What Is a Blurb? And Why You Should Care.

I never saw a purple cow
I never hope to see one . . .

(Stay tuned for what this has to do with blurbs)

Blurb Walking the Twilight

A blurb is a short description of a book, movie, or other product, written for promotional purposes. The blurb is usually presented as if it were written by a colleague of the author, or another professional in the same field, lauding the book without expecting any compensation.

In reality, the book’s author or an employee in the marketing department of the publisher may actually write the blurb. In the marketing department case, the blurb-writer has often failed to read the whole book– and sometimes the author doesn’t even get to approve it. If the writer is especially lazy, the blurb may be a synopsis of the plot.

Remember that a blurb, like everything about the outside of the book, is a selling mechanism, another in a series of advertisements designed to make the book appealing to buyers.

The cover is intended to draw the reader in, piquing interest. Most readers then flip the book over to read what’s written on the back cover, or the inside flaps. At this point, the reader may decide to buy the book– or put it down. The blurb can make the difference in that decision.

blurb-poker-alice-tubbs-1.jpg

If you are asked to write a blurb, ask yourself:

— Do you sincerely like the book? Writing a blurb just to impress the author so that person may return the favor is risky; consider your conscience.

— Do you respect the writer and the work enough to have your name associated with it?

— Do you want this person to owe you the favor of writing a blurb for your book? Would you want this person’s name on your book?

Blurb a Slow Trot Home

If you choose to write the blurb, consider these suggestions:

— Study the content, word count, premise of the book, the flavor of the writing. Take notes on what gets your attention. If you start losing interest, ask yourself why.

— Read the whole book rather than risk it taking a turn you don’t anticipate and therefore didn’t mention. Study each of the following elements:

Audience: consider who will read the book, and the kind of language that will catch the attention of those readers. If the book is for the general public, your language may be informal; use specific terms for professionals, and simpler words for children and young adults.

Theme: what is the book’s central idea?

Characters: briefly describe the central figures, such as “sassy beauty Delilah O’Neill,” and the setting in which they live.

Plot or narrative: write a sentence or two that summarizes and explains the book, touching on content, ideas and organization. Be clear about the kind of book you are reviewing. Romance readers will not thank you for enticing them into reading scholarly nonfiction. And please don’t tell the entire plot of the book, or give away the surprise ending.

Blurb Daughters of the Grasslands

To write a blurb for your own book:

Don’t pretend to be some scholar in your field; deception will out. You need not sign the blurb; simply use it on the back cover of the book.

Consider how to draw the reader in, to set the scene. Do you need to make the location and time period clear? Introduce the main character?

Think about your audience: who is your book written for? Is it appropriate to place a character in context? You might write: Jane Farmington is a rancher in Nebraska who grew up in a family where education was not respected. Now she is an English professor working for a university in a nearby town, watching the third and fourth generation on the farm grow more isolated.

Think of writing the blurb as having four steps:

  1. Introduce the main character or characters.
  1. Provide just enough of the story to show how the primary conflict unfolds.
  1. In hinting at the conflict, show what the consequences of the book’s action are likely to be. The reader needs to know that the main character has something to lose.
  1. Personalize: show readers why they need to read this book. Subtly make comparisons between comparable books, and show what makes your book unique.

Further research: If this information isn’t enough to inspire you to commit blurbs, check online. Dozens of people have posted their opinions, though some are of limited value.

Blurb Grassland Genealogy

Soliciting blurbs.

If possible, ask reviewers who are professionals in your field, and who have the respect of the reading public, to comment on your book. A reviewer with a conscience will refuse to blurb the book rather than write a lukewarm response, but not all reviewers are so honest.

Before you ask, consider whether you wish to be obligated to this person.

Do not promise to use the blurb! You might be amazed at the subtle ways a blurb from someone who dislikes the book can denigrate it.

Explore respected reviewing journals, like Kirkus, to see if you can get reviews. Look for possible outlets in magazines like Poets & Writers.

Blurb Conservation for a New Generation

Where did the term blurb originate?

According to my American Heritage dictionary, the term was coined by Gelet Burgess, an American humorist who lived from 1866 until 1951.

In 1907, Gelet Burgess coined the term “blurb”– meaning “a flamboyant advertisement, an inspired testimonial”– in attributing the cover copy of his book, Are You a Bromide? to a Miss Belinda Blurb.

Gelet’s book is still available, but he was best known for his verse, including “The Purple Cow,” published on May Day, May 1, 1895. My mother recited the verse to me when I was four years old, but I knew nothing about its history until recently. No doubt this started me on the path to poetry, but thank goodness I eventually learned NOT to rhyme.

I never saw a purple cow;
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

The full title– Burgess loved long titles– was “The Purple Cow: Reflections on a Mythic Beast Who’s Quite Remarkable, at Least.” The illustrated verse, which appeared in the first issue of The Lark, remained the ultimate in nonsense verse, but Burgess spent his life trying to write funnier poems.

By 1897 he had become so sick of the poem that he wrote, “Confession: and a Portrait Too, upon a Background that I Rue,” also published in The Lark (Number 24, April 1, 1897).

Ah, yes, I wrote the “Purple Cow”—
I’m sorry, now, I wrote it;
But I can tell you Anyhow
I’ll kill you if you Quote it.

One more comment about blurbs:

Blur – bon – ic plague. n (blurb + bubonic plague): A disease of literature characterized by the appearance of suppurating blurbs on the skin of a book, feverish half-quotes, and regurgitation, leading to rapid film adaptation and hallucinations of grandeur, thought to be transmitted from author to author via their shared agents. “Tom Wolfe’s THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES contracted blurbonic plague, and, in its final tragic stages, the book suffered even more than did its author.”

— Brian McCormick, writer; from IN A WORD, a Harper’s Magazine dictionary of words that don’t exist but ought to, edited by Jack Hitt, Laurel, 1992.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom


Blurbs written by Linda M. Hasselstrom used in this blog come from the back covers of the following books, in order:
Book Walking the Twilight - Editor Kathryn Wilder

Walking the Twilight: Women Writers of the Southwest
Edited by Kathryn Wilder
(1994, Northland Publishing)

Book Poker Alice Tubbs - Liz Duckworth

Poker Alice Tubbs: The Straight Story. A Lady Gambler in the Wild West
By Liz Morton Duckworth
(2018, Filter Press)

Book A Slow Trot Home - Lisa Sharp

A Slow Trot Home
By Lisa G. Sharp
(2014, Wheatmark)

Book Daughters of the Grasslands - Mary Haug

Daughters of the Grasslands: A Memoir
By Mary Woster Haug
(2014, Bottom Dog Press)

Book Grassland Genealogy - Pat Frolander

Grassland Genealogy
By Patricia Frolander
(2009, Finishing Line Press)

Book Conservation for a New Generation - editors Knight and White

Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management
Edited by Richard L. Knight and Courtney White
(2008, Island Press)

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Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

*~*~*~*~*

Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Language That Makes Me Grouchy

Westie Snarling because he hates misused phrases

Lately I’ve found myself snarling when I see language usages that are blatantly incorrect. And I see them everywhere, every day. As a responsible writer, I feel it’s my duty to call attention to these mistakes.

I most often explode when reading one of my local newspapers, The Rapid City Journal, for which I was once an intern as well as a regular staffer. I worked and learned during the reign of the late Jim Kuehn, who would never have put up with any of these insults to the language we were taught to revere.

And when I worked for the Sioux City Journal in college, Harvey, the gravel-voiced local editor, would have bellowed the name of the offending writer across the newsroom and explained the error at the top of his lungs so that no writer in the place missed the message. He referred to this method as “educating journalists.” I wish more journalists had studied in those tough schools.

Here are some usages I’ve read lately which are incorrect or just plain annoying.

We’ve been experiencing some issues that have interrupted service.

No, your organization has had problems, it has had outages, or it has had interruptions, but it has not had “issues.” My favorite dictionary, The American Heritage, lists 8 definitions with some sub-definitions for the word “issue” and none of them makes “experiencing some issues” correct.

She shared with me that you would like a ride to the auditorium.

People seem to share all kinds of things these days– diseases, meals, spouses– but what “she” did was tell you that I wanted a ride to the auditorium.

The registration lives in a folder in the glove box.

Yes, the registration is in the glove box, eating, defecating, taking showers and calling its friends at 3 a.m.  Get a pet. This is paper; it is not alive. You risk dismemberment if you tell me your bicycle lives in the garage.

I’m adulting.

No you’re not. You’re adulterating a perfectly respectable noun with a confusing addition. Adult is a noun. Adding “ing” does not make it a verb, and might lead to similar attempts to turn perfectly good words into some cutesy cliché. We already have “I’m penciling you in,” which is more than enough. Stop it right now! From now on, I’m going to assume everyone who uses the term ADULTING is ADULTERATING the language by committing ADULTERY.

To my horror, I see that the Rapid City Journal of March 28 printed an advertisement from Black Hills State University offering an “Adulting Seminar.” Worse yet, it’s the second such day-long event, in which students are taught “life skills necessary for success after college.” The program’s host says, “Many students enter the workforce without knowing the basics of buying a home, purchasing insurance or borrowing money.” Apparently those who will be teaching those very necessary skills have entered the workforce without having any respect for correct grammar. And in two years of advertising this program, no one has corrected the advertisement.

“here here”

What you mean to say is “Hear! Hear!” The phrase “hear him, hear him!” was used in Parliament from late in the 17th century, and was reduced to “hear!” or “hear, hear!” by the late 18th century. The verb hear had earlier been used in the King James Bible as a command for others to listen.

“for all intensive purposes”

You mean “for all intents and purposes,”

The phrase “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” dates from sixteenth-century English law. Later, the shortened “for (or to) all intents and purposes” became more popular than the original phrase. It means “in every practical sense” or “virtually.”

“Intensive” means “characterized by intensity.”

these impulses need to be reigned in

It is highly unlikely that a ruling monarch will be restraining your impulses; instead, like an unruly horse, they will be “reined in,” or controlled, possibly with a couple of leather straps.

The older children reigned in the toddlers

I threw the mystery in which this phrase appeared across the room for several reasons but this was the proverbial last straw. In this instance, apparently the older children brought the toddlers under control by “exercise of sovereign power,” rather than by “reining” them in, or restraining, checking or guiding them.

My head hurts as if it were in a vice

The word needed here is vise, which refers to a metal tool with movable jaws that are used to hold an object firmly in place while work is done in it. This clamping device is typically attached to a workbench.

“Vice” on the other hand is “immoral or wicked behavior.” And certainly the vice of drinking might cause your head to hurt, but that’s no excuse for this mistake.

A crashed drone attached with bags of marijuana and tobacco was found. . . .

No, the drone had bags of marijuana and tobacco attached to it.

All this will help to grow the economy

No: all this will help to improve the economy, or make it better, or increase its profit margin. The economy is not alive; it cannot grow.

campaign to grow their space

This one gets another usage note in my American Heritage, which says this transitive use “applied to business and nonliving things is quite new. It came into full bloom during the 1992 presidential election, when nearly all the candidates were concerned with ‘growing the economy.’ The Usage Panel is decidedly less fond of this development than business leaders and politicians are. Eighty percent of the panel rejects the phrase grow our business.”  Again, I am delighted to be in the majority.

The note continues that “The Panel has no affection for the odd but occasionally heard phrase grow down: 98 percent reject ‘If elected, I shall do my utmost to grow down the deficit.’” Shudder. I will never vote for a politician who uses these phrasings.

The boy dreams of being an iconic figure in baseball. Lady Gaga is known for her iconic outfits.

The first definition of “icon” is simply “an image,” but the second is “a representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage.” So the reader of this overused word might surmise that the boy would like to become a Christian figure in baseball, and Lady Gaga is known for dressing like a Christian

A State Department spokesperson walked back his comments about the crisis in Korea

He didn’t walk anywhere, though assigning a good long walk might give him time to reconsider his hasty comments and his grammar. The man changed his mind, or misspoke, or lied, or maybe really wished he hadn’t said that, or was ordered to retract the statement, but he didn’t walk anywhere. He wants us to forget what he said the first time.

He was pouring over the document

If he was “pouring” something over the document, we need to know what liquid he was using. If he was “poring” over it, he was studying it closely

People tell me that they reached out to me when I’ve never met them.

They did not stretch out a body part to touch me, and they did not touch me– the top two dictionary definitions of “reach.” If they want to talk with me, they could email, or telephone (if they can find my unlisted number), or use Facebook. But if they tell me they are “reaching out” to me, I probably won’t answer.

was found inside the burnt home

No, it was found in the burned home, the past tense of burn. Burnt sugar and burnt toast are both more common in published text than burned sugar or burned toast, but both are incorrect. Burnt is also used in color names like burnt umber and burnt sienna, so this common mistake is easier to understand. I, however, do not forgive it.

breaks silence

This term might be appropriate if a monk or a nun who had taken vows not to speak and hadn’t uttered a sound for 65 years decided to address the nation, but for some rock star to use the term to explain the lyrics of his latest song, or a spurned lover to call a news conference to talk about the unreasonable demands made by the ex– no.

I wanted to connect with you

If “connection” is what you have in mind, I consider your suggestion obscene and insulting, though all you really have done so far is to write me a letter. I do not “connect” with folks to whom I do not have a close romantic relationship.

a haunting first novel

When “haunting” is used to describe a first novel, the reviewer is using the dictionary definition of “unforgettable,” but I’ve seen few first novels that weren’t easy to forget. Rather, the overuse of this word suggests to me that the book being reviewed was a ghost of what a novel should be: a pale shadow of good writing, as if the writer had heard of the rules of good English but like some government officials, doesn’t believe in them.

Or perhaps the novel most resembled someone dressed in a sheet and waving their arms, a ghost of a novel composed of poor spelling, terrible grammar, flimsy plots and unbelievable characters who never come to life.

My vacay this year

If you’re too exhausted to say the entire word– “vacation”– you’d better stay home or get to a doctor.

she will graduate high school

I was fascinated to discover an extensive note in The American Heritage Dictionary about this usage. The preferred definition is this: “Graduate: to be granted an academic degree or diploma.”

At the bottom of the page appears the following:  “Usage note: The verb graduate has denoted the action of conferring an academic degree or diploma since at least 1421. Accordingly, the action of receiving a degree should be expressed in the passive, as in She was graduated from Yale in 1998. . . . In general usage, however, it has largely yielded to the much more recent active pattern (first attested in 1807): She graduated from Yale in 1998. Eighty-nine percent of the panel accepts this use. . .The Usage Panel feels quite differently about the use of graduate to mean ‘to receive a degree from,’ as in ‘She graduated Yale in 1998.’ Seventy-seven percent object to this usage.”

You may count me among those conscientious objectors– a clear majority!

An historian from this region wrote that the locals in one of South Dakota’s wilder regions “distain the sight of a tire track.”

What he meant to indicate was that these ranchers viewed a tire track with “disdain: To regard or treat with haughty contempt; despise.” I had picked up this book at my local library; I quickly put it down again and advised the librarian of its error.

body wash

I’ve even seen ads for “anti-cellulite body wash;” does anyone really believe that taking a bath will remove cellulite? Here’s an ad for “foamous” body wash– what in the world does that do? How about “energizing” or “calming” cleanser? “Age defying renewing” body wash? “Nourishing” herbal body wash?

“Virgin coconut oil”: well, we wouldn’t want coconut oil that had been around the block a time or two, now would we? “Shower gel” promises to keep your skin “fresh,” but I suspect that if you sweat when you work out, it won’t be “fresh” long.

When I want to get clean, I’ll still reach for soap. I just wish there was a “mouth wash” to clean these words and phrases off the tongues of the speakers who use them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Westies happy about well-written work

Neither the snarling Westie who hates misused phrases, at the beginning of this blog, nor these two Westies who are pleased with well-written prose, are my dogs. These photos were borrowed from the internet with my thanks.

What Are You Willing to Do?

Book promotion -- Facebook

Every now and then, despite my advanced years and practice in ignoring “promotion” and its requirements and details, I happen to notice some new trend in self-advertising, and spend several seconds-or-minutes-that-feel-like-hours with my mouth hanging open that someone could and would do “that” to try to get people to read their books.

Then I hit myself on the head with one of the 17 books I’ve written while mostly ignoring that advice, and get on with whatever I’m doing that I enjoy more than promotion– like mopping the kitchen floor. Cleaning the toilet with a new homemade mixture someone recommended. Making ham fried rice for lunch to use up those leftovers.

If you enjoy doing readings of your work, and hearing applause, answering questions like, “Where do you get your ideas?” do the kind of promotion that leads you into those situations. Such promotion takes huge amounts of energy and patience. Many writers may not realize how completely we arrange our writing world, our home, so that it suits us– until we get out in a world of poor lighting, noise, and intrusive questions. If you hate those things, perhaps there’s another way to find readers.

Readers are what we want. And not all promotion leads to readers. Some leads only to more promotion.

I will not soon forget one of my best-paying jobs when I was escorted to a large auditorium to give my reading and found only two people there: one student, and one elderly woman who had apparently wandered away from a facility for the mentally unstable. I sat on the edge of the stage and talked with the two audience members, giving them as good a talk as I have ever done. But I might have been at home doing my work, which is writing.

And I don’t suppose the fine man who invited me to that school– and arranged for me to be paid well for coming– ever got over the embarrassment of having no one, not even those of his own classes or his teaching colleagues, show up. ​

Book promotion -- speaking to groups

I love to do readings. I speak well, and learned from some fine speech coaches how to project and how to draw an audience into my world for an hour. I know many colleges and universities could afford the price I ask for a talk or reading and I would enjoy doing it.

But in order to accept such an invitation, I may have to drive for hours, ride unreliable public transportation, sleep in a noisy motel and eat bad food. I have to consider all those negatives while considering the positive gain of the money and the recognition.

Book promotion -- book storesToo often, even from prestigious and well-endowed institutions, the invitation is, “Please come and read your work to our freshman students. We’ll allow you to sell your books for compensation.” I have largely given up explaining why such an invitation is an insult, and the institution isn’t listening anyway, because they can get 5 young authors anxious to promote themselves for the price of my honorarium. Once some of those authors bring bedbugs home from a cheap motel, they will be less enthusiastic.

But the world has created Facebook and a number of other media with which I am not familiar– Twitter? LinkedIn? Skype? I recently saw a headline informing me of “60+ social media sites you need to know about in 2019.”  Even checking out all 60 of those sites would take me less time than preparing for a 15-minute talk.

In addition, with help from an excellent assistant, I have a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and this blog. I can sit in the comfort of my study writing what I want to write and through those venues can reach hundreds more people than I would reach after a nine-hour drive somewhere.

So do the research on what “promotion” venues exist, and consider which ones might suit your temperament. Think of the people you want to read your books. These would be intelligent and thoughtful readers who might write you short notes of appreciation, or even question some of your premises and with whom you could have an enjoyable exchange of ideas.

Who are those people? Where are they? How can you reach them? Then craft the kind of promotion that will allow you to find them and enjoy their company– while continuing to write.

To quote a friend, “Write the F#$%ING thing!” is the best advice I can give you about self-promotion.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This blog started as correspondence with a writer friend, who is quoted in the last line. Read her book and very fine blog “Between Urban and Wild.”

See my website events page “Where in the World Is Linda M. Hasselstrom?” and scroll down through many years of my own writing promotion, including art exhibits, awards, billboards, classes, entertainment events, interviews, talks, workshops, and my own writing retreats.

Of course nothing beats a testimonial by a famous person!

Book promotion - testimonials by famous people

 

 

Monitoring Your Time

Journal-Writing Workshop for Hermosa Arts and History Association 2019--3-16

I mentioned this exercise in a journal-writing workshop I just taught for the Hermosa Arts and History Association (HAHA) on Saturday, March 16th, 2019.

If you take one week to monitor where you spend your time you will discover what your current priorities are, even if they are unintentional. Once you realize where your time is going, you can choose your priorities and make changes in how you spend your time so that you can accomplish your goals– in this case, writing goals.

Here’s how:

*~*~*~*~*

The Time Monitor

Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day [96 lines for a 24-hour day]. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.

Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: … cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don’t think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.

Time Monitor* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.

* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, “Sorry we don’t have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn’t go get it.”

* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you’ll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer’s block.

* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don’t schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.

Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.

How to Benefit from the Time Monitor

At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities– no matter what you might have told yourself or others.

Time Monitor with notesIf you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mindset as well as your actions.

Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don’t try to change too much too soon. That is, don’t immediately say, “Well, NEXT week I’ll spend 5 hours a day writing.” Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don’t try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.

Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.

Suggestions to Consider While Changing Your Priorities

* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you’re fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.

* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don’t try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and “fail,” you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.

* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.

* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think “Five minutes isn’t long enough to do anything,” but if you’ve been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don’t have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought–washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.

* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it’s time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don’t write where you sleep– where your body and mind are trained to slow down– or vice versa; don’t eat or watch TV in your writing place.

* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, “OK, it’s time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing.” Anything that works for you is acceptable.

* Don’t get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven’t created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning– as writing is– requires energy.

* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing– your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it’s not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.

* Avoid noise distractions. I can’t write with the radio on– the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises– traffic, for example– and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don’t play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I’m trying to write.

* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you’ve asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don’t know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.

In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:

Great American Novel Disrupted - sign

A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:

“I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”

Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:

“Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery
or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.”

— from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (NY: Ballantine, 1992)

If these gentler messages don’t work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative– “You are rude, you are ruining my work”– try putting the message more positively: “I am having trouble with what I’m working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? ”

Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone– your mother, for example– while asking her not to interrupt: “Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I’ve created this writing job for myself.” Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.

* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)

Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas.”

interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.

* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It’s hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives– turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: “I’m working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” The deadline might be your own– “I’m going to finish this today”– but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.

* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively– not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Organizing Your Time

* What little task can I finish in five minutes?

Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: “I am making progress.”

* Am I beating myself up?

Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up– berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.

I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!

(Breathing in)
I am arriving;
(breathing out)
I am home.
(Breathing in)
I am here;
(breathing out)
this is now.
(Breathing in)
I am rooted;
(breathing out)
I am free.
(Breathing in)
I dwell
(breathing out)
in the ultimate.

–Buddhist gatha, prayer

Little Buddha on the Prairie

* Is this a piano?

Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: “Well, this ain’t no piano.” If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don’t ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well– doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.

Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don’t have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.

* How did I waste time today?

As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you’re more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”

* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?

Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt– that deadline, you know– and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.

* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?

Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.

* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn’t do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.

The investment of time will pay off– often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.

writing and cooking -- does multi-tasking work

* Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you– what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.

* Would I pay myself for what I’m doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you’ve just taken your third popcorn break.

An Exercise That Refreshes and Recharges

The Roaring Lion

Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged– with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.

The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
–Simone Weil
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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(This blog was originally published on my website’s blog page on April 18, 2012)

 

Build a Book with Journal Entries

Journal under pillow

If you begin the habit of writing in your journal every day, you can lead yourself into writing a book– not quite painlessly.

If you sit at the computer and think:

I am going to
write a book

you may terrify yourself with the monumental nature of the task.

Instead, resolve to write a journal entry every day. Let your book build itself.

In order to make this a habit, you should choose to write at the same time. And because our days so easily fill with tasks, you might be most successful if the time you write in your journal is when you first wake up.

This arrangement may depend in part on your sleeping arrangements, but all of us require privacy early in the morning. I keep my journal beside the bed. When I get up, I usually have to let the dog out, so I also turn on the coffee and turn up the heat. By the time I’ve had a few private moments in the bathroom, the dog is ready to come in and the coffee is finished. I put a cup on my bedside table, arrange the pillows behind me, take my journal out from under the pillow beside me where it spent the night, and begin the day with the date, time, temperature and thoughts.

I keep the journal under the pillow, with a pen slipped to a blank page, because I often have a thought in the middle of the night, and can write it down immediately. If I need more light, I have on the bedside table a tiny light that clips around a pen.

WindbreakIf sitting up in bed doesn’t afford you the privacy you need, then take advantage of the bathroom: take your journal with you and begin your day in peace and quiet, writing.

One more element exists to this method of building a book from journal entries: begin thinking about, and writing about, a particular topic. No matter what else you write in your journal to begin the day, devote a few minutes to writing about that topic.

Journal entry, from Windbreak, September 29, page 22:

When the folks came back from town this afternoon, the cats had a young bird down on his back. Mother rushed over to him, and realized it wasn’t anything she’d ever seen before. They rescued it, handling it with thick gloves because of its talons, and put it in a box in the garage. I believe it’s a falcon, because of the beak, one of those tiny fast ones. They called Game, Fish and Parks, and an officer came out and picked the bird up. He’ll be fed and checked for injury, and then released. I can’t imagine how the fat, lazy barn cats ever got their claws into him in the first place, but he’s not badly hurt.

At that point, I’d told the falcon’s story and believed I was finished with it– though I didn’t even know what kind of bird the cats had caught. I did, however, study the bird closely before it was released, and identified it as a kestrel, a small hawk common on the plains as hunters of mice, grasshoppers, and the like.

But I kept thinking about the story– the cats were following their own habits, doing their feline duty by catching the bird. We interrupted the food chain by rescuing it and turning it over to a government official for release. But the bird, too, has a job — kestrels may occasionally kill cats; certainly their larger cousins the owls do. The thoughts percolated in my mind until I wrote a poem, in partial reaction to heckling by vegetarians who Land Circlebelieve I ought to get rid of cows and raise gardens, an action which would be contrary to the nature of the landscape since it would require plowing up the thin soil, exposing it to erosion. Here’s the poem I wrote from this journal entry:

What the Falcon Said

Flat on his back, feathers bloody,
surrounded by drooling cats,
the young falcon hissed,
clacked his beak, clawed air.
His feathers were bloody;
one cat licked a bleeding ear.
Falcon’s yellow eyes didn’t blink
when I picked him up
like a handful of springs,
like a grenade with the pin pulled.
None of the blood was his.

I put him high in a cedar tree.
He clutched the branch and panted,
glared at me,
then shot straight up like a bullet.
Next day, on my horse, I saw
a redwing blackbird whistling on a post
explode in the middle of a fluid run of song.
The falcon shot away, clutching the corpse.
He screeched once but I heard what he said:

Don’t expect pretty lies from me.
I know my job.
You saved me from the cats
so I could live.
I kill to eat.
So do the cats.

So do you.

© 1991, Linda Hasselstrom, Land Circle, page 192

The metaphors are not country ones, but I tried many others while I remembered and considered the feeling of that small bird in my hand.

That single event also grew into a prose piece:

Falcon Dreaming

The mind heals itself in intricate and surprising ways, and even during such serious work, demonstrates its sense of humor. One winter night I dreamed I was walking up the entrance road after getting the mail, and came upon a pile of clothing. I immediately recognized it as George’s: his worn belt, the big shoes, the circle his Skoal can left in his shirt pocket. Everything he might have worn on a normal work day was there; I unfolded each item and looked at it closely, breathed his clean scent from the wrinkles. Tucked inside, I found a note; George explained that he was really an explorer of our world, sent from an advanced, star-traveling race to see if we were civilized yet. He said he was sorry to go, but he had other planets to visit; this was his third visit, and when he came back, I would be long dead, because his kind lives so much longer than ours.

I woke up smiling, and then laughing. George was always fascinated with space, and would have traded his rifle for a chance to ride a space shuttle. He loved to read science fiction, and speculate on the possibilities of advanced races. Part of my mind was still not willing to believe that he is dead; it was comforting to fantasize that a higher duty took him elsewhere. And I still resented the well-meaning person who had laundered all the dirty clothes we left behind when we went to the hospital; only his oldest work coats and his leather buckskinning clothes still held his scent, and I longed for it enough to put it in my dream.

Another night, later in the winter, I dreamed I was on a pack trip with three other people in terrain that resembled Jackson Hole. We were well-equipped, carrying our gear on pack mules and riding good horses. The day was sunny and cold, but we were comfortable in our wool and leather rendezvous clothing, or perhaps it was really 1840. I felt no fear, only a deep freedom and joy to be riding through such country before the white man’s greed destroyed it. George wasn’t with us, but I felt comfortable with the other riders, though I can’t name them. I sensed that George would meet us somewhere ahead. I felt vibrantly alive.

While we rested high above a broad valley a brilliant turquoise falcon with gold wings alighted on my wrist. The other riders simply nodded as if he was expected, and we rode on. I was following the snow-crusted rump of a buffalo, which didn’t seem incongruous. Glancing up, I noticed that a large eagle was circling above our group, and accepted it as a sign of George’s guidance. I knew the little falcon wouldn’t leave me, and put him on my shoulder.

Suddenly the lead rider galloped over a steep wall into a streambed, and the buffalo followed. I was worried about my horse falling, so I dismounted and ran ahead; I heard the horse thrashing behind me. The falcon lifted a little from my shoulder, balancing himself with spread wings. I fell, rolled over in a flurry of snow, and stood again, brushed myself off and was ready to mount and ride on. I felt no fear, only assurance.

Almost at once I woke, encouraged by the dream. I knew the eagle was symbolic of George’s protection, as the falcon was of my own strength. I’d been doing something I was capable of, with strong friends, in the freedom and magnificence of a mountain wilderness. The white buffalo, sacred to the Lakota, was with us; I had seen him stalk into George’s hospital room, heard the rumble of his hooves, which an airman mistook for a B-1 taking off. George and I had often daydreamed about being able to live the old mountain life full-time, and apparently the dream still lived inside me. I was going to survive George’s death.

A phrase from the Navajo Beauty Way chant is inscribed inside our wedding rings: “In beauty may I walk.” George’s ring rests in a parqueted wood box on the dresser; mine is still on my finger.

-– Land Circle, p. 165-168.

Much later, I learned that the little falcon I saw was a kestrel or a merlin–it’s hard to tell the difference even with a bird book. And now, many years after George’s death, a kestrel flies overhead nearly every time I drive our entrance road.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

Kestrel on electric line along ranch lane January 2019

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Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains
$14.95 – paper
Nonfiction, with poetry. A diary of a year on a cattle ranch in western South Dakota, documenting the “work, worry and wonder” of this life. (Barn Owl Books, 1987)
Read about WINDBREAK on my website

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
$16.95 – paper
Essays and poetry on ranching, the environment, isolation, working, rendezvous, travel, teenagers, and the death of a spouse. (Fulcrum Publishing, 1991; new edition 2008)
Read about LAND CIRCLE on my website

Flying into Oblivion: How to Keep Your Writing Spirits Up

Proulx books

Annie Proulx (that’s pronounced PROO according to my conversation with her some years ago) has been named winner of the 2018 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.  The honor recognizes a knowledgeable writer whose body of work has told the readers “something new about the American experience.”

Proulx is a wise woman who said, in a May 2, 2018 article in the Washington Post, “I feel sorrow and urgency about the state of the natural world. So many extinctions loom, so much plastic chokes the waters, so many stars are blotted out by light pollution, so many birds have flown into oblivion.”

She asked friends who are passionate about the natural world how they manage to stave off grief at the “visible decline of the world we took for granted only a few decades ago.” Their response? “The consensus is to keep working in personal ways to protect what we still have, through citizen science or private behavior.”

I absolutely agree. I don’t own a television, so it’s easier for me to avoid the news of devastation and idiocy that blares from its shiny and deceptive face. I can’t imagine how folks who stare at it all day long save their sanity or equilibrium. Still, some people do despair, and believe that all hope is lost. I suggest that people who are saddened by the state of the world turn off the noisy box and get out into their community. Look at the parks littered with trash, the pet shelters. Does the local library have enough volunteers to help children find books? Does the Meals on Wheels group need more volunteers to deliver food to the elderly or homebound? Can your elderly neighbor shovel her walk after a snowstorm?  Somewhere you will find a way to help.

At age 83, Proulx has won numerous awards, but she’s especially delighted by the library award, which was formally presented September 1st at the National Book Festival in Washington. She says that the American experience that has “charged most of what I write has been place—the geography of North America and how different locales affected the way the inhabitants made a living, how they spoke, dressed, ate, thought.”

Proulx book brokeback-mountainThe West is my place, and Proulx is only one—but surely the most famous—of the writers who have focused on it.  Always curious about regional differences, Proulx began writing about rural places in her late 50s, focusing on the way people worked. She’s bounced from topic to topic, writing about forestry, shipping, and finally about cowboys—notoriously the short story “Brokeback Mountain” which drove western readers into frenzies of hatred or admiration. Her view of the West has become one of the best-known while many fine writers with a deeper understanding of the West continue to be ignored.

In 2017 she received and richly deserved the National Book Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, said at the time, “Proulx has given us monumental sagas and keen-eyed, skillfully-wrought stories” that capture the “wild, woolly heart of America from its screwball wit to its every last detail.” Hayden’s nomination was based on recommendations from previous winners, literary critics, and other writers.

I admire Proulx’s determination to begin a new life in late middle age, and her honest attempt to write what she sees, and she has seen a great deal. Because one of her topics resulted in the making of a successful movie, her view of the West has been widely accepted as the only view. This is not her fault, but it’s unfortunate.

Like all writers of an advanced age, Proulx is looking toward the end of her life, at flying into oblivion. We live in an era that seems to demand that everyone who accomplishes something deserving of attention immediately go “on the road”—or on talk shows—to engage in promotion. An inventor may have created a pill that saves lives, but unless she has discussed it with some late-night television personality whose primary claim to fame is white teeth, that achievement may be forgotten tomorrow.

Writers are particularly susceptible to the pitfalls of quick fame. Even many college professors these days pride themselves on teaching work from the hottest writing sensation rather than work that has been read for generations because it’s good. Perhaps, though, these awards will help Proulx achieve a more lasting recognition.

Most writers already know that the way to achieve instant stardom is to be chosen by a moviemaker. Few of us can make that happen, and the authors I have known whose work has been brought to the silver screen were universally horrified at the results.

We writers don’t get to choose what the public decides, but the alternatives are available to all of us: do you want fame? Or do you want to write what you believe as well as you can?

If you want to be famous, you need to pay attention to trends, be constantly alert to what interests the public—not necessarily the reading community—and make your work splashy enough to attract that fleeting and fickle attention.

I’ve had some amazing and startling experience with people who are Lakota, or gay, for example. Since I’m neither gay nor Lakota, I believe writing about them would be exploitive, or would smack of trying to create sensation. I stick to subjects I know more thoroughly, and encourage others to create their truths, whatever they are.

Computer hands - small copy for blog

I believe that if you want to write well, you must just keep writing. You may never achieve fame, but if you create the best writing of which you are capable, you are a success. As Proulx advises about the environment, “keep working in personal ways.”

Keep writing your own truth. Don’t look at extinctions; look for births. When writing seems especially difficult, don’t read about awards. Don’t subscribe to all the writing magazines. Instead, read your own old drafts and commend yourself for your improvement.

Or, in that journal you carry everywhere because you are a serious writer, try one of these suggestions:

The Daily Story
Try starting a story in a different style every day; set a mood of mystery, of horror, of humor; try to begin a romance novel like those in the supermarkets, whether that’s what you want to write or not. Test your limits and abilities as a writer; can you sound like Hemingway? Faulkner? All of this will be useful practice for writing, and any of those stories might turn into something you want to pursue further.

Field Notes on Your Culture
What cultures do you belong to? White? Hispanic? Single mother? Adults wearing braces? Women obsessed with their hair? Women who don’t give a darn about their hair? Middle-aged brides? People with 20-year-old cars? Sticklers for commas? List at least 20 cultures that you belong to. Get wild. Choose one from the list and begin writing, “I belong to the culture of . . .”

Sensory Impressions
Write as many sensory impressions as you can of one day, one year, one place; a room, a river; a neighborhood. Be sure to use all the senses: taste, smell, hearing, sight, touch.

Inventory
Inventory your check book stubs and credit card receipts; list what seem to be your priorities, based on this evidence. If these are not the priorities you believed you had, write about how they differ from what you are actually doing.

The primary point is this: if you want to be an 83-year-old writer someday, famous or not, looking back on your years of writing with a smile as you fly into oblivion or whatever follows this life, then keep writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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