Uncategorized, writing advice

Creating Stone Soup With a Pen

Now, you all remember Stone Soup, don’t you? In it, starving strangers convinced villagers to add ingredients to their pot of broth, one containing only water and a single stone. As the villagers agreed and added their contributions, the soup fed them all.

So, stay with me here. When writing, the stone is your story idea that you water while you also add ingredients to the genesis of that idea. For example:

Tossing carrots into the pot could = creating characters.

Potatoes? Plot!

Squash is the setting. You get the idea.

In the case of soup, if you needed something heartier, you could just add milk and salt, and then blend it all together – well, please remember to remove the stone.

With writing, it would be nice if we could just delete the words we don’t need and then put all of the rest into a Word-Whirl-a-Blender to mix everything into perfect proportions.

But, first, someone needs to invent a whirl-a-blender for writers. Besides, more ingredients – also known as life experiences – are needed, as well. Here’s what I might add; your list would be different.

Early signs of becoming a writer often include being a voracious reader, as I was and still am. You know you’ve reached that point when, to make room for your next set of books, you’re planning to discard the refrigerator.

Going back in time more than forty years, when I was only ten years old, my grandmother introduced me to a mystery novel written by a British woman named Agatha Christie. I thought it was the most incredible story ever told. My nana then suggested I ask the library to allow me to check out more Christie novels, even though the age limit for such an adult check-out experience was twelve.

I asked.

I received.

And, when the librarian explained to me that there were even more mystery series than those written by Christie, I believe I swooned. (Note to my readers and listeners: If my New Year’s Resolution hadn’t been to limit my personal use of hyperbole, I would have claimed that I’d fainted.)

I quickly stopped getting invites to book clubs, though. While other attendees might want to discuss how romantic the leading characters were, for example, I’d focus on reverse engineering what the writer did so I could try that technique myself.

I wore out my friends pretty quickly, too, when all I’d wanted to do was have each of us read a different book and then create quizzes about the books for other people to take.

Fun, right?

By this point in my life, I was wondering if I, too, could someday become a writer. And, since every writer wants to create at least one true masterpiece in his or her lifetime, I was exceptionally fortunate when I wrote mine when I was just twelve . . . years . . . old.

Titled The Haunted House Mystery, it cleverly used every device ever invented in any Scooby-Doo episode ever aired but using the neighborhood kids as characters. Velma was transformed into Kathy and Fred into Mikey, and so on and so forth.

Of course, since, as an adult, I now recognize this as plagiarism, I would have to remove this specific ingredient before putting the other ones into my literary blender. Having said that, I could still hold onto the lessons that writing this play had taught me.

And, when I started writing for submission, you still needed to dance an intricate waltz of knowing just the right steps of including a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Just as I was getting that minuet down, though, along came the concept of online submissions — making my envelope skill as relevant as doing a mean bump to KC and the Sunshine Band at the local discothèque.

Then there’s that stale taste of rejection. It reminds me of the flavor of a wooden tongue depressor that’s been sitting in a doctor’s office for far too long. Open up wide; just say “awwww.”

I went through a stage of Bob Dylan envy, I have to admit. Mostly, it consisted of listening to the lyrics of a song written by Bob, and then wishing I’d been able to think of such exquisite phrasing. That stage started when I was a teenager and it went all the way through – well, I’m still in that stage. So, what.

I was writing prose at that time, but I also wanted to write poetry. Initial strategies included calling a piece of my writing a prose poem. I mostly used that phrase, of course, with people who didn’t even know what it meant — and I practiced saying it with confidence! “This, my friend,” I’d say, raising my eyebrows high and nodding in a knowing fashion, “this is a Prose Poem.”

And, while other people looked at restaurant menus as mere vehicles to decide what one wanted to order for dinner, I could now look at a listing for, say, apple-glazed salmon, and realize how this food description could make quite a lovely haiku.

Then, around 1994, I suddenly needed to make a huge decision. Was I willing to give up the sharp smell of fresh pencil shavings for the sleek experience of computer keyboarding?

Ultimately, I did. And here’s why. In 1990, I’d made $35 in my freelance writing career. Yes, that’s for the entire year. In 1991, I made $25. When my husband gently pointed out how, if you added these two figures together . . . then divided them in half . . . then I was making an annual salary of $30 —and that was before taxes.

So, I realized how I needed to up my game and I got a job as a freelancer at the local newspaper. We were called “stringers” back then, and we were required to submit our articles through a computer they’d provided me. So, welcome to world of the keyboard.

I boldly took on the task of writing about mud ordinances — if you put mud on the road, were you legally obligated to remove that mud? — along with an entire series of pieces on what to do with a water tower when it was no longer a viable part of a city’s water system. (So, yes. You have now actually met the writer of the water tower series!)

Why, I even started getting published in magazines, including a fine piece — if I say so myself — on washing machine warranties. I gained mad skills, including how to keep on keyboarding in sticky splendor when the cat dumped a cup of coffee in precisely the wrong place. Bylines were pretty cool, too, even when they misspelled my last name.

And, after years of reading in issues of a writer’s magazine that I should keep a pen and pad of paper by my bed at all times to capture late night ideas, I actually had a middle-of-the-night notion that was worth writing down.

Unfortunately, reading it the next morning only reminded me of when my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Kane, informed the entire class that my handwriting may be beyond redemption. It also reminded me of my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Wrezinski, who more kindly told me that she was sure I’d written something magnificent. She only wished she could read it without the need for a magnifying glass.

Another night, after binge-reading British cozy mysteries, I had a horrible nightmare — one where I was being viciously chased down by a giant Mack truck. I awoke, screaming, “That bloody lorry!” in my best British accent before wondering. If I paced the re-telling of this story just right and created sentence structure that brilliantly built up a mood of suspense, could I write down this anecdote in the word count required by Reader’s Digest?

I began experimenting with literacy devices, too, especially loving alliteration – although I would wonder about the wisdom of writing that way. (Wink, wink.)

I learned more about revision, especially after learning that people prefer intriguing characters over stereotyped ones who spoke in clichés. Whoever would have thought? I also learned more about proofreading techniques. This helps if, say, your character with a shiny blonde bob of hair on page twelve was, on page three, actually a stunning brunette—and no hair coloring scene had taken place in the interim.

My family got used to choosing between peanut butter sandwiches or scrambled eggs with ketchup for dinner when deadlines got tight. And, because I was so enthusiastic about writing, I often took on too much work.

I knew I was finally making it, though, when five amazing things happened.

  1. Research librarians were calling me by my first name.
  2. A bookstore owner said, “Ma’am! I’ve got great news. We have a new thesaurus.”
  3. My nephew earnestly told me he wouldn’t consider me a nerd. No way. By now, Doug thought, I was a full-fledged geek.
  4. My cousin Steve, who is a college professor, let me know that a student got caught plagiarizing – and it was from one of the books I’d written.
  5. Even deadlines felt – and still feel – quite marvelous. 

Life got deep sometimes, though. For example, if I saw an error on a billboard, I started to spend countless hours meditating on its metaphorical implications. I became encouraged to delve more deeply in my writing, too, which was good advice. Sometimes, that was reasonably simple to achieve, comparable to getting your great-grandma some parsnips from her root cellar. Other times, though, it felt like spelunking in an underground cave, trying to listen for the sounds of the water table.

Being a writer is to be a lifelong learner. A few years ago – already in my fifties – I decided to take a poetry class at the local college with a highly regarded professor who had an illustrious portfolio of poetry. I could do the assignments, following his instructions about form, topic, and so forth — but I didn’t really understand what he’d meant when he said that prose uses sentences and poetry uses lines.

I followed up that class with a 15-week independent study with this professor and, several weeks in, I shouted the following: “Prose,” I exclaimed, “uses sentences and poetry uses lines!” His expression was completely deadpan. I don’t think he knew whether I was being a smart aleck or whether I’d finally gotten it. But I had my eureka moment, one that continues to propel me forward as I learn more about the art and craft of poetry.

As for the professor, on that day, he just said. “Yes. Um. That’s correct.”

And now that I’ve reached the thirtieth year of my professional writing career, I can say that there are two especially wonderful parts of the writing life. The first one is, you can keep on creating (at least on pieces that aren’t already under contract!). Unlike real life, then, in your personal writing, nothing needs to be finished until you say it is.  

For example, even The Haunted House Mystery could be brought back into the light and made better. In that case, of course, it would need to be made much better. As in much, much, much better. But you get my drift, don’t you?

Finally, here’s the very best part. It’s the people you meet, those with whom you can exchange Stone Soup ingredients. They understand perfectly, for example, when you wander about a room, appearing to be talking to yourself. They realize how you could be trying out your character’s quirky voice or mulling over the meter of your newest poem.

Or, maybe you’re just creating a grocery list — and that’s okay, too. Writers need to eat, even if it’s just a P and J sandwich on the run. And, when you extend these same courtesies to the other amazing people on your Stone Soup journey, this makes for a uniquely beautiful life.


Copyediting Certification Course

You Can Do It!

If you’ve been thinking about learning new skills that can help you to earn income or strengthen your knowledge, I will be teaching a ten-week copyediting class through Writer’s Digest University that starts on September 3, and here’s the description:

This workshop will provide training for aspiring copy editors in order to give them practical and marketable workplace skills. As a student in this certification course, you will progress from the fundamentals of grammar, form, and composition to advanced copyediting skills.

This certification course incorporates critiqued writing assignments and tools to communicate directly with your instructor and fellow students—to make sure that you are grasping the content. You will also have quizzes to check yourself along the way and a comprehensive test at the end of the course.

Students who complete all the assignments and pass the comprehensive test will receive documentation from Writer’s Digest of their completion of the Copyediting Certification Course. The lessons run for ten weeks and then there are an additional two weeks in which students have the chance to pass the final test.

Enrollment is limited to 35 registrations per session. Sign up here.

I hope to see you there! If you have questions, please feel free to email me at kbsagert@aol.com. (Photo by fotografierende on Unsplash)


Literary Lorain Poetry Contest

By the Lorain Historical Society

poetry writing contest

Theme: Women Who Empower

Prize Money:

  • First Place: $150 VISA Card
  • Second Place: $100 VISA Card
  • Third Place: $50 VISA Card

Who: Open to all residents of Lorain County

What: Submit one poem (free or formal verse) on the theme; 50 lines, maximum

When: Contest open from February, Monday 17th-midnight, March, Tuesday 17th

Where: Submit to  literarylorain@gmail.com

How: Within the body of your email:

  • Paste your poem (no attachments, please!)
  • List your legal name and, if applicable, your pen name
  • Provide your phone number and city/town

Important Notes

  • Submissions will be assigned a number; judges will not know your name
  • Poems cannot contain hate speech or sexually explicit language/themes
  • Only poems that follow the rules will be considered for prize money
  • No poems will be accepted after midnight on March 17th; to be fair to other entrants, there can be no exceptions
  • Winners will be contacted in late April and asked to read their poems at an event on Saturday, May 2, followed by an open mic

Any questions, please email info@lorainhistory.org


Writing Tips: Muddle in the Middle

dazzling readers
Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

Whenever you start a new nonfiction writing project, it can be a thrilling time. You’ve come up with the most incredible idea and you envision the marvelous story you’re about to tell, full of dazzling insights, with an ending that will cause readers to become breathless with amazement, dizzy with excitement, in complete and utter awe of your talent!

You may know exactly which anecdote, statistic or quote will create the best beginning to draw in readers, and you may also know the final point that needs to be made. But, what about the middle?


Author Interview: The Strange Files of Fremont Jones

Deep From the Archives

This is an author interview that I did in 1996.

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day

After Dianne Day’s youngest son started college, she awoke one fine Saturday morning and realized, “Hey, I can do whatever I want today, as long as it doesn’t cost too much.”

“And, that was when I knew that i wanted to write a whole novel more than anything else in the world,” Day said. “So, I bought an electronic typewriter from Seas on the never-never plan, and I wrote one. That experienced hooked me and I’ve never stopped writing since.”


Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition

Book Review

Book Review

Eight Weeks in Washington, 1861: Abraham Lincoln and the Hazards of Transition is intriguing look by Richard J Tofel at the challenges faced by Lincoln at the beginning of his presidency — including what to do about the handful of US forts located in southern states that had not yet been taken over by the seceded states. The most important one, perhaps, was Fort Sumter, located in Charleston, South Carolina.

Options included abandoning the fort to the budding Confederacy or traveling into enemy territory to resupply the men under the command of Major Robert Anderson. To complicate matters, members of Lincoln’s new cabinet did not agree which solution was best and communications with the navy were rudimentary, at best.


Speak the Name

Collection of Poems and Short Snippets

In February 2019, I released my first chapbook, a collection of poems that focus on the importance of speaking someone’s name and the value of naming. Because so many of the poems contain references to historical people, most of them largely forgotten, the book also contains short pieces of prose that illuminate an aspect of that person’s life. If interested in a copy, please contact me at kbsagert@aol.com. The cost is $8 plus tax and shipping. Thank you!


Sharing Your Spiritual Stories

prayer to heaven - faith conceptI’ll be leading a series of spiritual writing workshops, free and open to the community. The workshops will be held at Heritage Presbyterian Church (intersection of Route 58 and 2 in Amherst, Ohio) on the second Monday of each month from September 2014-May 2015 from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Each month, please bring paper and a pen, along with one to two cans or boxes of non-perishable foods for distribution through Heritage’s food ministry program. Dates of the seminar are:

September 8

October 13

November 10

December 8

January 12

February 9

March 9

April 13

May 11

If you have any questions, you can leave a comment below or email me at kbsagert@aol.com or call me at 440-670-6624. I hope to turn the materials I’m creating for this class into an ebook.


Creative Writing Exercise


Pink waterlilyI was fortunate enough to take a creative writing class from master instructor Eva Shaw and, as one exercise, she had us write as if we were a color — meaning writing in first person.

I got the nicest compliment from Eva about my submission, which made me smile: I think you’ve just created the ultimate essay on pink, Kelly. So dramatic and filled with excellent visual cues. I’m never going to think of pink the same way again—fresh and thoughtful prose.

Here’s my freewriting:

I am strawberry sherbet pink, the color of the carpet Grandma chose after Grandpa died and she could finally throw out all of the dingy grays, grimy browns and muddy greens.

I am the tinge in a young woman’s cheeks when she realizes that, yes, he really does care about her, after all. I am the color that is more modest than fire engine red, more even-tempered than Scarlett O’Hara – and yet I am more audacious than hushed Melanie, and too vibrant for funerals or Amish gatherings.

I am the hue of confidence but not of arrogance. I am the tint of healthy self-esteem but not of raging ego. I am the color of joy, but not mania. I am the shade of restraint but not limitation. I am the color of life well-chosen after years of ping-ponging between dusky shame and blood congealing into scabs.

I am the eau de fearlessness but not of recklessness. I am the color of pride but not a shade that condemns others or compares our songs. I am pink. Strawberry sherbet pink swirled with just a touch of cream, rich cream, luscious cream.

I am the healthy color of a baby’s bottom after a warm bath, the color of a mother’s nipples after breastfeeding. I am pink. I say it decisively – I am pink – without any need to shout over your colors.

I am pink. Strawberry sherbet pink. Lovely, illuminating, life-affirming pink. Praise God, praise God, praise God. I am finally truly pink.

If you were doing this exercise, what would you write?