Author Archives: margefl3

School Visits? Maybe…

I am probably the least qualified of any member of Wordsmiths to write about the School Market!  I have never written for an educational publisher, and the only school visits I’ve ever done were a presentations, for a few years, for Career Week at the elementary school where my daughter teaches.  Let’s just say these were not the high quality presentations she, and I, would have liked!  But, here are a few tips I learned along the way to help anyone’s school presentation be better.

*Speak slowly!  When we are nervous we tend to speak more quickly (at least I do) and not only is it difficult for listeners to keep up, but what you thought was a 20 minute presentation can easily turn out to take only 10 !!

*Be as inter-active as possible.  When you can get the students involved, they become more eager and interested (and the time goes faster, too!)

*Visual aids are always a help.  Even if you don’t have a published book, pages from magazines with your stories and articles on them (especially if they are in color) will hold students’ interest.  Any other charts or posters you can devise will also be interesting.

*Have “freebies” to give out, if possible.  Elementary school kids love to get something free and unexpected.  Small token hand-outs, such a bookmarks or copies of your short story, or other similar items are always a hit.

*Be prepared for questions, even the unusual.  Teachers often prepare the class to ask such things as, “What do you like best about your job?” and “What is the most unusual thing that ever happened to you in your work?”  But I’ve also heard “Are you rich?” and, from one bemused young boy, “How old were you when you got married?!”

*Be prepared to sign autographs!  For some reason, young kids are enthralled by getting someone’s signature, and even if I wasn’t the most scintillating speaker, they still asked me to sign the copies of my stories or even a blank piece of paper.

*Always keep a smile on your face, even if you feel you are sinking fast, and thank the teacher for inviting you and the students for listening. 

I don’t know if I’ll do school visits again, but if I do, I’ll keep the above ideas in mind.  I hope they will help others, too!

Marjorie Flathers

Do’s and Don’ts

Wordsmiths is tops, but I have been in a number of other critique groups over the years with varying degrees of satisfaction.  Here are a number of friendly do’s and don’ts based on those experiences:

DO Make a Commitment

It’s ok to visit a group to see if it fits your needs (and if they have an opening), but once you’ve been accepted and decide to join, enter the meeting dates on your calendar and make attending a high priority.

DON’T Attend Just Now and Then

I’ve actually known people who said they wanted to join, but then only showed up if they “had nothing better to do” or “if I feel like it.”  Everyone faces illness or other emergencies from time to time, but we owe it to the group, and ourselves, to attend regularly.

DO Make Encouraging Comments

Preface remarks with statements, such as “Would you consider…”  “How about…” or “It might help…”

DON’T Be Negative or Hurtful

Marking out whole paragraphs (or pages) and writing comments such as “This makes no sense” or “You don’t understand kids” or “Why are you bothering with this?” doesn’t help anyone.  (I’ve actually seen these remarks on manuscripts!)  Even if you don’t like the work, respect the effort.

DO Encourage Good Work

Note where dialogue, setting, etc. work well.

But…DON’T Be Too Positive!

A manuscript with all glowing comments will not help a writer improve.  I was in a group, many years ago, with a woman who had been brought up with the admonition, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  While this may be a good idea for everyday life, it doesn’t work in critique groups.  Showing where something doesn’t quite work, something that’s not clear, or facts that perhaps don’t agree and suggesting alternatives is better.

DO Try to Accept All Comments

Even if comments are occasionally hurtful (should that happen) simply listen without comment.  Then use only the ideas you think will work.  Remember…it’s YOUR story!

DON’T Explain or Defend Your Work

You can be pretty sure if a group member spots a legitimate problem, an editor will see it, too…and you won’t be there to explain!

DO Respect Limits

Bring only the requested number of pages (usually around 10) and note the time limits for each person.  Wordsmiths keeps it around 20 minutes per person.  We find a timer works great.

DON’T Ask For Exceptions.

Bringing numerous chapters of your manuscript “just this once” and using up others’ time is usually not a good idea and does not help group harmony.

Following these tips should assist any critique group be the best it can be.

Marjorie Flathers

Trying other Personas

One technique I like to use when self-editing is to take on different “personas.”  Here’s how I do it.

Once I have gone through writing many drafts of my manuscript, cutting, tightening, bringing it to the correct word count, I set it aside for about a week and work on something else.  When I pick it up again, this is where the other personas come in.

First, I try to imagine I’m the editor who will be reading this for the first time.  Would she/he be pulled in by the first line?  Does the timeline of the story or article flow effortlessly from one scene or point to the next?  Are my transitions smooth?  Have I made an effort to catch all of the typos, my particular nemesis.  Most importantly, if I were an editor would I want to keep reading this?  Would it appeal to the audience our publication is trying to reach?

THEN, I switch gears (waiting an additional two or more days) and read my piece in a completely different mode.  I now try to imagine I am the child (or adult) who will pick up the magazine or newspaper, looking for something interesting to read.  Would this story or article be it?  Again, I want a compelling opening, smooth flow, good transitions.  But as I put myself in the reader’s shoes (or mind!) I try to anticipate their attitude and questions.  Does this story or article speak to me?  Can I relate to the main characters and their problems?  Are these difficulties and the characters’ reactions and solutions to them believable? Will this piece give me information I need, want, or otherwise find useful and interesting?  Does the timeline make sense?  If I’ve said something at the beginning of a story, have I unwittingly contradicted it (even in a small way) later on?  Surprisingly, since I began doing this, I’ve noted quite of few of the last two oversights in a number of published books!  I’m not sure how these books got published and these errors slipped in, but I definitely don’t want to join the ranks of these authors! 

Since I began following this technique, many years ago, I’ve found that my manuscripts are stronger and my article and short story sales increased.  I found it especially useful when I was trying for my first sale to the “Kids’ Reading Room” page of the Los Angeles Times, 10 years ago, and it was successful. I’ve since sold them over 20 stories!

Why not try putting on other “personas” as you self-edit your manuscripts and see if that approach makes a big difference for you?

Marjorie Flathers

A History of One Writer’s Workspace

Back in the mid-1970’s, when I first started my writing career, my “office” was a small, blue Smith-Corona portable typewriter that sat at one end of my dining room table.  This was before anyone knew about home computers, but at least this typewriter was electric!  I used this typewriter and “office” through the years (79-83). I attended college as a returning student and earned a degree in English and worked on my writing.

I continued to submit manuscripts, and after my graduation from San Bernardino Valley College, I began to make more sales.  Soon, I upgraded to a wonderful IBM Selectric typewriter that had its on little typing stand.  I loved it!  I added a filing cabinet to hold my published articles and a rolling file to hold the “pending” ones.  All of this fit under a window in our family room.

However, the age of computers was slowly creeping up on me, and in the late 1980’s, I was dragged kicking and screaming to my first computer, a bulky Tandy/Radio Shack model that used actual “floppy” disks.  Of course, I had to get a computer desk to hold the various components, and all this along with the files, etc., took up most of a wall in the family room.

After much “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” I learned to use this equipment quite effectively, and enjoyed being able to type faster, move text around,  print out documents and save them to a disk.

By now our son had married and moved out of the house, and I finally had a room I could turn into my very own home office.  After a much-need thorough cleaning of the room, we painted and papered, and I added more filing cabinets, a nice assortment of fitted bookshelves/cubicles/drawers.  I moved the cumbersome Tandy computer and desk and the old faithful IBM Selectric into this room.  I was set to go.

By now I was making many more sales and was very happy in my new environment.  But technology was pushing at my back, and I soon realized everyone was using much smaller computers, and Microsoft Windows and the Internet were a must.  So I, in the late 1990’s, I purchased my first PC and set it up in my convenient office.  Once again, tears flowed as I struggled to learn the intricacies of the Internet, e-mail, AOL, Googling, etc., and I soon developed a love/hate relationship with my new computer.

I’m now using my third PC (it’s amazing how short the “shelf life” these expensive machines have!) and have moved up with the various AOL programs.  Most days find me sitting in the office I once longed for (and can’t imagine how I ever functioned at the corner of the dining room table!)  However, with all the paper generated by my computer printer, I’m afraid all this organizing hasn’t prevented me from falling victim to the “swamp syndrome,” that was mentioned in a previous blog post, no matter how much I promised myself to file every day! And we won’t even mention the small closet in the corner of my office, where published manuscripts, rejections, paid bills, IRS returns, and other miscellany go to rest—-not too neatly!

But among all this clutter and chaos, I manage to get manuscripts written, send them out, and continue to make sales.  And I feel blessed to have my own office, my own space.  And, I can close the door on it at night!

Contributed by Marjorie Flathers

Bring Out That Personality!

There are many different ways we can develop the characters in our stories,  and most of them have been mentioned in previous posts this month.  However, I have an additional strategy that works for me.  It involves giving a character a personality trait that makes him or her memorable to the reader.  This is especially true with the minor characters in our stories.

I first became aware of the need to do this when, a number of years ago, I was reading a middle-grades manuscript to a critique group I belonged to at the time. One of the members commented that Principal Sotelo sounded just like Mom who sounded a lot like Ms. Bradshaw, the teacher, and Mrs. Rutten, the next-door neighbor.  I quickly realized I had been concentrating so much on my two main characters (tween girls) that all my adults were one generic blob.  What to do? 

Our manner of speaking is the first thing people usually notice about us, so I knew I needed to get to work on making these characters sound distinct from one another.  Sometimes if a character likes to use a particular word frequently, this adds a special something to her or his persona.  But in addition, I decided to give each one a “little something extra,” rolling the eyes, a way of folding arms, maybe even a little nose twitch.

Going back and adding these personality quirks, or traits, would add spark to my main characters, too, I was sure.  Of course, we don’t want to overdo something like this.  Our stories then are in danger of becoming a set of clichés.  But main characters or minor, they can all benefit from the subtle inclusion of a mannerism or word pattern that will make a reader respond to their personalities and avidly turn the pages.

Marjorie Flathers

More Thoughts on Sensory Detail

The other Wordsmiths have had wonderful thoughts and ideas for our subject this month, using sensory details in our writing, and since my post comes at the end of the month, it seems to me just about everything has already been said.  But here are few more random thoughts about sensory details.

In a recent story of mine (for adults) that was published in a leading Catholic magazine, a fellow writer (Donna Gephart,bless her!) made a note on her blog of what she thought were two great sensory descriptions. They are:

“I felt as if my life was slipping through my hands like butter off a hot ear of corn.”

“I dug through my purse to find the pamphlet.  It was wrinkled, and there was a mint stuck to it.”

I appreciated Donna’s making special note of my words, and as I create new work, when I need extra inspiration for using sensory details, I turn to the 23rd Psalm for evocative word-pictures.  Here are some isolated lines:

The Lord is my Shepherd

Fresh and green are the pastures where he leads me to rest

He leads me beside still waters

If I should walk in the valley of darkness…

He prepares a banquet for me in the sight of my foes

My head is anointed with oil

My cup overflows

I will live in the house of the Lord for the rest of my days.

Scripture quotes are helpful in many different ways, and these lines bring beautiful, soothing pictures to my mind.  The expressive, sensory language of  Psalm 23 never fail to give me comfort and guidance.

Marjorie Flathers

Getting My Priorities Straight

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides.”  Matthew 6:33

Whenever I feel discouraged about my writing, or equally important, don’t know which direction to take next, this quote from Matthew (and the song we often sing at church, based on it) puts me right back on track!

Marjorie Flathers