Friday, May 19, 2023

Prompting Possible Imaginations

I happen to agree with Esther when it comes to writing prompts. I’m not a great devotee of prompts.  

We’ve all heard those success stories of debut authors. (I hesitate to use the qualifier “overnight’, as it tends to negate the work that went into the writing.) J.K. Rowling. Veronica Roth. S.E. Hinton. Christopher Paolini self-published his first book, Eragon. He sold thousands of copies, when Random House took notice and bought the rights, and the rest is dragon history.  Emma Cline, who wrote The Girls, was offered a three-book contract with a reported $2 million deal.  

The real success stories – and the real champions -- are not the lucky debuts but we the sloggers, the majority of us who get up every morning and do what we do. We don’t define ourselves by rejections, nor by successes. We write. And if we’re lucky, we have a friend or two who send reminders, wrapped in chocolate, with a note: Yes, rejection sucks. Eat chocolate. Now get back to work.

But getting back to work is not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve written about my own trials in finding an agent many times, including here.  This week, news broke out about events surrounding New Leaf Agency (See Publisher’s Weekly article here), bringing into stark relief how excruciating the business of writing can be. Despite having seven books, a few award-winners and several short stories published in major venues, I've faced my own challenges to find an agent. And this in stressor certainly impacted my writing process. I mean, what’s the point?

After parting ways with my third agent, I stopped submitting to focus more on the story engineering process, taking classes from some of the best people in the business. (I highly recommend classes from the indomitable Emma D. Dryden, from the master editors of Eileen Robinson and Harold Underdown at Kid's Book Revisions, from Lorin Oberweger's Free Expressions.) Taking classes from such great teachers kept me in the flow.

 In 2023, one editor finally made an offer (shhhh, it’s not official yet. But watch this space! Unless, of course, change happens.).  Another editor invited me to create a proposal for a multi-book project. Who-op! The proposal was accepted and made its way up the chain. With these several manuscripts in hand, I was able to connect with my current agent.  

Still, we remember that things can change on a dime. That’s what it means to have a career in writing: the business of publishing is always in a state of flux. And so it happened again, the proposed series was rejected. Historical fiction is a hard sell.  What's next? Well, my agent and I are working on it.

If there’s a prompt to be had, perhaps the only one that matters is: 

Write what you love. Write your passion. 

 I write historical fiction. As Liz Trenow states (Writer’s Digest, April 2023): “When I discovered historical fiction, I loved the way it opened up worlds I knew little about, led me into researching eras of history, even took me traveling to find out more.” 

For me, history is my inspiration.  I grew up reading historical adventures and watching Doctor Who (a show that bent history into a wibbly wobbly adventure, to be sure!) Of course, it was the boys who were having all the fun. I wanted to know about those other stories, plain and ordinary girls like me. 

I also love to research. I enjoy reading diaries of those who experienced the events. When writing Girls of Gettysburg (2014), I walked the battlefield four times, watching re-enactors create this moment in history taht took place one hundred fifty-one years ago. I stood in the very place where twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field. And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were my girls of Gettysburg

My characters also broke the rules and norms of their period as they struggled to take control of their destiny, although I was careful to provide context.  This focus reaffirmed the theme that underscores all my writing: Doing right wasn’t always easy, and sometimes it could be dangerous, but it could also change the world. And, in reading my stories, young readers are empowered (hopefully) to do the same.

For me, historical fiction tells the story of a living past, illustrating the continuity of life. Humans by their very nature are difficult, complicated, short-sighted, and at times, tragic. And yet, there is hope, grounded in human experience and perspective, all of which has been the driving force of my storytelling.

As my protagonist in Big River’s Daughter (2013) said, “This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”  And therein is the hope of River’s journey: if one perseveres,  life can be full of possible imaginations.

So, the question -- or the prompt -- becomes: Why do you like to write, and what do you love about your writing? 

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, May 5, 2023

PROMPT: The Verb!

I sadly confess: concerning the featured theme of our current blogs, 

I am not, nor have I ever been, a Devotee of Writing Prompts.

Should a writer or student relish such an exercise, I consult my 

“Writing Prompts” file and gladly comply.

Should a teacher or presenter put forth such an exercise in a class 

or workshop I’m attending, I seldom respond.

I happily confess, however: I am hopelessly devoted to prompting 

writers and students - urging, assisting, encouraging, coaching 

them - to keep keepin’ on, no matter the project, whether stalled, 

stopped or even stuck.

When it comes to prompt, the verb, my FOR HESITANT WRITERS 

file runneth over.

It holds strategies, techniques, tricks of the trade, tips, exercises 

and recommended books, including the oh, so understanding and 

oh, so instructive book Unstuck (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Most Readers have already met Unstuck’s author - writer, poet and 

Writing Coach Jane Anne Staw, my longtime friend I still fondly 

call Janie.

In July of 2020 I shared in a Wednesday Writing Workout one of 

her illuminating blog posts based on her book Small: The Little 

We Need for Happiness (Shanti Arts, 2017).

Lucky us, because once again, my dear friend graciously granted 

me permission to reprint her published words. This time I’m 

sharing a helpful Try This exercise from Unstuck to prompt any of 

our stuck readers to return to the work at hand.

The book’s subtitle says it all: A Supportive and Practical Guide to 

Working Through Writer’s Block.

In fourteen chapters that help the writer learn his or her own story, 

from “The Right to Write” to “What’s at Stake,” Unstuck lives up to 

its subtitle. Chapters 3 (“Flushing Out Our Enemies”) and Chapter 

6  (“Showing Up for Yourself”) especially spoke to me.

I’m hoping the essence of Chapter Five, “Thinking Small,” speaks 

to you.

Jane Anne-dash-Janie begins the chapter by sharing her two-word 


     “If I were to choose a mantra for my writing, it would be 

     Think small.  Each time I sit down to write, I begin by recalling 

     these two words. And whenever I feel myself slowing down too 

     much or veering off-track, I bring myself back by repeating 

     them. Think small, Jane Anne. Think small. Thinking small 

     actually helps us write big.  Instead of limiting you, thinking 

     small will set you free.”

She ends the chapter with this Try This:

     “Instead of thinking about all the writing you must do – or have 

     not gotten done – think about just one small part.  If you are 

     working on a book, focus on the first chapter only.  If it’s a legal 

     brief, concentrate on the first point you want to make.  If this 

     amount of writing feels overwhelming, narrow your sights even 

     more.  Think only about the first page or the first paragraph.  

     Then, when you have accomplished your goal, congratulate 

     yourself and negotiate the next small step.”


May the above exercise prompt you to think small and - continue

to write… BIG!

Thanks to Linda B at TeacherDance for hosting today’s Poetry 


And thank you, Janie, for once again sharing your smarts, 

expertise and guidance with our TeachingAuthors readers.


Happy Keepin’ On!

Esther Hershenhorn


P.S. from Carmela: Time is running out if you haven't yet entered our giveaway of Zeena Pliska's brand new picture book, Egyptian Lullaby (Roaring Brook Press)! Read this post for details.