Category Archives: ABC’s of Writing

Critique Abundance

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by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

Lorena Hickok, Journalist

 

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by Story Circle Founder and President, Susan Wittig Albert

Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.

For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn’t much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter’s notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.

Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.

In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.

In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest–but very painful–thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.

When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist–but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we’ll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.

 

Lorena Hickok, Biographer

This is Part 2 of a two-part series of posts about Lorena Hickok, the journalist whose friendship helped to put Eleanor Roosevelt into the media spotlight–and the central character in my novel, Loving EleanorPart 1 is about Hick’s work as a journalist. But she didn’t just write newspaper stories. After she retired from political life in 1945, she wrote biographies. This post is a quick sketch of that part of her writing career.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Eleanor’s literary agent, Nannine Joseph, Hick undertook the writing of profiles of women in political life–the first book of its kind. Called Ladies of Courage, it was an inspiring account of women’s struggle for recognition in American public and political life in the thirty-five years since women had gained the vote. ER lent the luster of her name to the book and Tommy typed the manuscript, but Hick spent the better part of two years on the research—including extensive interviews with her subjects—and the writing. Before she submitted the finished manuscript, she shared it with ER, who wrote: At last tonight I’ve finished reading your material [for Ladies of Courage] and it is simply swell I think. Much more interesting than I thought it could possibly be made.

The book, which included profiles of Frances Perkins, Clare Boothe Luce, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Oveta Culp Hobby, was published in 1954. Thanks to ER’s name recognition, it received extensive newspaper attention. Hick traveled around the country, speaking to women’s groups about the book and about the challenges women faced in political life. In recognition of her authorship, ER assigned her the royalties, which cumulatively amounted to about $4,000 (about $35,000 in 2015).

As a journalist, Hick had always been deeply interested in people who had stories, who met extraordinary challenges. In the profiles of the Ladies of Courage, Hick had found a narrative voice that enabled her to tell these stories. After that book was published, she began work on what would be three biographies for young readers in Grosset & Dunlap’s much-heralded Signature Books series: The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), and The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959). For Scholastic, Hick also wrote a biography of FDR, this one focusing on his early political life: The Road to the White House: FDR, The Pre-Presidential Years (1962).

Of the four books for young readers, Hick’s biography of Helen Keller was the most successful. It was adopted by several school-affiliated book clubs, and sales were boosted even further by the 1957 teleplay by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, followed by the Broadway play and the 1962 film of the starring Patty Duke. The royalties would help to support Hick for the rest of her life.

When Hick was doing the research for the Keller biography, she became deeply interested in Keller’s teacher, and went on to write a biography for older teens called The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. The book was published by Dodd, Mead in 1961. Hick felt a special admiration for Macy, who had given Helen Keller her voice. “No author ever finished a book with greater regret,” she wrote in her foreword. “During the months I worked on this book she became as real to me as a living person . . . I miss her.” I can’t help wondering if Hick saw something of herself in Anne Sullivan Macy. Perhaps Hick thought that the empowering help she gave Eleanor—encouraging her to do the press conferences, supporting her early efforts as a writer, urging her to write her newspaper column—was something like the help that Teacher (Helen Keller’s name for Macy) provided her student. Teacher gave Helen her voice and helped to create a place for her in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hick gave Eleanorher voice, as well.

While Hick was working on the Macy biography, she struck up a professional friendship with Allen Klots, her editor at Dodd, Mead. When The Touch of Magic was finished, Hick proposed to Klots the project that became Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, the book for which Hick is probably best known. It sketches out their most intense friendship without, of course, giving clues to its intimacy. Finished in 1961, Reluctant First Lady was published just prior to ER’s death. it sold well and the royalties from that and her other projects provided Hick with something approaching a comfortable living.

Throughout her adult life, Hick was severely diabetic, and the disease began to curtail her professional activities in the late 1930s. When she finished Reluctant First Lady, she began a biography of labor leader Walter Reuther (also for Dodd, Mead), but her failing eyesight compelled her to stop not long before her death in 1968. That project was completed by Jean Gould and published under the title Walter Reuther: Labor’s Rugged Individualist—with Hick’s name on the cover, as well as Gould’s. That book brought to eight the number of biographies Hick produced in the last fifteen years of her life.

And speaking of biographies: a new dual biography of Hick and Eleanor, by Susan Quinn, will be out in September. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anxious to read it. I hope Quinn will pay attention to Hick as a writer, as well as the woman who helped to give Eleanor Roosevelt her voice. Hick’s first biographer, Doris Faber, failed her. She deserves a biographer who understands and pays attention to her professional work, as well as her empowering friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Want to read more about Susan’s journey in writing Loving Eleanor? Check out The Secret Story Behind Loving Eleanor.

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Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com

Accountability

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By B. Lynn Goodwin

Writing is a lonely business. Sometimes. Other times it’s a joyous celebration with friends or a slog through one’s own unique valley of despair.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not on a writing team at the moment, though that might be an interesting project if the subject matter was right. Since I work alone, though, it’s up to me to keep myself motivated.

Lately, my husby has helped. He became my accountability partner last night when he asked, “Did you put in two hours on the memoir today?”

“No. Not today.”

I got up and got in the car by 9—okay 9:10—so I could give my journaling workshop for the Family Caregiver Alliance over in Menlo Park at 11. Then I was going to find a Starbuck’s on or near the Stanford Campus, but frankly, I was too exhausted, so I got in my car for the long trek home, and when I got here I was so tired I fell asleep for an hour and a half.  “I didn’t get it done because of the workshop. I don’t mind your asking though.”

I never mind accountability, except when it makes me feel small or irresponsible. I won’t mind if he asks me tonight, but he won’t because I already e-mailed him that I put in two hours. I might not have done that without his asking me about it last night.

If you don’t have an accountability partner right now and you need a little encouragement, here’s my question: “What did you write about today?” If the answer is nothing, think about your reason. You know I’ll understand. Why not post an answer below, and then you will have written today.

If you need a little encouragement, here’s something I shared yesterday in the journaling workshop, where I encouraged caregivers to vent, rant, process, discover, and find peace. I offer them to you, because every time I read them, I remember the value of what we all do.

Why Write?

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”  — Gustave Flaubert

“For many of us, writing is a form of prayer, and when our lives become too busy and we don’t give ourselves time to write and develop our writing, we feel diminished.”    –Sheila Binder

“We cannot live through a day without impacting the world around us – and we have a choice: What sort of impact do we want to make?” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall 

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”  – Thomas Edison

“Words, like eyes, are windows into a person’s soul, and thus each writer, in some small way, helps to enrich the world.”   –Mark Robert Waldman

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.Samuel Johnson

“A birddoesn’t sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song. — Maya Angelou, poet

“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  —– Edith Wharton

BlynnP B. Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice,http://www.writeradvice.com, and the author of both You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and TALENT (Eternal Press). Her blog is athttp://blynngoodwin.com. Goodwin’s stories and articles have been published in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; Good Housekeeping.com and many other venues. She is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

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ABCs of Writing: M is for Marketing

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #23

As you probably know, Kendra Bonnett and I have two passions — memoir writing and memoir marketing. Yet the most frequent comment we hear from memoir writers is that they just want to write. They want someone else to do the marketing. This is a bit like giving birth and then hoping someone else will help your baby grow up and become a big success. It’s hard work getting through the birth process and it’s more hard work helping the child grow into a productive adult. But that’s the way it is.

It’s the same with your book. Given the general, but not universal, negative feelings about marketing your memoir, you can imagine how delighted we are when we run into someone who has embraced the new reality of author marketing. Ingrid Ricks is one of those authors.

The story began several months ago. We ran across the opening to her memoir Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story and were taken with the power of her opening. We didn’t know Ingrid. Her memoir hadn’t even been published. However, we quoted her opening and that recently led her to contact us.

She shared with us the story of her journey to publishing and we thought it so valuable that we asked her to write the details. We’re sharing this story with you today because we believe it may provide some new insight into the process. Then she also gave us her 7 Tips to Publishing/Marketing a Memoir. You can find her 7 Tips on http://womensmemoirs.com

Steps in Successfully Publishing and Marketing Your Memoir
By Ingrid Ricks

I’d thought I made it when an agent called saying she enjoyed my manuscript and wanted to represent me. That is, until five minutes into our conversation, when she told me that without a solid platform, I could kiss my publishing chances goodbye.

For a minute I was perplexed. What did she mean by “platform”? I worked as a PR/promotions consultant in my day job and knew how to market my book. Hadn’t she read my book proposal that detailed how I planned to sell it once the publishers did their job and got it out into the universe? I had already launched a book web site and Facebook page. What else did they expect me to do?

“Publishers don’t care about what you say you can do AFTER your book is published,” the agent said quietly. “They want to know who is already lined up to buy your book. I can’t tell you how many great books I’ve represented recently that have been turned down by publishers because the author didn’t have a built-in platform. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

I hung up the phone feeling overwhelmed but determined. I hit the Internet and began researching, and immediately stumbled on Scribd, a social publishing community with tens of millions of monthly visitors. It was August 2010 and I set to work, uploading excerpts from my book, reading work from writers I enjoyed and slowly developing a following. Over the next few months I spent time on the site nearly every day, connecting with readers and sharing my work. To expand my base, I also started a story blog and began profiling interesting people who were turning their dreams into reality. And because I needed to keep priming the pump, I also began writing essays and discovered I loved the essay format. After a few months, Scribd began featuring my work on their home page, which in turn drove more followers.

My agent started shopping my memoir in early December and attracted the attention of several top publishers. But when their feedback came, it was always the same: Enjoyed the story but the memoir market is saturated and it’s tough selling these types of stories. Good luck and no thanks.
After a few of these, I decided that part of the problem was my manuscript. I told my agent to stop shopping it around until I could hire a top editor to evaluate it for me. The editor I wanted was booked out five months in advance and didn’t have a slot open until mid-July. That gave me more time to keep pounding away on my platform. I began cross-promoting my excerpts and essays on Smith Magazine and Open Salon, two other open submission platforms, and soon my work was being spotlighted on these platforms as well.

By June, four of the essays and book excerpts I had published on Open Salon were selected for publication on the parent magazine, Salon, and my exposure soared. By the time I received my manuscript evaluation back from the editor in late July, I realized that I had a platform and I no longer needed a publisher. I said goodbye to my agent, spent six weeks doing nonstop rewrites thanks to the amazing direction I received from the editor, hired a cover designer, proofreader and e-book formatter, and struck out on my own.

On October 1st, I launched Hippie Boy: A Girl’s Story as an eBook on Amazon, where it has resided on the bestseller list for its category ever since (fingers crossed it stays there). And I recently ordered my first print run of paperbacks, with pre-orders from as far away as Portugal and France.

Thanks for reading the story of my memoir publishing and marketing story to date.

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If you’d like to read her 7 Tips, just click here.

ABC’s of Writing: P is for Physical Activity and Writing

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #22

Many of us write everyday. For me that’s a mixture of blogging and work on our almost finished (honest) Writing Alchemy. (I keep finding wonderful material to add to the book, but am closing in on the last of it.) And when I’m not writing, I’m either editing what I’ve written or I’m editing someone else’s work.

Some days I tell myself the key is time in the chair, even if I don’t make much progress. But is that the best approach? Should I be doing something that gets me ready to write, that helps me focus and be more productive?

I’ve got three suggestions for you that were sent to us at Women’s Memoirs by Maria Rainier, a freelance writer. I’m posting one here and have posted the other two on our website. Even if you don’t follow these specific tips, I hope you’ll find comparable ones. I know I’ve just joined a gym and believe that additional physical activity with be good for both my body and my writing.

A Tip for Memoir and Life Writers
by Maria Rainier

Most professional writers take time to write every day, whether they’re working or not, but that can add up to a lot of writing. It’s easy to get tired of the practice of writing – the process, the same scheduled block of time, the deadlines that loom overhead.

But you can change your attitude toward writing with a change in your writing practice. One simple yet effective way to do this is to change your approach to writing by solidifying your mindset before you begin. As you might imagine, there are endless ways to find and keep a good writing mindset. Depending on who you are, you might be inspired by the sound of a tractor backfiring on a dairy farm or you might feel creative when you keep a vase of fresh flowers on your desk. No matter what puts you in touch with your muse, it’s important to replicate that context when you’re struggling to find your writing mindset. To help you identify activities that evoke your creative spirit, I’ve listed a few of mine. I hope that you can use them to find inspiration or to discover your own means of courting the muse.

Yoga & Breathing Exercises
Often, when I’m feeling unable to write well, it’s because my ability to feel inspired is being impaired by my own body. If I’m not relaxed, my mind has trouble getting past the stress felt by my body, making it difficult to focus on finding that writing mindset. Fortunately, I’ve found a way to relax that helps me feel stronger, more focused, and even more confident in my ability to write well. I work my way through a short half-hour yoga program that includes pranayama, or breathing exercises, to calm down my body and mind.

While it’s easy to worry about wasting time when you’re a writer, yoga has proven to be a valuable investment for me. Once I’ve completed the program, my mind feels clear and my body no longer draws my focus away from work. The simple effort of following my breath and concentrating on my body’s absorption of oxygen has a calming effect that serves as the perfect precursor to a few hours of writing.

I usually try to make time for yoga when I know that I need it, but if that’s out of the question, I can still achieve a good result with a few minutes of focused breathing. I do circle breathing when I’m pressed for time, which involves taking a deep breath in through the nose, pinching the right nostril shut, and exhaling through the left. I then pinch my left nostril shut as well, then unblock the right and inhale again. I repeat this process until I feel ready to begin writing.

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If this tip intrigues you, we hope you’ll read Maria Rainier’s other two on our website.

ABC’s of Writing: H is for Happiness

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing #21

Happiness seems to be in full bloom. I’m not talking about the delicate spring lupines, the robust summer roses, the colorful fall chrysanthemums, the persistent winter pansies popping their heads up through the snow. Happiness seems to be on a growth trajectory that keeps it in bloom all 12 months, year after year.

And no, I haven’t lost my mind. I’m well aware of ongoing revolutions, death, poverty, joblessness and the many other problems of the world. So what do I mean that happiness is in bloom? Let me back up. Kendra and I often delve into science — the social and physical sciences — to uncover research findings that can be used by writers. Over the past year, we’ve dug deeply and come up with powerful information and insights that can help us all be better writers. However, as we wrap up our book, Writing Alchemy: Turning Your Words into Gold, we’ve found we have to eliminate some of our examples and add them to our already large pile of “interesting but just can’t use it” science nuggets. In addition, we constantly run into new areas of research.

One of the new areas I’ve been reading about is the science of happiness. The topic is now part of a wildly blooming field of scientific inquiry. If you look for books on happiness on Amazon, you’ll find plenty — 20,927 to be specific. If you want information right away and so check websites for “happiness research”, you’ll get 165,000 hits. Many of these books and posts are derivative of the work of a small cluster of scientists and Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California-Riverside is one of the early researchers in this field. For almost two decades, she has investigated the science of happiness.

What do we mean by happiness? It is a perpetual state? No. Does money buy it? No. Are we born into it? To a certain extent. Does life change it? Somewhat. Can we control it? Absolutely.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Lyubomirsky’s 2007 book that planted the seeds writers continue to harvest, demonstrates that about 50% of our sense of happiness is determined by genetic factors. Think of it this way, some people are Tiggers right from the start with bouncy personalities that never let them down. Others are better described as gloomy donkey Eeyores. When my children were young, I loved reading this part of Winnie the Pooh:

“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning,” he said. “Which I doubt,” said he.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.”
“Can’t all what?” said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
“Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush.”

While we may have birth predispositions to happiness or sadness, there is still another 50% to be explained. Circumstances or events account for about 10% of happiness. Tragedies and adverse life experiences, it turns out, can reduce happiness for a while, but our usual outlook on life often returns in spite of “bad stuff.” The remaining 40% — described as intentional action — is under our control. That is quite significant as it means we can control our ability to experience happiness.

On Women’s Memoirs blog today, I have posted a video showing some unexpected findings about happiness. Then I’ve shared one study and posted two writing prompts. I hope you’ll join me there to see how you can incorporate the findings from happiness research both in your writing and in your life.

ABC’s of Writing: T is for Traditions — Celebrating July 4th

Matilda Butler, ABC’s of Writing, #20

It’s the fourth of July and I hope you’re NOT reading this. I like to imagine that you’re in your kitchen fixing your favorite red, white, and blue dish (one year I made a vegan banana cake with a topping of blueberries in one swath, raspberries in a second, and smashed bandanas in the third), or at a picnic with family or friends, or getting ready to watch fireworks locally or even on television.

But just in case you are reading this, I’d like to talk about the importance of traditions in our lives. Traditions carry our stories from year to year and from one generation of family members to the next, and even from family to friends. Never underestimate the power of traditions in our lives. They form part of our DNA.

WRITING PROMPT:
Let’s assume you read this post late on July 4 or sometime in the following week. You have just been through this year’s version of July 4. It may have been filled with well-remembered tasks or it may have brought new elements into the day. But whatever your day was like, spend about 10 minutes writing about those elements that most represent July 4th to you. Write about the traditions that you want to share with your children and grandchildren or with good friends. Think about all the small details as well as the sounds and scents and tastes and sights of the day.

Maybe you’ll start a journal or a computer directory and fill it with stories of treasured family traditions from across the years.

CELEBRATING JULY 4th ANOTHER WAY
Over at Women’s Memoirs, we’re also celebrating the fourth of July by announcing the winners of our memoir writing contest with its categories of FOURTH OF JULY and INDEPENDENCE. We had many contest entries and have chosen the best of them. Today, we’re publishing the pair of First Place winners in the Fourth of July category and the two tied First Place winners in the Independence category.

Here’s the link to the full list of winners:

Contest Winners: July 4th and Independence

The following links will be live at 10 am, noon, 2 pm, and 4 pm (PDT). Be sure and check out these stories. The first of these make all of us long for our own strong traditions that are shared and treasured across generations.

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Fourth of July category, Elsewhere Cove by Heather A. A. Menzies

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Fourth of July category, Make Love Not War by Sarah White

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Independence category, My Independence by Donna Lancaster

Tied First Place Contest Winner — Independence category, For the Love of the Game by Rebekah Varin