Category Archives: Uncategorized

Fictionalizing your life, or how autobiographical is your fiction?

SCN novelist and lifewriter Judy Alter looks back on a book she wrote three decades ago, and finds in it pieces of her autobiography.


I’ve been proofing Mattie, the first adult novel I ever wrote and winner of the 1988 Western Writers of America Spur Award for best traditional novel. It’s been available on Kindle forever and done well at 99 centers–#64 today in Kindle ebooks, Genre Fiction, Medical. I’m going to post it to other platforms and thought after almost thirty years it deserved another proofing.

Mattie’s story is loosely based on the life of Georgia Arbuckle Fix, a pioneer woman physician in western Nebraska at the turn of the twentieth century. I didn’t know at the time that Mari Sandoz had also fictionalized Fix’s life in Miss Morissa, and the comparison by loyal Sandoz devotees was not kind to me.

It’s intimidating to re-read something I wrote all those years back. My style is different—the 167-page book is all long chapters and lots of space breaks, and did I really begin every other sentence with “So”? I’m correcting only egregious errors; why mess with success?

The content is more interesting though. I was seven or eight years out of a marriage that started wonderfully and eventually disintegrated. Mattie goes through the same experience two-thirds of the way through the novel; her once-passionate marriage is gradually chipped away until she and her husband, Em Jones, can barely stand each other. Mattie’s retrospective wisdom about the situation struck me—I didn’t realize that I had learned that much from my own marriage, but, darn, sometimes Mattie really seems to understand life. Wish I’d put that knowledge to work years ago

At the time I wrote, I was raising teen-age daughters, with all the angst that involves. The angst is reflected in Mattie’s rebellious daughter, Nora. Only Nora never reaches the wonderful reconciliation my girls did—they are now best friends with each other and with me. When I wrote, we hadn’t reached that reconciliation either, and the angst was much too familiar.

Late in the book, Mattie takes into her home and bed a drifter named Eli, skilled carpenter, a good man, but not one to settle down. I took a week off from work to write the last chapter. The words came in a rush as though someone was channeling me who knew the story. Eli simply rides off after a while, moving on as is his nature, leaving Mattie devastated again—and puzzled. At the time, I was seeing a man I liked well enough to envision a future with him—he liked my kids and wasn’t scared of them, rare in suitors. He was gentle, kind and fun. But as I wrote those last pages, I had a flash of clarity: he too would be moving on. He was no longer going to be a part of my life story. We were together that night—celebrating our joint birthdays, I recall—and I was sad. But I couldn’t tell him why.

Scary thought, especially for mystery writers, if your writing not only reflects your past but predicts your future.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.


Judy is the author of two mystery series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries and Blue Plate Café mysteries—plus the stand-alone, The Perfect Coed. In a long career, she has written fiction and nonfiction for adults and young adults, primarily about women in the American West, and garnered several awards. Judy retired as director of TCU Press, a position she held for 23 years. She is a member of SCN; a member of Sisters in Crime and the SinC subgroup, the Guppies; and a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of fame. She edits her neighborhood newspaper and welcomes her fifth-grade grandson every school day. A single mother of four and grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth with her lively Bordoodle puppy, Sophie. Visit her blog and her website.

The Power of Journaling

I started journaling during my thirties while my husband, our two sons, and I lived for nineteen months on a remote island in the South Pacific. I felt so isolated there that the best I could do was write long rants every morning before the boys woke up. Happily those rants turned into my first published article after we returned home.

I started to journal for keeps when our older son Paul was diagnosed as bipolar in 1993 and continued after his suicide in September 1999. Journaling became an obsession and a balm. It became my therapy, a daily habit. Writing through my grief totally turned my life around. It helped me heal because it allowed me to put my pain on the page. And it still is. I journal every day.

At first I journaled in long hand in a notebook. Now I use the computer — the notebook went by the wayside after I left one on an airplane. I just tap away with no stopping for editing. It’s total stream of consciousness. Also, the computer gives me the ability to have complete privacy — the key to honest and open journaling. I keep my journal entries in a password-protected locked document file.

Lately, I’ve learned about several other journaling techniques by participating in journal chats and Facebook journaling groups. It is so inspiring to find out how and why other people journal and how much they’ve benefitted from it.

One technique is making lists of what I’ve accomplished in the past week or so, and what I have to do in the next few days. Keeping this action journal holds me accountable — even if I’m only accountable to myself. It gives me a way to take charge and move from thinking into living and doing &madash; not just waiting for things to happen to me.

Another technique is the confidence building practice of making declarations. Some I’ve made are:

  • I Am a poet
  • I Am a published author
  • I Am creative

I can leave these declarations as is or write a journal entry about each one at future times.

Another journal technique is to write in pen in a lined or unlined notebook and draw pictures and add quotes and clippings to accompany the words on the page. My niece’s collage journals look like works of art. Other journaling ideas include: writing down one good thing every day, keeping a dream journal, recording things that make us laugh, and creating a drawing or painting instead of words to express our thoughts. How we journal is our choice.

Most everyone I know has good and bad stuff in their lives. I learned journaling is a way to come to grips with that. Journaling through my grief gave me a wonderful gift. I discovered I could write, and I created a book from the memories I wrote down in my journal entries. I recommend everyone try it and learn the power that can be gained from journaling.

I Never Gave Up My Dream

I never gave up on my dream. That is the key. All it took was the persistence to never give up.

Early on in my life I thought of myself as a journalist and creative writer, but after college I settled for something more practical–technical writing and editing in the aerospace industry. And while I was even able to convince myself that I would never be able to achieve my dream, it kept gnawing on me.

While I worked my day job as a technical writer for over twenty-eight years and in a few other jobs as a real estate salesperson, programmer, and fundraiser for non-profits, I took creative detours. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and knit. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs–where the writing was just a little less technical than my work in aerospace. I did anything to keep my creative juices flowing, until I could stand it no longer. I needed to reconnect with my passion to write.

It finally took a tragedy in my life to help me realize my dream.

When my son was diagnosed bipolar and our family was going through the emotional upheaval his illness created in all our lives, I started to journal. Writing about my son’s illness and later about his suicide death helped me put my pain on the page–the only place I could show my true feelings. Keeping my fingers moving either across the page on or the computer keyboard became my calming and healing balm.

I also took writing workshops. At first I felt insecure about my creative writing abilities because they had lain dormant for so long. That changed when I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition technical writer to creative writer: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” And that was okay. When a private instructor in Los Angeles taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

Once I got into the writing groove I never stopped. I had a memoir published culled from my early journal entries and poems, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir about Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide. Even finding a publisher took perseverance. Sixty-eight rejection letters later I found the perfect small press to publish my book.

And now, I still write something every day. I journal and write poetry regularly. I write for my own blog, and I am well on my way to completing my first novel. Instead of worrying about my lack of creative abilities, I took the power within me to accomplish my dream. My son’s death gave me that strength and power.


For more from Madeline Sharples, visit her blog.

The Grip of the Gripe: Shutting the Duck Up

I’m not a griper, at least not an out-loud griper. My griping is done in the privacy of my own little head–it’s all internal chatter. I get hooked into playing a Spiral Mind Game that keeps me in a swirling ain’t-it-awful loop. By the end of the day, it has successfully sucked the life out of me.

I lose my true aim, and feel like I should just give up. Ugh.

I know. Griping about a situation is a waste of time yet, there I was, doing it. I was complaining, grumbling, grousing, and, my favorite, whining.

“But I promised myself I would write daily. I’ll never get the draft of You’ll Never Find Us finished,” I whined in my journal. I thought I had paved the way to easy writing by reducing obligations and saying no to meetings unless they furthered my book and/or my health.

It sounded good at the time. Here’s the reality of it.

It has been a frustrating ride writing this book. Life still gets in the way. When I fell off the proverbial writing-wagon the chatter in my head kicked in almost instantly. It sounded like the quacking of a duck telling me: give up, you’ll never write the book, it’ll always end up on the back burner, you’re not good enough.

I needed help to shut the duck up.

And then the weirdest thing happened.

As I continued to journal, whining about the plight of my book and questioning my worth, who shows up on the page but a”voice” I’d never heard before. It was Big Mama: bold, full-bodied, with a loud mouth and very funny.

You know what she said? She said, “You need to let go of that garbage, girl. Get a grip! Stop listening to that quacker.”

Startled, I asked, “Who are you?”

“I’m your new best self. You already got enough crazy voices in that head of yours. You don’t need another one. You don’t need permission or anybody’s approval to write your book, and you sure don’t need to work your fingers to the bone proving your worth. You’re a worthy girl, you hear me?”

I told her I felt like I had a new spine.

“You’re my baby now and we’re gonna take baby steps when the crazies start getting to you. Got it? If they show up, just ask yourself, is this making me feel better about myself? If not, shut them up and start writing. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I wrote. “What’s your name?”

It was as if I could hear a big, deep belly laugh when she responded, “Honey, just call me Rita.”

I got a grip and plan to keep my aim true…and write that book. Rita and her sense of humor have saved me.

What saves you?

If you hear yourself repeatedly complaining about the same thing, I’ll send Rita your way and have her get in your face, or at least in your head.

Those other voices don’t make you smile. Rita will–if you’ll listen to her.


Jeanne Guy Gatherings
Explore~Reframe~Restory Your Life
Reimagining Your Life Through Reflective Writing
www.jeanneguy.com

Where To Submit Your Work

Writing Personal Essays or Life Stories? Here are some places to start your search for the right audience and/or publisher. Click on the link for more information–save to your favorites if the site looks useful.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, http://www.chickensoup.com/ Story Circle Network, www.storycircle.org The Sun Magazine, http://thesunmagazine.org/

WOW: Women on Writing, http://www.wow-womenonwriting.com/

TheWriteLife: http://thewritelife.com/19-websites-magazines-want-publish-personal-essays/

Interested in publishing your work yourself?

Balboa Press, www.balboapress.com/

Create Space, https://www.createspace.com/

Lulu, http://www.lulu.com/

Amazon Publishing Services or Barnes & Noble Self Publishing

Here are two hybrid publishers (they do some of the work a traditional publisher does, but not all)

Outskirts Press, www.outskirtspress.com

She Writes Press, http://shewritespress.com/

If you prefer a small press, do some research: Type your genre + “small press” into a search engine. Example: Memoir + small press. See what comes up and follow the directions given. Approach small presses on your own if they say it is okay. You need an agent for the larger ones.

If you are seeking an agent who will represent your work to a larger house, type in “agents seeking” + your genre and see what comes up. Example: Agents seeking romance

Another strategy: go to several bookstores. Find where your book would be shelved. Look in the acknowledgements section of the books there to see who has represented work in your genre and query those agents. Tell them how you learned about them.

There are resources listed quarterly at Writer Advice. Go to http://www.writeradvice.com/cm2. Or go to www.writeradvice.com and click on Contests & Markets. While you are there, go to the home page, www.writeradvice.com, to find out about our current contest. We are known for our sound and solid feedback.

Additional Places Calling for Submissions & Giving Advice:

69 Poetry Contests That Pay Really Well, http://www.ardorlitmag.com/poetry-contests.html

Duotrope, https://duotrope.com/ (You need to become a member)

Funds for Writers, http://fundsforwriters.com/

New Pages, http://www.newpages.com/

No Fee Chapbook Publishers, https://trishhopkinson.com/2015/02/19/no-fee-chapbook-publishers-and-other-chapbook-listings/

Poets & Writers Classifieds, http://www.pw.org/classifieds

Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com/cm2

Writer’s Digest, http://www.writersdigest.com/submission-guidelines

The Writer, http://www.writermag.com/

In case it sounds too good to be true, here are a couple of watchdogs:

This one gives advice about which editors, agents, and publishers to avoid: http://critters.org/c/pubtips.ht

This one warns which Contests & Services to avoid and gives good reasons: https://winningwriters.com/the-best-free-literary-contests/contests-to-avoid

When in doubt, use your best judgment. Weigh the benefits against the cost. Read contracts carefully. Remember that the publishing world is evolving.


B. Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice . She’s written You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and Talent (Eternal Press).  Goodwin’s work has appeared in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; GoodHousekeeping.com; PurpleClover.com; and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at 62.

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?