Tales from the Hallmark: It’s not a brain tumor

Hallmark Building 4- 8-16 wm

Hallmark Building

From what they tell me, most non-writers think writers spend their days sitting in a calm, quiet room where they twiddle their pen when they aren’t tapping on their keyboard or staring thoughtfully into distant corners.

My reality isn’t that calm or quiet. In fact, instead of writing the Great American Novel, I spend most of my time dealing with the blown fuses, nonfunctioning furnace and real-life stories of the other inhabitants of the 101-year-old office building in which I try to write.

The other renters of the Hallmark Building include Dani, owner of Black Sheep Salon; Matt, Christopher, Igor and their team of other artists at TigerLily Tattoo; and Katie, owner of Hollywood Lux Boutique, the downstairs shop that specializes in antique, used and vintage household items. Ron, the mild-mannered landlord, can usually be found a few blocks down the street at The Hobby Smith (“Your Source for Model Trains”), which he also owns.

Over the years, the Hallmark has housed everything from a jewelry store and insurance office to a medical marijuana distribution center and a one-room office where a woman sold baby portraits over the phone.

Anyway, one day last month, coffee cup in hand, I took the few steps from my office to Black Sheep across the hall so Dani could do her magic on my hair. When I walked in, Dani was sitting in the hair dryer chair, typing into her phone.

“Just a minute,” she said. “I have a long email to write and want to get it just right.”

I nodded, set my coffee cup on the counter and took a minute to look out the window with its view of the power station, also known as Poo Corner because that’s where dog owners takes their dogs to poop. After donning a black wrap, I took a seat in front of the mirror.

One thing I like about Dani’s salon, in addition to our talks about the latest events in the building, is that it’s a one-chair salon, which means when I get my hair done, Dani and I have the space to ourselves.

“I had to be careful,” Dani said that day, after setting down her phone and walking over to me.

Turns out, the email she was so carefully crafting was not only going to her mother-in-law, a ticklish-enough business, but addressed the topic of childcare. Dani is a multi-tasking mother with two jobs and a part-time nanny. She and her husband recently bought a discount grocery store, just about the time she gave birth to their daughter Sloane, now seven months old.

“I had to get the details and the tone of voice right,” Dani explained, while checking out my hair.

Even for non-writers, life involves writing, a search for the right word, a subtle touch or gentle approach. Over the next few minutes, Dani explained how her mother-in-law would offer to help with childcare, only to cancel at the last minute.

“Undependable childcare is worse than no childcare at all,” I said, remembering the days.

A month later, I was once again sitting inside Black Sheep when Dani said, “My nanny quit.”

“What!?” I said, giving Dani a poke.

When Dani was pregnant she’d planned months ahead to make sure she had a nanny. She eventually found a 48-year-old woman, with grown children of her own, who lived in nearby Vancouver, Washington. Things started out okay, but, as Dani explained while cutting my hair, the woman eventually revealed she was afraid of Portland and didn’t like Dani’s two dogs. Then the nanny’s excuses began. Her phone calls started with “I have a doctor’s appointment” and “I don’t feel well” and led up to “I’m getting migraines and can’t sleep” and “I have an appointment with a neurologist” before culminating with “I think I have a brain tumor.”

“Brain tumor?!” I shouted.

Dani and I looked at each other for a minute before bursting into laughter.

“She must have felt bad quitting, to come up with that,” I said.

“Yes,” Dani said. “She felt horrible. She felt like she let us down and she loves us.”
Still, it was funny, so we laughed even more. At which point Dani said

“There’s another story,” Dani said. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Of course.”

Just the other day, Dani said, the nanny asked her “Do you want my 20-year-old daughter to fill in until she moves to Italy?”

“Italy?!” I asked.

We laughed even harder about the bizarre nature of her trying to find dependable daycare. At that very moment, Dani then said, the ex-nanny’s daughter was “sitting in my living room watching TV while pretending she’s taking care of my child.”

So much for reasonable childcare. So much for the Hallmark being a place where I get away from everything in order to write. The next morning I checked my email and found that Dani had send me a link to a YouTube video called “It’s Not a Tumor.” https://youtu.be/Tb5IZ8Mni3I


Marketing: 9 approaches and 2 warnings

First of all, no one has to submit their writing in order to call themselves a writer. A writer is someone who writes, although in our culture if you tell someone you’re a writer, their first response may be “Have you been published?”

But the fact is submitting your writing is an option. An add-on. A choice.

9 Approaches

If you do decide to submit your writing, there are several approaches you can take, including these:

  1. Top-down: Start with the most prestigious, well-known and highest-paying markets, such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Rationale: If you’re going to spend all that time and energy making a submission, you might as well aim for the top.
  2. Bottom-up: Start with small-readership, relatively unknown, low- and non-paying publications, such as your local newspaper, chamber-of-commerce magazine or community college journal. Rationale: Earn your chops, garner some clips and work your way up.
  3. Mix it up. Simultaneously work the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. Every other submission goes to the top; the rest go to the bottom. Rationale: If one approach doesn’t work, maybe the other will.
  4. Overproduce and undersell. I first heard about this approach from a celebrity chef being interviewed on TV. Until then, I didn’t know it existed but when I heard the chef explain how he focused on making the best possible food and spent minimal time on marketing, I realized that’s what I do. When it comes to my writing, I focus on producing the highest-quality product I can and then send it out. I also call this the Gentle Approach. Rationale: If it’s good, it will sell. Sometimes the soft sell works.
  5. The numbers game. Make as many submissions as possible. Focus on quantity. Send anything anywhere. Rationale: The more submissions you make, the greater the likelihood of having something accepted.
  6. Thin thread. Sometimes, when researching markets you’ll come across a publication or contest that exhibits only a thin connection with your writing, whether it has to do with tone, topic or genre. Make the submission anyway. Rationale: Even with exhaustive market research, there’s always a certain amount of randomness and unpredictability to the submission process. In fact, when it comes to getting published, “there is no system,” a published author once told me. Maybe randomness will work in your favor.
  7. Entertainment purposes only. Do it for fun. Make submissions to see how many rejections you can collect. Boast about every rejection to your family. Paper your office with rejection slips. Compete with your writer friends to see who can earn ten rejections first. Rationale: In the grand scheme of things, whether or not your writing gets published doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re having fun.
  8. The grand experiment. Think of the submission process as a scientific experiment for which you don’t know the outcome. Tell yourself the only reason you’re making submissions is to find out what happens. Be curious and open-minded. Have no ulterior motives. Keep accurate records. Rationale: Learn something.
  9. The soft-boiled egg. Save your vulnerable side (the soft-boiled egg) for when you’re writing. Don your suit of armor (the egg shell) before making submissions. Rationale: To write you have to be open; to market you have to be tough.

2 Warnings

 In the interest of full disclosure: Bad things can happen to those who submit. For instance:

1. The dreaded mailing list

When you make a submission to a publication, whether or not your submission is accepted, you may be put on that publication’s mailing list.

That means that not only was your essay or short story rejected but you may receive weekly, even daily, reminders of it in the form of emailed requests to purchase the rejecting publication’s online class, take part in its pay-to-enter contest or buy its anthology. Talk about salt in the literary wound. And to make things even less pleasant, those ads often are sent in the middle of the night, the better to greet you from your crammed inbox when you start work for the day.

That rejecting market may event enlist “partners” who also send you ads. When will the horror stop? When you opt out of the mailings, of course, but sometimes that’s complicated and, well, you get my point.

2. Never hearing back

And then there’s the rejection itself.

Just what is a rejection? You could say it’s a non-acceptance, an absence of a good thing. When your poem is rejected with a “sorry but not a good fit” email, no one comes to your door and beats you up about it. No one yells at you over the phone or mocks you online, although years ago I was severely chastised via email by a contest judge who made an inaccurate assumption about me and my writing. But for the most part, a rejection comes in the form of a belated email, if you receive one at all.

In the olden days, like five years ago, publications actually notified everyone who made submissions, but nowadays it’s more common for the journal or contest organizer to say something like “if you haven’t heard from us in three months, it means we won’t be able to use your submission.”

Wow. Kind of like asking someone to marry you only to have them respond with “If you haven’t heard from me in a week, it’s a no.” Talk about tone deaf. Talk about rude.

In my opinion, a publication, contest organizer or literary agent—anyone inviting submissions from writers—shouldn’t do so unless they can guarantee a prompt response. But, hey, I’ve been criticized for caring too much about writers.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath, remember the chance of getting published may be low and find other ways to maintain your confidence.

Marketing your writing: It’s all about the stars

It's All About the Stars 1-8-16

“It’s all about the stars,” I told one of my students, in an attempt to simplify the marketing process. By “stars” I meant the stars each student in her class earned by making a submission.

The class had decided to hold a friendly marketing competition. The students had three goals: To motivate themselves to send their writing out, to learn about the submission process and to have some fun.

The rules of the game were simple: For each submission they made, they would earn one star, which was then drawn on a dry-erase board. At the end of the 10-week class, the student who earned the most stars would be declared the winner and taken out to dinner.

Notice that each star was won not by having a poem or article accepted for publication, although that would be great, but by making a submission.


Because making a submission is something a writer has control over.

As writers, we may not have control over how talented we are, although we can always work on our craft. We may not get to decide what kinds of books are selling or which magazines have gone under. But we do have control over whether we submit our short stories, poems and essays.

Making submissions is like selling shoes. Say you own a brick-and-mortar shoe store. You’re not going to sell any high heels, slippers or athletic shoes if you keep your inventory hidden in the back storeroom. You need to display the kid’s shoes and hiking boots on the store shelves and in the front window, so your customers can see them, touch them and possibly try them on.

Even if you do display your shoes, you’re not going to sell every pair. Some of your customers are going to walk out without buying anything. But you still need to set your merchandise out.

For writers, displaying their work means sending it out. Not that submitting writing is easy. In fact, over the years, several of my students have told me they find the whole submission process overwhelming. And in some ways they’re right.

To submit just one story, a writer has to:

  • Come up with a story idea
  • Draft, revise and finalize that story
  • Research markets
  • Decide what market to submit to
  • Submit the story

Just the number of markets can be overwhelming. Factor in the fact that each publication has its own set of writer’s guidelines and you see how complex the system can be.

Which is why it’s important to focus on the stars. Earn one star and then another star and then another star. Until you have a constellation.

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

Think Small to Reach Big Writing Goals

How the Stepping Stone System Can Get You Where You Want to Go

Someday, you tell yourself, I’m going to write that novel, finish that screenplay and complete that essay. Of course you are. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Oh, that’s right. There are non-writers in the world.

But we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about us. We’re writers who want to die happy. We want to complete our writing goals before we kick the literary bucket. We want our tombstone to read “Novelist—Screenplay Writer—Essayist Who Died in Peace at Her Desk.”

Whatever your writing goals are — maybe poems or short stories are your shtick — achieving them requires one thing: completing a string of small, specific tasks.

Yes, it’s time to think small and specific, not big and vague. That doesn’t meant there’s anything wrong with having big writing goals. In fact, knowing what you want to write is important (and not necessarily easy to determine), but it isn’t enough. After deciding what you want to accomplish, you have to make it happen.

Hoping it will happen or talking about it happening or complaining about it not happening aren’t going to cut it. You have to have a plan—a plan that includes a series of small, specific tasks.

Experienced writers know how to convert a big goal — such as writing a memoir — into a series of tasks that can be completed in one sitting. One day the memoirist might research the history of her hometown. Another day she might draft that anecdote about the day her brother brought home a mouse.

Each day writers need look no further than that. It’s like walking across a stream one stepping stone at a time. To arrive safely on the other bank, the walker need only keep his eyes focused on the rock ahead. True, some rocks may be slippery (how am I going to show the character’s meanness?), or even dangerous (how much should I reveal about myself?). But who said writing is easy or safe?

Say you want to write a novel. What might a small, specific task look like?

What it wouldn’t look like is this: Write Chapter One. That task is too big and vague.

Instead, a more helpful task would be: Draft the opening scene of Chapter One.

If you’re working on an essay, a small, specific task might be: Make sure verb tenses are consistent. Or Find and remove passive voice.

Confession time. I need to be honest. After completing one self-assigned task, you may end up completing additional tasks that same day. But giving yourself one small, specific task serves two purposes: (1) It keeps you focused so you’re not overwhelmed by your project, and (2) because the task is doable, you’ll approach your writing feeling relaxed, which will improve the quality of your output. Tense writers produce tense copy. Now forget what you just read and continue to assign yourself individual, small tasks.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a big fan of binge writing (think National Novel Writing Month), although that approach might work for some writers. A putzer and chipper by nature, I find that binge writing smacks of trendy diets and New Year’s goals that never pan out. In my experience, it’s more helpful to find a way to write a little bit all the time. Be a tortoise. Be a putzer. Chip away at your writing projects. If you do, before you know it, you’ll have arrived.

More examples of specific writing tasks:

  • Find a strong opening scene.
  • Draft the main character’s backstory.
  • Finalize the ending.
  • Re-read what you wrote yesterday.
  • Use a pen to mark up a print-out of your story.
  • Enter handwritten edits into computer.
  • Research markets.

To increase the chances that the stepping stone system will work for you, consider these additional tips:

Don’t talk. If you’ve just started a new writing project, keep it to yourself. Don’t talk about it except in a class in which the instructor facilitates any feedback. Why keep a new project to yourself? Because in its early stages it’s like an egg, an embryo. It’s vulnerable, susceptible and easily affected. The tiniest little comment can stop it cold or throw it off course. Until it’s more mature and can defend itself, it needs the protection of privacy. Only later, when the writer is sure she knows what the project is about will it be ready to face the world.

Check in with yourself. Each day, take a few minutes to ask yourself “Am I on track with my writing? What specific task do I need to complete today to move toward my goal?”

Focus on what you can control. You may not have control over whether your poem gets published but you do have control over whether you complete that day’s task.

Use passwords as reminders/mantras. We all have to come up with multiple computer passwords. So annoying. Unless you use them to remind yourself of your literary goals. Some examples: TitleofYourNovel342277, Essayist!*457.

Expect the worst. I don’t expect the world to move out of the way so I can write uninterrupted. I realize stuff happens. Good stuff and bad stuff. We’re not isolated machines. We’re real people living real lives. One day the cat throws up on the rug, requiring a trip to the vet. Another day a spouse wants to have “a talk.” Or an out-of-town relative shows up unannounced at the front door. Some days it may seem as if life is a sinister novel plotted to prevent you from writing.

The solution isn’t to move to a desert island. The solution is to bounce back. Be resilient. Laugh. Cry. Fail up. (To “fail up” means to try and fail, over and over again, until you get what you want.)

Lighten up: Figure out what you enjoy about writing and use it to your advantage. If you like to write in noisy coffee shops, go for it. If you like to write alone in your car or late at night when the rest of the household is asleep, do that.

Remember that writing matters. Don’t forget that writers have value. They add to society and culture. Don’t hide your gift. Bring it out. You’ll benefit from doing so and so will the rest of the world.

Own it. Whatever you write, stand firm. Readers don’t want hesitant. They don’t buy confused. They’re attracted to writers who convey a sense of calm confidence without being obnoxious. In short, be yourself.

Write first thing in the morning. If time goes by and you’re not completing your writing tasks, try doing them first thing in the morning before the rest of the world presses in.

Reward yourself. Creating a new habit is hardest at the beginning, so reward yourself for each completed task. Choose healthy, affordable rewards: a special cup of coffee, an issue of a favorite magazine, or a walk through a park with a friend.

Poem and photos to appear in Cirque

Good news! My poem, “The Open Road,” and three photos of birch trees (how I love Alaskan birch trees) have been accepted for publication by Cirque.

Photo: Here is the preview of our next issue.  Thank you, Mark Muro, for the cover shot.  Advance purchases can be made only via PayPal to cirquejournal@gmail.com $25 will cover the issue plus postage.  Contributors can order 5 copies for $60 including postage.  You can also order via US mail.  Inquire via the same email for details.  Advance orders may be delivered before Christmas; this editor will try.  Don't order yet from the Cirque web page as it's set up for prior issues, still.

Cirque editors Mike Burwell and Sandra Kleven have been great supporters of my writing. I feel honored to have my writing and photos appear in this stunning publication, which features work by writers living in the North Pacific Rim — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, British Columbia, and Chukotka.