Countdown to Mount Hermon

Sixteen days and counting. Am I ready? Not exactly. I have my portable hair dryer, two completed manuscripts, and the beginning pages of a third. Is my pitch ready yet?

Oh, no.

I’m talking about Mount Hermon, my favorite writer’s conference. For me it straddles the fence, somewhere in between the relaxation of a mountain retreat and the trauma of a dozen back-to-back job interviews. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the life of a true artist. You have to be willing to continually lay yourself out on the examining table, if you want your artwork to be healthy, if you want your skill to grow.

But, ouch. It isn’t always fun. Especially for those writers who have the tender disposition of an introvert. Especially when it’s your word picture that’s being analyzed.

How do you survive a writer’s conference, especially a big conference where you can get lost in the crowd? What do you do if it’s your very first time?

Tips for Newbies:

1. Be honest. Everybody has a first time. Let the people at lunch or dinner know you’ve never been there before. Ask them what classes they recommend, what speakers they like best. Ask what they are writing. Get to know the people God puts in your path. They might just become lifelong buddies.

2. Take a break. You won’t be able to attend every class or workshop. Give yourself the option to sleep late one morning or to skip a class and go for a walk in the woods.

3. Realize that you probably won’t sell your manuscript right away. You might not sell it this conference or the next conference or the one after that. If you want to be a writer you will probably need to write several complete books before the first one sells. In the meantime, you will be meeting people, making friends, and continuing to improve your writing.


The Difference Between Cats and Dogs

This is what happens when you ask a cat and a dog to smile for the camera!


Remembering Northern Illinois University

About 30 years ago I hit a dead end. I realized that if I didn’t go to college I would end up like all of my friends, selling my soul to the factory. That’s sounds a bit funny because over the years the term “factory” has come to be a metaphor for something else, something mindless, something that kills you one cement step at a time, something that strips all the creativity out of an original idea by mass-producing it.

There’s a reason for the metaphor. Somewhere in this vast country of dreams-built-on-ambition there really are cement block mausoleums, and they stand waiting, hungry to swallow sweet skin-and-blood humans whole.

I know they exist. Because I paid my penance. I worked in several before I learned the truth—I needed an education to be set free.

I found my freedom in a local Mid-western college. Northern Illinois University.

The NIU campus occupies a large footprint in the small town of DeKalb, Illinois, especially when you include off-campus housing where a large majority of students live. The school supplies life to the community; it bristles with new ideas; it adds much appreciated spice to this gentle land that alternates between a jungle of corn in the summer and a mountain of snow in the winter.

I can remember walking across campus during cold February winters, clutching a mammoth art portfolio with both hands, sometimes sliding out of control over the ice when a chill wind blew.

On February 14, 2008, another chill wind blew, a horrid stinging wind of death blew across my former campus. And now some of those students are dead. Some of those brilliant, beautiful young people filled with hopes and dreams—enough to catch the world on fire and initiate change, enough to last a lifetime and pass a heritage down to grandchildren—well, they’re dead now.

And their dreams are gone. Blood stains on the snow.

These young people, full of hope, were looking for freedom and a new life. Just like I was 30 years ago. But it’s been stolen from them, as if their lives were wallets, just another commodity that could be taken so easily.

When did serial killing become a hobby?

Why would someone steal the hope and future from another person?

I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to know the answer to those questions. I’d rather know the solution. I’d rather have the cure. I’d rather have the magic antidote, the vaccine, enough to inoculate every person alive.

But even that wouldn’t turn this clock of death backwards. It wouldn’t heal the heart-wounds already inflicted on the survivors. On the parents. On the friends. On all those who knew and loved the five students who have gone missing, into the midnight blue of eternity.

On all those who hear about this incident and now lay awake at night, afraid it might happen to them.

Like I said, I don’t have the answer. My heart is broken too.

But I will weep with those who are weeping. And I will pray for those left behind.

I will pray today, and tomorrow, and for many days after this.

That all of our young people will be set free from this terror that stalks them on panther paws.

That God, the God of redemption, will minister to each and every one of these broken hearts; that He will give them whatever it takes to get through one more day; that in time they will all be healed.

And that our country, our people, our children will be delivered.


The Life of a Magazine Editor: Part One

The Editorial Calendar

Every journey requires a map, or in more modern terms, a GPS system—something that tells you, and everybody riding with you, where you are going and how you plan to get there. In magazine publishing, it all begins with an editorial calendar: that’s the map we use, it’s the outline for our stories and photos.

If you didn’t know already, consumer-based magazines need to appeal to two diverse groups of people. It is the editor’s hope that these two groups will discover one another, fall in love, and develop a lifelong relationship.

I’m talking, of course, about the reader and the advertiser.

So, I began putting my 2008 editorial calendar together back in July and August of 2007. Each month had a theme and a sub theme. My task was to come up with topics that would appear fresh and timely, even though each story would have to be planned for nearly a year before it would reach our readers. Each issue needed to be different from the preceding one, and also needed to remain within the confines of the magazine’s mission statement.

Editorial calendars can, and do, change as we work with them. Some items may be added, some omitted. For example, I have my April 2008 calendar below:

Victorian cottages: the Schagen cottage
Historic community of Victorian cottages
Diary of a Restoration
Historic house signatures, the stories left behind
William Morris, his books and art

When it came time to produce the April issue, one story was dropped—the historic house signatures, and one story was changed slightly, the article about William Morris.

This roadmap not only guided me when choosing certain feature stories, it also helped my regular contributors when selecting topics for the departments. One contributor wrote a column about cottage furniture (main theme), another about the history of the Kentucky Derby (sub theme), and another about the history of dog shows (sub theme).

The editorial calendar is extremely helpful for both freelance writers and photographers, as well. Your story idea might be a perfect fit for a certain issue, and if you communicate that in your cover letter or e-mail, it will demonstrate two things. First, you took the time to ask for and review the magazine’s editorial calendar before sending in a pitch. Second, you came up with a potential solution to the editor’s never-ending dilemma: how to fill all those blank pages.

If a writer had pitched me a story about shutters or white picket fences or window box gardens, telling me that this story could be a good potential fit for my April cottage issue, I would have listened. If he had mentioned that he had several sidebar ideas, like a list of places where my readers could buy these items, or a list of historic paint colors, or the top ten ways a homeowner can improve the resale value of his cottage, then I probably would have handed over an assignment letter almost immediately.

Questions about editorial calendars or what a magazine editor does? Just put them in the post section below.

Next Monday: The difference between departments, features, and special features, and why this should matter to every freelance writer.

So, stay tuned. Same bat time. Same bat channel.


Fiction Friday: February 8

This Week’s Theme: Flip a coin. Heads, and your character hates Valentines Day, Tails, and he loves it. Now come up with the reason your character feels the way he does.

The coin flipped through the air. Heads. Tails. Love. Hate. Such a human thing to do. Such a weak response to something as important and necessary as breathing. Sometimes I wonder if humans even have a heart, if they are truly alive.

I watched as my current victim-in-progress debated whether to call a young woman he fancied. A thick silver disk, stamped with symbols on both sides, spun through the air in a high arc, sunlight catching, reflecting; a heavenly mixture of silver and golden light, an almost magical and musical act. The coin finally spun to a halt with a chorus of bright ringing notes as it landed on the ground.

My human, my favorite Creature To Haunt And Torment, held his breath. Leaned over. Stared at the silver answer.

Heads. Tails. Love. Hate.

His answer, the one he wanted, stared back up at him.

It was almost funny.

Because the thing he didn’t know, the one thing he couldn’t possibly know, was that I was going to steal this dream from him. As soon as he would lay down his head, close his eyes and sail off into the land of dreams, I would take it away. I would burst it, like a golden bubble, lick it up like a bowl of melting ice cream.

And his dream of a life of love would dissolve. He would forget this Valentine’s Day Coin Toss. He wouldn’t remember his resolve to call Violet in the morning. The jeweler might phone him in a day or two, ask him about the ring that he had ordered and my sweet captive human would wonder what he was talking about.

Heads. Tails. Love. Hate.

In my world, hate wins every time.

About Fiction Friday
Technorati Tag
Another Technorati Tag

1. Spend at least 5 minutes composing something original based on the theme or challenge.
2. But, remember, no editing. This is to inspire creativity not stifle it.
3. On Friday, simply post what you wrote to your own blog.
4. Then come back to Write Stuff and leave the link in the comment section of that week’s Fiction Friday post.


The Life of a Magazine Editor . . .

Just a brief FYI for all my blog readers. Next week I'm going to begin a series titled, "The Life of a Magazine Editor." You may have already figured out from the photo, it all begins with a calendar.

The ever-popular editorial calendar.

For my first installment I'll be explaining how, why, and when we put together the editorial calendar; how it influences our stories and magazine content throughout the year; and what the editorial calendar means to a freelance writer.

I'll also be taking questions from the blog gallery. So if you've ever had a question you wanted to ask a magazine editor, now's your chance. Just post any questions at the end of each blog entry.

So, stay tuned. Same bat time. Same bat channel.

Today's the Day

On the Lighter Side: Part Four

Bruno was tired of all the "headless horseman" jokes. He'd known all along he was the real brains behind this not-so-dynamic duo.

On the Lighter Side: Part Three

Sometimes being a princess is just tutu difficult!

On the Lighter Side: Part Two

Fabio knew it was time to come out of the closet and express his inner kitty.

On the Lighter Side: Part One

Dressing to impress really works.


Somebunny loves you

Here's what the Complete New Owners have in the window at Village Pets. A whole bouquet of bunnies, all as tiny as your fist.

They're so adorable, I wish I could have all of them.


Crossing the Finish Line

There she is. All done.

Deep breath. Followed by heavy sigh.


Caleb, Mr. Gorgeous GSD, poses for the camera.

Both Complete and New

This is what I love about new technology. The ability to capture random trivia and share it with the rest of the world (that would be you, dear blog reader.)

My new phone has a camera. Yay.

So what do I see when I dash over to the video store today? Apparently Village Pets now has "Complete New Owners."

Not half-old, not half-dead, not some half-human/half-dog hybrid. No. These owners are complete.

And on top of that, they're new. Fresh out of the can. Not stale. Not even a little bit.

Complete AND New. I wouldn't have my owners any other way.

Weird Science

Looking for a new creature to add ambiance to your current speculative fiction story? How about a giant elephant shrew? Something that looks like a rat with the nose of an anteater. Mmmm. Sounds quite unique. Surely no one else will have one of those in their book . . . wait. This beasty-guy is for real. This is no animated bit of fur and rubber slapped together for the sequel to Stardust.

Listen to the description of the newly discovered critter:

“The cat-sized animal, which is reported in the Journal of Zoology, looks like a cross between a miniature antelope and a small anteater. It has a grey face, a long, flexible snout, a bulky, amber body, a jet-black rump and it stands on spindly legs.”

Okay, as cute as it isn’t, I don’t want to see that thing crawling across my back fence anytime soon.