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Michelle's Musings

Diversity in the Publishing World

I was all set to write a post about my first month in my new "revision writers" class when I opened my email inbox and read a community post from one of the writers organizations to which I belong. The author began by stating that his post would likely be seen as inflammatory, but he felt compelled to write it anyway. He complained about the solicitation of BIPOC authors by some writing contests and publications, which he considers illegal racial discrimination against White writers. A few sympathetic responses from those who also felt illegally discriminated against followed. And I thought, here we go again!

 

A member of this same writers organization who happens to be White provided a well-written and substantiated mini history lesson by way of a long response that laid out statistics and references regarding racial disparities in the publishing world easily found online. Writers of color already know that works centered on characters of color have not historically resonated with the predominantly White industry. But not everyone believes this to be the case.

 

In recent years, several public and private organizations have developed or enhanced non-discrimination policies. Sadly, I don't think many minds are changed by the truths of members of marginalized communities despite the fact that implementation of diversity and inclusion strategies still leave the publishing industry overwhelmingly dominated by Whites. And I'm not sure requiring folks to undergo "training" is all that effective. While some may find such training enlightening, others grow even more resentful toward underrepresented communities. While the practice may help provide context for those who seek enlightenment, I'm of the opinion that such change must come from within.

 

It saddens and distresses me to see members of a respected writers organization profess their animosity toward BIPOC communities and those who support them. These sentiments leave me feeling as though I'm dealing with a hostile work environment. Some of us would like to think that writers are creative types with open minds and a deep interest in learning. Perhaps this concept is more fiction than nonfiction.

 

Breaking out in the industry is difficult enough. It would be nice if we all supported one another with positive energy.

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Back to School

I'm so excited to be back in school! I just enrolled in a spring semester creative writing course through an extension program of a local community college. When I first learned of this offering, the class had already filled. However, I reached out to the instructor and asked to be wait-listed in case of a cancellation. Turns out, additional slots were added only a few days prior to the February 1 start date. After navigating a most difficult online registration process (perhaps due to website issues), I registered as a new student, got my student ID, and signed up for the class with one day to spare.

 

The course consists of a weekly lecture and revision workshop conducted entirely online and at no cost. (The instructor was quick to point out that a class of this scope and nature offered by a writers' organization would more than likely entail a fee.) The agenda is geared to the more "mature" writer who may or may not have much formal training, with no credit or certificate offered. I suspect, however, the bulk of enrollees are experienced writers.

 

The course covers several genres and requires a commitment of five hours per week. By design, the submission process is akin to that of the "real world." To have your work evaluated, you must submit at least three days in advance with proper formatting, but not all submissions are accepted.

 

Thus far, I've attended two sessions, and I'm impressed that the instructor (an award-winning poet) is on top of his game. The first class was more of an introduction, but the second session consisted of a lesson and a critique session wherein authors read their work aloud, after which other students offered feedback. At the conclusion, writers whose submissions were discussed commented on the feedback. I find that having the author read their work to an audience of more than 40 is useful for the following reasons: The writer has a good sense of where they wish to place intonations for emphasis and flow; they become more comfortable reading their work to an audience; and, more critically, reading one's work aloud is a tried-and-true method for finding problem areas not otherwise noticed. I plan to read my work aloud prior to submission.

 

I'm thrilled to stumble upon a community of like-minded writers eager to provide and receive constructive criticism for their works in progress. The instructor plans to focus on creative non-fiction for the next few sessions, and I intend to submit a memoir excerpt. I anticipate this new resource will help move my writing forward. And as an added bonus, I now qualify for student discounts—a winning situation all around!

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Going There

As much as I love writing, I'm finding it difficult to sit down for more than an hour at a time to write my memoir. While the process is cathartic to an extent, dredging up lots of emotional content also leaves me spent. Unfortunately, I have significant blocks in my recall; but as I keep pressing ahead, repressed memory sneaks to the forefront of my consciousness, leaving me surprised to learn that some elements of my upbringing were worse than I initially thought.

 

Even after taking a break, I find myself falling back to old habits of procrastination because of my reluctance to dig deep and really "go there." Sometimes my recollections are so vivid I see certain scenes as though they were taking place right before my eyes. I recently attended a lecture via Zoom that addressed caring for the psyche when writing emotionally charged material in which the speaker suggested memoirists pay attention to emotional cues and take frequent breaks, even if doing so results in a shorter than usual writing session.

 

I feel less productive with shorter sessions; however, some of those resurfaced memories provide an almost exponentially greater amount of inspiration to write (which is manna for any writer). Another positive is the inherent therapeutic benefit as well as the growing ease with which I'm able to identify my true sentiments about the chaos that was my early years. I'm more comfortable with being honest about those feelings even when they reveal my own prejudices and vulnerabilities.

 

Truthfulness is a critical component of memoir writing. While none of us has had the perfect upbringing, it is in the discovery of and reckoning with my truth that I find motivation to keep writing and, ultimately, conclude with a satisfying transformation.

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Even Schmucks Have an Inner Voice

 

Guidelines for good writing are found in numerous how-to books and blogs, but not all are steadfast. In fact, the more rules I come across, the more I realize how much heterogeneity exists. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to crafting the ultimate masterpiece. And so, I'm on the cusp of going a little rogue on methods and techniques and steering more toward feel and intuition. While you and I know that flying by the seat of one's pants does not guarantee success, I need to free myself from mechanistic self-edits that mire me in stagnation to the detriment of my creativity. In the spirit of simplicity, therefore, I'm going to ease up on myself a bit by narrowing my tricks of the trade to four goals.

 

I just alluded to the first goal, which is to spew your thoughts and ideas onto the page without concern for the editorial process. Call it brainstorming or free-association; the point is to throw the rules of writing out the window and get something down on paper without regard to the minutia of self-correction. If you're a bit anal like I am, though, this task is easier said than done. If correct-as-you-go works for you, by all means, keep at it. But I've got to do a better job of staying out of the quicksand quagmire of never-ending rumination.

 

The next goal is a more established dictum. I've written a monthly column for more than a decade in which I profile members of one of the writers groups to which I belong. I always ask my subjects for writerly advice to provide to others. Universally, they recommend reading as much as possible, preferably in your genre of choice, and writing everyday no matter how few words are produced. I strive to adhere to these principles, though I've been known to fall off the wagon from time to time.

 

Next, it's critical to have fresh eyes examine your work for those not-so-subtle errors you've become too myopic to see. Scientific studies document how we subconsciously insert words and letters while reading because our mind's eye tells us what we expect to see or read. If you're dyslexic, this is particularly problematic. Therefore, it's crucial to have someone else read your work to find errors you're unable to see. At the very least, set the work aside for several days (or longer) before attempting to reread it yourself.

 

Fourth, get comfortable with rejection. When I see poorly written and seemingly unedited contest or anthology submissions chosen over my work, I realize that my issue is not necessarily a poor product. Perhaps it was the mindset or the genre preference of the contest judge, or their lack of diverse cultural awareness and interest. But it does help to review those winning pieces because I sometimes learn how I might improve my work.

 

I'm fully aware that certain projects (like writing a novel) are more successful if they follow a formulaic paradigm. But even then, many best-selling authors deviate from conventional norms of plot and character development or utilization of point of view. In my estimation, if a story is written well enough to get readers invested in the protagonist's journey and to evoke a lasting emotional response, the reader will keep turning the pages.

 

And, oh, did I mention luck? Most of us schmucks don't have fame, highly visible platforms, or reputable contacts in the literary world, so we're missing a leg-up there. But you never know when you're going to strike it lucky unless you try. By following your inner voice, you may be closer to success than you realize!

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Don't Repeat the Past

Censorship, book banning, and "cancel culture" all tie into our First Amendment right to free speech, a critical component of our fragile democracy. I have great admiration for the saying, "We can agree to disagree," which is why I find the removal of books that speak to the truth of this country's founding quite disturbing. I don't know of anyone who feels good about the shameful aspects of our history; but if we choose to ignore it, we're doomed to repeat it, as many great minds have portended. This last sentiment contributes to the impetus, in my humble opinion, to ensure the Holocaust is not forgotten.

 

I recently read a gripping memoir written by a good friend's father, a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor. In his book titled The Life of a Child Survivor, Ben Midler poignantly laid out the atrocities he witnessed as a young teen. Midler took me on a harrowing journey, starting with the Nazi bombings and invasion of his home town in Poland to his long overdue rescue and liberation, all while continuously searching for members of his family. He provided keen insight into the political and societal aspects of how such depravity could ever take place and is acutely aware that the current generation of youths is far removed in their familiarity with this history.

 

Leading up to last week's mid-term elections, many decried the frightening possibility of the loss of our democracy to fascism and autocratic rule. The re-engineering of voter districts primarily to the disadvantage of marginalized communities (gerrymandering) made it more difficult for those voters to participate in a free and fair election. However, this self-serving scheme led to record voter turnout even in the face of rising inflation, extremist tribalism, and growing political violence. Our voices would have been extinguished and the outcome of the elections likely predetermined if we lived under autocratic rule. But the American people spoke up once again for democracy.

 

When I first wrote this blog to be posted after the elections, I wasn't sure we'd still have a democratic government. However, it seems the American people remain vested in its survival. If we don't fight for democracy, our Great American Experiment will fail. And that fight necessitates an understanding of the principles on which our Nation was founded—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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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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