Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What advice would you give to a beginning writer? (01/15/06)

Featured writer: Patry Francis

Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Bonnie Bruinsslot
Christine Falcone
Elaine Lannert
Gianna De Persiis Vona
Marlene Cullen
Susan Bono

Patry Francis

I really hate to write this in terms of DOs and DON'Ts. It makes me think of the magazine that shows photographs of poor unsuspecting women on the street, caught wearing the wrong shoes, or too-tight jeans or some other heinous fashion crime, and labels them with a large DON'T. It then contrasts them with their trendy, perfectly coordinated sisters who've earned approving DOs. I don't know about you, but I've always identified with the DON'T people—and not just in fashion. But that's another story. What I really set out to write about here (before my A.D.D. got the better of me) is getting your daily writing done. And in spite of my aversion to the DOs and DON'Ts format, it really is a convenient way of looking at it.

DO set a goal. Whether it's a number of pages or words or a time limit, you need a goal. My personal method is a combination of both. I use a kitchen timer set to one hour. (Pretty pathetic, I know, but I can always do more if I'm inspired or ambitious, and you wouldn't believe how hard I have to fight with myself just to get that hour in. Or then again, if you're writers, you probably would believe it.) At the end of the hour, if I still haven't completed 1000 words, I keep going.

DO prepare. Go to the bathroom, turn off the phone, get your coffee or your chocolate, your shot of Jack Daniels or whatever you need to get you through the writing session because once you sit down you're not getting up until you've reached your goal.

DO make it part of your DAILY life. You eat every day, right? Probably run a comb through the hair or polish the bald head. Find time for at least a few hours sleep. And what about your personal vices? Whatever they may be, you can be reasonably sure they never take a holiday. If you smoke, for example, there's never a day when you just don't have time for a butt, and TV watchers (one of the worst vices in my book) rarely climb into bed without satisfying their yen with at least a 30 minute fix. Alcoholics rarely take a day off, and if they do, they make up for it by bingeing. Well, same goes for writing. If you're a writer, you need to give it at least the same respect you give your (other) addictions.

DO love what you're doing, even when the prose is limpid and nothing comes and the characters are as dead as the cows hanging from hooks in the butcher shop window. You're writing! You're learning! You're practicing! And I'm willing to bet that if you keep on going you'll write your way past those flat sentences and dead cows into a place that surprises you with its greenery.

DO keep going when you want to quit. Unless you've reached your goal, you're not going to get up no matter how desperate you are to escape your computer or your notebook or those flaccid cows you've created. They're yours, dammit, and you're staying with them till they lead you to that lush field described above.

DON'T think too much. You should have done that already. In fact, you've probably been contemplating this story for weeks, months, maybe even your whole life. Now is the time to release it like a thousand balloons.

DON'T check your word count or your timer or do anything that would stop the flow. Just open your hand and let those balloons go. You can count them up or admire their beauty as they float across the sky later.

DON'T let anyone interrupt you unless it's an emergency. Don't stop to get the mail, to answer the door, or to walk around the room in circles talking back to your recalcitrant characters.

DON'T edit, or check spelling or stop to look up a word. There will be time for all that later, too. Don't even take time to search for the right word in your head. Just write blankety-blank in the middle of the sentence if its rhythm seems to demand an adjective or adverb that is not coming at the moment.

DON'T be afraid. And this is the big one, the summing-up one, ultimately the only one. In the fashion magazine world of DON'Ts, this is the girl who not only has her thong poking out the top of her jeans and a big midriff roll protruding from her little bitty shirt, her hair is over-dyed, and oh-my-god (!) she's even wearing the wrong sunglasses...well, you get the the religion of the fashion magazine, she's on the road straight to hell. Well, that's the writer who approaches computer or notebook feeling afraid that she'll never write anything as good as the thing she wrote last week, or that if she actually puts some words down she might have to admit she's really not that talented after all. On the other hand, if she never writes anything at all, she can play the constipated genius for life. What she doesn't know if that she's on the well trod path to writer's hell, which is non productivity, lack of growth, the blank page, the unwritten book, the death bed whine: coulda, shoulda, didn't.

Patry Francis' stories have appeared in publications including Ontario Review, Antioch Review, Colorado Review and many others. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. Her first novel, THE LIAR'S DIARY, will be published by Dutton in March, 2007.

For more good reading visit her blog, Simply Wait. (

For a piece of her flash fiction, try the fabulous literary magazine online, Smokelong Quarterly.

Betty Winslow

Don't give up. Success as a writer doesn't often happen right off the bat. It takes work and patience and perseverance. Keep writing, keep sending it out, keep learning, keep believing in yourself. (Meanwhile, don't give up your day job...)

Betty Winslow, cramming her writing time in between day jobs, in Bowling Green, Ohio

Bonnie Bruinsslot

My first, and most important words are: Write, write, write. Don't worry how good or bad it is. There are always parts that are redeemable. Now that that's clear, I ask you, why do you write? Is it for fame? For fortune?

Let's look at fame. What happens when you become a celebrity? Michael Jackson could tell you. He fled halfway around the world to the United Arab Emirates, and still snippets of casual comments grease the newspapers. He's a perfect example of privacy taking a flying leap off the Golden Gate Bridge.

No matter, I say, write write, write.

As for fortune, I have trunks full of writings that I think are great, worth their weight in gold, but no money has shown up at my doorstep. Well, not much. My friend asked me if he could buy the children's picture book I wrote. His payment might help me buy my next ink cartridge for the printer. I still say, write, write, write.

You see, you never know what you'll discover. You may find little money, and less fame, but your soul will answer the questions of your universe, like why did she leave me with this mess of a house? Or how come I'm not sad anymore?

Your soul will continue to massage your thoughts and senses through your writing, and your life will be richer for it.

So remember, write, write, write.

Bonnie Bruinsslot is taking her own advice in Santa Rosa, CA

Christine Falcone

First of all, read. Read as much as you can. Books, magazines, newspapers, even the back of cereal boxes. Seek to learn as much as you can about what makes good writing good, just as much as what makes bad writing bad. Know what appeals to you, what moves you, uplifts you, changes you and then seek to emulate it. It's okay at first to try to write like those authors you're reading or whom you've fallen in love with. It's the highest form of flattery and not too dissimilar to trying on different outfits to see what fits. But do not confuse this with your own voice. That takes some time to find, to emerge from all the voices on the page, and in your head.

Be quiet. Learn to listen to yourself. Go for long walks alone. Spend time in nature. Meditate if you can. Read poetry that makes you cry. Be present to people when they're talking to you. Learn to read between the lines because, everywhere you turn, people are trying to tell you something of their lives, of their pain. Let yourself experience dry spells; it's those times that some of the best work can germinate. Travel. Taste different cultures. Be as open to life and the world as you can. Stories are everywhere. Soak them up. Do not hold back. Feel deeply. Let yourself go.

Capture images like the lens of a camera. Store them up for future use. Look for the deeper meaning in a thing. An empty can of soup, discarded in the trash instead of the recycling bin can represent the loss of potential, a missed opportunity, waste. A broken bat, or one shoe lying on the side of the road is telling a story. Ask questions. The other day, I passed a man on the shoulder of the freeway running to pick up the head of a manikin that had apparently fallen out of his truck. He picked it up and ran with it cradled in his arm like a football, relief spread out on his face like a map. Where was he going? What was his story?

Think about what you see, what you hear. Steal bits of dialogue. Eavesdrop shamelessly. Take it all in and store it up. You'll eventually find a use for everything, that which you've lived as well as that which you've stolen. Don't let a moment go by without observing it. Look around you. Note your surroundings, wherever you are: a party, an outdoor market, jail, church, the scene of a car accident. Listen to the sounds of it, smell its scents. Study the way the seasons move through nature, and how time passes.

Take drugs if you must. Drink. Or go the opposite route: keep sober, go to bed early, eat well, exercise. All of it will give you a different take on life. Use everything. There are no mistakes. Have relationships. Lose yourself in them and find yourself again. Life is a series of peaks and valleys, disappearing and reemerging. Seek to know yourself. Study your own mind. Over-analyze, but be concrete about it. Focus on the specific; in that lies the universal. Be authentic. Be true to yourself. Once you find your own voice, defend it at all costs. Learn your own story by heart. And most of all, take advantage of the muse, even if she calls at 4 a.m.

Do things you wouldn't normally do. Stretch yourself. Experience as much as you can. Do things that scare you. Keep a journal. Carry a pen and paper with you at all times. Join a writing group or two. Listen to music. Believe in the merit of your own words. If you are called in this life to be a writer, know that your greatest task is to become a vessel, to open up and empty out, to tap into the greater flow, that higher consciousness and let it flow through you. Most of all: tell the truth.

Searchlights columnist Christine Falcone writes in Novato, CA. She takes time off from novel writing to produce essays and poetry.

Elaine Lannert

The advice I would give to a beginning writer is essentially the same advice I give myself.

Take pen in hand and apply to paper. Experience and focus on the blank page, staring for what seems like decades of time.

Then ever so slowly, like the motion of an Ouija board, you notice your hand
beginning to move. Like a light bulb going on in your mind, thought actually
transcends to the pen and suddenly you're off like a racehorse breaking out
of the gate.

Writing is a very personal and solitary activity, but, oddly enough, it is the
accumulation of experiences that have involved so many people in our lives.

Write about love, life and the pursuit of happiness — write about wins and
losses and dreams. Write as, hopefully, you live—with passion.

Elaine Lannert writes in Petaluma, CA

Gianna De Persiis Vona

Don't start. Quit now, before you get hooked, before your identity, your peace of mind, your feelings of self worth are hinged on your ability to put words together in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. What's that? It's too late? You love to write? It's your favorite thing? It fills you with a sense of being, of belonging that when your really on fire can fill up your chest and make you grin like a fool even though you are all by yourself at your desk writing things that it's quite possible no one else will ever read? Alas, then it is already too late for you to give up, in which case, may I suggest, giving in? But be easy on yourself. Be gentle. Be forgiving. This writing gig isn't easy, it's painful sometimes, insurmountable, so hard to gage. Am I good? Am I terrible? Am I wonderful? Am I an embarrassment to myself? Writing isn't math, there are no right answers, and therefore, no clear way to judge our own performance. All we can do is stay committed to the idea of ourselves as writers. Allow writing to become a part of your identity. This doesn't mean you have to be published, it doesn't mean that you have to have consistently fantastic results, it doesn't even mean you have to be that great, after all, writing skill is something that evolves with time. What it means is that you have to own it, without the need for any qualifiers outside of your own passion. Maybe you write every day, maybe you write once a month, it doesn't matter. If you love to write, if you long to write, if you struggle with this indomitable craft called writing, then just stand up and say it, "I'm a writer." Go ahead, say it.

Searchlights columnist Gianna De Persiis Vona lives and writes in Sebastopol. She and Steven Brumm coordinated the 1st Annual Sonoma County Writer's Conference in October, 2005. The Free Writers, a creative writing group she has been facilitating for the last four years, will be giving a reading at Coffee Catz in Sebastopol from 6- 8 p.m. on February 23.

Marlene Cullen

Run, don't walk. Run to the hills. Get away from your pen and paper and computer. Commune with the trees. Go to the mountains. Enjoy nature. Then come back refreshed, energized and full of enthusiasm for writing.

Or, get up and do the laundry. Or feed the birds. Just don't get stuck in your chair.

We always hear put your butt in the chair in order to write. But what if you sit there for an hour or more and you just get frustrated? Get up and move around. Maybe even do a little dance. Scramble those brain cells.

Put on some music. Jump rope. Pet the cat. Then get back to your writing.

Don't get too distracted, so much that you forget to get back to your writing. Don't get so distracted that by the end of the day you have a clean house, folded laundry, kids picked up and dropped off, but you have blank pages.

No, don't get everything done, just a few things, just enough to wake up and recharge.

Definitely have an exercise program. Because as a writer, not only do you sit a lot, the really best distraction is food, or drink. So, if you're not writing, you're eating, or drinking. You better add exercising to that list.

And read, of course. You know you're going to read anyway. You might as well eliminate some of the guilt by saying you're doing research, or studying an author's methods.

What else? Invest in wonderful smooth flowing pens and lots of notebooks. You might also get a hat or scarf to wear that tells your family you're working and to leave you alone.

Learn the fine art of tuning everything out — the blaring TV, fighting kids, their music, your spouse clanking around in the kitchen, the barking dog, the phone ringing.

Learn to focus. Learn to stick with it. Learn to be selfish. They can get their own dang lunch and they can learn to do laundry. Make compromises. Fix dinner in exchange for them cleaning up.

Free up your time whenever you can, so you can indulge in your favorite pleasure. . . reading. I mean writing. Of course.

Marlene Cullen enjoys reading and writing in Petaluma, CA and especially enjoys her work as associate editor of Searchlights.

Susan Bono

I know that you are longing for the ease and accumulated wisdom you imagine more experienced writers possess. You want to gaze at your bookshelves and see them stacked with scores of messily brilliant journals, or better yet, the beautifully bound spines of your own books translated into many languages. You want your file cabinets overflowing with records of completed projects, all of them award-winning. But what I want for you is to keep yourself a beginner.

Perhaps you're familiar with this quote by Rilke, "If the angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced him, not by tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning—to be a beginner."

Now, a beginner can be a finisher; she can be a reviser. She can experience incredible success with her words. The kind of beginner I'm encouraging you to be never loses the enthusiasm and confidence and curiosity you possess right now. She doesn't end up second-guessing herself or watching herself walk into the same traps over and over. The beginner Rilke spoke of is so excited about writing that she writes in her sleep or while she's walking the dog or weeding. She stays connected to herself by returning time and time again to what she doesn't quite understand. Old pros can do this too, if they've kept their eyes and hearts fresh. The angel comes when you're too busy writing to notice that you've got company.

Susan Bono begins and ends in Petaluma, CA

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

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