Planting Literary Seeds: Growing a Community

Growing a writing community isn’t easy. You start slow, you start small. A few writers gather in a dusty library room or a small corner of a bookstore. Maybe you trade manuscripts, or read passages aloud. Or you exchange personal stories of rejections, maybe even an acceptance or two. With luck, the group grows. More people join. Newbies, pros. All looking for someone who understands.


The great thing about life is that you never know where a path may take you. The best case scenario? Small intimate gatherings swell to large groups. Members exchange hard-won wisdom, new markets, more rejections, but even better, more acceptances.

As a long-time member (and currently president) of the South Jersey Writers’ Group, I have seen new members come through our doors, perhaps a little nervous, eyeing us up like prey wandering into a room full of predators and I have to laugh a little to myself. After all, I think most of us have heard the horror stories of writers’ groups full of bloated egos and relentless back-stabbing. You know how those artist types are.

Yet, not.

Because sometimes magic happens. Let me give you only a few examples.

Vice-President Jessica Walsh-Jadach recently lead the group’s January meeting on goal setting. She provided each of us with a worksheet and helped us our form our plan, goals, and intentions for the upcoming year by pushing us to delve into what makes us write. Jessica, a certified life coach, also published an amazing 2-year journaling book, something I’m sure she hadn’t thought she would ever do when she joined the group (nor did she think she would become vice-president!).

Jennifer M. Eaton has had several YA books published with great success and is now a USA Today Bestselling Author. I still have yet to convince her to lead a meeting. Soon…

Tom Minder’s crime fiction novel The Long Harbor Testament was published last year and he has had many successful book signings, including several at various Barnes and Noble stores.

Kathryn Hively runs the Just BE Parenting blog and is a contributor to other parenting blogs and sites.

Cassandra Ulrich has published several young adult novels, adult romances, short stories, and poems.

There are many others, but I want to stop here. All five members highlighted are very different writers with a wide range of interests and backgrounds, but each of them has progressed through hard work, self-education, dedication, and of course talent, but that talent is something they have cultivated. And, more importantly, they each have contributed to the writers’ group by giving back to help others. Each is generous with their knowledge and time and ready to answer questions because that’s what’s we do.

This is what a writing community means and looks like – to support and build each other up. It’s not about competition, not about tearing others down, not about the stabbing of the backs. The SJWG exists to grow the voices of South Jersey and our members are integral to that mission. We are there for each other. Sometimes with knowledge, sometimes with a hug, sometimes with a friendly, but honest critique.

And really, the only prey at our meetings are the cookies.



Revive the Drive: An Interview with Lesley Conner from Apex Publications

Today, I interview Lesley Conner, writer and managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine.

Apex Publications is currently holding a subscription drive called Revive the Drive. By contributing you not only help an amazing speculative fiction publishing company continue to publish original works, you can also unlock new original fiction, increase the pay for the writers and artists, and help with a website upgrade.

Items for sale start for as little as $3 (the Maurice Broaddus guest edited issue 95).

Onto the interview…

Have you ever received really nasty (or plain crazy) responses to a rejection?

I have gotten some pretty nasty responses to rejections. I’m sure every editor has. Typically when it happens, it’s because the author assumes that their story was rejected due to something personal about the author: snide comments about how we’d buy their story if they were a woman (because we all know women have it so much easier), or they should sue because we obviously rejected the story purely based on their race (which I didn’t know before they responded to the rejection and told me). Those emails really bother me. Honestly, when I’m reading a story, I barely even look at who the author is or where they’re from. And there’s no way for me to know any personal information about them unless they put it in their cover letter. All I’m interested in is whether or not the story is good for Apex.

Now occasionally I’ll get a response to a rejection where the author tells me how much I’m going to regret rejecting the story and it’s already been bought by another magazine and they are going to make that magazine rich and famous because they are SOOOO amazing! Mmhmm, sure you are. If another magazine has actually already bought the story, then you simultaneously submitted to Apex Magazine and the other zine, and we don’t accept simultaneous submissions anyway. Sooo … In this situation, I have not once regretted turning down the story.


What do you personally like best about going through the slush pile, besides finding a gem of a story?

Of course finding an AMAZING story is always the best feeling, but I also really like when I read a cover letter and it says that this is an author’s first submission. Or it’s from a young writer in high school and it’s their dream to be a published author. I always try to be really positive—even if I’m sending them a rejection notice—when interacting with these authors. I want to encourage them to keep submitting, keep writing. This is a tough business. It’s hearing a LOT of ‘no’ among very rare ‘yes’s. So if I can do anything to help a new writer out, I’m going to do it.


What made you decide to go into publishing?

It wasn’t really a conscious decision. I knew Jason Sizemore (Apex’s EiC) from a few sci-fi conventions that we had both attended and saw him post on Facebook that he was looking for someone to help out. On a whim, I volunteered. At the time I was staying home with my younger daughter who wasn’t in school yet and working on my novel The Weight of Chains, so I had free time on my hands. Despite having no prior editing experience, Jason gave me a shot and I started working 5 or 10 hours a week helping with marketing. Six years later and here we are. Best on a whim ‘yeah, I’ll do that!’ moment in my life. J


Do you ever find yourself accepting a story that you like but still needs work? If so, what goes into the editing process between you and author?

Typically the stories we buy are very clean and ready to be published. We work on a very tight schedule, so there isn’t time for a lot of back and forth. This is why it is incredibly important for writers to make sure that their stories are polished and ready to go before they submit. Of course we copy edit every story before publication, but this is only to catch minor things—an awkward phrase or missing word. We aren’t doing major changes.


Best tip on balancing work/ home life/social media?

Balance? Yeah … that would be good to have …

I wish I were joking more than I am, but I suck at balancing my work and home life. I work from home, so … it sorta feels like I’m always working. And sometimes I AM always working, because if something pops up it is really easy to just grab the laptop and deal with it. This is not good. It is not healthy. And I am trying really hard to be better about it.

As for social media, I do have tip: Log out. Yeah, I said it. Log out! I used to keep Twitter and Facebook up and open all the time and periodically throughout the day I’d scan through it. That doesn’t sound that dangerous, but it is. When you do this, you have no idea how much time you are spending just scrolling! That’s time that you could be using to write or work or read; all things much more important that liking a photo posted by someone you haven’t seen in 20 years. Also, I feel like in recent months that Twitter and Facebook seriously depress me. Everyone is so angry and negative all the time (some with good reason, some without) and it was really getting to me. I’d be sucked into reading these long posts and emerge completely beaten down. Even when I could tear myself away to work, I couldn’t focus. So for the most part I stay logged out. I check in on things first thing in the morning while I’m drinking my coffee, and may go back one more time during the day. And that’s it. It’s a small change, but it has really helped me be more productive and happier.


What changes or patterns have you noticed over the past several years regarding the content of submissions? 

Submissions are a strange, funny thing. Taken individually or just a handful of stories, you won’t see anything, but when you read a lot of slush, patterns do emerge. Not so much patterns as in ‘this is the future of scifi,’ but more a realization after reading a dozen stories, more than half of them dealt with the sea or ocean in some way. Or suddenly a chunk of stories come in that are all flash fiction. Or maybe you get a bunch of stories that deal with monsters. Sometimes the similarity between a batch of stories is oddly specific—cowboys on Mars—and at that point I have to wonder if another publisher was holding an open call for a themed anthology and we’re seeing the stories that didn’t make the final ToC.



Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications and Apex Magazine, and a Girl Scout leader. When she isn’t handling her editorial or Girl Scout leader responsibilities, she’s researching fascinating historical figures, rare demons, and new ways to dispose of bodies, interweaving the three into strange and horrifying tales. Her short fiction can be found in Mountain Dead, Dark Tales of Terror, A Hacked-Up Holiday Massacre, as well as other places. Her first novel The Weight of Chains was published by Sinister Grin Press in September, 2015. Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1 marks her debut experience in anthology editing. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.

March Book Round-Up: Keeping It Real

In 2017 I decided to take part in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, where you set a goal for books to read during the year and try to meet that goal. When I was younger, I would fly through books at a tremendous rate. I remember being nine and my mother bought me a Nancy Drew book (hardcover!) and I finished it the same day.

Mom: “You read the whole book already?”

Me: “What else was I supposed to do with it?”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that my annual reading rate has slowed for various reasons, not all of which are bad, but still have cut into my reading time.

So, how was my first quarter?


So far, I’ve finished 8 books. Not too shabby. Thinking about the challenge, I decided to do a monthly round-up which will help promote the books and keep me honest (and reading!).

Life in a Medieval Castle and Life in a Tudor Castle (which has disappeared from my Kindle). Both short non-fiction books that walk the reader through a day in the life in the named castle. These are surface-level books, which do not delve into details, but good stepping stones if you wanted to learn more about either topic. As a writer, I found they were good if you needed some starting information but didn’t want to bog yourself down in too much research just yet.

Not So Much Said the Cat, by Michael Swanwick – one of the my favorite speculative fiction writers. I had discovered his work back in the 90s reading through an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction and fell in love with his storytelling. This collection of short stories does not disappoint. I pondered the deeper meanings and the impact of time travel for days after reading The Woman Who Shook the World Tree. Passage of Earth freaked me out. Like really freaked me. Not for the squeamish, but incredibly thought provoking on how we view alien life forms. And Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown, from which the title of the collection is taken, is an amazing adventure and come-of-age story. Which happens to take place in Hell. Michael Swanwick once again proves that he is a master of short fiction.

not so much said the cat

Cover for “Not So Much” Said the Cat


Read on!


Spread Love: Picture a Day

A little cat graffiti while walking in Philadelphia



February: Spread Love – Picture a Day (6)

My February Project is Picture a Day. Something inspiring, something cool, something to make you smile or think.

Day 6

Today’s picture of the day is of Anne Spencer (born February 6, 1882), American poet, in her wedding dress. Anne was the first African American poet to be featured in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She was valedictorian of the class of 1899 at Virginia Seminary, despite not starting formal schooling until age 11. Besides writing poetry, she was a gardener and activist and hosted many dignitaries at her home in Virginia including Langston Hughes, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. DuBois.



– Anne Spencer (1882 – 1975)

He trekked into a far country,
My friend and I.
Our deeper content was never spoken,
But each knew all the other said.
He told me how calm his soul was laid
By the lack of anvil and strife.
“The wooing kestrel," I said, “mutes his mating-note
To please the harmony of this sweet silence.”
And when at the day’s end
We laid tired bodies ‘gainst
The loose warm sands,
And the air fleeced its particles for a coverlet;
When star after star came out
To guard their lovers in oblivion —
My soul so leapt that my evening prayer
Stole my morning song!



February: Spread Love – Picture a Day (5)

My February Project is Picture a Day. Something inspiring, something cool, something to make you smile or think.

Day 5 (yes I skipped Day 4)

The lava lamp was invented in the 1960s by a British accountant and works due to the Rayleigh-Taylor Instability (which sounds like a Big Bang Theory episode). RT instability happens when two liquids of differing densities mingle, in this case, wax (the “lava”) and the surrounding water-based liquid, but do not dissolve. In the simplest terms, waxy blobs and water are heated by a light bulb in the base of the lamp. The wax heats up, rises to the top, then cool and drops down. Lava lamps went on to become one of the defining images of the 60s, and are still sold today.

Fun Fact: The Doctor Who episode The Wheel in Space (1968) was the first television show to feature lava lamps.


Other sites for more information:

How Stuff Works

The Original Lava Lamp



February: Spread Love – Picture a Day (3)

My February Project is Picture a Day. Something inspiring, something cool, something to make you smile or think.

Day 3

blog day 3.jpg

Ben Franklin with son William Franklin (inset).

A little sad one today and something to reflect on. Despite all his accomplishments, Ben did not have the best family life. Some say the loss of his four-year-old son, Francis to smallpox (vaccinations save lives!) may have caused Ben to disengage from his family.

However, in later years, Ben and his illegitimate son William were friends and business partners until the American Revolution when father (patriot/revolutionary) and son (loyalist) parted ways. William was the last colonial governor of New Jersey.and vehemently disagreed with the revolution. Ben and William only partially reconciled before Ben’s death and Ben left little in his will to William, preferring his grandson, Temple, William’s illegitimate son (oh my!).







February: Spread Love – Picture a Day (2)

My February Project is Picture a Day. Something inspiring, something cool, something to make you smile or think.

Day 2

What says sanctuary more than a cozy cafe? One of my favorite things to do at lunch is take a short walk to the locally owned cafe, Nook Bakery and Coffee Bar and get some writing done. Mike and Edna, the owners, specialize in small-batch baking and ethically sourced coffee. The muffins and scones are warm in the mornings and did I mention the lavender madelines?



February: Spread Love – Picture a Day (1)

My February Project is Picture a Day. Something inspiring, something cool, something to make you smile or think.

Day 1

Love yourself. Nourish your body, eat good foods and don’t be afraid of new foods.  I’m trying 5 Grain hot cereal from Bob’s Red Mill as an alternative to oatmeal (which I adore!). I’ll be adding chopped dates and a touch of brown sugar.

Eat Well

Eat Well


Poconos Writers’ Conference 2017

I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Annual Poconos Writers Conference over the weekend. I love conferences because no matter what your level of writing, you can never (and should never) stop learning. Sponsored by writer and attorney Michael Ventrella and the Poconos Liars Club, this one-day writing event featured three writers and one agent who gave excellent talks on craft and publication.

Michael Ventrella kicked off the conference with his talk “The Biggest Mistakes Made by New Authors.” Some great advice included treating your writing like a job in terms of dedicating your time and learning the business, finishing your work, and his secret to success (exclusive to attendees only, I’m afraid). I jest, but he did emphasize the importance of talent, hard work, and networking.


Michael Ventrella

Next up was agent Alia Hanna Habib from McCormick Literary who presented on query letters and knowing your genre (with examples of what works and what doesn’t). Every time I go to a talk on query letters I learn something new and this was no exception. Alia’s experience was invaluable (and funny). Highlights included ensuring your query reads something like jacket copy, know to whom you are submitting and, of course, read the submissions guidelines.

After lunch, romance writer Megan Hart spoke on Point of View. She provided clear instruction on each type of point of view. I think my greatest takeaway here was the emphasis on how point of view not only controls what we the readers know, it gives the reader information as the character sees it. Each character is the hero of her or his own story, which affects how they tell the story.


Romance Author Megan Hart

Dark fantasy author Rob E. Boley wrapped up the speaker line up with his presentation on Worldbuilding, which, as he points out, is integral for all genres, not just speculative fiction. Rob asked members of the audience what they thought worldbuilding included and the responses were phenomenal. Many volunteered answers but then made connections with how that aspect (say, currency) would affect the world and the way characters interact. Rob emphasized that your world must serve the story. Coincidences that screw the characters are acceptable. Those that help are not. There are no silos – different aspects of the world affect other aspects (just like the real world!). Do not cast brushstrokes and don’t see everything in black and white.


Dark Fantasy Author Rob E. Boley

The audience participation really energized the crowd for the final session – a Q&A panel with the authors where we discussed marketing, networking, and being yourself on social media (please, no non-stop promo tweets!) and at writing events. In the end, sell yourself as much as your work, but be real.

Highly recommended conference, especially if you’ve never attended one and might be feeling overwhelmed at the thought of a large, multi-day event.

PS Huge shout out to the Eastern Monroe Public Library for hosting the event. Support your local library!

PPS I might have bought some books…