From Writer’s Digest to Harlequin Romance: Finding my online writing community

Damask rose

“If you want to make money as a writer, write romance novels,” my Creative Writing teacher said, even suggesting we could write under a pen name.  As for me, if I’m going through all the trouble of writing a novel, my name is going to be on the thing.

So, why doesn’t romance get any respect?  Is it because some of it can be labeled as purple prose, the genre is predominantly written by women, or both?  I’ll just pull a Nicholas Sparks and call mine love stories.

As much as I enjoy the poetic form, it is more something I publish on my blog for fun to build name recognition.  Though there is a huge market for poetry, I’ve found that the kind of poetry I like to write (and read) often isn’t the kind being published, which is far too abstract for my taste.  This is what I like:  Saturday Evening Post Limerick Contest.

In all the poetry I’ve submitted, I’ve sold one poem: (Seven Wonders in Every Wonder), and it was published in a magazine (Bella Grace) that I enjoy reading from cover to cover.  Too often, I’ve read poetry journals, wondering what the hell some of it even meant.  I have much better luck with short stories and creative nonfiction (which take me a lot more time to write). 

That’s not to say I’m eschewing writing poetry to submit for publication altogether—I’m just reassessing what I spend my time writing for publications other than my own.

~

Now, I’ve gone and joined the Harlequin Writing Community Facebook page.  What’s great about this group is how supportive they are (men are welcome, too!).  They have  flash-type (400-word) writing challenges every couple of weeks or so, with some pretty stiff stipulations (which only makes it more challenging); moreover, they only give you a couple of days to write them.  The only two I’ve written so far have been historical (maybe they’re looking for a historical fiction writer?), for which I set my scenes in Ancient Greece and in South Carolina during the Civil War.  The best thing is that you get feedback on what you wrote—and not just comments from other writers but actual feedback from editors—like the type I get from my Creative Writing teacher.  I never got this with Writer’s Digest, so if you’re interested in writing romance, check it out:  So You Think You Can Write.

As for the Facebook page, I feel that I’m a better fit for that community.  I’m not just writing for a hobby—I want to make it my career.  Many of us are in the process of writing a book to submit to Harlequin.  I’m not there yet because I don’t have time for a large project (70K words), though I am in the stages of outlining it. 

~

Though I miss writing book reviews, I don’t have time to write a full-length one anymore, especially with as much as I read; I also quit the university newspaper, as half the articles I wrote never got published.  Though I respect the editor’s decision not to print (or rather, post them), I spent too much time conducting interviews and transcribing audio for them not to get published.  I was graciously invited by the adviser to submit an opinion piece, so that is something I may consider after I finish this American Lit class that’s kicking my keister. 

Rather, I’m making the push to write more short stories (I’ve been reading everything Shirley Jackson has written and rewatching most of The Twilight Zone series—the legit one with Rod Serling; however, if the episode is about Nazis, boxing, or set in the Wild West, I skip it).  I got too hung up on writing novels (with short stories, you get paid once; with novels, you get royalties), but some stories just aren’t novel length.  This realization has opened up a whole world of possibilities for many of my ideas, which have remained dormant for years.  I’d been writing poetry and working on my novel (Because of Mindy Wiley) for so long that I’d forgotten how great short fiction (and creative nonfiction) can be. 

For now, I do expository writing for the Medium publishing platform: Medium/Sarah Richards, in addition to reposting my best blog posts.  I still have a couple of other accounts where I post short works that will eventually end up on my blog (I am planning an ebook on the writing craft, but I need to become more published to have credibility; I am also planning a book of short poetry for people who don’t like poetry), so it’s a two for the price of one deal.  I feel like I’ve finally found my writing niche, as well as future homes for my writing. 

Taking a college-level Creative Writing class, joining the Harlequin community, and letting go of some other things that were no longer paying off (but were, nevertheless, part of the process), has helped me reach this point. 

Sweet Little Nothings

You can do anything chocolate

When she tried to be Mom & Dad to her children,
she diminished the uniqueness of each role.
When she realized that trying to be both
was as crazy as trying to treat a boy like a girl,
she tried to be twice the mom
she had been in half the time.
When help came in the form of a man
who loved the 3 of them,
her heart was soft enough to let his head
make an imprint there
& fill it with his love.

Fiction Friday: Vignettes from the Novel

mormoni

They prayed to Heavenly Father (it was never God, but Heavenly Father) for His Spirit to be upon them, the only light coming from the curious stones, glowing in the dark. 

There were Amens, and then Brother and Sister Schafer chanted “Pay Lay Ale” thrice, and a minty mist imbued the air. The room suddenly felt damp, and I could smell the verdant earth after the rain. As they continued to chant in a language I could not understand, I felt the floor beneath me shift, like the plate tectonics I had learned about in school. Brother Schafer placed his palms on the stones, and his whole body was filled with light.

My surroundings change from four walls to a woodland. The ceiling opened up and disappeared, and sunlight streamed through the treetops. Birds were singing sweetly in the breeze. I stood in awesome wonder as I beheld who I recognized as the Prophet Joseph as a boy, on the Hill Cumorah. He was conversing with an angel. I started to walk towards them. The angel looked my way, but the boy did not seem to hear me. As I drew nearer, I saw that the apparition was not an angel, but a goat. It was beyond this scene that I saw a path through a grove of trees, leading down into a dark abyss, and I knew that was from whence this creature had come. 

I rushed to the boy, trying to tell him this being was not of God but a demon, wanting to touch him, but unable to, screaming for him to see what I saw. 

It was strange, for I could still hear all around me, all that was going on in that room, the two worlds colliding—one of sight, in the past—one of sound, in the present. Had I slipped into the fifth dimension of imagination, for I surely felt like I was being taken on a journey through the Twilight Zone, only to be left there.

The spell was broken as Brother Schafer ended what had turned out to be a séance of sorts, conjuring up visions of visions. Had I gone back in time, only to be unable to change the history that had been made before my eyes?

No one had seen what I had seen, for I had been alone there in the forest. The very people who believed in Joseph Smith’s teachings had brought him back from the dead, only for God (or had it been the devil tricking me?), to tell me he had been mistaken, to show me that after all, he had been just a boy with an imagination out of this world.

Logline for Because of Mindy Wiley An Irish-Catholic girl coming of age in the Deep South during the New Millennium finds her family splintered when two Mormon missionaries come to her door, their presence and promise unearthing long-buried family secrets, which lead to her excommunication and exile.

16 Easy Ways for Improving Your College Essay (Before Bringing it to the Writing Lab)

Beaker Beaker

I never cease to be amazed at the number of students who don’t use the Writing Lab — a free service (well, it’s included in your tuition) offered by my alma mater— especially since it doesn’t require making an appointment (which is why I hardly use the Lab at my current uni; I’m a fan of “first come, first served”).

After my first semester of community college, I ran everything by the on-campus Lab; however, I loved sending my creative pieces (for my poetry and creative writing classes) to the OWL (Online Writing Lab), as I received such thoughtful feedback. One of the pieces I submitted (“A Memoir of Mother Goose,” which has since been published on Medium) won first place in the college’s annual writing contest; the Writing Lab Supervisor helped me tighten up the structure, making it not only something I could be proud of but something that honored the people whose stories I told.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to see my rough draft — only my polished one — and for this reason: the fewer small mistakes there are, the more likely that whoever reads my paper will catch the big mistakes. If your tutor is having to wade through too many misspellings, punctuation errors, and/or too much bad grammar, they might miss things like content and structure.

At the Writing Lab, I tutor college students (not just in English, but in history, science, and even graphic design — as they pertain to writing), I’ve noticed a lot of things students could do that would make their session even more productive and help them become better writers. I realize many hate writing, and that’s unfortunate, but to do well in school and at many jobs, you have to write capably, such as the cover letters and resumes before hire and the emails you may have to write after. 

As for college writing, here are 13 things all students should do with their paper before they come to the Writing Lab.

  • Outline your paper, on paper (not on your phone). This way, you’re not starting with a blank page. Craft your thesis and topic sentences. Once you have those and your paraphrases and/or quotations, you can structure your paper and fill in the blanks. However, if you just need help getting started, the Lab is great for that, too. After all, the Lab was where I learned how to construct an outline. Once I learned thesis statements, topic sentences, and how to break something down to the smallest of details, I was able to write any research paper. These things made me a better writer, for I learned how to structure a paper and avoid parallelism.
  • Read the story (or whatever it is) before you start writing about it. Read all your sources, highlighting and annotating as you go. This especially helps if the book is long and/or boring. Post-its are great for marking paragraphs in longer works. 
  • Bring a copy of the assignment. Just telling the tutor you have to write an essay won’t help them help you. Are you writing a reflection, a literary analysis, a research paper? Tutors need a frame of reference.
  • Run everything through spell check, even if Google Docs isn’t flagging anything. Just do it. Then, copy and paste your document into Word and run a check. Some people like the Hemingway app, but I think it sucks (even though I still use it on occasion). Maybe if it was called the Shirley Jackson app, I’d like it better; Grammarly also offers a free app. Even though I know how to spell, and everyone knows I know how to spell, it is quite embarrassing when I publish something with a misspelling, especially since a handful of my friends have English degrees.
  • Write your paper as soon as you can, so you can leave time to put your paper away for a day or two and go back at it fresh. Let it be a smelly pile of rubbish — just get it out of your head and onto the paper/screen. Take notes while in class (you don’t have to type them up, as you won’t use them all, thus saving a step); don’t just scribble what the professor says, but what other students say and what you are thinking about what they are all saying. This has been a lifesaver in my American Lit class (where I’ve only liked one of the four books we’ve read thus far).
  • Print out your paper, so you can make marks on it, which leads to the next step. 
  • Read your work aloud. I do this with every paper that comes into the Lab unless the topic is a sensitive one (we have a private room for that if need be). The eye catches grammar, punctuation, and misspellings; the ear captures more content-related elements, such as how your paper flows. One of the students I did this with was catching her mistakes as I read, and she was amazed at how much of a difference reading it aloud made. I want the students who come in to remember my advice and use it, so they won’t keep making the same mistakes (but rather, different ones).
  • Make the changes to your paper that the tutor suggested and then bring it back for another read, so he or she has a clean copy. Ideally, you will get a second (and different) set of eyes to coach you on how to improve your document and writing skills. I remember asking my supervisor why the students could only check two categories (e.g., grammar, punctuation, sentence errors, content, structure, formatting, and documentation) rather than get it all done in one sitting, and she told that students would be overwhelmed at all the changes they would have to make at once. 
  • Remove contractions (unless they’re in a direct quote). Look on the sunny side: Doing this will increase your word count. 
  • Connotation matters. For example, don’t refer to children as kids (also known as young goats). Use academic language. 
  • Be precise. Don’t use the words “thing” and “stuff.” Spell out what the “thing” is. For example, instead of saying, “Writing was her favorite thing,” say, “Writing was her favorite hobby, pastime, activity, etc.”
  • Don’t use filler words/phrases. Some examples are “very,” “really,” and “just” (the last of which I am guilty of). Rather than saying something is “very important,” say it’s “paramount.” As for phrases, “to be perfectly honest” is the one I hate the most because of course, you’re going to be perfectly honest with your reader.
  • Properly format and cite. You don’t want to lose points on something easy. If you think this stuff is silly, remember, it’s all about attention to detail. I still think of the poor lady who lost a ton of money on Wheel of Fortune for saying “Seven Swans a-Swimmin’”, cutting the g off the gerund.
  • Don’t leave empty-handed. Get handouts from the Writing Lab on the particulars that confuse you (commas seem to be everyone’s Achilles heel), and keep the ones concerning formatting and documentation on hand. Unless you write college papers all the time, you won’t remember all the nuances.
  • Remember that tutors are lifelong learners. I still have to get help with something I am unfamiliar with sometimes. I remember a professor telling me that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one was that the former knew where to find the answer (and it’s not always Google or an algorithm).
  • Tutors will help you cite sources, but libraries will help you find them. When you find a source, copy and paste the link into a Google Doc so you can find it later. I’ve seen students who will have a great quote but will be unable to use it because they can’t find where they got it. If I’m getting my information from a book, I use bookmarks and sticky notes.

Doing these things before you go into the Lab just might make a letter grade of difference.

Sweet Little Nothings

Laugh it off chocolate

She’d grown up in the less white-trash version of the Bundy family–
rather than coming home with “A fat woman walked into the shoe store” stories,
her dad would cuss for 30 minutes about the customers who’d cussed him out over the phone because they didn’t agree with their cable bill.
Rather than her mom sitting on the couch watching Oprah & eating bonbons all day,
she’d watched crime shows in bed,
drinking frozen Cokes with peanuts in them
all night.
Rather than her brother
playing with rubber women,
he’d come home & say he hated his job & his life or put a finger to his temple
whenever his girlfriend came over–
an Al Bundy in training.
But she was the Wild Card
(more of a card than wild)
who was known as
the Wednesday Addams of Malibu Drive.
She was the all-American gothic girl who loved
Girl Scout cookies–
back when they were called Samoas
& not the way less creative name
of Caramel Delites.

Fiction Friday: Micropoetry from the Novel

mormoni

Had there been 12 places,
it would’ve been like The Last Supper,
but there were 16—
a perfect square full of imperfect squares—
a latter day First Dinner.

Her husband was a descendant of Brigham Young—
who had been a modern day Abraham
& whose descendants may not have numbered the sands of the sea
but the stars on the BYU sports teams.

The Urim & Thummim—
the seer stones that the Prophet Joseph
had used to translate the golden plates
& had been taken back by the angel Moroni—
had been placed in the Schafers’ backyard
that was like a shady, suburban wooded lot.
This Urim & Thummim glowed like breast implants
in each of Brother Schafer’s hands,
& of course,
Saint Tony had been the one to find them,
while Brother Schafer kept them safe,
being one generation
closer to Brigham Young.

What David found laughable,
Mother found laudable,
& it was as if the stones
were the eyes of an albino,
mesmerizing her.

What some would consider Tony & Kath’s dirty little secret,
I considered a wonderful little secret,
& what Kath did not show,
she did not have to tell.

Logline for Because of Mindy Wiley An Irish-Catholic girl coming of age in the Deep South during the New Millennium finds her family splintered when two Mormon missionaries come to her door, their presence and promise unearthing long-buried family secrets, which lead to her excommunication and exile.

Sweet Little Nothings

Be YouNique chocolate

The English & Communications Department
at Pence State College was a bit macabre,
being fans of colons & periods
& Naked Shakespeare on Ice:
Denice Arnaud,
the Department Head,
was as sharp as her attention to detail;
Lionel Stevensen,
the Assistant Department Head,
was as crisp as thinly-sliced English cucumbers
in crustless tea party sandwiches;
Marion, the Administrative Assistant,
was as mathy as she was not writerly.
Then there was Luci, the Senior Admin,
also known as O.C. Dizzy,
who broke 1 foot,
then broke the other to match.
Jim Johnson,
the Poetry Prof in a tweed blazer
that smelled like academia & dead
(but not decomposed) poets,
walked around with a flowered tote
because he was “comfortable in his sexuality”
while Miguel Willis,
the Creative Writing Prof,
with his 100-watt smile,
made off-color brunette jokes;
Dodd Newsom,
the Instructor of All Things Awesome,
whose syllabus was a thing of beauty,
kept them all guessing.
But the plethora of Sara(h)s
(Smith, Jones, & Davis)—
a blonde, a brunette, & a redhead—
happened to walk into a bar one night
& became a punchline
rather than a storyline.