Wyoming Writers Conference: Worth the Trip

Wyoming Writers Conference

I’ve been attending the Wyoming Writers Conference for four years now, and I can honestly say that it’s the reason I published a book.

The first year I attended, I signed up for the critique tables. I met Tina Ann Forkner there. She read something I had been working on and encouraged me to keep writing. I thought that perhaps I am a good writer.

From there, I had the confidence to submit an old manuscript to Crystal Publishing, LLC. It was accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history…Nothing but a Song was published.

I also met several people who I still consider my friends. This year, the 44th annual Wyoming Writers Conference will be June 1-3 at the Headwaters Arts and Conference Center in Dubois, Wyoming, 100 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

The conference features workshops in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and self-publishing as well as agent pitch sessions, roundtables, and open mic nights. Participating writers include William Kent Krueger (fiction and keynote speaker), Nanci Turner Steveson (middle grade and young adult fiction), David Romtvedt (poetry), Polly Letofsky (self-publishing and adventure writing), and Aaron Linsdau (adventure writing).

Participating publishing professionals include Becky LeJeune (Bond Literary Agency), Aaron Linsdau (Sastrugi Press), and Carrie Howland (Empire Literary Agency). Visit the website for more information.

It’s a great conference, and I’m sure you’ll meet people you’ll never forget! You’ll be encouraged to keep writing, too!


Rebecca’s Christmas Journal

Merry Christmas everyone! I thought that I would share Rebecca’s Christmas Journal with you. She wrote this after the accident. No spoilers… Enjoy!

Dear Journal,

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I haven’t really felt like it since the accident, but slowly I feel like I’m coming back to life. Some days I resist it, but I still climb out of bed and muddle about. Today, it’s Christmas, and though I feel a little better, the day hangs over me like a dark cloud. 

The Christmas packages have all been wrapped, the tree is up, and the house is decorated. Normally, Dad would get up early, make coffee and pancakes, and then gently wake us up with Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols. I smell the coffee brewing and the sky is just starting to lighten. Soon, Mom will be up, and it will be time to open presents. It doesn’t feel like Christmas this year, not with Tommy gone and with the gift of music stripped from my life. I can’t hear anything but this incessant hum in my head. But I can imagine Dad bustling about in the kitchen, the droning of Bing Crosby’s smooth, deep voice, with mom humming along. I can imagine the smiles and the gentle back rubs and hugs they give each other as they prepare Christmas breakfast. 

For as long as I can remember, we would eat breakfast before opening presents. When I was younger, I wasn’t allowed out of my room until 7. Inevitably, I’d wake up at 5 or 6 anxious to know if Santa had arrived. I’d pace in my room, quietly go to the bathroom, and then tiptoe back before Mom and Dad knew I was up. I’d lament their silly traditions of making coffee, listening to Christmas music, and forcing me to eat breakfast before I could unwrap presents…despite the fact that I could have my Christmas stocking while they cooked. Later, I appreciated the tradition and loved waking up to gentle Christmas music and the smell of coffee. I loved sitting at the table watching their intimate taps and loving gestures. I wondered if this year things would be different. I suppose Mom will want to keep things the same to provide stability in my current turbulent life. She had with the decorations. We put up the tree, decorated the banister, and baked cookies like in years passed. The only difference was the silence. I saw her put on a CD and then after a few minutes, she turned it off. With her hand on the controls, her shoulders rose and fell, and I imagined a deep sigh. She turned to me and smiled while I busied myself with the decorations. This year, no matter how hard we try, things will be different. All I can do is get up and enjoy the things that are the same.

Nothing But a Song: Chapter 1

Are you still waiting for your copy of Nothing but a Song, but can’t wait to read it?? You’re in luck! I’m posting the first chapter below. If you prefer to listen to it, click below: Let me know what you think!

Rebecca Kendall waited for her boyfriend, Tommy Fletcher. She pushed her dark blonde hair behind her ears as she looked up and down the quiet suburban street. Where is he? she thought.

She thought about messaging him but didn’t want him texting while driving, so she kept her phone tucked in her jacket pocket.

Rebecca loved the fact that Tommy stood a good six inches taller than she. His muscular body would encircle her, and she felt safe in his arms. His perpetual smile always made her smile back. He was perfect. He was just never on time. Rebecca’s mother didn’t approve of him because he was 24, and Rebecca was only 19. They still went on dates, but Rebecca preferred to wait for him outside…less drama that way.

She got off the steps and wandered around the damp grass soaking the bottom of her torn jeans and sandals. She laughed to herself as she remembered the little argument with her mother about wearing torn jeans on a date.

“You’re not going to wear those silly things, are you?” her mother had asked.

“Sure. We’re just going to a movie,” Rebecca answered. That’s the only thing they ever did. Tommy was working on his degree in film production, so he was obsessed with seeing just about every movie ever made. Tonight, they were going to see a sci-fi thriller about life on Mars. Rebecca wasn’t that excited to see it, but she wanted to spend time with Tommy. Plus, they were taking the long way around to see the sunset from the top of Oak Creek Canyon.

“Well, you would think a gal your age would have enough sense to wear something decent.”

“Oh, Mother…” she said as she rolled her eyes. Their arguments usually ended that way.

Her mother had shaken her head before walking back into the house.

It began to sprinkle again when Tommy drove up in his silver Hummer, and Rebecca ran to the curb to meet him.

“I thought you’d never get here,” Rebecca said as she climbed into the giant SUV and closed the door. They kissed briefly before Tommy provided an explanation.

“Sorry ‘bout that,” he said.

“Why were you late?”

“My dad didn’t want me driving tonight. There’s a severe storm warning out. I reminded him I’m 24 and can do what I want. It was the same ol’ argument…ya know… ‘not under my roof…blah, blah, blah…’” He shrugged and pulled away from the curb. “I need to find my own place! But here I am! Nothin’ can happen in this tank!” He pounded the dash to emphasize his point.

“Great. I’m glad you convinced him. I was just about to go back inside.”

“A few drops won’t hurt, but ya think it’d be all rained out by now. Look at the size of those rain drops.”

“Maybe we should just go to your house.”

“Nah, I want to see this movie. Besides, my dad’s still pissed, I’m sure. I don’t wanna deal with it.” Tommy turned on the radio and found a good station as he merged onto Highway 89A.

The highway wound through the pine forest, and the sun attempted to peek through the black and purple sky. The song on the radio played and beat rhythm with the windshield wipers and the pelting rain.

As Rebecca rested her head on Tommy’s shoulder, a car veered into their lane.

“Tommy, watch out!” Rebecca screamed, and Tommy jerked the steering wheel away from the oncoming headlights. The tires lost traction. The car spun out of control and off the edge. The guardrails, meant to keep cars off the edge, were no match for the huge, silver Hummer as it crashed through the rail and into the trees.

The passing car continued on its way, oblivious to the carnage left behind.

Several minutes later, the blackness behind Rebecca’s eyes receded, and she felt a jolt as the car rocked on a branch. The SUV hung precariously over a ravine—a large oak branch kept the car pinned above the canyon floor. She felt something cold and sticky coming from her ears and forehead. Touching it, her fingers came back bloody red. Her ears rang and her body ached as the seat belt dug into her chest keeping her from careening through the windshield.

To her left, Tommy slumped over the steering wheel—his eyes open and bleeding. Rebecca gasped and reached out to him, but pain shot up her arm, and she quickly withdrew.

The car lurched again, and Rebecca felt the sickening sense of falling as her vision blurred and then turned black. Luckily, she missed seeing the car as it plunged through the trees and landed on a rocky ledge. It left a tangled mass of dirt, flesh, and blood.
Want more? You can but my book here.

Definition… “Real Mom”?

This week in my composition courses, we’re talking about writing definition essays. I thought this would be an example of a definition essay. What do you think?

Are You a “Real” Mom?

Reprinted by author.

Reynolds AdOK. I can’t let it go. Both Sarah & Jane have been talking about motherhood for the past two posts, and I was going to move on to a different topic, but I just can’t do it. I can’t do it because there’s a larger issue here..and it’s not just about women.

I often wonder what it means to be a woman. If I’m not a mom, am I still a woman? Women who have lost their breasts, their ovaries, and other parts of the female anatomy–-are they still women?

Biologists would argue that two x chromosomes create a female human, and a woman is simply an adult human female, but women know that is not enough of a definition. What about people who were physically born as men but feel that they are women? What makes them women? Are they “real” women?

On the same vein…I think of motherhood, and perhaps motherhood is define. (Or is it? I’ll let the mothers hash that out…) For me, I can safely say that I am not a mom. I have no children, but I am sympathetic to the challenges of motherhood and sensitive to how women are portrayed.

This weekend, I was watching one of my favorite cooking channels and a commercial interrupted my program with some pie-baking tips. Normally, I skip the commercials, but I like pie and I like to bake, so I kept it on. Little did I know it would make me angry. The narrator of the commercial stated, “Real moms know how to make it perfect every time.” “It” referred to pie crust. So, basically, the ad stated that real moms make perfect pie crust “every time.”

What exactly is a “real mom”? Is there such thing as a “fake mom”? I suppose if I pretended to be a mom to one of my 23 nieces or nephews, that would make me a fake mom. But what about moms who don’t make the “perfect” pie crust? Are they fake moms? This commercial seems to imply that moms who can’t make perfect pie crusts “every time” are not “real moms.” So, what about my mom? Is she a “real mom”?

I grew up in a dairy-free household. My mom is allergic to dairy products and cannot stand the smell or sight of butter. Despite this, my mom is an excellent cook, and I grew up eating her dairy-free homemade pies, cookies, and other scrumptious meals. However, and I’m sorry mom, but I do not particularly like her pie crusts. I have discovered from making my own pies that butter makes all the difference.

This commercial did show the woman (Emily Lyon–“Reynolds Real Mom”) using butter, so that implies that the “perfect” pie crust contains butter, but since my mom did not use butter, and sometimes even burnt her pie crusts, does that mean she isn’t a “real mom”? Of course not!

I recognize this as hyperbole, but still, words matter–just ask Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D. Phrases like this get into our psyches and affect our attitudes. They pick at our over-crowded to-do-listed brain and undermine our self-worth–much like subtle images.

Of course, women are not the only ones being pressured to be “real.” There are plenty of YouTube videos and books about being “real men.” It doesn’t make it better, though…it makes it worse.

We put enough pressure on ourselves to be “perfect” or “real.” We don’t need to add to the pressure. Instead, we need to give each other a break. We need to accept our own and each others’ flaws and be kind. We need to be careful of the words we use because words really do matter.

~ K

New Book On Its Way

30 years ago I wrote Nothing But a Song, a story about Rebecca Kendall, a 19-year-old who loses her hearing in a horrific car accident. Using technology and help from a mysterious young man, she learns to sing again. But will she learn to love again?

It is finally being published through Crystal Publishing, LLC. Watch for it soon!

Cancer with no Regrets

My essay won First place in the Wyoming state DAR writing competition on Women’s Issues. Posted here for your enjoyment.

1st Place Winner in DAR State Writing Competition

Many things in life influence and inspire us: historical figures, parents, friends, educators. But we forget sometimes that negative experiences influence us just as much as the positive. For me, that negative experience was cancer. It was a wonderful time in my life. I was planning my wedding, I had a great job, and lived in a wonderful place. But it came to a screeching halt six weeks before my wedding when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer.

“Cancer” is a difficult diagnosis to hear, and it was for me. But now, nearly seven years later, I can see the positive effects it had on my life. Of course, I had to get through the chemo treatments, the radiation treatments, and the surgeries. I had to get through the nausea, the skin rashes, the infections, the strange looks when trying a new wig or hat on a balding head. But I did get through those, and in the process, I discovered strength I never knew I had. I discovered true friends, and I discovered the real priorities in life.

When I was diagnosed, I was teaching more than full time at a community college. I loved my job, but I hadn’t realized what I was giving up while working 10-12 hours a day. It wasn’t the TV shows I missed or a social life, but I was giving up my health. Cancer shook me back to reality and put my health front and center. While battling cancer, I had to learn to say “no.” NO to 12-hour days; NO to teaching when I was sick; NO to giving up sleep; NO to taking on extra duties. Instead, I said “Yes” to my health.

Not only did it mean getting enough sleep or staying home when I was sick, but it also meant finding creative ways to do my job online and accepting help from my colleagues. It meant spending more downtime with my husband and more time focusing on what was important: my family and my health.

I spent a year battling cancer, and in that year, there are so many little stories I could tell you about the people who supported me and lifted me up when I couldn’t do it on my own. So many stories of my husband holding my hand while I fought through pain and fear of the future. So many stories of loved ones praying for me, and bringing me meals and flowers. But it’s what happened after cancer that opened my eyes.

Many people think that cancer patients lose weight, and although that may be the case with some people, it wasn’t the case with me. I lost my appetite, and I rarely ate junk food, but still, my weight ballooned up to 315 pounds. Granted, at my diagnosis, I was 280 pounds, but I was appalled at my weight gain. The doctors and nurses weren’t. They assured me that the weight was a good thing. For once in my life I was told to eat what I wanted and to not worry about my weight. Ironically, I couldn’t enjoy it. Food made me sick, and eating was no longer pleasurable. What a cruel joke, I thought! But still, my weight climbed up. It was because of the medication, not because of my diet that caused the weight gain.

In 2011 when I finally finished radiation treatments, I decided it was time to lose weight. Again, my doctors told me not to focus on it…not to diet. Can you imagine a 315-pound woman being told not to diet!?

It took nearly a year to get my appetite back, and in the meantime, I transitioned into being a vegetarian—not for some political or ethical reason, but because fruits and vegetables were all I could stand to eat. Other food just did not appeal to me, so I ate what I wanted and lost a few pounds. I got down to 290, but that’s as far as I went.

In 2012, my doctors finally approved a weight loss program for me. They emphasized that losing weight would lower my risks of cancer reoccurring. They focused on the negative effects of sugar and simple carbohydrates, and I struggled to stick to their plan of high protein and low carbs. I still wasn’t eating meat; it made me ill. And I exercised like my life depended on it. Still, the scale never moved. Perhaps it was the sugar and carbs in the fruits and vegetables I ate. Perhaps it was the milk I drank. Who knows why I couldn’t lose weight. My body had just been through a trauma and was completely out of whack.

Finally, after months of struggling and crying over the scale, I decided to take the drastic step of bariatric surgery. In October of 2012, I had 85% of my stomach removed.

Many people think that weight loss surgery is an “easy” way to lose weight. It is not. In my lifetime, I have had several surgeries, but bariatric surgery was the worst surgery I have had to endure.

Before any surgery, people have to go without food and water for at least 12 hours before. This was true for bariatric surgery. But when the surgery was done, I was still not allowed to eat or drink. I chewed on ice and could only drink tiny drops of water. I vomited blood and had the worst pain in my life. It took hours to find relief—all of this during a power outage at the Cheyenne hospital! Once I recovered from the initial shock to my system, I drank my food for weeks as my stomach healed, and the liquid diet continued as my body reset from years of yo-yo dieting and the damage of the surgery and the cancer treatments.

Today, over four years later, I have lost over 125 pounds. I have done thousands of sit ups, rode countless miles on a stationary bike, and walked tens of thousands of steps up mountains and around my neighborhood, but still, my body is not where I want it. I abhor the lose skin around my middle, the “wings” of my triceps, and the thickness of my thighs. No matter how much I exercise or how much weight I lose, I will never have the body I’ve always wanted. I will never weigh what the charts say I should weigh. According to those charts, I will always be overweight. I could go through more surgeries and have my skin altered and the stretch marks erased. I could get my scars removed and have plastic surgery to alter my body to fit the mental images that linger in my brain, but I won’t. This is the body that I have—the body given to me by God. I have fought hard for these scars and stretch marks. They have become a kind of badge of honor…a demonstration of all of my battles—evidence of my strength. So, although I may give up the fight for a perfect body, I won’t give up my fight for good health.

Although my body is still large, and I’ll always be measured as overweight, I know the battles I have fought, and I know that I am healthy, and it’s my health I will no longer sacrifice for career or even for my own selfish needs. And it’s cancer I thank for this fierce determination.

Building Round Characters

In writing, there are round characters and flat characters. Flat characters are just like they sound: flat. No depth. A writer wouldn’t go into much detail about who they are or their background. The flat characters are simply there to help advance the story.

Round characters, however, do more than advance the story. They have depth and typically change throughout the story. These characters need background–whether you share their backstory or not is up to you, the writer, but you’ll discover that without the backstory, your characters will feel flat regardless of how you try otherwise.

So, how do you develop round characters with a backstory? Here are some ideas that seem to work for me:

  1. Give them a full name: middle and all. You may never use the middle name, but it’s there nonetheless. Include maiden names and reasons behind the name. For example, my novel has a music theme running through it, so I gave my character the middle name of “Cadence.” However, that is not reason enough. Therefore, in her backstory, it’s a family name on her mother’s side–a maiden name passed down generations. That provides a strong family tie as well as a music-themed name (without it being too cheesy or obvious).
  2. Create a family tree. Who are their parents? Grandparents? Etc. Go as far back as you want. Having family ties helps you know your characters and helps define their goals and motivations. Think about yourself: do you know where you came from? Does that give you pride? How does knowing your own background influence how you act or talk? Do you have an accent? Does your character have an accent? Think about it in depth. If you don’t know your heritage, then how does that influence you?
  3. Give your character a birth date and then look up their horoscope. You would be amazed at how much a horoscope can help define your character. For example, one main character I’m working on is fairly selfless and has some psychic tendencies. I looked through the different horoscope readings and discovered that  Pisces was the perfect fit. From there, I figured out her birthday and even the day she was conceived. It may never come up in the story, but I know who she is, so if I decide to write a sequel, then I’ve got all kinds of information.
  4. Put this backstory into a separate document. I have the entire family’s backstory in a separate document. It could turn into a prequel–you just never know.
  5. Not sure where to start? Conduct an interview with your character. It may seem funny at first, but you’ll soon lose yourself into the activity. Keep in mind that your reader is going to spend a lot of time with this person (people), so you want to make them likeable. If you don’t like spending time with this person, then your reader won’t either–although, there is something to be said for creating hated characters… More on that next time.

Try this blog for more ideas.

What methods do you use to help create round characters? Tell me in the comments.

The Witty Owl

So You Want to Write a Book?

When I tell people that I’m an editor and writer, they tend to launch into their book writing aspirations, which I enjoy, but then they tend to end the discussion with the statement, “But I don’t know where to start.”

Yes, Lewis Carroll said, “Begin at the beginning,” but it’s not as simple as that.

Editors and agents want the beginning of a book to capture its audience from the first sentence and to entice the reader to continue to the end.

That’s a daunting task. So, of course, if thinking about this beginning, you’ll never begin. Rather than “begin at the beginning,” begin writing where your idea starts. You can figure out the beginning later.

Diana Gabaldon, a favorite writer of mine, speaks about “kernels.” These are small snapshots of characters, descriptions, images…short sentences that start an idea. From there, she develops these ideas into larger and longer texts. Sometimes, these ideas make it into the book, but sometimes, they hit the editing floor. That’s OK.

I repeat: THAT’S OK. Every thought you have about a book or a character or an idea does not have to end up in the book. It doesn’t meant it’s not valuable. It simply means that it’s not meant for the reader. Hold on to those pieces, though, because they could be useful in developing your character. [More on that later…]

The Oxford Comma

A recent article, first reported on the Quartz website, argued that a missing Oxford comma was to blame for a court’s ruling on overtime pay in Maine. The article explains that the list of duties ineligible for overtime pay was ambiguous because it was missing an Oxford comma.

An Oxford comma comes before the “and” in a list of three or more items. It is also known as the “serial comma.” I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma. It helps alleviate confusion. Yes, it takes up space, but when precise communication matters, such as in a legal document, then an Oxford comma is necessary.

Take this example into consideration:

If three children are left a considerable inheritance from their parents, then how should it be divided between them?

The inheritance is to be divided between Sue, Joe and Jack.

If the sentence read “equally between Sue, Joe and Jack,” then the missing Oxford comma might not matter. However, in this case, it is ambiguous whether or not the inheritance should be divided into equal thirds between the three children or if Sue should inherit 50% and Joe & Jack have to split the other half.

At a grammar conference I attended in the ’90s, the presenter argued this exact case (real or imagined, I never knew–but also mentioned here). Sue won this scenario because if Joe and Jack were meant to be considered separate entities, a comma would separate them, and it would be clear that the money should be divided into equal thirds.

Back to the modern case: the Main law reads as follows:

“The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

As written, which activities are exempt from overtime pay?

Unsure? Well, the courts were unsure as well. The drivers argued that “packing for shipment or distribution” is one activity, and therefore, those drivers who are shipping or distributing should be paid overtime.

The dairy company, however, argued that “packing,” “shipping,” and “distributing” were all exempt from overtime pay.

The court ruled in favor of the drivers.

The headlines across the Internet claim a missing Oxford comma is to blame for the ruling; however, I argue that the problem is more than just a missing comma. The problem is in a lack of parallelism.

Parallelism basically means that words in succession should be written in the same format. In this case, all of the activities in the list should be written with an “ing” ending.

If all of those activities are to be considered separately, including “shipment or distribution,” then all of them should be written with an -ing ending. Therefore, the following would be correct:

“The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing, [shipping, and distributing] of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”

That’s not what they wrote, however, and therefore, the drivers had a good point. By all means, use the Oxford comma, but take it the next step and use parallel structure, too. You never know when it might really matter. Of course, I argue language always matters.

~ @TheWittyOwl


SoftChalk Lesson of the Week

Today, I was honored by having one of my course designs chosen for “SoftChalk Lesson of the Week.”

The lesson is part of a Department of Labor grant I am working on with NWCCD in Sheridan, Wyoming. It’s been a fun journey, and I now know more about Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning than I ever thought I could know.

This program uses textbook materials, but what I have input in SoftChalk is an overview of each unit with a review for students. The review is a crossword puzzle testing students on their Unit Trade Terms knowledge.

Check it out: https://www.softchalkcloud.com/lesson/serve/WKhiXqPS7YpeLm/html

I’m pretty proud of it.

Watch for more!