Sunday, September 29, 2013

Good Rejection, Bad Rejection

By Bonnie Stanard
Recently I had a good rejection for a short story, at least I thought it was a good one. And yes, there are good rejections—something other than a slip of paper the size of a classified ad returned in your self-addressed stamped envelope. I have a file of select rejections, those with handwritten comments like “”some really nice lines in here,” or “this was a tough call,” or “Submit again!”
The rejections that really annoy me begin with, “We are writers too and we know how it feels…” as if we’re neophytes with no rejection experience. Just give me a reason or say “no.” By the way, I don’t mind the short, photocopied notes, but one time I got a slice of 8.5 x 11 paper no wider than ½ inch. Now that’s getting close to disrespectful.
One year, after my manuscript for a novel wasn’t chosen for the University of Tennessee’s Peter Taylor Prize, Director Brian Griffin wrote me a nice letter. I’ve read that rejection letter a number of times.
Anyway, back to what I thought was a good rejection. The editor wrote that my story just wasn’t what she was looking for and advised me to style my writing after that of a particular writer’s work in Narrator, a literary journal. This sounded sincere. 
I looked up the website and found the article in the archive and read what was a nostalgic essay on the way things once were. It’s hard to figure out techniques for writing fiction from an essay. Maybe the editor was suggesting I get out of fiction and into nonfiction.
Being the cynic that I am, I’m beginning to wonder if even this “good” rejection was as generic as the four-line formulas. Maybe every rejected submission to that journal got this same response. Maybe the objective wasn’t to help me with my writing style but to increase the online traffic for a certain writer.
Looking ahead, the days of the rejection letter are numbered as editors and writers transition to the internet for submissions and communication. We’ve already seen the profusion of www magazines. Even elite print journals are adding online satellites. Whether online or print, most journals request or allow email submissions in which you either paste your manuscript in the body or attach it as a document. 
A number of journals employ online submission managers. I have accounts on several of these. This eliminates email. You simply upload the document containing your work. Decisions from the editors are posted in a grid space reserved for rejections and acceptances, which you access by signing in. There’s virtually no communication between writers and editors.

Though this is easier and faster, it has a downside. With letters (or slips of paper), you can trash all those rejections and forget about them. However, with the submission manager, every time you sign in, you see all the material you’ve submitted that has been declined. If you’re like me, one rejection at a time is manageable, but it’s disheartening to see a long list of them. And on the other hand, you don’t get those nice, hand-written comments either.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You Don’t Need Blurred Lines to Write a Song

By Kimberly Johnson

Hey, Hey, Hey. Those three words are burning up the radio waves, especially on 104.7 FM. The intro line belongs to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. (Some old school listeners say Fat Albert needs to jump into this). The groovin’ chart topper got me thinking. I want to write a song without blurred lines, you know, something catchy, something that will sell and make millions. Ok. I didn’t major in Music in college. I didn’t play an instrument in high school and I am not acquainted with the formal definitions of harmony, rhythm, and chord progression. But, I pay attention to words and their arrangement in a composition—guess that comes from my newspaper writing training. Listen to the words in the title song from the 70s sitcom, Maude. Lyricists Dave Grusin and Andrew Bergman knew who the target audience was (women), found a universal theme (strong women who had conviction) and tapped into a catchy beat (search for it on YouTube).

Lady Godiva was freedom rider. She didn’t care if the whole world looked. Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her. She was a sister who really cooked.
Those are the elements needed to write a good story. And like any good journalist-turning-songwriter, I cranked up the Internet and came up with a hodge-podge of tips.

    *Keep a notebook handy and write down words, lines and verses that embody how you feel and think.

2: Be organized:
   *Get a central theme or subject. Outline what your message is to your target audience. Organize and       focus on what emotion you want the audience to take away from your song.

3: Keep Music 101 in mind and work through the technical stuff.
   *Write the chorus, first. It showcases the main idea in your song. Make it catchy.
   *Compose a melody, using a music scale “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti” .
    *Write one melody for the first line, and then use various types of melodies for subsequent lines in the     song.
   **Hint: “A traditional song has four to five verses of four lines. Writing at least five plus a chorus can really help to make the verse and melody happen, as these are the most important things of the song to a lyricist. Write two last verses. Even the most experienced song writers are waiting for the inspiration how to write song lyrics by them, because these are normally the hardest to write.”
Ok. I didn’t major in Music in college. Nevertheless, I did write for a living and I know what components make for a good story.  I need to take a music class and not get blurred lines when I start this songwriting gig.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Latest Addition

Meet a New Columbia II Blogger


Jodie Cain Smith spent her childhood exploring the shores of Mobile Bay with her three siblings.  As a teen in Mobile, AL, Jodie’s grandmother told her the gripping story of an adolescence spent in 1930’s rural Alabama, the rumors surrounding her parents, and the murder trial that would alter her life.  The tale took root in Jodie’s memory until at last it became The Woods at Barlow Bend, her debut novel to be released January 2015.

While attending the University of South Alabama, where Jodie earned a BFA in Theatre Arts, she met her husband Jay.  They began their life on the Army road in 2001 and have not stopped moving since.  As an Army Wife, she has lived in six different states from the extreme heat of Texas to the blizzards of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she earned a MAE in School Counseling at Northern Michigan University

No matter where she has lived, Jodie has been fortunate to hold on to two of her favorite passions:  tennis and live theatre.  Even in the smallest of towns, as she uses her childhood explorer skills, Jodie has been able to find a community theatre to play amongst the local artists and a tennis court for herself and her favorite opponent, her husband.

Jodie Cain Smith’s feature articles and columns have appeared in Chicken Soup for the Military Spouse's Soul, The Savannah Morning News, and the Fort Hood Sentinel.

To learn more about Jodie Cain Smith and her thoughts on ruling, renovating, and escaping her corner of the world visit her blog The Queendom at

Jodie's first blog at this site follows.

Army Action Planning: The Writer Surrenders

By Jodie Cain Smith

Recently, due to another Army-mandated move, I left my sixth job in 12 years. I knew well how to start again at the bottom and catapult up the ladder, but I didn’t want to. A hidden family tragedy had been bouncing around in my head for 20 years. So, I made a deal with my husband: give me one year to write a book. If I don’t, I will get a “real” job. But if I do…

After 12 months of research, writing, revising, and perfecting the manuscript and query letter, I submitted my work for publication. My heart broke with each rejection. Then, the unimaginable: a small press accepted my work.

“What now?” the husband asked.

“Well, I keep writing,” I told him, content with being a slave to the creativity gods.

“No. Not good enough,” he said. “You need a plan.”

Several weeks later, the husband reminded me of the plan. Boxes appeared for another move.

“Jodie, you still need a plan,” he said.

We unpacked the boxes. He grabbed a legal pad, a pen, and a six-pack. I surrendered, opened a beer, and the plan that will guide me through the next two years was born.

(Full disclosure: creating the plan required several six-packs over a few weeks. I often wanted to punch the husband in the throat for imparting his soldier stuff on my writing world, but I resisted. He is extremely supportive and incredibly useful. If I start punching him, he may stop being so cooperative.)

1. Identify the Lines of Effort

After much discussion, I identified what I want most: to sell my book, to establish myself as a writer, and to sustain a writing career.

With my action verbs identified, I wanted to jump over a few steps and brainstorm individual tasks. The husband forced me to cool my jets and follow the action-planning process. This was the first time I felt a tingling in my fists.

2. Define an Endstate for each Line of Effort

Specifically, what would each line of effort look like when accomplished? What is my sales goal? Describe an established writing career. How do I define sustainment?

After several hours, I answered these questions. But my head hurt. Possibly, it was the beer. More than likely, it was from thinking so hard.

3. Create the Task List

Finally, I used my squirrel-like attention span to write down every possible task having anything to do with accomplishing each line of effort. I pinged from sell to establish to sustain– on and on, the list grew. Each task was assigned to one line of effort.

4. Create the Calendar

Next, the husband drew a chart containing three rows (the lines of effort) and twenty-four columns (monthly blocks representing July 2013 through June 2015). The endstate for each line of effort was placed in the last month of each row. Working backwards from June 2015 to the present, I placed every individual task on the calendar; ensuring tasks were performed in the correct sequence. Backwards planning forced me to focus on the endstates.

5. Evaluate the Plan

My two-year calendar was complete, filled with tasks directly related to accomplishing my dream. My husband then leaned on the back of my chair and began to read the plan over my shoulder. He read each endstate and searched for tasks in the corresponding line of effort to accomplish that endstate.

“Are you checking my work?” I asked.

“I’m making sure we didn’t miss anything,” he said.

Oh. Smart. And he did say we. Uncurl your fists, Jodie.

6. Display the Plan!

Would I be able to resist the temptation of online shoe shopping if the plan is hidden in my desk drawer? No. So, I hung the action plan on the wall next to my desk. Now, when I walk into my office, the plan orders me to work, to move my wild dream forward. Now, my dream doesn’t seem quite so wild anymore.  

As for undertaking a project like this with your significant other, consider yourself warned. Your fists may start to tingle.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Where I Write

By Sarah Herlong

I’m lucky to have an entire room devoted to writing. In the Spring, I have a great view of the blooming dog wood tree, as well as the occasional bird that alights on the windowsill. This drives my cats crazy. Even the whip snake that coiled itself in the vines growing up the window caused quite a stir, amongst us all.

I sit in a somewhat raggedy yet comfortable oversized chair and roll my computer to me via a nifty little computer desk on wheels. When I’m finished writing for the day or night, I simply roll it away from me. Likewise I have a rolling table that holds stacks of important papers.  Everything at my finger tips just a roll away. I have a variety of children’s books to use as examples of age appropriate writing. Regrettably I have a small messy pile on the floor of magazines to read, books to read and some paperwork. This is material under the constant threat of Isis the cat, who shreds paper like she works for a shady politician.

I don’t have a name for my room. I rarely call it my writing room despite that being its primary purpose. I just call it my room.  It also contains my curio cabinet. Housing the stuffed alligator, large bird skull, the glow in the dark, collapsing skeleton, and the pink head that giggles. It’s creepy… trust me. I have a more regal skeleton in the corner wearing a silk ribbon around its head, and a pink necklace that my grandmother used to wear. It sits cross-legged in a chair around a green candle. He’s a yes man. Never gives good advice.

I try to write every day, sometimes broken up with doctor’s appointments for my mother, or having to assist her throughout the day. She allows me as much private time as I need for writing, but still gripes about it. She’s lonely despite having close friends, and a daughter as an attendant. I can’t do anything about her loneliness, but I can write about it in my room.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Vagrant Philosophers and Poets

By Bonnie Stanard

Perhaps I ask too much of poetry, but I want it to shed light on the big questions like: Who am I? What has meaning? Why are we here? This is not to say I want answers as such, but I’d like to gain some understanding about our existence. We’re not talking religious poems here, rather, ones that provide illumination, or a least ideas to stimulate reflection.

The grand masters of poetry didn’t shy away from the big questions. Their best poems encode concrete images with transcendent meaning. Transcendent meaning as used here embraces much that is unexplainable about poetry. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is one of my favorites. There are many others, but I especially like: Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break;” Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall;” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening;” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Song in the Front Yard.” These poems say something profound in a way that seems effortless.

When a poem spells out a message that is too obvious, it runs the risk of becoming simplistic and limited to singular interpretation. From the following excerpt of John Berryman’s “The Ball Poem,” I hope you’ll see what I mean:

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball, 

What, what is he to do?...

No use to say 'O there are other balls… 

Now…He senses first responsibility 

In a world of possessions. People will take balls, 

Balls will be lost always…

Poetry has been trending away from obvious meaning for some time (and obvious form as well, but that’s another subject). It’s as if EB White’s advice, “Be obscure clearly” is being taught in every MFA course on writing poetry. As we’ve become more informed, we resist being spoon-fed somebody else’s version of truth. We want to discover our own truth. Ergo, poets try to engage the reader with carefully ordered images in the hope that meaning will emerge as the reader recognizes or identifies some insight, if not a truth.

You can see from today’s poems that writers are grappling with traditional material (concrete images) to produce meaningful obscurities … at least obscurities that lend themselves to interpretation by a body of readers. This has produced works that range from simple to inscrutable. Understated poems lean heavily on the reader’s imagination. Take a look at “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, which either says a lot on not much at all:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Some poems read like free association, as if we have been given a Rorschach test of written rather than visual images. These poems are more challenging, and there are academics who can provide the logic behind the images. The popular poet John Ashbery provides many such examples. Below is a verse from his poem “Elective Infinities.”

It was all over by morning. The village idiot
was surprised to see us. "...thought you were in Normandy."
Like all pendulums we were surprised,
then slightly miffed at what seemed to be happening
back in the bushes. Keep your ornaments,
if that's what they are. Return to sender, arse.

Lest you think the above lines become more explicit in the context of the poem, see the entire work at

The poet and philosopher John Koethe, describing poetry as an artful form of talking to yourself, said, “I’ve always thought of poetry as a kind of inner soliloquy, reflecting the capacity for self-consciousness that makes us human.” I guess that’s what poets are doing, and as time passes, the configuration of thought changes. We’re motivated to write from stimuli and experiences, and then we hope somebody will help us understand what we’ve said.