Saturday, December 28, 2013

Taking a Break

          I love talking about writing.  I love to teach writing.  But most of all, I love just writing.  Unfortunately, if all we do is talk and teach, we don’t have time to do.  I have several plays, books, and musicals tugging at my sleeve, so I’ve had to make a hard choice.  I’m taking a break from the writing instruction portion of my blog.  The humorous essays I post twice a week will continue on Joniopolis, but I will no longer post new material on “Writing Class with Joni” or “What’s Cooking with Joni.” Previous posts will still be here, available anytime. This will—I hope—leave me more time to work on the new projects.
          You’ll still find me on my YouTube Channel, where I’m the YouTube Mom.  New videos are posted here daily.  Many are about cooking, clever household tips, relationships, and life skills. You can even leave a request in the comment box, and I might make a video just for you.  These same videos are also on Pinterest and elsewhere.
           And links to my books are all listed on the Joniopolis home page, as well as at Amazon and  Createspace.  Get the whole collection!  I hope to add more to that list, now.  I hope you’ll continue to join me on my humor blog—see you there.

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Month is This?

                As I sit writing this, a Christmas tree is twinkling in my living room, and a hearty stew is simmering in a slow cooker.  But, mentally, I need to be thinking of summertime: travel, Father’s Day, June weddings, and graduation.      
                For years I’ve written articles—more than a hundred of them-- for national women’s magazines.  And they work with a 6-month lead time.  So while you’re reading about clever ways to decorate for the holidays (and I may as well plug one of my YouTube videos about that here), editors of some magazines are arranging photo shoots that show women what kind of swimsuit flatters which kind of body, and how to make cool salads for summer dining.  Their winter coats and scarves may be hanging on a peg nearby, but their meetings are about easy hairdos for the beach, and the importance of sunscreen.
                Years ago a music executive told me the story of a famous singer who was trying to record an album of Christmas songs in July.  She couldn’t get into the spirit of it, and in typical Hollywood fashion, her minions began scurrying all over to find a Christmas tree, then cover it with lights and ornaments so she could get “in the mood.” 
                As a writer, you don’t have that luxury.  And, whether you’re writing magazine articles, books, stage plays, or screenplays, you have to immerse yourself in the setting you’ve chosen.  If you have a character climbing Mt. Everest, but you’re writing about it in August, you have to ignore your surroundings and get lost in the icy winds and dwindling oxygen of high altitudes.  The reader has to be transported to that climate, entirely unaware that you may have been writing it in Florida.  And if you have a soldier sweltering through a blistering war in a humid land, your reader has to taste the salty sweat, not suspect that you’re writing it in January, in a Colorado cabin.
                Living in another time period, or in another land, is part of the joy of writing.  We escape the real world for one of our own creation.  For deadline publications, it’s a challenge to stay a jump ahead of current life, and deliver information for people to read months down the road.  But then, at night, it’s fun to walk back into the present tense and enjoy a bowl of delicious stew, listen to some Christmas music, and wonder when it was recorded…   

Monday, December 9, 2013

You are the Only You

Writers are exceptional excuse-makers.  We can generate more excuses to impede our progress than a room full of hyper-critical editors.  Among those I hear most often are: No one will like it, I need inspiration to hit me, I don’t have time, I make too many mistakes, I can’t imagine how to fill 300 pages, and on and on.
            But the one I want to address today, is: There’s nothing unusual about my story.  Many writers feel they are telling the same story someone else has already told.  After all, who hasn’t fallen in love, been dumped, regretted a hasty decision, buried a loved one?  The experiences of life are common to all, right?
            But you are the only person who can tell your specific story.  You, and everyone you know, can go through the same event—a flood or an earthquake, say.  But every single one of you will tell it differently.  Every one of you will suffer differently, worry differently, fight back differently, learn differently. 
            Telling about something we all know is a good thing—it means we’ll all identify with your plot and characters.  You have a guy who struggles through tough financial times?  Readers everywhere will feel his pain.  You have a woman battling serious health setbacks?  You then have a huge audience that’s traveled her same path.  What we want is your spin on it.  How do you, in particular, view your experience? 
            Don’t belittle your life.  Every day of it is unique because it’s filtered through your unique brain.  It may look, on the outside, like everyone in a work cubicle is having your same experience.  But they aren’t thinking your same thoughts, or dreaming your same dreams.  So when you go looking for a story to tell, don’t shy away from familiar themes.  Just give it your own twist.  Tell us why this mattered to you, and what you did about it.
            Your life is fascinating because of your perspective.  Events alone do not make a story, no matter who’s telling it.  But if you give us the why and the how, if you let us into your heart and the truth that only you can tell, now you’ve got listeners.  Lots of them.

Monday, December 2, 2013


            There are many reasons not to become a writer.  Among lack of discipline and absence of talent--two things we could all agree upon—you should not become a writer if you can’t take rejection.  Harper Lee once said, “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” And she was right.         
I have never met a writer (a good one) whose work was universally loved and accepted by all.  Rejection is part of the job description.  So brace yourself for it, know it’s coming, and then when it hits you, you won’t be surprised or thrown off guard.  Even best-selling authors have critics, and people who can’t stand their work.  We all know you can’t please everyone.
I once kept a file of rejection letters, back when magazine writing had nothing to do with electronic submissions.  My favorites were the ones with misspellings in them, including one such letter from The New Yorker.  My peers and I all joked that someday we’d wallpaper a room with our rejection notes, but then one day I realized I didn’t really mean that, and I threw them all out. 
I came to realize that there are dozens of reasons why your work might not be right for a publication, a publisher, or a producer.  Maybe they just accepted something similar.  Maybe you didn’t do your homework and have the right feel or tone they use.  Maybe they need writers with more credentials.  Maybe they don’t get your brand of humor.  Maybe they had a fight with their wife that morning and they don’t like anything today.  Maybe your writing is too light and fluffy—or too scholarly, and they have a readership to please.  Maybe they’re idiots with no taste whatsoever and only got this job because of their uncle. I could sit and do this all day, and so could you.  And, of course, maybe your writing was the problem, and you need to polish your craft and learn to rewrite.
But don’t let one letter—or one hundred letters—make you quit, not if you feel driven to do this.  Choose more carefully targeted publishers or editors.  Get training. Work harder.  Believe in yourself.
My husband partnered with the late Dick Clark on several TV projects, and enjoyed Dick’s vast collection of show biz memorabilia, which decorated his impressive office.  Among the treasures was a note someone scrawled after seeing Barbra Streisand audition.  “Can’t act, can sing a little,” it said.  And the internet is filled with stories of wildly successful books that were rejected repeatedly before they found publishers.  Never assume the other person knows more than you do.
And, if you’re a teacher, an editor, or someone else on the other side of the pitch, who’s in the position of giving rejections, I have some advice for you, as well:  Be kind.  We’re all just people.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Does it Make You Cry?

            I will just begin by saying you don’t have to cry.  Some people don’t cry, period.  But, like “Saving the Cat,” it doesn’t have to be a literal cat.
So my question is actually, “Do you feel passionately about what you’re writing?”  And that passion can be fury, grief, fear, comedy, you-name-it.  But you must feel compelled, for whatever reason, to tell this story.  Maybe you want to raise awareness, evoke compassion, right a wrong.  Maybe you want to show readers the perils of selfishness or greed.  Or scare the daylights out of them.  Maybe you want to inspire them and show them how to feel greater joy than they’ve ever known.  But whatever it is, there should be intensity in your heart as you write it.
Passionless writing is no fun to read.  People put it down, immediately tired of bland characters who lack direction.  Sure, your descriptions may be vivid and your dialogue snappy, but you need to hook us with a reason to care about what happens to these people. 
Next time you’re stuck, and your work seems to have hit the doldrums, look for passion.  Is it there in your theme?  Do you really care about telling this story?  Sometimes we write what we think will sell.  Or something another writer we admire, writes about all the time.  Or something we think would make a great movie. Those motives will not elicit caring in your readers.  Nor will they make you excited to get up in the morning and get back to work.
Now look at your characters, themselves.  Have you given them a challenge, a goal, an enemy?  Is something huge at stake, here?  Make sure your characters have drive and passion, or they’ll bore us.
If an honest analysis reveals either of these problems, set the story aside.  Come back to it when you can feel some passion about your plot and your people.  It may need a complete re-write.   And, sometimes, it’s better just to start from scratch with a better idea.  As they say, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”