Sealed with a Book {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 31}

Dry summer that it was, there was still something to celebrate come fall. The fields and orchards gave a smaller harvest, but a harvest nonetheless. And so, she gathered a basket of Indiana apples under withered leaves and cooked them slow.

She drove to my place with jars clattering on the floorboards and the smell of apple butter tempting her from the dish on the passenger seat. I wanted to learn to preserve jellies and jams and garden tomatoes, to learn the practices of the self-sufficient slow-food kitchen, but I needed someone with more experience to give me the confidence, to give me the tools, teach me the methods, and say “you can.”

Maybe you feel the same about writing. You have a taste for a good sentence or a hearty message, and you may know how to cook up your own savory story, but you don’t quite know what to do with it to make it last.

I hope this series has given you a little bit more confidence, and helps you realize that though the writing (and publishing) process can be daunting, with hard work and persistence, you can preserve your story in just the right container.

Just as I learned the canning process and felt empowered to try it on my own, I hope you will feel empowered to consider even the possibility of traditional publishing as you take a look at the process, this particular means of preserving your story.

How to Can Apple Butter…and Publish a Book:

1. Start by deciding what you want to preserve: What is your favorite kind of writing? What do you have a taste for? What comes most naturally to you? Start dreaming and developing your idea.

2. Perfect and prepare your recipe: Visit libraries and bookstores and sift through the shelves of the section where you’d like to someday see your book. Decide what you do and don’t like. Experiment with techniques learned from other writers. Draft your ideas, revise and edit until the content and telling of the story are shelf-worthy.

3. Decide what canning method is best suited to your recipe: Spend some time in self-reflection and seek unbiased counsel on whether you are ready to go through the traditional publishing process or whether you would find more success in the self-publishing route.

4. Warm jars and lids in hot water: Prepare your proposal and sample chapters with the help of a literary agent who knows the industry and knows how to develop an idea, package it and present it in a strong proposal.

5. Remove hot jar with tongs and pour ingredients through funnel: The agent sends a query letter to gauge interest (possibly to a few publishers at the same time). If the acquisitions editor requests more, the agent will then send the proposal and sample chapters.

6. Measure for proper space at the top: The editor may then reject the project, ask for changes or proceed to present the proposal at pub board to other editors, the publisher and the sales and marketing representatives. The team looks for a well-written proposal that addresses a sellable idea. They decide whether or not they’ll be able to secure wide enough distribution to booksellers. They look for an author with a strong platform who will do their part in marketing the book. But even if all of these things line up, a publisher may still reject a worthy idea if they’ve recently published a similar work on their list.

7. Remove bubbles and wipe the rim with a cloth: If the publisher makes an offer, the agent/lawyer will then scour the language of the contract to get the appropriate advance and royalties and negotiate finer points of the deal such as deadline for submitting the final manuscript, word count, and even such complicated issues as right of first refusal, the competing works clause, whether or not there will be an index and who will pay for it.

8. Using a lid lifter, retrieve lid and place on jar, then screw on clean band: It is vital that authors stick as closely as possible to editing/revision due dates as they are put in place to get the book published on schedule. The publisher may time the book’s release to coincide with big events, anniversaries, competition with similar books at other publishers or their own internal publishing load.

9. Using tongs, place jar into stock pot leaving 1 to 2 inches of water above jars: The publisher finishes up work in the production department with cover and interior design, print and binding. You will want to voice any opinions on cover style several weeks before this process begins in order to have the best chance at collaborating. But even if you speak up on time, you’ll want to remember that the publisher usually has the final say should you not be able to reach an agreement.

10. Bring water to full rolling boil, place lid on stock pot and set the timer: The marketing department will continue to work out plans for paid advertising, promotional displays and giveaways, and getting publicity for your work in print and other media outlets. Any efforts on the author’s part must be run through the publisher for the okay. The sales team will present your book in a seasonal presentation to booksellers. This allows the publisher to gauge how many books to print and what locations those books will be distributed to best reach your target audience.

11. Let your jar cool, then see how long it takes for someone to open it up: After one or two years in the publishing process, you’ll finally get to see your work on the shelf at a bookstore or online. If things go well, that spot on the shelf will empty and the store will be calling your publisher for another shipment. This is a time to celebrate with friends and family…and to attend your book release party!

To get all this started, you’ve got to take initiative. I chose to call up Amber from Whole Foods for Whole Families to come and share her expertise and to guide a group of friends as we tried out the canning process for ourselves.

When it comes to your writing career, you may want to talk with a friend who has been published, or find an agent who will represent your work, or pick up an invaluable resource like Jeff Hermann’s Guide to give you the contacts you need to submit your work on your own.

If the traditional publishing route isn’t the one for you, I hope you’ll still go back through this series and soak in some motivation and inspiration for preserving your work in other ways. Because even if the harvest is small, there is a harvest to celebrate nonetheless.

{Have you ever gone through the publishing process or celebrated with a friend who has? What was your experience? Are you new to this? What other questions do you have about the process?}

This is Day 31 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)

A Feast of Grammar and Grace {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 23}

We gather around to feast on grace, to celebrate the bounty of the year or to thank Him for the way He’s helped us muscle through hard times, all things through Him who gives us strength. We squeeze tight at the table in the name of family and faith with good gifts all around, all these extras, the butter on the tray, the gravy in the little silver pitcher.

But along with it all, there is the underside of the season, the too-full bellies, the tryptophan, the kids running wild and sometimes our mouths running wild, too. Later, always, I regret the words I let loose before polishing them, clumsy moves coming through like an untrained dancer stepping on toes.

We don’t have a delete key or an edit-undo option on our mouths, but thankfully, we have them on our keyboards. Either way, whether in person or in print, don’t let your words go out into the world without a thorough polishing.

Already, we’ve talked about revision, the process of firming up the big ideas and taking out the ones that don’t do much for the story’s taste. Now that the content is better developed, it’s time to focus on the delivery.

Depending on your audience and format, you’ll have different requirements for how much attention to pay to whether or not to hyphenate a compound word, or when to use a numeral and when to spell out a number in whole. When I’m writing in the more casual environment of the blogosphere, I don’t feel the need to sift all of my words and sentences with a grammar guide next to me. I often go from intuition and feel fine about making my own decisions as long as I’m spelling correctly and being consistent in the formatting I choose. But, I also have a background in language and a good foundation in the style books from my time in college.

If you’re feeling rusty in your grammar and punctuation and formatting skills, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to skim the Chicago Manual of Style (used widely in the publishing world) or the AP Stylebook (used for more journalistic writing) and then take a few of your existing blog posts or essays or stories and run them through the sieve. Click over to this website for a  primer of blog posts comparing the two main stylebooks.

Don’t forget though, that this polishing stage is just as much about making the words more palatable as it is about getting the formatting right. Here are some ways to work on your words after revising the big ideas:

  1. Read your work aloud to listen for repetitive words or phrases, which can interfere with a smooth reading. Delete or rephrase with new words for better flow.
  2. Listen for rhythm in your paragraphs. Are many of your sentences the same length, creating a monotonous sound? If so, cut unnecessary words or turn one sentence into two to clean up the cadence.
  3. Look at the beginnings of your paragraphs and sentences. Do many of them begin with the same pronoun or proper name? Unless you’re using this as a language device in a certain segment of your piece, you should vary your start words and thereby better your document as a whole.
  4. Check for wimpy words that tell rather than show. Go easy on adverbs and passive verbs (am, is, are, was, were…) and heavier on active verbs and concrete nouns, things the reader can picture.
  5. Get rid of clichés, over-used word images and phrases. Peter Selgin of Writer’s Digest says: “The real problem with clichés is that they deprive us of genuine details, which, though less sensational, are both more convincing and more interesting.” Click here for a short list of what to watch for.
  6. Comb through your commas and apostrophes. Their absence or correct placement can change your meaning entirely. As the funny example going around on the internet points out, a comma in its correct place can mean the difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” as in Grandma is joining us for Thanksgiving dinner, and “Let’s eat Grandma,” as in Grandma is on the menu. Apostrophes can get you in trouble, too. Check this chart to get your apostrophes in working order.
  7. Finally, while it is fine to write conversationally in blog posts and less formal venues, sometimes our everyday language hiccups sneak their way into our writing. Be sure to check your spelling on words and phrases like should have (not should of), a lot (not alot), definitely (not definately), weird (not wierd), judgment (not judgement), mischievous (not mischievious), jewelry (not jewlery). Check the definitions on words like weather/whether, effect/affect, then/than, principle/principal, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, edition/addition, compliment/complement, and peak/peek/pique to make sure you’re using the one you intend.

The work of polishing can feel like a burden at times, but in reality our heartfelt meaning comes through more freely in the structure. Like C.S. Lewis said, “The pattern deep hidden in the dance, hidden so deep that shallow spectators cannot see it, alone gives beauty to the wild, free gestures that fill it….” Grammar and grace.

{What are your biggest hang-ups in polishing your writing? Take some time today to work through an existing piece with a grammar website, a stylebook, or a friend who knows her stuff.}

This is Day 23 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)

A Recipe for Revision {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 21}

I rake fingers through flour, light and dry, then pull beads of cold butter into it, oil and weight joining. Then the cold water splashes in, an awakening. Dough rounds itself away from the sides of the bowl.

This is my second try. My practice pie turned out a runny mess of filling inside an overworked crust. I wonder now if I’m doing this anything like Priscilla did, her fingers making art of fashion plates and dessert plates.

Her little Georgie learned creativity watching her work the colored pencils. He learned love with the taste of her butterscotch pie. It was his no-contest favorite. And he was hers.

I pat the dough into a ball, then press it into a disk and carry it to the fridge, heavy as a stone. I think of how he found her on the floor next to the icebox with her hand over her heart, how he took his fist to his own chest and hurtled past the open school books on the table, down the tenement hall, out the building and across the street to the scout master’s house. Sirens screamed and doors flew open. They slid her quiet frame into the back of the ambulance, a hearse painted white. Then, the waiting.

This time, I force patience. When I shrugged off the chilling of dough for my first pie, the crust shrunk back in the oven and baked up tough instead of flaky. Now, I wait an hour and do it right. The mass softens as flour falls to the counter top, dust to dust. I press down and rub at the edges to erase little fault lines. Then more flour and I bring the rolling pin from center to edge like bicycle spokes, homage to the spinning wheels he rode down from Chicago over quiet Indiana roads, an orphan in wartime. The dough spreads wide, in concentric circles, the way a single day can change the course of a life.

I fold the thin layer of dough and move it to the pie dish, ease it into the contours and gather up the frayed edges to make them part of the crust. I press in my fingers to ruffle the dough around the rim and then send it back to the fridge.

The oven and stove top heat up in unison and I think back to the too-sweet filling from my practice pie. I go for light brown sugar over the dark this time around and add it to the water to make a better butterscotch syrup. I think out loud, remembering the eggs and milk that gritted and curdled when I put them in the hot syrup one at a time. Now, I whisk them together and stir in the flour tablespoon by tablespoon to keep it all smooth. I tip it in slow motion, pour the mix into the pan and stir constantly while it all simmers and bonds and thickens up with no bits of egg or milk to be seen. In goes the butter, vanilla and salt, the right mix of savory and sweet that make a recipe or a story last beyond the taste buds or the telling.

When I carry the milk carton back to the fridge to exchange it for the crust, I picture the boy in his grief walking back into the stale apartment where no one had moved the air for days, how he walked lightly over the spot where she had fallen. He’d been sent for the last of the milk, a lonely carafe, to make up for what he’d been using during his stay across the street.

I get to work on the crust, weigh it down with dried beans and bake it empty. On my second try with these tweaks of the recipe, I am set on making this pie right, something not too far off from what his mother always made.

I’ll whip up the egg whites and brown the meringue before putting the pie in the fridge instead of being the fool and baking the filling runny again. Now, meringue waits in a bowl while butterscotch pours into the void like his story told, sugaring the pain. A most lovely aroma swirls up in the steam, memory of what he’d found in that lonely corner of the kitchen.

He pulled the door open and what he saw on the icebox shelf had him grabbing at his heart again. Sweat dotted tan buttons of meringue. Twisted crust traced the rim of a lovingly tarnished pan. There in the middle of all that loneliness was a surprise, her one final act of affection, a butterscotch pie baked for her boy, for the love of Georgie.

Grandpa Wiley really knew how to tell a story. He’d been sharing that one for sixty years by the time he became family to me. He was brave to share what made him cry. He knew that every story has its salty and sweet. And through years of storytelling, he’d learned just what details communicated the heart of the story and how to tell it in a way that had the listener feeling present in it, no matter how far back the story’s history.

The best storytellers are the ones who work their stories again and again, revising words and phrases, who sift them like flour and blend them smooth like the eggs and milk. The recipe scribbled in your scratch journal may be a good start, but the pie is perfected when you allow for changes.

When I revise, I take my scribbled draft and type it into the computer. As I sift through first-try words, the big ideas firm up and better phrases roll out. Then, I read it aloud and thicken it up some more. And after a few rounds, I’ve got something I’m ready to share within my little circle, and the telling of it there will better the story even further (more on that in the next post).

When we presented Grandpa the white cardboard box with a bow on it, I think he expected to open the lid to the sight of a new book, our usual gift. But this time, on his 80th birthday, we celebrated his story, his words and the way they connected us with past generations. That day, when he saw the browned peaks of meringue and breathed in the smell of butterscotch, he put his open hand to his heart once again and let the tears flow, sugar and salt.

{Take a story from your scratch journal and work through it like a baker bettering a recipe. Type it on the computer, sifting the ideas and words as you go. Then read it aloud and continue to revise (re-type it again in a new document if it helps you). When you are finished, share an excerpt from the piece or simply reflect on the revision process by commenting below.}

This is Day 21 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(I adapted the pie crust recipe above from Alice Waters’ recipe in The Art of Simple Food, one of my favorite cookbooks. You can click my affiliate link to order one for yourself or a friend.)

A Creative Compost {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 18}

More than half of the trees have lost their leaves. My green pepper plants have shriveled up and fallen over. The newest tomatoes have suffered frost bite. The veggies have grown through drought and flood in this hearty stew of compost and peat and vermiculite, but now it’s time to clear out the garden and put away the shovels and shears.

But even as the plants give way to the season, there is potential in the slow and still. The garden extras, the piles of crunchy leaves, the scraps from the kitchen, if I allow them the space, they’ll come together and create a whole new substance.

While your notebook is tucked in a drawer and you are resting from your work, something is happening in that stillness. When you pick up someone else’s book, when you sit face to face with the good people in your life, when you venture out of your writing world into fresh contexts, borrowed thoughts mingle with the ones already written.

Onto the heap of our drafted ideas, we throw new clippings and scraps. Sometimes inspiration will come from talking directly about your idea (though I wouldn’t do too much of that or you may lose some of your steam!), but most often it will come in surprising forms, the cast offs from listening to a stirring sermon or someone’s take on a current events issue or a family struggle.

All these apple peels, blades of grass, egg shells, used tea leaves, pine needles, these textures and flavors of all sorts come together and sit a while. Then ideas turn over one another and heat up like compost in the bin.

Maybe your essay or blog post or short story feels stuck. You shove it in the drawer and wonder if it should stay. But bring yourself into a new context and see what happens.

Maybe you’ll be like the man in the 1960s who left a failure of a project at work over the weekend. He turned out the light and locked the lab door on this new formula for glue, one so weak that the pages barely stuck together.

But in the choir loft on Sunday, amid the reverb of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, he looked down at the hymnal with his makeshift bookmarks, torn pieces of paper falling all around like confetti. He scrambled that morning to reopen the page for the choir number, but he’d never have to do that again.

Weak glue? Paper that barely sticks? A hymnal sprawled open letting plain paper fly? All these problems came together to give him the perfect idea for a hymnal marker, one that would stick but wouldn’t tear the page when removed.

In this moment of synergy, in this completely different context, a place of rejuvenation, the man’s subconscious did the work for him and the idea for the Post-It Note was born.

We refine our writing when we enter new contexts, engage in conversation, or soak in the words of a treasured author, even with our own story put away out of sight.

I had written a draft for my Gift from the Sea series detailing my night swim in the luminescent waters off of the islands of Thailand when I set my own writing aside to do some reading. As I came across the words of a fellow blogger through a link-up, I read some punch in the chest quotes from Surprised by Joy, a book I’d been wanting to read for quite awhile. I grinned when I came upon the shelf at the bookstore. The spine of Lewis’ memoir stretched tall, just four books down from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic written in the same year, these two works sitting together in a picture of synergy. Joy sneaks up on us, they both said in their own way. And my story agreed.

On the small scale of a blog post, the ideas compost in a matter of hours or days. When it comes to larger stories in creative non-fiction and novel writing, we can expect a much longer process. I mulled over the theme of Dress of Many Colors for more than five years before I felt the story was ready for dedicated writing. And even now as I’ve taken a break from it, the ideas continue to react to my everyday experience.

Whatever the nature of our work, when we venture out of its bounds, we let ideas commingle, we stir them up and let them sit again. We put the happy process on repeat and soon the pile turns dark and earthy, each ingredient becoming part of the whole until we can’t tell one idea from another, all of them blending into one rich compost, the boost our story needs to flourish.

{Are you getting out enough? Are you listening enough in conversation? Are you reading enough? How have you experienced the synergy of ideas in a current or past project?}

This is Day 18 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. When you purchase through these links, you encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar with no extra charge to you.)

A Well-Punctuated Writing Life {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 17}

This past summer, Austin Chapman clicked up the volume on a song he’d never heard. When the sound of angelic descants whirled into his ears from a recording of Mozart’s Lacrimosa, the young man wept. It wasn’t just the first time he’d heard this piece of music, it was the first time he’d heard music at all.

Sure, he had felt the boom of bass notes or the room shaking with the beat of a drum, but with revolutionary new hearing aids, he was now able to hear the most delicate of notes and discern the nuances of a song.

People all over the world have been weighing in on what bands or genres he needs to listen to next. He’s been working his way through the centuries and decades, tracing music’s journey and hearing the wide spectrum of sound.

But he has his limits, his ears still sensitive to all the new input.

Ironically, he finds himself turning his “hearing aids off more often than before,” enjoying the pause between notes of conversation or the soothing melodies he’s come to love.

“Silence is still my favorite sound,” he said.

In the comments under the Atlantic article, one reader, abk1985, carried on with the theme saying we should all experiment with a sabbath of sound: “I would recommend putting away the earbuds and keeping the car stereo off for a couple weeks. Then, pick a quiet Saturday afternoon when you have nothing you have to do, and deliberately sit down and listen….to go from [silence] to actually hearing it: always a spine tingling experience!”

We come back with ears fresh for the full experience of music. The pauses between notes lend greater power to the sound. The silence gives us margin to ponder the last tone and anticipate the next.

As much as writing may feel like a fun hobby or a fulfilling outlet for us, when we are writing consistently for a readership in the form of blog posts, magazine articles or books, writing can be work…even bordering on squirrely overactivity at times.

But then there’s God who showed His artistry in speaking Word to make the world. He carved out a Hebrew sequence of 56 Sabbath words on the Sinai tablets, three verses full in our translation. He wrote the fourth commandment longer than the rest and He must have done so for a reason.

Last weekend at a writer’s conference, 24/6 author Matthew Sleeth shared words that resonate with the linguist in me: “God did not intend your life to be one long run-on sentence. You take out the punctuation when you take out the Sabbath.”

So, gather your bits of story, draft a mess in your scratch journal, then let your words rest a bit. Enjoy a sabbath. You’ll come back to your work refreshed and ready for crescendo.

{How does the idea of sabbath play into your work as a writer? What sorts of things do you find restful and restorative? What results have you seen when you’ve set your writing aside for a time and come back to it later?}

This is Day 17 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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(This post contains affiliate links to items that I personally use and enjoy. Thank you for all you do to encourage continued creative community here at Message in a Mason Jar.)