Writing Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops: Guest Post from Allison Hong Merrill

The blog took a spring break, but is back with Allison Hong Merrill, author of the bestselling and award-winning memoir Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops. Here, Allison tells us about the process of rebuilding and restructuring her memoir after receiving beta reader feedback, and shares some of her best writing tips. Thank you, Allison!

When reading a book, I like to see the hook, setting, character, and conflicts of the story set up within the first few pages. So I make sure to offer my reader the same gift.

Originally, my memoir, Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops, was written in a nonlinear structure. But several of my beta readers suggested that I revamp the entire manuscript and change the narrative into a chronological timeline, so I did. It was a huge undertaking. The manuscript went through twelve full revisions. On average, each pass took two weeks. And when I say, “I revamped the entire manuscript,” I mean I even changed the title. It went from Grafted Mandarin to Ninety-Nine Fire Hoops because the new structure is in ninety-nine short sections. But even after this major overhaul and subsequent edits, the first ten pages remained unchanged from the first draft to the published book. It’s because the inciting incident, setting, main characters, and conflicts of the story are established within those pages.

When writing a book, I like to do the following:

1. Imagine my book adapted into a film, then I write scenes and dialogue as if describing them from the movie.

2. Do book research and save images on pinterest.com to create a mood board for reference. For a visual person like myself, this method works really well.

3. I make myself a different writing-related promise and a reward every week. This is not a goal; it’s a promise. A goal is for reference, a promise is to be kept. Some examples of my promises are: write an hour every day, revise a chapter, create social media content. If I keep my promise that week, I reward myself. My top three rewards are: watch a movie, buy a cute notebook, sleep in on Sunday morning. If, for any reason, I fail to keep my promise, then I give myself a second chance in the following week to restore my integrity and try again. Sometimes it’s necessary to promise myself to practice the art of self-care. I’ll take a week off from writing to recharge my creative energy. I work with another writer as accountability sisters. We check in every Saturday morning to support each other and to celebrate our victories, big and small.

4. I’m a memoirist. To dive deeper into my memory, I keep a tin box of NIVEA crème on my desk. Its distinctive scent takes me back to my childhood years and, from there, I get to explore the past and find inspirations for my writing projects. Smell triggers memory. If you’re writing about your past, please consider keeping something (lotion, soap, shampoo, perfume, scented candle, essential oil, etc.) on your desk with a scent that reminds you of the olden days.

5. Because I’m a visual person, instead of setting a timer on my phone, I flip over a sixty-minute hourglass on my desk to help me stay focused on one-uninterrupted-hour of writing.

I hope you find these tips helpful. Happy writing!

Juggling WIPs

The view from my office window.

This is not trying to be instructional. This is more or less a rambling cry for help.

How do you decide what to work on and when, if you have lots of writing projects started? Especially if demands in your life are all grabbing at your legs like toddlers? (Some of you likely have actual toddlers grabbing at your legs.) I have to get a lesson plan ready for Intro to CW class at 4 today and proofread a typeset novel for my other job. But I’m distracted by thoughts of the last two stories I need to finish for my speculative fiction collection, and the poem that’s almost done but not quite, and the essay about writing I started yesterday that today I’m thinking might be garbage (and if it is, how much time I spent on it).

I also saw a sub call yesterday for ghost stories (Can I write one by the end of May?) and a horror poetry collection that doesn’t accept simsubs (Where do I have that one poem out? Must remember to check my sub list). There are several titles I’m trying to read before StokerCon, too, so, of course, add reading to the to-do list.

How do you focus? How do you organize your projects? Do you have an order of importance, and if so, is that by deadline or by interest? I’m excited about everything, and I love having a lot going on, but instead of doing any of it, I’m staring out the window.

Emissaries

Published on 50-Word Stories

Photo from Cornell’s feederwatch.org.

They first came during Covid, the only bright spot of lockdown, one brown head, one red, building their nest in a faded holiday wreath. Every morning I said hello and made small talk, maybe to remind myself I still knew how, and the house finches cocked their heads and listened.

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.

“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. 

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.

The Skill of Being Rejected

Pic: This is how I keep track of submissions. Low tech but effective.

I have found, pretty recently, that being rejected as a writer is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it.

During lockdown, I got back to work on my own writing, spending more time and energy on it than I had in years. Instead of finding the creative well dry, as I had feared, a couple of stories seemed to write themselves. I joined four friends in a Zoom writing workshop (we still meet). I made appointments with an excellent editor-for-hire, and we’ll schedule another session soon. I wrote and I revised, and then I wrote some more. I went on a personal writers’ retreat, renting a cabin in the Catskills with my wonderful friend N. West Moss for a few days, and drafted two new stories. For a while there, I was kicking ass.

In that time period, I also got back to submitting my work to journals and magazines and writing contests. I realized that the process energizes me–everything sent out is a chance that it will find a place in the world. Submitting stories (and sometimes, essays and poems) makes the process more real for me–it makes me feel more like a “real” writer, whatever that is.

And wow, did those rejections roll in. And they keep rolling in. And honestly, yep, sometimes they stung, and sometimes they still do. But they sting less all the time. I shrug at them now, mostly. If I get two in a day, I laugh. It sucks, even now, if I get a rejection on a submission I thought was a good fit–like if my story matched the theme, or aligned with the goals of the publication.

A few came close. “Joiner,” a story, was a finalist in the New Millennium Writing Awards. A flash piece, “Rest for the Wicked,” got a lovely rejection from the Parsec Ink contest, saying it made the longlist. Fatal Flaw rejected two poems, but encouraged me to send more (I will!).

I’ve gotten acceptances, too. For the year of 2021, my record is 5 acceptances, 43 rejections, with a handful of submissions still out. Most recently, The Elpis Pages, a print collective (with profits going to Planned Parenthood), took my essay “What’s Left.” That will be out this month. Then, I got an email from Last Girls Club, saying my story wasn’t a fit for their magazine, but could they read it on their podcast, Blood & Jazz? (The answer of course was YES.)

A lot of what has gotten accepted from 2020-2021 had been in the works for a while. Like a long-ass time. A poem that Blueline Magazine took (“Bargain,”) had existed in various forms for over seven years. “Tourist,” a flash essay Anti-Heroin Chic published, was first drafted about three years ago. Every time those pieces (and others) got rejected, I would take another look at them. Tinker. Fiddle. Tighten them up. And, not surprisingly, they got better. And then they found homes.

I was inspired by the article “Why you should aim for 100 rejections a year” from LitHub by Kim Liao. I was also motivated by a Facebook thread posted by the editor of a small press, which turned into a big conversation about why women tend to submit less often than men. (Spoiler: it’s because patriarchy.) The main idea with both of those? Submit, submit, submit.

I look for opportunities on various Facebook pages, through Reedsy, Newpages, and Erica Verillo’s blog, Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity. I don’t mind submissions fees–publications are expensive to run and print, and need to pay for staff and software, etc.–but I don’t break the bank. I look for cheap and free submissions opportunities, too. I keep track of everything in a janky notebook–see photo. (I tried keeping a tidy Excel file, but that’s just not me–I’m a pen-and-paper gal at heart.)

In 2022, I hope to hit the 100 rejection mark. If I double my rejections, I might just double my acceptances, too. Who’s in?

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