Sunday, December 03, 2017

Balancing Act, Not!

“Balance is not always obtainable in every situation, however, we have the option to surrender our control over the desired outcome and live more easily in the present moment. This will result in greater peace of mind.” - Nanette Mathews

Last month, I intended to work on two projects. First, I wanted to complete last year's National Novel Writing Month project, a book of daily meditations about living in the moment called Eat Your Toast. I would be a NaNoWriMo "rebel" on two counts. First, by working on nonfiction and not a novel and second by completing an existing work instead of starting a novel from scratch. I would use the NaNoWriMo structure, attend the write-ins, and participate in the forums. My goal would be to write 50,000 words during the month of November or 1,667 per day.

Second, while doing NaNoWriMo, I'd hoped to continue submitting Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two to independent presses and contests. Although several editors have requested either the full manuscript or chapters, I wanted to keep marketing the manuscript while I waited on word from them.

But life throws curves. First, I got sick and wound up in bed for several days. Then we traveled for a weekend to a conference we had committed to months before. And just before we got home, our ancient dog died. Mr. Dawg, my running sidekick and co-star of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, had been sick with heart problems for nearly two years and we knew he was near the end, but the reality of his death broke my heart. The house felt like a tomb and I fell into a depression.

Then, one afternoon while I was writing, Ed texted me a photo of a 14-week old yellow Labrador puppy, the same breed as Mr. Dawg. Ed was smitten. I knew how hard puppies can be, but Ed and I both needed the canine energy. "Scarlet" joined our family and chaos became the new norm!

Bottom line? I was able to complete 50,000 words of Eat Your Toast, but I did nothing with Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two all month.

From this experience I learned a few things. First, I'm not good at working on more than one project at a time. Once I'd gotten my head back into Eat your Toast, I couldn't switch back to Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two. I'm hyperfocused, but only on one thing at a time. Eat your Toast took all my energy.

Second, to meet my NaNoWriMo goal, I had to go with the flow and find time whenever I could. This meant writing in hotel rooms and, after Scarlet arrived, working around her sleep schedule so I could focus without a puppy chewing on my shoelaces or the furniture.

And third, I had to celebrate my victory without beating myself up for not meeting my overall goal. I could not change circumstances; I had to adapt to them.

Now that November is through, I will return to Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two with new energy. I'm very excited about this prospect.

Are you able to work on more than one project at a time? If so, how do you manage it?

Friday, November 03, 2017

My Critics, My Friends

"Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." - Winston Churchill

I've spent the past two years collecting rejection letters from agents and publishers. If I were to print them, I'd have a fistful.

The generic "this isn't right for our list" letters don't bother me. Even the ones that say "memoirs don't sell" don't get under my skin. But when a letter is more specific and there's some possibility the agent or editor could be on the right track, I get twitchy. And that's what I need to attend to. The more twitchy I get, the more likely they are on to something.

I choose to believe that the vast majority of people in the publishing industry work there because they love the written word. But they are also bombarded by so many submissions that they have to make a quick decision based on their gut and their experience in the market. Do they miss from time to time? Of course! Remember Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It received 121 rejections before going on to become a best-seller. But more often than not, since editors and agents work in the field, they know what they are talking about.

My job is to not let this feedback derail me. My biggest critic is myself. As a child, I may have internalized my perfectionist father or a teacher with biting words, but now that I'm an adult, it's my voice I have to deal with. My job is to listen, thank the voice for trying to help me, because that's what it thinks it is doing, and figure out if there's any truth it it.

It's very similar to what I do with an agent or editor's specific response. I thank the person for the feedback and for taking time to respond. Few editors and agents reply at all. When one takes the time to write something more than "it's not what we're looking for," I thank them. Then I let my emotions simmer and let the feedback sit.

While I'm waiting for my jets to cool, I do something else. I might read someone else's work and offer feedback. I might submit to other agents or publishers who only want a proposal, a query, or a few chapters. That way, if I decide to revise, I'm sending parts that won't be changed later. Or I enter contests that have upcoming deadlines so I won't miss an opportunity. I stay busy.

Once I'm calmer, I look again. Is there truth in the feedback? If so, how can I incorporate it? I try to see the critic as a friend. I'm not alone in this endeavor. There are helpers all along the way.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Why Bother? Redux

"I write because I can’t imagine not doing so. Because in writing, I become a little bit more of myself." - Jeff Goins

Yesterday on Facebook I wrote, "Some days the world is terrifying. We write anyway." I can't fathom what it was like in the crowd at Vegas just like I couldn't fathom the scene in the nightclub in Orlando or the hurricane in Puerto Rico or the floods in Houston and Florida. The world is crazy. Life is crazy and some days I just don't know how to go on. But, I do. Writing helps.

I keep writing even when nothing makes sense. Especially when nothing makes sense. For me, writing is about more than recording events or making up stories or journaling my feelings. It is for sanity. I unload what's in my mind or work on something I've created or rant and rave or make up a story from scratch or tell a story I've lived or write down the ways I manage to thrive and something inside clicks. Something feels alive in a way that it rarely does at any other time.

I mean, why do we write? Or, more importantly, why do we write in the face of horrendous violence, climate change that threatens people we love, and forces of nature that make us wonder if the world will ever feel safe again? Why bother? This is not the first time I've attempted to answer this question. I come up against it a lot. I come up against it monthly it seems and definitely during times of political turmoil, world troubles, the pain of other people, and my own pain. Why bother? Because it's what I do. I am a writer. I write. I had a good friend who used to say, "Writers write." He died of cancer but his words live on. I hold on to them in difficult times. I hold on to them when I am troubled. I hold onto them when I feel lost and alone. I hold on to them when I am just about as blue as I can be. Who am I? A writer. What do writers do? Writers write.

So whether I'm writing about a unicorn barista living in the woods along the Olentangy Trail in Columbus, Ohio or about a woman who is having the same dream as a truly insane man she met in a psych hospital or about running a marathon despite the voices in my head that tell me it's impossible or writing daily meditations about staying in the moment when fear and doubt want to drag me into the past and future, I keep writing. It may not save the world, but it may save me.

If you're asking why bother? I urge you to write. Scream and cry. Wail and flail. Then sit down at the page and write. Write in the face of it all. Just put it out there. Put it in the words that work for you. Don't worry. No one has to read it. But if you want them to, all the better. It's your story, your life, your ideas, your heart. Pour it out on the page. Then choose later what to do with it. Just do it. Just write.

It may not bring you fame or fortune. It may not keep your job our your family safe. It may not save the world, but if you're like me, if you're someone who is a writer in your heart of hearts, then write. Good times and bad. Happy or sad. No matter the weather, write. Write because it's what you know how to do or write because it's what you're learning how to do or write because you just can't not write. Just write. It may save you too.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Reading Another's Work

“To write is human, to edit is divine.” - Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This month I had the honor of critiquing someone's novel. I read carefully and with gusto. I read for pace and plot and character. I read to find holes and places where it lagged. The author had done a lot of work so my job was easy. This isn't always the case.

What do you look for when you read another writer's work? Even if I know the person well, I try to distance myself and forget what I know about her. I tell the truth and don't sugar coat my responses. But it's helpful to be kind. If something's not working, I just point that out. And, I don't necessarily try to fix it. People who have read my work often make suggestions as to how to fix a problem. They want to help. More often than not, however, the thing they suggest is flat out wrong. It won't work for the story or it won't work for me as the author. I listen and note that there is something wrong in that place or near that place, but I try to find my own fix.

So how can you be more helpful to people who want you to read their work? I always find out how far along they are in the book. Is this a first draft? Is this their thirtieth draft? How long have they been working on the book? Is this the first year or the fifteenth? This makes a difference both in what I look for and how I handle the comments. I am unlikely to agree to read a first draft unless someone is just so stuck they need help figuring out if they have a book at all. And in that case, I read with such a gentle touch that most of my comments will be about what is working. I will apply lots of praise and, instead of criticism, ask questions. "What did you mean by this?" or "What are you trying to say?"

No matter what stage a writer is at, I always ask what they want. Do they want a line edit, fixing all the punctuation, or do they just want an overview of the big picture. I have a hard time not marking spelling mistakes, but I'll do my best to focus on the big picture if that's what they want. If a person is in later drafts, I'll dig deeper. By later drafts, the author has gone deeper into the work and really needs a heads up about what a reader thinks. Hopefully by then they have also developed a spine around the book. I won't be mean, of course. That helps no one. But I'll really focus on the honest truth.

It's so touchy. We writers have such fragile egos. We want help, but we mostly want you to tell us our words are lovely and that we should go have a cookie then send our work to anyone who publishes. It's hard not to take any feedback, positive or negative, personally. This is our work. Our baby. But we need to learn that feedback is not personal. It's about the work. That's a good rule. Take nothing personally. If only I could make that stick.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Word Carver Interview

"Technology gives us the facilities that lessen the barriers of time and distance - the telegraph and cable, the telephone, radio, and the rest." - Emily Greene Balch

Sometimes life hands you a gift. My most recent present came in the form of an email from Cynthia Rosi, host of the podcast Word Carver which airs on WGRN 94.1 FM asking if I'd like to be on the show. What an honor!

She interviewed me about my monthly email publication Write Now Newsletter, my time assisting Natalie Goldberg, my teaching of Natalie's techniques, the memoir I'm currently working on (Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two), and the changes I've noticed in the Columbus writing scene over the past fourteen years I've been publishing the newsletter.

Cynthia is easy to talk to. She's smart and asks good questions. I love that she asked whether I have a "tip jar" - which I do - making it sound as if I'm a barista in a coffee shop brewing a special drink for each of you every month. I hope you enjoy this month's selection.

You can listen to the interview here.

Monday, July 03, 2017


“Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” ― Henri Frederic Amiel

Thank you to each and every person who chose to support Write Now Newsletter during the hacking mess. The site is up and running and hopefully we're moving past this hard time.

If you haven't had a chance to support the newsletter, there's no time limit! The donation link on this page takes you to Paypal where you can pay with a credit card, bank account, or Paypal balance. If you prefer to send a check, just email me and I'll be happy to send you my snail mail address. Checks still work!

Thanks again for your generosity. We've received around $1,000 which puts a nice dent in the huge bill we've had for repairing and securing the website.

You folks are the best!

Friday, June 02, 2017

Please Support "Write Now Newsletter"

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill

I hate to ask for money. I cannot remember a time in the fourteen year history of Write Now Newsletter when I directly asked. The newsletter has been my community service, a gift to central Ohio writers since January 2003.

There have always been expenses. I pay for faster internet, jangomail email distribution at $25 a month, site hosting (about $100 a year) and the domain name ($11.99 a year). These costs add up, but I was always able to pay them.

Then my site got hacked.

Fixing it has been astronomically expensive and time-consuming. Here's a short list of the least costly items we implemented: website firewall and security monitoring system for $199 a year, new web host for an additional $100 this year, moving four related web domains for $50 a year, plus a virtual private network for $39.95 a year.

But I'm not tech savvy. So when I say "we," I mean my web person. As a consequence, the biggest expense was the incredible amount of time this very well-trained, extremely professional, uber-responsive woman spent investigating what happened, removing all sorts of malware and malicious coding, recovering my data, and getting the site back on its feet.

How much time you ask? SEVENTY-EIGHT HOURS! And I know she did this because we communicated while she worked. The bill was $7,800 including a discounted hourly rate and hours she didn't bill at all.

It was an awful hack.

If you enjoy receiving the newsletter, please support it by clicking this link. This unusual situation demanded drastic measures which resulted in huge, one-time expenses. I won't hold out a hat again any time soon. But I am now. A virtual hat.

The link takes you to paypal which allows you to use a credit card or pay from your checking account. You don't need a paypal account to use it. If you would rather mail a check, email me at and I will happily send you my snail mail address. I'm too paranoid to post my address anywhere on-line. It had been on my site, but we took it down.

I value each and every one of you whether you support the newsletter or not. But if you can, I would truly appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

How Not to Get Hacked

“Good advice is usually given by someone who was once a bad example.” ― Ljupka Cvetanova

As I explained in last month's blog post, my website was hacked. Someone accessed my Wordpress dashboard, began running some kind of storefront out of a secret page they had created on my site, sent fraudulent emails (a Nigerian Prince announcing your lottery winnings perhaps), and nearly crashed my site.

Since this happened, I've learned more about internet security than I ever wanted. Posts and articles about computer security had been warning me to take note for years. My computer guru had warned me. I failed to heed. Here's a list of things to help you learn from my mistakes.

1. Don't think you're too small: I thought since I was just a little writer in central Ohio, no big deal, I was immune. But hackers aren't looking for the next big deal. They don't necessarily want to take down the New York Times website. They may just want your internet real estate. Or they may just want to brag to their friends that they hacked a site. It's unlikely the hackers targeted my site specifically. Rather, they found a site (that just happened to be mine) with vulnerabilities they could exploit. That's what they were looking for.

2. Don't forget to change your password: While we can't be certain, this was most likely the point of entry. I'd had the same password since 2005. Yes. The same password "protecting" my website files for twelve years. This was a thing my guru mentioned, but which I ignored. Falling victim to my faulty thinking of number one above, I thought I was too small to be worried. My website hid nothing top secret or financially interesting. No one wanted my website, right? Wrong.

3. Don't choose a crappy password: Not only was my password old, it was lame. It included sequential numbers and was an abbreviation so easy to guess I'm ashamed to tell you what it was. And I'd used it on many different sites. Again, I just thought I was a nobody over here in the Midwest. Now my passwords are long and complex.

4. Get https: The next thing my computer guru did after we changed my passwords was to obtain an "SSL certificate" to make my site Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS). This provides encrypted communication with and secure identification of a web server. In layman's terms, it makes my site more secure.

5. Get Google Authenticator: Because of the extent of the hack and the number of attempts to access my site, we added a third layer of security. Google Authenticator is an app that links to your website. Once you install it, you will need not only a username and password to log into your site, but also a numeric code generated on your phone. It was relatively simple to install and as soon as we did that, bam! The attacks stopped.

6. Keep tabs on your website host: I'd used the same hosting company for many years, but was unaware this small company been sold recently to a much larger company. I cannot be certain, but I have reason to believe their servers were hacked. When asked about it, the web host said any hacks were my fault. Okay. I admit my mistakes for my site, but not for their servers. That's on them. So my computer guru and I quickly changed hosts. Not fun at all, but that too made an immediate difference in the number of successful hacks.

7. Don't access your site on public wifi: I love to write in different locations. It turns out that hackers love these locations as well. They have tools that can pluck your passwords right out of thin air! While I can still hang out at the local coffee shop, even if the coffeeshop wifi is password protected, I won't use it to access my site. Instead, I'll get my own wifi "hotspot" from my cell phone company.

8. Check your home router: Wordfence, a security installation for Wordpress sites like mine, recently published a post showing how tens of thousands of hacked home routers are attacking WordPress websites. They also provided a tool to let you check your home router.

After my website guru spent days and days doing the equivalent of hosing down my site and tidying the mess, we took the above steps to lock down security. I'm not a security expert so I'm sure there are many more layers of which I'm unaware, but I hope this list will help you avoid being hacked in the first place.

NITA SWEENEY is a writer, creative writing teacher, and editor of Write Now Newsletter. She lives in central Ohio. Follow her on Facebook! Subscribe here to the monthly newsletter!

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

The Things We Cannot Change

"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can/And wisdom to know the difference." - Reinhold Niebuhr

Write Now Newsletter, the email monthly listing of central Ohio writing events I publish, is late this month. I'm very sorry. It usually goes out on the third and takes appropriately three days to prepare. I spent most of those three days plus two more in bed with an "unspecified viral infection" aka a really really really bad cold resulting in a hacking cough, sore throat, chills, nasty nasal congestion, a screaming headache, and a fever that made my eyes blurry. (The urgent care doctor ruled out influenza types A and B as well as strep throat even though I thought I was dying.) After four days in bed, tonight I finally took a shower and thought I was ready to finish the newsletter.

That's when I discovered my website had been hacked.

I'd had a hint something was amiss last Friday when my page went blank for a few hours, but the company that hosts my site said the server had been down and the site came back up looking fine so I wrote it off. But tonight when I tried to log in and post the updated listing of writing events, the dashboard was not functional. Someone (not me and not anyone authorized by me) had been very busy behind the scenes.

Thankfully my trusty web person (and lovely individual) was awake and at her phone. She spent several hours undoing the hacks, setting up more security measures, and translating logs to help me understand what happened. She believes it was random, nothing personal, but it was complicated to undo.

So again, my apologies to my newsletter subscribers (over 1,800 of you!) for the delay. Thankfully I don't house any email information on that site so none of you are at risk. I hope you find things working properly when you visit.

And with that, I shall go back to bed.

NITA SWEENEY is a writer, creative writing teacher, and editor of Write Now Newsletter. She lives in central Ohio. Follow her on Facebook! Subscribe here to the monthly newsletter!

Friday, March 03, 2017

More on Revision

“That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.” - Kelly Barnhill

As I drove home from a recent evening run I'd done with my training partners, I noticed the body sensations I associate with a "good" run. My mood had lifted. My arms and legs tingled. My throat felt open and a warmth radiated across my whole body. Since I'm always writing even when I'm not writing, it dawned on me that I'm eleven (or more) drafts into a book about running (Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two) and hadn't described how this post-run glow feels physically. The next morning, adding this became my first task.

While I searched (and found) a spot to best place this experience, I discovered I had overused "feel" and "felt," words which don't capture the sensations I tried to convey. So I searched for "feel" or "felt" and when appropriate, dove deeper for more detail. As a result, "I felt sad" became "I couldn't swallow. My throat closed. The sun shone but everything still looked gloomy." It goes back to the old adage "Show, don't tell." Natalie Goldberg instructed us to "be specific."

When I posted about this revision process on my Facebook author page, a writer commented that she searched for "could" and replaced it with more active language. Back to the book I went and did the same. "I could see" became "I saw." "I could hear" became "I heard." Simple, but profound changes.

As I revised for "could," I noticed "very" and "really" were often unnecessary. So I searched for those as well and made more easy changes. With each edit, the writing grew more vivid and once I finished, the book had shrunk by hundreds of words.

I share this to show my revision process: messy, nonlinear, and often dependent on cues from others. I used to think I was flawed because my drafts require these kinds of changes. I also chided myself for being unable to revise from point A to point B to point C. Now I know that's just not how my brain works. The more I talk to other writers, the more I learn I'm not alone. We each must find our own way. I'm always eager to hear how others approach their work and often try to implement other artists' strategies as a way to ease my path, but I no longer judge myself for being unable to do it the way someone else does. Accepting my quirky ways, I continue my circuitous process.

How would you describe your revision methods? I'd love to hear what works for you.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Why Bother?

"The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time." - Henry Ford

Some days if I watch the news (which I rarely do) or read the paper (which I also rarely do) or hear from friends on either end of the political spectrum and all points in between, about the things happening in the world, I sink into depression about my own writing. As you know, I write mostly memoir. Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, the memoir I'm currently shopping to independent publishers, recounts my journey from mentally unstable couch potato to somewhat less mentally unstable marathoner.

Before that book, I spent a decade writing a memoir (still unpublished) about the last year of my father's life. I've also written about my relationship with my mother and about an unusual situation in which a man lived on our sofa for two years when I was a child. My drawer of unpublished manuscripts also includes three novels, all romance-ish, but none involving topics of great importance. So when I learn of things happening in the "real" world, I sit at my desk and wonder why I bother. With chronic depression and extreme anxiety, becoming too involved does not suit my mental health. I'm not going to take up political writing or letters to the editor. Is my writing a waste of time?

But it dawned on me that, if nothing else, writing helps me heal my own world. I'm transformed when I connect with another person through words on a page. In writing all those books, the reading I've done and the writing itself, has made me a better person. It has given me a sense of purpose when I felt I had none. It's given me a voice, forced me to think carefully about how I feel about certain subjects, and introduced me to worlds I would otherwise not know.

Hopefully, when the running book comes to fruition, it will also help others. As my friend, author Pat Snyder put it when I asked her why a publisher might want to publish my book, "You so believe in the healing power of running that you will bring to book promotion the same perseverance you showed in running those marathons." That's my intention.

But more importantly, this same theme is true of writing. I so believe in the healing power of writing that I will bring to my teaching and my publishing the same perseverance I have showed in continuing to write for twenty years with only limited success. It's not always about the product.

So if you're out there wondering if anything you are doing on the page will make a difference, ask yourself if it makes a difference to you. Yes, perhaps, like me, you hope to influence some people or to make a change in the world or at least entertain people and distract them for a bit. But more importantly, is writing saving your life the way it has saved mine? I'm pretty sure I know the answer.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

The Divine Detail

“Caress the detail, the divine detail.” - Vladimir Nabokov

I'm not much for New Year's resolutions, but I do take a personal inventory when the calendar flips to the next year. This year when reviewing my writing skills, I looked back over the rules of writing practice as set forth in Writing Down the Bones. Specifically (pun intended) Natalie Goldberg's admonition to "be specific."

A few of the beta readers who reviewed Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two noticed that my entries about running were full of sensory detail while other parts of the book lacked it. So my revision process has included finding those places where I drifted into vagueness. "Be specific" grounds us in the here and now. While we may be writing about something that has already happened, we should not record just what we think about it, but features and particulars to help the reader experience it as we have.

Yet I don't want it bogged down in description. Like everything, this requires balance. Narration helps move the story forward. But it must be grounded in the here and now, the place where we want the reader to be. Nineteenth century England? We need to feel the china teacup in our hands and taste the first sip of hot tea. Running along the Olentangy Trail? We need to smell the musty woods and hear the Olentangy River sloshing along beside us as we move through damp air.

As the author, I need to feel this myself. If I don't, I can't communicate it to the reader. And that requires me to slow down and remember the details myself. Only then can I put them on the page.