“Wasting” Time to Awaken Your Inner Creative Spark

While I spent most of my time in Albuquerque writing, one workshop I did attend was Kimberly Brock’s Tinderbox Workshop. Before we all packed for the trip, our Retreat Planner & Organizer Extraordinaire Orly Konig-Lopez told us what we should bring: a journal or notebook, magazines and glue, stickers and interesting paper, markers and pencils. It was clear that this workshop would have less to do with writing than most offered at writers conferences or retreats. As I had recently purged my house of unwanted magazines (see earlier posts on decluttering in anticipation of listing our house for sale in the future) I decided to bring my watercolors and some pastels.

I won’t go into details about the workshop content (except to say that if you have a chance to be in a Kimberly Brock workshop you should take it) but I will say that she had to assure participants that they were not “wasting time” by not writing and that there was not a “right way” to do the exercises. I’ll share a page from the journal I was working on as she spoke about creativity:

Underneath that collage is a pretty simple painting of a face with colors coming out from all angles — my interpretation of what Kimberly was talking about. When she said we were going to start covering it up with collage, I said to myself, “Um, no. I will not be doing that. Thank you very much.” I was happy with what I’d painted and drawn and I wasn’t about to obscure it with things pulled from magazines.

But then I did. And it was fun. It’s been a while since I did any sort of collage and it was pretty fun finding images and words that inspired me and went along with some of the concepts Kimberly was talking about.

When I got home, I didn’t want to put my paints away. The retreat was held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town, a beautiful space that really got under my skin in a good way. So I decided to paint one of the pretty outdoor spaces: the pavilion. Friday night we all at BBQ under here and Saturday there was a gorgeous wedding in this space. But it was most beautiful to me when it was empty of people and dappled with sun and shadows.

It’s funny how creativity works. I went to New Mexico to write, to learn, and to meet other writers. Bringing paints was definitely not part of my original plan. Neither was collage. But I came home with a heart and mind full of the place and a bit of dormant creative spirit unleashed. So now I not only find myself painting, I’m also plotting a novel set in our hotel, with an ensemble cast drawn from some of the people I saw (and many more I am imagining). Opening the door to one part of your mind often lets in enough wind to blow open other doors.

When was the last time you let yourself just fool around with art supplies for a few hours? When was the last time you allowed yourself time to just have fun doing something kind of mindless, like you did when you were a kid? My guess is that it has probably been too long.

So when are you going to start?

My New Mexico Writing Retreat in (a Few) Pictures

From late Wednesday night to late Sunday morning, I had the very good fortune to be at the first (hopefully annual) Women’s Fiction Writers Association Retreat, held at Hotel Albuquerque at Old Town in New Mexico. I wrote the first five chapters of a new novel, took notes for a short story that was inspired by a very kind and attentive member of the hotel staff, and prepared my workshop for the Breathe Writers Conference coming up in October. I met dozens of lovely, talented, and dedicated women (and one charming man) who write women’s fiction, some of whom I have been online friends with for a couple years. I felt the spell of the Southwest come over me like invigorating sunshine. And on this cloudy, rainy Monday morning back in Lansing, I’m fondly remembering a truly marvelous weekend. I didn’t bring my good camera, so these are just from my phone. Next time, I’ll know to bring the camera. :)

Getting Ready to Write

I wrote on this patio from this corner every day.

Friday night's BBQ dinner was set up here.

This is where I ate most of my meals.

The hotel itself was the only obstruction to the pure blue sky, but a lovely obstruction it was.


Happily heading home to my boys, but vowing to return as soon as possible to Albuquerque.


My Big News This Week (aka, How I Got My Literary Agent)

If you follow my author page on Facebook, you already know…

I signed with a literary agent last week: Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. What does this mean? It means that I now have an official partner to push me toward excellence, bounce ideas off of, and, most importantly, to get my novels in front of the right editors at the right publishing houses. She’ll negotiate contracts, guide me as I develop marketing strategies, and step in to advocate for me when problems arise.

If you’re not a writer, this may be of only passing interest to you. Great! Now the books she talks about writing on this blog will eventually wind up on the shelves. But if you’re a writer, I know that the story of how someone gets an agent is always of interest. So here’s mine.

In 2002, I started working at a publishing house, first in the editorial and subsidiary rights  area, then in marketing. I read a lot of books that were not for English majors–commercial fiction, genre fiction, and plenty of nonfiction. Reading these reminded me that I had always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to write.

In late 2005 I moved from West Michigan to Lansing, where I didn’t know anyone except the man who moved with me. Hence, ample free time. I started thinking again about writing as something I should actually do rather than just talk about. Then in 2006 I started as a docent at the zoo (super fun, made some friends, developed my speaking chops, handled awesome animals, took up lots of my time) and as a graduate student at Michigan State University (super fun, made some friends, further developed my academic writing chops, theorized about interesting stuff, took up lots of my time). Then in 2008 I had a baby (super fun/hard, made a new tiny friend, developed my “being patient” chops — these will be important later — took up almost all of my time).

In 2007, I dropped out of graduate school. The program was great, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to focus on. In 2012, I quit being a docent at the zoo. The time commitment was big, I had a young child, and I really felt like if I was going to ever get serious about writing, I had to make the time to do it.

Leading up to 2012, I was working on a manuscript. I also started this blog, which is actually my second or third blog. (Some of you have been with me from the very beginning in 2008.) I had called that MS A Beautiful Fiction and I decided to give that name to the blog. That old manuscript will never see the light of day, but it was important to me because it was the first one I actually finished and the first one I ever queried and sent to literary agents to read. I was initially disappointed that no one seemed to think it was publishable, but the process of querying it helped me see some of its flaws and some of my own flaws as a writer. So I scrapped it and thought about what to do next.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that in 2013 I gave myself the challenge to write one short story every month and publish each for Kindle. I had a lot of ideas but I wasn’t ready to tackle a novel again right away. So that’s what I did. I also submitted a number of stories to contests and magazines. One, “This Elegant Ruin,” finaled in the 2014 Great American Fiction Contest from the Saturday Evening Post. That couldn’t have come at a better time for me creatively. Maybe my writing was worth publishing after all.

During 2013 I was also reading voraciously, researching for a book I wanted to write that would tie together events in three different centuries that were heartbreakingly similar. That research became the foundation for The Bone Garden, which I drafted in two months in early 2014. I started querying that book after doing a couple revisions, back in April 2014. In hindsight, that was a bit too early, but some of the early feedback I got from agents rejecting it was really helpful in revising. I continued to work on it and occasionally sent out another batch of queries.

In August 2014, there was some interest in it from two agents, both of whom suggested revisions. I kept working on it, sure that once these revisions were done I should be golden — at least one of these agents would want it. However, with one of these agents we discovered that she had two other manuscripts she was shopping for clients that contained some similar themes and there was a conflict of interest. With the other, it just wasn’t there yet and she passed. Boo. Cue depression.

But no! There was no time for moping, because by then I already had another idea for a new manuscript. I wasn’t just going to sit there. I was going to take more of the lessons I’d learned and channel them into this new project. I was sure this third manuscript, I Hold the Wind, would be “the one.” So I wrote. I wrote during National Novel Writing month (and made it to 50,000 words in that one month to be a NaNoWriMo winner) and continued into the winter and even into the spring. That first draft took six months.

[Let’s pause here for a querying interlude…Even as I was writing I Hold the Wind I continued to work on and query The Bone Garden. On a particular day in February 2015, I got on Twitter and watched the #MSWL hashtag. For those of you who’ve never heard of that, it stands for Manuscript Wishlist. I found a few more agents who were looking for women’s fiction with particular parameters and sent off a few queries. This will be important later…]

In June 2015, sent the MS of I Hold the Wind out to a few beta readers for feedback. In that same month, the shooting at the Charleston church occurred. And I was swept back into The Bone Garden. If you need a little background as to why, you can read this blog post I wrote while I was researching for the book in 2013 and this one I wrote soon after the killings in Charleston. I realized that part of my story — the present-day storyline — needed a rewrite. I worked hard on it for a short time and then decided to re-approach one of the agents who had really loved the story but thought it still wasn’t there yet. Was it there now? That agent was happy I contacted her because she and a colleague at her agency had both individually been thinking about that manuscript they had rejected months before. Yes, they would read it.

Back to I Hold the Wind. I did revisions in August, worked on my pitch in September, and was ready to start the querying process all over again on September 9th, when the Women’s Fiction Writers Association was holding an online pitch event with five agents. Around that time I got an email from Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. She wanted to set up a phone call to chat about The Bone Garden, which I had originally queried back in February as part of Twitter’s #MSWL day. I’d sent her fifty pages back in April and the full MS during the summer. I also, out of the blue on the same day, got an email from the other agent who was rereading the manuscript after I approached her with the revision. She was ready to talk about it too. I scheduled some phone calls and did the pitch on the new manuscript.

During our phone call, Nephele offered representation. After talking with the other agent, who also wanted the weekend to read the new manuscript I had for I Hold the Wind, there was talk of more revision needed and no clear offer of representation. I slept on it, and in the morning I had clarity. I wanted to go with someone who was ready to commit to me and my work, who would walk alongside me, who was enthusiastic, who was easy to talk to. Nephele was all of those things. We scheduled another phone call and talked about possible revisions to The Bone Garden before sending it out on submission. That second phone call assured me we were on the same page and had the same goals. I accepted the offer, got the contracts later that day over email, signed them, and sent them out for countersigning at the offices of The Knight Agency.

Yesterday, the signed contract appeared in my mailbox. So it is official. I now have a literary agent and I’m eagerly awaiting her detailed notes on The Bone Garden so that we can move this story along down the road toward publication. Thanks for coming with me on the journey. I’ll be sure to share milestones with you along the way. If you want to be sure not to miss any publishing news, follow this blog (there’s a button on the sidebar) and follow my author page on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter @ErinLBartels or on Pinterest.


All My Bags Are Packed, I’m Ready to Go

There’s been a lot more packing around this house than is part of our normal routine. Last week we packed my husband’s bags for ACFW in Dallas, TX. This week I pack my bags for WFWA’s first writing retreat in Albuquerque, NM. And I have begun to pack up stuff that needs to be corralled before we show our house (whenever we list it). Then there’s the small matter of getting those items into the attic…*sigh*…I am not really looking forward to that particular task.

But I don’t have to think about that right now, because I leave on Wednesday for four days/nights in New Mexico with sixty other writers. We’re going to eat incredible food, discuss many aspects of the writing life and the craft of writing, and enjoy the company of like-minded people from all over the country. Some of us have been interacting online for a couple years, and now we finally have the chance to meet face to face.

I’m looking forward to clearing some mental space while I’m out in the land of deserts and immense blue skies. There’s a lot going on in my life right now and a break might be just what I need. I’m hoping to come back refreshed and invigorated for everything to come as summer turns to fall and possibilities turn into reality.

When the Jupiter Exploded

On this day twenty-five years ago I was ten years old and getting breakfast at a friend’s house after a sleepover when there was the distant sound of a large boom and a shiver under our feet. I thought it must have been a small earthquake. I didn’t know it then, but a gas tanker on the Saginaw River had just exploded.

Photo from flickr:
Photo from flickr:

Plan A was to let the fire burn itself out, so the inferno raged for 36 hours before authorities decided that they needed to try Plan B and actually fight the fire. For days after, I could see a plume of black smoke that faded slowly to gray. Even after crews thought the fire was out, it reignited and had to be suppressed again.

It was one of those things you remember because it seems so otherworldly. Explosions happen in movies, not real life. Miraculously, only one life was lost, an Iowa sailor who drowned while swimming away from the blast.

For an excellent article about the Jupiter explosion, click here. For more images, visit the Saginaw River Images blog.