathered in a scowl. Such a woman may have suited him an afternoon ago. Now… he thought and stared up to the ceiling where she lay resting three floors above, now he wasn’t sure any woman would affect him the same way again.

In the Dark and Light

So, last week, I hit a rough patch, and I appreciate all of the kind comments and voices of concern that were raised for my well being and in defense of the human. I wanted to take a moment, before I launch into today’s poetry (brought to you by the amazing NCW Writing Retreat I was able to attend) to reach out and say a few words.

I know all humans aren’t assholes. I also know it’s our job (each human) to try and do our best not to be assholes. To not raise assholes. To forgive those who are being assholes. I know these things. But just like holding a weight constantly can fatigue a muscle and cause injury, holding on to this dark while trying to be light can be draining, so it behooves us all to drop the weight once in a while and call out the asshole-ness when we see it. After all, our job as humans is to try to make it a better world and that sometimes means calling on others to do better by one another.

And now: Poetry:

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Breakdown
When we break apart
to find the core of iron-will within
or the soft underbelly of a soul
too long denied air
Then we will understand the
driving nature of our force
Lies not in what covers us
but what centers us

When we give in to the churning
burn of a life outside our control
the masticating masses of teeth bared 
in anger and fear
Then we will understand that
we only control the product 
of our own mind
And we are the owners of
sanctuaries or hells
within our own creation

When we let go
of the idea that its our job
to dictate the perfections of others
to drive their engines
to direct the film of their lives
and focus instead on 
what beauty we can leave behind
Then we will find the only
fragile, and faltering peace
a human can own.

Going Back to School: How Writers Benefit from Classes, Conferences, and Trainings

It’s that time of year again, when the cold crisp air settles around and the light grows softer. The mornings are get-ups and lunch packing and full backpacks. The wind rustles drying leaves and the echo of everything Pumpkin Spice descends. Fall. Probably my favorite season (minus the Pumpkin Spiced everything). Fall signals the slowing down of the bustling summer, a cooling off (we hope), and a getting ready for the winter ahead. It also reminds us of new opportunities to learn, to gain intellectual ground, and to prepare for the prime writing months coming up.

There are plenty of ways to keep your skills sharp as a writer. Last spring, I covered the conference season and this post will be similar in that I’m going to give you some online resources for improving your writing skill, developing a business or marketing plan, and helping to boost your creativity. Just like conferences, a writer can easily blow their budget by trying to train themselves into success. My goal is to offer you a spectrum of options with the caveat that classes can show you how to write better, give you pointers on the business side of things and offer marketing advice, inspire new ideas, and improve your editing. About the only thing they can’t do is write your book for you.

The Long Haul:

MFA/MA Programs: These programs (Master of Fine Arts and Master of Arts) are advanced, graduate degrees that can help to help your overall exposure to the big picture of writing (MA tends to focus more on Literature and less on writing, MFA can be broken down into Creative Writing, Journalism, Linguistics, etc). In these programs you will learn pretty much everything, from plot and structure, to dialogue and character development, to grammar and editing. It will take two years at least, and the cost averages out to about $38,000, not counting room and board. You’ll read an enormous amount of material. You’ll probably complete a novel or collection as part of your Thesis. Not a horrible way to go, but studies are showing that the cost of MFA programs are often not paid back in employment afterwards so–carefully think through that one.

Online Writing Courses:

A number of reputable online courses and classes are now offered through various writing groups, professional/successful authors, and university departments. The courses are less intensive than a MFA and can often be done at your convenience. They cost a lot less (some are even free) and you can often pick and chose the ones that will benefit you the most. Here’s a small list courtesy of softwaretestinghelp.com:

  1. Wesleyan University Creative Writing Specialization
  2. Gotham Writers Online Writing Classes
  3. Reedsy Learning Courses
  4. Udemy Creative Writing Courses
  5. edX Creative Writing Courses
  6. FutureLearn Creative Arts and Media Writing Courses
  7. OpenLearn Creative Writing
  8. SkillShare Online Creative Writing Classes
  9. Emory Continuing Education Creative Writing
  10. Universal Class
  11. Writers.com Online Writing Courses
  12. Masterclass Creative Writing Classes

Conferences, Seminars, Retreats

Feel free to refer back to my older post on conference (you can find it here: https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/2021/04/01/a-word-or-several-about-writing-conferences/)

For this area of your continuing education I’ll ask that you explore seminars (mini conferences, or a series of five or more classes on one topic, like Novel Writing) and retreats in your area. I’m sure there are beautiful, far-flung retreats in tropical islands that are also available, but with travel restrictions, lack of funds, and a busy life outside of writing, those may not always be attainable, so do a little research closer to home. Some of my favorite retreats and seminars have been offered through Northern Colorado Writers at a very fair cost and are conveniently located. It also helps my sense of altruism to know I’m funneling my money into a local organization that turns around and helps other writers in my area.

Retreats tend to fall into two categories, those with classes/seminars and free-write time, and those with simply free-writing time, punctuated with social hours. You may wonder how effective three or four days, stuck in a lodge, with nothing but time spent writing can be as beneficial as say, a whole weekend of conference classes. Well, young writer, let me elaborate.

Classes, conferences and seminars are excellent resources for enhancing your writing and helping you learn technique as well as opening up your mind to the business side of things–just like I mentioned above. And, just like I mentioned above, they can’t write a book for you. Only you and time can do that. As a mother of two busy kids, with a couple of side gigs, and a whole household to run–I don’t always have time to write. Somedays I’m lucky to get 20 minutes in. So to have four days, uninterrupted by children, husbands, dogs, laundry, volunteering, teaching, or grocery shopping, cleaning, and yard work, just focused on my writing is priceless. I’ve finished novels in that time. I’ve written four months of blog posts and edited entire series. I’ve barreled through plot holes that I thought I could never find solutions to.

The truth is, when there’s nothing else to pull your procrastination strings, you can get some shit done. PLUS, its immensely helpful to be surrounded by other writers while they’re “in the zone”. There is an inexplicable energy that catches you up when you’re surrounded by other souls and brains focused on their art and passion. Plus there’s usually some socializing/decompression hours at the end of the day to give yourself respite.

Okay–that seemed like a lot of info and I don’t want to bore you to tears. Check out some of the ideas above this week for taking yourself back to school. When we invest in our writing, it becomes less the pipe dream, and more of an attainable goal. Good luck out there, writers. Keep me posted on your progress or if you’ve found some great retreats, classes, and resources yourself!

Write What You Love

Today I’m talking about two pitfalls many writers fall into. First, the desperate search for the holy grail of what’s on fleek (do they say that anymore?) or ‘trending’. And secondly, the pursuit of higher literary fiction as the only respectable way to claim ‘writer’ status.

It’s no secret that trends play a big role in what kinds of books get produced and published. Like some kind of secret surfing spot, the waves that peak are often unpredictable and by the time you get your board out into the fray, the ride has already passed.

In the same manner, when writers take it upon themselves to invest in their education with an MFA program or something similar, they are put into a strange and high-walled box of what constitutes ‘worthwhile’ literary fiction.

When, as writers, we are so desperate for that publishing contract, agent, representation, royalty check—or whatever your goal may be—we often forgo our ‘pet projects’ to work on something that will sell or is more ‘meaningful’ aka digestible by a higher caliber of reader.

These are pitfalls and I’m going to tell you why.

  1. No one can predict trends. No one. In an excellent class, taught by Todd Mitchell, he talked about a controlled experiment wherein three groups were kept isolated (online) and given the same songs to listen to, vote on, dissect, and judge. In every group, a different song was chosen to be ‘best’. In every group, when one song started to get more votes, strange herd-like mentality propelled it further. Bottom line, people will choose at random and marketing departments of publishing companies don’t represent the whole palette of readers in the world. Writing to trends, especially if it’s not something you love or are invested in, is a waste of your talent and time.
  2. MFA programs are great at exposing you to a range of writers, styles, perspectives and technique. I highly recommend if you have the money and time, to pursue one. But you don’t need a higher degree to become a better writer. Also, having an advanced degree will not guarantee you will be published. The main focus of an MFA program is to get you to finish a novel, a whole project. In the process, it will look down its nose at genre fiction, light-reads, and non-literary fluff. Which may lead you to believe that kind of writing is not worth your time. Even if you enjoy it. Even if most readers prefer a lighter, easier book for at least some (if not all) of their reading time.

So what do we do? Well…I’m going to offer you the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

Write what YOU love.Trends can’t be trusted and you won’t write with heart and fire if the subject doesn’t drive you. The world only needed one Hemingway. What the world is severely lacking is your book. Written your way. I’m not saying you can throw out good writing, grammar, decent editing and the one-two punch of great plot and snappy characters. I’m saying if you love your pet project about ghosts on a mission to save their grandchildren from mutated vampire bats, but you try to write a theory-deep mind fuck about 21st century American Existentialism, because you think it will be more impressive—nothing will go well.

Writing without heart, without passion, will feel empty to readers. AND it will discourage and squelch your flame…and a writer without fire inside will sputter to ash.

So write what you love.

When it’s done, you’ll be excited about it, you will nurture it…it will be easier to promote and share because you believe in it. And it won’t matter who else picks it up or loves it, because it’s already loved. Even if it doesn’t ‘make it’ by industry standards, you win because you have created something that brought you joy. Approaching your project with love puts positivity into the universe and it tends to circle back around. With every project you do with maniacal joy and persistent love, you’ll build the confidence in your work and your purpose as a writer, which is the beauty of creating as a whole. And it leads to miraculous things.

So get out there…without worrying about the current trend or if you’ll hit the sweet spot of American capitalistic consumption. Create what you love to create. That’s success.

Finding Sanctuary in Times of Change

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Times of transition are like hurricanes. Confusing, loud, messy and intense. There is uncertainty and a sense of powerlessness that directly affects our peace and sanctuary. Some of us deal with the changes with decidedly more grace than others. Some are rocked off their foundations, never to be the same again.

The point is that no one is safe from change. And why the hell would you want to be?

Change is the great motivator. It is the one unequivocal trait of the progression of human life. Without it we are stagnant lumps. Change breeds invention and new ideas, it sparks, hopefully, encompassing understanding and empathy. Compassion even.

What happens though, when we have too much change? When we are in a constant state of upheaval. When everything in life is a transition?

It is proven that children who suffer chronic instability (experiencing transitions so often that instability becomes their norm) can suffer from toxic stress.  

Toxic stress increases the risks of several physical and social problems including but not limited to increased risk for cancer and diabetes, heart, lung, and liver disease, increased risk for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression.

While a normal amount of stress can be good (it stimulates healthy growth, promotes resilience, and helps us to learn coping mechanisms), constant stress and insecurity in our lives actually causes the body great physical and psychological harm.

The effects are more pronounced in children but adults are not immune. Just ask the millions of people living with high blood pressure, depression, cardiac disease etc. We are in over our heads.

So how do we balance the change and transition? How do we grow and push our boundaries without breaking apart our safety net?

Balance seems a cop-out idea. Of course balance (*eye roll*). That’s like asking “how do I write a novel” and some smart ass saying “Just sit down and write”.

True…but too general. Writing, like balance, is not a one size fits all idea. What is balanced for me is way too much for someone else. One woman’s six, 50,000 word romances a year is another’s one 38,0000 word novel every seven.

How do we find our balance? How do we find the right amount of change? I think the answer lies in retaining sanctuary in our lives. Now I’m not talking humpy-backed bell swingers walled up inside the cathedral, sanctuary. I’m speaking of it on a more personal and sometimes mental level.

Are you safe in your own mind? Do you have a place to go, in your brain, where you can let go, remember to breathe, where your shoulders can drop away from your ears and you can feel at peace? Or is it all hell-fire and disaster, 24/7 from the moment you wake from stress-induced nightmares to the moment you’re knocking yourself out with Melatonin just to escape?

We all need peace. We all need change. How much of each is dependent on who you are.

One person may be content taking 15 credit hours, while raising a family of six and working part time for the PTA. Another may be perfectly happy chiming into an online forum on bee-keeping once a week and counting her reading in hours not minutes. One person may be at home living from a suitcase, jet-setting to all parts of the world for a story and a perspective never gleaned. Another may never leave their childhood hometown and yet still maintain contentment in the smaller world around them.

I’m not here to tell you how much change to accept. I’m here to tell you to accept some change. Pursue some change. But if you find that all you do is change, and you can’t recognize yourself or the people you love anymore, then it’s time to come back home.

Use that one word…what is it? Shoot, I’m not very good at this word, though I’m learning to let my lips form it’s simple monosyllabic music…it’s… NO. The word is NO. If you’re genteel you may even tack on a “Thank You” at the end.

NO is a great place to start. No I do not want to go to that party. No, I do not want to volunteer sixteen hours a week when I’m barely getting my chapters written. No I don’t have time to bake seventy-two cupcakes for the basket-weaving club…would you take a donation instead?

Conversely…don’t forget your YES button in the gleeful mania of refusing. Yes, I would love to meet you for coffee, it’s been too long! YES I would love to take a weekend class in basket weaving. YES, it would be an honor to help out for five hours a week. YES, I’ll go to Italy with you, tall-dark-and-handsome stranger…(*guffaw* still waiting for that one to come around).

You know you best. If you aren’t sleeping. if you’ve bitten your nails to the nubs and can feel the bonds of your family life deteriorating. If you’ve sacrificed what you’ve loved to do what you “should” for too long, then its time to take a long hard look at your hurricane and find a graceful exit from the storm.

If you’re still in a dead end job because you’re too afraid to throw caution to the winds of the hurricane blowing outside, do yourself and everyone who loves you a favor and chase that storm. Live a little for goodness sake. We only go get so much time! Don’t waste it wishing for something better, when you are perfectly capable of hunting down the something better and taking it back to your sanctuary.

Ah, Buckle This…A Pantser’s Guide to Buckling Down and Plotting

They say we are divided, us wily writers. Those creative fluffs that let the words burn through them and damn the story arc consequences until the laborious editing process. Those starched-collar spreadsheet architects that engineer the life out of a story until it can be laid out like a mathematical equation. Two ends of a long spectrum encompassing how we all go about writing our stories.

Whether you’re on your first novel, your seventieth short story, or your tenth attempt at nailing flash fiction, we all have a style that suits our particular intelligence. When I use that word, intelligence, I’m not talking IQ scores or any other accepted standardized measure of smarts. I’m talking about the way we each learn and create. Some of us are spacialists. Some of us are naturalists. Some of us are mathematicians. Some of us are socialis–uh…well not ‘socialists’ in the negative way that gets a bad wrap these days…social butterflies? We all have strengths in different areas of “smarts”. (pssst–check out the cool infographic from blog.adioma.com–based on Mark Vital’s work. If you have an extra minute, look through it and see where your head’s at)

HOWEVER, each one of us–and I’m making this assumption because you’re reading a writing blog–are gifted with some level of literary intelligence. Storytelling. Weaving words. Building worlds with letters. So let’s start on that common ground and get to know why plotting out your story, no matter how fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-writer you are, will help free up brain space for better writing and save you a literal shit ton of time in editing.

I’m a pantser. I’ve always been that way. It’s a creative deluge in my brain on many days. Hundreds of thousands of words, hundreds of characters, plots galore. ALSO– at least six unfinished nearly full length novels, countless ‘story-starts’ as I call them, and plots that have fizzled simply because the fire burned itself out when it hit the cliff of not having a plan.

If you are on my side of the spectrum, how do we avoid the graveyard of fizzled projects, laying stagnant on our lap tops?

Well, we simply need to learn to buckle down.

OK, OK, COME BACK!

No one shuts off Billy Idol

Jesus, I’m not some pastor dad from a bad 80’s movie, trying to tell you to shut off the Billy Idol and get a real job.

I’m just saying, as we mature as writers we can still have fun, and be responsible (I feel like a More You Know, after school special moment coming on) to our stories and characters.

When I say buckle down, I’m thinking more in terms of a roller coaster. The buckles keep you secure while the ride still thrills and delights.

Here’s how I balance out my willy-nilly need to write untethered and the reader’s need to have structure (yes–reader’s need structure…what happens on the roller coaster is fun, but they don’t want to fall to their deaths on the first loop-d-loop)

  1. When you get your idea (character, plot, situation etc): Write the hell out of it. I always think of them as scenes. I imagine situations or characters that play out in my head and I just write without self-editing the movie in my head. this can be a couple of pages, up to even 10-15 pages of material. Once I feel, like this story/character has potential and I want to know more about them, that I want to invest book-length time and effort into them, I then…
A River Sleeps Through It.
  1. Create a loose story-line. Usually on an informal notebook page, turned sideways. Some people use graphics and spreadsheets. I know myself. If I started doing that it would turn into flashbacks of Anthropological Research Methods and my only C paper…ever… ew, statistics David. That would take all the joy from it for me. Like strapping into a roller coaster with seven belts and having the cart inch along at a safe three-mile-an-hour speed. Don’t fence me in, Excel.
  2. The story line doesn’t have to be crazy detailed. But it should have an act structure. Sure, I could dictate (*snicker* dic-tate) that it be a hard-line three act structure with appropriate crises and resolution points. But some stories require more, (rarely less). If you went through step one above, chances are you have a pretty good idea of at least the beginning and end. You know what your character wants and if they get it or not. The tricky bit is in the center and that brings us to this…
  3. Plotting is important because it will help you get through the doldrums of the middle, where most novels go to die. Having some definite ideas about how crisis points build, where and when they come to a head, and how your character changes afterwards will help you know what to write next to keep the story moving in the right direction. Within that outline, is still a great abundance of wiggle room, so don’t get caught up in specifics when you draft your outline.

Well, I think that that’s all I’m going to torture you with today. You might find, by starting with this simple diagram you feel more comfortable elaborating on it, adding plot points, character transition moments, and secondary or series arcs into it. Good luck out there, pantser. Buckle up, writers. It’s one hell of a ride.

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A Writer’s Summer Reading List

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Stephen King once mentioned that if you, as a writer, didn’t have time to read, then you didn’t have time to write. Even more recently, at the closing remarks of this year’s NCW writing conference (https://www.northerncoloradowriters.com/) I was reminded by the incomparable Teresa Funke (https://www.teresafunke.com/) that writers who read shouldn’t consider that time ‘wasted’ or a guilty pleasure. Every book we read teaches us something about the craft, our own voice as writers, and provides us with inspiration and information that will be useful in our own projects.

So, as the warmth of lazy days approaches (ha ha–just kidding, if you’re a parent, summers aren’t ever lazy), I’ve compiled a list of books that may be of interest to writers, as well as some good-ol-fashioned brain candy. Let’s be honest, no one wants to spend their summer vacation slogging through a MFA reading list–gag me. The books below should be helpful AND entertaining. Each has been selected because it offers insight to the craft of writing or has brilliant use of good writing…or it’s just plain fun to read.

  1. “On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft” Stephen King: I read this one every year. He’s down to earth, helpful, at times hard-assed, and others vulnerable. A beautiful book.
  2. “The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience” Chuck Wendig: Holy shit snacks… If you haven’t followed Chuck Wendig’s blog (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/)or read ANY of his books, you need to rethink where your life is heading. Part heart-felt genius, part sacrilegious savant, “Kick-Ass” is a fun and mildly irreverent romp through the derelict world of writing and I can’t love the man’s sense of humor or talent more.
  3. “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” V.E. Schwab: I told you it wasn’t all about writing manuals. This book is poetically beautiful, curious and heart wrenching. It’s a little tragic, a little romantic, and has just enough magic realism to make you feel like you’re cheating on your homework by reading it. Schwab also does a beautiful job transitioning through time, space, and POV.
  4. “Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You” Ray Bradbury: I’d like to think, because we share a birthday, some of his playful brilliance will soak into my brain by some sort of weird Zodiac osmosis…hasn’t happened yet. This book is full of good advice, and assurances that the writing mind is not meant to be ‘normal’ and also that writing what we love, even if it’s labeled as low-brow or ‘not literary’ is more important than trying to get our books into an MFA program. As Bradbury says: “I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
  5. “Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need” Blake Snyder. Is it the last book on screenwriting I’ll ever need? Probably not. But even if you’re not a screenwriter this book has good information about story beats, plotting, character development and writing a story that audiences (your readers) will both love and be satisfied with. On a side note, if you’ve ever wanted to write a book that may someday transition to film, this is a great book to check out in understanding the process of writing a compelling story that live audiences will love.
  6. “Bursts of Brilliance for a Creative Life” Teresa R Funke. https://www.teresafunke.com/ This book is not just a boost of energy and inspiration, it’s a good ‘life skills’ book. We all need to know that our ideas matter, that it is possible to pursue our dreams and find the time to make them a reality, but this book offers helpful insights on how to do it and why it’s so imperative that we do. Teresa is not only a brilliant author but an amazing, down-to-earth, and kind human who has enough experience in the world of writing to know what she’s talking about.

Well, there you have it. I hope you get to read some of these this summer. If you don’t, I encourage you to pick up a few books in your genre and a few outside of it. See what you can learn. Even–try something out of your scope of practice (Non-fiction/Fiction) and see how the other half lives. Something is to be gained from every page we take in. Happy reading out there!

A Word (or Several) About Writing Conferences

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I’m not going to lie, I’m a lazy bastard some days. And I’ve got plenty on my plate to make me feel justified when I rehash an old blog, especially if it still fits with what I’d like to talk about.

This, being April and the start of the Writing Conference Season (I’m not sure if that should be a capitalized title, but it seems like an event so…I’m going with it) I thought it would useful to budding writers out there to go over some conference basics as well as some advice that has really helped me get the most out of them. This also being a totally new era, I’ve added some modifications to reflect our new Zoom/Teams lifestyles (not NEARLY as cool as a Rock n’ Roll lifestyle).

So, let’s get into the meaty goodness of writer’s conferences and why you should strive to attend at least one a year.


How do you choose which one to attend? 
 
•	Firstly, most conferences, at least since last year, have had to switch to some type of online format or perhaps online-in person hybrid to make accommodations for safety during the pandemic. So, the good news is, you may not have to shell out so much for travel expenses as they can be taken from the comfort of your home. Bad news is that you’ll still be at home and all the challenges that can go along with it. I’ll touch more on that later on. 

•	If you are anything like me, you’re wealthy in creativity but strapped for cash. One of the biggest deciding factors, for me, is the cost of the conference, along with which classes, speakers, and agents will be there. Getting to pitch to an agent, or multiple agents for publishers specific to your genre is a boon. Classes that are not just interesting but will help expand your craft are also good factors to consider.
 
•	Some conferences are genre specific and if you are a comfort-hugging archetype who doesn’t flirt around outside your style and subject matter, then definitely consider something specifically geared to your genre. The Romance Writers of America used to host in fun and far-off lands like…San Diego and…New York City…*le sigh* remember travel? Now things have changed. I was lucky enough to attend last year’s Wordsmith Institute’s Romance Writing Conference online and it was simply amazing. (they are offering the conference again this year and here is the linkhttps://www.wordsmith.institute/writing-events—totally worthwhile. In the fall they host a Sci-Fi conference that is equally engaging and informative). Genre specific conferences are awesome if you’re looking to polish skills or start out in a new genre that you don’t normally write in. Don’t be afraid to flirt a bit (outside of your genre, that is *wink)
 
•	If you’re stuck deciding between two, look at the courses offered, the speakers presenting, and if they are offering pitch sessions, especially agents suited to your work. Pick the one that gives you the most opportunity for growth and stretches your creative and ambitious goals.
 
How do I get the most out of my conference?
 
•	Here’s what I’ve learned. Plan ahead but be flexible. Conferences don’t just start the minute you pin that snazzy name badge on your seldom-used dress clothes (or, via online conferences, log in with only dress clothes on your upper half). They start the year before, during writing when you self-reflect on the issues you have with your WIP, your style, your grammar, or even the steps you want to take next. If you have trouble with dialogue but are a whiz at plotting out the perfect story arc, then use your conference to build up your weak points. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. Which leads me to my next point:
 
•	Sit it on at least one session that is outside of your genre, comfort zone, or even interest. Look, conferences can be amazing experiences but if you’ve been through sixteen hours of various takes on the query letter or trying to perfect your memoir pitches, you’re not growing as much as you could be. Why do athletes cross train? Why does an engineering major still have to take social science classes? Because learning about the realm outside yourself will make you better in all aspects of your work. Try a sci-fi world-building class or screenwriting. I guarantee, you will get something new out of it that will help your project and your craft.
 
•	Push your limits. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally, share your story, your success, and your pitfalls. This is an awesome opportunity (I’m talking to you little introvert) to commiserate, vent, and rejoice in the craft you love so much. Pitch your novel, article, or story. Talk to the larger-than-life keynote speaker (here’s a hint: every single one of them I’ve had the pleasure to meet has been the kindest, most down-to-Earth and supportive writer). Come away feeling like the weekend/day was an experience that has changed you in some fundamental way.
 
How do I not get overwhelmed?
 
•	For goddess’ sake, take a break in the midst of it all. I’m the worst at this. I’m a classic victim of; “I paid the money and I’m going to hit every single class. I will volunteer, pitch, hit up the speakers at the dinner table, and stuff every bit of information into my head until explodes!” Then by day two, nothing makes sense in my mind, words are blurry, I’m not sure what my name is, and I’m crying into a self-made mashed-potato tower, while wearing Underoos on my head that clearly are not my own. 

Take the breaks between sessions or even forgo a session and find a quiet corner or go for a walk outside. You need it to recharge, allow time to absorb the information and be refreshed for the next round. This is especially true for online conferences! Take the computer to different rooms (if they’re still quiet) or outside if available, take walks in between sessions, take eye and body breaks (look far off for a spell, or ‘rest’ your eyes away from the screen, get up and stretch as often as available). Its’ almost like interval training—the space between, the recovery is what sets you up for the next round, so take it.
 

 
•	If you are pitching to an agent or editor, polish the shit out of that thing beforehand. Take your pitch to your critique group, your friends, random people on the street before the conference and learn how to deliver it with confidence and clarity. Know your story, your characters, and your plot, inside and out. That first page should sing the sweetest siren’s song anyone has ever heart and lure the tepid agent from the afternoon lunch lull into something exciting they want to read more of. The more you practice your pitch, the more it will feel like a conversation with a good friend instead of an interview.
 
•	If you are pitching, don’t be intimidated by the agent or editor. Remember they are people. They are there, specifically, to talk to you. To hear your story. To find the next big thing. Most of them are also just like you…they may even be wearing Underoos and like mashed potatoes. The point is, it’s okay to be nervous, but don’t go in assuming they relish the idea of shooting you down. Be polite and always thank them for their time and any advice they have to give.
 
•	Sleep before. Sleep after. Eat nutritious food, take walks outside whenever you can, and watch the caffeine and the booze. Free coffee stations are like crack for me (or conversely at home for online conferences—having my own espresso machine) and cash bars are a tempting mistress at the end of a long, people-filled day. But you’ll have things to do the next day and Underoos will stay safely tucked in if you can avoid that third cocktail. 
To conclude, I’d like to share one of the best lessons I’ve learned from conferences.

For every conference I attend, I add a layer to the writer in me. That is to say, through the people I meet, the classes I take, and the lectures I attend, I learn more about the craft. How, and when, and why, and what and all the technical attributes that come along with the delicate balance of creativity and grammatical science. But more than just the sum of these limitless parts, I learn a greater whole.

The whole that is me as a writer. 

And in doing so, I’ve learned how to enjoy myself more at these kinds of functions by listening to my body, my brain, and my growing years of experience. 

Back in the day, I would be hand-cramping from the steady stream of notes at each session. I would be tumbling from one to the next, chugging down coffee between in hopes to keep my energy up so I wouldn’t miss a thing. I would strategically place myself at the agent’s table who I wanted to garner the literary affections of. I would, in essence, be the adult version of my grade-school brown-nosing self. 

Something happened one year, while at the meet and greet “networking” event. I found myself long past my emotional and mental boundary and crossing all lines of my introvert nature, to garner the attention of at least a few more experts in the field. I was mentally exhausted, untethered and I felt like I was on emotionally shaky ground. I realized after a long day of learning and being ‘on’ that I didn’t want to be there. 

I didn’t understand my limits or that honoring them was at the core to being successful at a conference (and let’s face it, in life)

I thought I could talk it all day, learn it all day, do it all day. Nerding on a pro-level is a quintessential part of who I am. I loved hearing about other projects much more than I like talking about my own and reveled in the creativity and ingenuity of my fellow conference goers.

But…the more stories I heard, the more classes I took, the more advice I tried to apply—the less sure I became of my ability. The more tired I got, the more flustered I became, the wearier my mind, the less information I could process.

Until everything was just noise and words.


Then I learned a secret. 

You don’t have to throw yourself under a bus to catch it. 

Knowing your limits is not just useful in this particular scene. Knowing your limits is useful for all humans. And it comes with age and the ability to let go of unrealistic expectations.

During a few of my sessions, even as I listened to the speaker, I listened to myself. If I was inspired to write; I let myself write.

If \the iron was hot, I struck while in the moment, abandoning the mad scribble of notes.

Did I miss a little of the presentations? Sure, but in the midst of other brilliant minds and the energy they impart, in the middle of shutting out the rest of the world, the heart and brain start to do this funny little dance and learn to play again.
 
Inspiration doesn’t always happen at the opportune times. You have to write when the words are ready and when the heart is open. Conferences have given my heart a doorway, an acceptance into writing what often builds up behind all my carefully constructed walls. 

In years past, I’ve forced myself to jump the hurdles of social interaction and witty conversation until late hours, when all I really wanted was to wander off to a quiet room and take a nap.

I had to make it OK for myself to listen to that want, in order to get the most out of my time at conferences. These events open pathways, but only when we’re not too busy to see them. If we are embroiled in getting the most out of every single planned moment of the time, then we may miss the real lesson. 

Creativity is like a river and if you fully submerged you’ll easily drown. You’ll miss the beauty of the ride, the view, and the sounds. 

So, know yourself, Writer. Do the things that you know work for you. Let the river of creativity, carry you, but always leave yourself plenty of breathing room to be inspired. 


Romancing The Story

Please tell me I’m not the only one who remembers these movies. I think, they may be partly to blame for my current profession (not the karate instructor—the other one, that pays even less). I loved the quirky, unrealistic way that the original frumpy romance novelist came upon adventure and began living the kinds of stories she only wrote about before. I also loved that by the second film we see her living this exotic and adventurous life and still suffering writers block brought on by lack of romance in her characters.

How I imagine I look as a tough-ass romance novelist
What I actually look like, flannel pjs and all.

Because no matter how much adventure, vine-swinging, sheik angering, and Jewel finding you do, if you’re not in love with your novel, no one else will be either.

Bam. Mic drop. Blog finished, I can go take a nap….

*sigh* ok, I’ll elaborate.

Romance isn’t just about what happens between the sheets in a typical Harlequin. Romance is about creating a smolder, a heat, an intrigue between your characters, and between your story and your readers.

When I titled this blog, I worried I would lose those writers who focus on different genres and have little need for ‘romance’. Suck that (respectfully), we all need romance. Humans are born to seek out connection. Now, the phases of it and levels of requirement are different. But the truth remains that if there isn’t chemistry between your characters…be it platonic, hate, or lust…the story will fall flat.

Well, gee whiz, Sarah, what do I do about my Scifi Cowboy Inter-dimensional six book series where no speaking women exist because I’m THAT kind of author.

how much talent, great story writing, and acting did we lose in this era from all the stereotypical, misogynistic bullshit? The world may never know.

First of all—ugh, way to cut out 50% of the entire thinking, capable, and amazing population and demote us to some hot object in a skimpy space suit, so 1960’s of you. Secondly, your ‘lone star’ lead has to have some connection to someone or something. A loyal side kick, his long-lost brother, his space ship, or *puke* if you must, even some hot object in a space suit.

Otherwise, he lacks a pathway for your reader to connect to him. Characters that ‘don’t need anybody’ are fine, but you may find that attitude extends to your readers. They won’t need him either. Characters, even the lone wolf, are better if they really do need people and are just too afraid to say something, until somewhere in act three.

“Hurrumph—well, I write non-fiction only. There is no romance. Its fact and common knowledge. I do not deal in fluff.”

Lady, (or mister?) listen. The numbers of readers you will get from a book that is all fact and no heart (i.e. romance) will be disappointing. I can’t think of a single person who goes back to their high school American history book and eats up 100 pages on the American Revolution (I’m sure they exist okay, there’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ informative book). I can, however, name numerous people all salivating over Hamilton tickets. Why? Because THAT story, makes us fall in love with the characters. The writer found romance in the people, situation, and actions of the time. It created a bond by connecting us to common feelings, needs, and emotions. And that’s what romance is really about in writing. Appealing to the human divine in all of us.

So, in this made-up month of love, explore your current work in progress and ask yourself if you are in love with these characters, their story. Ask if your character is hell-bent and heart centered on someone or something three-dimensional to ground themselves to. Is it throwing spice into the reading? Or is the plot fizzling? Where and how can you use romance to draw in and maintain your reader’s attention?

After all, romance is not romance, if it doesn’t have an anchor of reality at its heart.

2021 Beautiful Stuff Poetry Anthology Submissions

From now until September 30th I will be accepting poetry submissions to be considered for The Beautiful Stuff 2021 Poetry Anthology “Wilderness of Soul”.

This anthology will loosely follow the themes of nature, growth, transformation, self-awareness and personal resilience.

Poems may not exceed 80 lines, must be previously unpublished (unless it was on author’s website), and must be the original work of the author. Please send all submissions to: sereichert@comcast.net, or via The Beautiful Stuff website: (https://thebeautifulstuff.blog/contact/) with the subject line “Wilderness of Soul Submission”

In the body of your email, please include the title; your poetry, your name, and a short bio. You may submit up to three poems for every entry. You may submit as many times as you would like, but please ensure that each submission includes different work. If your work is a simultaneous submission please let me know.

There is no fee for submitting.

Every submission will be read and, if selected, the author will be notified by October 15th, 2021 via the contact information provided.

Winners will receive 2 free copies of the anthology, promotion through The Beautiful Stuff Blog, and a chance to have the book entered into the Colorado Book Awards for 2021. Authors will also have the option to purchase more copies at a discounted rate.

You may email me or message me via Facebook with any questions or concerns you have about the contest rules and submissions. As usual, I welcome poetry along the entire spectrum of creativity (from the traditional to the strange, from the sparkly-sunshine to the darkly macabre) but will reject any work that glorifies or promotes extreme violence, racism, sexual degradation, or harm against another human being.

That’s the long and the short of it. So send me something good. Give me guts and heart, all the dark and light of your thoughts. I look forward to reading your poems and giving you a chance to showcase your work!

Have a little poetry:

CONNECTION

Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

Beats the rhythm

Inside my chest,

Shaking the tender bones of my ear

Arousing the eternal chorus

The human heart beat,

The womb of sound and voice

That speaks in vibrations to

The celestial mathematician

Caged inside my cells

How we dance,

Humans

How we shake our heads and hips

Filling up the empty dark

With the pulsing light-magic of sound

Pouring warm caramel voices

over triplet beat

Reaching into the inner primordial

Tying strings to our bones

Weaving stories through our

Muscle fibers,

Puppeteering our

hip locks and drops

In the same wave of motion

Connecting us

Without color or god.

Resonating with all

That is

Our divine.