Friday, July 31, 2009
For two winters in a row I’ve taught a week long workshop on mysteries and mystery-writing for NCCAT, the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. NCCAT is a terrific organization that offers workshops for teachers designed to inspire their teaching while enjoying a break from their stressful jobs. We all have a great time—both years we’ve spent the week at a renovated Coast Guard House on Okracoke Island.
The seagull in the photo was my companion for the two hour ferry ride back to the mainland last January. It was as cold as the Outer Banks can be in winter and the wind blew in gusts that made even walking to the cabin difficult.
My seagull friend landed on his post just before the ferry left and perched there all the way from Ocracoke Island to Cedar Island. He leaned into the wind to keep from being blown off the ferry, teetered and tottered, occasionally lost his footing and regained it, all with his feathers fluttering in the wind and his little bird face turned away from the gusts. Dozens of other seagulls flew after us, screaming and diving, hoping for cast off potato chips, but this little guy stoically endured the entire boat ride on his perch. I’ve ridden the North Carolina coastal ferries many times and I’ve never seen anything like it.
Once our ferry started its docking process at the Cedar Island ferry station the seagull raised his wings, did a little dance, and took off. I was sad to see him go.
Back to the NCCAT retreat on Ocrakoke. I was the main presenter, a challenge considering the number of topics I needed to cover. I asked Brenda Witchger, a writer buddy of mine from Cary, to help me out with the writing segment. Brenda is an award-winning short story writer. She’s been a teacher herself and I learned much from her during the week. (That’s a euphemism for appropriating some of her teaching materials….)
Bren and I were answering some participant questions when a woman raised her hand and said “so are you guys millionaires, or what?” People ask this a lot, but it never fails to stun me into silence until I can collect myself.
Even very knowledgeable people seem to believe that if you’ve published a book, you’re rich, as though every one of the volumes stacked on the shelves of your local bookstore earns a million dollars for its author. If only! Another writer friend of mine, Margaret Maron, faced with this inquiry, tells audiences that a successful genre writer makes about as much as a teacher. Most midlist authors, even those who publish a book a year, make less. Many, after expenses like promotional travel and their agent’s commission, even find themselves in the red.
A young man at a school where I was speaking once asked me how much of the $23.95 price of my newest book did I get to keep. Oh, I said, maybe $2.00. He passed my book to another student with a look that indicated he’d be going into a different business
Novelist Lawrence Block, who’s written many books on writing, likes to tell anyone who is interested in becoming an author that they “should take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and hope the feeling goes away.” I second that emotion!
Writing isn’t like other jobs, where you put in your hours and then get paid for working those hours. If you make $10.00 an hour, then work twenty hours, you get $200 in your pay envelope, right? Not as a writer, I’m sorry to say, or in most of the creative professions. You can labor for months, even years, without any payday worth filing an income tax return.
So, why do we do it? Because we can’t help it. It’s a drive, like other creative pursuits, music, art, dance, theatre, whatever. It’s in our natures, buried deep somewhere in our hearts and brains. We’re compelled to string words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into chapters, and chapters into books.
The problem is, there’s no guaranteed audience for an artistic product. So no guaranteed payday for us.
I am addicted to the process of writing. My current project is with my agent, and I feel like I’m in withdrawal. I thought I’d be thrilled with a few weeks away from a manuscript that took me two years to write, but I’m miserable. Writing is so stimulating for me that I suffer a huge letdown when I’m done with a book. Writing is the only occupation I’ve ever had that keeps me mentally and emotionally absorbed, when I’m not thinking about a single other thing than putting the right words on paper. I can’t give it up. I can’t! I need it! Even more than Bunny Tracks ice cream!
Then there’s the audience, my fans, a small but loyal bunch, who love my books. That’s a high, too, to know that a reader somewhere couldn’t put your work down until the wee hours of the morning.
The “problem” with writing is what stands between your art and its audience:s the publishing process, the contracts, the negotiations, the promotional plan or lack of same, all the endless business details that must be tended to before your book gets to your readers. Not to mention that your most recent work might show up on ebay or in a used bookstore even before publication, thanks to someone making a quick buck off a review copy. Then there’s Google and scanning and…let’s not go there. Too discouraging.
But then, after publication, comes the reward. The good reviews, maybe a book club edition, a reader at a signing or workshop telling you how much they enjoyed your book. Because the truth is it’s not quite enough to write a book, the reading of it by others is a part of the addiction.
I tell all the budding writers I know that persistence is what gets you through the business part of writing, that determination is as important a quality for a writer as creativity and imagination.
Which reminds me of my seagull friend, who managed the crossing from Ocracoke to Cedar Island by perching on a ferryboat rail and enduring wind and waves until he got where he was going.
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
I wanted to be a writer since I was twelve years old. Like many people who have a dream, I came to the writing profession later in life. I don’t view my former jobs as mere pit stops along the journey. No matter how unrelated those positions might seem to the writing profession, each contributed to my earning a byline. Let me explain a few.
At ten, I became a very busy babysitter. My family lived on Guam’s smallest Navy base at the time. Most of the kids were younger than me or boy-crazy teenagers who flirted with the single sailors. I might have been in fifth grade, but I knew an opportunity. I asked a talented classmate to draw a babysitter on the back of index cards.
On the front, I wrote:
Babysitter for Hire
50 cents an hour
The only problem was my mother thought I still needed a babysitter so when she asked a neighbor for a referral, the neighbor told her about a card she received in her mailbox.
“Oh?” my mom said, “I didn’t get one.”
After my mother got over the shock that I had ventured out without her permission she gradually started allowing me to babysit. My first client—my little sister. I don’t remember getting paid for those jobs.
When I began to write, I decided I’d call myself a writer from day one. It didn’t matter that I didn’t get paid. I pretended that I was. I kept showing up to write and six months down the road I got paid for an essay. The pay? Six issues of the magazine that my essay appeared in. Those issues felt like six thousand dollars because it was the first time I saw my byline.
At fifteen I got the opportunity to make 1.98 an hour as a movie theater concessioner. Minimum wage was 2.35, but it beat fifty cents an hour. I learned to pop popcorn, make change, and deal with hungry demanding moviegoers. Years later when I signed my first contract, I didn’t make a huge advance, but I got a check instead of copies and a great editor that I still work with today. My advances have grown, but just like I worked hard trying to get the moviegoers’ orders correct, I labored on that first book as much as my current ones. The moviegoers didn’t care that I made 1.98 per hour and readers don’t care how much I get for advances. They just want a good story.
In college I had a lot of jobs. One of them was working as a receptionist for the Superintendent of Education. Most of my job consisted of answering the telephone and redirecting people’s calls. When people are mad at something about their school or a teacher or how much a lunch costs, they want to talk to the top dog—the Superintendent. Who they really needed to talk to was someone a few rungs down the ladder. All modesty aside, I was pretty good at redirecting calls. My southern belle mother taught me a thing or two about charm and warmth. Most people who are angry are not expecting to find charm and warmth on the other side of the phone so it kind of disarms them. What happens then? They allow you to redirect their call.
The part of the job that I resented was making perked coffee for the Superintendent every morning. Please don’t get me wrong. I didn’t mind making the coffee. I minded making it every morning when he rarely came into the office. His personal secretary said, “Well, we never know when the Superintendent might show up. And when he does he likes his coffee perked.”
I was demoted from that job. Not because of the coffee, but because of my poor typing skills and carelessness caused by my daydreaming. I learned how it felt to go from the 12th floor to the fourth. But years later as a writer, I also learned there are parts of my job that I might prefer not to do, but will always have to do if I want to be a writer. For me that is plotting. How nice it would be to write scenes and interesting characters that really don’t do much of anything, but most readers want a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Just like I detested making that coffee every morning no matter what, I don’t exactly love writing the second draft. That’s where I examine my story’s structure. I try to get on the right track before heading to the third, fourth, fifth…etc. drafts. The one nice thing though is that unlike that superintendent, if I get it right, my readers will show up.
If variety is the spice of life, my many jobs certainly provided a classroom for my writing career. From my various sales positions, I learned readers won’t believe what you are writing, if you don’t. I discovered little details are important when I got fired from forgetting to lock the Sears jewelry department cabinets. And putting myself on a book tour wasn’t so difficult when I recalled creating a trail with catalogues on my Avon route. Maybe most important of all, I learned that writing is a lot like working at McDonalds. You have to know when to turn the plot, rewrite a sentence and end a story just like a McD employee must know when to flip the burgers, wipe the counters, and pull the fries out of the oil. And I learned all of that on my first and last day as an employee wearing the uniform with the golden arches.
Somehow I’ve managed to stay at this job for fifteen years. And if it’s okay with you, I think I’ll stay here for a while. I’ve had enough job hopping.
Kimberly Willis Holt writes books for young people. Her book, Piper Reed Gets a Job (the third in the series) comes out next month. Visit her website at http://kimberlywillisholt.com/
or her blog at
Author Spotlight: George Dawes Green, author of Ravens
When Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko drive into the small town of Brunswick , Georgia, their only thought is to fix their car's leaky right tire and continue on to Key West, Florida, away from their dead-end jobs as computer technicians in Ohio. But when Shaw discovers that the 318 million dollar Georgia State Lottery has just been claimed by an ordinary Georgia family, he sees an opportunity - he and Romeo will blackmail the Boatwright family for half their winnings and ditch their deadbeat lives for good.
Disguised as a state lottery representative, Shaw enters the Boatwright's home and holds the family hostage, while Romeo patrols the town, staking out the homes of the family's loved ones, should the Boatwrights refuse to comply with their demands. But Shaw isn't your average criminal out to make a quick buck. Instead, he has a grand messianic vision and he'll stop at nothing to see it through -- and soon, the Boatwrights find themselves living a Flannery O'Connor American nightmare from which they can't properly awaken.
Q. How do you go about developing a story? How carefully do you plot your novel before you write it?
A. All the pieces of a thriller have to fit seamlessly, and should be weighed and measured scrupulously before any assembly is undertaken.
Q. Do you base characters on real people?
A. On myself mostly. But when the writing begins, all personas must say goodbye to their models and board the train and make the journey by themselves.
Q. How important is storytelling for a society? Would you talk about your founding of The Moth?
A. The art of the raconteur is a beautiful thing – there’s its prime importance. It may have some kind of theraputic or societal value, but I’m mostly interested in the beauty. So far as I know, there had never in history been a public forum for the kind of stories we celebrate at the Moth – unscripted, personal, ‘kitchen’ stories. So I created one – with the help of a thousand friends and, in particular, Joey Xanders and Lea Thau – and now we’re traveling all over the world and we’re downloaded by millions and the art of the raconteur seems to be exploding. As it should. If you haven’t been to a Moth, please go – the evenings can be rapturous.
Q. The Juror was your second novel and was tremendously successful. Your first book (Caveman’s Valentine) won an Edgar Award. Then over a decade passed when no novels appeared. Now, you have a third book, Ravens. Why did you take a hiatus after The Juror and why did you return to novel writing?
A. The years just kind of got away from me.
Q. Are you currently working on another novel?
A. I am, and I’ve sworn to deliver it soon, and my amazing, beautiful, patient and gracious editor has threatened to put me in irons if I don’t.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Cabbage Soup Diet? Why not? After all, who doesn’t love being starving AND gassy!
Replace carbs with bacon? Sure, THAT SOUNDS HEALTHY!
Eat heaping spoonfuls of DIATOMACEOUS EARTH? ....It seemed like a good idea at the time?
I want to go back to Dallas and collect concrete, independently verified, encouraging, numerical, documented proof that all these little, easy, step by step changes I have been making, week after week, are having a “whole body” impact. Happily for my motivation, some of the results I can see. Like, I can wear clothes I haven’t been able to wear for two years, and my jeans are too baggy to wear in public. It’s been so gradual I didn’t realize until I looked at pics of myself from 8 weeks ago. Here is a picture of me and the other 3 Better U “Bloggers” read: International Spokes Models taken just before we started the program:
Here I am below from about the same angle, a dress size smaller and now WITHIN the healthy weight range for my height. Scott snapped this shot a couple of hours ago, as I was heading out the front door for church. (Please note the scenic DEAD AZALEA BUSH behind me – apparently you have to FEED those things...):
At any rate, I wanted to take this GUEST BLOG opportunity to encourage folks who are thinking about trying---be it for the first time or the millionth, like me---to get healthier, go for it. Heart disease is the number 1 killer of women over 20 in this country, and 80% of it is TOTALLY preventable via diet, exercise, and regular check-ups. It is worth it. Your kids are worth it, and your grandkids are worth it, and you are worth it even if your kids and grandkids are still hypothetical.
If I can do this---me, the girl who has written LOVE POETRY to double chocolate mocha chip martinis and who grew up in the south where EVERY vegetable recipe in the lexicon starts with the words “Get you a big ol’ scoop of bacon grease from thet there coffee can on the stove...” ---then anyone can.
New York Times bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, two kids, a hound dog, a scurrilous kitten, and a twenty-two pound Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 BookSense picks for the month of their release. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, which People Magazine calls “a treat” and Entertainment Weekly gave an A-, is fresh out in paperback.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
The 2009 keynote speaker honor goes to publishing legend Sir Harold Evans. He has served as editor of London’s The Sunday Times and president and publisher of Random House. He’s the author of many critically acclaimed books, including The American Century. In 2004, Evans was knighted for his contributions to the field of journalism.
Daren Wang, Executive Director of DBF, said it’s been incredible to watch the festival evolve into its current form.
“This festival has taken on a life of its own, and it continues to amaze and astound me,” said Wang. “The community support is unbelievable, the book world has fully embraced us, and our offerings get better and more diverse every year. As the fourth year of the festival approaches, I can only imagine all the wonders in store for attendees.”
DBF will feature something for everyone, and then some: book signings, author readings, more numerous and diverse panel discussions, an interactive children’s area, live music, parades, cooking demonstrations, poetry slams, writing workshops, a wrestling match, and more.
Notable participants this year include five-time Grammy winner Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pulitzer Prize winners Douglas Blackmon (Slavery by Another Name), Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain), and Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin’), Kathy Reichs, whose books are the basis for Fox’s smash hit “Bones”, Lee Child, author of the bestselling thriller series in the world, and poets extraordinaire Edward Hirsch and Thomas Lux (Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts).
New sponsors this year include Atlanta Fulton County Library, Margaret Mitchell House, Georgia Tech Library, Mental Floss, Holiday Inn-Decatur, Better World Books, and Decatur Business Association.
Visit www.decaturbookfestival.com early and often for updates.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival Presented by DeKalb Medical is the largest independent book festival in the country, and the fourth largest overall. More than 65,000 festival goers crowd the historic downtown Decatur square each year to enjoy book signings, author readings, panel discussions, an interactive children’s area, live music, parades, cooking demonstrations, poetry slams, writing workshops, and more. For more information, visit www.decaturbookfestival.com.
Friday, July 24, 2009
I needed to go in and shower. I knew I'd be late. Morning devotional on the dock had been checked. Throwing the stinking tennis ball with Dixie Belle until her tongue was dragging had been checked. Being late to events where you're the guest speaker-- never good. But doggone it-- here was another, and there another, and another. Holy moley, I had hit locust jewelry jackpot.
For reasons I still can't explain, I began lining them up on the edge of the flower pot for a photo op. It wasn't easy. Dixie the Curious had her nose all in my business, but I persevered. Out of time concerns, I denied myself the pleasure of going inside for the Jim Dandy camera hubby gave me for Christmas, (sorry Nikon-- I should've given you that plug) and went with the camera phone on my hip instead. And this, is my result. Lucky me. Lucky you? Probably not.
I remember once when an author friend was bemoaning her publicist's insistence that she start blogging. "I'm on constant deadline," she grumbled, "and I'm responsible for so many words already. I don't need to have to produce more."
She had me there. I'm a fairly new blogger, myself. I, too, resisted this idea for the longest time. Never the first one to ride the wave, I turned my huffy back on blogging for the first seven years of All Things Southern's existence, citing the same reluctance to add to the regular pressure of my ever growing deadlines. Her next question, however, fell right into my sights.
"Besides, what will I blog about?" she asked.
I quickly explained that the way I looked at it, this was only an issue if you set the bar too high. (I can hear the Amen corner of this blog's readers now.) Yes, I realize that one can step right over my bar, but let it be known that I am having fun allowing myself the freedom to ramble without direction, to enjoy words without worrying whether an editor will love it/hate it/or scratch it or if a reader will buy it/enjoy it/or burn it. It also brings us back to exhibit A: locust shells.
After I got these little fellas lined up and photographed I realized that the picture was speaking to me. Is it just me, or does it not look like a death march? The world is full of people eager to follow whoever has the ability to lead. I'm not talking politics, either, at least not specifically. I'm thinking about leaders in all walks of life. Leaders can give life, think Christ, and they can push death, think Hitler. I'm thinking if anyone has even the inkling of an idea that they have the gift of leadership, that one should stagger to their knees under the notion-- lest they lead a death march.
And to think, we started with a locust shell.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
When I talk about writing, people often ask me my work schedule. As the heat and humidity have settled over Semmes, Alabama, I am now officially in the “summer schedule.” I have different schedules for different seasons, because the weather outside dictates much of how I live my life. And when I write.
My brain works best (if you can call two cells clacking against each other working) in the morning. Heck, everything works best for me in the morning, even my hair. This is my favorite time to write. On the “summer schedule” I get less a.m. writing time, but I make it work.
Coffee at 6 a.m. and a tussle with dogs and cats. If I am going to ride a horse or a bike or do any lawn or pasture work, now is the time. As July stretches toward August, the prospect of any outdoor activity grows more and more daunting. So probably, I will catch the news and answer e-mails. I’m working on a creepy book, so I write that while the day is just beginning, so hopefully I will be over the creepiness by dark. Yes, I am such a goober that I write things that scare me. Ask my neighbors. I’ve had to call them to come over when I’ve scared myself so badly I was afraid to go into the bathroom. Why do I do this? See reference above to two brain cells.
The dogs and I travel out to the front yard to perform tricks. They can jump the horse jumps, leap through hula hoops bungee-corded to a row of crepe myrtle trees, travel through a hollow barrel—all on command. Of course they don’t come when I call them, but they will perform circus tricks.
I have seven lovely horses, and I hose them down and feed them around 9:30. In the summer heat, the older horses and the obese horses (They hardly eat anything. I swear. They have glandular conditions and poor metabolisms!) are stalled. Either to keep them out of the sun and heat as much as possible or to restrain them from grazing 24/7.
By now I am sweating bullets and heat sick, so I saunter inside. When I sit at my desk to work, at least four of the eight cats want to climb on my lap. Cats, I’ve discovered, have a fetish for stinky humans. They love the way their kitty hair clings to sweaty skin. They believe that if I’m allowed to type anything at all, Satan will possess my soul and I will be taken straight to the fiery lake—and who will then open their cans of gourmet cat food? But I type around them. Good thing my father forced me to learn the touch system.
The prospect of lunch looms large. What to eat? What to eat? Too hot for anything to sound appetizing, so I go and hose the horses again. Miss Scrapiron is 32, and the heat is hard on her. Now I’m really, really hot.
Back to the computer. BONE APPETIT is on the agenda. The cats are napping, so I have alone time to think. This is excellent. Writing is solitary work, but I look forward to time with the Zinnia gang. Those girls are so bad—and they get to do all the things I can’t with forty pounds of cat on my lap, six dogs watching the door like hawks in case I might crank up the truck for a ride, and dieting horses out in the barn waiting for the afternoon feeding (which is, literally, two cups of feed).
This is bliss. Three or four dogs snore beside my chair, the cats have given up and snooze on window sills or the tops of chairs. Even the horses are drowsy. I can work. So I do.
As the heat crests, time for more hosing of horses, afternoon feeding (some would say cruel and tantalizing snack) and horsey freedom. Stalls to clean, dogs to chase, cats to awaken from kitty comas and torment. Ah, it’s five o’clock somewhere and a libation calls my name. Time to slowly sip a bit of Jack and think about the lovely prospect of the “winter schedule.”
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Whatever you do, DO NOT write every day. If anything, only write once every six months or so, and only for three minutes at a time. To keep from writing, enjoy a cocktail, a nice long talk with your son or daughter, maybe a walk with the dog. But STAY AWAY FROM THAT COMPUTER! I mean it! And put down that pencil!
Number two: As you write a first draft, edit so thoroughly and anally that you inadvertently shut down the creative process entirely because it's grown tired of being squashed.
3: Do NOT join a critique group. Such groups inevitably melt down into whining sessions where we all complain about a WORLDWIDE ORGANIZED EFFORT to keep us all from being published and famous.
4: Waste an inordinate amount of time on facebook. Waste all your wonderful witticisms and metaphors and thoughts on your status reports so you have NOTHING LEFT FOR YOUR BOOK.
5: Save and re-read energizing emails you get from readers, like this gem I got yesterday: "FYI a man who had an amputation could possibly have a prosthetic leg and not need an electric scooter but this fat grandmother has COPD and does need one in the supertmarket. You certainly are judgemental. Your obnoxious ,whiney character Linc whines about how he did all the caregiving for 14 years. Boo Hoo! We women have been doing that for eons. This fat grandmother did that and went to college as a single mother,graduated cum laude while providing my children with home cooked meals etc. Then this fat grandmother worked @ night when they were teenagers so I could be with them in the evening. I raised 2 great kids and I don't have to whine about it. Your character is obnoxious ,judgemental and self-centered. Perhaps if he actually volunteered to say lead a Girl Scout troop or collect for charity or volunteer in a hospital he might be less whiney.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T"
Is that motivating, or what? Whoa … MAN! it just makes me wanna get out there and create a character!! … know what I mean?
Rent an entire season of a TV show you missed, and spend all day – oh, hell, all WEEK – watching it.
Obsess for hours, days, over something you cannot control, such as the weather or the neighbor's barking dog or your receding gums.
Follow this advice, and you'll be as productive as I've been these past several months. Oh, and if you get bored, just give me a call and we'll chat up a storm. I've got plenty of time.
(Be sure to visit me at the Decatur Reading Festival in Atlanta during Labor Day weekend. Also: check out my blog at AdHudler.com. Recent posts include my visit to Amarillo, Texas, where I toured the American Quarterhorse Hall of Fame; bought a cowboy hat; and then posed as a real "cowboy" for picture-taking Canadians in front of a line of old Cadillacs buried in the pasture.)
Sweet, Hot Summers
I grew up camping every summer in Myrtle Beach with my folks, an older brother, and two older sisters. Of course the extended family was there, too--aunts, uncles, cousins, and a slew of friends. In retrospect, I'd imagine that we looked rather like a commune with pop-up campers, tents, and trailers. Lawn chairs and drying beach towels were scattered everywhere, charcoal grills were constantly simmering, and every single night somebody built a roaring campfire.
It didn't matter that it was humid and sticky hot. It didn't matter that my shoulders always got sunburned. It didn't matter that mosquitoes the size of stop signs buzzed around our oiled bodies, looking for a place to land. I was at the ocean and my days were filled with mini golf and games and enough food to make my belly protrude inside my swimsuit. Just lying around, playing cards, listening to my dad tell stories, and reading books was plenty satiating. I've loved books since I first discovered 101 Dalmatians, and then as I got older, I broke into my sister's supply of trashy romances, even though I didn't yet know what 'his manhood' meant. (I got in trouble when I asked my mom, and my older sisters made something up that scared the crap out of me.)
I still love books—both reading them and writing them. And for me, there's no better time to rediscover the pleasure of reading fiction than summer. What's better than discovering a great new book while sprawled in a hammock or lying by the pool, smelling those delicious grilling smells that make my stomach growl? Just like I spritz on lighter fragrances in summertime, I reader 'lighter' books. Something fun, something that moves fast, something with action, something that's a little steamy, and something that makes me laugh.
As an author, I'm all about writing to entertain and I pretty much write the same types of books that I love to read. (Something fun, something that moves fast…) Something, in other words, that fits nicely into my summertime plan, right between outdoor parties and impromptu road trips. In fact, I couldn't imagine a summer without books.
My latest book is SOUTHERN PERIL, which BOOKLIST called, "another action-packed comic mystery." I hope it finds its way into many beach bags, picnic baskets, and carry-on luggage this summer!
Thanks for checking in, and a very HAPPY SUMMER READING to all! Visit my website at http://www.tlynnocean.com/ , and please send me an email if you do read PERIL. I'd love to hear from you.
Cheers,T. Lynn Ocean
Monday, July 20, 2009
There was some great work on display, but of course my favorite part was lurking around the edges to hear what the artists were saying to their visitors about their work. My favorite moment: a painter stood front of his beautiful but disturbing painting of three nude women, in various forms of bondage, discussing his work with three beautiful (clothed) women with purses. “I was a little less mature as a painter when I did this,” he said, “and I was mostly interested in putting these women in a historical context.” The women nodded knowingly, sipped their wine.
As a writer, I felt a pang of envy watching these sorts of interactions. If you’re a visual artist, you can pontificate at will, and you can receive hundreds of comments on your work in a single evening. People pop into your studio, and immediately react to what’s hanging on the wall. Several artists even had paintings in progress sitting on their easels--one had labeled her work “not finished.”
Of course, you know what I was thinking. How much I would love to slap a few pages up on an easel, and have ten people walk by, absorb them in a glance, and then I could tell what they thought, just from the look on their faces. And I wouldn’t mind a bit if someone wanted to take a few thousand words home for a hundred dollars. Be nice, wouldn’t it?
Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is www.lynnyork.com.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
So what do I know about writing and what can I share with writers who are eager to be published? First off, let me tell you five things I’ve been told and then I will share with you five things that I actually do. I’ve been told to:
This is very good advice. It reminds me of what my mother used to tell me, “If you want to keep riding, better stay on the horse.” Writing everyday keeps your muse in touch with your brain. If you don’t write everyday you will get rusty. You will get lazy. You will have trouble connecting to your muse. Actually, I was told to write everyday. All the other sentences above are ones I filled in on my own, because that is what that sentence Write everyday did to me. It made be very fearful. When the experts said write every day, I figured if I didn’t, I was doomed. I was a goner. I’d never produce anything. So I try to write everyday.
Write what you know.
This too, is good advice. If you write what you know there will be less research you need to do. You can finish your manuscript faster. If you write what you know you will never look stupid; you won’t have to make things up, you can pass on what you know. This particular instruction to write what I know scared the he-be-ge-beze out of me because I really don’t know all that much. I know I just like to write.
Write in a journal.
All good writers I have met at book conferences and book festivals insist that they write in journals. And they insist that they have done so since second grade when they learned cursive. Obviously, writing in a journal is a very valuable experience. The contents can be mined later for all sorts of information to put in your novels. You will not forget tidbits from your past that could be useful when constructing them. Obviously writing in a journal is very important.
Join a critique group.
And the sooner, the better. They will let you know if you are running astray. They will offer valuable information that will tell you if your novel is going in the right direction or not. Critique groups are essential for your literary growth. You will become a stronger, more prolific writer by having a critique group to analyze your work.
Do not edit while you are writing your first draft.
This is very important guidance. It is an important rule and it is a pity that I do not follow it. But then I’ve always had trouble with rules. Aren’t they meant to be broken?
Okay, now for five things that I do:
Consider the first rule: Write every day.
I write every other day. The day in between I read. I read what I’ve written. I read from books that are like mine. I read from books that have a similar voice to mine. I read from books that are different from mine. I just read, read, read, period and see where it takes me. By the next day I am more than eager to write. I am anxious to write. Why not? I’ve been reading, reading, reading.
The second rule: Write what you know.
This is a good rule. I don’t follow it. I write what I love. I figure what I don’t know I will promptly find out. When you write what you know, it’s too easy. The words fall onto the page. What joy is there in that? When you write what you don’t know you spend hours researching. The words spill onto the page like they’ve been drained from your blood.
The third rule: Write in a journal.
I have never kept a journal. I do not want a reminder of all my days. The good ones I remember all on my own. The bad ones I’m hoping to forget. Like the time I almost let my sister drown. Or the day she nearly choked on a jelly bean. These memories are fifty years old. I don’t need a journal to recall them. These and memories like them come visit me all on their own.
Number four: Join a critique group.
This is excellent advice. I believe in critique groups. And I even joined one once. That particular one was too far away to continue, so I quit going. I should have searched for another group and I didn’t. And then I had no trouble getting published, so I figured why bother. Again, do not do what I do, do what the experts say: Join a critique group. You won’t be sorry.
Lastly: Do not edit while you write your first draft:
I do not follow this rule, either. I edit constantly as I am writing, but do not do what I do, do what the experts say. Editing while you write means it will take you forever to finish your novel. It did not take me forever, but then I am weird, so again do not edit while you are writing. It’s a written rule that I have read many times and I believe that it is true. I just can’t follow it. I naturally edit while I’m writing and immediately after I write, especially if I am re-reading what I’ve written. Besides, I have always had trouble with rules. Aren’t they meant to be broken?
One major rule that I believe in and one that I feel should not be broken is to:
Read, read, read—everything you can get your hands on. Read all the genres that are like the genres you are writing in. Read genres that are unlike your own. Read all of the best sellers. This is what the public is buying. Read all of the literature of old that teaches the way the written word should fall upon the page.
My last rule is for you not to take too seriously anything I say. Who knows how far I will get in my writing career? Exactly. So dear writer: beware. And God speed and God bless you on your writing journey.
Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, and Divorcing Dwayne. Look for the release of All That’s True in the 2010.
Visit the website at http://www.jlmiles.com/. Write to the author at Jackie@jlmiles.com.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
I often get e-mail from writers I don't know asking for advice. If the e-mail seems sincere I try to answer it sincerely. I do sometimes get angry missives on how unfair and/or archaic the publishing industry is, and I admit that I don't always answer those. They seem to be more of a way to let off steam, and, well, their mission was complete when they hit send, so...
Anyway, once in a while I get asked my opinion on writing matters from someone I actually know. A friend even.
I sometimes hesitate to be fully honest in my answer, because if I know the person well it almost seems to take unfair advantage of that knowledge, no matter how I couch it, and if the person is feeling uncertain to begin with (and why else would they be asking for advice?) it can come off as a personal attack. The friend gets defensive, I feel anxious and guilty...it's not really a win/win, is it?
But not being honest isn't helpful, either.
I rarely blog about the mechanics of writing. And that's mostly because I don't know that readers really want to know about the nuts and bolts and agonies and frustrations. My husband hates to see how special effects are achieved in movies. He hates blooper reels and insider information because it ruins the overall experience for him, whereas I love that stuff and it only serves to enhance my enjoyment. Everyone is different. Heck, I've been known to read the endings of books after only a chapter. Doesn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all, but it drives my husband absolutely bonkers when he sees me do it.
But a close friend asked for my advice recently, and I gave him/her some. It was likely more than he/she expected to get. And since I took the time to write it all out for him/her, I thought I'd share here, in case anyone else is having this problem and thinks they might care what I think about it.
His/her main obstacle is that he/she refuses to finish a project. Lots of novels started and not completed. It frustrates me because the person is perfectly capable. So, if that's you, read on for the text of the e-mail I sent to him/her.
But, if you're a reader who hates the insider stuff, just skip this. And if your perception of me is of a benevolent, kindly soul who only ever has nice things to say and never struggles with my own writing, you skip this, too. And if you're my wonderful mother-in-law (who I respect with all my being), or my publicist, stop reading right now. Because I swear.
Dear Wonderfully Talented Friend:
I think my one real concern with your writing (if I may) is your inability to finish a whole project. And as you seem to want some real help on that one I will forget that you're my close friend and will tell you what I would tell any writer who wrote to me with the same concern.
Keep in mind that I actually feel very qualified to give this particular advice. I've been busting my ass every single day for over ten years to do this, and I learn every day, and some knowledge I do have under my belt, even if I don't always put it into practice myself. But it still feels rather arrogant to be giving my friend such strongly worded advice. It makes me nervous that you're going to read it personally and think I'm making a sly and passive-aggressive attack on YOU. But you're talking about the very thing every waking moment of my life revolves around and has for over a decade.
I have strong opinions about this stuff, and it's NOT personal. So. Fair warning and here we go:
There are two really broad reasons why you're not finishing what you start.
The first is pure technique, craft, experience. Which breaks down to:
1) You think a finished product results from inspiration. You believe in a muse. Here's the truth: your muse is a fickle, lazy wretch who wants you to fail. She does NOT own you. YOU own HER. YOU summon HER. You shackle her nasty little fairy wrists and drag her out by sitting down every day and completing your goal. Period. Even if she sits there sullenly and gives you nothing. You make her sit there beside you and watch while you struggle and complete your goal. Even if it's crap, you complete the goal. Because that's what rewriting is for. Every day. Over and over. Over and over. Over and over.
And it is tedious. It does not always fill you with joy at the wonderfulness of CREATION. You are not a god. You are a worker, a toiler, and it is hard work. And it can be deadly boring. And if you have ADD then you are doubly cursed.
But here's the cool thing: Eventually that rotten slutty little muse gets interested. Because you made her sit there every day and forced her to endure crappy writing and cliche prose and predictable plot twists and boring characters...and she gets irritated that SHE might be blamed for this piece of crap, and she starts to whisper in your ear, and THAT is when the joy comes.
YOU OWN HER, and then you make her dance for you and you laugh cruelly at her, exhausted, dancing so beautifully, ENSLAVED. Frankly, it's an awful, thoroughly dysfunctional relationship. But she's yours. And she's also your responsibility, and if you don't accept the responsibility for making her DO HER JOB then shame on you, and you've only yourself to blame because you couldn't hack training her properly, and you will never finish a thing because you believed she would do it for you.
2) You don't know what happens 1/3, 1/2, 3/4 of the way through, or at the end. Why would you do that? Why would you even start? You're clearly doomed to fail without any sort of plan. It's premature ejaculation. It's only satisfying to YOU. You get your rocks off, but then you're spent, you've nowhere to go, and your partner (reader) is left going, uhhhhhh, really? That's it?
As an alternate, less disgusting example tailored specifically for you: You're so good at interior decorating. Consider your dream room. Is it a living room? Kitchen? Bath? Whatever. Close your eyes and consider your room. Put it together piece by piece and enjoy the final product. Now pretend you moved ahead on the project after only considering the paint color. That's it. You had that one idea for a paint color, you jumped in the car and went and bought 7 gallons of beautiful purple paint, and you're all excited, and you get home and immediately set to work painting those walls bright purple.
You leave everything else unfinished because you haven't given any thought to the whole. Purple is a beautiful color, but a week later, when you've finally decided that maybe you need to move to the next stage, you notice that there's not a lot of granite that goes with it, even though you've gone and looked at 12 different granite places. Hmm, maybe you should have looked at the available granite as part of a larger plan before you bought and applied that purple paint?
And you're stuck on the granite, because without the granite you won't be able to pick the cabinets, or the appliances, or the sink, or the tile, or the molding, or the lighting, and suddenly the whole project is overwhelming, and holy shit maybe the purple wasn't such a good idea, and now you're exhausted and overwhelmed, and you need a break so you move on the the bathroom.
Because you think lime green paint is invigorating, and you pick up the paint and paint that, and it is fun and exciting, and, and, and...you haven't given a single thought to what else you're going to do there and there are no materials that you have access to that go with lime green BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T PLAN THE WHOLE THING. Or at least the major elements. You have to have the bones, you have to have the basics. Everything else is window dressing and can be added later, but plot? Yeah, plot? That's a whole other thing. You need a beginning, yes, but you also need one third, halfway, three quarters, and the end.
Beginnings are easy. Everyone has an idea. Anyone can paint the kitchen purple and the bathroom lime green.
Now, combine #2 with #1? THAT'S how you complete a project. Plus a lot of Diet Coke. So:
1) Come up with your plot points all the way through. Resist the excitement, OR, allow yourself a wee tiny bit, like a sample you paint on the wall to see how the light affects it at all hours of the day before you spring for 7 gallons of the stuff. I'm attaching what I've started of my next novel in which I've done exactly that. This is ALL I will write until I have the entire plot thought out. This is my purple paint. I LOVE it. I'm excited about it. I want to marry it. And I am refusing myself the pleasure until I have each point of the whole to write TOWARD.
2) Make a goal. Mine happens to be word count. 2,000 words a day, though I suggest less to start. I began with 750. I know you think you can do more than that. Don't. Get your plot first. Then only write 750 words at least 5 days a week. Exercise. That's the only thing that comes first.
You don't do laundry. You don't shower (this one is negotiable.) You don't make lunch plans. You don't chat with your friends on the phone. You don't read a new book. You don't garden. You don't mop the floor. You DON'T PEE.
I know that you are shaking your head saying, but if I don't do those things first then they will never get done, and laundry, well, laundry is less a chore than an insistent force of nature, and I HAVE to mop the floor because the dogs are so dirty, and I HAVE to pick the cucumbers because otherwise they'll rot and BLAH BLAH BLAH.
Guess you'd better get those 750 words written then, huh? Because when you get them done? You can go do all those things. With such a sparkling clean conscience. And while you're doing those things, you get to think about what you're going to write tomorrow. And about how you're going to make your muse dance, dance, dance... YOU SIT YOUR BUTT AT THAT COMPUTER AND YOU DON'T LEAVE IT UNTIL THE WORDS ARE ON THE PAGE.
Have you really done those things? Really? No...REALLY?
Then things are worse than I thought, because the second possibility is just pure psychology, and that's a lot harder to overcome.
It's all wrapped up in people, family, friends, telling you in all different ways throughout your life-- in funny quips, charming observations, angry accusations, passive-aggressive asides, pointed barbs-- that you (choose one) never finish anything, that you always have such wacky plans, that AREN'T YOU CUTE, that you have such fun hobbies. Whatever it is.
You have a role that you're fulfilling. And that in itself can be comforting. Whew! That's just me! Hahaha! Yeah, just like me to never finish anything. *giggle*
Don't take yourself very seriously, do you? Why would anyone else? And why are you asking them to? Are you asking them for approval to finish? No? Well. Then finish. Stop talking about it. You do it, or you don't. And you take responsibility for both of those outcomes. You don't explain it to anyone. It's yours. Not theirs. Do you have a plot? Are you making your goal your priority and meeting it every day? No? Whose fault it that? It's not a movie, it's not dramatic and romantic. It's not even very interesting. You do it, or you don't. And YOU get to accept that.
And there are my thoughts on finishing a novel.
On a fun end note I recently received my cover for my new book, BETWEEN FRIENDS, due out April 6, 2010. I think it's absolutely beautiful. What do you think?
Some Sewanee Young Writers from this year's Sewanee Young Writers Conference
(Top Row: L to R - Devon, Marie Claire, Ryan, Allie, me)
(Bottom Row: L to R - Mallory, Summer, Amber, JillAnn, Patrick, and Viv)
I had my students from the Sewanee Young Writers Conference write "Beginnings" of stories and novels when our workshop started a few weeks ago. I decided that I would write them, too, because it's practically impossible for me to focus on any of my own writing when leading a daily three-hour workshop for two weeks of ten teenagers all writing their own stories. I had a budding Texas Stephen King, an apocalyptic Christian novel of angels and demons, girls who could fly and cross into other dimensions, a few murder mysteries, a whaling novel of a fisherman's daughter, a David Bowie tribute, a family's escape from Hurricane Katrina, literary fiction of a choir girl raging against her domineering choir director, historical fiction with a count and an evil father, a story of teen twins one with a split personality, and even some southern grotesque from a young writer who loves Flannery O'Connor.
They were a wonderful group - and of course, I am always terrified that it won't go well for any number reasons, but these young writers came to Sewanee atop Monteagle Mountain in Tennessee ready to write. They showed up early every day. They did constant revisions. They leapt into all kinds of new stories from the "writing sparks" I gave them. They showed up with their hearts open and ready and full of love and excitement. And being the mother of teenagers, I was wary of two intense weeks with teenage writers, but they reminded me why I love to write and why I love to tell stories.
So here are some of my beginnings inspired by the book WHAT IF by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays. I also had them write a "bossy, instructive" story inspired by Jamaica Kincaid's story, GIRL. I don't know if these stories will turn into anything, but I feel like they will, and WHAT IF is a great book for beginning writers.
* * *
WITH A GENERALIZATION
Most Southerners will stop and wave at you and if you don’t wave back then there is something fundamentally wrong with you.
WITH A DESCRIPTION OF A PERSON
My grandmother ate a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup every day for breakfast at 11:00 and watched “The Young and the Restless,” “As the World Turns,” and “Guiding Light,” and then ate supper at 3:00. She also said three rosaries a day and went to daily Mass at 5:00 so long as the weather held up in Leavenworth, Kansas, and when it didn’t, the weather, that is, she had a home supply of the Holy Eucharist ready in a chalice near her statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“And then we were plunged into darkness,” the ten-year-old said when the mother turned off the light to go to bed.
"I tell you that dishwasher hasn't been emptied since Elwood Horton died more than two years ago. His son, who inherited the house, didn't even know there was a dishwasher. Then his momma, Elwood's ex, came to visit."
WITH SEVERAL CHARACTERS BUT NO DIALOGUE
The football players stumbled off the nighttime field one by one toward the visitors’ locker room, clutching helmets and water bottles. The fifty-yard-line reeked of sweat and Gatorade and honest-to-God smelled so bad it was like the Fighting Irish had never left the turf at all.
WITH A SETTING AND ONLY ONE CHARACTER
During a break between New Year’s Day bowl games on the television, the family crowded outside to greet more visitors, but she lingered behind to wash dishes – a worthy effort and no one could condemn her for not wanting to greet yet another relative coming up the long driveway. Champagne glasses stood half drunk or untouched on tables and shelves, and midway through the pile of dishes she watched as her brother-in-law slipped back into the living room to knock back every single glass.
WITH A REMINISCENT NARRATOR
I remember the way my grandfather pushed five bucks into the hand of the priest and pleaded with him to bless our courthouse wedding. Father Karl, the priest, said, “No way, Jerry. Can’t do it. Bishop from Kansas City says no way.”
WITH A CHILD NARRATOR
People think I get hot in my cap. I don’t. If I got hot in my cap I would take it off, but I don’t get hot. Okay? I like my cap. I don’t care if it’s July. I like my cap. I’m not hot. Okay? It’s just what people think.
BY ESTABLISHING POINT OF VIEW
I have stared death in the face not once, not twice, but three times. How do you like them apples? Anyhow, that’s when I quit driving the public school bus.
You know you're in for it when you have to fly with a baby to meet his great grandmother, and you wear him on your back through the airport where he takes fist-fulls of your hair like horse reins and yanks so hard tears pop into your eyes and you don't even know yet that when you plop that squirming child into his great grandmother's lap, she will say, "I'm not used to it. Take him."
Guy, the landlord, was letting his tenants have the house for cheap on account of the fact that he thought they were taking care of it. But clearly they weren’t. The backyard had gone to pot and a series of tiny earthquakes had knocked the doors all funny and now they couldn’t be shut. Sure the earthquakes weren’t the tenants’ fault but still…Then the oven busted and the repairman who came to check the problem refused to fix it. He called Guy up and told him that he’d never seen a filthier oven in his life. So something was definitely up, but the tenants paid rent on time and had lived in the house for ten years. They asked for so little – no painting, no new carpets, no nothing. So it was a holding pattern. Who or what would give first? Guy had grown up in that house. His father, a cop, used to slap his mother around in that house. But still, it was his childhood home. Good God almighty, he hated Bakersfield. He hated to have to even fool with driving down the 5 Freeway to check things out. He’d had enough.
A BOSSY STORY in the style of Jamaica Kincaid
This is the way you hold a golf club. Get your legs into the swing. Line up your fingers. Use your hips when you swing. You’ll get more power that way. Now focus. Concentrate. Eye on the ball. Pick you out a little tuft of grass and that will be the ball for now. Holy crap, I should have taught you to play when you were six, not sixteen. Then maybe we’d be somewhere. Sixteen is really too old, but you’ve got LPGA talent. I’m telling you now. Look at that swing. Now watch how you’re lining up your fingers. Lace them correctly around the club. You need a golf coach. I’m going to find you a golf coach to give you private lessons. We got a lot of catching up to do. Holy crap, it’s hot out here. Now swing. There you go. I said get your legs into the swing. You’ll knock it down the fairway if you follow my rules. Lace your fingers around the club correctly. Watch me. Pay attention. Are you listening? You should play every day even when school starts again. What’s your last class of the day? French Four? Who needs French Four when you have a tremendous golf swing like Nancy Lopez! Forget French Four. I want you going out to the football field to practice hitting golf balls every single day. I’ll talk to Sister Mary Whoever about you missing French on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays to play golf. That will give you a little time to catch up. Golf is something you’ll keep all your life. French Four, what the hell good is that going to do you? You going to live in France? This is America, by God, where we speak English and play golf. What’s that point of climbing a hill without a golf club in your hand? Don’t ever ask me to camp or shave out of a coffee can. That’s what I told your mother. I told her that. She hasn’t let me down yet. Lace your fingers. Legs into the swing! Get some power behind it. You can hit the ball in a minute. This is about practicing your swing. This is about doing something with your life. Holy crap, what was I thinking? I should have taught you to play when you were six but I had ball games to win. Never mind. We’ll catch up. No time to waste. Do it again.
Kerry Madden is the author of the Maggie Valley Trilogy published by Viking Children's Books set in the heart of Appalachia: GENTLE'S HOLLER, LOUISIANA'S SONG, and JESSIE'S MOUNTAIN. Her newest book is UP CLOSE: HARPER LEE also published by Viking. She will be a professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama Birmingham this fall.
Her latest essay: "OUR WEDDING VOW - TO MY MOTHER-IN-LAW" can be found at the following link: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-madden14-2009jun14,0,1046540,print.story