Category Archives: Blogging 101

Better Blogging Roundup

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Better Blogging Roundup

Whether you’re new to blogging—or an old hand—or just thinking about writing a blog, here is some great input to help you do it better.

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How to Hold a Writers’ Retreat

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How to Hold a Writers’ Retreat

Have you ever found yourself stranded in Creative Badlands? You know, that parched place where you are just so dry that nothing trickles from your pen? Or what you write is so uninspired that it puts you to sleep?

Sometimes it helps to get away. A writers’ retreat could be just the boost you needed to refresh your writing.

Why have a writers’ retreat?

A retreat is a block of time you set aside for a specific purpose—without the distractions and routines of everyday life. It’s a time to get away from your usual surroundings, a time of refreshment, a time to refine your focus.

At a writers’ retreat you might work on your work-in-progress, brainstorm ideas, learn a new technology, or just share information. The retreat could be strictly centered on the process of writing, or it may also involve care of body and soul as well (or maybe even some tourism).

Linda, hard at work.

Linda, hard at work.

How is a retreat structured?

The retreat should be structured to serve the attendees. You can have a writers’ retreat all by yourself, or you can go to a group retreat. Some retreats are led by organizations, with speakers and a pre-planned agenda, almost like a mini-conference or workshop; some are just a cluster of writing friends who decide to go away together for mutual support.

How should a retreat be planned?

If you are responsible for planning a retreat, consider these questions:

  • Where and when will you hold the retreat?
  • What are the participants hoping to accomplish through the retreat? Writing many pages, free from distractions and interruptions? Learning a new skill? Expanding presence on social media? Resting and relaxing? Enjoying the scenery? Connecting with other writers? Exploring a new location? Eating gourmet food?
  • What are the financial parameters?
  • What will attendees be expected to contribute toward the retreat?
  • How will you schedule activities so that goals are met, while allowing for downtime?
  • Who will lead presentations?

I recently participated in a retreat with some of the ladies of Tuesday’s Children, my critique group. One of our members hosted us in her home in the forested mountains of central Arizona, a couple hours northeast of Phoenix.

Judy's house.

Judy’s house.

What we did on our retreat

In the weeks leading up to our retreat, we determined what we wanted to accomplish: strengthening and expanding our platforms. Each of us considered what we could share with the group. One week in advance, we decided what groceries each of us would bring, so that there would be plenty of healthy food and snacks. I also picked some CDs from my collection for background music.

Judy's street.

Judy’s street.

We arrived at Judy’s house around 4:00 on Sunday. As we unloaded our suitcases and groceries, the keys to our only car somehow got locked inside. (Note: be mentally prepared for unexpected mishaps. Flexibility and a sense of humor go a long way to diffusing minor setbacks.) We called AAA; an hour later, the keys were liberated, and we went to a local restaurant for dinner, separate checks. Afterward, we enjoyed each other’s company by socializing in our pajamas, sort of a grown-up slumber party.

The next morning (Monday), we took a two-mile walk around the neighborhood, which involved scaling hills and enjoying the gorgeous wooded surroundings. Then back to the house for breakfast and devotions. Because all of us are Christians, we each spent some time reading Scripture, then shared what touched us in our reading, and prayed together.

Then we set to work. The four women who went on our retreat have totally different professional backgrounds and publication histories. Three have published books, all have published articles, three write fiction, all also write nonfiction. We all contribute to a group blog, and some of us have personal blogs as well.

Hard at work.

Updating author pages.

Our platform-building sessions concentrated on internet opportunities, such as spiffing up personal websites and blogs, Facebook pages, and author pages on Amazon. I shared some of what I’ve learned from WordPress Blogging U’s Blogging 101 and 201.

We broke for lunch and dinner, made from what Judy had on hand and the food we’d each contributed. At some point, we went for another walk, off the beaten path and into the woods. After dinner, we drove to a neighborhood where apple trees grow and saw elk. (Who knew elk eat apples straight from the tree?) We spent the evening talking and checking email and social media on our laptops while listening to music. (Note: to see captions for any of the remaining pictures on this post, place your cursor on the image.)

Tuesday morning we repeated the pattern—walk (saw more elk!), breakfast, and devotions–and continued our platform building. Then we did a quick clean-up and loaded all our stuff, including the remaining food, into the car, and drove to the Mogollon Rim, a high ridge overlooking a wooded canyon. Judy showed us a spot that holds special meaning for her and her late husband; and then we drove to a picnic area to eat our lunch before returning to the metro Phoenix area.

This was actually Tuesday’s Children’s third retreat. We’ve figured out a process that works for us. We’ve been friends for decades, and relate well to each other. We recognize our individual strengths and deficiencies, and we can help each other navigate new territory. Other than a restaurant dinner the first night, whatever groceries we brought along, and a few bucks to our driver (Peggy) toward gas, we didn’t spend any money. We each pitched in our labor doing whatever had to be done. We are blessed that Judy opened her beautiful house to us.

We all learned something that we didn’t know before, and all of us went away with a new idea for an article, post, or book. I’d say our retreat was a success!

Have you had a great experience at a writers’ retreat? What made it especially worthwhile for you? Please share in the comments below.

From the Creator’s Heart #1

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From the Creator’s Heart #1

Introducing a new feature: every Sunday ARHtistic License will provide a quote from Scripture applicable to the creative life.

In the beginning God Created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:1-4 NIV)

Video of the Week #1

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Video of the Week #1

Today I am starting a new weekly feature. From today forward, every Thursday I will share one of my favorite YouTube videos.

What Is My Calling?

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What Is My Calling?

If you asked me a few years ago what my calling was, I would tell you I was born to teach. I loved being around elementary school children, seeing the world through their eyes. I taught music, and I loved seeing the kids build skills, learn concepts, and enjoy making music.

Then everything changed. Without going into detail, teaching became a burden rather than a joy. Recognizing that the educational paradigm was shifting, I tried to roll with the changes, telling myself I could hang on until things got better.

They only got worse. Demands increased as resources dwindled. Morale at my school plummeted. My stress level rose. After grieving for three years over my profession’s shift from rewarding labor to drudgery, I resigned in May of 2014. I had to. I couldn’t suffer it one more day.

I immediately underwent an identity crisis. What was I, if no longer a teacher? And what was I going to do with the rest of my life? I was too young to retire, too young for Medicare.

Signing the deal

I returned to Tuesdays Children, the writers’ critique group I was part of a decade before, when as a stay-at-home mom I tried to write for a living. It was my logical fall-back, since I always said I’d return to writing when I wasn’t teaching any more. These wonderful ladies decided to launch a group blog, Doing Life Together, and I wrote a post about my transition from teaching to the unknown. (Click here.)

Jeff Goins

Jeff Goins

When Jeff Goins, a writer whose blog I follow (click here), recently published his book The Art of Work: A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant to Do, I knew I had to read it. And since I am participating in the Around the World Reading Challenge sponsored by the blog Booking It (click here), I am reviewing it here as my entry for North America. (Jeff Goins lives near Nashville, Tennessee.)The Art of Work

In this book, Goins explains that everything that happens in your life is preparation for what is to come. Sometimes when you seem stuck doing something you never wanted to do, you are actually busy acquiring skills you need to accomplish your (as yet undiscovered) mission in life. Most people work at multiple occupations during their lifetimes, and none of those are wasted in the big picture, though it may take the perspective of looking back through decades to be aware of how vital those experiences were to your growth into the person you were always meant to be. In fact, if you think your calling is only one thing, you’re wrong—it will be many things over time. The path isn’t straight, it’s loopy. And what seems like backtracking isn’t necessarily lack of progress.

My favorite chapter of all is 5. Pivot Points: Why Failure Is Your Friend. It made me realize that my time teaching needed to be over because my apprenticeship there was through. Teaching helped me hone two skills I need for my writing—crafting words to make concepts crystal clear, and using design software. (One of the many expectations teachers comply with is maintaining a webpage about what they are teaching in class; another is advising extra-curricular activities. I volunteered to produce the school’s yearbook for three years. Little did I know how much it would help me later in designing my blog.)

After a year of agonizing over what I should be pursuing, praying to the Lord for direction and not discerning any, applying for jobs and not finding a good fit, reading The Art of Work confirmed for me that I am already doing exactly when I was meant to do at this point in my life. A year ago, God immediately answered my prayers by placing me precisely where I needed to be.

Monday Morning Wisdom #4

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Monday Morning Wisdom #4

“Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.”     –J.K. RowlingMMW

Chihuly at the Desert Botanical Garden

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On Mother’s Day in 2014, my daughter Katie took me to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix—when they just happened to be featuring a Chihuly glass installation. I know—right?! Magical. Here are some photographs I took that day. (And Katie took the selfies of the two of us together.)

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YouTu-torials

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YouTu-torials

I know, I’m obsessed with YouTube. I admit it. But it’s my go-to site. It’s <ahem> educational. Need to know how to use Photoshop? Comb your hair into a beehive? Make a rainbow loom bracelet? Fold a napkin swan? Any skill you could ever want to learn–there’s a tutorial for that. My daughter views tutorials on cosmetics application. And last year, when I was painting my study (so much harder than I anticipated), I watched a dozen painting tutorials.

YouTube

YouTube tutorials can also help you progress in your art. My son has watched hundreds of guitar tutorials. And I found tutorials especially useful in my teaching and my own practicing.

Long before the Pitch Perfect movie came out,virtually every elementary general music teacher and band teacher taught his classes the Cup Beat Game. It goes like this:

Rich Mullins even incorporated it into his song, “Screen Door.” This is really old, so please excuse the quality of the video.

I used to tell my students that if they forgot how to do it, they could look it up on YouTube. There are lots of Cup Beat Game tutorials. I can’t  find the old one I used with my students, but here’s a good one:

One of my favorite uses for YouTube is to watch pieces that I’m learning (or want to learn) to play on piano. Here’s a video I discovered the other day.

Amazing, right? This same guy uploaded one of the best piano tutorials I’ve ever seen:

I’m not even learning how to play this piece yet. (I”ll start it someday soon.) But I’ve watched this tutorials several times, and it really gives great strategies for practicing the piece. I like his thought about starting at the end, and I like how he breaks down the chords. I also like that pivot thing he demonstrates. Genius.

I would like to end today’s post with just one more performance of Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 4–this time played by Vladimir Horowitz, who passed away in 1989 and is sorely missed. This is sound only, and it’s a little hysterical, because he loses his place (but he cheerfully recovers). He plays like he’s on fire. You gotta love him.

What tutorials do you watch on YouTube? Share in the comments below.

YouTube: A Platform for Musicians

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YouTube: A Platform for Musicians

I can’t remember how I discovered YouTube. (I think one of my daughter’s friends emailed me a link to a video about ten years ago.) But once I found it, I was hooked. What a great way to showcase creativity.

I hope you have time to listen to great music today, because I just have to share some of my favorites.

You can find anything on YouTube. Your favorite scene from a TV show or movie. A tutorial on how to paint ceilings or apply makeup. TED talks. Khan Academy. Stupid phone videos. Art videos. Book trailers.

And of course, music videos.

I am addicted to music videos. And such variety exists on YouTube: archival clips of artists long dead; every genre, from ancient through classical, country, rock, jazz, and cutting-edge-this- minute; famous musicians; kids who know two chords on guitar; unknowns; and my favorite—talented musicians who will be world famous next week when their video goes viral. Some careers boosted by YouTube exposures: 2Cellos, Jake Shimabukuro, and ThePianoGuys.

Another favorite class of YouTube videos is covers—but not the ones that duplicate the original, ones that remake it so that it sounds so new. Okay, the ones I posted above do that, too. And also some of the ones I included in a previous post, Why I Like Pinterest (click here). But here are two more amazing examples:


And I have to share Yo Yo Ma playing bluegrass:

When I taught elementary general music, I used YouTube to show my students examples of excellent performances. I even made a couple of playlists. For example, in my district, fifth graders did a unit on Irish music, so I put together some videos showing Uilleann pipes, bodhran, penny whistle, harp, and wooden flute.

And here is a playlist I made to teach about the Brass Instruments.

I’ve mentioned before that I save my favorite music videos on Pinterest. I have very eclectic taste. I support the musicians I follow on YouTube by buying their CDs and attending their concerts.

I know this post just scratches the surface of YouTube, but I promise I will delve deeper in future posts. In the meantime, are you using YouTube to reveal your talent to the world? Tell us how below in the comments.

Soliciting (and Offering) Feedback

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Soliciting (and Offering) Feedback

frustrated-writer-2How do you know if what you are writing is any good? Too often I reread something I wrote years ago (or days ago) and discover it’s shamefully incoherent.

Writing is a mostly solitary profession. We craft the words while we are alone. But we send them into the world at our peril if we don’t get some feedback first.

I am blessed. I belong to a critique group called Tuesday’s Children, a collection of women who meet weekly to read each other’s work and pray together. Tuesday’s Children began almost 25 years ago. I dropped out for about a decade while I worked a full-time job, but the others welcomed me back when I resigned from teaching last year.

I know I can trust these women with my “babies.” They examine them carefully and give me well-reasoned evaluations. Sometimes they change a word or suggest a restructure of a section. Other times they cross out unnecessary passages or propose taking a completely different direction. Although I am not bound by their input, I consider it carefully. My friends have proven the value of their expertise.

So, what if you’re a Lone Writer? How do you get the perspective that honest feedback brings?

Step 1: Join a Writers Club.

I live in a major metropolitan area. If I use an internet search engine to find “writers clubs near Phoenix AZ,” dozens pop up. Twenty-five years ago I didn’t even have internet, but I found a writers club meeting announced in the newspaper.

If you live in a remote area, you’ll have a more challenging hunt. But writers gather in senior centers, book stores, coffee shops, libraries, and church basements, among other spots.

Writers clubs function in a variety of ways. Some offer how-to presentations or hands-on prompts; others celebrate submissions and acceptances, or offer prizes for the most rejection slips (hey, they’re proof you’re putting your work out there—sort of a red badge of courage). They are a source of information about possible markets for your work and what editors are looking for. They spread the word about professional writers’ organizations and conferences. And most eventually get around to critiquing a few short manuscripts each meeting, usually by people voicing their comments after an out-loud reading. The advantages to this approach are you get to hear what others are contributing (and you get to listen to your own words spoken, which is so different than looking at them on a page), and you hear everyone’s take on the work being critiqued. You also learn how to offer encouragement and constructive criticism by observing others.

By the way, don’t be offended by the feedback you receive. Don’t take it as a personal attack. If it feels like one, let it roll off your back. But write it down anyway and reconsider it tomorrow. There might be a germ of truth in there.

If you are unable to find a writers club, adult education programs and community colleges often offer inexpensive writing classes geared to particular genres: fiction, screenwriting, memoir, journalism, etc. You can interact with writers there.

Step 2: Grow Your Own Critique Group.

Writers Clubs are an excellent place to start getting feedback, but most can only take you so far. Clubs are often large groups, and if everyone brings a manuscript, time won’t allow them all to be read, unless the group breaks up into smaller groups. Also, some clubs are made up largely of beginners, with a few experienced writers who sincerely want to help the initiates get to the next level. Sorry, but that makes for a pool of limited expertise. Additionally, many clubs only meet once or twice a month. People are busy, and it’s not easy to find the time.

Yet true growth is only made when you commit to putting in the time. (See my post Sit. StayClick HERE.)

I would recommend you continue attending the writers club for six months to a couple of years. Meanwhile, look for the participants whose work you admire, and also those who give perceptive feedback. They should also be people with whom you feel comfortable. When you can identify six or seven such people, ask them if they would be interested in forming a critique group with you. Set a time away from the club when you can discuss the logistics and agree on expectations. My group meets weekly for about 3 hours, and I would recommend that. The more frequently you meet, the more rapidly you will improve. (Remember the 10,000 Hour Rule—see my aforementioned post.)

3: Give Quality Feedback.

Do for your group mates what you hope they will do for you—carefully review their work and determine how to make it even better.

At our group, we bring a paper copy of our manuscript pages for each of our attendees (usually five or six of us). We mark our suggestions directly on the paper. The optimum length of a passage to critique is 1000 words, about 4 pages double-spaced (please double-space—it’s so much easier on the eyes), but we vary on that as needed.

Try to bring something to critique every week. But even if you have nothing, go anyway, to support your colleagues. Hold each other accountable. Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write. (Family first!) But if someone is being lazy, call them on it. If they’re stuck, help them get unstuck. (Have them write anything—to do lists, childhood memories, anything. The act of writing cures writer’s block—but that’s a post for another time.)

When you read your partner’s work, go through it more than once if necessary. Get the overall feel of the piece, then go back and look at specifics. Try to catch the author’s vision for the piece. What has to happen for the vision to be achieved?

  • If the writer has done something particularly well, be sure to mention it.
  • Correct the typos you see.
  • If any section is unclear, mark it. If you have a solution, suggest it. If not, write a question about the content, so the writer can address it.
  • Cross out unnecessary words.
  • Replace passive words with active ones.
  • If the passage would benefit by organizing it differently, suggest that.
  • Point out redundancies and inconsistencies.
  • Write a word of encouragement.
  • If you know of a potential market, identify it.

I have written this essay from the point of view of a writer, but feedback is valuable—if not crucial—to all artists. What suggestions do you have for finding/giving feedback for your art? Please enter your comment below.