How A-muse-ing: or, Use an Inspiration Tape Like a Champ

13 June 2022

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The scene is a locker room before a boxing match. The out-of-shape Champ lies on a massage table, tended by a curvy masseuse. Before him, a TV is showing his inspiration tape, the 70s classic, Dolomite. If you know the 1996 movie, The Great White Hype, you’ve seen this before. Though the Champ has let himself go, he’s a better fighter than the opponent he’s set up to face. Dolomite, his inspiration tape, puts a fire in his ample belly. “Alright. Now I’m mad,” he says, as he strides out to win in a foregone conclusion.

Though there’s not a lot of room for analysis in a little-known (but totally awesome) 90s comedy, there’s plenty to say about inspiration tapes. Artists throughout history have turned to muses. Beautiful women, breathtaking landscapes, and classical mythology have been wellsprings for creatives seeking sparks of genius. Dreams coalesce around the moments of clarity offered by our muses.

For me, it’s the 1984 Milos Forman Oscar-winner, Amadeus, a biopic of Baroque composer, Wolfgang Mozart. My grandparents, both music teachers, considered it educational. As a girl, I eyed the elaborate costumes, wigs, and period sets. But Grandma and Grandpa directed my attention to the music, particularly scenes of music being written. “Watch the artist at work,” they nudged me, in awe of Mozart’s immense talent. “This is the life of a genius.”

In Amadeus, Mozart is troubled; overworked, underpaid, and out of luck. Brilliant but mad and often drunk, he’s the subject of admiration and jealousy. Royalty and high society celebrate a rival composer, Salieri, who knows himself a lesser artist and seethes with rage. Mozart will succumb to sickness and death, leaving heavy debts and an unmarked grave while Salieri fades into obscurity, embittered by God’s indifference. If you could have popular success or doomed genius, which would you choose? What if it destroyed you? What kind of artist would you be?

Okay. Now I’m ready to write.

Muses hide in plain sight. Our inspiration tapes are born of our roots, reminding artists (and pugilists) of what drives us. Relics from our formative years, they deepen over time as we saturate them with meaning and memories. Whatever adversity we face, they make us believe we will do this. An athlete will dominate his sport. An artist will become immortal. Our inspiration tapes open the door to our best work and truest selves.

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The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

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There are many reasons a writer takes a break. Overwhelming obligations, jumbled thoughts, headaches, and crying babies. The neighbor mowing his lawn and the phone lighting up with scam calls. The vast empty page and the impossible task of stringing words across the white abyss. Did I just call a blank page the ‘white abyss?’ Break time, please.

Some authors claim that writer’s block is a myth; they’ve heard of it, but never had it. Warren Ellis [comic book writer, Transmetropolitan] asserts, “when a writer cannot write… Then that person isn’t a writer anymore.” If I ask my six-year-old, he’ll agree. What do you call a writer who isn’t writing? Just a regular person.

“Writer’s block is a

fancy term made up

by whiners so they

can have an excuse

to drink alcohol.”

― Steve Martin

As a regular person, I once had a case of writer’s block that lasted twenty years. It started when my diary was read by immigration officials during an ill-fated (read: poorly planned) move to the UK. A quiz on my romantic daydreams and amateur poetry, as interpreted by a dour airport bureaucrat, sliced away the uninhibited part of me that could pour thoughts onto the page. Now every word was subject to review by outsiders. The diary wasn’t a safe place anymore.

When I married, set up housekeeping, and fell into a thankless low-level job, I stopped writing except in fits and starts. I destroyed the stories I wrote with relentless editing. “Ms. Immigration might read this,” I thought as I snipped out dialogue, details, emotions, and revelations. I tried poetry, letter writing, and Bridget Jones-inspired journaling, but always lost steam. Writer’s block was winning. That’s when I discovered the complementary arts.

“If you get stuck, get

away from your desk.

Take a walk, take a bath,

go to sleep,make a pie,

draw, listen to ­music,

meditate, exercise;

whatever you do, don’t

just stick there scowling

at the problem.”
― Hilary Mantel

I improved my meager cooking skills, sketched illustrations for a picture book, and threw myself into meticulous housework. At the store, I skipped the bakery aisle, making bread and cakes from scratch instead. I taught myself knitting, making sweaters, gifts, and baby clothes for charity. I confined my writing to thoughts, dashed off on scraps of paper during lonely shifts at work, tossed into the trash on my way out the door. Instead of writing stories, I told them in my head, imagining the kings I was cooking dinner for, a child smiling at my drawings, and the babies in Afghanistan wearing my little green jumpers. I built virtual cities in video game simulators, inventing a family for each house, an owner for every shop. Writing, writing, writing, in my head while cultivating the complementary arts of daily life.

“Housework won’t kill

you, but then again,

why take the chance?”

― Phyllis Diller

Now, I’m rarely in the mood for a break from writing. After years spent on hiatus, I have no more time to waste. When my keyboard yawns in boredom and my thoughts scatter, I’m furious. The process is too slow. The house is too noisy. I am too lazy to pull it together and work. Forget knitting and cooking and container gardening. Housework? For the birds. Where are the words I need? Why is it so hard to do my dream?

Though I don’t want them, I return to the complementary arts again and again. Kids’ science projects, doing the laundry, and restorative naps. Drawing treasure maps, spot-cleaning the bathroom, and following my favorite baseball team. My sanity demands it. Imagine an office job without weekends. Look at the quality of life for people who work seven days a week. They are exhausted. And they probably drink too much. They need time for the complementary arts.

“Writing about a writer’s

block is better than not

writing at all.”
― Charles Bukowski,

The Last Night of the

Earth Poems

For writers, writing is essential to life. We have an urge to “write through it,” to shrug off writer’s block, and force inspiration to arrive on demand. Stress levels rise, frustration creates tension, and every word is more grudging than the last. We blame ourselves and wonder whether we are still writers. When chattering birds nest outside your window or a cat’s meow derails the morning’s work, the relief of the complementary arts can save the day. A home-cooked lunch and a nap in the afternoon, a digital collage of the clutter in your head, or singing your favorite song loud enough for the neighbors to hear. Clear your thoughts with your complementary arts and tell the world you’ve never had writer’s block.

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Editing Software or Not: How Much Comes Down to Mechanics?

11 April 2022

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I often read the work of fellow aspiring writers who need honest opinions. When I read for other writers, my chief priority is looking beyond typographical errors and grammar mistakes, searching instead for themes and content. In early drafts, criticizing technical errors only muddies the waters. Many amateur writers and critics mistake proofreading for feedback, missing the underlying gem of the story.

That being said, mechanics matter. When a writer is seeking publication and representation, technical mistakes are key to separating the wheat from the chaff. A manuscript tarnished by typos, missed words, and formatting errors, doesn’t stack up well. It faces stiff competition from authors who have gone the extra mile polishing their pieces. Those writers submit grammatically flawless stories, judged solely on the merits of their content. For serious consideration, aspiring writers need to meet these standards.

Some are born

(or believe they’re born)

with a gift for good

grammar. Those with that

privilege can stop reading.

Some are born (or believe they’re born) with a gift for good grammar. Those with that privilege can stop reading. For the rest of us, there’s much to consider. In my early stories, I did my best with foggy memories of high school English. With that, I managed two or three acceptances with small (unpaid) online journals. But it left me wondering how to improve my work to catch the eye of more prominent markets. “What am I missing?” I asked myself.

In search of an answer, I discovered an online editing software I could try for free. Curious to see how my most recent story would measure up, I uploaded the first 500 words (the limit allowed by the free version) and waited to see my scores. I expected to make my English teacher very proud. He was crestfallen. A C+? Oh, man. At that moment, a light flickered on.

I’m now a subscriber to the full version of that online editing software and my ratio of acceptances to rejections is steadily climbing. Every piece I write, including multiple drafts of every story, passes through the software before I submit it. I proofread my query letters, blog posts, book reviews, and office emails using software designed to remember every point of grammar, correct diction, and find repeated or missed words. It suggests concise language, calls out unnecessary adverbs, and even finds split infinitives (whatever they are). It makes you the best former student your English teacher ever had. The old rules reemerge; lessons learned long ago become second nature again. My rough drafts achieve higher scores. And I’m confident I’m submitting A+ work.

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Most publishers are hoping to find those diamonds in the rough. They’re looking for content that is unique, insightful, funny, or tragic. They’re looking for our stories. But with limited time and resources, they can’t afford to proofread pieces for us. We must send them our very best work, presented in its best light. It’s the only way to know that whatever reason an editor might give for a rejection (if any), it’s not careless proofreading. You may choose not to use editing software, and nothing works for every writer, but consider your editing process before you decide. Make sure you’re giving your stories their best chance to succeed.

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Who Am I to Judge?

3 April 2022

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As a reviewer for Reedsy.com, I have access to a database of Advance Reader’s Copies available for review from self-published and small press writers. The manuscripts are rough, often with typographical errors, formatting problems, and plot holes. Through the typos, missed words, and grammatical errors, I look for writer’s work. They hammer out their stories alone, pushing themselves to finish, exhaling in triumph as they hold completed manuscripts in their hands for the first time. Authors are serious when they sit at the keyboard, pouring their hearts into their passion projects.

So, who am I to judge?

My first ARC from Reedsy was a brilliant book. With few distracting proofreading errors, it was a quick, enjoyable read. It thrilled me to uncover such a fun book, and I had a blast writing the review. The author reached out to thank me for what I’d written, an unexpected boost to my confidence. Since then, I’ve written several more and when I didn’t love the books, I practiced being honest without being personal. I’m up front with readers who won’t connect with the books while acknowledging the efforts of the artists whose souls I see shining in the pieces. When I had a book that truly missed the mark, I pointed out the flaws, believing that my integrity as a reviewer rests on my willingness to write negative reviews when necessary.

The gray area comes in

when I’m asked to read

unfinished work…

a book like this poses

a genuine problem.

The gray area comes in when I’m asked to read unfinished work. Riddled with mechanical mistakes and muddled in its narrative, a book like this poses a genuine problem. It comes from a passionate amateur. But the honest reviewer in me wants to cut it down, remind the author that readers aren’t willing to fill in the gaps for an inexperienced writer. They notice every flaw, get frustrated when the narrative turns to navel gazing, and need breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout if you expect them to make it to the end. Failing to fulfill these basic requirements leaves readers with two choices: keep slogging through or give up, most likely for good. I want to sugarcoat it. But some bad news is too bitter for kind words to cover.

That’s when I wonder if I’m cut out to review books. Could someone else see something I don’t? The assertions I’m making are subjective. Could I be wrong? And what happens if I pan the book or, even worse, return as “unready for publication?” Whose dreams am I crushing? Can one reviewer determine success or failure? I didn’t plan for this.

Basic guidelines aren’t a help when the answer is a judgement call. Earnest in doing the right thing, I’ve erred on the side of civility. The most recent book I reviewed is a ponderous memoir, a nightmare of technical mistakes, and desperately in need of a professional editor. It is unfinished. Instead of saying so, I compromised my ethics and wrote a bland review, telling myself that the manuscript will pass through other hands before it reaches the public. Surely, it’s not my place to pick on grammar and diction. Not in a book review. Returning it as “unready” never crossed my mind. It’s not up to me to make that call. Is it?

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The review I submitted was as gutless as a high school book report and as shallow. When the author reached out, asking me not to “spoil” what I hadn’t realized was a surprise ending, I knew I’d made a mistake. That writer didn’t benefit when I withheld the truth, didn’t gain book sales or attract an agent. I lied to him, letting him believe his ending is a surprise (by taking out the offending line) and his book might be a success. I don’t have insider knowledge, but from my years in academia, I had a responsibility to tell him that a year’s worth of writing classes wouldn’t be enough to pull his manuscript into shape. So, you won’t see my review of that book on this website. I’m ashamed of it. And even if I question my right to judge, I won’t be dishonest again.

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Posts of Interest

As I add new Posts of Interest to the home page, previously published notes and articles will appear below.

Share ideas, notes on the writing life, news of upcoming writers’ events and other writing ephemera in the comments section below or leave a message on my Contact Me page.

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Not Another Book List

8 September 2022

Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

Read my full article.

Hitting the Press

5 September 2022

The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.

Print editions are for sale at eveningstreetpress.com.

How A-muse-ing; or Use an Inspiration Tape Like a Champ

13 June 2022

Though there’s not a lot of room for analysis in a little-known (but totally awesome) 90s comedy, there’s plenty to say about inspiration tapes. Artists throughout history have turned to muses.

Read my full article.

Before I Was a Writer

10 May 2022

When we’re working, we write whenever we can, between shifts, on cigarette breaks, in our heads as we navigate the days. Day jobs can be obstacles. Or, they may give unexpected raw material for memorable stories.

Read my full article.

The Complementary Arts

4 May 2022

Can you cure yourself of writer’s block? Maybe.

Read my full article.

Editing Software or Not: How Much Comes Down to Mechanics?

11 April 2022

A manuscript tarnished by typos, missed words, and formatting errors, doesn’t stack up well. It faces stiff competition from authors who have gone the extra mile polishing their pieces.

Read my full article.

A Woman of Letters

31 March 2022

For a writer, letter writing is not a lost art. In our letters, we practice our craft, learning how our words can touch, amuse, and gall our reader.

Read my full article.

Writing About Writing

22 March 2022

Every writer hears, “Write what you know.” And what every writer knows is writing, its intricacy, weight, and solitude. With so many hours spent alone at the keyboard, is anything more authentic to writers than transcribing their daily experiences and emotions?

Read my full article.

The Writer’s Game

13 March 2022

Baseball’s literary tradition is undeniable. Generations of writers take inspiration from the chalk lines and grassy diamonds of baseball fields.

Read my full article.

Don’t A-BAN-don Me

10 March 2022

Calls to ban books from school libraries and reading lists is on the rise again. Fighting censorship has never been more important.

Read my full article.

Edit, Edit, Edit.

23 February 2022

When a piece is in its fourth or fifth draft, further edits are hard to find. Kearns gives writers a quick demonstration of how to look again.

Read my full article.

What Would Mother Think?

11 February 2022

Great fiction is drawn from life, mixing writers’ lived experiences with the imagined worlds of their characters. When art co-mingles with life this way, real feelings are at stake. Read more.

Baby Steps

20 January 2022

Until last week, I’d never sold a story. Not for money. And while my first fee is modest, it required me to produce my first invoice. Read about my crash course.

Creating Lifelike Characters

19 November 2021

Characterization can be the difference between a good story and a great one. Read more about ways to look deeper into your characters as you bring them to life.

Writers’ group blues.

17 November 2021

Critique groups, writers’ clubs, style guides, webinars: they are ubiquitous for unpublished writers. Resources like these intend to aid aspiring writers in finding their voices, refining their process, and getting stories in print. Can these methods deliver on their tantalizing promise? Well, there may be one thing missing. Read my full article.

November is the time to get inspired.

1 November 2021

National Novel Writing Month begins November 1st. Join writers across the globe as they get to work on that novel. Read my full article.

More details at:

https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-nanowrimo

Publishing Notes

20 October 2021

Publishing… and Other Forms of Madness

Erica Verillo dishes up direct advice on approaching agents and editors while outlining common pitfalls for aspiring writers. Her comprehensive blog includes links to publishers seeking novelists, prose writers and poets, as well as up-to-date lists of paying markets.

https://publishedtodeath.blogspot.com/