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Michelle's Musings

Metaphors and Similes

When I was a newer writer, I was told that I could strengthen my work by incorporating metaphors and similes. I wasn't sure how to accomplish this back then, as it was difficult to distinguish between the two forms. However, the more I read other authors' work, the more I recognized the utility of these literary aids and better appreciated the impact of a well-placed metaphor. Still, as I study methods to develop my own scenes and settings, my use of these tools can feel a bit forced.


Analogous not only in their comparative function but also in their effectiveness at building emotional impact, metaphors and similes deliver that little punch or nugget that drives home the salient sentiment an author wants to convey. While metaphors distinguish themselves with their use in place of something else as in, That one critical mistake was the nail in the coffin, a simile is a literary device that compares two unrelated items as in, He's as pale as a ghost. Both instruments broaden the impact of a single phrase so that it resonates and meaningfully lingers on the palate.


Good writers are stealthy with their seamless use of metaphors and similes. Judiciously chosen, they almost escape observation, yet they play to the reader's sensibilities without disruption to flow. I have noticed that if I stop to think about the emotional impact of an experience I'm writing about, I'm forced to dig a bit deeper to effectively convey that impact to others—which is where a good metaphor or simile would be handy. So I'm getting there.


While my attempts to incorporate metaphors into my writing still feel a bit contrived, I suspect that as I continue to encounter them in my readings, and as I contemplate how their use will enhance my work, I'll eventually have the same aha! moment I had with similes.


Whether "life is like a box of chocolates" or "life is a box of chocolates," the end result should be a much sweeter one!

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Deadlines: A Case for Self Improvement

Some people don't do well with deadlines. While I'm fairly disciplined about my writing regimen, deadlines guarantee that I regularly practice the craft. This blog and a monthly newsletter column require a bit of creativity, but they also reinforce my editing skills. And I've noticed that my first drafts are less cringe-worthy than in years past. However, this month I did wince at the published version of my newsletter column, which profiles members of one of my writing organizations. Sometimes I receive last-minute additions that, when inserted, disrupt the establish tempo of the piece.


Given that I conduct my member "interviews" via email, the responses are sometimes lackluster at best, which makes it difficult to compose a fluid narrative for my 425-word column. In those cases, I usually request additional information, but some folks just don't want to be bothered. On the other hand, when I start out with an abundance of information, I have a better sense of my subject's personality, which leads to a more fluid narrative. Last-minute requests to add material to the profile can be a good thing if I need filler. Fortunately, having regular deadlines has taught me to improvise at a higher level in a shorter time frame.


One piece of advice I've taken to heart is to read my work out loud. Doing so reveals flaws I might not otherwise notice. Not to mention typos and word repetition that jump from the page like fleas. It's an efficient way to perform quick edits in the face of a looming deadline.


If you don't have a recurring column or other writing project with regular deadlines, or if you feel that procrastination hampers your evolvement as a writer, try setting target dates and practice meeting them as though your monthly income depends on doing so. That kind of discipline just might take you to the bank.

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Sensitivity Reading

The member forum section of a writers community to which I belong recently discussed the use of sensitivity readers (SR), engendering lively debate about whether or not such scrutiny stifles creativity.


But what exactly is a sensitivity reader? According to N. K. Jemisin of masterclass.com, "A sensitivity reader is not a copy editor. Their job is not to check for grammar or fact-check but to find issues with misrepresentation and other inaccuracies….At the conclusion of their sensitivity review, do not expect them to provide comments about grammatical or spelling issues but instead to comment about the characters and their interactions."


Generally speaking, SR is a form of beta reading that potentially uncovers problematic areas with offensive or ill-informed misrepresentations such as stereotypes and tropes. To a limited extent, SR can constrain free expression; however, the process is similar to other conventional forms of editing. If SR sounds like censorship to you, many would agree.


Some writers who've utilized SR report greater insight into communities with which they weren't familiar such as the mentally ill or physically disabled. However, the more provocative discussion in the above-mentioned forum focused on racial and cultural sensitivity. It was quite telling to see folks go through all sorts of mental gymnastics to define SR as censorship, specifically with regard to different races or cultures and not so much other communities, leaving me to wonder if their "debate" over SR represents a reluctance to address preconceived notions about people who don't look, eat, dress, love, speak, or worship like them.


On the one hand, writers are free to write what they want, but they may not enjoy a large audience if their work panders to distasteful stereotypes. And there's no law requiring a private publishing company, which is in the business of making money, to represent or give platform to an author's exceedingly ignorant take on someone else's culture; however, that author has the right to shop their material in venues indifferent to accurate representation.


While I don't have extensive knowledge about all cultures, it's not difficult to avoid insulting people. If I happen to stick my foot in my mouth, I take stock of my error to ensure that I don't become a repeat offender. For those who feel they "can't say anything without being canceled," why is it difficult to understand what is and isn't offensive to large groups of people? If a collection of like-minded folks finds your generalizations about them objectionable, why not accept them at face value? Sure, exceptions exist for just about everything, but what are the odds an entire community is being dishonest?


If you feel like you must walk on eggs to avoid upsetting folks, perhaps you need to ask yourself what renders you susceptible to doing so? Then seize the teachable moment and educate yourself about those often deemed "the other." In doing so, you just might learn we've got more in common than you think!

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Something for Everyone

I subscribe to a weekly newsletter that provides leads to current publishing venues in a variety of genres. Of particular interest are opportunities specifically promoted to traditionally marginalized and underrepresented communities such as BIPOC, LGBTQ, and Indigenous or Native peoples. As I scan these postings, I wonder whether they've produced their intended results, presumably to reconcile historical biases, or are they simply window dressing?


As a member of the BIPOC community, I've submitted my work with zero success thus far. I'm well aware that getting published is a crapshoot for any demographic. But it seems that the collection of racial and sexual identity information as qualifiers for access to these special opportunities might be collated into before-and-after statistics to present to the writing public for scrutiny.


The other curiosity I've come across while perusing these submission opportunities is the plethora of somewhat esoteric subgenres, all of which are easily found through a simple Google search. They range from Gaslamp (a combination of fantasy and historical fiction) to Weird West (combines Western elements with another genre such as horror, occult, fantasy, science fiction); from Arcane Punk (fantasy with multiple aspects of different genres) to Noble Bright/Noble Dark (fantasy fiction involving a heroic quest and the triumph of good over evil); from Flintlock (a fantasy subgenre set in an early modern setting) to Climate and Nature. There seems to be a subgenre for every theme!


While some pretty kitschy writing might be found amid these seemingly "arcane" subgenres, it appears that there is a forum for every writer, particularly those who deliver a great product. Whether or not you fit into the traditionally accepted norm of what constitutes a publishable writer, you'll never know which submission will stick unless you submit.


So here goes my kitschy advice to keep yourself motivated at writing: "If you want a fit, you must submit!"

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Time and Effort

Giving away one's writing without monetary compensation has been the subject of debate for years. I've written for free to build my portfolio of publications, but this last go-around, I decided that my time and effort were worth more.


In the last 12 months or so, I've developed a decent relationship with the submissions editor of a local newspaper in which a few of my opinion pieces appeared. Earlier this year, I submitted another piece for consideration, which the editor deemed "strong" work. However, the political season was upon us, and publication of that work would be put off until May. Indeed, during the third week of May, I received a follow-up email from the editor who invited me to update my submission since considerable time had elapsed. The plan was to publish it before California's June 7 primary election.


I updated a couple of national stories cited in my 740-word essay then resubmitted. The editor asked me to remain on standby in case additional changes were needed, which has been the protocol for past submissions. However, four days before the primary election, she informed me that a backlog of other submissions precluded publication of mine. In addition, she requested that future pieces on national issues better reflect the local community, and she suggested that I write a piece about the upcoming Juneteenth holiday.


My first thought was, Why didn't she mention this deficiency when I was asked to update my work? During the three months that it sat, I could have easily made that change if the need had been identified. Moreover, my earlier submissions on national topics had not been subject to this directive. I'm guessing that the backlog of submissions was not the main issue and that the editor felt a tinge of guilt about not recognizing the need for further revision of my work, which someone else apparently deemed necessary. So she threw me a bone by inviting me to submit on a different topic.


I realize writers are at the mercy of publishing industry whims; however, I believe a promise of publication for an imminent date should not be made without the identification or mention of deficiencies that, if not corrected, would quash such publication. While I appreciate the significance of being published, I declined to put other projects on hold for what felt like a token request to satisfy the paper's last-minute editorial needs. Call me naïve, but it was time to stand up for the value of my work.

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We, the People

How on earth have we gotten to the point where a select demographic of parents who are uncomfortable with our Nation's history can dictate what all students should learn? Some of the very same folks who decry "cancel culture" are attempting to prevent children from learning the truth about the founding of our country. What about other parents who want their ancestors' contribution fairly represented? They're not exactly "comfortable" with that history; yet it's as if the opinions and rights of those "other" parents don't matter—as though they aren't real Americans.


In recent years, we've seen the return of an authoritarian, fascist slogan promoting the free press as "the enemy of the [American] people" on our national stage, a mantra notoriously promulgated by Joseph Stalin during the early years of the Soviet Union. While the slogan may have originated during Roman Times, it reappeared during the French Revolution of the late 18th century, and then resurfaced during the Third Reich's rule in furtherance of Adolph Hitler's decree that Jews were "a sworn enemy of the German people." It's a phrase favored by those who sought to squash freedom of expression in the form of opposition and dissent.


With the banning of books from our schools and libraries and the suppression of American history in classrooms, we are witnessing an organized, widespread effort to silence voices. Likewise, our politicians who oppose dissent of their constituents' agenda are in a rush to disenfranchise voters with gerrymandering in certain voter districts. While we still maintain the freedom to express our opinions, there's no guarantee that privilege will endure. Even if you subscribe to conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of our last presidential election or a widespread attempt to brainwash the nation's children, your freedom of thought is at stake. As a writer and citizen, I find that prospect a horrifying existential threat to our democracy for which so many have given their lives.


We, the People, must speak out against those who would try to silence our voices in furtherance of political expediency and power. We must use our vote as our voice to ensure the preservation of our democracy. If democracy wasn't so precious, tens of thousands of Ukrainians would not give their lives in its defense.

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Dangling Carrots

Getting published seems like a crapshoot at times. And I'm not saying this from the point of view of someone who's been unsuccessful. I've been published for several years and in various venues, including print and online magazines as well as anthologies. A humor piece of mine even won first place in a national writing competition. All of these achievements occurred amid countless rejection letters. And while I've diligently worked to improve my craft, there's more to being a published author than skill and talent.


I've been writing a monthly newsletter column for one of my writers groups for more than 10 years. However, I got that job because the organization had an immediate need to fill it. I was reluctant at first and even lamented having to come up with the requisite four- to five hundred-word count each month. But when I wrote my first column, I actually needed to chop off a considerable hunk.


My first contributing editor gig also saw its genesis in serendipity. I was checking my p.o. box at The UPS Store one day when the owner said she'd noticed that I received mail from various writers organizations. She was also a writer and was in the process of selling the postal mailbox business and taking on an editorial position with the local newspaper. She asked if I'd be interested in producing articles for the newspaper's magazine publications. I jumped on the offer, and several published pieces came of that chance encounter.


While my publication success is partly attributable to being in the right place at the right time, I must always produce a good product. But breaking into new venues on a regular basis remains a formidable task. Since the consolidation of several publishing houses, placing material seems even more challenging. We've all heard stories about acclaimed authors who were rejected by traditional publishers only to end up on a prominent bestsellers list after their self-published book garnered tremendous praise. It's been amusing to watch the major houses mine the indies for commercially viable authors.


As with many professions, success often comes down to a combination of talent and luck (right place at the right time, who you know, etc.) Yes, I've got a few notches in my belt, so you may ask, what am I whining about? Well, for me, any victory represents the proverbial dangling carrot and leaves me wanting more. Wanting more makes me work harder at my craft, which is a positive feedback loop that keeps me pecking away until I'm fed that next carrot!

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The Sound of Music

We've all seen images of children clutching stuffed animals to distract them from the horrors of Putin's war on Ukraine. We've also observed glimmers of positivity amid the horrific destruction and loss of life that plays out on our television screens. In these heartrending, tumultuous times, artists share their talents in a surreal juxtaposition of entertainment with devastation. Pianist Davide Martello traveled 17 straight hours from Germany to the Polish-Ukrainian border with his piano in tow to play music for displaced refugees. Images of his instrument of peace being wheeled along war-torn streets imbued a dystopian backdrop with a modicum of promise. Another pianist performed Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" with grace and poise outside a Ukrainian train station, infusing a sense of light and optimism into a dark and desperate situation.


Generous acts of kindness remind us of the benevolent humanity that still exists in this world in spite of widespread divisiveness and tribalism. While the stressed-out, grief-stricken throngs of escapees milling about these performers don't necessarily stop to enjoy the show, I suspect this music, in stark contrast with the shelling and explosions with which they've had to contend, provides a temporary bit of respite.


A fire of determination burns in the eyes of these courageous citizens who stand united in their fight for democracy and the future of their homeland. Likewise, the glimpse of humanity with which writers endear their characters leads readers to become vested in seeing protagonists overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While the conflict's somber narrative plays out on the world stage, we hold our collective breaths in cautious optimism and root for the welfare of victims of this senseless war. Hopefully, our heartfelt sentiments are music to their weary ears.

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We Are Better Than This

Given the groundswell of efforts to erase significant portions of this country's history, as a writer and an African American, I'm obligated to advocate for preservation of truth.


During these last couple of years of racial reckoning and activism, some of the most powerful members of our society have ramped up efforts to whitewash and rewrite our nation's history. Those who would reinterpret facts to fit their sensibilities clamor about a return to "the good old days" as they see their false utopia slip away—a utopia that systematically excluded millions of Americans by virtue of the melanin content of their skin. While we managed to get past wholesale enslavement of African Americans, albeit at great expense to human life, some would prefer a return to the Jim Crow era with separation of the races.


White supremacist extremists have emerged from their closets and basements in greater numbers to flaunt anti-Semitic hatred and other racist rhetoric, sometimes through the use of violence. Yet in certain venues, people of color continue to be characterized as criminals, radicals, and un-American. We see a disturbing movement to ban certain books from our children's classrooms to mitigate the discomfort some folks have with acknowledging the truth about this country's past.


When voters of color turn out in large numbers to shape the outcome of an election, those who want "their people" to win attempt to nullify our votes. Once again, we find ourselves fighting for the franchise as deniers hope to invalidate the "mistake" of granting all citizens their constitutional right to cast a ballot.


Book banning, voter disenfranchisement, and suppression of truth are dangerous. Thankfully, folks of all persuasions understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, fact and fiction and are willing to stand up for what is just. We are an industrious civilization with a legacy of great minds that have brought us miraculous achievements. Think of all we could accomplish were it not for misguided tribalism and infighting.


Some say frowning requires greater effort than smiling. We could use the energy it takes to hate one another and, instead, befriend one another. Imagine the distress and divisiveness that could be lifted by simply acknowledging the truth of our past and addressing its ramifications. Unfortunately, if we don't progress along these lines at breakneck speed, we may lose our democracy that many fought and died for.


If we don't learn our history, we're doomed to repeat it.

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Wanted: Fresh Eyes

If you've previously visited my website, you may have noticed that I recently won a First Place award for my writing, an honor that I continue to relish. As a fellow writer, you understand the difficulty of plowing through multiple drafts of your work and then mustering up enough courage to send it to someone with a critical writer's eye. Imagine the gumption required to submit to a contest, especially if it's your first competition!


Two interesting facts about the award I received: The piece was never critiqued, but not for lack of trying. A couple of months prior to its submission, I and two other writers formed a new writing group and agreed to provide "gentle" constructive criticism of each other's work. We set a date for our first session the following month. Meanwhile, I worked on the short humor piece and planned to submit it to the group, but one of our members was hospitalized with a serious illness. We delayed our first meeting; however, with the clock ticking, I polished it on my own and sent it in.


Eventually, I received the judges' feedback about that piece as well as another I submitted last-minute to a different genre category. Let's just say the input on the second submission was not great. Upon re-reading the failed piece with fresh eyes, I had to agree that it was a bit rough around the edges. I even considered the possibility that I'd inadvertently sent an early draft instead of the final version. It was bad enough to lead me to ask of the winning entry, How the heck did I write something highly praised by multiple judges without having a fresh pair of eyes review it?


You may be tempted to think, Who needs critiquing? It's too demoralizing. After receiving my award, I momentarily contemplated going it alone from then on out in spite of sound rejection of the second work. However, I quickly came to my senses. In the end, the sum of these responses gave me greater confidence in my ability to write well.


We all produce cringe-worthy work, but we may not appreciate the necessity for revision until we show it to others. So, as you plug away at your craft, consider sharing your work with a pair of fresh eyes, and try submitting to a contest. The practice will improve your writing and help you become better equipped to handle constructive criticism, which is indispensable in this industry.


Cheers for the New Year! May you write your new best work in 2022.