Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Banned Books and Birthdays or the Search for a Life of Meaning

by Julianna Baggott

People born on or around September 30th are usually the offspring of over-served, randy New Year's Eve party guests. Do the math.

And so here I am. Today is my birthday. And not just a small birthday -- like twenty-seven. No. Today is my 40th birthday, which sounds mathematically impossible. When people say that an event took place in, say, '89 and then add something horrific like, "twenty years ago," I get kind of go weak in the knees. 1989 was TWENTY years ago?

Last night someone asked me if I was reflecting at this point in time. I am. I don't want to have a midlife crisis -- I have no appreciation for very cool cars and no desire to date younger men (or older men or etc ...)

Unfortunately, I want to live a life of meaning.

The meaning of life? Eh. I'm not that lofty.

But a life of meaning? Yes. That sounds like a good thing. I just don't happen to know what it is.

This winter I'll publish my 15th book -- The Ever Cure (Random House) -- a novel for younger readers. This summer I'll publish my 16th book -- The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted (Bantam Dell/Random House).

I have four kids -- aged 14 to two.

I'm in love with my husband.

These things are all part of a life of meaning -- yes. I don't deny that.

But still...

This week I had a piece in the Boston Globe -- an op ed on a principal who called me up a week before my scheduled visit to tell me that she couldn't send out book orders before my visit because she didn't want to give parents the impression that the school was endorsing the "objectionable material" in my "book."

I had no idea what book she was talking about and had never had my work called "objectionable." She seemed surprised by the fact that I had written more than one and that I didn't have a ready-made list of my objectionable material. She provided this.

A difficult pregnancy -- which would be THE ANYBODIES -- and the use of the 'n word' in THE PRINCE OF FENWAY PARK, which is a book about racial tolerance with some historically relevant parts to it. The book provides an author's note on my use of the word.

She confessed that she was afraid of angry parents, and that hers had been one of the districts to opt out of Obama's address to school children.

If Obama's uplifting study-hard speech was worthy of censorship, now what isn't?

There's more to the story ... Here's the link:

There's been some rousing debate since, people taking both sides.

Does this seem like I'm inching closer toward a life of meaning? Is this what people with meaningful lives do?

Last night I went out with friends -- three amazing women. One who's just come back from a battle with cancer, a brilliant novelist, Sheila Curran; one who's just started her PhD in her early forties with two kids and is still working as a social worker in one of the poorest counties in the state; one is an innovative media specialist in a Title I school who'd just gotten a grant to start an after-school running program for the girls in her school. She has two kids -- one of which she and her husband adopted from Ethiopia.

I see each of them as living lives of meaning.

But, for some reason, I can't quite see it in my own. (As an writer alone, am I writing the work I SHOULD be writing? Am I just killing trees out there? Some days it seems so.)

And so I have an inkling of what my 40s might look like.

I will want to be a better person, and I will fall short -- by my own estimations. And I will then come to terms, somehow, hopefully before I hit 50 with this and accept myself -- my longing, my fight, my shortcomings. Even my harsh view of myself will be accepted.

Frankly, I was raised better than all of this earnest bullshit. People born on and around my birthday often are. Our folks tend to be the ones who know how to kick it up, who understand drunken desire, the importance of revelry, who've had sex with their party hats still on! And, really, when it comes to us human beings and our humanity, there's plenty of meaning in that.

For more on blogs from Baggott & her pen name Bridget Asher, click here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Q and A with Debut Novelist Lisa Patton

In her debut novel Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, Lisa Patton paints a hilarious portrait of life in Vermont as seen through the eyes of a southern belle readers won’t soon forget. A charming fish-out-of-water tale of one woman who learns to stand up for herself—in sandals and snow boots—against the odds. The novel goes on sale this week. To learn more and to read an excerpt please visit her web site.

First of all, thank you for inviting me to be a guest on A Good Blog is Hard to Find. It’s one of the great ones and I feel honored to be here. Karin, I think your blurb for Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter was my very first one and I’ll never forget your enthusiasm. Thank you!

What inspired you to turn your story into a fiction novel?

Well, I didn’t really turn my story into a novel. I was inspired by my own escapades as a southern innkeeper, but the story itself is fiction.

I hope I’m not making a major assumption, but I’m guessing you were the inspiration for the character of Leelee. How did it feel to write a character that [seems to be!] based on yourself? Did you ever find it difficult to separate your own personality from the fictional character?

Good question and a fair assumption at least at first glance. The whole experience of inn-keeping from a southerner’s perspective is rich for storytelling. The dichotomies between the two regions are quite colorful. When my time in Vermont had run its course and I was safely back on Southern soil, I knew I had a story to tell. There was so much about Vermont that I loved but I also knew that I was better off in the South. It’s too cold for me in Vermont! But I digress. Leelee Satterfield does have a couple of the same experiences that I had, yet she is a different person than me. One of the most important things I found about creating Leelee was that she needed to have a wide character arc. She starts out as naïve and somewhat spoiled but by the end of the book, she turns into a steel magnolia. I think whenever a first-time author writes in first person about someone with a similar background to that author - and especially the same gender - it can be hard to separate the two personalities.

How long did it take you to write this book?

I came up with the idea and title fourteen years ago, but the actual writing took me about three years. That’s because it went in and out of my drawer for nearly a decade until I developed the confidence to actually finish it. Plus, as a single mother of two very active little boys I could only write in my spare time, which was pretty much non-existent!

This is your debut novel – were there any surprises in the process of getting a book from a new author published?

Oh my goodness, yes! Although I have to say I had read millions of books on the subject of publishing so I was well familiar with the odds. The biggest surprise was when my agent called me about the sale. She caught me totally off-guard. I had planned a trip to New York with two of my best girlfriends (a significant birthday celebration for all of us) and I had planned to have lunch with Holly. Truth be told I was scared she might be discouraged because the book hadn’t sold, so I wanted to meet her in person. (Heaven forbid she might drop me.) When I heard her voice on the phone I told her that I was just getting ready to call her. She asked why, and I reminded her about our lunch. She told me that she was about to make that trip to New York so much better. We had a sale!! When I learned that Thomas Dunne also wanted a sequel I was flabbergasted. That was my biggest surprise.

What did you find to be the hardest part of writing a novel?

The first draft – bar none. Oops that’s not true, it’s the alone part. I’m a classic extravert and I found it hard to be by myself while I was writing. Finally, I started going to the library to finish the book so I’d at least have people all around me.

I believe you’re working on a sequel to Whistlin’ Dixie…are you finding any major differences between writing the second book than writing the first?

Well the first major difference is that I actually kinda/sorta know what I’m doing this time around. Plus I have more confidence knowing it’s going to be published.

What has been the most enjoyable part of this new profession?

I have joy in knowing that I have shown my two sons, now 19 and 21, that hard work and dedication really do bring about success – in whatever form that may be. They were only five and seven when I first dreamed about this project and I’m happy that I have been able to show them an example of tenacity - especially since I’m a single mom.

What’s currently on your ‘to read’ list?

Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
South of Broad by Pat Conroy
The Assistant by Bernard Malamud
The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells
Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I loved it.

What is your favorite eccentricity of the South?

Hhmmm. That’s a good one. My favorite eccentricity would probably be the large number of meat and threes that we have here in the South, and the fact that no meal would ever be served from one of those restaurants without a delicious piece of cornbread to go along with it. Ohh, I just thought of one more. I love it that Southern children everywhere still say “Yes ma’am and “Yes sir.” I think that’s very respectful.

And to include those above the Mason-Dixon line, what’s your favorite eccentricity of the North? [PS, I have never heard anyone describe the differences between the northern and southern living as well as you. It’s all the little things and people that haven’t lived in both regions just don’t get it! Like our obsession with Coke and the fact that ‘barbecue’ is not a food to them…it’s a verb!)

Thank you for the compliment! This one’s easy. The most peculiar thing to me about the North is the fact that you can’t bury people in the winter. That’s how I start my book by saying, “No one ever told me you can’t bury somebody up North in the wintertime.” As a Southerner, it never once crossed my mind that the ground up North froze in the first place and that it would keep people from having a winter funeral.

You have ties to rivalrous SEC schools. Where do your loyalties lie on Gameday? Go Vols or Roll Tide?

My blood is a deep crimson.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising my sons to be kind-hearted, tender men who love God and their mama!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Keep in mind, I’m a hopeless romantic. My idea of perfect happiness would be to live in an antebellum house with a wonderful guy who has a killer sense of humor and loves me and loves my sons. There would be a beautiful view of the Southern sky out my porch where I could watch the sun rise and set and have my animals around me all the time. We would eat Alaskan King Crab Legs and home-grown tomatoes and caramel cake and dance to 70’s music under the stars. Travelling to fun places with my friends and family would be nice. Like Hawaii, Italy, the Caribbean, and off-the-beaten-path little hideaways right here in the States.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Pulpwood Queen's Reading and Writing Life for Me!

Oh, The Reading and Writing Life for Me!

I am not your typical writing author. Though I write everyday, I would much rather promote other author’s books. I toot my own horn loudly, but am I comfortable doing it, no way. It’s a lot more fun to toot someone else’s horn, kind of like it’s a lot more fun to clean somebody else’s house, but I digress, as usual.

For those that don’t know, I own a hair salon/book store, Beauty and the Book, the ONLY one in the country, perhaps the world, here in the piney woods of East Texas. We are not on the grand scale of the author sending literary map but I get my fair share of authors here as I offer FREE COMPLIMENTARY hair services besides hosting their book events. Now what other bookstore offers that kind of benefit, I ask you? I have a captive audience for selling books because as I cut, color, and style women and men’s hair, I talk those books, BIG TIME!

“Okay, Larry, just a trim as usual?”

“That’s right Kathy, maybe a little shorter over the ears. It grows like crazy there.”

“Great, will do” as I cape him up and start clipping, “so heard you took a little trip to Vegas? Get in any reading?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Kay was reading “South of Broad” by Pat Conroy. She couldn’t put the book down and read it on the way out loud. I got lost in the story too.”

Okay, now I have successfully transferred all thoughts of hair beauty to the beauty of books. I am in the door, pitching our next great read, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, our selection for October for the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs that I founded nearly ten years ago.

Now nothing pleases me more than giving a great hair cut or style. I am one hairdresser that takes great pride in my work. Shoot, I want these people to not only be happy but to come back to my shop again and again. What a novel thought! I also know that when they do, I will also be talking up books.

Years ago, I did the same thing with my hair salon, Town & Country Headquarters in my hometown of Eureka, Kansas but I was not a book store too. I talked books to everyone who came in and loaned half of everything I recommended. I learned an important lesson. Never loan a book that you ever want to see again. Half the people never returned the books. So when I opened my hair salon/book store, I now SELL the books I recommend and therefore, my library stays intact. There is nothing worse than to lose forever your first edition copy of any book, signed by one of your favorite authors to a friend. But my friends, life is about relationships and the lesson in this story is that no matter how much you love a book, the friendship is more important period. I solved that problem by just selling them the book and if I loan it, I say my own private goodbye to that book. You can imagine my delight when a friend actually returns a book. I have always perceived books too as my best friends so we are reunited at last! Serendipity!

I also believe in the power of the story. Coming from a family of storytellers, I get real excited when I read those first words in a book and I make a connection with the story. I can honestly tell you that I love all the books that I have made OFFICIAL Pulpwood Queen Book Club selections and listed all books that I have selected from inception to publication of my book in my first book, “The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life”, Grand Central Publishing. I call my book “the little book that could”. Because I think I can, I think I can, until I know I can make reading known that this pastime is quite simply the best entertainment in the world.

This week has been a big week for me as a lover of the printed word. In one day, I hosted the First Lady of Houston, author, Andrea White who brought a whole busload of bookloving women to my shop as part of her East Texas Conversations Tour as her husband, Mayor Bill White is running for U.S. Senate. It was and always is an honor to host a public reception for anyone running for public office. Bookstores should not only be a place to promote the literary word but should be a meeting place for the community on all things that promote the spoken word and public policy too! As Andrea handed out FREE her latest book to all attended I was overwhelmed by her generosity and kind spirit.

The next thing that happened was I was invited to speak at the Alabama Book Festival on my book and promoting literacy. I am always amazed how people hear of me far and wide, usually by word of mouth from friend. I happen to believe that I have some fine friends in Alabama and if you are reading this and responsible, I would like to thank you in person. I have many, many dear friends in Alabama and wrote all about this today at I hope we will check out my web blog and read it too.

Next, I was contacted by a film entertainment production company in California about the possibility of a reality show based upon me and my Beauty and the Book. Now I have been on television a lot, it’s thrilling, scary, and fleeting. I have had more than my fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame. But I still get excited about the possibilities because as I see it, here is yet another big way to help promote authors, books, and reading! I hope it works out but if it doesn’t, I still have my good works to do regardless of promoting authors, books, and reading.

And last, one of my dear author friends emailed to inform me my favorite author in the country would be attending my annual Girlfriend Weekend and with an author entourage! I can now die one happy woman but I don’t plan on doing it any time soon. I have a lot of literacy promoting work to do!

You see, after six years of writing my book to publication, I learned the most valuable lesson of my life. Put God first in your life and everything becomes really, really clear on how your life’s path should go. I have veered off the path more times than I cared to mention but it was not until I finished my book and read it as if for the first time, I realized that my life is not about me. What a revelation! It’s about what God has given me as my gifts and talents and what I should do with them. I do believe my gift is to promote reading. It’s my life mission. It’s about service above self. My service to all of you is to promote authors, books, and reading. I am your resource, I am your encourager, I give my life to God and the power of the printed word.

At the same time I am writing another book but this one is not for me, this book is for you. I call it “The Pulwpood Queens Guide to Reading and Writing for a Higher Purpose”. Because all my life I have been a reader but it wasn’t until I wrote my own story that I really got it. Life is about the story, the relationships with others. It is not about what kind of car you drive, where you live, how much you own. Life is about friendships and sharing our stories.

You see everybody has a story. Everybody has a story to tell, if not for you, for your family and friends. And if you don’t write your story, or record it, or tell it, a library of you has been lost to all your family and friends. Everybody is important, it’s just some of us have a way of telling a story that transforms lives. I think of Pat Conroy immediately when I think of the power of a great storyteller, or Rick Bragg, or Barbara Kingsolver, or Michael Morris, or you. Won’t you join me on the reading and writing life? I know because of all my author friend’s, I found out I was not alone. I have found that with my book club members, though I am a flawed queen, I have found the greatest relationships of my life. These women and men are so important to me and lift me places I never dreamed I could go.

As we embark on this fall season, let’s join together to become a nation of readers, a nation of readers who promote reading and relationships and leave the hate and cruelty of this world behind. I have a story and so do you. I do believe that when we come together as one, there is nothing that can stop us in making this world a better place. I have a dream too, and so do you. Let’s make dreams come true because as in the fairy tales of my youth, I always loved the happy ending!

Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Author of “The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life”, Grand Central Publishing
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs
P.S. I also invite all of you to attend my biggest event ever, the 10th Anniversary of my annual Pulpwood Queen hosted book club convention which we call our Girlfriend Weekend Author Extravaganza, January 13 – 17, 2010. With over 50 of the best in authors, speakers, actors, and musicians featured, we are offered an author workshop, two full days of author panels, two nights of the best entertainment including Friday night our Happy 50th Birthday Barbie Party with a Barbie Fashion Show featuring all our authors, Saturday night our infamous GREAT BIG BALL OF HAIR celebrating the 70th Anniversary of The Wizard of Oz themed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and a Sunday Wine Down Party all in historic Jefferson, Texas. Email me at and all send you all the details!
P.P.S. Photo of First Lady of Houston and Author, Andrea White and her entourage at Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Guest Blogger Dawn Goldsmith

Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles novel forthcoming -- sometime
By Dawn Goldsmith
© Dawn Goldsmith 2009

I have these women running wild. They are brandishing vicious weapons and demanding that I write their story – or else! But they keep morphing. One minute there’s Rita with a biker babe background, no wait, she’s a war widow. No, no that’s not right, she’s a small town woman harboring a painful secret. She won’t hold still long enough for me to write about her! And then there’s Claire – is she or is she not having an affair with the college president?

Characters! How do I get them to talk to me, to tell me their stories, to help me write it and make a gazillion dollars?

Several well-established, respected, successful (monied) writers seem to face that same hand-to-combat each time they sit down to start a new novel. Mary Higgins Clark has been known to say that everyone just backs off and stays out of her way when she’s starting a new book. They know what kind of funk and frustration she’ll sink into. Others mention stomping around their office lamenting, “What ever made me think I’m a writer?”

Eventually it comes together. And the advice that results: Persevere. Those of us who have not followed that advice are still working on the same novel two, ten, my goodness – thirty years later!

Once upon a time I knew my life’s path. It came into focus with a life-changing jolt when a mystery magazine assigned me a book to review. A mystery, fourth in a series new to me, but evidently well received. The premise and protagonist seemed a bit whacky, but from the first page it felt so familiar.

I don’t mean that I had read this author’s work before. No. It felt like she was writing about my life.

In this novel the author described my youngest son, used his name, placed him in his favorite situation and that was just the opening scene. The book is set in an agrarian setting (much like my home town) with a heroine who is a farmer and a biker. The author graduated from a Mennonite college -- like my husband. And the author as well as her protagonist sound remarkably like a former editor from my home region, who was also Mennonite and affiliated with bikers during her adventurous life. Even the author’s disease of choice hit close to home.

When I perused the author's webpage, I saw an interview conducted by my personal hero and former colleague at the newspaper where I worked and first grew into the title: writer. The author presides over a writing group in the heart of my old stomping grounds surrounded by local writers with whom I had attended writing meetings back when I lived in the land where I belonged.

And she's doing readings in my favorite libraries in my home landscape.

Is this what happens when we don't take advantage of opportunity when it presents itself? Was it simply fear that diverted me from my true destiny? When we don't follow through on the ideas we start to turn into novels and never complete -- someone else does it?

In my stash of unfinished fiction lies a biker story, several farm-related stories, a potential serial, a romance, a mystery or two, some based on my son’s heavy metal experiences – not unlike the opening scene of the assigned novel. And all of them are four to six chapters long. That seems to be the time when the doldrums hit and I lose the momentum to finish a novel.

I'm not saying she has done anything wrong. Not at all. I'm just saying -- she's living my life.

She's living my life! Or at least the life I expected to live in the location where I expected to grow old.

I sent this author a couple of emails and I imagine by now she thinks I'm a stalker or feels threatened or is thinking lawsuit. Nope. Nope. Nope. I am amazed at the synchonicity, the déjà vu feeling of seeing work so familiar coming from another hand, another mind.

I am dazed and shocked and suddenly aware of how far from my expected life I have wandered. Talk about the butterfly effect and Freaky Friday.

Maybe it is time I at least finished those novels I started. See if maybe I can recoup a bit of my life before the fates hand her my story ideas, too. But if I write about characters based on my own family and experiences -- will it sound like I'm copying her?

The universe is shrinking and we are all connected. Now I'm wondering just how connected are we?

By the way, her novel is great. I think mine would be better -- but the funny thing is -- publishers don't sell unfinished novels.

For now I plug away at trapping the girls in my office each morning and then when they escape, turn to writing my book reviews and blogs. If anyone would care to contribute to my Observations which focuses on writing, writers, books, wannabes and great advice and inspiration, please let me know. The same for my other blog, what else: Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles Between the reviews, blogs, and wrestling matches, I also write personal essays and articles for a variety of publications including The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Notre Dame Magazine, NBC News, and Better Nutrition.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My First-Co-Authored Novel By Sharyn McCrumb

A Literary Drafting Partner
By Sharyn McCrumb

Co-author a novel with a NASCAR driver?
I wasn't sure if it could be done, but it sounded like an adventure.

I met Adam Edwards, my co-author of the new novel Faster Pastor, at the Bristol spring race, when he bought a copy of St Dale, my NASCAR homage to The Canterbury Tales, and offered to give me technical advice on an future projects.
He soon became my crew chief for Once Around the Track in which he is also the character Tony Lafon

In December 2005, when Adam was trying out for ARCA in testing at Daytona, he and I lived the scene in Once Around the Track in which Taran takes photos of Tony Lafon in his fire suit in Victory Lane at Daytona, and he is engulfed by tourists who assume he is some famous race car driver. Adam posed for pictures, signed scraps of paper dug out of purses, and was charming to everyone, while I was elbowed into the fence by the crowd. And nobody ever asked who he was. “They nearly trampled a New York Times best-selling author to get to me,” Adam recalls. “It’s the fire suit. They’re magic.”

In July of 2006 he gave me my first ride-along in a race car at Lowes Motor Speedway: 170 mph, with me in a fire suit and helmet watching the wall come up in front of us only inches away. Trusting him to that extent required only a little less faith than taking him on as a co-author, something I have never done before. But, even though I don’t work and play well with others, this collaboration was my idea, and he was terrific.

In the final scenes of Once Around the Track, a character has to rescue a race car driver from a burning car in mid-race. Adam, who knew exactly how to do that, sent me the instructions in narrative form, and reading over it, I thought, “Hey, this is pretty good. I don’t have to change this too much.” In research, no matter how long it took or how complex the question, Adam always tried to make sure that I understood and got it right.

A friend and fellow Hokie Adam got his MBA from Virginia Tech, and is now director of a health care facility. Before that, he managed a Busch racing team, drove in both Pure Stock and in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series, and he taught the fine points of race car driving for the FastTrack School of Racing.

When I was writing Once Around the Track,Adam was instrumental in devising the 86 car’s winning edge, and his keen instinct for making the action scenes come alive for me was a key part of the narrative.

After I finished that novel, Adam did a number of programs with me at libraries and other venues to talk about the book, including: the Sullivan County Public Library, Bristol TN; the Roanoke VA Art Museum; the Montgomery County VA Art Museum; Radford University, VA; Don Beyer Volvo Authors Series, Falls Church VA; Barnes & Noble, Midlothian VA; Bristol TN Family Race Night; Patrick County VA High School; the Reynolds Homestead Cultural Center, Critz, VA.

Adam was patient, articulate and charming in public appearances, and he wrote pitch-perfect action scenes, and so one day I said, “Hey, do you want to try to write a book together? I have an idea that involves your field of expertise-- teaching middle-aged guys how to drive a race car.”

I told him the bare bones of the plot, which occurred to me as the plots of comic novels usually do, with the thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if…”
Camber Berkley, a young stock car driver, wrecks his car on a
winding mountain road, landing right in the midst of the funeral of an elderly
NASCAR fan. As punishment for his spectacular car wreck, the local authorities
of the small Tennessee town of Judas Grove give him a choice: serve three months
in jail for reckless driving, or spend two weeks teaching the local ministers to
drive stock cars, so that they can compete in race whose prize is the $2 million
legacy left by that deceased NASCAR fan.

I’ll write the first thousand words, and send it to you via e-mail, and we’ll just go back and forth,” I told him. Writing requires a great deal of self-discipline, and I am a natural loner, definitely not the nagging type, so I thought, “If he doesn’t do his thousand words, we’ll just forget the whole thing. But he did. A thousand words came back, well-written and promptly sent. Warily now, I sent him another thousand words. Again, he sent another thousand back.

I called him up. “Look,” I said. “Writing a 100,000 word book is a long, tedious process. Most people never finish one. So here’s the deal. I’ll give you up to 22,000 words to get bored or stressed out and quit. No hard feelings. If you want out, just say so. But if we get to 22k, that is a viable literary fetus, and if you try to back out after that point, I will hunt you down.”
“No, no. I can do this.”
And he’s right. He could and did.

So we wrote Faster Pastor in a year’s time, found a publisher, and now the real adventure begins… We gave our first program together at the Hampton roads Writers Conference in Virginia Beach last weekend, but we expect to be on the road quite a lot in 2010 when Ingalls Publishing Group brings out the novel this spring.

Faster Pastor
By Sharyn McCrumb & Adam Edwards
ISBN: 9781932158878 -$25.00

Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including the New York Times Best Sellers She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket. Her other best-selling novels include The Ballad of Frankie Silver and The Songcatcher. Ghost Riders, an account of the Civil War in the mountains of western North Carolina, won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature given by the East Tennessee Historical Society and the Audie Award for Best Recorded Book. St. Dale, The Canterbury Tales in a NASCAR setting, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award as well as the AWA Book of the Year Award. Her most recent novels are The Devil Amongst the Lawyers and Faster Pastor, the latter co-authored by NASCAR driver Adam Edwards.

McCrumb, was named a “Virginia Woman of History” in 2008 for Achievement in Literature. Other honors include: AWA Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award; the Chaffin Award for Southern Literature; the Plattner Award for Short Story; and AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel.
She lives and writes near Roanoke, Virginia.

Joshilyn Jackson: How ____ Really Are

Back in grad school, my friends and I were heartless and young and pretentious and in love with ourselves. I am pleased to report that we are quite different people now. (The first comedian to say, YES! BECAUSE NOW YOU ARE OLD! shall be taken out forthwith and fed unto lions. I’m just sayin’.)

There is a certain kind of poisonous factionista mindset that quite often grows in the cracks and festers in creative writing graduate programs, and I am ashamed to say I indulged in it. A lot of us did. To be fair, there were quite a few writers who floated around our program trying to make something and be decent humans. Then there were ... the rest of us. Competitive to a fault, we divided ourselves into camps and glared out of trenches, our pop-guns loaded up with smug better-than-thou (or in my transplanted southerner in Chicago case, Little-bit-sugar-mouthed-better-than-y’all,-sorry!). There were three main camps.

First, a pod of men writing BIG MALE PHALLIC POWER FICTION---oh, it was SRS Bizness, lolcat, I assure you---and they spent their time not letting a cigar be just a cigar, not ever. In workshop they poo-poo’ed any word penned by a creature who had ovaries.

Second there was a droopy faction of oppressed hyperrealist women writing about hypersensitive female leads who floated haplessly in tepid lake water describing clouds and filtering silt and their sad histories through their emaciated, pale, long, lovely fingers.

The smallest faction was a mixed gender squad of experimental fiction whackjobs (That would be the team I played on, yes). We were...weirdier than thou. I ended up there because I was in madcap love with Samuel Beckett, and because a smart professor told to me I should befriend the writers in the program whose work I most admired. That was hands down Lydia (and my opinion of her writing has not changed), but at the time she was maybe 20, fresh out of an undergrad program, and she was in this pod.

If you had put all three of these factions on an island together, there would been a Lord of the Flies style pig roast based on aesthetics in RECORD time.

The man-pod, we easy-breezy-beautiful dismissed rather quickly. They needed, we said, to get a ruler, drop trou, and award the biggest fella an MFA. The rest could slink off home. But us expy ficcers and the hyperrealist hypersensitives made each other clinically insane for two years running.

They would slog through our stories and blink at us, puzzled. Invariably, one would ask, “Is the narrator CRAZY? Or is this actually HAPPENING?” and we would answer, “Where were you when Dada went by, trailing Surrealism like a crazy kite with trout instead of string?” Then they would say, “What?”

We would push our way through their stories waiting for something to HAPPEN or for the invariably female narrator to PERFORM AN ACTION instead of being acted upon by cruel men/fate/weather/pond frogs. We would blink at them, puzzled, and one of us would invariably ask, “Nothing happens, what is this even about?” They would say, “It is about how _____ really ARE.” And in the blank they would put, say, Manic-depressives. Victims of poverty. Victims of men. Victims of victimhood. Gardeners. Monkeys. HOPES! LOSSES! TRUTHS! SNICKERS BARS! In other words, they were slice of life stories from the plot-free wasteland of the early 90’s.

My final irritated response to being asked for the umpty-hundredth time if my narrator was insane or if a large waterfowl was REALLY following her all around Chicago was to drink umpty-hundred vodka/peppermint schnapps/chocolate milk shooters and write a TERRIBLE story called “How Nutria Really Are.”

Nutria really are large swim-happy rodents that infest the swamps around New Orleans, but my story was more about how Nutria REALLY secretly are tricky furry covered literal bombs waiting sentiently to be used in acts of murder or revenge by 90’s style victimized women. (As I recall, some Nutria really ARE, in that story, pseudo-machines that allow a moderate amount of convenient time travel. Um. Yeah. *cough*)

In my defense, no one could accuse that particular story of not having a plot. In my further defense, I wrote it in 45 minutes under the influence of really, just... SO much Schnapps.
Defense aside? It was a terrible story.

What made it most terrible was its small-minded cruelty. I wrote it to poke at the hyperrealist hypersensitives. And let's be clear---this wasn;t sly literary criticism. I wasn't making fun of an aesthetic. I was making fun of people. In the way of such things, it was funny if you were in on it, and absolutely impenetrable---murky with a side of mean---if you were not.

Another way to say the above is... I wrote it to make fun of People Not Like Us. I wrote it from outside of them, to mock them, not inside, to puncture the pretentions we writers, me included, betimes indulge in. I was uncomfortable with it the minute I was sober, and I should have been. It is the opposite of the way I am currently comfortable finding humor in small town southern living. I can gently mock the South and even angrily point out her inconsistencies and cruelties because I am in and of it ---and most of all, most of all, even with its flaws and blood-soaked history, I truly, truly love it. It is me. I am it.

A lot of writers come to book signings and speaking engagements. In some of them, I recognize my younger self. I can always spot my former kind, the heartless ones, young and ruthless and better-than, chins and shoulders forward, pugnaciously demanding that their betterness be recognized. I can spot them from space, because I used to be them.

One of the most F asked of the FAQ’s I hear on tour is, “What advice do you have for young writers?” and my favorite answer---especially if one my old kind is present---is to say, “Don’t compete. Don’t be slotty or narrow. Don’t make yourself feel better about your work by mocking the work of others. Be kinder than that. Love people more than that. All people. Even the irritating ones. Even the ones who you have wisely decided aren’t as special as you are, because probably they have gifts you are too narrowly focused to recognize."

I tell them that, to be a good writer, you have to grow up enough to love people. When you do, that’s when you can write about them from the inside, as one of them. If you love them, if you are OF them and IN them, not needing to put others down to raise yourself up, you will write without stock villains mustache twirling along to tie Sweet Polly-Sue to the nearest railroad track, without perfect heroes who actually are your sad idea of you with a better body. Be an insider, because when you write people, you have to write more than what you know. You have to write what you love.

New York Times Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, their two kids, a hound dog, a scurrilous Boggart-cat, two legally separated Beta fish, and a twenty-two pound, one-eyed Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. She wishes their neighborhood was zoned for goats.

Her latest book is The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, and Entertainment Weekly called it “a wild, smartly calibrated achievement." It makes a great hostess-best friend-teacher gift, and plus your mom told me she wants a copy, so you should definitely run right out and get a couple. Oh heck, get three, they are small.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Water from the Porch

Hello folks, let's chat...Tell me, what did you think of when you saw the title to this post? I can't say the words without thinking about my grandmother's porch in Natchez, MS, the one framed by the big beautiful hydrangeas, the one where I joined with my sister and our favorite cousin to take refuge from sudden storms and hold endless talent contests and beauty pageants-- acting as both contestants and judges. (My sister Rhonda always won the beauty pageant, and though Lisa and I secretly decried the results you really must give us our props for the honesty with which we continued to cast our votes.)

To be sure, the porch really belonged to the small country church next door were my grandfather preached his heart out, as did that house and every other house they ever lived in as a young married couple, and later as a growing family with four kids.

At first glance, I almost pass by this bit of porch information, considering it irrelevant to what it is I want to share today, but upon taking a closer look, it begins to dawn on me just how integral it is.

You see, it was from that porch that I watched my grandmother offer water over and again to men who came down Pine Ridge Road in Natchez, Mississippi, down on their luck and in sore need of a friend. Food was offered, too, and whatever spare money could be raked together. My grandparents always gave what they could. Only now do I realize that not once did they give out of an abundance of anything other than love. This is my heritage. Forgive me for being so nostalgic with y'all, dear friends and complete strangers, but my eyes have begun to water at the memory and the realization that such a heritage is a treasure without price. Water from the Porch. It's funny that I didn't see that connection until now.

I suppose it's a bit late for a proper introduction, we've backed into this thing from the get go, but in short, I'm the host of All Things Southern and right now "water" is on my heart and soul, pushing and pulling me to act.

I hate inertia. I hate to allow feelings of powerless over the size of a problem paralyze me from taking action at all. And yet, I do it all the time. All. The. Time. I do it when I change the channel from a commercial that breaks my heart. Reminding myself of the different ministries my husband and I support helps-- for about... two seconds, and then I realize that I could do more. I could always do more.

I pushed this cause away the first time it fell into my heart, knowing full well I would be just ONE MORE VOICE asking people for action, (not to mention suspecting that I'd possibly drive off readers who were as weary as I am about bad news and had thought they were coming to the All Things Southern porch for something else entirely.) The idea pushed back, again and again. Every time I saw Life Today's Water for Life program, every time I thought, "How cool would it be to partner with them to drill a well, not to offer a thirsty soul a drink of water once, but to be a part of giving an entire community fresh water for a lifetime!"

Even so, I continued to war with myself. Why this program, I asked, why when there are just as many other wonderful people doing wonderful work, (like my own dear sister-in-law and husband who faithfully operate a feeding ministry and orphanage in Kipsongo, Africa). The only answer I have is that not only did the idea refuse to go away, it grew! It beat within me like the tell tale heart from Edgar Allan Poe. (Sorry for the obscure reference.)

And then I realized that while I rationalized, a mother looked from a contaminated water source to her dying thirsty child and rationalized in her own way. Would she give her baby water that may kill him eventually or let him die of thirst before her eyes?

And so, I moved. I recently asked my dearly loved readers, to join with me to drill a well of life-giving water in cooperation with Life Today's Water for Life outreach program. A single well sustains a village of 1000 people for an entire lifetime, a worthy goal by anyone's measure. Our goal at All Things Southern is to raise $4800 so that children just like yours, grandchildren just like ours, won't have to drink contaminated water because it is all they have.

Oh, yes, I know people are hurting right here in America. I didn't choose this cause, it chose me. And yes, I know pocketbooks are tight and the economy is sickly. I live in the real world with you. (As I type this the rain is coming down and my husband and I are praying that it will stop so we can harvest.)

I also know I didn't dream this up. The Lord gave it to me, so I will see it through. Our current running total is $1,836.00. If you'd consider helping, I've asked my readers to give as little as ten dollars each. You can use the paypal button at my website to donate, or you may send your donation to:

All Things Southern
Water from the Porch
610 Schneider Lane
Lake Providence, LA 71254

Also, if you would be so kind as to post this on your facebook pages, twitter profiles, and or blogs, I'd be greatly indebted. "For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name... I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward." Mark 9:41

Thanks for listening! And now, back to your regularly scheduled blogging... ~smile~


Friday, September 18, 2009

On Death and Grieving by Annabelle Robertson

It was the summer of death. Throughout the region, we spent the long, hot months being buffeted by wave after wave of fatal accidents – many of them involving teenagers.

All had loved ones. All were loved. All are gone.

Their deaths, which I wrote about for Sumter's daily newspaper, The Item, kept me in a melancholic mood. I interviewed the family of one young woman, and their grief was so raw I couldn’t help but set aside my journalism hat and pray for them. cried. And as I did, I felt the rat-a-tat-tat-tat of reality, knocking at my door.

There isn’t a parent in town who didn’t imagine their children – and themselves – in the deadly wrecks of recent weeks. We were at the wheel of the SUV that was hit by a train. We were in the crash that slammed a metal toolbox into a pregnant teenager’s head. We were in the backseat when the young mother took her baby out of the car seat to feed him, only to see him ejected minutes later, upon impact.

Death, inevitably, makes us ponder our own mortality. When others die, we die. And when the unthinkable becomes not only thinkable, but very, very possible, indeed, we are left with one question. What then?

It’s easy to spout clichés in the face of grief. I heard plenty, following my multiple miscarriages. So much so that I now see clichés as an almost-instantaneous reaction to grief. Everything from “It’s the Lord’s will” and “She’s in a better place” to “Time heals all wounds.” I groan thinking of them. Every time I hear a new one, I want to pull aside that person and say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing?” As one of my professors once said, “Bad theology hurts people.” A

Death is never the Lord’s will – any more than sin is. And, that person may not be in a better place; not everyone is after death. And, even if they are, that doesn’t take away the loved one’s pain. And no; time does not heal all wounds. The wound may not be quite as gaping, but it will always be there. And to assume otherwise, quite simply, is abusive.

When we offer these words, we mean well. We say them because that’s all we know how to say, and we want to help. But that doesn’t make them right, especially if we understand that the reason clichés crop up is not for someone else’s assurance, but to assuage our own emotions. No matter how we try and resist, we’re right there with those who are grieving, and that makes us feel incredibly uncomfortable. So we start in on the clichés – not to make the griever feel better, really, but to get rid of those terrifying emotions creeping up and around our heart.

The real answer to grief is a simple one, but a painful one. All we have to do is be there. Be quiet. Listen. And let the emotions ride.

With those who are grieving, showing up is half the game – especially after things have settled down and the funeral is a distant memory. That’s when most people go back to their busy lives, but when loved ones are hitting their grief journey, full stride. They need people who will listen – quietly and without response, save for the occasional nod and sympathetic utterance. Just listen.

It’s a hard thing to do. It’s hard for me. But I know that it’s a skill I must learn, if I am going to be effective at consoling and ministering to those in need.

As uncomfortable as bad feelings make us feel, it’s not our job to make them go away. Even if we could, it would only hurt – not help. Feelings cannot stay locked inside our hearts. They are meant to be shared. And sharing is the path toward healing, the very essence of the grieving process. But all too often, that process is cut short by others.

Ultimately, true healing – and any fragment of hope that is ever to be found – will come but from one source. As Missy Geddings, mother of Nikki Geddings, said, “There are no words to say. All we can do is drop to our knees when we have bad days and tell God to help us make it through.”

But we can all be facilitators of the grieving process. We can extend the hand of blessing – not through misguided words, but through the patient perseverance of a listening heart.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Please: Don't lick the author's face

By Ad Hudler

Things happen to me … things that don't happen to other people, and many of them have occurred during book tours and at reading festivals.

Once, in a Florida bookstore, I was signing copies of my novel "Southern Living" when a very-drunk woman leaned down as if to whisper something in my ear, and she stuck out her tongue and licked the entire side of my face, from chin to temple.

Now, I have a smooth, bald head, and I can see how it might look like a huge lollipop to someone who's had 5 cosmos, but I can certainly tell you there are plenty of other things that taste better than my salty skin. (Incidentally, two years later I would join a friend at a neighborhood bar's Ladies Night, and a similar incident would occur. A woman pulled me down in the same manner, as if to whisper something in my ear … and she bit my face! Not a little nibble. Oh, no, she opened wide and tried to take a chunk of me, just as someone bites into an apple. I bled. I bruised. I fled, and I never went back.) Consequently, I guard my head very carefully these days.

One time at a book-launch party in my hometown of Fort Myers, my mom came up to me and, pointing over to the food table – adorned with salmon and capers and expensive crackers – she asked, "Do you know those people? Are they supposed to be here?"

They were two homeless folks, dirty and dressed in ragged clothes, who just happened to stop by and see the vittles and decide to help themselves.

I walked over. "Excuse me," I said. "But this is a private party."

"It sure is!" the woman said. "Look at this great food."

"Yes, ma'am," I replied. "This is my party, and that's my food you're eating. And I'm afraid you'll have to leave."

"Well!" she exclaimed. "You're not being a very good host!"

At one book signing in North Carolina, I had only four people show up to see me. "I'll make a deal with you guys," I said. "Each of you buy a book, and I'll take you all out for drinks." That night, we closed down the Ruby Tuesdays. It was late when we finished, so I walked one of the ladies to her car. When we got there – and maybe I'm imagining this – she started leaning into me … and, fearing for my lollipop head, I quickly bid her good night and dashed away to safety.

But perhaps the oddest event occurred this past fall, when I was touring with my novel, "Man of the House." To match the theme of the book, I wore work boots, jeans and a tool belt stuffed with a mix of male and female stuff – feather duster, banana, hammer, screwdriver, wooden spoon (you can see it on the homepage of – and people honestly mistook me for the janitor. At the Gwinnett Reading Festival in suburban Atlanta, a volunteer came up and said, "There's a table that needs moved in Room 35. Can you get that, please?"

Caught off guard with nothing to say, I went to Room 35 and moved the table.

Then, someone came up and said, "There's a big mess in one of the stalls in the bathroom. You might want to check it out."

I'm a congenial fellow, but I have my limits. Request denied.

Catch Ad Hudler's popular, irreverent blog at His newest book, Man of the House, was called "required reading" by The New York Post. He shaves his head twice a week and on nights when he has a date with his wife.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

As In Life
by Patti Callahan Henry

There are so many beautiful things about the writing life – story and solitude and wearing whatever I want in my office, working with words, playing with plot…etc… yet there is at least one deeper reason I love writing: excavating my soul while learning some life lessons along the way. I call them my “as in life” lessons.

For me, writing a story is very much like falling in love. Stepping into the process slowly, wanting to feel the feeling, only knowing that I enjoy whatever emotion is being generated by this story or by the person I fell in love with. In both experiences there is no guarantee that things will work out, is there? But does that mean we don’t do it at all? That we don’t write the story or fall in love? And what do we do to our souls when we deny the story or the love?

First comes this desire, this bubbly thing that rises from a place no one can pinpoint, and then I follow the passion to wherever it leads. Here, right now, is where so much can go awry -- following the feeling is the part where everything can go wrong, where it can all unravel and the love is lost, or the story goes nowhere, and despair sets in where it had once started with so much hope. OR this is where the beautiful journey begins and the story unfolds, the love blossoms and life changes for the better. But how are we to know which one will happen? How can we know that the novel will be published and adored, or that love will have a happily-ever-after? (as Brad Paisley so philosophically sings, “if love were a plane, no one would get on’ what with the 60 percent chance of crashing and all).

So halfway into the love affair, halfway through the writing of a story, this happens: panic. What if this doesn’t turn out the way I want it to turn out? What if this has a bad ending? What if I’ve put in all this time into this love affair/into this novel and it stinks? What if he decides he really doesn’t love me? What if the editor hates it? What if the old girlfriend comes back and wants him? What if the Hero’s Journey isn’t adequately reflected in the thematic structure? Blah, blah, blah, blah.

And there I go, as a storyteller and in life, spinning waaaayyytoooo far forward. Imagining the best and the worst, setting up scenes and tragedies that might or might not occur. Ibegin to worry – all this pining, angst and yearning about just this: “How is it going to turn out?”
The more I try to force a novel to work, the more I care in an obsessive, overly-needy way, angst-ridden manner, the worse the story becomes. (Surely I don’t have to state the obvious – as in love, right?). The more I fixate on “how it turns out” the more I lose the fun, the joy and the adventure that is a novel, that is love.

I was talking to a writer friend about this, and that writer said this about writing, “The more pure fun I’m having, the better it turns out to be.”
Just like love.
And no, it’s not all fun (the writing or love). There is the pain and the heartache and the lost hope and the dark nights. There is the wondering and the crossroads and the choices about “where to go next”. Here is the part I want to remove in both life and writing: the worry and obsession about “How it turns out”. I want to walk through the fun parts, and the painful parts and the choices; I want to walk through the story and ask this, and only this, “What is next? What is the next best thing to do right here, right now?” I don’t want to force anything to become what it isn’t. I want to trust the story; trust the Love (both of which are greater than I am).

Maybe if I did that in both life and writing I wouldn’t have to worry about how it all turns out.
And the reason I say that for me writing a story is like, exactly like, falling in love.
Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

Patti Callahan Henry is the NYT Bestseller of six novels.

WALK LIKE A YANKEE by Kerry Madden

I wasn't looking for a story or a particular voice, but sometimes the voice or the story will come slamming into your head whether you wish it to or not. I don't know yet what this will become, but when a good friend said, "Write it down. Now!" I obeyed.

by Kerry Madden

Are you going to keep up on our power-walk or are you going to go all Southern on me and stroll? We have forty minutes! That's it. So I’m not strolling here. We're not walking Southern! Got that? I keep up a very fast-paced walk. I’m serious. So listen, you’re going to have to keep up with me or just forget it. You’re already lagging behind. I can’t talk to you if you’re lagging behind.

I need to be able to talk to you. You’re all the way back there. Three inches is a lot, and it’s more like three feet if you want to know the truth, which I’m sure you don’t but too bad. It’s good for you. You’re freaking slow. I’m not exaggerating. Come on. Keep up. I don’t want to look behind me to have to talk to you. Come on! Keep up. Keep up! I’m serious, keep up! You’re lagging again. Yes, you are! Unbelievable.

You’re really slow, aren’t you? It drives me crazy people who don’t keep up. It’s one of my pet peeves. I keep up a very fast paced walk. Would you keep up already? You’re lagging again. My best friend lags behind me too. You walk like him. It drives me nuts. What’s the point of a power-walk if you’re going to lollygag? Keep up! You are so seriously southern. Of the deepest South, that’s you. You walk like you’ve got no place to go. Typical southerner. No destination in mind! We have forty minutes to get in a serious walk, and we are not going to spend it shuffling along.

Let me ask you a question. How do you think I got such got a great butt? Not by ambling or shuffling or dragging my feet that’s for sure! I used to be embarrassed by my butt, but now I’m proud of it. Kids used to oink at me at school when I reached for food, because I wasn’t all super-skinny, but now I realize they were just jealous. I have a great butt.

A woman at the party stopped me last night and said, “Don’t take this wrong way but you have an awesome butt.” It made my night. The whole night I kept thinking, “I have an awesome butt.” What’s the matter with you? Which way do you want to go? Decide. Now. No right now! Do you want to go left? Right? Left? Right? Come on. Make a decision. There are probably bugs on that trail. No thanks. But seriously, I can’t stand people who can’t make decisions or who display signs of weakness. It’s such a freaking turn-off. Look at these train tracks. God, we are so in the South. Freaking train tracks!

Speaking of, could you believe that waitress gave me that disgusting sugary iced tea yesterday? Fine, sweet tea - whatever. They don’t even warn you here about the tea. They ought to warn you. There ought to be big freaking signs. Seriously. How is a person supposed to know to request “sweet” or “unsweet” tea down here? What the heck? It was gross. I almost gagged on all the sugar. You’re slowing down again. I’m just talking here. It's not an excuse for you to slow down. Keep up! How many times do I have to say it?

Let me see how much that house costs. Keep walking in place while I look. No strolling allowed. I’m watching. Pick up those feet! $400,000 for this neighborhood? That’s a little surprising. I didn’t think houses in the South cost that much. The fence isn’t bad. Nice stone work too. Good, you’re keeping up. Finally. Nope, now you're slowing down again. Keep up, I said! I'm not going to tell you again.

Do you even know where we’re going?

Kerry Madden is the author the Maggie Valley Series published by Viking Children's Books. The books include Gentle’s Holler (2005, starred Kirkus and Publishers Weekly), Louisiana Song (2007), and Jessie’s Mountain (2008) set in the heart of Appalachia in the Smokies. Her first novel, Offsides, was a New York Public Library Pick for the Teen Age in 1997. Her book, Writing Smarts, published by American Girl, is full of story sparks for young writers. Her newest book, Up Close Harper Lee (Viking) made Booklist's Ten Top Biographies of 2009 for Youth. New to Alabama, she teaches creative writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Friday, September 11, 2009


by Julie L. Cannon

In the world of novel writing, there are no rule books. There’s no concise course you can enroll in, study hard, take the final, pass it and know you know how to write a novel the right way. I’ve often heard writing a novel compared to being a brain surgeon, but I don’t agree with that. Yes, both take years and years of study, of practice, but one has fairly specific guidelines for the procedure (I hope).

I’m a voracious collector and reader/studier of how-to-write books. Each one gives me a fresh perspective, and after I read it, I come away saying, “Yes! That’s it! That’s how I’m going to write my next novel.” But when it gets down to it, and I’m sitting behind my keyboard, my fingers tingling with the thrill of beginning a new book, I realize I’ve got to follow my own way.

Turns out my own way is mixing and matching bits and pieces from all the different books on writing that I’ve studied over the years, along with stuff I’ve gleaned from all manner of writing classes I’ve taken, along with a few of my own discoveries I made as I read my way through stacks of other authors’ novels (That’s my favorite way to study novel writing) .

Though I’ve now sold four books, and have two more finished and out with my agent (along with a number sitting in folders in my laundry room), I feel no more like I could say “Okay, let me tell you about my process” than I could after the very first one. I wonder if there ever comes a point when any novelist can say: Here’s the formula. This is how you do it. I’ve arrived and I am done studying the craft of writing.”

So, what I guess I’ll do here is just try to put in words those things that I do consistently. The things that help me birth each new book. First, of course, comes the idea. My ideas can come from anywhere: Mother, roadside signs, playing the “what if?” game, newspaper and magazine articles, or just out-of-the-blue. Once I get the idea, the Muse, or whatever it is, grabs a hold of me and will not let me go. I get obsessed, literally. I scribble a few sentences so it won’t slip away from me.

Some writers claim they write organically, with no outline. They just sit down at the keyboard after they get their idea and it comes pouring out like blood from a severed vein. Not me. After the fever of getting my idea and putting my couple of sentences down, I’ve got to take a deep breath, sit my butt in a chair and methodically work through the idea. I want to make sure it’s really enough of an idea to fill an entire book.

I’ve heard of lots of writers who use index cards - writing scenes on them and laying them out in lines, even taping them to the wall in some long stream of plot points. What I do is tape two sheets of typewriter paper together end to end so I have this long, narrow piece of paper, and then I’ll write on it with a pencil First I draw a long, straight diagonal line from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. I section it off and make marks about every quarter of it, assuming a novel is around 80,000 words. I begin with ‘The Catalyst’ and ‘Act One,’ where I introduce the characters and their clashing agendas, and at around the 20,000 word mark, I put ‘Key Scene Containing a Twist/ Turning Point.’ Next I move on to ‘Midpoint,’ which is along about the 40,000 word mark and also close to where ‘Act Two’ comes along, which is where I throw in some more complications and confrontations. When I get to around the 60,000 word mark, I put in a ‘Climax.’ followed by ‘Act Three,’ also called ‘The Resolution.’ Finally, I scratch my head and think up the ‘Catharsis,’ and then the ‘Wrap-Up,’ which is where I try to tie up all loose ends, and show how my character or story is moving on. From this long piece of paper filled with chicken scratch, I write a fairly detailed synopsis.

Without this outline/synopsis I really won’t sit down and write any more than those first sentences. Because, for me, it is necessary that I have some sort of guide. It may change, in fact, it will change, but first I’ve got to have it thought out from Concept to Crisis to Climax to Conclusion. I don’t know everything about the book I’m writing, but I do have a kind of road map. What’s exciting, what keeps me writing through the long days of forcing words that do occur even in a story you’re excited about, is that I really don’t know what might happen.

When I was beginning to write my first novel I carried around this huge black notebook with the words Writer’s Digest School printed on the spine. Tab dividers inside had topics such as: Characters, Ideas, Market Research, Plot, Published Novels, Scenes, Theme, Viewpoint. I literally absorbed that thing. Inhaled it. I highlighted sentences, wrote in the margin. I followed each and every shred of its instruction to the letter. Along with this notebook, I acquired two books: The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, by Writer’s Digest Books, and The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing, from the editors of Writer’s Digest. These I also poured over. Then, I took baby steps forward and

P.S. Sorry if this blog is so disjointed and messy. Usually I try to go back and smooth things out because I know and you know that good writing is re-writing, but I’m literally bursting with this news and I’ll be doing good just to get this posted!!!!!!

Read more about my writing at

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Guest Blogger: Celia Rivenbark

Question: Is it harder to make a reader laugh or cry?

My high school journalism teacher asked us that question a very long time ago and my hand shot up.
“Laugh,” I said. This question was a no-brainer. I’d always been the class clown for as long as I could remember. Never took anything too seriously, loved stupid puns, rolled “joints” full of oregano and sold them during study hall, the usual stuff, I guess.

The bar had been set high because the class clown the year before me was more about slapstick. His finest hour? A teacher who didn’t particularly like her job used to have the odd habit of stomping down her trash, right in the can, to make room for more. She did it every single day right before she started teaching. She’d pick up her roll book, walk around the side of her desk and stomp down the always-full trash. Then, and only then, could the lesson begin. One day, CC decided it would be funny to fill the can with water and then float a bunch of wadded up paper on top. You guessed it: She walked around her desk, like always, lifted her big, tree-stump leg high and put it down hard into the trash can. Ker-SPLASH! She was wet and screaming and furious and everybody got a “Zero” for the day.

My humor tended to be more subtle but it still came fairly easy so, yes, “make ‘em laugh” I said with irritating confidence that day in class.

No,” said the teacher. “It’s much easier to make them cry.”

For some reason, this has stuck with me like nothing else in the 30 some years I’ve written for newspapers.
I’m not sure I even believed it til I wrote a column about the death of my 15-year-old cat. Mail flooded in, along with photos of other people’s beloved pets. It had only taken about 18 minutes to write that column. Compared to how I labored over the humor columns every week, it was a shock.

Not long after that, I wrote about my miscarriage for a Mother’s Day column. Again, more mail than I’d ever received poured in and, reading it, I learned just how long and hard I could cry reading someone else’s words. That column had taken no more than 20 minutes. It was raw and true and, well, easy to write.

Making them laugh every week, 52 weeks a year, for nearly 20 years? Oh, yes, much harder.

In my fifth book, “You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start in the Mornin’ ’’, there are two essays that might make a reader cry a little. And, yes, they were written quickly and easily. They will generate the most mail and probably the most response at readings. This is the way it goes. When I’m on a book tour and doing a reading, there is nothing more gratifying than having something I wrote make people laugh out loud. If they cry, it’s more of a “we’re all in this together” moment. Either way, connecting with readers is a privilege I don’t take for granted. It’s the best feeling in the world. And that’s no joke.

Celia Rivenbark is the author of the award-winning bestsellers Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier, and Bless Your Heart, Tramp. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. Visit Her newest release is You Can't Drink All Day If You Don't Start in the Morning: Surviving the South with Sweet Tea-Flavored Vodka, Chicken Salad, and Jesus