Thursday, June 10, 2021

Guest Essay, "Embracing the Challenge": A Tale of Perseverance on the Page with a 100 Submissions Goal in 2020 (Storytellers Continuing to Strive in 2021)


Editor's Note (NMB): I recall it was in the winter when I came across a Facebook post from an editor colleague I'd worked with on something in 2011, an NLAPW sister, who had set what seemed an insurmountable goal in an incredibly difficult time. I used the word "inspiring" in my comment on the post and we briefly chatted about it before I decided to approach her to write yet another thing morea piece about her experiences. Without revealing the outcome, I wish to share a bit about what went into my request. 

Ms. Vonnie Winslow Crist had set the goal of one hundred submissions in 2020. In a normal year, it could be considered an amazing ambition. In 2020? It was nothing short of extraordinary in my eyes. Through the many things I've learned and experienced in different areas of life through these times with a continual intention to bring back to you what treasures I can, this was something I wanted my writers to see when so often many were understandably confronted with the difficulty to create. Writers ranging from new to established were frequently saying the same thing to which I could respond with a solemn nod of recognition, and then I came across that Facebook post and its outcome at a time when I was interested in pursuing the theme of writing in challenging times prescriptively in various ways with some possible different authors and tools like prompts on the Facebook Holiday "Bizarre" page or experiences in different mediums. I saw this and thought how I would love a piece from Vonnie for the page that put things in a very engaging, relatable, encouraging way. 

I rather liked the idea of making it a more intimate, gently conversational, "how I did this" piece about her work patterns and specificity about the sending out/submittingwhile in the midst of what was 2020. Thinking of it as, How I Managed Generating (X amount) of Published Pieces in 2020 and Other Miracles... or something to that effect was envisioned. I wanted her to go internally, capture and convey that mindset she'd utilized, drawing on a well of perseverance undeterred and have the external part of the piece be mindful of motivational impact on others. Vonnie exceeded expectation while gracefully and eloquently underscoring the most important elements in her own magical way with reminders of who we are, what we do, and oddly enough, through the process of doing the piece, mentioned to me that it reminded her "once more" of her why.

The circle goes round in our sharing and creating and on this day of the solar eclipse, the ring of fireour passion, our creation, our love and connectedness as creatives burns bright in the dark. Our initial conversations about this piece took place in the winter and Vonnie's recent words in our correspondence said that she "continues to embrace the challenge and persist." So should we all. The next eclipse is in December as a fun fact, so around again in time and creation we go. Let's see what we can all do in 2021. Ignite your heart and your art, storytellers.     

Image of Vonnie Winslow Crist featured with permission

Embrace the Challenge

by Vonnie Winslow Crist

Life presents writers with obstacles all of the time. That said, the year 2020 was filled with more roadblocks to creativity and publication than usual. Little did I know on New Year's Eve 2019 when I decided to write and submit 100 stories or poems to publications in 2020, that a pandemic, fierce politics, and personal challenges would try to stop me. I soon discovered all of those things and more did stand between me and my 100 submissions goal. But I was determined to persist.

I began 2020 with lots of reminders designed to inspire me pinned to the bulletin board behind my computer. Quotes like: “Finish the things you've started,” (a hard one for me). “Everything is possible” – Deepak Chopra. “Know thyself! Know your limitations, habits, and strengths.” “Do your best.” “Persist!” I also hung a calendar (on which to jot deadlines) with animals and inspiring quotes on the board.

Beside the bulletin board I hung two legal-size clipboards. On each of these, I clipped a handmade chart titled, Project Planner. Under the title, I made three columns, exactly the size of postable notes, labeled: Projects, Next Action, Pending. Then, I used three different colors of sticky notes to fill in the charts. In the Projects column, I placed 100 Submissions and the names of several stories I was in the process of writing, Beneath Raven's Wing, Dragon Rain, Writing for Anthologies, and two other untitled books I was working on. In the Next Action column, I listed what step needed to be done to reach that goal. Things like: edit a story, finish a poem, pull together research, or look for a market. Under Pending, I placed tasks which weren't pressing, but I could address when writing seemed difficult. Examples of what I listed: update bibliography, update website, write a blog post, enter data into Internet Science Fiction Data Base, rewrite a flawed story/poem...

Why the bulletin board and Project Planner charts? I'm a visual person. I need reminders in front of me of tasks to be done. Also, it was positive reinforcement when I took down the title of a finished story which had been submitted to a market, and replaced it with the title of another story I'd just begun.

But where to find 100 stories or poems to submit? I had a few pieces of writing in my files which just need to be revised. I revised those, then looked for markets. While searching for suitable markets, I jotted down the submission information on several anthology calls I spotted on, the Submission Grinder, or in Facebook's open submission call groups. I used the themes of those submission calls as inspiration. If I was going to write more stories, why not write with an anthology in mind?

Which brings me to drabbles. You might ask, “What's a drabble?” Answer: It's a piece of flash fiction exactly 100 words in length, not including title or byline. Having written poetry, a genre which requires every word to earn its place, writing a story in 100 words seemed an easy task. Wrong! But I'd decided 2020 was the year to embrace challenges, so I tried my hand at drabbles.

Sometimes, I took a longer story I'd already written, and condensed its core narrative down to 100 words. Other times, I wrote a 100-word tale knowing I wanted to expand the drabble into a longer story later. Committing to only writing 100 words never seemed a huge mountain to climb—rather it seemed a few minutes of scribbling. An unforeseen bonus to drabbles, markets for the little stories usually allowed multiple submissions and acceptances. Ta-dah! I was moving toward my goal.

My go-to word for 2020, persist, became more important as acceptances and rejections arrived in my in-box. I had to remind myself, whether an editor loved or hated my story/drabble/poem, it was one person's opinion. I signed the contracts for the acceptances, and immediately found a new market for the rejected pieces of writing—while continuing to write new work.

The continuing to write new work part of the formula to reach 100 submissions was sometimes difficult. The world seemed to be crashing down. How could I worry about writing?

Every day (and sometimes more than once a day), I reminded myself stories were not only important, but necessary. From childhood on, I'd always valued the family stories I was told. From the moment I taught myself to read, I'd read books brimming with story in every spare minute. As soon as I was able to string together a few sentences, I'd told stories and recited nursery rhymes (one of the first narratives we discover) to younger sisters, family, and friends.

What I still remind myself, and encourage others to remember, is: Story, whether told in prose, poetry, or paint, is one of the things which bind all humans together. Therefore, storytelling is important. And those of us who wear the storyteller's sweater, are essential to this world. Remembering you and your writing are valuable, makes those hours spent in front of the computer or at your desk worthwhile.

To complete the 2020 writing puzzle successfully, I not only needed a 100 submission goal, the knowledge that storytelling was important, and markets to send to—I needed inspiration for stories/drabbles/poems. Discovering new themes while looking for markets was helpful. Researching those themes often helped even more. When I spotted a call for drabbles about ancient societies, I leafed through a book on my bookshelf about lost civilizations. I discovered many civilizations I'd never heard of before. Reading that book and doing a little online research gave me far more information and ideas than could be used in 5 drabbles.

After writing the 5 ancient societies drabbles and submitting them, I wrote an “extra” drabble as a replacement in case of a rejection. Then, I wrote several poems based on the research. One society in particular appealed to me, so I began a longer story based on its possible demise. Before I could complete it, I spotted an anthology looking for flash fiction (up to 1,000 words) about Easter and other spring holidays.

A little research generated not only ideas for four short Easter and St. Patrick's Day stories, but fascinating information about uncommon folk customs. I managed to write about one of those customs before I spotted an anthology call for 500-word stories with witches, magic, or spells as the theme. Five-hundred words didn't seem too long. So I wrote three witchy tales and submitted them.

The research for these three submissions calls had given me an idea for a long story featuring a magical woman, folk customs, and an ancient society. I added the challenge of setting the witch/folk/ancient tale in the future on Earth after the grid had been destroyed. After writing so many drabbles, flash fiction stories, and 500-word tales, I was ready to sink my teeth into a novelette!

What else kept me writing when others found it difficult to put fingers to keyboard? I signed up for a writing contest! With no expectation of winning, I wanted the challenge of writing four stories of 4,000-6,000 words, in four different “surprise” genres, assigned one after another, with only three weeks to write each tale.

You might ask, “Why?” Because I knew after I'd paid the $10 entry fee, I wasn't going to waste my money! Remember the “Know thyself!” saying from my bulletin board? I knew if I invested money, I'd complete the contest. So while recovering from surgery (I did mention 2020 was a tough year), I wrote four new stories.

But I still needed more motivation to write! Remember the list of projects from my bulletin board? Beneath Raven's Wing and Dragon Rain were story collections I hoped to pull together. I focused on the raven stories first. I had almost enough stories published and unpublished for a 45,000+ word collection, but they needed to be edited, ordered, and slightly revised to eliminate repetitive imagery. Also, at least two more stories needed to be written to increase the word count to an acceptable length. No sooner had the task been completed, then I spotted an opportunity to submit Beneath Raven's Wing to an Indie publisher. The book was accepted, and the editing process began. Two stories were pulled by the publisher, so I had to write two more stories to replace them. Remember the research I'd done months earlier and the extra ideas not used? Here's where they came in handy.

No sooner had I sent off the raven story collection, then I pulled together Dragon Rain. Again, stories needed editing, ordering, and revising. Again, I had to write additional material. The dragon story collection was sent off, and currently remains in the hands of a different Indie publisher.

I must say, it was with great relief I returned to writing a few poems and drabbles. I needed to catch my breath. That was until I spotted a call for a Weird Western anthology. An idea, which required lots of research, popped into my mind. And so, the cycle began again.

Though my writing output might seem large to you, some of my writing friends completed more than one novel in 2020! I can't even imagine doing that—or maybe I can.

When 2020 put up obstacles, I viewed them as challenges. When it was near-impossible to muster the drive to write, I persisted. When rejections hit the in-box, I sent the stories to another market. When writing new material seemed impossible, I revised old work and did writerly “chores.” When ideas seemed scarce, I researched. When the world seemed to be falling to pieces, I reminded myself storytelling is part of what makes us human.

Now, the all important question: did I write and submit 100 stories/drabbles/poems in 2020? Yes! In fact, I surpassed that goal (not counting the stories/drabbles/poems resubmitted after rejection). As for the contest? I was one of the winners, and those four stories will be appearing in an anthology this spring. Counting reprints (which as a constant reviser, I revise before sending out again), over 100 of my stories/drabbles/poems were published in 2020. A bonus of persisting I never expected.

What's in store for 2021? I've modified my new stories/drabbles/poems goal to fifty. Why? Because I want to complete a novel and at least one non-fiction book. Do I expect 2021 to be easier than 2020? No! I expect this year to come with its own roadblocks and detours. Still, I will persist.

In conclusion, I say to each of you reading this essay, be proud of being a storyteller. Remember, as our long ago ancestors gathered at night around the fire to chase away the shadows and warm not only body, but soul, it was the storytellers who helped the world make sense. It was the storytellers, with little more than a stick with a glowing red tip and their imagination, who wove the threads of our society and inspired our future.

Be that storyteller. Persist despite setbacks. Find inspiration in the ordinary. Cheer on the successes of fellow writers. Don't allow a closed door to prevent you from knocking on another door. Seize opportunity if it shows up on your doorstep. And challenge yourself to weave the warp and weft of story—which make up the fabric of who we are and who we want to be.

Updates regarding the essayBeneath Raven's Wing, the 1st story collection mentioned, was published Jan. 30, 2021 by Fae Corps publishing, and continues to receive good reviews. Dragon Rain, the 2nd story collection mentioned, is under contract with Mocha Memoirs Press, and should be published in September 2021. I've also begun working on another story collectionthis one containing magical horse stories. There is a publisher interested in reviewing the manuscript this summer for possible 2022 publication. 

BIO: Vonnie Winslow Crist, SFWA, HWA, SCBWI, NLAPW, is author of The Enchanted Dagger, Beneath Raven's Wing, Owl Light, The Greener Forest, and other award-winning books. Her writing appears in publications in Japan, Australia, India, Pakistan, Italy, Spain, Germany, Finland, Canada, the UK, and USA. She's also an artist with over 1,000 illustrations in print. For more information: