Thursday, June 15, 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion!: Mormon Lit Blitz edition

Have you heard of the Mormon Lit Blitz? It's a flash fiction contest that's been going on around this time every year for the past five or six years. Flash fiction, if you don't know, is generally considered to be fiction under 1000 words (although it doesn't include children's picture and board books, which are usually in that range too). It's fun to write--though it can be surprisingly difficult--and quick to read. Hence the "flash" part.

This year, my entry was a finalist, and this week is the voting. So I'm taking a moment to shamelessly promote my story and hope that you will go read it and the other stories then vote.

It's titled "Forty Years," and it's the story of a woman and her relationship with her mother and with motherhood.

The voting ends on Friday, so if you're inclined to vote, go do it! Here's the link to voting instructions. Also, there's a small discussion of each individual piece going on here (and of course you can page to the other stories' discussions too), so if you have a desire to share your thoughts on any of the stories, I encourage you to do so. Being writers, you know how awesome it feels to have people respond positively or thoughtfully to your work, so go share that feeling with someone else!

And if you're on Facebook, go like the Mormon Lit Blitz so that you can hear about and enter the contest next year!

Thanks,
Jeanna

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Criticism and the Writer

by Jewel Leann Williams

Unless you are writing a journal entry, or a secret document you never intend the world to see, you will endure criticism. Anyone who reads your book, poem, short story, or blog entry, will have thoughts about it, whether they express them or not.

Your words will resonate with them--or they won't.

Your characters, the setting, your pacing--all of those things will either engage them, or they won't.

So, why not get some good, solid criticism before you let your words go public, so that you can change those things that need to be corrected, before it's too late?

Well, because asking people whose opinion you value to possibly tell you things they don't like about this thing you've been pouring your soul into, is absolutely frightening, that's why!

Many writers are so terrified to hear that their "baby" is actually really ugly, that they don't ever present to critique groups or beta readers.

What's worse, some writers are so invested in their project that even if they do have beta readers, when those readers outline all the things that are wrong with the book, the writer has a meltdown. Sometimes they go on Facebook to get validation and commiseration, they may discount the criticism, or possibly take it so much to heart that they don't touch the project again.

These things ought not to be. With this in mind, I present the following steps to receiving criticism as a writer (I am talking about the kind of criticism you ASK for: critique groups, beta readers, etc.):

Step 1: Say, "Thank you."   You did, after all, ask for them to read and comment. They sacrificed time to read your project.

Step 2: get out the salt. You will need at least one grain of it to take with each comment.  You have to take into account that everyone has their own pre-established likes, dislikes, and idiosyncrasies that will color their perception of your work.

Step 3: Keep this advice from Neil Gaiman in mind:

When people say "This doesn't work for me," there is always a reason. However, the reason may be completely different than what they think it is. Pay attention to those things that are unsettling to your beta readers, but be aware that their solution is not necessarily the solution.

Step 4: Pray or meditate on it.  I believe that God wants me to use my talents as a writer to help His children.  Because of that, I also believe that He will direct me in the use of my writing, if I ask Him. That may not be your belief, but I promise if you take time to reflect on the things that your beta readers have told you, you can be more mindful of what changes you need to make and which ones are not necessary.

Step 5: Be true to yourself; true to your story.  But don't be afraid to "kill your darlings" if necessary.  IF NECESSARY. You don't have to. Sometimes one reader may not like something that may be perfectly wonderful to another. YOU get the final say.

Step 6: Do it all over again. Make changes, get feedback. Make more changes, get more feedback. Think of it as sanding furniture, or polishing a stone or a car... you refine, refine, refine, with finer grit sandpaper, until you can truly see the gem shining through.

What advice do YOU have for writers dealing with critiques? Post in the comments!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Wasted Fruit

by Jewel Leann Williams

I have a hard-working peach tree in my backyard. It isn’t big enough for the kids to climb in yet, and it is still producing smallish, but oh-so-sweet fruit. Every year when it blooms, my heart gets happy and I start anticipating juicy heaven.

All the birds in Arizona start spreading get the word, too.

Now there are nets you can put up to keep the birds out of the tree and away from most of the fruit. Our tree is too big now. I’ve seen the shiny hanging deterrents. My brother suggested hanging plastic balls that resembled the fruit to try and help them lose interest in our fruit. The thing is, every year we get very busy in the spring and don’t ever do all those things to bird-proof.

Usually, the birds exact their “bird tax” and there is plenty left for us. Not so much this year. This is what it looked like:
Can you see all of the peaches in various states of bird-eaten desiccation?
This picture, you can't see that all of those peaches are bird-pecked, or completely eaten right on the branch--all of the usable peaches have already been picked from this part. 

All that fruit, ruined. Wasted. It's maddening.

There are a few things go we could have done to prevent this. They don’t matter at this point, and the reasons why we didn’t don’t matter either. When I look at my tree, and all of those peaches that could have blessed my family, my friends, my tastebuds.... the reasons don't matter.

We will either learn from this and take the necessary steps to prevent it next year, or we won’t and will lament the pillaging around May 2018 too.


How often is it like this in life? We have so many blessing--some are things that we've worked hard for, others are just things that Heavenly Father has ordained for our good, waiting there for the taking.

We also have the "birds" of our lives--people, circumstances, whatever--that hover around, waiting for opportunities to ruin those blessings or at least prevent us from accessing them.

There are steps we can take to prevent this from happening, fully or partially depending on the circumstance. We understand that life, just by its nature, is going to ruin some of our "fruit," but whether or not needless waste occurs is largely up to our efforts.

Then, knowing that without action on our part, our blessings will be squandered, we do--nothing. Or not enough. Or not the right things.

What it is that we need to do is different for everyone, every circumstance. The reasons why we don't do what we know we should--those reasons don't matter when you come to a realization of what could have been had you only been diligent.

Just a couple of months ago, President Thomas S. Monson gave us this challenge with a promise of blessings:

My dear associates in the work of the Lord, I implore each of us to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day. As we do so, we will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit, to resist temptation, to overcome doubt and fear, and to receive heaven’s help in our lives. 

What amazing blessings we are being promised here:

  • We will be in a position to hear the voice of the Spirit
  • We will be able to resist temptation
  • We can overcome doubt and fear
  • We can receive heaven's help in our lives
What do we need to do to safeguard that fruit?  Prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day. 

If we want those blessings, we have to do that work. If we don't, we will see those blessings squandered, hanging on the tree waiting for us, but dried up with the waiting. 

A few other blessings (and what we need to do to "obtain the fruit") from this last General Conference:


  • “Your power to do good as a group of God’s daughters will depend, to a great degree on the unity and love that exist among you.” -Henry B. Eyring

  • The Lord promises to direct our paths, but for Him to do that, we have to walk, trusting that he knows the way.” -L. Whitney Clayton

  • My beloved friends, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, if we ever find ourselves living in fear or anxiety, or if we ever find that our own words, attitudes, or actions are causing fear in others, I pray with all the strength of my soul that we may become liberated from this fear by the divinely appointed antidote to fear: the pure love of Christ, for “perfect love casteth out fear.” --President Dieter L. Uchtdorf

  • One more, also from President Uchtdorf: 
  • Our service—whether great or small—refines our spirits, opens the windows of heaven, and releases God’s blessings not only upon those we serve but upon us as well. When we reach out to others, we can know with humble confidence that God acknowledges our service with approval and approbation. He smiles upon us as we offer these heartfelt acts of compassion, especially acts that are unseen and unnoticed by others. Each time we give of ourselves to others, we take a step closer to becoming good and true disciples of the One who gave His all for us: our Savior.

    By the way, although I am approaching this from a spiritual point of view, we can extrapolate my poor wasted fruit saga to writing also.  How many times could we reap some benefits, if we would just take action? We can always improve our craft, look for opportunities to expand our writing horizons, network, mentor, critique, accept critiques.... we never know what blessings may arise from taking action--or what fruit we are letting rot on the tree by standing still.

    Wednesday, May 17, 2017

    Book Review: Seeking Mansfield, by Kate Watson

    -a post by Jeanna Mason Stay

    Yesterday was the debut of our lovely alumna Katy White's (aka Kate Watson) novel Seeking Mansfield!

    Let's start this review by talking about the things that I did today. First of all, I am a super responsible adult type of human. So I definitely did all of the adulty sorts of things I was supposed to. I definitely didn't spend pretty much the whole day shooing my children outside to play so I could read. I definitely didn't make hot dogs for lunch because it was super fast and then I could go back to reading. I totally didn't let the kids watch more TV than usual so I could finish the book.

    Nope. I'm way more responsible than that.

    But since I did manage to read the book while also being a fabulous parent and adult, I am now equipped to review it. Hooray!

    Star rating: 4/5. I really enjoyed it!

    Summary: In this modern YA adaptation of Mansfield Park, Finley Price is an aspiring teen director with a crappy past and an overdeveloped sense of what she owes to her godparents, the Bertrams. Movie stat heartthrob Harlan Crawford and his sister move in next door, and Finley starts having to face all sorts of difficult things, including love.

    What I liked: It's been years, admittedly, since I read Mansfield Park, and I think I would have a lot more compassion for Fanny Price than I used to. But when I read it, I just found her to be too much of a doormat. Finley Price is a wonderful modern remake of this character, giving a lot more depth to who she is and how she ended up this way. Also, I found her just much more likable.

    The alternating perspectives were fun, and I really loved Oliver. Again, more than the original. Oliver was far less clueless than his Austen counterpart. It's kind of refreshing to read boys who aren't complete idiots and yet are subject to still being teenagers.

    I also appreciated watching Finley and Oliver talk themselves into things that didn't make sense or fit them. It felt very real--"I'm going to do this thing because it really seems like the sort of thing I should want to do, even though I don't want to." Sigh.

    Really, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was a fun read that modernized a character that lots of modern readers don't like. It also largely avoided the thing I hated most about the 1999 movie adaptation (we'll get to that below).

    What didn't work for me: I think I'm a bit like the original Fanny in that I sometimes have a hard time accepting lots of shades of gray in people. So, for example, I didn't like that Finley really didn't seem bothered enough by Emma's behavior. I guess maybe I would have preferred to see Emma be more like the original Mary Crawford, very clearly a pretty awful person.

    Other considerations: The 1999 adaptation I referenced above has Fanny Price tell Henry Crawford she's going to marry him (even though she doesn't want to and has been morally repulsed by him all along). Then, when she realizes she simply can't and tells him so, he sleeps with someone else. Essentially the narrative is that if she simply hadn't given in, he wouldn't have been a sleazebag. (Austen fans, correct me if I'm wrong here, but my recollection is that the original Fanny continually refused Henry, despite feeling awful about it, because she had a seriously awesome moral backbone.) It was awful and pretty much the worst narrative decision in the film (in my less-than-humble opinion). Watson's Finley is in a different situation in Seeking Mansfield, and while I don't admire some of her taste in boys, I think she puts the woman-blaming narrative of cheating where it belongs--in the trash.

    Clean rating: Yay for a teen romance that I would consider quite clean. It's got a little bit of swearing (what I call the "lesser swear words"), a couple OMGs (which is pretty much my least favorite acronym ever, I admit), and I think one mention of sex? There's also thematic content--alcoholism, abuse, PTSD, and such, so it's not for younger readers, but it's also not dark.

    You should go pick it up and then be a completely responsible adult, like me, and not binge read it all day. Like me.



    Saturday, May 13, 2017

    The Pain in the Neck, or What I Learned This Week

    by Jewel Leann Williams

    Quick story:

    This week my sweet eleven-year-old son managed to roll out of his top bunk in his sleep, and landed on the six-inch-tall pile of dirty clothes on the floor but tweaked his neck. He spent the whole week miserable. I took him to Urgent Care just to make sure it wasn't anything more than a "tweak" and thankfully, that was affirmed by the doctor. She gave us some really awesome gel to use and taught him some great stretches. She told us that, even though it really hurts to do so, the best way to permanently relieve the pain is by gently stretching the area, and instead of holding everything as still as possible, to move it as much as possible. We left the office and I continued for the next few days to remind my son to move his head and neck, to do stretches, etc.
    Two days later, after a night wherein the adorable four-year-old princess invaded our bed, I found myself with an inexplicable but excruciating pain in my upper back--one of those knots underneath the shoulder blade that is about impossible to get to. I commandeered some of the really awesome gel, and the husband gave me as much of a massage in that area as possible. I resigned myself to not doing the things I had planned, because how was I going to scrub two showers when I couldn't lift my arm?

    The doctor's words came back to me:  no matter how much it hurts, the best thing for you to do at this point is to move it. So, I did. At first I was glad that no one was in the room with me, because I swore a little more than a little and was making this whining noise that was quite unbecoming.  Anyway, after a while, I did find that the pain lessened enough for me to start my chores (scrubbing the kids' shower was imperative, it's their job but it had been done poorly or not at all for long enough that it... well, you get the picture).  After about an hour of scrubbing (I'm not exaggerating, and I was only half done--it was bad) I realized that it didn't hurt at all anymore. Moving really, really helped!

    My point in this isn't to wallow in the pity of how terrible my kids' shower was (it was really, really bad. I soaked it in cleaner, scrubbed it, and then soaked and scrubbed it again). It's not even to whine about the pain or the fact that when my little girl sneaks into bed with us, I always feel like I was run over by a train the next day.  While I was contemplating the fact that I would have not had the "move it and it will help" advice fresh on my mind had I not just been dealing with muscle pain for my boy, the Spirit whispered to me that this is an analogy for life in general.

    We have trials, and they teach us things. They make us stronger. They make us more empathetic when other people go through the same things. They also give us knowledge that we can share with others who may find themselves in similar circumstances. In short, our trials are a gold mine if we can look beyond the pain and see them as learning--and teaching--experiences.

    After all, the Savior himself suffered in Gethsemane to personally know how to succor us. In Alma 7, it explains that Jesus took upon himself the pains and afflictions of his people, that is, all of us, so that he would know according to the flesh how to succor his people. He could have known, in His head, by the Spirit, how to provide comfort. But there is something to be said for feeling the same pains--he wanted to physically know--according to the flesh--how our infirmities and trials make us feel so that he could truly know how to provide comfort and assistance to us. What love our Savior has for us!

    This isn't a new way of looking at trials for me; but it is a good reminder that I needed this week.

    In closing, I'd invite you to read Alma 7 for one of the most beautiful descriptions of our Savior's mission and Atonement.  And remember, our trials are there for a reason--they are our lessons in this school of life.

    Saturday, May 6, 2017

    Some Fun Writing Exercises

    By Lacey Gunter

    Published authors often say if you want a successful writing career you should be writing consistently, perhaps even daily. Sometimes though you get stumped in your current WIP and you don't really know what to write.  I have already discussed ways to try get moving on your WIP again here and here.  Sometimes though, what you really need is just a little break from your manuscript.  when this happens writing exercises are a great way to keep you writing and maybe even generate a few new ideas. Here are a few writing exercises you might want to try next time you need a break, or even just for fun.

    1. I call this one Beta Reader Blitz: Have you ever had a beta reader who didn't really 'get' your manuscript and insisted you should change it to sound more like a different genre (like maybe the genre they love writing in). Well just for fun or practice, do just that. Take you current manuscript, or even a much loved book and try and tweak it to fit a different genre and write a synopsis for it or rewrite one of the chapters.

    2. This one I call Sensational Reporting: Go to your favorite news website and find a report on a situation or event that is just developing. It's best if you find an article where some important aspect of the story has not yet been discovered or reported on.  Then write a new article filling in those details or explaining the event or situation using you imagination. It can be realistic or completely farcical, just have fun with it.

    3.This one is the opposite of a modern remake: Take a modern day story, like something that has happened in real life in the past 5 years, or a story that takes place in modern or future times and try to remake to fit in a different era in history, in particular, a past era.  Write a synopsis for the story or a chapter.

    4. This one can be funny or romantic or perhaps even a horror: Take a much loved female character from one story and a popular male character from another story and write about the two going on a date.

    Or come up with some writing exercises of your own. Either way, have fun and just keep writing.

    Wednesday, May 3, 2017

    Afghans or stuffed toys

     When I first learned to crochet as a kid, I thought that serious crocheters must make afghans or tablecloths or wall hangings--big, grand things. I didn't start with big stuff, but I felt like I was working towards that.

    Fast forward many years and I've gotten a few afghans under my belt, but I start to realize I don't really like making afghans. They're big and heavy and take too much time and yarn. But I really like making stuffed animals. They're cute and little and fun to give as gifts, and I can finish them in under ten hours.

    I used to think that the only thing for me to write was novels. Anything else was sort of just a stop on the way to novels. But this past year I've dealt in short fiction a lot, and I've started to realize it's fun! I enjoy it. It's easier to experiment with because you can try and fail without writing 50,000 or more words before your realize it's not working. There are places you can submit short fiction too, which just makes it more fun!

    Both afghans and stuffed toys are valid crochet projects. Both novels and short stories are great in writing. Sometimes you just need variety. So if you're feeling burned out on your current type of project, try something new! It might turn out that you like making stuffed toys?

    Sunday, April 30, 2017

    Some Inspiring Thoughts from a Great Man

    by Jewel Leann Williams

    One would think that with me having a rare Saturday off, I would have time to post something inspiring and wonderful Well, I am posting something inspiring and wonderful, but it's coming from the mind of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.  I was thinking about this quote I read on Facebook and how genuine it is while being so profound.  So I thought, I need to just gather some quotes from this great man and just soak up the wisdom and grace from them.

    Without futher ado: 

    "Sometimes I think we misunderstand obedience. We may see obedience as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Perhaps there is a different metaphor that can explain why we obey the commandments of God. Maybe obedience is not so much the process of bending, twisting, and pounding our souls into something we are not. Instead, it is the process by which we discover what we truly are made of.”

    I love this because it reminds me that the purpose of obedience isn't some power trip God has, that we have to do what he says just because He's the boss. Our Father asks us to obey to teach us who were are meant to be.

    “Think of the purest, most all-consuming love you can imagine. Now multiply that love by an infinite amount—that is the measure of God’s love for you. God does not look on the outward appearance. I believe that He doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God love encompasses us completely. He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked. What this means is that, regardless of our current state, there is hope for us. No matter our distress, no matter our sorrow, no matter our mistakes, our infinitely compassionate Heavenly Father desires that we draw near to Him so that He can draw near to us.”  
    and related to the same subject:
    “Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God's love encompasses us completely. ... He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken.”
    It's so important to recognize that we are ALL failures without our Savior, and that God loves us anyway. He loves us because He loves us--there's nothing we can do to change that.

    “What you create doesn’t have to be perfect. So what if the eggs are greasy or the toast is burned? Don’t let fear of failure discourage you.”

    There are so many more but I wanted to end with this one--I remember the talk where President Uchtdorf urged us to create. I think we often get caught in the delusion that we have to come up with perfection if it's going to be worth anything. This quote reminds me that much of what helps me grow as a writer, as a mother, as a creator of things, is learned in the doing--and that THAT is sort of the point.

    There you go, just a few of the many inspiring quotes from President Uchtdorf--- I hope that you feel a little more inspired for having read them.


     

    Saturday, April 8, 2017

    Subbing in the Rain

    By Lacey Gunter

    Unless you're that strange freak of nature that submits your first manuscript and magically turns it into a sale with the first person you submit it to, you will inevitable have to face rejection and the pain and disappointment that come with it, if you're seeking to get published.

    Let's face it, rejection is painful. It hurts a little less when the rejection is personalized and encourages you how and in what direction to go, but even that is still disappointing. I wish I could give you some magic formula for avoiding rejection, but if I knew one I would already be using it myself.

    When you know you're getting yourself into a likely painful situation, it's usually wise to take some time to think about how you can minimize or manage the pain. This is important when you are querying or submitting a manuscript because it's easy to get depressed or discouraged and throw in the towel before the fight is over. 

    If we think about rejections as rain drops and the ensuing disappointment and pain as getting wet, the goal would be to get through the rain storm as dry as possible. Obviously, we could use an umbrella, but to me the equivalent of that would be to just not sub in the first place, which would get us nowhere. So assuming it is just us and the rain, how do we get the least wet?
    There has been much debate about which gets you wetter, walking or running in the rain.  The most detailed research suggests running is better, but what matters more here is that both walking or running are going to be better than just sitting down in one spot and hoping for the rain to stop.

    So how does this apply to subbing?  If all you are focusing on is this one manuscript and getting it published, you may be simply sitting down and waiting for the rain to drench you in despair. You may get lucky and the rain storm will be short and the sun will shine on you and dry out your despair. But if you aren't, as most of us are not, the rain may drench you so bad you decide is it not worth the pain and hassle.

    The better plan is to get up and get moving; start on a new project, explore some new ideas, immerse yourself in a new story, or even a few. This way you are actively moving toward your goal. You have more than one prospect and a rejection on one doesn't seem quite so devastating.  Your chances of reaching your goals of getting published will improve and you'll have something to distract yourself from the pain of rejection. Plus, maybe you'll find someone else running in the rain and you can just run behind them and let them get most of the drops. 😜

    Wednesday, April 5, 2017

    Growth

     There's been a lot of talk in social sciences lately about the growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. The idea is that if you have a growth mindset, you feel like you are capable of changing and developing new skills. A fixed mindset suggests that you can only be what you're already good at.

    The subject comes up a lot in education, and I've become particularly aware of it as I try to teach my children various skills, like math and reading. Consider the difference between saying, "You did a great job. You're so smart" and "You did a great job. You worked really hard." Smartness feels static. Either you are or you aren't. So if that's why you did a good job, then there's little point in trying and persisting even when you fail at first.

    I have loved applying this perspective to teaching my children because I think it's crucial for them to realize that struggling with a concept now doesn't mean they always will. Today my child was in tears over skip counting, poor dear, so we stopped and I reminded her of how far she'd come. I turned to there beginning of her math book and talked about how she's started out just counting objects and circling the correct number. Now she does basic addition, can count and write large numbers fairly well, and has better number sense than she realizes.

    When we turned back to those first pages, though, and talked about how far she'd come, I could see her visibly begin to relax. She really needed to see that she was growing and improving. Once she saw that, I think it helped click for her that she could keep going.

    We talk about this perspective with teaching children, but I wonder how well we apply it to ourselves. When I look back at old writing of mine, I'm far more likely to cringe than to say, "Look how far I've come!" When we think about what we're good at now, do we think we'll never be good in any other areas? Or do we look at our weak areas and see opportunities for growth?

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