Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 2 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.

Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Write about the three most significant jobs (include volunteer work) you ever had. Later, choose one job and write about it. Be sure to tell how you grew from the experience. How did the work enrich your life?
  • List the three most memorable events in your life. Later, choose one and write down everything you can remember about it.
  • What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? Later, see if you can remember two or three other funny things.
  • List four things you would do differently if you had a choice. Later, write in detail about one of these. Why would you choose differently? What choice would you make instead? What difference do you think it would have made in your life?
  • Write down five things that please and delight you the most. Later, choose one and do it. Write about the enjoyment and pleasure you feel.)

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 1 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.

Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Make a list of the ten most important things that have ever happened to you. Later, write a page about each one. What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? Why was it important to you? What were the consequences?
  • Write down the three most important lessons you have ever learned. Later, write about what you did with the knowledge. Why were these lessons valuable to you?
  • In chronological order, jot down all the houses you’ve ever lived in. Later, choose the 3 most important and describe them. What made them important?
  • Write down the names of the people you have loved longest and most dearly. Later, choose 3 to write about. Why did you love these people? What did they add to your life?
  • Describe the three most imporant choices you’ve ever made. Later, write about what happened after you made each of these choices. What did they lead to?

Seeing Double: Writing from Photos

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.

For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of “seeing double”—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.

Using Photos to Remember

Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?

A Later Perspective

As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let’s try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn’t? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.

Seeing Double: Finding the Truth

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Photographs don’t lie.” But this isn’t always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother’s lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. “But those smiles were lies,” Pearl wrote. “My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn’t want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. ‘Just keep smiling,’ she would say, ‘and nobody will know the difference.’ Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn,” Pearl adds, “when I began to search for my real self.” If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can “see double”—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?

Memoir Albums

If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert

The Past in Pictures

You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.Who?
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don’t know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.

Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?

Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family’s ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.

Photos and Poems and Quotes, Oh My!: How Other Creative Works Can Add to Your Writing

One of the first reviewers of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, said, “….The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality of what is being described on the page….” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.

I really hadn’t thought of putting photos in my book until my publisher suggested it. And of course I was delighted. At first she suggested photos interspersed within the chapters, but my book didn’t lend itself to that. So I picked out photos in groups: of my son Paul – the main subject of the book, of him and his brother, family photos, views of my office, garden, and one of the memorials to Paul – a bench dedicated to him on the greenbelt outside our home. At the time I had no idea what an impact these photos would have on the message of the book. However, I am currently reading Keith Richard’s memoir, Life. It has two photo sections. And I keep going back to these photos as I get to know more about the characters in his book.


Inserting my poems was another story. I never even considered leaving them out. They were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from and a poetry manuscript, and I arranged my book’s chapters according the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. However, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago now says he can relate to them better because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who not only liked the poems I initially had in the book, but asked for more.

Because I collect quotes – I usually note them down when I read, and I continually post them on my Facebook author page – I decided to insert three quotes in my book– two from books and one from a song. And that turned out to be the biggest problem in finally getting my book to print. Since I felt they were integral to my story I was adamant, but it took months to get the necessary permissions. The main lesson is: if you want to include other authors’ words in your book, start getting permission early.

All in all I felt it was well worth the extra time it took to include other works in my memoir. My writing is very personal and I feel the photos, poems, and quotes helped deepen the personal message of my words.

Writing: A Typical Day at WISC

One of the reasons writers crave time away to write is that so much of our daily lives isn’t actually spent writing. We all have family, friends, community work, administration (answering inquiries about writing assignments, talks, workshops; publicity, paying the bills, reminding people to pay us, accounting, etc), and so on.

If you asked the average fulltime writer how much time they actually had to put pen to paper or hands on keyboard, the answer is likely considerably less than 8 hours a day (except in the days or weeks immediately preceding a big deadline, when we panic and make those words fly!).

Two hours of actual hands-on, uninterrupted time is a figure I hear. I’ve been writing a long time, so I have more practice in focusing and ignoring interruptions than many writers, which means on a good day I might get in three or four hours. But that’s a lot.

So when we have the opportunity to leave our daily routine behind and just focus on our writing, we’re ecstatic. Or terrified, because then we have to actually produce something. Or both ecstatic and terrified.

Which I think describes how I feel having a whole month here in Santa Fe at the Women’s International Study Center, with few responsibilities besides writing. I’ve gone through the whole gamut from over-the-top excited to what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? And that was just the first day…

So what’s a typical day of my writing fellowship like?

Pretty ordinary. I get up at my usual time, around six a.m.. (Which is easier now that we’re past daylight savings time and those very dark mornings!)

An especially lovely dawn

I take a moment to appreciate the dawn out my windows, and then I do half an hour of yoga (which reminds me to be in my body while I write, not just in my mind), and my morning gratitudes, which include a salute to the four directions, plus earth, sky, and self, in place wherever I am; plus sending out love and good wishes to friends, family, and my far-flung community, human and moreso.

After yoga I write in my journal for half an hour or so, and then I bathe, dress, and eat my simple hot breakfast cereal of organic whole oats and other grains, plus organic dried fruits, and cinnamon for sweetness and blood pressure/ blood sugar control. I read the news online over breakfast (although some days I wonder why I even want to know), and then head back to work.

Breakfast (earthenware bowl by Jim Kempes–see below)

I do my best to focus and write until early afternoon, usually about one-thirty or two. Usually that means I write for a while, then have to stop to think, pace around, check my email, resist the obsessive urge to read the news, and then sit back down at the keyboard again.

When the stream of words dwindles to a trickle and nothing I try restarts it, I break for a late lunch, answer more messages, and then go back to the writing to see if there’s anything else I can say. If not, I need to move, so I head out for a walk.

Sometimes I have an errand (like walking to the grocery store for food!), but mostly I just ramble at random, letting the writing rest in my subconscious while I look at interesting walls, gates, gardens, sculptures, plants, and other sights, and listen to bird calls or ravens croaking, people talking in different languages, traffic whizzing past, cathedral bells… I smell tortillas frying or chiles or spicy piñon smoke.

Eye-catching details in a woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea) vine with blue berries and red stems

When I get tired, I come “home” to this quiet casita on a dirt side street and read a book from my stack, or check the news or answer emails… I usually eat my simple dinner early and then read until bedtime, do a bit of yoga and am asleep by ten.

Yesterday I played hooky all afternoon and drove out to the Chama River Valley (Georgia O’Keeffe country) near Abiquiu with my agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli. Our mission was to visit Lesley Poling-Kempes and Jim Kempes, she a fine writer (and another of Liz’s clients) and he a ceramic artist. (Lesley and Jim stayed with me last month in Salida and brought me one of Jim’s wonderful ceramic vessels.)

Jim’s large sculptural ceramic forms issue from the desert along the dirt road leading their house; I could have spent all day finding and sitting with them. (And I so wished Richard could have been there to delight in them and talk art with Jim.)

See it?

As it was, we had just time to admire the beautiful adobe house they built with their own hands (building the studio first, as is proper for any artist, and then the house), and then we followed Lesley to the house of a member of her writing workshop. We had tea with Peggy and another poet and workshop member, Ginger, and talked writing and women’s history and elections, and life.

And then, all too soon, the sun set to the south of Pedernal Mesa, and it was time to head home to Santa Fe, tired but full from the time with friends and art and beautiful landscapes.

Sunset from Peggy’s house

Today was an ordinary day, which meant I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, a joy in itself.

Thank you to my Santa Fe friends for understanding my need to write, and also making sure I get out of my cave from time to time, and to Laurel and Jordan of the Women’s International Study Center for the blessing of this time. It is rare and precious, and I am using it well!

Thank you, Peggy Thompson, for the gorgeous hand-knitted wool scarf as well…

For more from Susan J. Tweit, visit her blog.

And You Thought You Were Finished: The Revision Process

My publisher advised me to revise the second half of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, almost entirely when she decided to publish my book. To that end I used many of the steps I learned while working as a writer-editor-manager of proposals to the U.S. Government to revise my book. Here is my revision process.

1. Plan before doing. I created a revision plan based on notes from my publisher and advice from my first reader. Then I got my publisher’s buy-in.

2. Read before revising. Since I hadn’t looked at my draft for almost two years, I read it front to back with my revision plan in hand. I marked up a hard copy with a red pen and made no electronic changes until I was through. Wow! did I find lots of things to edit, including typos, awkward sentences, repetition, and inconsistencies. I also noted where I needed to insert new material, move things around, and update.

3. Use storyboards. I set up foam storyboards along the hallway next to my office and pinned up a printed copy of each chapter as I electronically finished incorporating my first round of edits. Storyboarding allowed me see the book all at once and better spot redundancies, inconsistencies, places that needed cutting, moving, and expanding, and where each chapter best belonged. I highlighted problem areas in yellow so I could see text I needed to revisit again.

4. Get others to review. After I completed these edits and reworked the yellow-highlighted portions, I gave three willing writer friends an electronic copy. One person did a line-by-line edit. He also found punctuation and sentence structure problems. Another friend looked at the content for repetition, inconsistencies, and writing accuracy. And the person who originally helped me create my revision plan read it again for organization problems. She made suggestions about where to move, eliminate, or combine material.

5. Stay in control. However, I made the final decisions about whether to take my editor’s notes or not. Even my publisher, said,”… Others can only offer advice. Only you can write this book.” So I reviewed each comment and only fixed what I thought relevant.

6. Stay on schedule. Because I was reliant on other people’s inputs, I created a tight schedule. I allocated five months to complete everything, including incorporating my revisions and reviewer’s comments, merging the finished chapters into one document, gathering photos for the cover and body of the book, getting permissions to use quotes from other authors, and writing dust jacket copy.

7. Know when you’re finished. After incorporating review comments, I still felt the needed to make a few changes, add a few words, and edit a little more. Finally when I didn’t have any more changes or adds or deletes or reorganization ideas left in me, when my mind stopped living and breathing the book every waking moment of every day, and when I felt comfortable letting it go, I knew I was really finished.

For more from Madeline Sharples, visit her blog.

From Manuscript to Book: Part 3, Editing Your Own Work


I’m posting a brief series about editing and copyediting. Here’s Part 3– important lessons learned from long experience in editing my own work and the work of others. Here are seven things you can do to clean up your manuscript before you send it to a reader (a friend, beta reader, agent, copyeditor, or editor).

  1. Put your darling on the shelf. When your project is finished, go on to something else. Give your work time to cool off and yourself time to put some distance between you and that precious thing you’ve written. When you come back to it, return as a stranger, with analytic eyes.
  2. Print and read (or read from your Word file). Seeing your work on paper and hearing it read may clue you to problems, glitches, and stylistic infelicities. Print and read aloud, making pencil changes to your text. Or read aloud from your Word file, making changes as you do. Another option: send your Word document to your Amazon Kindle account, and read it on another device. I sometimes read a Kindle copy on my iPad, marking the changes I want to make.
  3. Search and destroy those personal gremlins. Every writer has her own personal gremlins (words like affect/effect, less/fewer, your/you’re). Know what yours are, so you can be on the alert for them.
  4. Repetition repetition repetition. Readers notice careless repetitions of words and phrases. You should notice them first (and reject, revise, replace) before you submit your work. My copyeditors use the phrase “close repetition” to remind  me of too many raised eyebrows, frowns, nods, sighs, and so on. I try to catch these before a file leaves my computer.
  5. Present a professional appearance. You don’t wear shorts to a job interview; you make sure you’re appropriately dressed and your hair is combed. (Makeup optional.)  Conforming to “industry standards” makes your work look professional. Here are the basics:
  • Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
  • Align the text to the left, ragged (don’t justify).
  • Double space in Times New Roman black 12-point font.
  • Single space after periods.
  • Use page breaks between chapters. Start chapters a third of the way down the page.
  • Use #s to indicate scene breaks: insert a space above and below.
  • Number the pages. Center bottom is fine.
  • Check for chapter breaks. I reduce my file image to about 50% or 60% and click rapidly through the pages. This gives me a quick overview of the file and I’m able to see missing breaks.
  1. Run spell check. Yes, I know—Word checks spelling as we type. But another spell check won’t hurt. You might not accept the changes, but you may catch some errors before they get to your editor or reader.
  2. Puzzled? If you have a question about usage, grammar, or formatting issues, check with an industry-standard style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. I subscribe to the online edition (currently $35 a year), and I use it when I’m writing. When my copyeditor returns a file, she frequently notes problems by referring to the CMOS. The print edition is also available, but the online edition allows you to make notes, create your own references, and search.

I’m expecting The General’s Women back from my copyeditor in the next few weeks. When that arrives, I’ll share some thoughts on that process. Watch this space.

Reading note. Editing is the very edge of your knowledge forced to grow–a test you can’t cheat on.–S. Kelley Harrell