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Special Episode #15: Feature the Podcaster: my conversation with Jim Szabo of Second Hand Stories

PRACTICE

Click on the picture to hear the episode!

I loved my chat with Jim Szabo, host of the Second Hand Stories podcast. We chatted about the inspiration for our shows, how we deal with submissions and what our pet peeves are, how much we love our writers, our recording spaces, and so much more. Here’s some links to the things we talked about.

And the two recommendations Kris gives to podcaster wannabes are:

Happy listening,

Kris

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Being an Ally Writer: Reflecting on Pride

Reflecting on(1)

Last weekend I picked up a paperback copy of I, Emma Freke by Elizabeth Atkinson at my local used bookstore.

Like any book nut with limited shelf space, I have to differentiate between books I want to read and books I want to own. What elevated this book to the latter category is a relatively minor character, the protagonist’s best friend. She’s a nine year old girl with two moms. And what’s remarkable about that is how unremarkable it is.

Most books, especially children’s books, with LGBTQIA+ characters are about being LGBTQIA+. But for LGBTQIA+ people and their families, that identity is just part of who they are. Like all of us, they are nuanced and have many stories to tell.

The most clearly defining feature of the moms mentioned in this book is that they were on the older side when they adopted their daughter. So she and her friend, being typical kids, call them the Gray Moms because of their gray hair. If you’ve read this book and remember these moms at all, that’s probably what you remember. And it’s highly likely many people who have read this book don’t remember the moms at all…because it it is no big deal. But for the kid reading the book who has two moms, or whose best friend does, it’s a way of simply seeing themselves represented. And that’s both remarkable and entirely ordinary.

The good news about LGBTQIA+ representation in literature is that it exists and has gotten better. The Lambda Literary awards are now in their 29th year of honoring LGBTQIA+ literature and writers. And this post from Barnes and Noble shows that books with LGBTQIA+ books that don’t make sexuality their main theme are available…and great. Even though there aren’t enough of them.

The bad news is that recommendations, reviews, and book lists can still be hard to find. Googling “LGBTQ reads for kids” gets you this list from the San Fransisco Public Library. It’s not a bad list, but the median copyright date is 1996 and the newest published was in 2008. While there are certainly classics in this area (and if any historical fiction writers are reading this, I think the market for good historical fiction covering LGBTQIA+ history is ripe,) having this be the first thing would-be readers encounter is problematic. Even more updated lists have problems. This list from PFLAG has just seven fiction titles on it: four for teens and three picture books, no middle grade titles at all. Two of the teen books are from the 1990s. As a resource list, it’s very good…but where are the stories?

So the need is there. But how do I as a heterosexual cisgender female  writer acknowledge it and work on creating a more inclusive literary community?

The number one thing any of us can do to promote diversity in writing is to support diverse writers. My Google adventure made it clear that while these books exist and are fantastic, they are not getting the attention they deserve. You can help by reading them, promoting them, reviewing them, and talking about them. You don’t have to be an LGBTQIA+ reader to appreciate a good story. I was thumbing through VOYA, a trade publication for librarians, yesterday and found an article that sadly is not currently available online about how authentic representations of minorities in children’s literature is in some ways more important for white kids than minority kids. If children of color can easily relate to classic characters like Harry Potter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the kids in the museum in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, certainly white, middle class, suburban kids can relate to and learn from Amira in The Red Pencil, Maddy in Bayou Magic, or Naomi in Becoming Naomi Leon providing they have access to these characters. Reading about people different than us is one of the great gifts literature gives us…story is story. Not getting pigeonholed as a reader and reading and sharing stories by a diverse and talented group of authors is something I can easily do.

But can we do more? Can I also include some of these characters in my writing?

This gets to be dicey category pretty quickly. I remember the stir Patrick Jones created when he wrote about being a white writer portraying minority characters for Voya last year. Writers are always told, write what you know, and then one beat later that stepping outside of who you are can be very powerful. But you can step too far too fast and drown out the voices we need to hear. The fabulous website Gay YA keeps a master list of young adult titles that feature LGBTQIA+ protagonists, while at the same time acknowledging that some of those characters and books are problematic. I don’t want to be the well-meaning writer that creates problematic characters. But I also know without the groundwork by writers who created these admittedly problematic characters back in the 1980s and 1990s, there is no Will Grayson, and no Tiny Cooper, not to mention the 100s of other characters celebrated over on Gay YA and that would indeed be tragic.

For Episode 82, I wrote a short story of just 100 words and four of those were the writing prompt. My main character has two moms. You don’t get a lot of backstory in 100 words, but it was an important enough point in this character’s life that I included it. I did it without thinking about it. It wasn’t a defining moment in the story, it wasn’t my intent to make this character a token, she is just someone with two moms, just like the best friend in I, Emma Freke.

The instant that episode went live, I found myself worrying. Did I portray this character in a way that was offensive? She gets angry at her moms in the story for what they are doing to her and remarks that they aren’t even the interesting sort of lesbians (or something to that effect, in 100 words you have to cut a lot.) Would that be seen as inherently homophobic? I worried a lot about that little story. But all the feedback to date has been positive. I’m glad I took the risk. I’m glad that at the time I took it I didn’t even think of it that way, just as me trying to create the best character I know how to.

I 100% understand that diverse voices need to come from diverse communities and that as I speak from privilege there’s only so much I can say on this issue. But I don’t want writers to be afraid to include the people around them in all their complex glory for fear of offending. I will never forget when a friend of mine discovered that Ezra Jack Keats was a white man. As a child, the characters in his books were among the few she could find on library shelves who looked like her and lived in a world like hers. Her whole life she had imagined Ezra Jack Keats as a loving grandmotherly black lady. Finding out that he was a white man who was inspired by the children in his neighborhood surprised her, but did not offend her. It made the characters no less real and it made their inclusion in her childhood no less important.

I don’t have answers, but it’s good to poke at literature a bit and see what the barriers and who the gatekeepers are. It’s Pride weekend here in Seattle and there are lots of things to read that challenge and inspire the way I look at the world. There are still problems to solve, but more stories are being told. One of many reasons to celebrate.

Happy Pride,

Kris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration and Timing: My International Podcast Day Story

September 30 is International Podcast Day. It’s been fun to watch this day unfold as one of the Pod People, reading the tweets and seeing how different ‘casters are choosing to commemorate the day. All day I’ve been thinking that I should write my own blog post on International Podcast Day, as it’s been a very long time since I did a podcast round-up and sang the praises of some of my favorite shows. Podcaster I may be, but I was a podcast listener first.

But today just wasn’t that day for me.

Today was one of those glorious days that fall sends, with the crisp leaves and sunshine with that little chill in the air. It was a day for yummy smells in the kitchen to make you feel warm when the heat kicks on for the first time in months. So I celebrated my International Podcast Day with some of my favorite shows running in the background while I made apple/pear sauce. It’s delicious. Freezer be damned, I’m totally gonna eat that whole pot.

Making applesauce is one of those tasks that is tailor-made for authors, because it forces your brain into kind of a zen mode. Coring and cutting 15 lb. of apples into cubes is work that gives your brain space for other things, and mine started mulling over this book I’ve been wanting to write but am not sure the world has a slot for.

I got burned again by some Christian fiction this summer. As a genre, this one just perplexes me. It seems to require the breaking of the rules of good writing.

Let me explain. I picked a book out of a Little Free Library this summer while on vacation. It looked like fun, kind of light chick lit, the kind of book you would take to the beach. Summer romance stuff, nothing overly heavy or steamy.

I started reading it and the first chapter was fun. Likeable character, good voice. Then I got to the second chapter and I found myself flipping to the back of the title page to see the publisher. Christian fiction.

I don’t go into a lot of personal stuff on this blog generally, but I’m okay saying I’m a Christian. I’m a member of a Lutheran church and I’m not ashamed of my faith. I don’t require others in my life to share that faith, but it is important to me. I don’t have a problem with a story being Christian in nature. This doesn’t offend me or make me want to put a book down. But I don’t read Christian fiction and I took the book back. Why? Because it was annoying!

I feel like contemporary Christian fiction tells a story and then has these “now is the part where we talk about God” interludes. Suddenly the rules of writing, like show don’t tell, don’t apply. Suddenly I get the annoying diversion of a detailed description of this character’s inner monologue dumped into the middle of the story. This has happened to me so much that I don’t read contemporary Christian fiction anymore.

Not all faith-based literature has to be this way. Anne of Green Gables, one of my favorite books of all time, was written as a serial in a Sunday school paper. It’s not uncommon for classic literature to feature characters who lean on their faith, prayer, and the Bible in times of crisis. The difference is that the storytelling stays intact.

This brings me to the book I’ve been wanting to write. I’ve had this story kicking around in my head lately that is GLTBQ Christian fiction for teens. This may seem like an oxymoron, but I see it as an untapped market. “Christian” and “gay” are not mutually exclusive terms and as more and more Protestant denominations are openly embracing GLTBQ members and clergy I think there are more and more GLTBQ Christians who aren’t seeing themselves represented in fiction.

So this is the book I want to write, and I have the story in my head and have worked on some outlines and character sketches and even a preliminary draft of a few chapters. But it is a struggle because I’m just not sure where it would fit. I doubt most Christian publishers would touch it because it clearly doesn’t fit what seems to be their formula, as outlined above, and I just don’t know if mainstream publishers would touch something so faith based.

So back to International Podcast Day. As I’m working on my applesauce and mulling this over, I’m listening to one of my current favorite podcasts, Write Your Own Story with Autumn Beam, and she is interviewing a Christian romance writer who is talking about this same thing. All the problems with contemporary Christian fiction. How hard it is to fit within the typical framework. Christian fiction is boxed in, she says. There are too many boundaries and rules about how these stories are structured. Characters interact with their faith, rather than with God. I stopped chopping apples and started talking to her. Yes! Someone else gets this problem!

That’s the power of podcasting. The conversation. The conversation that host was having with her guest and the conversation I was having with them as that audio was playing for me. Blogs are awesome, message boards have a purpose, but no other medium does it in quite that way. And that was my International Podcast Day.

I’m still not sure how to answer that question about the book that wants to be written. But for today, I’m okay just not being alone, with knowing someone else sees what I see. What to do next will be tomorrow’s problem, so I hope you’ll stay tuned.

For today, give a new podcast or two a try. I think you’ll like the conversation.

Happy listening,

Kris

That Particular Sort of Conceit

What is it about us as writers that makes us not only want to record our stories, but want people to read them, share them, and tell us how much they loved them?

It’s a kind of conceit, when you think about it. What is it about my writing that makes me feel it is worth another’s time to read?

I don’t think everyone has this. I know lots of people who keep diaries they never share or fill sketchbooks not even their spouses get to look at. What is it that separates them from those of us who strive for publication, readership, and following?

It takes a certain amount of stubbornness. You have to believe that your story is deserving of someone else’s attention, is somehow better than average. You have to have confidence in your ability. And a thick skin.

I got some criticism of my work this week. No big deal, it happens, and as criticism goes it was so mild it isn’t even worth my time and energy. It wasn’t mean, and it really doesn’t matter. It comes with putting yourself out there, and one of the big reasons I launched No Extra Words in the first place is because it forced me to be out there, forced me to put my work into the world and not hide my light, so to speak.

It did give me pause, though. It did make me stop and think,  why me? Why do I think I have the talent to put work into the world? Why not leave content creation to others, those who are better at it than me, those with more experience, better production abilities, stronger plot lines, and so on?

The answer is because I must. Because the particular conceit of the writer forces me to keep banging my head against the wall, keep trying. Bruised ego? Sure, but it can’t stop me. Because somehow there is something in me that tells me the world needs my voice in it.

Where will that stubbornness take you today?

Happy writing,

Kris

The Writing Gig I Almost Had (and why you should say yes to things)

Last month I was invited to write about podcasts. For a website that you’ve heard of. I won’t say who because it didn’t work out. No hard feelings, these things happen. But the important part of this story is I was offered the chance to do this. And it was a paying gig. The emerging writer’s unicorn.

Like a lot of opportunities, it came along disguised as a coincidence (my mom didn’t believe in coincidences, so every single time one comes along I think of her.) I happened to meet this person through some online networking, she happened to mention that the company she worked for was looking for a writer. By coincidence.

She was looking for a writer to write about podcasts. Awesome. She wanted someone who could create regular content and regularly listen to podcasts. No problem. Sounds just like me. They were focusing on podcasts for millennial women entrepreneurs. Um. Wait. What?

I’m not really a millennial. Depending on which demographics you read, millennials were born somewhere around 1980 to 2000. The years vary slightly, so sometimes I get included but at the age of…let’s just say I’m closer to 40 than 30…I’m not really who people who use the word “millennial” are talking about. I am also not an entrepreneur, although as you’re going to see I learned a few things about myself in this process. Long story short: I was so not the target audience for this. And while I knew I could get the podcasting part right, I was not at all sure about the millennial women entrepreneurs part. My instinct was to say no.

But they were offering me money to write! A paying gig with a website you and people I know have heard of! It was not in my writer DNA to turn it down. So I faked it. I said, well, I’m not a millennial but this sounds like a fascinating project and agreed to write a couple of sample pieces. I downloaded a bunch of podcasts aimed at millennial women entrepreneurs and pretended I knew what I was doing.

And you know what? It was awesome. The shows were fun. One of the first episodes I listened to was about becoming a freelance writer. Cue ta-da! noise here. Of course writing is a business, although we creative types don’t usually think that way. I found a couple of podcasts I plan on listening to again and a couple that I will definitely recommend to others. A few weren’t my thing. It happens. I was able to tie it all together and create some work I was proud of.

I made a conscious decision to sound like myself. I had been told I was chosen to try this out because they liked my writing as seen on this blog, and my writing as seen on this blog is not formal. I got the sense from them that they didn’t know exactly what they wanted, so I decided to make it personal because I felt that connection with readers is what they were looking for. I may have been wrong. I have no way of knowing. I was told I was a very talented writer and they had decided to go a different way.

Any regrets? Not a one! I am so glad I didn’t say no right way when I found out the topic. I learned about new things, practiced new writing skills, and emerged with different experiences. Is my ego bruised they didn’t want me in the end? Maybe a little but it won’t crush me. If getting rejected by one publication was enough to crush me, I am in the wrong business. Their rejection was very kind. I try not to read too much into it. I’m reading through a pile of submissions tonight and I’ll be sending some rejections myself. Probably to some talented writers when I decide to go a different way. I write that letter all the time. (No, I don’t. I have a template.)

Where does my fledgling career a a freelance writer go from here? I’m not sure, to be honest. But I know I will have my eye out for coincidences.

Happy writing,

Kris

 

Mini-Blog #2: NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo wraps up today. I’m not participating this year, but Camp NaNoWriMo is the origin story for this podcast.

For the uninitiated among you, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, thousands of writers from around the world take on the challenge of trying to write the rough draft of a novel (50,000 words or more) in the 30-day month of November.

It’s a crazy challenge. I’m not doing it this year due to a travel schedule, but I’ve attempted it three times and succeeded (in hitting 50,000 words, anyway, let’s not talk about what they were) twice. As someone who has struggled with churning out consistent content, I can’t recommend it enough as a jump-start, but there’s more to NaNoWriMo than November. In April and July they offer Camps, where you set your own goal, to write or revise or push yourself forward in whatever project you like. Last April I signed up for Camp with low expectations…the new mom I was in November 2014 had burned out badly doing NaNoWriMo. Camp let me fit writing into my life and without feeling strong enough to handle a big project, I started scribbling short stories and here we are.

NaNoWriMo is a community. Access to online forums and in-person regional write-ins add to the fun. Published writers I’ve talked to have loved doing it, stepping out of their usual process to try something totally new. And for a friend who has done it and won once, she tells me whatever happens to her project and her writing future, she wrote a novel. That’s saying quite a lot.

So give it a try!  You don’t have to wait until November to jumpstart your writing…give yourself a challenge right now, or seek out your local NaNoWriMo region and look at what prep events they have for this fall. Of course, if a month is too long for you, there’s always the 3-Day Novel Writing Challenge. I’ve not been crazy enough to attempt that one…yet.

Happy writing,

Kris

What’s the Priority?

As you’re reading this, I’m on vacation with my family. Due to the time warp of the Internet, as I’m writing this, I’m getting ready for that vacation, by trying to get the laundry wrapped up, the shopping done, the party that we are having two days before we leave (!) planned, and, of course, doing blog and podcast maintenance so that this train stays on the tracks while I am gone.

It’s no secret that it’s hard to find writing time. What I’m dealing with now, though, is once I clear out that ever so valuable time, how do I organize it? Assuming that there are multiple projects going on, maybe at different stages, what gets tackled first?

I don’t have answers for you, but I’m going to let you into my process as I’m wrestling with this. Setting aside for the moment my family obligations and the other things I actually have to do, here is my Kris the Writer list for before I go:

  • Final edits and publish an episode of my other podcast.
  • Prep and schedule contributor bios, emails, and other podcast administrative stuff to work while I’m gone.
  • Write up show notes and schedule the episode that will release while I’m gone (the one you’ve already heard.)
  • Write one blog post and one mini-blog post and schedule them.
  • Finish the rough draft of my work-in-progress which is supposed to come with me on vacation for some reflection before starting a second draft.

That’s a really big list for ten days.

At first glance, that seems like a pretty good order. It prioritizes the things that have people, like listeners or a co-host, depending on them. It meets the goal of keeping the train on its tracks. The things on the bottom are the expendable ones, the ones that will keep if they have to be put off a few weeks, or whatever.

But did you notice what’s on the bottom?

There will always be a list of things ahead of that work-in-progress, the novel you want to send out into the world. There will always be other deadlines, other projects, other collaborators. It’s like making time for yourself. If you don’t do, it doesn’t happen.

As I write this, I don’t know what this blog or podcast will look like while I’m gone. There’s a plan and I hope it will be realized. But I won’t do it at the expense of my writing. I have to make that time for me, too. I am forever grateful that I came to podcasting and launched this whole thing. But I am a one-woman band and I have to keep my center at the center. I said in exasperation to my husband the other night that I didn’t think there was a chance I’d make my own deadline on my work-in-progress. “Not with that attitude,” he told me. Thank goodness for accountability partners.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write. Join me, won’t you?

Kris

Writer Infidelty: are you cheating on your Work in Progress?

Tell me if this has happened to you:

I am in love with the story I am currently writing. When I make time to work on it, I feel like I’m sinking into it. The characters speak to me, I care how it turns out for them, and the whole thing feels like a yummy layer cake with moist, tantalizing layers.

Except, in the back of my head, there lives this other story. This one has been percolating in my imagination for awhile but required some research, some narrowing of scope, some pre-writing work. I’ve been working on that stuff on and off for awhile and am finally getting this story to the point that I know where the story begins and am ready to start outlining it.

I just can’t. I can’t do that to my current work-in-progress, because if I do the fear is I will get absorbed into the new project and my other project, my dear sweet wonderful work-in-progress project will wither on the vine and die.

I’ve toyed with non-monogamy, certainly, but I deal with issues of time, procrastination, and distraction, as I’ve mentioned before. I’ve put myself on deadline to finish the rough draft of the work-in-progress, and once the rough draft is done I will allow myself some time to do both…a second draft of one simultaneous with a first draft of the other doesn’t feel so unmanageable. But ask me in a month…we’ll see how I’m doing.

Are you a monogamous writer? Do you suffer with writer’s wandering eye and the guilt associated with it? Do you somehow manage to juggle? I would love to hear your stories.

Happy writing,

Kris

Do You Read Literary Journals?

A blog I read recently posted links to the stories of the week. I thought it was a great idea, I’m all for supporting other writers, so I tried to think of a piece of fiction I had read online that I could share. I went to my two or three favorite spots for reading flash fiction (I was thinking of flash fiction only because that’s what I do,) and eventually found a great piece, but it made me realize how narrow my reading is of literary journals…and again, this is what I DO.

A note on me before I start throwing my opinions around: I don’t have an MFA in Creative Writing or other significant training in writing or publishing. My degree is actually in library science, which gives me a different lens through which I view literature. I am not coming to this topic as an “expert,” but simply as me, sharing my views.

When I started the No Extra Words podcast, I wanted to include the voices of other writers, as a podcast filled with my own writing was going to become boring and difficult to sustain quite quickly. This necessitated the creation of submission guidelines and a process for navigating submissions. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, I started researching how other publications have done this. I started putting calls for submissions in places where literary journals do this, and learning about their processes. Nowadays, when I am asked to define the show to other podcasters, I describe it as “two parts podcast and one part literary journal.”

So I’m pretty close to BEING a literary journal, but do I READ them?

In print? Almost never. Very rarely do I pick up print literary journals. I know one area bookstore that stocks them. When I was working in libraries, I usually did not work in the branches that stocked them. Most large multi-branch libraries I know have a collection in their flagship or regional branches. The smaller community libraries generally have none or just the top three you’ve heard of (Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, etc.) Most people I would meet (and these are the readers, the kind of people who spend their time browsing libraries,) react to them the way I do: If they are around, yeah, I’ll leaf through a literary journal and maybe read a story or two, but it is not a primary way I seek out new reading material.

Okay, so maybe the print journals are struggling. This is not a huge surprise. Print everything is struggling. I bet you know of a local newspaper or two that is no more as well. It makes sense that the print landscape for such a tiny market is contracting. But what about online literary journals? They are everywhere, right? I filtered the database of literary magazines on the Poets & Writers website to just web publications (they list e-publications and audio/video publications separately.) 691 results came up. And since we all spend a whole lot of our time online, they must get read, right?

I thought about which ones I read. Which ones I searched when I was looking for something to share with this blogger. And the answer is: there are two or three I regularly browse when I’m looking for a quick hit of fiction. Two or three that I like because I’ve found some good stuff there in the past and I like the way they organize things or think of things. I’ll put my links list at the bottom of this post.

Well, that’s depressing. Because, like you and hundreds of other writers, I submit to literary journals. I want them to publish me. I get a lot of rejection slips from them. But when that elusive publication does come, is anyone reading?

This is far from a new conversation. When you ask your favorite search engine if there are too many literary journals or if anyone is reading literary journals, you’ll see this conversation has been happening as long as there has been an Internet to discuss it on, probably longer. And the answers, from the pro-literary journal side (and I want to emphasize, I don’t think of myself as being on the anti-literary journal side, this is just a question I am wrestling with) are: yes, readership is low, but those who are reading are gatekeepers, wine tasters, change leaders. Literary journals offer space to new writers to test new work and bring new voices in a way no one else in the publishing world does. It is good when the literary marketplace is open to new writers.

It doesn’t always feel wide open to those of us with a stack of rejection letters from these places, and the question has been asked before if literary journals are all publishing the same “kind” of stuff. But yes, it is how some writers find first exposure, a voice, and the platform on which they build to more. Some writers. But “literary” fiction is only a small slice of the literature pie. Does this work for everyone? Does it need to?

As usual, I’m wrapping this up with more questions than answers, and this time it stings a little because I am on the literary journal side. I know how hard it is to find an audience. I’m constantly working to get more listeners for the podcast so that the writers who share their work on the show get wider exposure (and the show along with it.) We have grown a ton in the last year, but we have growing yet to do.

And underneath all of it, there is this lingering unspoken question: is there a tipping point? What do we do when there are more readers than writers?

On that depressing note, as you write something today, go read something, okay?

Kris

Some of my favorite online literary journals:

Oblong: a print and online flash fiction zine

Literary Orphans: pairing up great photography with great writing

Flash Fiction Online

Feel free to share yours in the comments!

 

 

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