September 27, 2013

Made It Moment: Sandra Hutchison

Filed under: Made It Moments — jenny @ 9:05 am

The Awful Mess

As some of you know, I gave thirteen years of my life to reaching the starting line, to getting a book on the shelf. This Moment contains a partial explanation of why. I first met the author, Sandy Hutchison, at a writers retreat and workshop in the Berkshires. To say that this experience was strange–and momentous–is not to get at all its uniqueness and color. I left with friends who are dear to me after almost a decade, and Sandy is one. When you finish reading, I think you will understand why. Writing is a business of some talent, a lot of perseverance, and most of all, heart. Sandy’s got all three, and I feel privileged to share this Moment, and her friendship.

Sandra Hutchison

My “made it moment” has nothing much to do with success as a writer. I’m still working on that. But it has brought me a different kind of success.

I wrote the first draft of The Awful Mess: A Love Story over a decade ago, during the debate over the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson. It was read by a number of agents, and I was told it was a good book, but a hard sell. So I put it away and moved on to the next one.

Still, writing it soon changed my life for the better.

You see, my heroine Mary gets into an awful mess that includes a job loss, a mortgage she can no longer afford, and a scandalous pregnancy perfecty timed to destroy a promising new relationship. Throw in her unraveling ex-husband and eventually even her life is at risk. (It’s a twist on The Scarlet Letter, actually, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy it.)

When she’s at her most isolated, Mary takes an older friend’s advice and starts volunteering in a local food pantry. And she finds great satisfaction in doing so, even as she dreads the day she’ll need help herself.

Now, I’m as prone to fantasizing about my imminent success as any writer. One day in the shower, I found myself wondering what I would say if an interviewer asked me about my own volunteer efforts.

Um… would PTA and Sunday School count?

Damn. My heroine was doing more for her community than I was. How embarrassing!

Not long after, a small piece in the local advertiser caught my eye. A food pantry needed regular volunteers. So I went to their open house, and I signed up for a regular shift.

Like most volunteers, and like Mary, I soon discovered that I got way more out of it than I gave. Perhaps most of all, I got to feel a part of my community in ways I never had before. (How did she figure that out before I did? I wrote her! Kind of weird, that.)

Anyway, I also got to see up close how many families are struggling. Yes, sometimes people are just messed up. An occasional client clearly feels entitled. But most often, we help people who are having difficult transitions between jobs or homes or relationships or illnesses or disabilities or whatever. Or we see people working over forty hours a week and finding that it’s simply not enough to pay for food, utilities, transportation, and health care. In all cases, the groceries we give — a week’s supply per month at most — simply help to tide them over.

That’s why during September, which is Hunger Action Month, I’m dedicating my net book earnings for the the month to Feeding America via this virtual campaign page.

This is coinciding with a special 99-cent offer for The Awful Mess: A Love Story (Sheer Hubris Press, June 2013). (Yes, I recently decided to publish it myself. You can sample early chapters free on the book’s Amazon page).

Naturally, I’m also hoping this promotion will help me get the word out about this ebook. Here’s my request: If you give it a try while it’s at this bargain price, and enjoy it, would you consider donating a little something in non-perishables to your local food pantry (or Feeding America, or another charity that helps people who are food-insecure)?

Heck, would you consider contributing something even if you never look at my book? There are families in your community or somewhere not too far away that need that help right now.

And thank you, Jenny, for letting me share this. (This lovely blog is clearly another example of helping others!)

For two decades, Sandra Hutchison’s career has shifted between teaching, writing, editing, marketing, and advertising, all of which she enjoys. She founded Sheer Hubris Press in 2013 in order to publish her novels and try using all of these skills at the same time. (With a few months under her belt now, she doesn’t necessarily recommend that you try this at home.)

Born and raised in the Tampa Bay area, Sandra survived a snowy December transplant to Greenfield, Massachusetts in high school and has stayed in cooler climes ever since. She is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has an MA in fiction writing from the University of New Hampshire. She currently lives with her husband and son outside of Troy, New York, where she teaches writing at Hudson Valley Community College.

September 16, 2013

Guest Post: Carolyn Rose

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:51 am

No Substitute For Money

Carolyn Rose is a frequent contributor to this blog as her last guest post reveals. This one may be my favorite yet. In it, Carolyn likens substitute teaching to being thrown to the lions–and lays out a plan for writers to come out stronger for it, and their books, too.

Now what kind of writer do you have to be to pull all that off? A good one. Read on…and learn about the giveaway!

Carolyn J. Rose

What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher And Used as a Writer

When my long career in TV news ended in 2001, I turned to substitute teaching to make ends meet—or at least come close to meeting. Fortunately my husband had a job, so I didn’t have to take every assignment the automated sub-locator system called to tell me about.

Barbara Reed, the protagonist of No Substitute for Murder and No Substitute for Money, doesn’t have that luxury. Barb is single and struggling. She has to take every job—no matter how difficult or demanding.

If you have ever subbed, you know all about difficult and demanding. If you haven’t had the “pleasure” of filling in for an absent teacher, cast your mind back to the days when you were in high school. If you’re anything like I was, your goal was to disrupt the class and drive a sub to the brink of a breakdown—all without getting into major trouble.

Guess what?

That hasn’t changed.

I sometimes compare myself to those inflatable punching toys with the weight in the bottom—the ones that right themselves after they’re knocked over. I try to roll with what comes and still be standing at the end of the day.

A few deceptively simple concepts help me do that. They also help me write, connect with readers, and “suffer the slings and arrows” of publishing and promoting.

  • It’s good to have a plan
  • Don’t get too comfortable
  • Project confidence
  • Think before you speak
  • They won’t all like you

It’s good to have a plan. On my first day as a sub, I got a late call to fill in for a middle school teacher struck down by stomach flu. I arrived on the run to find an administrator covering the first class. “I can’t find any lesson plans,” he warned me in a tense whisper. As it turned out, they didn’t exist; the teacher hadn’t made any. I found out later that she never did.

Writers call that pantsing. Writing by the seat of your pants. I used to do a lot of it, but that looonnnnnggg day of subbing cured me of full-out pantsing. I don’t outline to excess or plot every little movement, but before I start a book, I figure out how it will end and most of what will happen in the middle. Then I get all that down on index cards. Knowing I’ll change the first paragraphs many times, I don’t worry about that until I finish the first draft.

Don’t get too comfortable. One night my husband wondered why my feet hurt after a day at school. “Don’t you just sit behind the desk?” he asked.

I laughed for about ten minutes. “If you went into a cage with a bunch of lions,” I asked, “would you sit down?”

I might spend 5 minutes of a 55-minute period in a chair. The rest of the time I’m moving around the classroom. That lets me connect with more kids, offer help, and spot small problems before they become big ones.

As a writer, getting too comfortable with my characters and plots can be dangerous. I might miss something, leave something out, fail to knit up all the loose ends of logic, or not even notice that those ends are dangling.

Project confidence. Let’s go back to that lion image. One survival scheme is to make the lions perceive you as larger, stronger, and braver than you are. In the classroom I stand as tall as my 62 inches allow. And, while I don’t use my outdoor voice, I do use one a notch or two below it so back-of-the-roomer sitters can hear.

I use the same techniques when I speak to writers’ groups and classes. If I don’t come across as confident about my books or the workshop I’m putting on, my audience won’t have confidence in me. If they can’t hear me, they’ll make sure organizers don’t invite me back.

Think before you speak. There are a lot of words that will get a laugh in a high school classroom—some you might utter unintentionally because it’s almost impossible to keep up with teen culture. Meanwhile, actual attempts at humor may fall flat or be taken the wrong way.

I remember that when I’m writing dialogue. The possibility that what a character says may be misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted can put a whole different spin on a conversation—and on the plot.

They won’t all like you. No matter how many kids I connect with along the way, there will always be a few who wish I’d get out of their space and out of their school. It could be that one of us is having an off day. It could be a personality conflict. It could be the generation gap. The result is that anything I say or do is wrong. And they have ways—not always subtle—of letting me know.

The same is true of readers and reviewers. The ones who don’t like my books use those dreaded one-star reviews to make their case. I don’t let those reviews get to me, but I don’t write them off. I consider what those reviewers had to say and why they said it, and I consider what I might learn to improve the next book.

Someday soon I’ll turn in my sub keys for the last time. But I’ll keep the rules as long as I have the will to write.

If you’ve got rules to share—about writing, working, living, or even lunching—please stop by and leave a comment.

Jenny and I will draw three names from those who comment and I’ll give each one an e-copy of one of my books.

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Now getting her quota of stress as a substitute teacher, she lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. She is the author of a number of novels, including No Substitute for Murder, A Place of Forgetting, An Uncertain Refuge, and Hemlock Lake.

She has also authored five books with Mike Nettleton, her long-suffering husband. He recently released a solo effort, Shotgun Start.

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