Morning Coffee: “Just”

SCF damIt’s one of those words we use to qualify everything, diminish the meaning of whatever we’re talking about. “I was just saying.” “It was just a little dent.” “I’m just a housewife” or “a secretary” or “a romance writer.” We say it all the time without thinking about it. It rarely serves any true purpose other than to make less of something, often ourselves. We make ourselves a little smaller every time we say, or think, it.

Just is one of those words I do a search for when I finish a manuscript. Then I proceed to delete almost every single one. Yes, it has an occasional use, like in dialogue. If my character would have a good reason to say it, then I leave it in; but if not…gone. My writing is automatically stronger without it.

The same with our own dialogue, both internal and external, we’re stronger without it. “It’s just one cookie.” Really? Is it ever just one cookie? If you’re going to eat a cookie, enjoy the cookie. If you have to qualify your actions then maybe you don’t really want to eat that cookie.

“It’s just a little poem (or story) I was playing around with. It’s nothing.” If it’s nothing why did you bother? The fact that you felt the need to write it down means it’s something, right? You’re not just a writer; you’re a Writer. You’re not just a mom; you’re a Mom, arguably one of the hardest and most important jobs out there. Whatever you are, own it, whatever you want to do, do it; don’t qualify it with a word like just.

Once I was asked if I was “still doing my little writing thing.” While technically the word just was not in there the tone of voice used made it very clear what was meant. My answer? “Yes, I’m still writing. And I take it seriously, so please don’t call it my ‘little writing thing’.”

I’m a Writer. I’m a Poet. I’m a Blogger. I realize not everyone is going to appreciate everything I say, some won’t appreciate anything I say, but it doesn’t change who I am. And it’s not going to stop me from saying it.

But let me warn you, there is power in words, my words, your words. Be careful what you’re throwing out there because once a word is out, it stays out. There’s no taking it back. You can change your mind and apologize. The other person can even say they forgive you. But it’s unlikely they’ll forget.

You remember the old children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Not true. There’s no such thing as “just words”.

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Morning Coffee: River Spirit

SCF damI have the great fortune of living along the Wisconsin shore of the powerful and beautiful St. Croix River. Approximately 169 miles of waterway runs through the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the lower 125 miles forming the border between the two states, until it reaches its mouth at the Mississippi River.

The geologic forces that formed the river go back to when the Mid-Continent Rift tore North America in two, forming a volcanic zone. Lava from these volcanoes cooled into hard basalt. A shallow sea grew over the area leaving layers of sand and minerals. Melting glaciers then scraped the land, carving the river’s course, creating the awe-inspiring basalt cliffs of the Interstate Parks and sandstone river bluffs we see today.

Historically, the river has provided a way of life for the Native Americans, French fur trappers, and loggers. Minneapolis General Electric Company began construction on a hydroelectric dam located here in St. Croix Falls in 1903, completing the project three years later. Today it continues to provide power to the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro.

Recreation is now the draw. People come from around the world to boat, fish, camp, and canoe along our river. Numerous trails snake through the woods and along the cliff tops for those who prefer to experience the beauty on foot or two wheels. The steamboats that once transported people and commerce by necessity, now ferry tourists (and locals) armed 007with cameras to view the impressive cliffs and colorful fall leaves while eagles soar over their heads. Recent heavy storms to the north dumped as much as ten inches of rain, sending a torrent of muddy floodwaters downriver. Roads were washed away; some bridges had to be closed. Scores of people flock daily to the overlooks to experience the power of the river. Sluices on both sides of the dam are full open to help control the tremendous amount of water that is currently rushing over the top of the dam.

The pride we have in our river is show-cased in the bronze statue “River Spirit” found at the foot of the scenic overlook in St. Croix Falls. Conceived and created by Julie Ann Stage, commissioned by the City of St. Croix Falls, and unveiled in July 2007, this life-size woman rises heavenward from the depths of the river as an eagle takes flight from her shoulder.

Small towns along the river feature a wide-range of restaurants, local craft breweries, wineries, antique and gift shops, quaint little B&B’s. Local festivals celebrating our immigrant history, our river’s history, abound. There’s something for everyone. So, if you’re looking for somewhere new to vacation, or even just a day trip, consider our river, the St. Croix River. You will not be disappointed.

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Morning Coffee: Sounds From My Childhood

SummerI’m sitting at my desk, sliding door to the deck open. It’s a beautiful summer afternoon. The sun goes in and out from under gray clouds that tease us with the possibility of rain later this evening while throwing long shadows across the yard as the afternoon wears on. I don’t have to work today and I’ve done enough housework to quell any feelings of guilt so now I’m enjoying the down time while revising the final chapters of “Mary Bishop”.

A light wind stirs the leaves, clacks tree limbs together. Every now and then our doe comes wandering quietly through the yard in hopes I won’t catch her nibbling at the hostas. Song birds sing a chorus above while squirrels chatter and chase each other up and down tree trunks; a chipmunk plays under the ferns. Children ride by on their bikes out front, calling to each other. Dogs bark at them from across the street as they pass. A neighbor is mowing his lawn.

These are the sounds of my childhood and they make me both happy and a little sad at how fast the years are passing by. This is when I miss riding my bike to the public swimming pool with my brothers and sister. This is when I miss watching my own children, now grown and living too far away, play on their swing set in the back yard.

These sounds make me remember the smell of chlorine, the taste of root beer popsicles. Bells ringing from the Catholic Church on the hill. As I write this I am reminded this is the weekend of the Fireman’s Picnic back in my hometown. A carnival with rides and games, cotton candy, hamburgers and chicken dinners, dances, a parade on Sunday and fireworks to cap off the weekend. This was the height of summer in my hometown, and every little town around us. You could go to a different parade/picnic every Sunday of the summer if you wanted.

I think of long afternoons in the backyard, lathered in Johnson’s Baby Oil or Coppertone, a cold Fresca or Tab and a book to pass the time. The hope was for a tan, but usually ended with a burn. The fire whistle blew at noon and we knew we had about five minutes to make it home or we’d not get any lunch.

As the sun went down and our tree-lined street grew dark with only the overhead lights and maybe a bright full moon to light our way, we’d play kick the can. I close my eyes and I can still hear the squeals and laughter and cries of “no fair” as we raced each other around the house to see who could get to that coffee can first.

I grew up in a small mid-western town in the 1960s and ‘70s. We didn’t worry about kidnappers or terrorists. We could ride our bikes anywhere, and we did, even far out into the country. We just had to tell mom where we were going and when we’d be back. The only gangs we knew were our own groups of friends, and they were good gangs. We carried squirt guns, not semi-automatic weapons and handguns. We didn’t have cell phones or video games. We had a watch, our parents’ trust, and a basketball.

Morning Coffee: Patience

SummerBenjamin Franklin said, “He that can have patience can have what he will.” He also said, “Motivation is when your dreams put on work clothes.” How very true for the writer.

I started writing “Mary Bishop” in February 2015. Now that I’m in my final round of revisions, nearly a year and a half later, I can appreciate Mr. Franklin’s words of wisdom. Without patience I never would have gotten this far, but the game isn’t over yet. After this I start the next round of patient waiting, potentially longer than the initial creative stage. It’s called marketing.

Time to do some research into which publishing house or literary agency I think will be most receptive to my book. I’ll need to write a compelling cover letter and synopsis to convince that editor or agent that I’m the one they’ve been looking for, the one they’ll want to read/talk to over and above all the other inquiries they receive. It’s a daunting task.

For one thing, it can be more about timing than talent. Yes, it’s important to have the latter, but I could be the next great American romance writer to shoot straight to the top of the best seller list and it doesn’t matter if I’m one step behind someone else with a similar manuscript. Or if I catch that person on a bad day, mad at the world or maybe just not feeling well. Or my book could be wonderful but I’m just not selling it because of a hastily and poorly written synopsis.

I could also sabotage myself by not doing my research. There’s nothing worse than sending your inquiry to the previous editor because you didn’t bother to find out that person has moved on and there’s someone new in the chair. Or perhaps that publisher has changed direction; they no longer want romance but are now only reading science fiction or steam punk. Maybe the agent likes to read X number of chapters or pages with the synopsis, but I only sent the synopsis, or vice versa, because I failed to closely read the submission guidelines. They might be very particular in their formatting rules, as well, including the type of file and whether or not it’s an attachment or part of the body of my email. There are so many things to know about an editor or agent before I submit, so much research to do in advance.

And after all that, I wait…and wait, and wait…perhaps weeks, perhaps months. Hopefully they’ll be interested in seeing more. Maybe they’ll be so impressed, so excited by their new find, that they’ll send edits and a contract. Maybe they’ll say thank you for considering us but we are not interested in your manuscript at this time. Then I start all over.

If writers weren’t patient by nature we’d be a world without so many entertaining and inspiring books. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by twelve agents before being accepted. Stephen King’s “Carrie” was rejected thirty times! In our current politically correct culture I dare say “The Bible” would be rejected as being potentially offensive. Guinness World Records puts The Bible at the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book with recent estimates of more than 5 billion copies printed annually.

Patience. If a writer believes in their work they must be patient. And what do they do with their time while being patient? Why, work on the next book, of course. You never know, that editor/agent might love “Mary Bishop” so much they ask what I’m working on next. I want to be ready with an answer.

Morning Coffee: Take A Step Back

056Sometimes the best thing we can do for our writing is to not write. You heard me. Stop writing! Instead, turn your thoughts to something else for a while. Read a book. Go fishing, to the beach, for a walk. Do anything else. Think about anything other than your work-in-progress. It could be for just a day, or for a week, or maybe an extended vacation where you don’t have your computer or your manuscript anywhere nearby. You’ll come back with a clearer vision of what you’ve written.

That’s what I’ve done. While in Canada fishing I did take a couple hours mid-week to make revisions to my last chapter. It was a rainy day and the others wanted to go out anyway but I wasn’t that enthused that I was willing to sit in the rain, so I took a day off from fishing to finish the rewrite of my novel I’d been working on for so long. I wanted to have that step done while I still had the momentum of my changes pushing my brain along. But then I set it aside and for about a week and a half I didn’t touch it; didn’t open the computer file or the binder with my hard copy. I tried not to think about it but that was a little more difficult. I knew I wanted to have one more go-through but I wanted to do it with fresh eyes.

035You see, our eyes read what they expect to see so we miss typos, read right over where we’ve switched point of view or used the wrong character’s name. (It took a friend’s read to point out to me I’d used my heroine’s dead husband’s name in place of her new love’s. Yikes! No, Earl had not been visiting Mary. This is not a paranormal romance.) We become so in love with our own writing abilities that our “baby” still looks beautiful to us even though she’s been playing in the mud all day and needs a good scrubbing, clean clothes, and maybe even a haircut.

So I opened that binder with red pen in hand. I’m reading “Mary Bishop” the way my readers will, on paper. (Except for the red pen, I hope.) I’m reading from start to finish and I won’t open the computer file until I’m done. You see, the words look different on paper than on the computer screen. They look “fresh”. When I was slowly creating it chapter by chapter I didn’t get to experience the story as a whole. Now I’m listening to Mary tell her story uninterrupted and, yes, even though this is not my first revision, I’ve found a few more typos.

DSCN2799Stop writing! I say it again. Take a break. Rejoin the real world of real people and real summer sunshine. Then, when you do go back to your writing, you’ll have a clearer picture of whether or not it really says what you want it to say. Take an example from this seagull. He just feasted on the leavings from our shore lunch and now he’s just floating along enjoying the afternoon. He’s not worried at all whether or not he remembered to fact-check that important historic detail.