Inspire Yourself with these 6 Themes

Huntington Beach, Copyright 2011 Shari Lopatin

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate NEXT WEEK with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Jan. 6, 2012

I’ve been on a creative binge lately. And for the New Year, I want to help inspire you, too!

I’ve been reading books and writing stories about some of the deepest, most profound themes I know.

You know, those deep, dark ideas that give a story its umph. That inspire us to reconsider our own lives. I’m not an English scholar, I’m just a journalist who also writes creatively … and who lives for stories.

To read them. To write them. To share them.

So I can’t tell you exactly why these themes resonate better than others. And of course, I can only speak for myself. However, I’ve noticed some themes inspire us more than others.

And these are them:

1. Family

As a human race, perhaps one of our strongest Hierarchy of Needs, is the need to belong. The need for family. Think Fiddler on the Roof, or Sound of Music. Family doesn’t have to encompass a Brady Bunch story. The complicated love between rival brothers can tear at your heart more than a summer romance. Or, think of an orphan who’s sought a sense of family throughout her life, only to find rejection time and time again.

2. War

If you haven’t already, go see War Horse. War is such a great setting and theme for any story, because it offers the opportunity for many smaller, underlying themes. A husband and wife can reunite after years apart, thinking the other was dead. A sworn enemy can suddenly become a best friend. What does war make us realize about ourselves, as a society, and as individuals?

3. Guilt, and Redemption

Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, tells us that in every story, something or someone must die, or be saved. The theme of guilt and redemption can take us, literally, to that place. What deed in someone’s past could drive that person into utter self-destruction … and what power or action could literally free them, from their own cage? If you’ve ever read The Kite Runner, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

4. Wanting What You Can’t Have

A blind man who longs to see. A woman in love with a married man. A father who would give his life to hold his son, one final time. When we hear stories of others longing for what can never be theirs, we empathize. Our hearts literally ache for this character, as if we’d experienced his or her pain ourselves (and often times, we have).

5. A Forced Life Change

I saw the previews to a movie called The Vow, based on true events. A married couple of five years are in a car accident and both fall into a coma. The wife awakens with no memory. Her husband is a stranger. However, his love for her drives him to try and recreate their relationship, with the hopes his wife will fall in love with him again. Imagine if tomorrow, something dramatic happened to you, or someone you love. Suddenly, you lose your legs, or your child goes blind. How would you, and your loved ones, cope?

6. Identity and Heritage

I once heard a true story about a Mexican-American woman who grew up poor and ashamed of her heritage. When invited to speak at a prestigious event, her mother sewed a traditional Mexican dress for her daughter. The young woman refused it, and instead bought her own. She later married, and refused to teach her children Spanish. Years later, after her mother died, she found the old dress in her mother’s attic, boxed away. This time, she broke down crying. Denial—or even hatred—of one’s self-identity can drive destruction of epic proportions.

Me, in college

WHAT ABOUT YOU? What themes do you find inspiring, lasting? What can you never read enough of, or write too much of?

Are we friends on Facebook or Twitter yet? If not, let’s connect!

Write What You Love & Forget Everything Else

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published Oct. 13, 2011

I just finished THE HELP last week. And then I read author Kathryn Stockett’s personal three-page narrative at the end.

And I realized something.

Kathryn didn’t write THE HELP to be a bestseller or a future American classic (which I’m sure it will become). She didn’t write it because she thought it’s what others wanted to read, or what she thought would make a possible award-winning book.

Kathryn wrote it, because the storyline was her life growing up. Her questions. Kathryn wrote THE HELP because she followed her passion. And the result is astounding.

Forget what everyone else says. What do YOU want to write?

Don’t write a story because you think other writers will find it to be literary genius. Don’t write an article because you think it’s what everyone else wants to read.

What are you passionate about?

Because when you write with your heart, with your passion, it shows. I could tell, reading THE HELP, that Kathryn poured her soul into this book, into the characters. I bet she cried writing it. I bet she smirked devilishly plotting it.

And you know what? She inspired me.

Here are just a few other books I’ve read or movies I’ve watched, where I could tell the author/screenwriter wrote with his or her heart:

  • The Kite Runner (book)
  • Great Expectations (book)
  • Almost Famous (movie)
  • Of Mice and Men (book)

If you don’t write what you love, others will know. They won’t feel your story, they won’t empathize with your characters. To them, it will never be real, it will never last.

MY QUESTION TO YOU: What are you passionate about writing? Have you ever caught yourself writing for others, instead of for yourself?

Are we friends on Facebook or Twitter yet? If not, let’s connect!

Turn Your ‘Ah Ha!’ Moments into Amazing Characters

This post is part of the Countdown Series on ShariLopatin.com, re-publishing my top “writing tips” blog posts from the past five years. The Countdown Series will culminate in a few weeks with the announcement of my business’ (Shari’s Ink) new arm, which will benefit other WRITERS!

Originally published June 27, 2011

When was the last time you had an “ah ha!” moment? Mine happened about two months ago, after I arrived home from work and found my house ransacked.

That Monday in April was the day I realized how much I appreciate my right to own a gun. You see, I’d called 9-1-1 (I was alone at the time) and frantically told the operator the burglar may still be inside my house. I was stuck outside–a young woman in the dark–with no protection.

The police took 40 minutes to finally show. And I realized, the only person who will protect me–is me. “Ah ha!”

For the first time in my life, I considered becoming a gun owner. If I were a character in your book or story, what would this moment reveal about me?

Use your revelations to reveal your characters’ truths

My blogging buddy, Leah Singer, wrote this great post back in May called, “My ‘Ah Ha!’ Moments.” Even though she didn’t refer to character development, she got me thinking: How can we use these revelatory moments to unearth greater truths about our fictional characters?

In her bestselling book, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” Anne Lamott said a death or a birth must occur in every story. Whether it’s the death of a dream, a physical death, or a realization (birth), you cannot have that dramatic conflict without either/or.

5 Personal “Ah Ha!” Moments to Consider

Yes, I’m going to take a leap of faith here, and reveal five of MY “ah ha!” moments. With each revelation, consider the story behind the statement, and what might have led to this conclusion:

  1. Just because I was thin through my 20’s, doesn’t mean I’ll be thin in my 30’s (unless I work at it).
  2. I may never work in journalism again.
  3. Sometimes, money is more important than dreams.
  4. I betrayed myself when I refused to accept my heritage.
  5. My family is more important than my career.

Notice, each one of these “ah ha!” moments reveals some sort of internal or societal conflict.

SO TELL ME: What have been significant “ah ha!” moments in YOUR life, and how could those experiences add depth to your characters?

Are we friends on Facebook or Twitter yet? If not, let’s connect!

Literary Agent Tip #2: DON’T GO ROGUE

Broken-Pencil-Hd-Wallpaper

Yes, I know this is in direct contradiction to my blog’s tagline, “Professional Rogue Writer,” but I refuse to go rogue with literary agents. Why?

Because if I don’t follow their rules for submission, they don’t see my pitch.

It’s that simple, folks.

  • If they ask for an emailed query letter with one sample chapter, don’t include the first five.
  • If they request all pitches go to a general email for query letters, don’t send yours to their personal email.

Trust me, this was a hard pill for me to swallow. I’m used to breaking the rules to make connections. It’s how I’ve met major magazine editors and pitched them article ideas; it’s how I’ve uncovered story leads from difficult-to-find sources. In fact, I can contribute much of my current-day success to going rogue.

But when I spoke to a director of submissions at a major literary agency in New York a few weeks ago, he told me this: “The better you follow their instructions, the better chance you’ll have of getting read.” In fact, he said circumventing the literary agents’ directions probably ensures they won’t see your pitch–and if they do, they may not want to work with you.

Following the literary agents’ rules shows humility. It shows your willingness to collaborate. Most of all, it shows that you respect their time.

And guys, I can tell you that I understand this.

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I couldn’t stand when PR people wanted me to write a story on their company, but disregarded my requests. I was always more likely to work with PR people who respected my time.

If literary agents feel the way I did as a reporter, then guess what? I’d better listen to their submission rules. And you better, too.

#####

Shari Lopatin is a professional writer, editor, and social media strategist who lives in Phoenix, Ariz. She recently finished her first novel and blogs about the lessons she learns while finding a literary agent, among other topics. Want to follow Shari’s progress toward a book deal? Then join The Readers Club! Sign up here.

My FIRST Published (Creative) Story! ‘A Call from Paris’

eFiction cover

 

[ Read “A Call from Paris” now!]

As of June this year, I am no longer some used, discarded toilet paper in the creative writing world. That’s right …

I’M PUBLISHED!

I know I’ve been published as a journalist before, but never as a creative writer. As an author. I kinda feel like Moses right now, after he descended from Mount Sinai, beaming with holy rays of light from his ears.

Of course, minus the white beard (or am I merely thinking of Charlton Heston?).

Anyway, I digress …

I was published in the June 2013 edition of an e-publication called, “eFiction.”

And my story is proudly entitled, “A Call from Paris.”

And yes! I made it possible for you to read! I printed just my story, then scanned it into a document.

Read ‘A Call from Paris’ Here!!

But be forewarned, my snarky, snide attitude does not carry over into this story. My creative works tend to be a little more serious.

I also urge you to consider purchasing the FULL June 2013 eFiction edition, which can be read on your Kindle or Nook. You can buy it here. It’s only $3.99, and you’ll read works from the other amazing authors who were also published with me. Plus, if you buy, we get royalties. 🙂 And who doesn’t want to support their fellow writers?

So please read my story, if you’re so inclined to make me feel welcomed into the world of publishing, share it with your friends, and then comment below and tell me your thoughts! You’re my first readers, so your thoughts mean a lot to me.

Have You Heard? New Social Network for READERS

If you’re a new author trying to publicize your book, a gold mine just landed before your eyes.

All you have to do, is reach out and grab the riches.

I’m talking about the new “inReads” social network, which celebrated its full launch about a week ago, reported GalleyCat. According to the article, inReads is a social network just for readers. They discuss books, they review books, and they recommend books.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

“After four weeks in beta mode, inReads counted 10,000 page views and 1,000 Twitter followers,” GalleyCat said.

Authors, right here is your target audience! You want to create buzz around your book? You want people to buy your book? Get to know inReads.

Here’s what I thought

I spent some time poking around the site to get a feel for this new social network. It reminds me of a blogosphere, with initial posts written by staff reporters (interview sessions and such). Here are the highlights of my findings:

  • inReads is a production of WETA, the Washington D.C. public television, media and radio entity.
  • The staff’s job (including contributors and advisory board) is to help the conversation along, but the community members are really responsible for driving it.
  • The platform actually has professional editors and writers (I kid you not, people with 25+ years experience in the journalism, publishing and corporate worlds).
  • It reminds me of an online magazine format, with more social and engaging aspects.

Bottom Line

inReads has the ability to be a trendsetter. And because it’s published by such a notable entity, that gives it credibility. It’s still new, and therefore, has the ability to evolve. Will I sign up for an account right now?

No–not yet.

I don’t have a book. But once I do, you bet your behind I’ll be diving–head first–into inReads and mastering it the way I learned Twitter, Facebook and WordPress.

SO TELL ME: Have you seen inReads? What did YOU think of it? Is it too traditional for you, or do you think the future of success lies in an even more social platform?

From Hot Journalist to Retail: Q&A with Author Caitlin Kelly

Ever wonder what those big-time New York City editors look for in a story pitch? Or how successful authors pulled off a great book deal?

Caitlin Kelly
Caitlin Kelly is the author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 2011), a memoir of working as a sales associate in a suburban New York mall. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, she has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Glamour, More, New York, Smithsonian and many others. Her first book is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004). She blogs at broadsideblog.wordpress.com.

Today, journalist and author Caitlin Kelly shares some of her secrets as a former senior editor for WorldBusiness in New York and a successful author of two books. Caitlin has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. She recently published her second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”  Briefly, here’s a snippet from her book’s opening:

My writing career had gone well from the day I graduated from college, whether I had a staff magazine or newspaper job or worked freelance. But by the fall of 2007 I was scared of the precipitous decline in my industry, journalism. I was also newly aware, after pneumonia landed me in a hospital bed from overwork, I needed a ready, steady source of cash,  something solid. And so I decided to join a populous, if largely ignored, tribe – the fifteen million Americans working in retail.

On a personal note, I can relate to Caitlin’s situation. The year 2007 was also when I left my beloved journalism job. That seems to be the fateful year—of the housing market crash, the journalism crash, and the start of the Great Recession.

So, here’s my interview with Caitlin Kelly. Hope you find some valuable insights in these 10 questions, as I did!

1. SHARI: You’re a veteran journalist, having written for notable publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Hartford Courant, and Glamour. Journalistically, what drew you to the topic of America’s retail industry–for a book?
 
CAITLIN: I was amazed that this enormous industry — $4 trillion, 15 million workers, the nation’s third-largest and its greatest source of new jobs — had not been examined in book form in any serious way. There have been several excellent books on low-wage labor, but none focused exclusively on retail. Once I had spent 27 months working at its lowest level for a large and well-known retail company, I realized what inequities and absurdities the industry contains. They spend millions on new technology and software but most refuse to pay their front-line workers — who drive sales — decently. Since we’re a nation of shoppers, I wanted to explore this subject in depth.
 
2. SHARI: “Malled” is your second book. Your first was “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I have several writers new to the publishing world who follow my blog. What tips can you give them about the process of finding a literary agent and publisher?
 
CAITLIN: It’s not simple, quick or easy! Finding an agent means finding someone whose skill, experience, ambition, personality and stable of other writers matches your vision of what you hope to accomplish. My agent on Blown Away, William Clark, was then — in 2000 when we first met — fairly new to agenting and was eager to build his brand, so that helped me. He, like my current agent, Kathleen Anderson, was also extremely dedicated to the project — both books received 25 (!) rejections each before finally selling to major NYC publishers. You need someone who really cares deeply about the work, and gets what you are about: this is not a game for the easily deterred or fantasists. You must find someone who is utterly straightforward with you about every aspect of the process and demands excellence and professionalism from you. It helps if you like them personally as you must trust them with your work.Find an agent by: reading acknowledgments in books similar to yours (they always thank their agent); attending annual writers’ conferences like the ASJA where members can meet and pitch agents face to face; networking well and generously with accomplished writers who may share the name of their agent (or not) with you. The agent will find the publisher, not you. 
 
3. SHARI: You spent time working as a senior editor for WorldBusiness in New York City. From an editor’s perspective, what do you look for in a pitch from a freelance writer? What will make you choose one story (and writer) over another?
 
CAITLIN: You want a feeling of authority, why this writer really knows the issue and can handle it well and stylishly. I want to see that they have a strong news sense and feel confident they will be able to both report accurately and deeply and write well, which is a rare combination. I would almost always choose a former or current newspaper writer over someone with no news background. There is too much PR puffery out there, and experienced journos know to ignore it and dig much more deeply when necessary. I’m interested in writers who think outside the margins, who may have lived a less conventional life, as they may ask different questions and see things from a less predictable perspective. I want someone who is culturally sophisticated and who understands the need for diversity when sourcing, for example.
 
4. SHARI: On your website, you have a whole list of “work tips” for writers. What are your top three favorite tips, and why? 
 
CAITLIN: Hard to choose! In general: 1) expect and learn to handle rejection. It’s normal and awful and expensive and you are going to run into it at every stage of your career. Set aside savings for slow times and keep your ego in a box. 
 
2) Remain (or become) intellectually voracious. Read fiction and history and biography and magazines and blogs and websites beyond what feels cozy and familiar or in your current specialty areas. Read Canadian and British publications and those in other languages to remember that we all do not see the world in the same way. That alone will set you apart from many of your competitors.
 
3) Rest, recharge, relax. We tend to run ourselves at an industrial speed and intensity that can easily lead to fatigue and burnout, or worse. Make time for exercise, friends, patting the dog, long walks in silence. Creative work demands a brain and heart that are both open and refreshed regularly.
 
 5. SHARI: “Malled” has been written about by Entertainment Weekly, the Financial Times of London, and the Associated Press, among others. So tell me, what is “Malled” really all about?

CAITLIN: Work, identity, class struggle, corporate greed. What professional status means, and what happens when you don’t have it. The true underpinnings of easy catchphrases we never really question or challenge: “shareholder value”, “global supply chain”, “operations management.”These are the underlying/overarching larger themes of “Malled,” beyond its many anecdotes, interviews and statistics. I’m fascinated by how we work, and the trade-offs we make and why we choose to make or accept them.
 
6. SHARI: You guest-blogged on the Harvard Business Review about a lesson you took away from writing your book (why retail workers drive the customer experience). Overall, what is the top lesson/experience you took away from this project?

CAITLIN: That every single person working in retail can add value, from the invisible stock room clerk to the associates on the floor — despite the fact that most corporate managers refuse to pay them accordingly. The most productive, yet unrewarded, people are often effective and high-selling associates working face to face with customers, whose skill and warmth can make or break a brand.
 
7. SHARI: As a successful writer, author and journalist, what have been your keys to success? What advice would you give other writers to attain a similar degree of success in their careers?
CAITLIN: I’m flattered by your description. Thanks! Persistence is huge. I simply don’t give up; my first agent said I was the most determined person he’d ever met. Once I connect with someone who seems to find my ideas or work of value, I stay in touch, sometimes for decades; having a strong network of people who believe in you can help you achieve many goals, from getting recommendation letters for grants and fellowships to helpful tips.
 
One friend in Canada — who edited me when she was at a magazine years ago — told me about a Canadian lawsuit settlement for writers I knew nothing about; it netted me a healthy windfall!
 
Network, in a generous and helpful way, with accomplished writers, no matter at what level of their career. I’ve gotten help from some of my former interns (now doing well!) and colleagues 10 to 20 years my senior. Truly ambitious and talented writers with a heart know what it takes to excel; they’ll cheer you when you win and cheer you up when the going is tough — as you, of course, will do for them too!I’ve given away a lot of time and advice to total strangers who’ve emailed me…it all comes back eventually and in surprising and terrific ways.
 
I also serve on the board of the 1,400 member American Society of Journalists and Authors and on the board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund; I like giving back.Invest in yourself. Create and update a great-looking and informative website for your work and book(s); attend conferences, take classes, read books, hire professional help to maintain your edge and focus, whether researchers or coaches. I recently paid a speaking coach (I found her on LinkedIn, Christine Clapp) to help me prepare for the Diane Rehm show on NPR (2 m listeners, live) and her advice has given me much greater confidence for all media and public speaking. And I’d been doing it for years already.
 
8. SHARI:  Tell me about a discouraging time during your career’s climb. Did you consider quitting? How did you get past this obstacle?

CAITLIN: There have been more than one. This is not a business for the faint of heart or easily bruised! I studied interior design in the 1990s and planned to leave journalism, but stayed in it. I’m addicted to finding and sharing compelling stories, so my enthusiasm for the content is undimmed, even as the mechanics of the field have changed substantially. I have multiple skills, from photography and interior design training to foreign languages, so I have enough ways to keep pulling in income that I don’t panic. I also maintain a low overhead and don’t have children, so living with lower costs allows me more creative freedom in my choices of when and how to work.I also think you have to be very clear with yourself in how you define “success”. I am thrilled knowing that readers in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Ireland, to name only three, read my books — but am not (yet!) earning the sort of income some might wish or expect.
 
9. SHARI: Can you share a few recommendations of others experts in the writing field, whom it would be beneficial to follow?

SHARI: That’s a good question. I’ve recently started reading and enjoying Betsy Lerner’s blog and Kristen Lamb’s blog. I think once you’ve mastered your craft — through classes, practice, reading great writers’ work and analyzing it — it becomes a larger issue of finding and polishing ideas. I focus less on the mechanics of how to write and more on people whose thinking inspires me, so I read blogs that include Seth Godin and Design Milk, which is visual.Because I write only non-fiction, I try more to read great NF books and figure out why they’re so terrific: voice, language, tone, pacing, anecdote, etc.
 
10. SHARI: Anything else you’d like to add?
 
CAITLIN: Stay focused! The world is filled with a million ways to ding your confidence and/or to distract you, but only you and your computer can deliver the goods. If you want to produce a non-fiction book, read widely and critically to determine what place you might carve in that marketplace; “save string” — i.e. read and clip everything of possible use for that project; talk to people who might be able to help you.

Decide what you want to achieve and what is realistic, given your talent, time, energy and finances. It may not happen fast, or fast enough, but a life of ideas can’t be lived according to the clock or others’ dreams.

*****************************

Follow Caitlin on her blog, “Broadside Blog,” on WordPress.

Write for a Cause! ‘Writers for the Red Cross’ Launching

(Used with permission)

Calling all writers who want to make a difference! The Red Cross needs you.

My local chapter of the Red Cross, knowing of my writing reputation, pinged me on Twitter with information on a new national Red Cross campaign that combines writers and their communities. That’s right . . . as a writer, YOU can make a difference in your community–using nothing more than your talents (as a side note, I have no self-motivated interest in publicizing this; I simply think it’s a great idea and want to inform my fellow writers of the opportunity).

The campaign is called “Writers for the Red Cross,” and it’s launching mid-February. According to the Red Cross on its campaign website:

What is Writers for the Red Cross? This online event is intended to raise funds and awareness for the Red Cross and its work in communities across the country. We’ll be auctioning off publishing-related items and services donated by authors, publicists, agents, and editors. We’ll also have daily guest posts from authors about “What the Red Cross Means to Me” and a daily countdown of “31 Things You Didn’t Know About the Red Cross” on the official event website. All donors who give over $25 will also be able to select one free book from a range of books donated and shipped by publishers for the event.”

Why Writers? Writers share our commitment to community by bringing people together through their stories. And these communities continue to be strengthened as readers come together with writers in their local bookstores, in book clubs, online through social media…and through partnerships with national organizations with a similar mission of community: national organizations like the American Red Cross.”

Interested?

You better hurry. Although the campaign launches in mid-February, the campaign’s website says fundraising ends March 31. A Red Cross representative told me they especially need donations of 15+ copies of books to use for donor incentives. If you’re an author with a new book, great opportunity for you!

Visit the campaign’s website for more details on the event, as well as how YOU can get involved: http://www.writersfortheredcross.org/

Make your writing count. Share this with your contacts, and write for a cause!