Writing a Woman’s Life class/group

Once upon a time, I taught a writing class on Wednesday nights for the local arts center. Or maybe it was Tuesdays. I remember it was winter. I remember my divorce attorney attended, as a show of support. We met in person, for three hours at a time, armed with coffee, notebooks, and pens. Nobody ever brought a cellphone.

“Writing a Woman’s Life,” we called it. We would write in reaction to a prompt for an hour or two at a time and share what we had written, voices tremulous. Sometimes we were angry or sad. Sometimes we were funny. Sometime we started off funny and got angry as we went.

We were trying to uncover the truths of our lives, to grapple with and make sense of the things that had happened to us, to try to find our voices in a world that wanted us to shut the hell up.

The world still wants us to shut the hell up.

After thinking about it for a while, I decided to bring back that class. Then I realized that I didn’t, not that class; that was a class I taught when I was a different person. I wanted to bring a new “Writing a Woman’s Life” out into the world, but I realized it would need some changes.

•  It would need to be online so that people from anywhere could join in.
•  It would need to allow for ongoing enrollment so that people who found out about it a month from now could still benefit from it.
•  It would need to have options for people to share their work with no one else, or only with me, or with everyone in the class, or with the world.
•  It would need to provide instruction in the elements of craft so that writers could produce a piece of writing—art—whether that is a poem or an essay or a short story or a full-length memoir. In other words, we wouldn’t all just be keeping journal entries.
•  It would show how the process of revision helps writers discover what they are trying to say.
•  It would provide feedback so writers would know how to most effectively convey their message (but only if this feedback is desired).
•  And it would need to provide adequate compensation for my time and energy.

That’s quite a lot to ask from one class. But, here is the solution I came up with:

Writing a Woman’s Life is an ongoing class for exploring your life experiences through writing. You can enroll in it at any time. The cost is $49 per month (30 days). Each week, I will provide writing prompts, suggestions for working on craft, and examples of my own process—you’ll see me writing and revising my own work.

Students who are interested in sharing their work with others and in offering mutual support will be able to do so in a Facebook group. However, this is not required.

Each month (every 30 days), I will personally critique a piece of your work, of up to 2,000 words (for longer pieces we can work something out). If you don’t have anything to share that month, that’s fine—but the critiques can’t be rolled over from month to month without an explicit agreement (otherwise my schedule would quickly become impossible).

You will not be automatically enrolled in a subscription. After you enroll in your first month, I will send a reminder out when your month is coming to an end and you can decide if you want to re-enroll. (I may send out a few follow-up emails as reminders, but I will stop after three.) You can stop for a while and then jump in again. The idea is for this to be flexible for all of us.

If I decide, owing to lack of enrollment or for other reasons, to discontinue the class, I will give everyone at least a month’s notice that we’ll be wrapping things up. I don’t know how this will go, so I may have to change some elements, but I am committed to keeping the cost reasonable and to providing direct feedback to each student who wants it.

The first week will begin October 15, 2018. Anyone who enrolls before then will be considered to start on October 15, so your first month will end November 14.

A Paypal button is below, or you can just Paypal me the $49 to jennifer@jenniferlawler.com. If you would prefer to pay by check or another way, let me know (use the above email address) and we’ll work something out.




About me:

Jennifer Lawler is the author or coauthor of more than forty nonfiction books and novels, including her popular and award-winning Dojo Wisdom series (Penguin). Her personal essays have appeared in publications such as Family Circle, Neurology Now, Minnesota Monthly, and the Chicken Soup book series. Her blog post, “For Jessica,” went viral some years ago and and became a Nieman Notable Narrative. She recently published a humorous memoir, The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman.

She has taught writing and editing classes for many membership organizations, colleges, and universities.

She has worked for many years as a freelance book development editor on a wide range of editorial projects for traditional book publishers as well as independent authors.

She earned her Ph.D in medieval English literature from the University of Kansas and a black belt in Taekwondo at approximately the same time. She hasn’t quite decided which has been more helpful in her career.

On what happens when you stop trying

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I’m allergic to cats. I sneeze, my eyes turn red, I break out in big blotchy hives, I can’t breathe. So if I’m ever in the vicinity of a cat, I do not touch the cat, I do not say the cat’s name, I do not even look at the cat. Of course that means within ten seconds the cat is climbing all over me. The harder I ignore cats, the more they want me.

This is, of course, extremely aggravating to Jessica because she loves cats, especially the very small and fluffy ones, and wishes they would let her pet them but the moment they walk in a room she’s all, “Look at the pretty kitten!” and then they immediately know to ignore her and come to me so at to maximize our mutual pain.

I inadvertently discovered that this strategy works for book ideas as well. I have been working on two novels for the last many months but I haven’t had any good ideas for new ones in quite some time. This is bothersome to me because I’ll soon be done with the two current book projects, whether by getting them published or flinging them into the fire, and then I’ll need a new project, but I don’t have one.

I tried everything I know how to do. I went to the beach, I drank margaritas, I sat and thought for hours on end, I flirted with abstract algebra for a day, I watched movies, I eavesdropped shamelessly on people at the coffee shop, and nothing. Oh I had the glimmer of an idea once but the moment I looked at it, it fell apart. And I had one brainstorm that had me thinking  for an entire thirty minutes that this might be it. But it wasn’t. Try as I might, I didn’t have The Idea. The one that I don’t mind losing sleep over. The one I will pet, cajole, and force into shape over the next year or two. Some people look for a soul mate to spend their time with. I look for The Idea.

After a good long while I soberly and painfully faced facts. I had used up my lifetime allotment of ideas. There were to be no more. I was finished; my work here done. My life going forward would be a long gentle slide into oblivion. To be fair, I was kind of looking forward to getting my evenings back. I would edit during the day, and give gentle sighs about my own lost art, and in the evening I could watch as much Burn Notice as I could stand.  It would be the first time since I was five years old when I wasn’t thinking you should be writing about everything that isn’t writing.

I accepted my fate with some sorrow and a little sigh of relief. And of course ideas being like cats, that was when I had the MOST AMAZING IDEA EVER. OMG this one is STUPENDOUS.

I just wished this approach worked on editors.

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Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter so that I can share news about my stupendous idea once I get the thing written. Just put your email address in that little bar and get a free copy (ebook) of Dojo Wisdom for Writers just for signing up. Also, Travels with Jessica, my collection of stories about, well, travels with Jessica, is available here. It includes my account of what happened to my underwear in Rome.

My buddy Robyn Neeley has a novel, Batter Up, in the Hot Hometown Hunks bundle which releases October 6 and costs a mere 99 cents. Preorder here.

Another buddy, Angela Smith, has a new novel, Solace, releasing October 27th. You can preorder here.

 

 

 

 

 

On how to write just right

 

 

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Every time a writer asks me, “Do you think if I do what this editor suggests, my novel will get published?” I have to pause to experience a moment of pity before I can respond. If only it were that simple.

Let me explain. In one corner are those editors who you might hire yourself to get your book ready for self-publishing or just to help you figure out why you’re not succeeding. These editors are not unlike the friends or colleagues you dragoon into reading your manuscript and whose responses you keep in mind while you’re revising. They are the editors who might have great ideas but they’ll never be able to offer a publishing contract. When you get advice from these editors, you have to consider whether it makes sense, suits your overall vision for the book, and is an actual improvement instead of just a change. So if that’s the kind of editor who has made the suggestion, all I can say is you know better than I do whether you should revise.

Then there are the editors who could publish your novel but they have no plans to do so. They usually send form letters and sometimes writers mistake these for something else. “When the editor says, ‘Not quite right for us,’ do you suppose it’s because I’m two thousand words over their stated word count?”

No, I don’t suppose that. Because if the only thing standing between you and glory was two thousand words, the editor would have said so: “This is an amazing novel but it is too long. Can you shorten it by two thousand words?” And if you got a note like that then my answer to the question would be yes. Yes, I do think if you were to do what this editor suggests, your novel would get published.

You can usually identify an editor who wants to work with you in this way because she will say so: “This was a terrific read but I didn’t love the ending. Would you be open to revising?”

Or she will say, “This is just not my cup of tea but send me your next novel.” So you know what to do, right?

But the not-quite-form rejections are the ones I hear about most, where the editor says something like, “I found the plot engaging but I just couldn’t get interested in the characters.”

Editors will sometimes explain a rejection instead of just sending a form rejection because they think you have promise and they want to give you a little encouragement. Sometimes it’s because you’ve submitted through an agent and they want to maintain a cordial relationship with that agent. Now and then it’s because the editor has worked with you in the past. (This happened to me once and the pain is still fresh.) Many, maybe even most, times these not-quite-form rejections are just rejections. It wouldn’t matter if you made the characters more interesting. The editor still wouldn’t buy the book. She didn’t like it. She’s never going to like it unless you write a new book. Then she might like that one.

An editor who is not buying a book is not spending a lot of time analyzing how and why it isn’t working for her. She just doesn’t have time for that. She’s not trying to be a mentor or give you a blueprint for revision, she’s just telling you she thinks the book may have had good points but it’s not going on her list, thank you anyway. So, no, I don’t think revising the book according to her suggestions will, necessarily, get you anywhere. On the other hand maybe she’s pinpointed a problem that suddenly you recognize as the reason why your book isn’t working and yay! You know what to do. 

I know what you’re wondering now. You’re wondering, if you get a rejection like this, with no invitation to revise and resubmit, should you revise your novel anyway for the sake of future submissions? On the grounds that Editor B will like your novel because you fixed the problems Editor A identified? A lot of writers think the answer is yes, but my answer is a resounding maybe. Just because Editor A has a problem with, say, your characterization, that doesn’t mean any other editor on this green earth will. Editorial opinions are subjective. They may be informed opinions, but they are still just opinions.

Now, if all of your rejections are saying much the same thing then you can assume that fixing that thing would help. If Editor A says, “I couldn’t follow the plot” and Editor B says, “The plot made no sense to me” and Editor C says, “I liked the characters but not the plot,” you’ve got the kind of consensus that suggests something’s wrong with the plot. So you know what to do.

[Note that the same general principles apply to querying agents.]

Getting published is certainly about writing a good novel. But it’s also about finding the right editor.  A few years back, when my then-agent was trying to sell Dojo Wisdom, she forwarded two rejection letters to me in the same day. Editor A said, “The audience for this book is too narrow; we could never publish it successfully.” Editor B said, “The audience for this book is too broad; we could never publish it successfully.”

I kid you not. Exactly how would I have revised the book to make both of these editors happy? I didn’t try. My agent went on to find Editor C, who thought Dojo Wisdom was just right, and who managed to publish it quite successfully.

In other words, sometimes it’s about you but sometimes it’s about them. The hard part is knowing which is which.

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If you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free ebook version of Dojo Wisdom for Writers. Just type your email address in that little box that’s on the right-hand side of your screen unless you’re looking at this on your phone and then I don’t know where it is. Oh! Don’t forget that I’ve collected some Jessica stories in Travels with Jessica.

My buddy Jill Haymaker has a novel releasing today! Breakfast for Two is available on Amazon here.

And I love this tidbit sent along by writer Lynn Crandall: “A scent by any other name may be an odor. Unless my heroine has just been cleaning stalls, I don’t want to use the word ‘odor’ in her description. In writing a scene describing my heroine, I knew she didn’t ‘smell’ and she didn’t have an odor, but I’d used the word ‘scent’ a lot. My mind reached for the just-right word. Then I found a website that offered some help, here. It prompted the word I’d been looking for as well as a suggestion for a name of the scent. Sometimes a little help is needed.”

 

On the difference between reality and fiction

Jessica is my biggest fan, and she thinks it is very wonderful when I write a book, and even more so when it gets published, and not just because I take her out to dinner to celebrate.

But she cannot understand why I am so mean to my characters.

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She thinks that the best story is the one in which everyone gets along and hugs each other and they all hang out together and have conversations about the things they love, and it’s even better if they take a few minutes to say some nice things about each other and if there is some Diet Coke in the refrigerator, that is especially desirable, and also if someone remembers to bring her some princess stickers, then that is perfect. But really all that is needed is some people who are kind.

I tell her that such a situation is lacking in dramatic tension, and that conflict drives narrative, and that in a story such a situation might be the happily ever after, just before the end, but it is quite hard to get there, and many challenges and obstacles must be overcome first.

“I see,” she says. “And that is how fiction is different from real life.”

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Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available on Amazon in print and ebook! (Nook and other ebook versions here)
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter on my home page! You never know when I’m going to give away random good stuff.

On what I learned from watching things blow up

If you’ve been following along, you might think when I refer to watching things blow up, I am using the phrase in a metaphorical sense, but today I actually mean it in the literal sense.

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That is to say, I have been watching Mythbusters on Netflix. If you’ve ever watched this show, you know that the hosts try to prove or disprove various popular theories, and whether a theory requires it or not, almost every show ends with something getting blown up in a spectacular way.

The notable fact about the explosions is how boring they are after a while. I guess the hosts still find it entertaining or presumably they wouldn’t do it, but mostly it’s just not that interesting: “The stage is set for a massive explosion!” the announcer will say breathlessly, and I figure it’s about time for a bathroom break and maybe to wander over to Facebook and see what’s what.

What I find more compelling is the thinking that goes into figuring out how to tease out the testable parts of each theory and the creativity that goes into devising those tests.

I don’t always think their tests measure what the hosts think they measure and I don’t always agree that the test has shown what they think it shows, but it’s the investigation that I find engaging. How does the world work? How can we figure out if something is true or not?

The blowing things up is just . . . puerile and wasteful. After a while, the show’s catchphrase, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing” becomes extremely self-indulgent and offensive. You’re really going to waste 42,000 gallons of water in order to make some random and mostly pointless comment?

As Jessica would say:

 

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There’s an idea in media—and has been for years—that to attract eyeballs, you have to be sensational. Thus, the blowing up of things on Mythbusters and all of the dramatic, “Your child could die today!!! News at eleven!!!” and “You won’t believe what happens next!!!!!” teasers that you see all over television and the internet.

I haven’t watched network television in years and I make it a point not to click on links that I won’t believe, so this was one of the first times I’ve realized just how badly this type of thinking screws up what would otherwise be a good story.

Which got me to thinking. If you constantly need a big “go boom!” to get attention, you’re probably doing it wrong. What if you didn’t use a big “go boom!” at all?

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

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