Best Websites for Writers

By Vanessa Pesa

Writer’s Digest had a useful little article called “101 Best Websites for Writers” recently. I ran through it and pulled out a few especially helpful sites for our busy writers out there juggling full time professions with their part time authorial dreams.

First up is Evil Editor. Don’t let it fool you; this site is not evil at all. It provides much-needed tough love advice on crafting queries, synopses and the beginning chapters of your book.

Grammar Girl is another great website to keep in your back pocket. Mignon Fogarty has created this website to help with all sorts of difficult grammar dilemmas. The website offers podcasts, tips on punctuation, word usage and even developments on the English language.

If you’re an author that needs mentoring in novel writing, check out Helping Writers Become Authors. The site is separated into five sections: Characters, Writing Life, Writing Inspiration, Structuring Your Novel and Editing Your Novel. Anything you could possibly need is right at your fingertips, and it’s well organized so there’s no hassle of searching.

If you’re ready to start publishing, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing could have some tips for you. Author JA Konrath gives insight on how to become a successful genre writer, whether through the traditional publishing route or by self-publishing.

Word Serve Water Cooler serves as an online community of agented authors sharing tips and tricks to help novice authors reach their publishing goals.

Another great site to gain some online support is Wow! Women on Writing. Here women authors stimulate creativity at all stages of the writing process. There are also critique groups, writing prompts and even a list of upcoming writing retreats.

If you’re on the hunt for agents or publishers, stop in at querytracker.net.  Here you can, as the title suggests, track submission progress as well. There is an accompanying blog for publishing tips that’s worth a look too.

The final useful site is the Coalition for Independent Authors. This is dedicated to self-published, independent authors with the goal of promoting their books. It’s a great way to network with other writers while getting some great exposure for your work.

Hopefully some or all of these will help out our ambitious writers out there!

Local Author Series: Lesléa Newman

Local Author Series: Lesléa Newman

By Vanessa Pesa

Lesléa Newman says her hero, Barbra Streisand, never learned to type because Streisand never wanted to have a fallback plan; if she had no Plan B, she’d have to succeed as a musician. As a 59-year-old, full-time writer, Lesléa has no fallback plan either. If something isn’t working, she fixes it.

A normal day for Lesléa starts at about 5:30 in the morning, when her cat wakes her up. She begins writing as a top priority, and if she is inspired, she can continue for the entire day. Depending on her schedule, deadlines or traveling commitments, this is not always possible.

Lesléa’s first love is poetry, but luckily she doesn’t have to choose just one genre and has written fiction, personal essays, the entire gamut of children’s literature and novels in verse. One novel in verse that is extremely powerful in message is titled October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.

Matthew was a young gay man in Wyoming who was lured into a truck and driven into the country, where he was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. He passed away on Oct. 12, 1998, five days after this traumatic event. Lesléa was the keynote speaker for a gay-awareness event during this same year, and her collection of poetry explores this subject deeply.

Exploring subjects that catch her interest is one of Lesléa’s favorite areas of focus in her work. This includes matters of the heart. Her new collection of poetry, I Carry My Mother , explores her mother’s illness and death and how Lesléa has carried on without her. This selection of poems, she says, is very accessible to readers, and this is very important to her. She believes that there is no point to poetry if the reader cannot understand and connect with it.

Old composition books mark Lesléa’s first memories of writing, as a small child scribbling poetry in her spare time. Her first big break came when she was published in Seventeen Magazine in 1976 as a teen. It was her first paid job, and she has been publishing ever since. She has always been equally passionate about writing poetry and publishing her work, sending her work out for publishing early in her career. She has published 65 books.

In addition to writing, Lesléa also mentors students in a low-residency MFA program at Spalding University and privately. She is very proud to say that one of her private students, Kwame Alexander, recently was awarded the Newbury Award for a novel they worked on together, titled The Crossover.

When her career was just starting, Lesléa taught 10-week writing workshops called “Write from the Heart.” Due to her success with Heather Has Two Mommies and immense travelling, she needed to step back from the workshops and now teaches students individually as it is more sustainable for all parties involved. She says she learns a great deal from this; it feeds the writing machine, and she looks at it as a vocation and avocation at the same time.

Lesléa says that to conjure up the initial kernel of an idea is a challenge, but once she has it, she pesters it to death, working it into fruition. She says that these ideas come from all sorts of places: anywhere from waking up in the morning with a sentence in her head to being inspired by other writers’ work. She believes  that “Good writers borrow; great writers steal” (the quote is attributed both to T.S. Eliot and Oscar Wilde) and frequently “steals” forms made famous by other writers, infusing them with her own content to come up with something new.

Lesléa also travels frequently for her work, doing local readings as often as she can. Yesterday, she read from Heather Has Two Mommies at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She feels that this is a good thing to do with kids that have two moms on a weekend dedicated to dads. She will also be at the Greenfield Public Library in October for a reading of I Carry My Mother. If you’re interested in finding out more about Lesléa you can visit her personal website here and you can sign up to receive her newsletter here.

Unplugged

Unplugged

By Janice Beetle

I am aware that I have an addiction to my iPhone.

At the end of a weekday, it is difficult (sometimes impossible) to separate from work with my iPhone close at hand, announcing, with its bloops and bleeps, each new email and voice mail. I tend to check it the way a new mother checks an infant, searching for the answer to the question, “Is everything okay?” or “It’s been five minutes, have I missed anything important?”

While driving, I’ve been known to toss my iPhone in the back seat because I know I can’t resist the urge to check my inbox.

This is unhealthy. I know.

I am also aware of the deterioration that technology—hand-held devices in particular—is wreaking on our society and how these devices are barriers in our real-time family and friend communications. It actually frightens me.

I saw a video on television recently in which a 2-year-old greeted her mom at the end of the day not with a hug and kiss and a “Welcome home mommy” but with intense whining to use her mommy’s iPad: “iPad mommy? iPad? iPad? Please mommy?”

The show I saw this video on presented it as humorous. I thought it was downright scary.

Still, when I went on a Carnival cruise a month or so ago, I was terrified to learn I would not be able to use my iPhone to text, email or receive calls while away. I learned I also could not email or go online on my laptop.

I tried to embrace this realization with excitement and relief, but I was only anxious about what I would miss. I had FOMA, as my daughter would say: Fear of Missing Out.

I pictured my octogenarian parents, my older daughter and my boyfriend unable to reach me in an emergency. I pictured clients who needed assistance, unable to connect.

I pictured anarchy.

So I caved, and I bought Verizon’s international package for the one week I would be away, but the representative failed to tell me the addition of this global plan meant I could turn roaming on once I hit San Juan, Puerto Rico. So, I didn’t turn it on, and, thus, I did not have the ability to connect.

There was no wifi in San Juan, and when the Carnival cruise ship I was on came into port in St. Thomas on our first day, I was surprised there was, again, no solid wifi connection. Then on day three, when there was no wifi on Barbados, I was forced to accept the truth: I was unplugged.

It took a few hours, and then I was thrilled, and for the remaining five days, the lack of technology was bliss.

It was so relaxing to have no choice in the matter, to be unable to check email and respond. I had given my family the Carnival number in case of emergency, so I settled in to a world where the iPhone did not get turned on and did not need to be charged at night.

What a beautiful thing.

Believe it or not, no clients suffered as a result. No family members were traumatized, and I came home far more energized than I’ve been since I bought my first laptop in 2010.

I highly recommend a tech break, and it is summer, after all. When you go on your next vacation, leave your tech toys and tools behind. You will come back feeling so much better!

How to Respond to Rejection

By Vanessa Pesa

Janice has received a handful of responses to our queries for Unleashing the Sun, and unfortunately, they have all been rejections.

She heard such replies as “I just wasn’t completely drawn in by the material as much as I had hoped,” and “I’m not connecting enough with this project.” One agent was encouraging, though, saying “Many best-sellers have been passed on numerous times prior to being successfully published.”

Yet another agent, who responded just this morning, offered some context and information: “Our agency receives over 1,000 queries per month, and we only take on a few new clients per year. With the publishing industry being extremely competitive we need to feel a strong conviction when representing your work. While it is not for us, another agent / agency may well feel differently.”

Janice is not disturbed about the rejections as she is not opposed to self-publishing for a second time, but it got me to wondering what other writers could do when faced with such vague feedback from agents.

In starting my research, I learned it’s not uncommon for agents to offer a “yes” or “no” response only. Many individuals reassured me that agents will only infrequently give feedback on the work itself, that offering a critique is not in their job description. Agents are simply in a position to accept or deny.

So then, I wondered, how does one know what is wrong with the work, and how then to fix it? Here’s what I learned:

If you feel that your work has not been critiqued sufficiently, or that your query and manuscript may be lacking in some areas, enroll in a class! There are tons of writing workshops and conferences out there; it just takes some good, old-fashioned research to find them in your area and choose which groups would suit your writing style best.

There are also actual critique groups you can join, in person or online, so that other writers can take a look at your work. This situation is ideal because everyone is in the same position, likely in different stages of the process. Sharing stories, experiences and gaining knowledge from others is always useful.

There are sites online that can also be fruitful, such as QueryShark and Absolute Write, through which writers can submit their queries and have a professional provide feedback. QueryShark specifically critiques fiction queries in its own blog, so you have to be prepared to publicly accept what they tell you.

Finally, you can take the route Janice takes. If you feel confident about your work and can’t get an agent to buy in, turn to self-publishing. It’s a very viable option.

Submitting the Manuscript

By Vanessa Pesa

Janice and I have been toiling away over the submission guidelines for Unleashing the Sun, making sure each agent gets exactly what he or she needs, and amazingly enough, everyone’s standards are just a smidge different. I thought I would share with you a brief how-to on two of the most common documents they request—the query and the synopsis.

First up is a query letter; most agents want at least this to start with for a fiction submission. A query letter is designed to grab the agent’s attention and lure them into wanting to read your entire manuscript. It needs to be short and sweet, set up a bit like a movie trailer and is generally limited to just three basic paragraphs.

The first paragraph is the hook, a one-liner that embodies the essence of the book while roping your reader/agent in. The second is the mini-synopsis, in which the writer must summarize the entire manuscript in one paragraph. The final paragraph is the author bio; here is where you present your accolades, outline whether you’ve published in the past, and where, and talk yourself up in relation to the content of your manuscript to get you noticed.

Writing a query seems like it should take an hour or so, right? No. This is tough stuff! The limited space means that each and every word is prime real estate! Your query needs to be crafted in such a way that lures your reader in but doesn’t give too much away; you want to entice and not bore.

Keep in mind your audience for the letter is an agent—or agents—who have read countless query letters, so you have some stiff competition. Not to mention the fact that some of the agents only want a query letter, which means if this slim, one-page document doesn’t sell your manuscript, doesn’t knock the socks off of the agent, that’s the end of the road with them! Deep breaths, deep breaths.

I wrote a query letter for Unleashing the Sun that we then submitted to eight different agents. So far, we’ve had a thumbs down from four or five and no response from the others. With Janice in a state of limbo on the book—she’s working out an issue around one character in her mind—this is okay, but once we’re up and running again, we will hit the ground running—again.

Another document for pitching to agents is the synopsis. This is exactly what it sounds like, a summary of your manuscript, limited to one to two pages. It should be written in the same style as your manuscript, should introduce your characters and the major conflicts they face and end with the conclusion of your novel. Yes, contrary to popular (or at least my) belief, you do give away the ending. Agents do not want cliffhangers! Your synopsis should provide the agent with the full scope of your storyline to allow them full advantage to decide whether or not they want to take on your project.

Writing the synopsis for Janice wasn’t as challenging for me, since the second paragraph of the query was a jumping off point. Janice is sitting on the synopsis I wrote as she feels she needs to be in a “readier” state with the manuscript to send this off.

What has been most interesting in the submission process is seeing what each agent wants. The expectations are entirely different from agent to agent, and between fiction and nonfiction!

For nonfiction, the writer needs to compile an entire proposal, while fiction writers need only create a query for most. For fiction, some agents also request a brief synopsis and some want to see the first few pages of the manuscript, but most only want a query letter to start and will respond if interested.

There you have it, submissions process in a nutshell!

Local Author Series: Tzivia Gover

Local Author Series: Tzivia Gover

By Vanessa Pesa

Tzivia Gover spends her days navigating the cultural divide.

As a teacher of poetry at The Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, Tzivia works with teen moms who are mostly of Puerto Rican descent. Tzivia, a 52-year-old white, suburban Jewish woman of Northampton, Massachusetts, says that the teaching is mutual; that she learns from the young women while they learn from her.

Learning in Mrs. Towne’s House: A Teacher, Her Students and the Woman who Inspired Them is Tzivia’s newest nonfiction book charting her experiences with the women she educated in the first years of working at The Care Center. It also delves into the rich history of the school building, which was once home to Elizabeth Towne, also a teen mother and leader of the New Thought movement.

Tzivia has also published a chapbook of poetry, Dream House, which explores the various meanings of the word home. It is a collaborative effort, as her sister Joanne Yoshida contributed her artwork to the hand-bound book.  While Tzivia’s main genre is poetry, she also works with self-help and mindfulness with her book Mindful Moments for Stressful Days: Simple Ways to Find Meaning and Joy in Daily Life.  This book offers tips to make even the simplest task meaningful and includes meditation techniques and yoga practices. Tzivia also has an upcoming self-help book set to be released in December and is also working on a young adult novel.

She has been writing since she was about 10; she reminisces over a red, loose-leaf binder with the title Poams scribbled across the front, which she toted around with her and collected all of her work within. Tzivia worked on her high school newspaper, the literary magazine in college, studied literature and fiction at Hampshire College, and referred to herself as your “run of the mill English nerd.”

Tzivia says it takes an extreme amount of discipline to find time for her creative writing; she keeps her hours manageable at work to leave room enough to do so. She says that all artists need to balance paid work with their artistic work and find what works best for them personally to achieve that equilibrium. She is celebrating her 15-year anniversary at The Care Center, so she has evidently found her balance.

Dream therapy is another aspect of Tzivia’s career in which she conducts workshops and individual consultations as a certified dream therapist through Third House Moon. She also offers keynotes in dream work and mindfulness to empower individuals to access their own healing and wisdom.

If you want to get to know Tzivia a bit more you can check out her personal website here. If you’re interested in her writing you can follow her blog here!

Summer Reading

By Vanessa Pesa

These are some of the books Janice’s book group has read this year. We thought we would provide our readers with the list and a brief synopsis to give you some ideas to tuck inside your beach bags this summer!

Wild by Cheryl Strayed – Strayed’s personal journey across the Pacific Crest Trail as she grieves the death of her mother, divorce and her own reckless behavior, including her inexperience in her current situation, all in an attempt to take back control of her life.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – On their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, disappears. There are signs of a struggle, and Nick is the main suspect but maintains his innocence. Told from alternating points of view between Nick and Amy, this psychological thriller makes deciphering the truth nearly impossible as the scenes continuously unfold.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – Follow the true account of Piper Kerman’s conviction and 15-month sentence in a Connecticut correctional facility for a drug-related crime she committed after her graduation from Smith College. Kerman learns to navigate the foreign world while learning from the fascinating women she meets, offering a rare, yet surprisingly humorous, look into the lives of women in prison.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris – A fierce saga told in the voices of three Indian women, spanning three generations, starting in the present day and moving backward. A daughter, mother and grandmother’s stories are interwoven to come to terms not only with the past but to reconcile the future.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – Following characters from all across the globe, this novel delves into the ways that families nurture, love, betray, honor and sacrifice for one another, and how the choices made resonate through generations.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Combining fiction and fact, this novel takes the true account of the 1893 World’s Fair and follows a serial killer who used the fair to lure victims to their death.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett – Follow Dr. Marina Singh into the Amazon jungle as she searches for her former mentor, who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug. Singh will confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she battles the harsh and unforgiving world that awaits her within the rainforest.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – A fictional collage of dreams by Albert Einstein in 1905, while creating the theory of relativity, in which he conjures various worlds, each dream story capturing a different world.

Her: A Memoir by Christa Parravani – A memoir about identity, love and survival, Christa loses her identical twin sister and searches for meaning in this and ultimately struggles with her own will to live on in her wake.

Selling the Lite of Heaven by Suzanne Strempek Shea – Advertising to sell her engagement ring after being left at the altar by a man who decided to enter the clergy instead, a young woman meets Randy, a recently engaged prospective buyer who keeps coming back to see her.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple – Bernadette, a rockstar in life but a closeted agoraphobic, disappears when confronted by a family trip to Antarctica. To find her mother, Bee compiles official documents and emails to create this fascinating novel about a mother-daughter relationship mixed up in a crazy world.