From Tragedy to Inspiration: How Writing a Memoir Can Be Healing

Q&A With Author Jodi Graber Pratt:

Imagine being just a few yards away from the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001. Hearing the first of two planes fly directly over your head. Running for your life as pieces of concrete and other building materials rained down around you.

Author Jodi Graber Pratt takes you there, in her new memoir: In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir.  It’s anguishing to feel it yourself, through Jodi’s clear prose. But it’s also a surprisingly hopeful book. Because from her own struggles to make sense of such a life-altering experience, Jodi  asks us to think about what we as a country can learn from the 9/11 tragedy — and how we can build on America’s most positive traits and values.

Jodi kindly agreed to share her memoir-writing journey with other would-be memoir writers here! Hope it’s fuel for your fire — to encourage you to finish your own memoir!

Jodi Graber Pratt’s new book, In Its Shadow: A 9/11 Memoir, on Amazon.com books (Associates link).

_________________

1.      What was process you went through to write a book about your experiences? Did you start journaling about the experience right away? 

Actually, I didn’t intend to write a book initially. It wasn’t until a couple of years after 9/11 that I started writing about it, as therapy to help me reclaim full-function of my brain. At first, it was just random flashes that I tried to capture, which helped me start to process the experience. Over the course of several years, they evolved into a journal. Then the journal became an example of my writing style for a writing seminar instructor, who encouraged me to develop it into a book for publication.

2.      What hurdles did you face in writing your book, and how did you overcome them? Was the experience itself something that was hard to write about, at first? What kept you from quitting when it got hard?

Initially, trying to allow the memories to come to the surface was difficult; I had been beating them down so viciously for the first two years, they were shy in exposing themselves again. And I didn’t have a regular writing schedule; career and personal obligations did not allow for much uninterrupted quiet time. That’s partly the reason it took so long to get to the journal stage; it was often months between quality writing sessions.

But writing comes naturally to me; when asked to communicate, I’d rather write than talk. That’s not to say the perfect words fall in precisely the right order as soon as my fingers touch the keypad; I usually find myself writing and rewriting many drafts before I’m satisfied to share a draft with anyone, even for a first review. But I enjoy the process, so I never felt like quitting. Nevertheless, I often felt very frustrated that I couldn’t write faster. I was anxious to get to that stage where I started feeling good about it.

3.      Did you have a specific reader in mind for your book? Are you taking any specific marketing steps to reach your readers that could be helpful for other writers to think about? 

I didn’t have a specific audience in mind at first; it was just for me, to help me – finally! – process what I had witnessed and come to terms with it. Once it had become a journal and I decided I was going to share it with friends and family, I wanted it to be as accurate and honest as I could possibly make it. I wanted the reader to be able to feel like they had been in my shoes, experiencing it first-hand. I was pleased when some of my beta-reader comments included, “Your experience is now indelibly linked with mine,” “I was right there with you,” and “It had me in tears but I couldn’t stop reading.” That told me I had found the right words.

Since this is my first writing effort, I’m only now developing my author’s platform,” which I’m learning is extremely important. As a more introverted person, my approach leans heavily on written opportunities (e.g., blogging, trying to reach influential people for reviews that can be “flaunted” for PR purposes, applying to award programs (with fingers crossed), trying to place op-ed pieces, doing book giveaways). And reaching out to my state and federal public servants is definitely on my short list for marketing purposes. I hope to help to contribute to the effort to raise awareness of the importance of voting mindfully, looking for ethical, wise and capable candidates who understand and value our founding ideals and will model how to fulfill them, both domestically and nationally. And, of course, make it a priority to cast your own vote, no matter what the polls are saying.

4.      You’ve said that you hope your book contributes to a discussion of ways to “nourish both prosperity and morality for all.” How is your book a vehicle for that?

In recent decades, I believe we have returned to old, aristocratic economic models, where only a small fraction of the population enjoys great wealth and the benefits that come with it. At the same time, less and less of our combined profits “trickle down” to the hundreds of millions of people whose efforts – while individually small – together keep this country among the most creative, productive and successful in the world.

Our founders have left so us much information to learn from. On this issue, my favorite (so far) is Benjamin Franklin, born into a poor family (15th of 17 children from his father) in the early 1700s. He had to work hard to become successful. And when he felt he had earned “enough,”  he turned his excess resources to encouraging and enabling others, and investing his time and money in improving America socially and politically. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he held himself accountable for his mistakes and took responsibility for them (e.g., recognizing and providing for an illegitimate child). Sharing generously from his bounty made him no less able to enjoy the comforts of life until his death.

That’s a great model for American Capitalism. I believe our most privileged citizens should be expected to share a portion of their bounty with society. Each generation needs to be responsible to prepare for the next, always nurturing and encouraging talent no matter where in society it exists, giving it wide berth to fully develop for the benefit of all society.

5.      What do you hope readers will take away from your book the most?

No matter how “civilized” and past barbarism we think we are, the veil between peace and disaster is razor-thin. The only thing protecting us is the vigilance, dedication, intelligence, wisdom and vision of our leaders. When our government loses its focus on its most important function – to keep America safe and at peace, within itself and with all other nations – the “American Experiment” (i.e., our democratic system) fails.

We choose our leaders through our votes and our voices. We are responsible to select the best, brightest, most wise, most disciplined and most ethical individuals among us to represent and serve us, and we must hold them accountable to honor our trust in them.

6.      What advice can you give other memoir writers? What helped you that might be surprising, for example?

Naps. Learn the value of taking naps. When I’ve been struggling with particularly challenging section for a while that I just can’t seem to get a handle on, I take a nap. When I wake up, a clear direction usually pops into my mind. I think it has something to do with releasing the “creative” part of our brains from the filtering of the “logical” part of our brains,which happens through sleep. This book represents a huge number of naps!

So there you go! Hope Jodi’s kind words encourage you to finish your own memoir! 

Check out Jodi Graber Pratt’s website at www.InItsShadow.com. And find her inspiring new release on Amazon.com books (Amazon Associates link).

3 Writing Tips To Make Your Writing Sing!

Ever hit a long-winded passage and turn the page, hoping the story would pick up later? I see a few hands out there.

This month, I wanted to share three quick writing tips to avoid page-turning-reader syndrome and let your writing sing!

Yes, sing! (This great illustration from TheGraphicsFairy.com.)

(1) Look for “padding” you don’t need.
An easy place to start: those extraneous, repetitive, extra, unnecessary, duplicative, redundant and overused words. (See what I just did there?) Yeah. You don’t need every single one. Get out the pruning shears and chop away.

Here’s a great example of a slightly different kind of “padding”:

 “Her mouth was parched, and a slow fever seemed to kindle in her blood, and creeping slowly through every sluggish vein, touched the torpid tide with stinging fire. Her languid eyes gleamed with a fierce light…”

Oh dear. No, it’s not a passage from a modern romance. This was an 1865 writer. A very breathless 1865 writer. And it’s a great example of what happens when you lean too hard on adjectives to paint your scene.

Moral of the story: watch out for “adjective addiction.” So, how would it read without all those adjectives?

 “A fever seemed to kindle in her blood, and creeping through every vein, touched her with fire. Her eyes gleamed…”

Still a bit on the dramatic side. But way better!

(2)  Vary your sentence structure.

Cookies come in all shapes, sizes, and varieties. Try playing with changing up your sentence size and structure, too. (Image from TheGraphicsFairy.com).

It’s easy to fall into a “same-same” sentence pattern. But changing up the sentence structure can make things a lot more fun for your reader.

Like some examples of different ways to craft the same sentence? Here you go:

  • My mother loved baking cookies.
  • December was the time of year when the aroma of cookies always permeated our house.
  • Cookies? We had them all. From shortbread to chocolate chip, lemon bars to oatmeal, butter cookies to gingersnaps.

Bonus tip: Unless you’re doing technical writing or striving for formality, don’t get hung up on using complete sentences. I know, I know. It’s what we learned in school, right? But for less-formal writing, short and pithy works just fine. (Check out that third bullet point above, for an example).

Be thoughtful. But be merciless in editing out words you really don’t need. (TheGraphicsFairy.com image).

(3) Chop overly-long sentence into pieces.
If you really want to know why overly-long sentences don’t work and how they frustrate your reader, how obnoxious it can be to get to the very end of a sentence and have no idea where the thought actually began, and why most editors reach for their red pencil frequently to separate long, wordy sentences into two, three, or even four different parts, just think about how your attention quite naturally wandered away when you were forced to wade through a word-salad mess — like this ridiculously convoluted sentence.

Okay, I did that one on purpose. How about this real-life example (from 1865 again):

“The opportunity was offered him in July, 1862, at Boonesville, by an old class-mate at West Point, and one who subsequently won, under Bragg and Forrest, a character for belligerency similar to that now enjoyed by Sheridan.”

Huh? That requires some real work on the reader’s part to parse out the meaning! Chop that run-on stinker into two sentences and it might read like this:

 “In July, 1862, an old class-mate from West Point offered him an opportunity at Boonesville. That same class-mate would later serve under Bragg and Forrest, winning himself a reputation for belligerency similar to that of Sheridan.”

Unpacking those two ideas into separate sentences makes them easier for your reader to digest. (Extra bonus credit for anyone who noticed that the rewrite also shifted from passive to active voice! That helped, too.)

Zachary Taylor Wilcox must’ve loved excess or hated scissors. And look where it got him.

So there you go. Hope these three simple ideas help your memoir writing sing!

And now I’d like to hear from you: What questions do you have about memoir writing? Where are you getting stuck? Drop a line and let me know.

Memoir Writers: Who Inspired You?

It’s easy to think of our memoir as just our own story. But how many other paths crossed yours to make you who you are today? Probably thousands and thousands!

In this pool table game of life, we’ve all taken hits from a few random cue balls. Our trajectory has been disrupted by unexpected forces that coaxed us, prodded us, or simply whacked us off the table for a little while.

Not all of those forces were benign. But some were encounters with people who made us better.

Maybe those inspirational forces were your parents. Or perhaps your biggest inspiration was long-gone historic figure, or a celebrity you never met in real life.

But we never, ever forget our heroes. Role models with stories so compelling we aspired to be like them. People who challenged us to reach higher, be better, try harder.

It could have been a movie star; a saint; a surfer; a favorite teacher.

But when you ask yourself, Who inspired you? chances are someone’s face immediately came to mind!

So here’s a memoir tip: Don’t forget to mention those special forces that altered your trajectory. The heroes and heroines who inspired you can add a fascinating dimension to your memoir!

______________________

A FEW MEMOIR WRITING PROMPTS:

*     How old were you when you first felt inspired by this person? How did their path happen to cross yours?

*     What form did “inspiration” take for you? What about this person did you want to emulate?

*    What might have happened if you’d never had their encouragement or inspiring example to follow? How did your life trajectory change as a result?

*    What have you done (or might do in the future) to “pay it forward” and inspire someone else?

 

That’s it for this month!
Let us know how your writing is going! Leave us a post on Facebook: @WriteYourMemoir

And feel free to share this story with a friend!

Six Great Gifts Just for Memoir Writers (Plus 3 Helpful Tips)

’Tis the season (or soon will be) for gift-giving. And don’t forget those upcoming New Year’s Resolutions. (Hope yours will include writing!)

Whether you’re thinking about a gift for a fellow writer, or perhaps a motivational gift for yourself, here are six fun gift ideas. And keep reading to the end for three helpful writing tips to keep your inspiration level high through the holidays!

* * * * * * *

 

     Find a notebook that inspires you.

Notebooks to Take Everywhere: Every writer needs a handy notebook to keep them at all times — because you never know when inspiration will strike! Check out  hundreds of artist-created notebooks  on  Threadless.com – including this charming “PalmPlants” design. From silly to crazy to just plain beautiful, grab your favorite for between $10 to $20 bucks. Or if nothing strikes your fancy, upload a design and create your own notebook! (Wouldn’t that make a great holiday gift, too!)

Embossed archival photo album from Gaylord.com

Preserving Memories:
Gaylord.com offers tons of archival supplies that make great gifts for memoirists. They even devote a special section of their website to products for preserving family history. The Gaylord website includes helpful free tips and how-to videos, too. Just one gift possibility: their embossed leatherette photo album.

Pens & Ink:
Love the feel of a great pen? Ink & Volt is just one site offering beautiful writing implements for every taste and budget – including fountain pens ranging from $18 to over $150. Doesn’t the “Pilot” pen, shown below, look like something writer Erle Stanley Gardner would have used for his Perry Mason novels!?

A beautiful pen just feels good to pick up!
Buy a calendar – or make your own, thanks to Lemon Thistle!

Calendars for Writers:   Okay, you could buy a traditional “writer’s calendar” from Writer’s Digest. Or you could make your own! Here are five free calendar templates, courtesy of Lemon Thistle. (You can’t get better than free, right?) In addition to a spot for notes on the side, this one also includes a prominent box at the top for your goal. Great concept.

Amina Warsuma wrote about her amazing life trajectory.

A Memoir to Read by the Fire:
Amazon is full of memoirs to read. And there’s nothing like a great example as a teaching tool. Choose a memoir to read this holiday season — not only as something to enjoy, but as a sample to learn from and help you improve your own craft.

A couple of possibilities:  “Reminiscence: Life of a Country Doctor,” by Carl Matlock, about medicine in a small town back in the days when doctors made housecalls.  (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link to find the book).

Then there’s “My Stars Are Still Shining” by Amina Warsuma, about her journey from the streets of Harlem to a career as an international fashion model. (Here’s our AmazonAssociates link for the book).  As she puts it:  “I have felt throughout my life that people were my greatest asset as they suddenly appeared and disappeared in my life. I have wondered for years why I came in contact with wonderful and not-so-wonderful people. As I reflect back, there is a lesson I learned from each significant encounter and involvement.” Bet you can relate!

Help, tips and encouragement, just for Memoir writers!

Getting From Stuck to Finished:
And, of course (bit of shameless self-promotion here), our own “Writing a Memoir” book about the craft of memoir-writing makes a great holiday gift, too. Hope you’ll consider gifting a copy to someone you know who’s working on their life story! (Find the book here with our AmazonAssociates link).

And here are 3 Memoir Writing Tips!

These cold winter days are a great time to stay indoors and write, right? Try these three Keep-Going Tips — just for memoir writers!

1.  Picture Your Hero:  Choose someone who’s already written a memoir similar to the one you’re hoping to write. (Perhaps it’s the person whose memoir you picked to read, above!)  Post their photo or a picture of their book right over your computer. Remember: If they can do it, you can do it, too!

2.  Narrow Your Lens: A wide-angle lens is a great tool for photography. But it can be overwhelming as an approach for memoir. Instead of trying to figure out how to jam your entire life into book form, choose just one event, one place, or one person to write about next. How to pick just one? Your heart probably already knows what you most want to write about. Or, if you’re still stumped, jot down ten possible ideas as quickly as you can and throw them in a hat – then close your eyes and pick one. (The “quickly” part makes sure you don’t over-think this step.) Extra bonus from this exercise: Now you have nine more ideas just waiting for you!

3.  Talk It Out:  Sometimes we’re just not ready to start writing. Sometimes we need to talk about what we’re going to write, first. My theory: talking out loud and writing words down on paper use different parts of the brain. But once you can say out loud what you’re excited about writing, it unleashes new energy. Find a friend; take them to lunch; and describe what you’re working on and what you hope to write about next. You might be amazed at the fresh inspiration you come home with to sit down and write!

Well, that’s it for this month!
Please keep me posted how your writing is going!

And if you’d like to get more memoir tips every month, you can sign up for our free Memoir Writing newsletter here — and get a free Scheduling Tool, too!

Speaking of History: 4 Tips for Giving a History Talk That’s Actually Interesting

Show of hands: Who positively hated history class in school?

Virtual high-fives, my friend . . . history class was soooo boring!

Yet this is how crazy life can be: now I write books and give talks about it. So what’s changed?

Well, I finally discovered history isn’t about memorizing names, dates, and wars. Nope. It’s about people. Their loves. Their struggles. Their heartbreaks and successes.

Everyday life in days gone by

Right now I’m preparing a talk for a local historical society. Dreading it? More like totally jazzed! I get to introduce my audience to great people and great stories – tales they’ve likely never heard before.

Stories of sadness and stories of survival. About lives taking fascinating twists and detours. Dangerous times and surprising discoveries.

History is about mistakes as well as successes
Great history stories include mishaps and mistakes as well as grand successes.

Want to skip the yawns and keep your audience wide-eyed and eager to hear more about a historical topic? Here are four tips for the history teachers out there – or anyone fortunate enough to be speaking about “days gone by.”

  • Make it about people—because it’s the people-stories that really capture our hearts and imagination.
  • Use illustrations. Lots and lots of illustrations. Images that grab the imagination. (Wouldn’t you want to know what mission that gent at the very top was off to?)
  • Focus on forgotten or hidden history – not the names, dates, and snooze-worthy facts everyone already knows.
  • If possible, add something that connects those “old days” you’ve been sharing with your listener’s life today. Maybe your presentation includes a photo of an old building that’s now facing demolition. Ask people to consider helping to preserve it. Or perhaps you’ve shared facts or details that you discovered in an unpublished family history. Remind your listeners to think about getting their own life story down on paper, while they still can!

One last point: If there’s a “special sauce” that makes any speaker more fun to listen to, it’s speaking straight from the heart. Let your passion for history’s amazing tales come out. (Because, after all, if you’re not passionate, you can’t possibly expect your audience to be!)

I suspect that’s why I’m asked to speak again and again — because my own excitement is contagious. And that energy is definitely a two-way street. There’s nothing that quite beats the high of looking out at your audience and seeing eyes opening wide and hearts opening up – to history!

_______________________________________

Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. And yes, she loves talking about history! For more about Karen and other fun stuff she’s done lately, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

________________________________________

GUEST BLOG: Memoir Author Sally Bailey Jasperson

Sally Bailey has danced with some of the biggest names in professional ballet. Think Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. She became a professional ballerina with the San Francisco Ballet at the age of 19, and spent the next 16 years on a whirlwind of stages: from New York to Ecuador, Istanbul to Cairo, Egypt to El Salvador. And in 2003, she captured some of those fascinating memories in a memoir: “Striving for Beauty: A Memoir of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Sally Bailey at a booksigning, and was immediately a fan. She’s bursting with life, high energy, and enthusiasm. And her book shares some astonishing stories from her high-octane career with the San Francisco Ballet. (Don’t miss the one about leech soup in Rangoon!)

Author Sally Bailey Jasperson with her books at a recent signing.

Me, of course, I was full of questions. Sally kindly agreed to share her answers with us in this blog! So read on — and hope you enjoy this virtual “meeting” with Sally, too!

* * * * * * *

Q:  What was it like, growing up to be a dancer?
A:  Dancers often have an unusual time of it. They start younger than in most professions. They grow up in a rarified atmosphere, mostly seeing only each other; and they become more and more removed from ordinary life. But when they manage to succeed, which not all dancers do, this leaves them open to a rare experience: the feeling of complete power and control over a situation, as in a performance when everything just happens to click. I had such an experience once. I still remember it. It occurred while I was dancing Tchaikovsky’s grand pas de deux from the Nutcracker. This pas de deux is indeed grand! When the orchestra is playing full out and you’re dancing full out, feeling every muscle in your body doing exactly as you wish, you and your partner are responding to each other, and the audience is responding to the two of you — it is a heady experience. There aren’t too many experiences like it.

Sally dancing the “Roses Waltz Adagio” in Beauty and the Beast, May, 1958 (Dale Smith photo).

Q:  What made you decide to write a book about your years in ballet?
A:  I decided to write this book because, after all my years in ballet, I had something to say. It’s not only a memoir of my life, it’s also a chronicle of the Christensen Brothers’ San Francisco Ballet.

Q:  Your book is an amazing 370 pages, and covers the time from when you were nine until you were 35. This must have been a momentous undertaking. What got you started writing, and how did you go about the process?
A:  It was a big undertaking. From start to finish, the book took me 10 years. My son was in high school during much of this time. I used to get up every morning about an hour before breakfast and write. The original version of my book had over 700 pages — much too long! So after I finished writing, I had a lot of cutting to do.

Q:  So many memoir writers quit when their project is half-done — sometimes even after just a few pages. In fact it sounds like your director’s wife hit just that kind of snag. What helped pull you through to the end?
A:  I had a lot of help along the way. My brother-in-law had been Chair of the English Department at Annapolis; he had friends who also helped. My husband was a real stickler for the English language, and I had friends who were college English teachers. They all read it, and gave me comments. And for me, the discipline of ballet came in real handy!
As I was looking for a publisher, an old friend who was working as an editor offered to read it and came up with many good suggestions. I rewrote it again. And finally, my manuscript sparked enough interest that a publisher read the whole thing. Though she couldn’t afford to take the project on, she encouraged me to go ahead and publish it with Xlibris. And so did my husband and son, who for ten years put up with late dinners. They said I’d better do something with it.

Q:  What did you do to stay organized?
A:  I began with a timeline, and I knew what I wanted to say. I had kept journals while on all our tours, which helped immeasurably with dates and details, though I hadn’t kept many notes when we were home.

Q:  Your career in ballet was really phenomenal. And yet, at the age of 35, you knew it was time to change your life and go on to other things. Was that part of  your motivation for writing the book? To show others that it’s okay to let go of a career and move on?
A:  No, my motivation for writing the book was entirely personal. As for the decision to leave dancing, I wanted to quit while I was ahead! Staying in as ballet mistress — a role something like a tutor to the other dancers — felt to me like cleaning up other people’s messes. It wasn’t appealing to me. Many dancers aren’t interested in a world beyond dance, but I knew there was a whole wide world out there and I was excited to explore it.

Q:  Do you have any encouragement or advice for other memoir writers?
A:  I think everyone has to just feel their way through the process, and just keep plugging.

Q:  You’ve actually written two books: “Striving for Beauty” and also “After the Applause Stops: Who Are You When You No Longer Do What You’ve Been Doing for Years?” Where can readers find your books?
A:   My books can be ordered online through Amazon and Borders, or from the publisher, Xlibris.

Here’s Sally’s book “Striving for Beauty” at Amazon.com!

________________________

P.S. Like a free copy of Sally’s book? I’m so pleased to share her story I’m doing a Giveaway! Just drop me a line at kdustman@clairitage.com and let me know why you’re eager to read her book! Best answer (in my humble opinion) before November 22, 2019 wins the book. If you win, I’ll email you for your mailing address.

Hope her story inspires *you* to keep writing!

 

Writing for Magazines: What Do Editors Want?!

First, the bad news: the magazine markets shrank dramatically over the last ten years, making it tougher than ever to break in. Even if you do land an assignment, freelancing is no longer remotely lucrative unless you’re writing for top-tier mags (think “winning the lottery”). Expect to pull in a few hundred bucks at most for your effort, and count yourself lucky at that.

The magazine market ain’t what it used to be. But there’s still grand opportunity!

Even so, there are several good reasons to write for magazines. If you’ve got a book, a blog or a website, a magazine article can be a great way to promote it. If you’re eager to highlight to your niche or expertise, a well-placed article can raise your business profile a notch.

Magazine-writing can also be a great excuse to travel. (Just don’t expect to make any money doing travel-writing without years of paying your dues!) Still, the “pittance remittance” you can expect from a travel story can help offset a fraction of your travel costs — a definite win/win if you were planning on going, anyhow!

Magazine assignments also allow you to learn new things and meet incredible folks. Thanks to freelance assignments I’ve had the happy privilege of talking to all sorts of cool people, from top national health experts to pet psychics. I even got to interview Margot Kidder once!

And perhaps the best reason of all to write for magazines: it’s just plain fun. Magazine work can bring you great joy, especially if you’re writing about something you love.

What are magazine editors looking for?

So, what are magazine editors looking for these days?

First off, of course, they’re looking for stories that will appeal to their readers. So start out with a good grasp of the magazine’s demographic. Who are their readers, and what’s the age range? Are readers generally men, women, or both? And what are readers looking for from this particular publication? Craft a pitch to assist or entertain or educate the folks the magazine is designed to reach.

Editors want articles that are fun, lively, and haven’t been done to death. A piece on “How to bake an apple pie”? Utterly ho-hum. “How to bake an apple pie in a Dutch oven on a camping trip”? Now you’re talking!

Come up with something unexpected. (In this case, it’s the rabbit who’s doing a hat trick.)

Come up with an innovative way to do something, or interview an expert no one’s uncovered before. Suggest a unique solution, or find a new way to tackle an old problem, and write about that. Explore uncharted territory, and offer tips for others who might want to experience that same adventure. Even if you think your idea is new, check back issues to see if the magazine has already run a similar story in the past couple of years.

An editor’s time is precious. So they’re eager for clean copy they won’t have to spend hours whacking into shape. They’re looking for writers who’ve already learned their craft. They want words that flow logically from one sentence to the next.

Forget deathless prose. Go for clean copy and smooth transitions.

Show ’em your chops, starting out right in your query. Keep  sentences short and tight. Don’t ramble on and on forever, with strung-on phrases, multiple clauses, and endless digressions that lose the reader before they get to the very bitter end of a wandering sentence like this one. Make sure you have a point for your story; then make sure the story gets there.

Don’t make your editor feel she’s doing this to get your story in on time.

Editors desperately need to know they can depend on you. Editorial calendars are unforgiving. If you land an assignment and your deadline is June 1st, don’t plead for an extension on the last day of May. Do whatever it takes to get that story in on time — or submit it early and really make your editor’s heart sing!

Double- and triple-check your work to make sure all your facts are right. Nothing will kill your chances of future assignments faster than sloppy, incomplete research. Don’t guess. Do your homework.

And last but not least — I know you already know this — proofread everything before you send it. (You spellchecked it, too, didn’t you?)

That’s it! That’s what magazine editors want.

Now go make some editor’s day. Pitch away!

___________________

Karen Dustman is a published author and freelance writer with hundreds of magazine articles in print. She still gets a kick from turning them in early. Karen especially loves writing for history, genealogy, and natural health magazines. Check out her books at Clairitage.com, and her magazine clips and credits on her author website, www.KarenDustman.com.

 

Stalking Perry Mason: Following the Footsteps of Erle Stanley Gardner in Ventura

What’s not to like about a lawyer who got kicked out of law school?! His best-selling Perry Mason novels aside, Erle Stanley Gardner would still be legendary for that un-lawyerly feat!

Erle Stanley Gardner with his signature pipe.

Born in 1889 in Malden, Massachusetts, Erle Stanley Gardner managed to stay enrolled at Valparaiso University’s law school for only a few short months. Legend has it that Gardner was sent packing after organizing an underground boxing match in which he himself became a pugilist. It probably didn’t help that Gardner also claimed to have slugged a professor.

Never mind his lack of a formal law degree. Gardner managed to get himself admitted to the California Bar by passing the test in 1911 at age 21. He’d spent three years working as a typist at a law firm in Oxnard, so perhaps that experience gave him sufficient insight into the mysteries of the profession.

The following year (1912), Gardner eloped with one of the secretaries at the firm, Natalie Talbert. A hasty wedding it may have been, but the marriage lasted — officially, at least — until Natalie’s death some 57 years later.

The former Ventura County Courthouse where Gardner practiced – now Ventura City Hall.

Gardner had his own law practice in Merced for a short time. Then in 1915 he was invited to join the trial law firm of Frank Orr in Ventura. He abandoned law briefly in 1917, working instead as a salesman. But by 1921 he was back doing trial work for the Ventura firm. He seemed to most love representing legal underdogs: “I have clients of all classes except the upper and middle classes,” he once wrote his father.

Meanwhile, Gardner was trying his hand at writing pulp fiction on the side. His typewriter clacked late into the night in the study over his garage. But would-be writers can identify with Gardner’s early tribulations. His initial efforts produced only a growing pile of rejection slips. Finally, in 1921, Gardner’s first short story appeared in print. Some claim it was “The Shrieking Skeleton.” Others say it was the equally-alliterative “Nellie’s Naughty Nightie,” a bit of pulp fiction that generated all of $15 bucks. (Gardner’s mother reportedly refused to read it.) But Gardner had found his true calling. Over the next decade, he would crank out an astonishing 600 short stories and novelettes in his spare time.

The Ventura Pier today.

A daughter was born in 1923. Gardner would soon happily begin teaching her to fish off the nearby Ventura Pier.

Things were apparently going well in his professional life, too. In 1926, Gardner’s law firm moved into offices in a newly-completed bank building at the corner of California and Main. Although Main Street itself was still unpaved, the building boasted the finest accoutrements, from sparkling chandeliers to the city’s very first elevator.

Gardner’s office was in this building at 21 California St., Ventura

The four-story office building was conveniently situated in the heart of downtown, with the Ventura Courthouse just a short walk up the hill. Gardner was able to enjoy some of the finer things that Ventura had to offer, including steak dinners at his favorite Pierpont Inn.

As Gardner’s publishing credits began to grow, his agent encouraged him to try his hand at book-length works. And there in his third-floor law office in 1932, Gardner would crank out the opening pages of what would become his first Perry Mason novel. Some say it took him a mere three days to finish his first draft.

Front door of Gardner’s office building.

The book, “The Case of the Velvet Claw,” debuted in 1933 and became an immediate success. Soon, Gardner was spending just two days a week as a lawyer. The rest of his time was devoted to writing. Before long, Gardner gave up law entirely and devoted himself to writing full-time.

Although he pounded out stories at first as a two-fingered typist, Gardner quickly figured out that he could produce far more by dictating. A chance encounter with Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn (where she worked as a hostess) led Gardner to offer Agnes a job as his secretary. The dictation system worked so well that he soon hired her two sisters as secretaries, too.

Gardner met his secretary, long-time companion and eventual wife Agnes Jean Bethell at the Pierpont Inn.

Some sources say Gardner set himself a goal of 4,000 words a night; others say his target was 10,000 words every three days. He regularly churned out some 100,000 words a month. That meant he could produce between three and six books a year — a track record that would make him any writer’s idol!

Gardner and first wife Natalie acquired a newly-built home on Foster Avenue about 1936. But Gardner himself didn’t live there long. Although they never formally divorced, the couple lived separately beginning about 1935. In 1937 Gardner purchased “Rancho del Paisano” in Temecula. It would be his home for the rest of his life.

Natalie passed away in 1968. A few months later, Gardner married his long-time secretary and companion, Agnes.  He was 79 years old. Gardner lived just two another years, passing away of cancer at his home in Temecula in 1970.

All-told, Gardner authored nearly 100 detective and mystery novels, more than 80 of them featuring the quintessential sleuth, Perry Mason. His books have been translated into 71 languages, making him the most-translated American author. Despite this incredible record, Gardner claimed “no natural aptitude” as a writer. He was simply a “good plotter,” he once said — and oh yes, “one hell of a good salesman.” His goal was to offer his readers “sheer fun.” And readers loved it.

The historic plaque on Gardner’s former office building at 21 California St., Ventura.

Today, modern-day Perry Mason fans can still follow in Erle Stanley Gardner’s footsteps on a visit to Ventura. A bronze plaque flags the downtown building on California Street where Gardner had his third-floor law office — and drafted his first Perry Mason tale. The Courthouse just up the hill (now Ventura’s City Hall) is where Gardner, as a real-life lawyer, once argued tenaciously on behalf of his clients. The Ventura pier where Gardner taught his daughter to fish has since been rebuilt, but still juts out proudly into the Pacific. The Pierpont Inn, where Gardner tucked into delicious steak dinners and where he met Agnes Jean Bethell, remains an iconic Ventura attraction.

The former Gardner home at 4240 Foster Ave, Ventura, listed by eXp Realty.

And you’re really eager to follow in Gardner’s footsteps, you can even purchase Gardner’s former home at 2420 Foster Avenue. It’s two stories, 2,770 square feet, with a killer view overlooking town. And it’s on sale right now for just $1.79 million.

 

____________________________________________

Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

___________________________________________

For further reading about Erle Stanley Gardner:

IMDb biography of Gardner

Kingston Pierce blog

“Thrilling Detective” blog 

L.A. Times story by Jane Hulse (1/11/1996) 

L.A. Times story by Gary Gorman (9/23/1990) 

Wikitree

Wikipedia

And the eXp Realty listing for 2420 Foster Ave

Writing About an “Ordinary” Life

MEMOIR TIP: Finding the Special in an “Ordinary” Life 

Ever feel like “my life was nothing special”? It’s a common refrain among memoir writers. You went to work; came home; cooked; did laundry. Then rinse and repeat, day after day. Where’s the special to write about in that so-called “ordinary” life?

What tools were an “ordinary” part of your household as a kid?

Here’s my take-away after interviewing dozens of folks who thought their lives weren’t very special: keep asking questions. Some of the greatest memoir material is tucked away right in the details of a seemingly “ordinary” life.

Here’s a couple of examples:
I once interviewed an old-timer who’d never lived far from the spot where he was born. Turns out he was a virtual living library of nearly-lost skills. He’d grown up hunting and trapping — with fascinating tales to share about his days tromping the mountains and the wild animals he’d encountered. He remembered when the local generator shut off at 9 p.m., along with every electric light in town. And brushes with death? It was amazing that he’d ever reached his 80s! As a teen, he’d once been sent out onto a flooded bridge to help break up a logjam threatening to take out the bridge. His “safety gear”: a bit of rope tied around his waist. Bottom line: he had plenty of amazing stories from a truly amazing life!

“I was just a housewife,” one of my husband’s relatives would similarly protest. But a little prodding later, we heard how her journey to school took her over a railroad bridge — a fine thing, until a train was coming, when she’d have to leap over the edge and hang onto a post until it passed. And she beamed as she told us how she and a classmate were allowed to spend the night from time to time with the warm and wonderful teacher from their one-room school, who’d let them roast marshmallows over the chimney of an oil lamp. Special memories indeed!

So, how can you find those fascinating nuggets? Those details that breathe life into the most “ordinary” life story? Here are a few tips:

  • Think about what special knowledge or expertise you’ve acquired — especially anything unusual by today’s standards. Did you learn the tricks of cooking on a woodstove, or how to skin a rabbit? Did you grew up sewing your own clothes? Tell the story of how you learned, and share the proper steps!
  • Remember how life was different than today during your growing-up years. Did you ride a bicycle or maybe even a horse to school? Get lost in a cornfield? Ever built a treehouse? What adventures did you have that kids today would never experience?

    What did your kitchen look like? No microwave, food processor, or trash compactor? Is there a favorite recipe you remember?
  • What kind of “ordinary” foods did you eat — perhaps something that’s anything but ordinary now? And how was that dinner prepared? Were staples in your family’s diet things that aren’t so common today, like parsnips, liver, or Spam? Did your mom make homemade pies made from home-grown fruit? (Do you still have that favorite recipe? If so, be sure to include it!)
  • What dangers did you manage to survive? Some of those experiences may be very uncommon today! Did you ever get lost in the forest in the snow? Come face-to-face with a bear? Challenge your friends to see who could be the first to swim across a dangerously swollen stream every spring? One of our friends had a simple abscess as a child that was truly life-threatening back then, although today it could be easily cured with antibiotics. Another relative spent an entire year in bed with pneumonia — again, an easily-treatable malady today. Those “ordinary” tales of challenge, hardship, and danger are especially fascinating when viewed backwards through today’s lens!

Bottom line: Don’t dismiss your life as “ordinary.” Remembering the details of that “nothing special” life often turns up incredibly powerful stories — and great memoir material!

Thinking of stories already? Share a few of your special memories with us on our Facebook page!

And if you’d like more Memoir tips, find our book on Amazon!

_______________________________________

Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

________________________________________

3 Hacks to Writing Better Copy

by Karen Dustman

There’s a smoothness to good writing. It’s effortless to read. Your eye moves easily through the sentence. You don’t have to struggle to make sense of the paragraph.

Easier said than done, of course. But good writing is part art, part craft. And that means that the right tools and a bit of practice can make a world of difference.

Here are 3 easy hacks to help boost the flow of your copy:

  1. Ditch those really fun, super-amazing modifiers.

Okay, we all have a tendency to gush from time to time. But too many modifiers slow down a reader’s eye. And let’s face it: by the fifth superlative in a sentence, you’re really just “gilding the lily” anyhow.

Here’s a few real-life examples (tweaked slightly to protect the guilty), so you can see what I mean:

“The third edition of Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource and one of the most successful and authoritative compendiums of its time. Fully revised and updated, it is a definitive reference book and includes time-tested natural treatments . . . .”

 “I’m super excited to welcome Company ABC to our powerhouse Retail Establishment, and so happy to see our shelves filled with their beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage products, perfect to help you achieve your best modern-day wellness!”

Yeah, excitement sells. But don’t over-sell. Apply the brakes to breathless adjective strings (like “beautiful, artfully-crafted vintage”). And try to avoid double-descriptors (“successful and authoritative”; “fully revised and updated”). They’re needlessly wordy.

Compare these (much) cleaner rewrites:

“Now in its third edition, Fantastic Health Book is an essential family resource. It features time-tested natural treatments . . .

We’re happy to welcome Company ABC’s time-tested products to our natural wellness line.”

Yeah. Whew. Much easier on the reader.

  1. Shorten your sentences.

Here’s a real-life example from (sad to say!) a publishing company’s website:

“XYZ Company offers the rare experience of working with a team of award winning writers, editors, marketers and publicists to not only have a book but to have one that makes an impact and gets our authors the coverage they desire and deserve.”

Ugh. Did you read all the way to the end of that 43-word monstrosity? Or did your eyes glaze over half-way through? (Mine did!)

Let’s do a little sentence-rescue and see how we could make that read better. What are the important points in that messy word salad?

  •    We have a great team of publishing-industry experts;
  •    We can get our book into print;
  •    We can help you with marketing and media exposure.

No wonder the sentence is over-long and confusing! There are three separate “messages” all run together there.

The cure is staying “short and sweet”: split that monster sentence into individual “message” components. Here’s one version of how that might look:

“We’ve got an award-winning publishing team here at XYZ Company. Our writers and editors can help get your book into print. And our marketing experts and publicists help writers land the media exposure they’re after.”

Bingo. Shorter sentences that don’t overwhelm you, and individual messages that now make sense.

  1. Learn to tell your “it’s” from your “its.” If there’s one tiny word that gets misused more than any other in the English language, it’s probably that dangerous three-letter “its.” Show your writing chops by using the right one.

Here’s the simple hack: When you see an apostrophe, mentally fill in the omitted letter and see if your sentence still makes sense. So, for example:

It’s the right time of year to go fishing.” Yup, that “it is”!

But: “He took the hat from it’s place on the rack.Nope!It is” doesn’t work here. That hat needs to get put in “its place.” Pitch the apostrophe and carry on! You’ve got it, now.

Hope these simple writing hacks have helped you.  Here’s to writing like a pro!

___________

I write frequently about history, travel, family/oral history, natural health, and more. Like to discuss a podcast appearance or magazine assignment? I’d love to hear from you. Find clips and more on my author website: KarenDustman.com

________________________

Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.

________________________________________