Searchlights & Signal Flares

Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's the worst mistake you can make as a writer? (11/15/13)

Featured writer: Arlene Mandell

Contributors this month:
Don Edgers
Gaye Buzzo Dunn
Sara Etgen-Baker
Susan Bono
Susan Winters

Isn't it Obvious?

by Arlene Mandell

Here is my short essay (yes, short is good) on the biggest mistake you can make as a writer:


In her novel, Amy Falls Down, Jincy Willett describes a reclusive writing coach whose literary career takes off again after she hits her head on a birdbath. The delightful plot is too labyrinthine to explain concisely. However, even during the many years Amy doesn't actually write, she jots down odd words, tiny sparks of writing. After her concussion, she scribbles ideas for titles. Whole stories quickly follow. (This is, after all, fiction.)

The remedy for NOT WRITING is simple: surround yourself with writing materials--index cards, pads, notebooks, journals. Stash them everywhere--in your car, at your bedside, on the kitchen table, and, of course, at your desk. The latter location should also have rubber cement, Scotch tape, pens, pencils, markers, scissors. My tools also include a box of 64 Crayola Crayons in Different Brilliant Colors.

Then READ everything from the contents of a cereal box to a review in The Wall Street Journal about an Edgar Allan Poe exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City. Copy some advice Poe gave to a farmer and aspiring poet in 1843: "Be bold--read much--publish little--fear nothing." Or reread the first verse of Wallace Stevens' famous poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird

I won't bore you, dear readers, with charming snippets from my own dazzling journals and the resulting Different Brilliant poems and stories that have since been published. Instead I offer some words from a journal entry by the famous photographer and literary icon Susan Sontag:

"Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one's private, secret thoughts--like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person, I create myself."

So pick up that crayon--melon, peach or periwinkle--WRITE NOW!

Arlene Mandell, a retired English professor who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, was formerly on the staff of Good Housekeeping magazine. She has published more than 600 poems, essays and short stories in newspapers and literary journals, and in 24 anthologies.Her echapbook, Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street: A Brooklyn Memoir, is available free at

Giving Up Isn’t an Option, or Holy Roman Emperor, Batman! Publish or Perish?

  by Don Edgers

Many wanna-be writers make the mistake of giving up too easily when inquiries or submissions are returned or rejected. I suspect these "quitters" subscribe to the mantra: If at first you don't succeed, you probably shouldn't go sky-diving.

On the other hand, Martin Luther (the German monk, Catholic priest, professor of theology) disputed the claim that avoidance of God's punishment from sin could be bought via indulgences. Luther confronted the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, "the indulgence salesman," with the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517.

Pope Leo X and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Germany, demanded Luther retract all of his writings. His refusal resulted in his excommunication by the Pope and the famous Edict of Worms which declared Luther as a heretic and outlaw, with permission for anyone to kill him without consequences.

Martin Luther's writings led to the Protestant Reformation, and he died of natural causes many years later.

I'm irreverently suggesting that his tombstone might have a suggestion of what the Catholic authorities could do with their indulgences.

Don lives and writes (sometimes with tongue-in-cheek) in Port Orchard, WA.
His website:

DOT the I’s & CROSS those T’s

  by Gaye Buzzo Dunn

I was horrified. I just e-mailed a submittal to a publication and there were two periods at the end of a sentence instead of one. I was upset with myself for missing this simple typographical error. When I reviewed the cover letter, I noticed another small error--a transposed letter and an extra space not deleted. These small oversights are not small when submitting work to a magazine's editorial staff.

One of the worst mistakes a writer can make is releasing a writing project before all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. Patience, a desirable quality in many endeavors, is crucial when preparing a writing project for consideration. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to be impatient. I knew I needed to recheck the manuscript before I submitted it, but in my eagerness I failed to recheck my work; a painful rejection instead of a joyful acceptance followed—a hard lesson learned.

Since that painful experience, now when I complete a manuscript, I perform multiple edits, spelling, grammatical, and typographical checks before I lay a story to rest. And it does rest. I put it aside for approximately three to five days and often bring a draft copy to a writer's group for critique and constructive feedback before I do a final review.

Along with grammatical and punctuation reviews, as writers, we must also pay scrupulous attention to Writer Guidelines required by individual publications. Guidelines differ with many magazines requesting submittals by e-mail attachments, while others accept manuscripts only in the body of an e-mail. Many still desire hard copy documents sent through the postal service—good old snail mail. Any detail may be different from double spacing versus single spacing, limited word biographies, personal information not typed on the document itself to the opposite requirement asking for pertinent information entered on the first page and/or subsequent pages. A writer who overlooks these specifics risks rejection of their hard work.
It's not enough to write a great article or story; it must be presented to the editor in the proper format. Patience is a virtue that we all need as writers. I share with my fellow writers three initials I learned many years ago from a work-related training session:

D.I.R. - Doing It Right

The first time; Every Time, All the Time!

Gaye Buzzo Dunn, a former HR Manager, is a passionate writer, golfer and gardener residing in upstate New York. For more information on Gaye and her previously published work, contact her at her writer blog:

Adventures Along the Trinity River

  by Sara Etgen-Baker

"My father had just passed and I was livin' with my Aunt Rose—a persnickety ol' lady who wanted me to be right n' proper, tend her garden, and take care of them chickens. But all I wanted to do was go explorin' along the river where my dad and I fished. So on one such morning me ‘n Fred slipped our slingshots in our back pockets ‘n went tiptoein' down the back stairs.

"It was still purdy dark outside when we inched our way along the path amongst the trees back towards the end of Aunt Rose's garden. We sneaked past the parlor window and grabbed our minnow buckets and fishin' poles; and just when we was passin' by the kitchen window, Fred stumbled over Uncle Tony's shovel.

"We stopped; crouched down; and laid real still like. Aunt Rose was sittin' at the kitchen table; we could see her pretty clear ‘cause there was a light on behind her. She stood up and peered out her kitchen window. 'Is that you, Edwin. Don't ya be a wanderin' down to that river. There's snakes and varmints down there. Ya hear me?'

"We waited for what seemed like a good while. Then Fred made a sign that the coast wuz clear. So we went creepin' away on our hands and knees till we got to the edge of the river. The ol' Trinity was still and quiet ‘cept for the frogs a croakin'. We unhitched our flat bottom boat; rowed down the river about a mile and went ashore where we discovered a deserted campfire.

"Fred felt the warm ashes. 'What if this is where them bank robbers camped overnight?'

"The sun was risin' by then, and I could see the Dallas skyline off in the distance. Back in them days Dallas weren't nuthin' like it is now. It was just an overgrown prairie town along the Trinity River, and bank robbers could live along the river unnoticed……"

My father often began his stories like this one—stories so captivating that even Mark Twain would have liked them. Although my father's prose wasn't particularly gorgeous, he knew what a story was and how to tell it.

"What is the worst mistake I can make as a writer?" Forget how to tell a story.

After all these years, Sara Etgen-Baker can still hear her father telling his adventure stories. She likes to think of him as the Texas version of Huckleberry Finn.

Nobody's Perfect

  by Susan Bono

I've really got to find a way to muzzle my inner critic. She's always telling me in the sweetest, most helpful of tones that my writing is vapid and no one is going to waste their time reading it.

"Why not save yourself the trouble?" she gently urges. "There are enough books and essays out there already. You're not cut out to be a writer. Stick to reading."

I can't begin to count the number of times I've given in to that insistent voice and put down my pen or pushed away from the computer in defeat. I've closed my notebook and my mind to the possibility that I have something to say. I try to fill the hollow space that opens in me with salted nuts and potato chips, even though there's never enough salt to make the feeling go away.

In those dark times I let myself forget that I don't write to proclaim my genius, and none of the writers I know do, either. Writing requires such deep humility that no critic, inner or otherwise, can touch it. I'm always much happier and often more successful when I stop aiming for perfection and just concentrate on doing my best.

"Don't worry," I think I'll say to my inner critic the next time she tries to make me ashamed of my writing. "I'm not trying to be Good. I'm just aiming for Good Enough."

Susan Bono is remembering nobody's perfect, not even in Petaluma, CA.

Fear of Flying

  by Susan Winters

We've met them at conferences, writers whose work is always in revision. When asked about a completion date, they mutter vaguely about "someday." Whether their work is truly not ready or they're not, their writing languishes in a file drawer or on a laptop. Often these writers are astute about the craft and the writing business, a bench warmer who intimately knows the game, but has never had an at bat.

To never submit your writing is to keep a beautiful kite in its box—-safe from the sharp wind, but never to soar or be enjoyed by others. To share your work publicly risks criticism. Inevitably the harshest critic is the loudest one in the room. But to remain safely grounded at all times is a precursor to chronic apathy. As someone who has had some memorable crashes during her writing career, I can tell you the journey is well worth any turbulence you experience along the way.

Susan Winters works, writes and dances salsa in Reno, Nevada. Her music reviews and articles have appeared in the Reno News and Review. Her novel, Ever After is now available at Amazon. Her blog celebrates balancing creative pursuits with a full-time job.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono


C. Larson, B. Povich, M. Petty, C. Crawford, T. Sanders

Columnists Emeriti: Christine Falcone, David S. Johnson, Betty Rodgers, Jordan E. Rosenfeld, Betty Winslow

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer living in Petaluma, CA. She has published Tiny Lights: A Journal of Personal Narrative since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at She conducts creative writing classes in Petaluma and Santa Rosa and co-hosts the quarterly Speakeasy Literary Saloon at the Aqus Café in Petaluma. She's on the boards of Petaluma Readers Theatre and the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. She is still writing a postcard a day. Her most recent publishing credits include Petaluma Readers Theatre, KRCB’s Mouthful, Milk and Ink, and Passager Magazine.

Marilyn Petty is a dyed-in-the wool Midwesterner, a long-ago émigré to California and a fortunate resident of Sonoma County, CA. She taught weaving through the SRJC for 8 years and was the reporter, essayist, editor and publisher of the Redwood Empire Handweavers and Spinners Guild for 10 years. When not tangling with yarns, she is unknotting words, writing poetry and personal essays. She putters in the garden when words fail her.

Catherine Crawford is a former technical writer, editor, and course materials developer for high tech industries. She has taught college English at the four-year degree level, published two award winning chapbooks of poetry, and written articles for, a Portland, Oregon online travel magazine. She works as an editor in Vancouver, Washington. Her email:

Claudia Larson, in her childhood, wrote long letters to her best-friend cousin and enthralled herself by writing a heart-rending story of two orphans. She writes fewer letters nowadays and prefers writing poetry and memoirs of her North Dakotan farm girl days. She is not yet an orphan, has six siblings and lives in Sebastopol, CA.

Becky Povich lives near St. Louis, Missouri. Although not young in "people years," she's only been writing for ten of those. Getting her first book completed, a memoir, is her current short-term goal. She can be reached at, or visit her blog at

Theresa Sanders lives in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, where she is completing a novel. A former award-winning technical writer and consultant, she managed a Documentation and Training department before turning to her first love, creative writing. Her stories appear regularly in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Theresa welcomes email and would love to hear from you. Contact her at:

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