Letter from the Editor: Five Tips for Writing Feature Stories

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We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
–Ernest Hemingway

So I am officially the Editor-in-Chief for the college newspaper in the fall, which will be my last semester at PSC.  I will graduate with an A.S., and, because I want to go farther, an A.A. (as I am so done with math).

If there’s one thing that the class from hell (i.e. Statistics) forced me to do, it was learn superior organization, which will come in handy when leading each project, or issue.

However, I am a confirmed introvert, so being a leader of anything is intimidating, but I tell myself, “I can do this.  They’re just people.”

That said, I am very excited about this opportunity.  I wasn’t going to go for it, but let’s just say my adviser made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

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Since my post about tips for writing college feature stories (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/) has, by a landslide, been the most popular, I thought I’d share a few other things that have helped me become not just a better, but a more prolific writer:

  • Be aware not just of what is going on around you, but also the people around you—eavesdrop, pay attention to quirks, such as distinctive tattoos, and even cars with a bunch of crazy bumper stickers.  For example, on the first day of my ENC1102 class, my professor asked everyone to write something true and something untrue about themselves; the rest of the class was supposed to guess what was and wasn’t.  Listen for the interesting truths.
  • If you’re in online classes, and there is a “Get To Know You” discussion forum, read all of the bios—but, as Troy Moon (a local journalist for The Pensacola News Journal) said, “Everyone has a story, but not all of them are interesting.”
  • Craft your interview questions in such a way that you won’t get a yes or no answer.  You want meaty quotes!  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself wanting to paraphrase everything.
  • An easy way to gather quotes (speaking from the introvert’s point-of-view) is to cover events where people are speaking.  This way, you don’t even have to ask questions, unless you need more or better quotes.
  • Read other college newspapers in-depth, because all I’m doing is telling you how it’s done–they’re showing you.

My ultimate goal for our publication is to get more student names and faces in every issue, because, as Diane Varsi (playing Allison MacKenzie) said in the 1957 movie, Peyton Place: “It was nice to come back to a place where the names in the newspaper meant something to you.”

That embodies the very idea of “community,” and we are a community college.

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Influences on my early writing

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It has been at least fifteen years since I’d read My Sweet Audrina.

I’ve always considered V.C. Andrews novels a guilty pleasure (like the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella). They are easy reads, and, considering I do most of my reading in bed at night before I go to sleep, it’s what I need.

I was afraid of reading Audrina—afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered—but even though V.C.’s novels aren’t considered literature, Audrina touches on a variety of important topics: self-hypnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, brittle bone disease, autism, and how parental favoritism can destroy the favored child.

What is haunting about V.C.’s Southern Gothic horror novels is their timelessness. Reading this book made me nostalgic for that time when I was getting into more “adult” novels.

 

The first time I came across a V.C. Andrews novel was at a “Friends of the Library” sale (https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfWFPL). It was Dawn—the first book in the Cutler family series—a crisp, hardcover edition sheathed in a dust jacket with a haunting family photo on the cover. I was immediately intrigued, and of course, I had to read everything she wrote after that.

When I was a teenager, I wrote part of a sequel about the Lamar Rensdale character in Audrina, bringing him back from the dead. I wanted Audrina to ditch Arden and marry Lamar instead—a man who helped her—even as Arden had failed her the first time, a second, a third…

I think my juvenile attempt to write a sequel to My Sweet Audrina was my way of living in that crazy Whitefern world just a little longer.

What’s more, I’ve always wanted to give characters happy endings—just like I wanted to give a happy glimpse of Ginger (from Black Beauty) in the afterlife.

 

Audrina is unputdownable, for it drew me into this strange, Whitefern world. Coming from a caring, but odd and somewhat dysfunctional family (a neighbor of ours, I found out, once referred to us as the Addams family), I related, however distantly, to the Whiteferns/Adares, for they live in an old house where things don’t always work and consider themselves outliers in the community. (My parents don’t even watch the local news.)

 

I think, when we read a book, we either like to be taken away or see ourselves in someone else’s work, to feel less alone—Audrina was both. It was also well-edited, unlike some of V.C.’s other books, where last names are spelled two different ways and middle names were changed altogether.

 

I don’t recommend any V.C. books after the Logan series, because the quality tanked and they all started to sound the same. I have no plans on reading Whitefern, the sequel to Audrina that Neiderman wrote, though I will try the televised version of Audrina. (The original flick, Flowers in the Attic, though not a masterpiece, had a haunting quality about it the TV movie lacked.)

 

V.C. Andrews had one hell of an imagination, and it’s too bad she passed away before she got to write more books. She was an influence on me in my early writing (who doesn’t love dark family secrets?), just as the breezy, Shopaholic series lightened what V.C. darkened.

 

Even though I read many novels by different authors, I think series books will always have a place in my heart, because I fall in love with the characters, and don’t want to let them go. I think that’s why I’ve always preferred novels over short stories, and short stories over poetry. It’s always been about the characters for me. Even the poetry I write is often about characters (many of them wacky).

Plots may keep you reading, but characters will keep you rereading.

 

A Long Good-bye to the Slowly Waning Summer

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It is mid-September, and I am supine on my beach chair, soaking up the rays of late afternoon.  The chair is the aquamarine color of the bikini I always look for, but can never find in my size.  Half the problem is finding one of the two halves in my size.

My daughter is playing in her pink kiddie pool–her precursor to a bath.  Her menagerie of colorful bath toys make me think of sprinkles on a pink iced cupcake.  A cool zephyr blows through the tree behind our fence, stirring the tiny leaves.  She looks up, transfixed.  She is content.

If we had an outdoor shower, I would be taking all my showers outside, for everything is better outside during the summer, eating especially.  Every day of summer feels like a holiday, which is why it almost seems strange to be inside working.

I live in my flip-flops; I can be heard slip-slap-slopping down the shiny corridors at college.  When I leave and the warmth rushes in through the heavy door (a respite from the chilly building), I am flip-flop-flapping my way down the stairs.  My bikini top is a comfortable, makeshift bra, and my hair is still wet from the shower, but I don’t get sick in the summer.  Barefaced and barelegged, I am ready to go.  There is no having to warm Lila (our almost 25-year-old Cadillac), or putting on socks or hose, or using the hairdryer.  A swipe of lipstick and I am ready to go.  I will never understand women who will apply a full face where the humidity is about a hundred percent.  I choose to let my skin breathe; the sun is nature’s foundation.

Though my freckles become more pronounced, I have no desire to cover them (a la Jan Brady).  They make me look younger.

The inflatable pool we got on clearance from Target (they still think summer ends in July) is filled with water as clear as vodka, and I get in to cool off my skin, feeling that faint tightness that relaxes as soon as it hits the water.  I rest my head on the edge and close my eyes for a bit, listening to my daughter splash.  She loves the warmth and the water as much as I do.

I decide I want to plant some honeysuckle next year, maybe some ivy.   Once I have dipped my head in the water, cooling my scalp, I lay back on my chair as the sun lightly browns me once more like a piece of French toast, giving me that vitamin D and mood boost I need before I spend half the night studying.

As I lay there with my face in the hole facing the grass, the pool water long having evaporated, I brainstorm about the collection of nursery rhymes I am working on.  I have shelved my adult writing for a time.  As it says in the Bible, there is a time and a season for everything.  I don’t have the time.  I close my eyes once more, dreaming of Campbell, Missouri peaches.  I am unusual in that I don’t like watermelon (something about the gritty texture turns me off), so I opt for a refreshing mint iced tea, the glass of which I keep under my chair, in the shade.

Hannah starts to let me know she’s getting tired, and I go to bathe her, the water warmer now (hopefully not with pee) than when she was put in.  I make a game of naming each animal (I have to make it interesting somehow):  There’s Escargot the Snail, Soup the Turtle, Gucci the Alligator, Cracker the Goldfish, Jonah the Whale, Prince Frog, Plucky Ducky, Hannah Swan, and so on.  Of course, I change up the names a bit each time (I love naming things, probably because I love to create characters) to keep it fresh, and I teach her the colors (as each has a “color mate”), but what really delights her is when I toss them up in the air and call out, “One little, two little, three little animals”, etc.

Tomorrow is the thirteenth–I will be thirty-three.  I remember reading somewhere long ago that that is considered one’s prime (I daresay, Miss Jean Brodie was well past that age!), because Jesus was at His prime when He made the sacrifice.  It has been tradition that every year on my birthday, we go to the Cactus Flower Café.  (We started dining at their beach location last year.)

We always choose to sit outside, away from the noise of the diners and the overhead music, with the breeze blowing in from the sound side of Pensacola Beach.  I always get a sangria and a chicken-stuffed chili relleno, topping it off with a homemade flan for my free birthday dessert–creamy and caramelly, smooth and cool to the mouthfeel (texture and temperature in food is as important to me as taste).  The material of whatever flowing dress I’m wearing feels wonderful against my exfoliated, shaved and lotioned legs.  I slide off my flip-flop and rub the bottom of my foot, smoother now, on the rough, unfinished boardwalk beneath us.  I am already feeling the effects of the sangria; I feel like laughing.

The food is fresh, abundant in color–thick, verdant lettuce, spicy, chili pepper red tomatoes, and beans and rice perfectly seasoned.  I close my eyes to savor, just like I can hear better when I close my eyes.  Dull one sense, another heightens.  I’ve heard that eating in the dark can enhance the dining experience, but I have never done so.  I want to see what I’m being served before I eat it, as I eat with my eyes first.

On other days, days when I am alone, towards late afternoon, I can roll down the windows and leave them down, not at all worried about my hair getting messed up, as it’s always in a ponytail.  For this reason, I never have a bad hair day during summer.  The rushing air cools any perspiration that collects on my scalp.  I will be listening to Dave Ramsey or Branden Rathert on the radio as I cruise over the Three Mile Bridge into Gulf Breeze, the water the color between sapphires and emeralds.  The boats and the rocks below are picturesque.

Twilight has always been my favorite time of day–a time to settle down, but not turn in.  I’ve always associated periwinkle as being the color of twilight; thus, it was always my favorite color in the Crayola 64 pack.  Periwinkle, besides its whimsical name, was always the stars, the sun and the moon–all in one, a celestial hue.

Summer is wonderful at night, too.  The surfside beach is still warm, and the sand sparkles pristine, like tiny, ground pearls, moonstones, and stardust sprinkled with salt, luminescent in the silvery moonlight.  The view is otherworldly.  The sand is cool beneath my toes; I think of Abraham’s descendants.  I dip my feet into the water, the salt burning the open pores on my legs.  The sand beneath me is squishy now.  I bend to pick up a broken sand dollar, skipping it a few times in the water.  We walk for a bit, hand in hand, the different colored beach houses visible, but seemingly so far away.

The drive home is subdued, but the silences don’t stretch too long.  The radio is off.  Somehow, turning it on would break the spell of the magic of the evening.

Once we’re settled in for the night and get into our house clothes, I return to my beach chair to unwind, squeezing the last drops of enjoyment from the remains of the day.  I pick up the beach read I was reading.  The light from our patio gives just enough of a glow for me to see, but it still dim enough to feel private.  The next door neighbor’s sprinklers come on, spraying the exposed bottom halves of my calves; I let my foot just graze the tops of the moist, cool blades of grass.  I feel myself drifting off for a catnap, until I hear thunder rumbling in the distance.  The air suddenly smells sweeter; the atmosphere is breathless with expectation.  I put the book down and lounge a bit longer, just being, and then go inside when I feel the first raindrop on my head.

There is a gritty film noir on our DVR, and as it starts to pour (summer rainstorms are the best), the raindrops like a drumbeat on Hannah’s pool, I curl up on our couch with the fleece-tie blanket one of the ladies at Grace Lutheran made for Hannah.  As my husband sits in his recliner and I curl up on the sofa, the black-and-white images shadowing my rosy face, I can already feel my eyelids getting heavy.  It has been that kind of a day.

 

The Trees of Life: A Poem, and other musings

It has been almost a month since my last posting.  Spending more time with family, enjoying summer, and wading through all the red tape to go back to school has taken up most of June.  I have been hopping from Building 5 to Building 2 to back again for weeks now, and I have yet to make it to the beach.  It is the raining season in Florida.  One year (I don’t remember which, but it’s been within the last three years), it rained every day in July.  I have, however, made use of all my old seashells (pictures to come later).

I have finished my story for the Saturday Evening Post Great American Short Story contest, and I got together with a friend of mine over coffee to help me edit, and hopefully, publish and market “Golden Stars and Silver Linings”, my collection of children’s nursery rhymes (50 in all), complete with a few recreational drug references and double entendres (however unintentional).

Though I don’t consider writing poetry a waste of time (they’re great writing exercises and fun to write, too), poetry for adults just doesn’t sell; though I have several favorite poems by the greats (Robert Frost and Edgar Allan Poe), I never read modern, adult poetry.  I’ll still enter free poetry contests for which there is a cash prize (a pine needle in a hay bale?), but I refuse to pay any more entry fees when it comes to poetry contests.  Poetry isn’t hot (people like stories), and so those venues that publish it have to charge entry fees just to stay in print because they don’t make money off subscriptions.  Harlequin romances sell, and that’s my focus right now (as far as adult novels go).  Poetry might be more fun to write, to do, than to read (like tennis is more fun to play than watch).  I tend to feel about poetry in novels like I feel about paragraphs written in italics:  (obvious) dream sequences bore me as much in novels as they do in movies.

There is one movie, “The Woman in the Window”, with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett (highly recommended), in which almost the entire movie is a dream, but that’s okay, because we don’t know it till the end.  The fact that it was all a dream was a bit of a letdown.

Though Dorothy’s adventures in Oz also turned out to be all a dream, I prefer to believe she somehow, telepathically, traveled to a parallel universe.

The poem you about to read is based in reality, though creative license was taken.  It was entered into a tree-themed poetry contest.  I never heard back, so I assumed it wasn’t chosen.  I have noticed that many journals that publish poetry specify they don’t care for rhymed poetry, that it reads better, blah, blah, blah.  I believe there is a certain snootiness where rhyming poetry is concerned–it is seen as not edgy or provocative, but trite and childish.  I disagree, as long as the rhyming isn’t forced and is written well.  With this poem, I experimented with rhyming every first and third line, and every second and fourth.  It was a very difficult task, and quite unnecessary; second and fourth would have been sufficient.

However, here it is:

The Trees of Life

Twas under the magnolia tree with its voluptuous, white blooms,
where I read piles of books while drinking sweet tea from a tall glass;
by the light of the pearl moon I read, the honeysuckle releasing its perfume,
my pillow a denim backpack, my bed a lush patch of St. Augustine grass.

Twas under my grandmother’s dying hickory trees,
that I wiled away the lazy summer days in sweet repose,
writing the kinds of stories I loved to read,
the scent of peach pound cake teasing my nose.

Twas under the ancient oak at my parents’ house on Jackson Street,
that my husband-to-be, knelt in the sand on one knee;
*his grandmother’s band of rose gold with a pearl solitaire,
slipped it on my finger–this intricate heirloom of sentimental wear.

Tis every birthday, under the curving colonnade on Twelfth Avenue,
my husband takes me to the Cactus Flower cafe,
classical music playing with the window down partway,
the breeze blowing through my hair those warm, September days.

Tis past rows of swaying palm trees I walk,
flip-flops slapping hot concrete on the way to the boardwalk–
the beauty of the Emerald Coast shimmering in the background,
full of seashells—jewels of the sea–just waiting to be found.

Tis under the Christmas tree,
I lay my baby daughter beside me,
to look up at the twinkling lights–
lights in red, green and white.

Tis amongst the pine trees in the park we watch our children play,
picnicking on our tattered blanket of blue and white squares,
enjoying a Southern smorgasbord of homemade foods artfully arrayed,
whilst a spray of dandelion seeds and yellow butterflies float in midair.

Tis under trees of various species,
we gather ’round the table in our backyard,
enjoying the warmth of the bricks under our feet,
the steaks juicy, the peaches deliciously charred.

And then the day will come and so it will be,
that under the shade of a weeping willow tree,
I will return to the earth in eternal rest,
peace in knowing I have lived my best.

Easter Sunday 2011

What Editors Want…

Christian films (and movies with Christian themes) are rising in popularity.  A revival is going on.  How much that influences what magazine publishers/editors are looking for, I have no idea, though I wish I did.

For instance, “The Saturday Evening Post” is sponsoring a Great American Fiction Contest, and one of the guidelines is this:  Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America, past, present, and future.

Now I can do that.  However, being a Christian (especially growing up in the Buckle of the Bible Belt), it is very hard for me not to include any mention of religion (good or bad) in my writings.  It is not only what I know, but it is part of what makes me, me.  I always think, before I send a piece that has even a passing mention of Christianity, that it will be rejected for that reason.  What I write tends to be too liberal to qualify as Christian fiction, and too conservative for mainstream fiction.

Hence my dilemma in crafting a story for this contest.  If I was submitting a piece for this magazine seventy years ago, this wouldn’t even be an issue.  My thought is that I’m writing to impress the editors, not the subscribers, because I have to get past the editors first.

When I think of what constitutes Americana, I think of “Huckleberry Finn”, “Leave it to Beaver”, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, Stephen Foster and Norman Rockwell.  I think rural.  The story I originally wrote for this contest is about a group of young Mormons living in Montana (as I was once a young Mormon living in Montana).  I fear even the mention of the word Mormon, much less most of my main characters being members of such a controversial religion, might scare off the editors, who fear offending anyone.  That’s the kind of country we live in now.  We (or some of us) live in fear offending anyone, and if we do happen to offend, we must apologize immediately.  It doesn’t pay to be honest anymore, but rather, it costs us.  I can write what I want, all I want, but if I want to win a contest, I’ll probably have to censor myself a bit, thus making my piece less authentic.

So, I am at a crossroads.  Because of the ten dollar entry fee, I don’t want to send something I’m pretty sure won’t be chosen, but I am grappling with a story that will appeal to the masses (though I do believe Christianity, portrayed in a positive light, would be appealing to most people, but again, I have to get past the editors).

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain”, a fifties movie starring William Lundigan, as a Protestant minister, and Susan Hayward, as his wife.  I’d read on an imdb.com message board that it was serialized in “The Saturday Evening Post” and it (the movie) was a perfect example of what qualifies as Americana.  The movie is a good watch, but milk without the meat.  Things happened, but it didn’t have a plot (which is fine; “Our Town” didn’t either, and I loved it).

I am thinking of abandoning my original story (or perhaps omitting the Mormon angle altogether, even though that’s what my characters are; I borrowed them from a book I will publish someday in which the Mormon theme is integral to the story), and writing something brand new.  No borrowing.  I am thinking of penning an homage to my hometown of Pensacola, Florida–a small city that is steeped in Christianity.  If I write as an observer, I might just get away with mentioning the existence of churches, maybe even God!

 

 

 

The Saturday Evening Post-It

So I am writing a story to submit to the Saturday Evening Post short story contest.  See:  http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-contest

I like specific guidelines, one of which is this:  Think local. The Post has historically played a role in defining what it means to be an American. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America, past, present, and future. 

I am an American who lives in America, living in a town that supplies endless material (both complimentary and not so complimentary).  Lots of writers love to write about the South (Tennessee Williams comes to mind).  I’d had the road trip for a story all mapped out, until I realized it might be too religious in nature.  It was going to be about a group of four girlfriends, one of whom leaves the comforting folds of Mormonism, and how her leaving affects the rest of them.

My idea preceding that one was going to be about two sisters, Lucy and Emma Potlocki (who go by the “Anglicized” surname of Lock), who seek their fortune by auditioning for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939, then I googled for some information, and that’s when I came upon “The Scarlett O’Hara War”–a TV-movie about just that.  Sometimes you wonder if your idea is original, or, if somewhere, in the back of your mind, it’s a memory.

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According to Branden Rathert, our local radio host, when one steps into Pensacola, they’re stepping into the year 1927.  I don’t think places like Emerald City (google it, if you want) existed in 1927, at least not openly, though Pensacola does have a church on every corner (and some in between).

However, I will not be setting my story in Florida, but rather in Sidney, Montana, where I was a live-in nanny for three girls.  Since the story has to be fiction, I juiced it up a bit.  My protagonist (I don’t use the term “heroine”, as I think it’s silly, unless she does something heroic) is from Pensacola, but has left home to do just what I did more than a decade ago.  She is LDS (as I was at the time, though I won’t make her religion central to the story; however, Mormonism is a very American religion), and that’s where the similarities between my story and her story end.  Her experience is quite a bit darker (I just can’t help myself) than mine was.

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I borrowed her (and one of the main two plots) from the novel I wrote (“The Fall and Rise of Alfred Bomber”) that she is a supporting character in.  Since it will be quite some time before “Alfred” is finished (meaning edited), I thought Karsen Wood (the name of my protagonist) may as well be doing me some good elsewhere.  I see this story as Karsen’s part-time gig, rather than her full-time career in “Alfred”.  I grew quite fond of her (as she is an extension of me), in addition to the fact that her story gave me something to build on other than a blank screen.