Writing & Publishing

  • The Power of Finding a Writing Community

    We just wrapped up our second online writing course—Write Your Way to a Better Blog—and we learned so much while teaching it. We were first and foremost impressed and inspired by the talent of the 20-some women writers who took the course; their diversity, unique voices, honesty, and courage blew us away. Each of them brought something very authentic and different to the course.

    The most notable impression we took away from this class was the support and camaraderie that exists among bloggers. Sure, you hear about blog envy (I mean, who hasn’t had that? That viral post last week that you totally should have written yourself!), competition, and an overcrowded market. Sometimes it feels like we’re stepping on fellow bloggers’ laptops to come up with the most provocative title, most poignant reflection, or funniest personal anecdote. It can be overwhelming.

    But when we started this six-week class, we were pleasantly surprised to see how instantly the bloggers taking the course began to interact, to support one another, to offer ideas and feedback, and even to share each other’s accomplishments. Our intention was to provide a class chock-full of helpful advice, tips, and exercises, and of course we hope that happened! But another component of the course that was equally meaningful was the community of writers that emerged from within it.

    We learned that having a writing partner (all the participants in class were paired up with another writer) is an invaluable tool, as is finding a writing community. In the blogging world, we hear so much about “finding our tribe,” and many of us are lucky to do just that without too much trouble. I personally would have stopped blogging long ago were it not for the support, understanding, and virtual cheerleading of my own blogging tribe.

    Me with two of our HerStories contributors at the BlogHer 2014 Voices of the Year Reception.

    Among the many benefits of finding a writing community are:

    1. Meeting writers who get what it’s like to be part of the online writing world: it can be overwhelming and discouraging. There’s nothing like a conversation with another writer who “gets it.”
    2. Someone to provide honest and helpful feedback on your work. It’s amazing how another pair of writer’s eyes on a piece can help you; a fresh perspective can do wonders for a blog post or potential essay that has been stagnating.
    3. Finding encouragement and inspiration. Sometimes we all need to hear that our writing matters, that our words have the power to touch, entertain, and explore, and it’s so helpful to have a community of writers to give you that much-needed lift.
    4. Learning new styles of writing, topics to explore, and opportunities for publication. Being part of a writing community can open doors that you may not have known even existed. It’s like girls’ night and a networking session all rolled into one.

    We are happy to announce that now that our online course has ended, we are offering Write Your Way to a Better Blog as a PDF! Although it won’t have the online course interaction component or instructor feedback, we think we’ve found a way for bloggers to get that writing community experience we think is so valuable.


    We encourage bloggers who have bought the PDF to join a brand new Write Your Way to a Better Blog Facebook group we’ll be forming for discussion, interaction, and support. The group will be community-led, and we think you’ll make new connections and learn so much from each other. We encourage you to team up and find a writing partner (or maybe you already have one who will join the class with you!) within the Facebook group. Complete your exercises and assignments together; keep each other accountable; provide honest and helpful feedback on each other’s work.

    You can learn all about the course and the PDF, and buy a copy for $29 (the price will go up to $35 next week, so hurry!) right here. We hope you’ll learn a lot and find a fantastic writing community of your own. In the words of one of our students,

    I’ve taken quite a few blogging classes and a few writing ones too but what I was really craving was something that combined the two. I blog to write and my goal when sit to post on my blog is to improve my craft. The Write Your Way to a Better Blog course was exactly what I needed. The instructors are fabulous and the lessons and exercises so incredibly helpful. In the first week or two of class, everything felt so much clearer. And, so essential, everyone is so supportive. It was a truly fabulous experience and I know I’m a better writer now than I was 6 weeks ago!

    Purchase the PDF of Write Your Way to a Better Blog right here! And stay tuned next week as we announce our next online writing course, which will begin at the end of January!

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  • How to Write A Personal Essay That Will Dazzle an Editor

    Ironically, as a reader, I never used to be a fan of anthologies or collections of personal essays.

    As a teacher, I did love showing students how to write personal essays or short memoir pieces. As an English teacher and a writing instructor, it often felt miraculous to me how a mediocre piece could be transformed in just a few short weeks through revision, how a piece could evolve from bland and cliched to raw, powerful, and beautiful. But I never liked reading short pieces in my leisure time.
    how to write a personal essay

    It wasn’t until I started writing as a blogger and freelance writer that I started to appreciate collections of personal essays as a genre. I love seeing writers that I “know” online take different perspectives and approach topics with unique styles. (The anthology published by Brain, Child Magazine called This Is Childhood, featuring ten of my favorite writers, is a wonderful example of this.) As a parent, reading about other mothers’ experiences from so many different angles has helped me gain insight into myself as a mother.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about personal essays from three different perspectives: as a reader, as a writer, and now as an editor. I’ve been trying my hand at publishing my own pieces, and I know that it’s hard, really hard, to write a great personal essay. After our call for submissions for My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends, I also spent months reading essays with an editor’s eye, trying to decide which pieces to accept and which to pass on. And that was just as hard.

    And it occurred to me as a beginning editor that we editors are not often transparent about what we are looking for. I’m lucky in the sense that I taught writing and developed writing curricula for well over a decade, and all of the best practices (and unwritten rules) of memoir and essay writing are (somewhat) fresh in my mind. But most of us writers haven’t taken an English class in quite a while. And we aren’t recent MFA graduates either.

    So here’s what I think — as a teacher, writer, editor, and reader — about the ingredients of a great personal essay, one that is carefully crafted to draw in a reader, make her care about a topic, and keep reading.

    1. Use what you know about good fiction and storytelling. You should develop characters, settings, and plot (a sequence of events) into a story. Use sensory details and vivid description to create separate, carefully chosen scenes.

    2. Combine the personal and the universal. This is your story, your life, your emotions but your writing should also express and reveal a larger meaning, a theme, a deeper truth, beyond the surface details of plot and character.

    3. Find your voice. More importantly, find your unique voice that is best for each piece, or different moments of the same piece. As Kate Hopper, in the invaluable Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, explains, voice is:

    “the feel, language, tone, and syntax that makes a writer’s writing unique. In nonfiction, voice is you, but not necessarily the you sitting in front of the computer typing away. Voice can be molded by a writer to serve the subject about which she is writing.”

    It might take a while to find the best voice for a piece. Is the right voice ironic, funny, anxious, playful, breathless, or solemn? We all have multiple identities and show different parts of ourselves at different times. Use that versatility in your writing.

    4. Alternate focusing in and focusing out. Choose specific and compelling moments, memories, and feelings, and hone in on them, using those particular moments to help to convey theme and purpose. Pretend you are using a video camera to focus in and out, slowing down the action, like a cinematographer, very purposefully to guide the reader toward what’s important in the piece.

    5. Be specific, not general. This is what I called “The Rule of the Pebble” to my students (thanks to Nancie Atwell, my writing teacher guru). It basically means don’t write about a general topic or idea; write about one particular person, place, time, object, or experience. In other words, don’t try to write about all pebbles everywhere (or “love” or “friendship” or “football” or “sunsets”). Write about this one particular pebble (or the friend that broke your heart freshman year, or the sunset that you saw last night, or memory, or place), its meaning to you, the concrete details that shape how you think about it.

    William Carlos Williams’ advice for writers:

    Say it, no ideas but in things.

    6. Experiment and play. Try out different literary devices and techniques, such as similes, personification, and metaphors. Or experiment with using different sentence lengths strategically. Use repetition, of words, of lines, of phrases. Play with imagery. Many of these devices should only be used sparingly, but, used effectively, they can add surprises and richness to your writing.

    7. Learn the difference between revision and editing. You must do both. It’s easy as a writer to focus on spelling errors and sentence structure, rather than making big (painful) changes to our writing. Revision means “to look again.” You do things like: make sure that your theme and purpose for writing are clear; try out different leads (ways to begin the piece); rethink your conclusion; change the organization.

    In editing, a separate stage, we do things like catch run-on sentences, fix errors in punctuation or spelling, or replace overused words and expressions.

    8. Read, read, read, and read some more. What all writers have in common, as far as I know, is that they’re constantly reading. They pay attention to their favorite writer’s craft and style and try them out in their own writing. They internalize the beauty and the utility of the perfect word, the perfect sentence, and the perfect metaphor.

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  • It Takes a Village To Raise a Book

    One of the contributors to our HerStories Project book is a new fiction author! She’s just published The Rooms Are Filled: A Novel.We couldn’t be more proud and thrilled for Jessica Vealitzek! Today she writes about her friends and biggest supporters. 

    It Takes a Village to Raise a Book (1)

    It’s common to hear authors talk about the publication of their books as, “giving birth.” I always took that to just mean it was like delivering your baby to the world—it had been inside you for so long, and now it was coming out. But, now that I’m going through publication, I see there are other ways this somewhat gross analogy is accurate, and I’ll use another cliché to describe it:

    It takes a village.

    Not only to deliver and raise a child, but to deliver and raise a book.

    It would bore you to tears to list all the people who in some way—through words or actions, knowingly or not—have helped me. So, I’ll stick to telling you about just a few of my friends:

    Melanie (whom readers of the HerStories Project book will know) had a celebration the week I finished my final draft. It doesn’t matter the celebration was without me (she happened to be at dinner with several other couples and my name came up); knowing she told them all about my book and toasted me makes me smile. Several times since, she’s looked me in the eye—the kind of look that usually causes this Irish gal to look away—and told me she was proud of me. She’s known for bear hugs and I’ve gotten plenty. I sent her an advance copy, and she called me so I’d be on the phone when she opened the package and held my book—my baby—for the first time.

    My friend, Heather, is an endearingly obnoxious cheerleader for me—telling everyone she knows, and some she doesn’t, that I’ve written a book, with me standing right there. She’s kind of like the parent who has the child play piano for guests. Having gone through it many times now, I’m pretty sure I prefer Melanie’s method, deep stare and all. But I wouldn’t trade the embarrassing moments for a less enthusiastic friend, not a chance.

    My sister, Katie, pretty much acts like she is me—she posts all my essays and announcements on her Facebook page, emails all her friends about me, and generally does everything I would ask her to do, except I don’t even have to ask. She’s the one who would take the baby out of my exhausted arms and change its diaper.

    Ginny bought me a children’s book about making your mark in the world, and wrote a note inside so lovely it made me do the ugly cry in public. Again, very un-Irish of me. But it left me feeling strong and determined. She’s inspirational, and reminds me of the beauty of the whole picture.

    Catherine, Cindy, and I engage in “kid swaps.” These benefit all of us, but the afternoons they watch my children have enabled me to dedicate regular time to the enormous task of launching a book, all the while knowing my (literal) children are happy and safe.

    There are people online I know I can count on to support me, encourage me, and promote my writing, as I would for them. These online friendships are remarkable. I really do forget that I haven’t met some of them in person, they are such a vital part of who I am as a writer.

    What Jessica and Stephanie have started here is exactly what I’m talking about—a community of writers and friends supporting each other, lifting each other up. Writing can be solitary, the kind of solitary any new mom can relate to, and outside support is not only a plus, it’s absolutely necessary. It feeds the brain, the soul, and the side of you that gets nourishment from hanging out with those who know exactly how you feel.

    All of these friends consistently provide me with a chance to simply say, “Thank you.” I’m learning to let them make this a big deal, and I’m allowing myself to be proud, like they’re proud. In that way, their support is everything.

    And so, once upon a time, this village launched a book. It was hers, and theirs, and everyone’s.

    Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of The Rooms Are Filled, the 1983 coming-of-age story of two outcasts brought together by circumstance: a Minnesota farm boy transplanted to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and the closeted young woman who becomes his teacher. You can read more about Jessica and her book on her web site.

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  • Why It’s So Hard to Write About Friendship Breakups

    myotherexjan2014After we announced our call for submissions for our next book, My Other Ex, we started hearing feedback almost instantly. Women wrote us, “I have a breakup story I’d love to tell, but I’m not sure I’m brave enough,” or “I haven’t thought about this woman in years, and I can’t believe how many emotions are coming up.” Some of our past contributors have told us that they’ve begun writing a breakup essay, and it’s just so much harder than they expected. Here’s what we’ve heard from some of these writers:

    • Attempting to write a break up story feels sort of ugly and dirty. It’s like sorting through a mess that you aren’t sure who really made or how it got to that point where neither one really feels like cleaning it up, or it is too overwhelming to do so.
    • Writing about my big friend break up has been only slightly easier than having root canal without drugs. But just like it is with a root canal, dealing with the issue is the only way to heal.
    •  I was more certain than I have ever been that the friendship was well and truly over.
    • Writing this and attempting to capture and express the initial affection and then the pain and anger has made me feel like I’ve been dumped by my best friend all over again.
    • Just the thought of her reading about it and knowing she affected me makes me want to punch her.

    Honestly, we’ve been experiencing the same thing writing our own essays; in fact, I (Stephanie) have written three different versions about three different friendships in the process of finding the right story to tell. I’ve emailed old friends, asking if they can remember specific details that happened nearly 20 years ago. I’ve cringed as old memories have drifted to the surface, and the accompanying emotions that I thought I’d buried long ago. One weekend, I firmly believe I made myself physically ill as I spent hours absorbed in my laptop and the caverns of my adolescent brain, astonished to realize how many long-forgotten moments made their way back into my memory.

    To say the least, it is draining, uncomfortable, and yet somehow exhilarating to tell our old stories about friendship breakups. Why is it so painful?

    Is it because of those painful emotional flashbacks? Is it because we feel a sense of shame because female friendships are supposed to last? Is it because there are no emotional “scripts” for how to cope with friendship loss, unlike the loss of a romantic partner?

    For every woman there may be a different reason for why it’s so hard to talk about or write about the end of a friendship, or maybe a combination of many different ones.

    Is it worth it to dredge up these feelings? Again, we turn to our contributors’ thoughts:

    • It allowed me to say what I have not been able to say to an important person in my life who has not only done me wrong, but herself wrong. It has given me a voice that I could not find for over a year. I hope something positive comes from it as I see this as the first step in a longer journey about a breaking up and trying to re-engage.
    • I thought that writing about it would make it easier, clearer somehow. That it would push away the fog of uncertainty and the dull ache that had been hovering just below the surface for more then four years. But it didn’t, really. For me, writing about it was messy and confusing and it asked more questions then it answered. It made me mad and sad all over again, but, strangely, when I was finished, I was more certain than I have ever been that the friendship was well and truly over. I realized that I had been holding on to the mistaken belief that we would someday come back to each other and heal whatever it was that went wrong, but the writing made me understand that that was never going to happen. And for that, if nothing else, I felt relief.

    Both of us — Stephanie and Jessica — felt that sense of relief after writing our own stories.

    We hope that this collection will allow women to realize that they are not alone in their feelings of confusion, heartbreak, guilt, and sadness. Most of all, through sharing our stories, we want to acknowledge the complexity of friendship.

    We would love to hear your story. If telling the story is much more difficult than you expected, know that you are not alone. We encourage you to keep trying to write your story. We want this collection to help women realize that they are not alone in their intense and sometimes confusing feelings. It’s not a topic that is frequently talked about, and we’d like to change that.

    Please submit your story here: https://herstoriesproject.submittable.com/submit

    We’ll be accepting submissions through early March. We’d also be grateful if you took our short, anonymous survey to help us understand more women’s experiences.


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  • And Finally a Book Proof Landed on My Doorstep….

    I waited all afternoon, never straying more than ten feet from the front door and the front windows that look out onto the street. According to the online tracking information, it was somewhere being driven around Buffalo, New York — my hometown.

    Several UPS and Fed Ex trucks drove by my house during that period, never stopping. I waited and waited. To distract myself, I decided to cook, a rare Friday night occurrence in our house, a day when take-out generally is enjoyed by all. I started to prepare the ingredients for my favorite red wine pan sauce for steak. (Really, who was I kidding? My recipe preparation was a great excuse to open a bottle of red wine very early.)

    Then at about 5:30 it arrived. I tore open the small box, and there it was. Our proof. The proof of our book was in my hands.


    To say that I was excited is something of an understatement. That night the book “slept” next to me on the night stand, and I continue to carry it around with me in the house.

    So what about poor Stephanie, my co-editor? How was she handling the excitement of seeing our book for the first time? I’m very sorry to say that she hasn’t seen it in person yet. We did do Facetime right away, but I know that it’s not the same. This unfair situation happened because I was the first to go into our account dashboard once the online version of the proofs was approved and to have a physical proof sent to me. And apparently you only get to mail out one proof to be approved by the author. (After the proof is approved by us, we wait for it to be approved by Amazon.)

    I’m so pleased with our cover design. (We’re really proud of it, and if you hate it, maybe you could keep it to yourself for just a month or so, until the initial giddiness subsides. Then we’ll start taking constructive criticism once again.)


    Our cover is one of the parts of self-publishing this book about which I’m most proud. Yes, we self-published it, and we’re not ashamed to say it. I always imagined that someday I’d be involved in publishing a book, but I never thought I’d be self-publishing. Yet for a multitude of reasons, this was the smartest decision for us.

    So what have we learned so far that might be useful to others and that you as readers might be interested to know?

    1. Cover design is everything. This was stressed to us over and over. You do not want your cover to look self-published. I’m not sure what that means exactly — the “self-published look” — but it’s sort of like pornography, I guess; you know it when you see it. We researched a lot of design options, but never for a second considered doing it ourselves. As many of our online friends know, our cover design went through many iterations, driving our cover designer crazy, and it was hard to listen to critical feedback. Which leads me to our next lesson….

    2. Get tons of outside opinions. When you’re self-publishing a book, even with a partner, it’s really easy to live inside your own little bubble. Getting outside help with editing is a no-brainer; that’s not optional at all. But you need others’ opinions about lots of other facets of your book. In addition to our cover design, we got outside feedback about our introduction, our title, our book’s organization, our marketing strategy…. And we tried hard not to be thin-skinned.

    3. Embrace learning new technology. If you want to try self-publishing, knowing Microsoft Word is probably not enough. It’s incredibly helpful to have an organizational tool for putting together your book and formatting it that’s much more sophisticated and versatile than Microsoft Word, particularly if you’re working with other authors. We used PressBooks, which I strongly recommend, particularly if you’re a blogger, since it uses the WordPress framework. PressBooks is a book publishing tool; you put in your content — in a way similar to adding blog posts — and choose a theme. Then PressBooks can export it automatically into formats suitable for paperback book and e-book creation.  And it’s free! At least until your book is ready to export and then you have to pay to remove the PressBooks watermark off your book. Alternatively, lots of other writers use Scrivener, another software tool for authors, and I tried that out and love it too.

    There are lots of things that we could have done better, but that’s for another day’s post…

    For right now we’re thrilled to be releasing this book in two weeks!

    For a chance to win one of three copies of the book, submit a friendship photo to us and enter our Wall of Friendships contest!

    And check out these posts by our amazing contributors: 

    – Galit Breen’s “Gift Ideas for Her” (thanks for the HerStories Project book mention!)

    – Liz Aguerre’s “I Am a Writer 

    -Samantha Brin Merel’s “30 Years of Friendship” (an incredible collection of photos from a very long friendship)

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