Should you create an author website? Yes.

I’ll keep this one short.

Recently, I stopped waffling about whether or not I should create a website and did it. Or, rather, I paid someone else to do it, because I’m from that in-between generation that didn’t grow up with computers but now we’re forced to use them for everything and to be honest, we’re still a little disoriented. (I had a word processor in high school that was, for then, top of the line.)

I dragged my feet about it because I thought, well, I don’t have a book. I’ll make one if I get my collection published. In the meantime, I racked up publications one by one, here and there, in smaller journals and online magazines, anthologies and even on podcasts (two of those forthcoming!). I realized I had plenty to put on a website, BUT, even if I didn’t, it still would have been worth making one. Create a website for the writing life you want, not for the writing life you have? Something like that?

If you create a website, you are basically making yourself “findable” via internet search. You are giving people a way to contact you. You are creating a professional presence, so that WHEN you get published (gotta believe, right?), you already have that piece in place. When you get stories or poems picked up by journals, small or large, you can actually fill in the “website” box on the bio form. And if you’re a blogger (whether it’s shouting into the void or talking to a few people or to many), it gives you a handy place to keep posts.

One of my favorite things about having a website, though, is a thing just for me. I love having one place where all of my publications and little accolades get to live. It’s like a digital creative resume. An online scrapbook. It’s nice to see all of my work together–like the last, oh, decade and a half of writing and revising and submitting has amounted to more than nothing.

If you don’t have money to spend on a website right now, create one for free on WordPress or a similar platform. You can upgrade it later and update it as you go.

(Also, it’s worth noting that there have been very few days with zero website visitors.)

If nothing else, I bet your mom/partner/best friend/dog/cat will think your website is cool.

“Comparisons are a waste of time,” an interview with Ellen Birkett Morris

Award-winning author Ellen Birkett Morris, whose titles include Lost Girls, Abide, and Surrender, shares here her philosophy on writing and the ways in which her career has continued to change and evolve, always coming back to words and their power. Find out more about Ellen, see her list of publications, and check out other interviews at ellenbirketmorris.ink.

Q: One thing I often remind myself and cheer on other writers with is this idea of determination and resilience–belief in one’s work, stubbornness even. Your own publications and projects are impressive in both their number and variety–you write and teach and publish in so many genres. How have you developed persistence? What can you share with others on the topic? 

A: My work is fueled by the fact that I really love to write.  Before I pursued creative writing seriously I worked my way into jobs in journalism and freelance writing that allowed me to write. Once I started to write creatively I learned how hard it is to get published and how much rejection was involved. I started by taking classes and working with a writing group. I made my work the best it could be. Then I reminded myself that each writer brings a different style and level of talent to the work so comparisons are a waste of time. I focus on what I do best. When it comes to rejection I realize that different editors like different things. It isn’t a reflection of my worth as a writer. If I get a no then I revise the work and send it elsewhere. No one is going to work harder than me to get my voice in the world, so I believe deeply in my work.

Q: Do you have a “home genre,” one you are more comfortable with than others? If so, which is it, and what about it appeals to you? 

A: I love the short story form the most and think I am good at it, but poetry is where I began as a writer. Poetry is my home. I love how crystalized poems are, how they capture experience through just the right image and in so few words. As a writer you have to bring the camera in very close in poems so you reflect both an outer world and an inner existence. Each poem is a beautiful puzzle. I have a new chapbook out called Abide from Seven Kitchens Press.

Q: What are your current projects or undertakings, and why are they energizing you right now? 

A: I am currently working on a collection of stories centered on the theme of home. Home is something we can all relate to and it can be looked at through so many different viewpoints.

I am also working on revising novel-length work. I just hired a developmental editor and I can’t wait to learn a lot from him about how to make my novel work better.

Q: If developing and writing and revising are one side of a coin, the other side is submitting and querying and promoting. That second side is the one many of us struggle with–either because we don’t have the skills or the inclination. How have you found a balance between the two over the years, or at least the tools and time needed to market and publicize your work? Do you have any advice for the rest of us? 

A: I had the advantage of working in journalism and getting used to seeing my work in print. I brought that same drive to my creative writing. As a reporter, I was on the receiving end of pitches and got to learn a bit about marketing. I’ve spent over 15 years doing contract public relations for a women’s foundation so that has helped build my promotion skills. I remind myself that my work won’t get published unless I put it in front of an editor. Once it is published it won’t catch reader’s eyes unless I promote it. That keeps me going. It is hard to find the time, but worth it. There are great resources on social media, especially The Writer’s Bridge run by Allison K. Williams and Ashleigh Renard. I also love “Before and After the Book Deal” by Courtney Maum.

“Not Yet”

Published by 50-Word Stories (fiftywordstories.com)

***

Where the creek bends is as good a place as any, pills in your pocket, short note signed. Cold in January, lonely too, but that feels right. Until you notice those bare stalks are forsythia, dried seed heads—rudbeckia? Ironweed? And you think you can wait, like them, for spring.

“A Bargain at Twice the Price”

Published by Etched Onyx Magazine by Onyx Publications. Honorable Mention in the Winter Contest, 2021. Onyx Publications

If you had known Beth would leave two months after the closing date, you never would have bought the shoebox starter home on Oak View Drive in a sleepy commuter town with one shitty pizza joint and two convenience stores and nothing to do on weeknights but hang out at the rat-hole townie bar drinking too much bottom-shelf whiskey. [Click link for more.]

In My Room: Guest Post from Lara Tupper

Lara Tupper is the author of A Thousand and One Nights, Off Island, and Amphibians. She is also an accomplished folk singer. Photo by Elaina Mortali.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

– Blaise Pascal, French philosopher

I learned, from an early age, how to stay in my bedroom. Not always quietly, but alone. As my parents read in silence or watched Masterpiece Theater, I closed my bedroom door and tried to draw shapes with crayons. I made a collage of one wall, taping aspirational slogans and faces from Guess Jeans ads—those pouty models of the 80s. I acquired dozens of journals and filled them. I listened to Godspell and A Chorus Line on a record player from Sears and memorized every note. 

I was an only child, as you may have guessed. Was I lonely? Other children confused me. When forced to interact at school, I didn’t understand their jokes or secret handshakes. They were skilled in starting friendships and chasing balls around in gym. I knew how to talk to adults and belt out “Day By Day.” 

And so my room was the most comfortable space. I was allowed to be introspective and odd there, excellent circumstances for a writer in training. I continued to play the musicals on loop—I couldn’t seem to stop. They brought out something the journals didn’t. Joy, I’d call it now. 

I kept listening through high school and beyond, though I understood my soundtracks were uncool. In my college music library I disappeared with headphones and scratchy LPs for hours at a time. I became a jazz fan, a radio DJ. Then I found the courage to audition for an a cappella group called Quasimodal. I started to think of myself as a singer. I made this part of my vocation too. 

Little has changed, by which I mean I’d rather watch tick, tick…BOOM! than anything else on Netflix. I like to unwind by singing Simon and Garfunkel harmonies with my husband on the couch. It’s the necessary antidote to a writing life. Singing with others gets me out of myself. It has to, because it’s a collaborative effort. 

It provides instant gratification too. When performing live, I can gauge the audience reaction and understand if I’ve hit the mark. Or not.

Writing is the opposite. It’s the delicious, maddening strain of working and reworking the sounds in my head until I have no sense of them anymore. And there’s no guarantee the words will be read.

I require both modes to sustain my sanity now. I need the quiet room to hear myself think but I can’t stay there, alone, for too long. I need the small stage, or couch, to let myself be heard.

I give this prompt in my writing classes: Describe your childhood room. There’s good material there. The secrets under the bed, the tchotchkes on the shelf, the view out the window, the sounds of grown ups in rooms beyond. It’s a space that reveals something crucial about us, if we care to look. It’s the basis of who we become. 

“We do have a certain responsibility to be truthful,” an interview with Kelly Sundberg

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Kelly Sundberg, author of the memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, (Harper Collins) about truth, bravery, and authenticity.

Q: What is the project you are working on now? How does it different from your debut memoir, and how has your craft evolved since then?

A: I’m working on a collection of linked, lyric essays that is tentatively titled The Witching Hour: Essays From an After. This collection is very different from my memoir. My memoir was mostly narrative in terms of style, and though there were flashbacks, the story generally unfolded in a chronological manner. The Witching Hour, first of all, is essays because I’m writing about PTSD. I don’t believe that any narrative of PTSD can be told in a linear fashion, because PTSD doesn’t unfold in any linear way. The essays use form to mimic the obsessive thought patterns that accompany PTSD. There is a lot of repetition and circling back. One essay is an erasure of my ex-husband’s apologies that he wrote to me. Another one is about single parenting, and it’s written entirely in couplets. Accompanying the essays are artifacts and snippets from my life. It’s a weird book, but I think it’s good weird. I haven’t seen anything else quite like it. I think my craft is deepened and more sophisticated in this book. I’m really excited by what I’m doing in it, and it’s almost ready to send out. My biggest dream for this book is that it finds a publishing home where it’s really cherished and allowed to be the book that I dreamed it would be. I worried a lot about sales with the first book (even though folks advised me not to), and that worry didn’t serve me well. Worrying about sales forces you to completely project your hopes and aspirations onto something that’s out of your control.  I know now that all I can do is write the book that I want to write, then trust that it will find the readers it needs to find.

Q: You are known for being open and honest on social media. How does that relate to your work as a nonfiction author? Is that sort of radical honesty something that takes practice, like a tool to keep sharp?

A: I am known for being open and honest on social media, and though I’m not sure that’s always served me well, it is who I am. When I was in an abusive marriage, I had to keep a lot of secrets. I kept secrets to protect my ex, myself, my child, and because of shame. What happened is that my physical body got ill. I genuinely believe that secrets are like poison. Since then, I’ve committed myself to truth telling and to being my authentic self as much as possible. What that means is that I’m radically honest, even if that hurts me or puts me in a bad light. Ultimately, I’d rather have people in my life who like me as I truly am than people in my life who like a mirage of what I want to be. I mean, I’m not saying that I never lie. That would be completely disingenuous. What I’m saying is that I’ve identified honesty as a value that I care about, and I work very hard to live by my values.

I will say that the nonfiction world is small, and I think that all of us know of certain writers who embellish or are “truthy” or who outright lie, and that frustrates me a lot because folks in the community just kind of step aside and watch it happen. It’s easier to keep the peace than to speak out, you know? As nonfiction writers, I think that we do have a certain responsibility to be truthful, and if you’re not able to be truthful, then why not just write fiction?

I think it’s important to note that, because of my history, I have a genuine and sincere belief in accountability culture. I believe that folks should be held accountable, whether that’s through a call-out or a call-in, but I’m not some kind of vigilante. I’m someone who was harmed by an individual, then harmed even more by the people who covered for and/or defended him. I have a personal stake in this. I worry sometimes that folks think I’m inflexible or judgmental. I expressed this worry to a friend recently, and she said, “Kelly, you’re very generous and allow folks all kinds of room to be human. You just draw the line when it comes to liars and abusers.” I found some consolation there because I’m human, and I’ve harmed people in ways that sometimes keep me up at night. No one is perfect, and I’m not even close. But because of my history, I have to draw some lines for myself.

Q: Your essay and memoir topics often inspire others to share their stories with you, AND you’re a writing instructor who reads a lot of student work. How do you maintain your emotional boundaries and your empathy? How do you avoid burnout? 

A: Oh man, Wellbutrin? I don’t know that I have an answer for that question. The truth is that I don’t have great emotional boundaries. I cry in workshop when my students read something hard. I cry at home when I’m reading their essays. I feel for them. I wish that I could adopt some of them. I’m an instructor, and my job is to help their writing get better—not to fix their lives—because what I’m not is a therapist. Still, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it all in my heart and deeply wish that I could step in and help. I do help in the ways that I can. I listen, I offer advice that’s within the realm of my experience, and I make referrals to mental health providers when necessary. My classroom environment is very safe and inclusive, and I know that my students would back me up on that. And for every sad story that I read, there is a story of joy or triumph. I also get to see most of these students at the beginning of their adult lives, and I know that they are not defined by anything that has happened to them. One of my greatest joys is getting to see a student thrive years after graduation.

And as for burnout, it’s not reading student papers or holding their stories that causes me burnout. It is a gift to hold space for all of those stories. What causes me burnout is the world that we live in where so many of my students are not born into circumstances that are designed to help them succeed. Watching them struggle in the face of capitalism, institutionalized racism, ableism, etc., etc., etc. (while I struggle alongside them in many of the same ways), that’s what causes me burnout.

Q: Finally, would you offer some advice for those of us who are working on personal essays or memoirs? 

A: My advice would be to trust yourself and your voice. The best writers aren’t afraid to take risks because they trust themselves. If you take a risk, and you fail, you’ve still grown as a writer, and every risk gets you closer to success. It was when I really trusted myself to explore and experiment and question in my writing that it bloomed into something I was proud of. And honestly, trusting yourself and your ability to fail and come out alive is good advice for just about anything.

Writing resolutions: yes or no?

We’re two days into the new year. We’ve all seen the memes–walk quietly, don’t claim this will be your year, don’t tempt fate, it can always get worse, etc. We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, and we were disappointed. So.

We’ve also all seen the range of social media posts about resolutions–why they are helpful, and why they are terrible, and the folks in the comment sections are really feeling some feelings. So.

Where do you fall? Are you making any resolutions this year, particularly for your writing or reading or research?

A while back, a friend of mine said she doesn’t call them “resolutions,” because she thinks there is a succeed/fail dichotomy inherent in the term. A resolution is a promise, and you either keep a promise or you don’t. Instead, she sets New Year “goals,” which are a little more malleable. You work toward goals, you make progress toward goals, and goals are adjustable. The “reaching for” is the whole point. I love that, and though I also use the word “resolutions,” I think of them as goals–as long as I make progress, I have nothing to beat myself up over at the end of the year.

This year, some of those goals are vague, and some are more specific. I want to write more, and I want to work on getting 100 rejections (and so submitting my butt off). Credit for that last idea goes to Kim Liao at LitHub. I also want to finish my story collection and start sending it off to whole-manuscript contests and publishing houses that don’t require an agent (I’ve heard from other writers that it’s an extraordinary feat to get an agent with a story collection; my energy is likely better spent elsewhere). I’m signed up for an awesome class in February (Feminist Horror with Lindsay Merbaum), and in June, I’m taking myself on a five-day writing retreat at a cottage near a lake. I want to read at least one book each month and lift up other writers whenever possible. I also want to post to each of my blogs twice per month, with one of those being an author interview or guest post. And I’ll keep tracking my submissions, fees, and responses, so I can compare 2022’s numbers to those of 2021.

I know now that I will reach some of those and not reach others. But that’s fine. I’ll be reaching all year.

When you can’t write or revise, read.

This will be a short one, because I’m feeling flattened and hollowed out. It’s the endless pandemic with its grief and worry; it’s the end of a tough semester throughout which I juggled too much and burnt myself out; its the approaching holidays with their stressors and reminders that my mom is dead and my family is scattered. Blergh.

So, now that I have some time to get a bit of writing and revision in before the start of the spring semester, I find myself with no energy to do so. Creative thoughts seem to run, head first, into a brick wall. My brain is a blank Word document, complete with blinking cursor. And that makes me feel like a bad writer–not the quality of my writing, but bad as in not dedicated enough to my craft. I don’t get up early or stay up late to write. I don’t have a day in the week set aside for it, though I keep meaning to do that, to make a schedule and stick to it.

Instead, I have been reading. Reading for fun (mysteries), reading for work (excellent manuscripts for Leapfrog Press), and reading my own works-in-progress. I’m feeding all of these words into my subconscious. Or that’s what I think I’m doing. Hoping that something will click, that I will come up with an idea for a way to remedy a problem in an existing draft (I’m talking about you, ghost story). And I think it’s a not-that-unlikely possibility.

I wrote a story in grad school that I loved and that hasn’t worked ever. I love the characters and the setting. I love the narrative voice and the dialogue. I even love the plot. It’s basically a one-sided conversation in the present moment, narrating events that are also happening on the same timeline, but a step behind; so on Monday, the speaker is explaining what happened Saturday, etc. It has always been clear in my mind, but on the page, it’s a damn mess, and no one knew what was going on. Recently, I read it again, just for fun, and got an idea. Why not give it a really obvious structure? Label the days? Indicate the speech of another character, the side of the conversation we don’t get to hear? And I may have solved it; I may have pulled this story back from the clutches of story death. Then again, maybe I didn’t; maybe it’s too much of a schtick, too gimmicky. Or too odd for the collection I’m working on, since it’s the only story with a weird structure. The only way to tell is to workshop it and find out.

Okay so this wasn’t that short. Oops. Back to my point, reading is always a part of writing, so if you’re doing that, you’re not doing nothing for your craft.

Here’s hoping that all those words I’m feeding into my soggy, tired brain will arrange themselves into good ideas I can put on a page, and soon.

So you think your story is done? Think again.

I have a story that I thought was done six months ago. I had read it again and again. Pinched and revised. Friends read it. I workshopped it. And I sent it out to contests and submitted it for publication–most recently, to a contest I felt pretty good about*. (Not that that meant I had a chance, but, you know how it is. Good feelings are worth something.)

Then, I was thinking about that story a couple weeks ago, and read it that night. I found myself making line edits. Little cuts–a word here or there. And then I realized that it had a couple bigger issues–it needed a change of dialogue here, a rearrangement of action there (“shuffled” instead of “stepped” type stuff). And the next day, while reading it for the 80,000th time, I was HORRIFIED to discover a major plot hole. Huge. A truck-sized plot hole that I had overlooked again and again.

It was a throwaway line on page two that got me–an offhand reference to a character’s son. He didn’t come up again. He didn’t matter. Except that he really, really did. Because–and don’t worry about the context–what kind of son leaves his 90-year-old mother to clean her own gutters if he lives close by? Why would he never come around? And that made the whole second half of my story kind of unbelievable. Not in a good way–I mean it lost its verisimilitude. It didn’t make sense.

The fix? Get rid of the son.

I laughed at all of this, along with nearly (but not) crying, because that same week, my Intro to Creative Writing students were focusing on revision: all the experiments a writer can do with their stories, all the questions they can ask themselves, all the possibilities they can open up.

I’ve always said to them, truthfully, that I practice what I preach, but that week, I lived it in real time. I told them all about my mistake and my dismay at its discovery–no delusions of grandeur here–and how it reminded me that sometimes, what we need most in the revision process is time. To let something sit for a while, in the proverbial drawer, until we’re ready to take it out again and see what we didn’t before.

Also, it made me think, “Damn. What else did I call ‘done’ too soon?”

I went back to my desk to find out.

*Update on this: After I first drafted this post, I decided there was no harm in reaching out to the editor of that contest, asking if I could swap the file for an updated one. He hadn’t yet opened the submission, so he allowed it! It’s still “in progress” on Submittable.

The Elpis Pages FEAT “What’s Left”

Bringing together poetry, short stories, flash fiction, creative nonfiction, essays, and more from self-identifying women worldwide, these pages explore the nuanced complexity of womanhood.

Whether it be a howl or whisper, these women are using their voices however they can.

Sometimes all we have is hope.

Read more here.

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