Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Hmmmm. When I first read the prompt, ''How I took my writing to the next level," naturally I assumed it meant a higher level. You know, a step up. Well, now that I've given it some thought, and now that I've looked back over the past year of my writing life with a great deal of scrutiny, I'm not so sure that's it at all. Levels can be up, or down, or maybe even across a hanging bridge suspended over swirling waters.
When I read Patricia Sprinkle's lovely and very thoughtful blog (Dec. 29th), I realized that there are multitudes of things in a life that inspire, prompt, nudge, or in my case, shove a person to try new things; new levels. Patricia's story of her mother's physical/mental state, and hence her own change in genres, made me think of the saying that goes something like this: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
In 2001 I was happily gathering rosebuds. A short story of mine won a contest in a local arts magazine, and then my first novel practically sold itself to a local publisher, and then they sold the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster, who subsequently found an agent for me (they said "We don't like to work with unagented authors). Then, my agent sold two more books of mine to Simon & Schuster, followed by another one to Penguin in 2008.
I was happy on this level. I was writing. And selling. Well, then the recession came along, and I got a big, cold dose of reality. Still furiously scribbling along, I wrote two entire books in three years. Books which my agent loved, yet which met with a number of rejection letters. My agent said to me, "Julie, several years back these would have been a slam-dunk." She said the book industry was feeling some of the pain of this economy, too.
But, the thing was, the bills didn't stop arriving in my mailbox. Frantic thoughts circled in my head like turkey vultures. I'll go back to school, I decided one moment. I'll get a teaching certificate through the Georgia TAPP program and I'll teach English in elementary school. No, I changed my mind in the next moment; I'll get my Master's in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, and then I'll teach on the college level. But, then I talked to the head of that department, and she informed me that most area hires were generally Ph.Ds in Literature and Creative Writing who can teach both, mainly comp and lit. Anyway, job prospects were not the best, so I wrote that off. I called numerous places I might enjoy working, to no avail. I did part-time work which had nothing to do with writing. I applied for an odd sales job. I was not called for an interview. I was a little depressed.
Meanwhile, I kept praying and I kept writing, two things to hold my sanity intact. My agent worked with me on half a dozen proposals. Proposals where I'd write a very detailed (twelve pages or so) synopsis and a couple of chapters (anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words). I did this for months on end, and she sent them out faithfully. I waited. But all we got were rejections. I tried to keep hold of my hope and my faith that something would take in this writing career. That I'd move on to "the next level."
One day as I took a break from spinning stories to check my emails, I noticed one from the Manager of Literary Programs at the Atlanta History Center/Margaret Mitchell House. Melanie wanted to know if she could hire me to teach a creative writing workshop. For cold, hard cash. A hopeful bubble formed inside me. Without hardly thinking, I wrote back, "Yes, I'd love to!" At least this job was in the field of writing.
I had done a few small, scattered workshops over the years; things mainly for high schoolers and young collegiates. But, for these I'd been given the curriculum, and so it had been more like I was just a facilitator of an hour-long workshop.
I went through the process of selecting a topic, researching it just a bit, outlining a course, and presenting it to Melanie. I decided on a class about memoir writing. I called it 'Canning Memories.' She approved it and sent out word to potential attendees.
When she wrote me that my class had received enough reservations to make, I got started on the real work. What we had decided on was that I would teach a three-hour class on the first Saturday in October. Well, to be honest, at first I freaked out. What could I offer these souls that would fill three hours and be worth their time and money? I'd never taught a three-hour class, much less one on memoir writing.
For two weeks solid I feverishly gathered material. I worked around the clock; ate it, slept it, and lived it, writing what amounted to a fat textbook. I read swarms of my books on the technique of writing, I dreamed up exercises my students could do, I practiced teaching my material. I made hand-outs with subtitles such as: Getting Started and Staying Started, Writing Deeper by Using Your Fears, From A Different Point-of-View (exploring the difference between First and Third Person), Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Prose, Open Mike (The Importance of Reading Your Work Aloud, along with Breathing Techniques To Relax), Tips for Turning Personal Experiences into Salable Fiction, and, finally, What a Character! The key to Unlocking Motive and Turning Real People into Interesting Characters.
In the end, I must have had gathered and written enough material to teach an entire college semester. I know after the class, there were pages and pages of material we hadn't gotten a chance to cover. One important thing I did manage to drill home to the participants was this quote by Jim Rohn (I don't know who that is) that I keep taped to my monitor; "Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment." I told them to sit their fanny in their writing chair every single day.
This new level of writing was beautiful proof to me that there are places full of potential for rich personal reward. I, who had entered this world with a fairly severe case of laliaphobia (fear of public speaking), thoroughly enjoyed teaching! I was genuinely happy up there talking for three hours straight, imparting some of the things I'd learned over my journey to class participants ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties. I got to hear stories from many of them. Stories which touched my soul. I know you've heard people who have gone off as missionaries into remote regions, and who came home saying things like "I got more out of it than I gave." But it's true! Words were just pouring out of these people. The different levels these writers were on was astounding. Several have communicated with me post-class and enriched my life even more.
Eventually, around the end of October, my agent called me and said that one of my proposals had found a publisher! So now I am taking my writing to yet another level. Like Patricia Sprinkle, it is a different genre than I am used to. I don't know if it is higher, lower, or across that shaky rope bridge hanging over swirling waters, but I am 50,000 words into it and enjoying the process immensely. The book is set to come out in October of 2010, and I imagine I'll have the cover art and more on it to share in one of my upcoming blogs.
Julie L. Cannon is the author of TRUELOVE & HOMEGROWN TOMATOES, 'MATER BISCUIT, and THOSE PEARLY GATES (Simon & Schuster), and THE ROMANCE READERS' BOOK CLUB (Penguin). Visit Julie at http://www.juliecannon.info/
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The Impetus to Climb
By Patricia Sprinkle
Every other day I drive five miles to visit my mother. I park outside her large brick residence and walk up the drive to the front door. That’s as far as I can pretend this is an ordinary home and my mother an ordinary mother.
Mother has lived for eighteen months in the memory care wing of an assisted care facility. Most days she sits in the far corner of the dining room in a wheelchair, her once sturdy frame reduced to less than ninety pounds.
Mother was bright, a reading specialist who devised creative ways to help children learn to read. Now her conversation is reduced to gibberish. Mother was once vain about her appearance. Now food dots her clothing in spite of the helpers’ best attempts to keep her clean. She has developed a terror of water, so her hair—which used to be washed and styled every week by a beautician—hangs straight and greasy. The last time we tried to wash it, she spat on me.
I’m not telling this to garner pity or disgust you. Rather, I’m telling you why I have taken my writing to a new and different level.
For twenty years I wrote mystery novels. I enjoyed it. I met delightful readers, writers, editors, and bookstore owners along the way. But all those years I had other stories I wanted to tell—stories that did not involve murder and mayhem, but rather delved into the struggles of ordinary women to survive crises in their lives with a modicum of grace and success. “Someday,” I said from time to time. “Someday I’m going to write my novels.”
But someday never came. In this life we are restricted to yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. As Dolly in The Family Circus once said, “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it ‘the present.’”
Soon after we had to put Mother in the memory care unit because she needed more care than we were able to provide, I turned sixty-five. Sixty-five is supposed to be the year we retire, right?
I looked at Mother. She taught school for forty years, then retired at sixty-two to begin a new career as a successful artist—until breast cancer surgery cut a nerve and left her painting arm with a permanent twitch. Then she and dad started teaching a “how to retire successfully” course all over the country. When she had another bout with cancer, she twice called the chemotherapy center to tell them she wouldn’t be in that week, because she was teaching a seminar out of town. As long as her mind held out, Mother was always open to a challenge.
How many years, I wondered, do I have before my own mind begins to slide down a slippery slope? Possibly it won’t—my father is ninety-four, does the daily crossword, reads Atlantic and Mother Jones, occasionally still preaches, and goes to the gym three days a week. But life gives us no guarantees. Minds don’t always last as long as bodies do.
So like a trapeze artist who lets go of one bar in order to snatch another, I bunched up my nerve, left mystery novels, and offered a proposal to my agent for two books of women’s mainstream fiction. The editor liked the proposal, and gave me a contract for the two. I hope I’ll get to write two more, and two more after that.
Writing a different kind of book certainly involved leaving my comfort zone. In a mystery if the plot sags, you can always add a new clue, a red herring, or—my husband’s usual advice—a car chase. I have to confess that the first novel does have one small mystery and even has one mild "heroine in jeopardy" scene. After all, that’s what I know how to do. But as I worked harder than I'd ever worked before trying to create a new kind of book, I remembered advice from Stephen Spender on writing: “We can’t write it until we know it, and we can’t know it until we write it, so what are we to do? We write it wrong until we get something we recognize.”
By the time I'd gotten my first “unmystery” novel into a shape I recognized, I had discovered how flabby I’d gotten in mind and body, how accustomed I’d gotten to my little rut, and that I was actually glad to be stretching muscles I hadn't known I had.
HOLD UP THE SKY will come out in March from New American Library. It’s the story of four women who come together in a sweltering kitchen one summer, each facing her own crisis. They don’t even like one another at the beginning, but they discover that women’s strength comes not from independence but from interdependence.
I hope you’ll read it. I even hope you’ll like it. But whether you do or not, I’m feeling real good right now. I tried something new and finished it!
I would not wish my mother’s condition on any other soul, but if you are comfortable in a rut, visit a memory care facility. It certainly gives me the impetus every day to live out my dreams while I still can.
Monday, December 28, 2009
The first step to taking anything in life to the next level is understanding that there even is another level. There are so many buildings in the Big City of Writersburg, and we're always keeping our eye on those, aren't we?
We think we're on our roof, training our telescope on the swanky Sales Temple, the Advance Tower, the shiny mirrored windows of the Review Complex (which includes the heavily guarded New York Times Temple, the Publisher's Weekly Starlight Lounge, the Library Journal Hall, the hodgepodge Amazon Vineyard, and the recently boarded-up Kirkus Morgue), and the massive Industry Insider Internet Time-Suck, not to mention the welcoming Friends and Mentors Cottages and the dank, odiferous Paranoia Slum where our imaginary enemies skulk around plotting our downfall.
The noise from our crowded city practically deafens us, and at first it's exciting, stimulating, and we run hard to the next level in order to see the next levels on all those other buildings. We gaze hard on them, trying to figure out how to reach their next level, or even how to skip a few levels, Super-Writer style, leaping all those tall buildings in a single bound, and we begin to ignore our own building, the one we live in, the one we've stopped seeing, the one we take for granted.
It's the Craft Building, and it is the tallest, strongest skyscraper in our city, but there is no elevator, express, penthouse, delivery, or otherwise. Our building is filled with steep stairs, and the stairway doors are guarded, videogame-style, with all manner of nasty animals, like fanged Day Jobs, and clawed Child Care, and the dreaded poisonous Spousal Time Jealousy. If we make our way through the first few levels, fight our way to the Chunk of Time Rewards, then we start to learn our craft.
But something happens toward the middle of the building. Maybe we get tired of climbing those stairs, because they get steeper and longer, or we get tired of fighting our way through the Door Guard Nasties because it seems like they get stronger and more devious every time. Or we've achieved some level of success that makes us believe that the levels overhead hold nothing new.
But chances are, we've just become so dazzled by all the other parts of the city that we can now see, that all of our focus turns outward, and we stop achieving new levels in our own Craft Building, stop even realizing that we've stalled, rooted, stagnated.
We've become deaf to the little voice that strains to get through all the noise. The voice that tries to remind you that at one time you fought for time to write your novel, and that now you fight for time to write a pithy comment on a Facebook thread. The voice that reminisces about the time you used to spend reading literature that moved you to tears, and that now you read industry blogs that paralyze you with pessimism over the Future of Publishing. The voice that quietly asks if the sentence is really good enough, if the plot really holds together, if maybe you're…cheating.
If maybe you're…skating by.
And then it's time to quiet the city. It's time to stop obsessing over all the other buildings. It's time to take the weapons of knowledge you've already won, gird yourself, and attack the stairway. Fight through the Guard Nasties, whatever they are this time (the Spectre of Sales Past, the Willies of Expectations, the FoP [Future of Publishing] Ogre), and emerge into the white space of the next level.
The next level is silence. The next level is control. The next level is blank white walls and high ceilings and it echoes as you walk through it. The next level is solitary. You are the only one there. And your sales do not matter, and your advance does not matter, and your reviews do not matter, and what your friends and enemies are doing does not matter.
You will never learn anything if you never enter that silent blank white space, that empty echoing chamber.
The next level is up to you. It's there, waiting for you. You know what you need to learn there, and if you don't, then you're not listening hard enough, and you're concentrating not just on the wrong level, but on the wrong building entirely.
Kristy Kiernan's third novel, BETWEEN FRIENDS, will be published April 2010, and has recently been chosen as a Featured Alternate for the Literary Guild, Doubleday, and Rhapsody Book Clubs.
Sunday, December 27, 2009
It’s a lousy title, isn’t it? It sounds as if –
1. I won a special award for Next Level Writing.
2. I am a superior writer. No one’s interesting hearing about “Next Levels” from anyone he isn’t looking up at.
3. Writing is set up like a skyscraper, with successively higher levels to which writers aspire by hard-earned promotion, or maybe just getting on a different elevator. Why should I expect my levels to correspond to yours? Maybe I’m trying to go higher, but you’re going deeper. Or broader. Or thicker.
Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette. You can visit him at manmartin.net
Thursday, December 24, 2009
I know this is a blog about writing, but it's Christmas Eve and to be honest with you writing is the last thing on my mind. You know what is on my mind, Maggie. Maggie is my fifteen year old shih-tzu. Who on a bad day is called...well, you can imagine what she's called on a bad day. Today is her birthday. She's clueless, but it isn't lost on me. All she knows is that for some reason she's gotten a lot more treats today and a lot more attention and as far as she's concerned it should have been like this all year.
Maggie is Miss Independent. (The one laying down) Her sister Sophie is Miss Co-dependent. (The one in my arms) Together they make the perfect dog. Individually, I'm the one who needs the drugs at the end of the day. Maggie has been independent from the day I brought her home. She never wanted to be held. She'd let you know if she wanted to be petted, if her water bowl was empty, if she wants to be taken outside. Basically, she lets you know when you're needed. It's a slightly sick relationship.
But the last few years she's really started showing her age. It was her hearing that went first. Which honestly, because she's so dang ornery, took me about a year to figure out. I just thought she was her usual self and was ignoring me. It wasn't until I realized that when I came home and the alarm began to sound and she never stirred that maybe sister had gone deaf. Then the arthritis kicked in. On rainy days poor things reminds me of my Aunt Alice. She doesn't climb stairs anymore, which if you ask me still goes pretty well with her diva persona. I think she always thought she should be carried up the stairs anyway.
But she has been a gift to me. An angel in ivory fur. More tears have been cried into her backside than bottles could hold. She has walked with me through the heartbreak of divorce, the years of no children, and the death of her other sister Chloe. And she has been a faithful companion. So, tonight on her birthday I'm celebrating the fact that heaven gives a lot of good gifts.
There is much to sit and ponder in a season like this. It's even to get wrapped up in our losses. We've all had them. But I choose this season to get wrapped up in my blessings...the gifts of my family, the amazing love of my friends, the forgiveness of my Savior, and the companionship of a four legged creature who on most given days could drive me to drink, but today I am choosing to celebrate. May your day be filled with joy. Your new year be filled with peace. And your life be filled with companions as delightful and challenging as this one. Maggie, Merry Christmas...here's to fifteen more.
Denise, Maggie and Sophie make their home in Franklin, Tennessee where Maggie refuses to go on walks. So- Denise and Sophie take them by themselves.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Write or Wrap? Write or Shop? Read? Forget it! Who has time!
Writing during the holidays is a particular challenge, for me anyway. Since I work from home, I’m always bothered when I’m writing by all the things that need to be done later. I want to do them now and get them out of the way. They nag at my brain, taking energy from the task of creating a character, crafting dialogue, or simply thinking…usually about what comes next. And since I write best in the morning, I have to endure the agony of letting the dishes, the laundry, the beds and all my little messes—and when I write there are lots of messes—all pile up until later.
So plot down (I meant to say PLOP DOWN! How’s that for a Freudian slip!) the monumental extras of shopping, wrapping, cleaning, cooking, decorating, etc. etc. and…how the heck can I possibly concentrate?
But I have to! Especially now, as I try to finish my third novel. My original hope was to have it finished by Halloween. Well, due to lots of travelling (I’m just the girl who can’t say no!), I didn’t make it. Not that I didn’t enjoy all of the book clubs and signings. I love it! Meeting people when you’re usually alone with your computer all day long—and hearing them discuss your characters as if they were real people—well, that’s every writer’s dream. But I found that being on the road is not conducive to good brain time for writing.
November was pretty productive, until my daughter went into labor with my third granddaughter! I took care of the other two, Alice 4, and Lily 2, while Mommy was in the hospital. But then they sent her home. This went on for 3 weeks, until little Julia Rose finally arrived. Needless to say, I didn’t make my new Thanksgiving deadline.
Which leaves my new self-imposed Christmas deadline, now 2 days away! Will I make it?
What do you think? Hell no. I’ve succumbed to the most wonderful time of the year after fighting it for weeks and... I love it. We’ve even got snow! Now I am still writing every day, but I’m quitting earlier and earlier because I still have presents to get, and wrap, and food to buy, and cook, and of course there’s some cleaning to be done. But my ending is plotted, I’m nearly there, and…my new deadline is New Year’s Day. Wish me Luck!
AS FOR THOSE FREE BOOKS…I WASN’T KIDDING! Just go to my website www.maryannmcfadden.com and see how you can win a signed & personalized copy of THE RICHEST SEASON or SO HAPPY TOGETHER!
Merry Christmas to you! May all your writing dreams come true in the New Year!
Maryann McFadden is the author of THE RICHEST SEASON, set on Pawleys Island, and SO HAPPY TOGETHER, by Hyperion Books. She is actually from New Jersey, but her heart is in the Lowcountry. Read about her journey from self-published to the real deal at www.maryannmcfadden.com
* This title is not ironic. I really believe our new digital age is full of opportunity.
A few years ago, it was considered "quaint" for an author to have a website. Now, it's a must. The "planks" of our author platforms aren't just our published works, newspaper columns, radio gigs--they're Facebook, Twitter, blogs...social networking.
Take Twitter, for example. Yeah, I hear you groaning. Some of you, anyway. Twitter is a little hard to get used to at first. "Why should I Tweet that I just ordered a pizza?" a friend of mine asked. "Who cares?" Well, nobody. But if your Tweet is "The pizza delivery guy is a dead ringer for Brad Pitt. The green mohawk is a poor disguise." That's a little more interesting.
If you're not convinced, read this guest blog post, "Why Writers Should Care About Twitter," on Christina Baker Kline's excellent blog, A Writing Life.
And for some intriguing examples of Tweets from writers, visit Jane Friedman's blog, There Are No Rules
She posts the best Tweets for writers every week. Example: What writers should know about Writing Contests @NathanBransford.
And don't think Twitter is going the way of legwarmers and Members Only jackets-- it's here to stay. As David Carr pointed out yesterday in the NYT: "...on Twitter, the elections in Iran outranked Michael Jackson, who came in second...In an age that is ridiculed as chronically unserious, a life-and-death struggle for freedom on the other side of the world is the story that rang the bell on Twitter."
One more thing: Since our topic this month is the future of publishing, I thought it ideal to spread the word about an upcoming event that addresses this very thing:
The Southern Social Networking Summit Wed., Jan. 6, 2010 (starting at 10am) & Thu., Jan. 7 (ending by 3pm)
at the Hyatt Regency Greenville, 220 North Main Street, Greenville, South Carolina. It's sponsored by a range of very forward-thinking folks: Fiction Addiction, The Open Book, The SC Book Festival, The NC Writers Network, and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance [SIBA], just to name a few.
What you'll learn:
- How to make time for all the social networks - Facebook, Twitter, Ning, LinkedIn, Glue, Google, Delicious, Wet Paint, Net Galley, Author Buzz, Library Thing, Squidoo, FourSquare, CloudProfile and so many more…
- What’s on-line that will feed my work? What’s free and how do I get it? Marketing Partnerships and how to make them work?
- What does the research tell us? What trends are coming down the pipe? And how do we manage it all?
- Increasing the effectiveness of our combined efforts. How do we move the conversation from insiders to outsiders?
Hope to see you there!
Mindy Friddle is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin's Press). Visit www.mindyfriddle.com and her blog, Novel Thoughts: On Reading, Writing & the Earth to read excerpts from her novels, interviews with authors, book reviews, and random musings. Follow her on Twitter @mindyfriddle.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Thursday, December 17, 2009
by Cathy Pickens
Karin’s suggested blog topic “Taking Your Writing to the Next Level” made me smile. I’ve done just that … except some would argue that the next level was a step down or backwards or sideways.
The paperback edition of the 5th Southern Fried mystery, Can’t Never Tell, appeared this month (yaayy!). It’s the last in my latest 3-book contract with St. Martin’s. I chose, many months ago, not to seek another contract in that series. “Are you crazy?” said one writer friend.“Who walks away?”
I don’t know who else walks away, but it was the right time for me to try something new. Even though it was my decision, I was sad for many months, knowing that I might never again spend lots of time with Avery and her great aunts and the quirky folks in imaginary Dacus. It was almost like a friend was on life-support. Not dead and gone, just not … there.
But a comment I heard years ago kept coming back to me: mystery novelist Sue Grafton said, “Enjoy writing your first book. It will never be like that again.” At the time, as an unpublished writer, I thought, “Yeah, right, easy for you to say, you’re published.”
Now I know exactly what she meant. Having a contract is great. Knowing that someone will publish the results of your labors is very comforting. But with a contract comes a deadline. Someone is expecting you to deliver. That brings pressure – a sense that you must produce on someone else’s schedule.
I am now without contract. And I can now remember with crystal clarity why I wanted to be a writer. I work on my latest (nonfiction) project for long hours, wanting to be as satisfied with it as possible. I spend time on research, tracking down one more anecdote or fact, playing with the organization.
The next level may be a step back – but an artist steps back from painting to gain perspective, to see the work as a whole. I’m enjoying the view from that place right now.
Wherever you are in your work – whatever that work may be – take time to enjoy it. Remember why you set out on that path. Take a step back, if only for a moment, and remember …
Newspapers nationwide have cut staff, the physical size of their publications, and the column inches dedicated to arts & leisure. Several national magazines – including GOLF FOR WOMEN, a magazine that I wrote for – has shut their doors for good. The top dogs at all print pubs are doing everything they can to generate an online audience, as well as sell their subscriptions in digital format, which can be downloaded to your computer, Kindle, or Sony Reader. The book publishing houses, too, have responded to current economic conditions with layoffs, reduced print runs, and dropped series.
From an author's perspective, it's all a bit scary. I personally love books – the way they feel and smell and the fact that you can collect and trade them. And of course, I hope that readers will continue to buy MY books. So to observe the industry turbulence is really daunting, if I let myself think about it too much. On the other hand, what the hell. MOST industries are going through tough times. The suits at the top are paid the big bucks to make their companies money, so obviously they're going to take drastic measures as needed. They don't make decisions based on the warm & fuzzies.
As a writer, the only self-preserving and sensible thing to do is EMBRACE the future of publishing. Digital format really rocks, when you think of all the new exciting applications. Audio format, too, is growing in popularity for downloading to iPods and other devices. Newspapers, magazines and books are still being read aplenty – but technology has allowed advanced delivery systems for all three. For me, personally, I've got to tackle the learning curve so that I better understand the marketing side of things.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
For a year, I’ve anguished and wallowed in the misery that accompanies the writer with three published titles and nothing sizzlin’ on the burner. The writer who scored the fabulously hip New York agent. The writer who got nothing published any longer than a newspaper column this past year.
What happened to my career? It’s not as if I Lohan’d out and snorted coke and kissed women. Or even opened a den like Tiger’s, which is crawling with concubines.
I’ve been good girl, one who sat at the computer and didn’t hold a grudge. Well, not a very big one.
Sure, my novel, “Chimes From a Cracked Southern Belle” deserves better that what it got. Nada.
Oh, it was fabulous some editors said during our past economically- challenged year. But you know, it just was not fabulous enough. I needed mucho fabulousness to publish my quirky Southern novel. Actually, from the hints trickling down from New Yawk, I think it might be best just to leave the whole Southern thing out. I’m quite afraid some Southern writings (at least mine, anyway) have gone out of favor.
Desperation draped me in bolts of self doubt. I suck. I suck. I suck.
I suck and I’m Southern. OK, but wait. I can change part of that. It is high time I take my craft and craftiness to a new level.
I am no longer Southern. “You got that?” Ms. Hot Shot Agent who can’t sell my Southern novel. “You hear me?” I’m a new breed of ethnicity.
I’m calling it Afro/Asian/Vampire American. I’m changing the name of my new novel to “Chimes from a Cracked Jamaican Vampire.”
I hear the vampire lines are selling well, and I plan to create one made in part from T-Rex DNA, just to give it another selling point. Some people love anything Jurassic, ya know?
Meanwhile, this book has collected more rejections – albeit FABULOUS rejections, than Tiger at his latest cocktail joint. Then again. Some women. Just to do the wiggly-jiggly with somebody famous!
But then again. Some publishers. Surely with this next project, a new novel that DOES not mention Southern in the title, will titillate. Mercy, doesn’t that word sound nasty and crawling with STDs?
I’ve also risen to new heights to make sure this new novel gets the love. The love is what it’s all about. And as an Afro/Asian/Vampire American I’m all for the love and my fair share.
It just takes sooooo much work. Besides writing, rewriting, eating at the keyboard, writing, eating more, editing, cursing, eating again on the A row, I’ve got two other tricks to take it to the top. That next level.
You hear me? The top.
Here’s how you can have everyone thinking you’re the scorching Katherine Heigl instead of the less attractive Amy Adams, God love the little pixie.
Let’s call it the Hoo-Doo Voo-Doo of the writing industry. Here’s what you do. You become so superstitious you believe every star that blinks, every car without a headlight, and every chance to knock on wood is for you.
About those cars. Where I live, a goodly number of people have at least one headlight busted out.
Boom! Your chance for a big wish. Just yell, “Popeye!” and kiss the palm of your hand, place it to the roof of the car and make a wish.
Mine usually go something like this. “I wish for world peace and all the starving children to eat, and I wish those editors in New York will see my fabulousness levels have risen and buy my damned book with a nice advance, audio and film ops.”
I’ve even bought the perfect gown for the Oscars, dahlin’.
From the Goodwill
(P.S.) I was sober when I wrote this and plan to remain Southern. Vampires be damned.
Check out Susan’s work at http://www.susanreinhardt.com/
The call finally came from my agent. “You won’t believe this, but you got a starred Kirkus.” Everyone was so excited. There was practically dancing in the streets. A special marketing meeting was called simply because I got a starred Kirkus. Apparently it was a big, frigging deal. To this day, I’ve thought I’d like my tombstone to read: Her lies Karin, who got a starred Kirkus.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that Kirkus is closing down. A lot of sad things have happened in publishing this year, but the end of Kirkus has really bothered me. Even though they haven’t always loved me, I will miss them as will many librarians and booksellers who relied on their reviews to make buying decisions.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Oddly, the big moment wasn't when I was accepted by a traditional publisher or when I found an agent to represent me--but when I decided that was the course I wanted to take.
At first I wrote for myself. I didn’t share what I’d written with friends or family—I was really just tinkering with my words, writing to see how far I could take a story. Can I write a poem? A short story? Can I string several chapters together in a coherent way?
When I decided to pursue publication, I became a serious writer. I focused on finishing a book.
Here are some tips to help with your journey to publication:
Read other books in your genre before you write. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t too far out of line with my efforts.
I’d also recommend turning to the community of blogging writers online. They’ll offer encouragement, support, industry information, and technical advice. There are many blogging writers that I link to in my blog’s sidebar at Mystery Writing is Murder that will give you a great starting point.
Get other people you trust to read your book. First readers who give truthful feedback in an encouraging way are incredibly helpful. If you don’t have any family members or friends that fit the bill, you can try online critique groups—you’ll read their work within a certain time frame and they’ll read yours. It may take some tweaking to find the right group. If you Google “online critique groups” you’ll get plenty of hits. I’d stick with a group that writes your genre.
Okay, so your manuscript is in pretty good shape. This means you’ve revised it many times. Others have read it and offered suggestions. You’ve read many books in your genre. Your manuscript doesn’t have grammatical or spelling errors.
Now it’s time to branch out. What kind of publisher fits your needs? A small press? Or something larger? If you’re interested in submitting to a smaller publisher (and there are many out there), then you can frequently submit without an agent.
You can learn publisher guidelines online at publishers’ individual websites. You can also go to your library and check their reference section for a recent edition of Literary Marketplace (which you can also get an online subscription to) or Writers Market.
Found a publisher that interests you? Go to your library or bookstore and read some of their recent releases. How does your book stack up? Do you need some more revising?
Write a clear synopsis of your book. It shouldn’t have teasers, but should concisely tell your story in a compelling way.
Submit your query or your cover letter and first fifty pages. Make sure you’ve addressed your letter to the right editor or agent and have spelled their name correctly. Your manuscript should be formatted to a standard template. Be careful not to use unusual fonts or colored paper or anything unprofessional.
Expect rejections. Hope for the best, but plan for setbacks. If you’re fortunate enough to receive some feedback with your rejections, consider revising your manuscript via their suggestions.
The important thing is not to let your research and work immobilize you—let your research strengthen your resolve to make your book the best it can be…and then submit it.
Good luck with the process!
Elizabeth Spann Craig
Pretty is as Pretty Dies: Midnight Ink, August 2009
Delicious and Suspicious: Berkley Prime Crime, May 2010 (Penguin Books)
Friday, December 11, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The Panster Who Became a Beater by Karin Gillespie
Trouble is, I’d already “rolled up my sleeves,” I’d practically dug the world’s biggest ditch for the novel. What more did it want from me? A kidney?
My euphoria was short-lived because once I sent it to my agent, she said, “I hate to tell you this but instead of improving the novel you’ve just created more problems for yourself.”
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers By Christopher Vogler
Also fellow Southern writer Alexandra Sokoloff has an informative blog about screenwriting tips for novelists.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
1.What is the backstory behind If By Whiskey?
If By Whiskey’s backstory has several components. The primary driving force behind the book being written was personal. Many of the scenes and issues addressed in section two, genuinely occurred in some form or another when I served as Student Body President at Ole Miss. Some of the intense rivalries existed, along with some of the racial rhetoric. For me, I needed healing, but also wanted to explore and push myself to uncover what being Southern is all about, both for black and white people. Another backstory that some folks may not recall is that the Presidential debate actually did take place at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as its alumni and students affectionately call their alma mater. Encapsulating a true story around a fictional one required more research and accurate outlining; however, I think it draws the reader in even more, to the point where one reading the book stops and asks herself, “Is this for real or just made up?” Of course, following this pattern enabled me to make some broader social points about tolerance, stereotyping, heritage, progress and race relations. Finally, there is a story behind the title but I see that I will answer that separately!
The novel is described as "Old South Meets New South." Can you elaborate?
I am not trying to sound like John Edwards in his “Two America’s” speech here, but in some ways there are two “Souths”. There are those who live in the old one and those who live in the new one. And watching the two collide in If By Whiskey is like being an eyewitness to a train wreck - - you know it is going to be bad! I wanted to ask and possibly answer, but at least add to the discussion, this question, “Who are Southerners (regardless of race) perceived as, and are those perceptions reality?” Ultimately, I found myself creating characters that fit the mold one would expect. Sometimes, I would break them down and recreate them to unimagined expectations. Other times I would play them out just like the girl next door with a few twists here and there, of course! Ultimately, to answer the question, Oxford, Mississippi is a microcosm of the South. Known for guarding the entry to its gates of an African-American seeking an education, now it serves as one of the South’s most progressive towns. From a race relations perspective, Ole Miss is known today for hosting Barack Obama, who received a warm reception in Oxford and for the story of Michael Oher recently released as a film with Sandra Bullock entitled The Blind Side. So, the South has changed but some of the ghosts from our tumultuous past reappear from time to time.
What was your journey to publication?
Whew! That was the worst part. I had written five chapters and outlined the majority of the book when I realized that even if I wrote an entire manuscript, I had no idea how to get a novel to print. Turns out, as small as this world is, that my neighbor is an entertainment attorney and wrote a couple of sports books. So I called him. He introduced me to one of his partners and she guided me in. She gave me a deadline to have the draft complete, edited it, had it proofread (there are still a couple of errors that drive me crazy!), got printing quotes, designed the cover art, and 4000 copies showed up at my front door one day. That day scared me to death! I self-published my first one for several reasons. First, I had a timely story that did not need to sit on a potential publisher’s shelf for an extensive period of time. Also, I felt like I had enough of a built in constituency in Ole Miss alumni to get the book off the ground. From there, I knew it could get its own legs. Plus, we turned out a great product. And finally, I have another book in mind that should have a broader appeal. That one, I want to have nationally published and a track record of good sales should help my efforts.
Ha! Great question. I may throw you off a bit with this one, but I bet many of the readers can identify. It’s not that I don’t read, I do. I have read and been influenced by some awesome writers - - Kafka and Hemingway the most. The Trial and The Sun Also Rises, respectively are my two favorites. When I was accepted to Yale’s summer school program, The Trial was in my reading assignment. Before I went, I had the chance to sit down with one of my English Professors at Ole Miss. The discussions that flowed from that conversation as it pertained to that book, influenced my thinking greatly. I never viewed government or our justice system the same again. Previously, I had been too Pollyanna, let’s say. Other writings I love include Siddhartha as a simple read but pure, Francis Schaeffer from a religious standpoint, Jeffery Archer is a contemporary favorite, and Faulkner although he is brutal. But, ultimately I see writing as an art. When I wrote If By Whiskey, I tuned in to the Blues music and some Appalachian Folk songs on my iPod and really got in a groove. I also found that it was much easier to listen to the Gin Blossoms and write about the nineties for some reason! But, in all sincerity, I would argue that being a writer is no different than being a musician or a painter or a sculptor. We all have a story to tell. The question is, can you channel your energies, focus on the task, and deliver a punch line? Thankfully, I did. For a while there as I was writing, I was scared the ending would be a bust!
What's the story behind the title?
Well, as I am told, the phrase If By Whiskey has been out there for years with a number of meanings. Although I have not uncovered all the sources, I am told Mark Twain may have used it a time or two. But for me, a boy from north Mississippi, the phrase “if by whiskey” alludes to the famous “Whiskey Speech” delivered at the old King Edward hotel in 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi when a debate erupted in the Mississippi legislature about whether or not the prohibition of whiskey should be repealed. Understand at this point in time, the state taxed it, the people poured it, there was even a division in the tax commission with employees to oversee it, but it was illegal nonetheless! Soggy Sweat was a young man then and he was both for and against whiskey in the same speech. Absolutely hysterical - - both the speech and his delivery. All the readers should check it out. For me, Anna Neimus, the main character, finds herself in a whiskey moment. She is torn by the Old South traditions and the modern progressive appeals of the New South. So, like Soggy Sweat, she chooses both!
You're traveling extensively throughout the South for book signings. Any interesting experiences you'd like to share?
Oh yes. I have been to a lot of places and going to many more. But my favorite story so far is from Gulfport, Mississippi. I was invited to sign at a wine bar. And that was just my kind of book signing. But on my way, I received a call from a local who asked if I could join him at the home of Dr. Bobby Little. I did not even know who Dr. Little was. But it turns out that Soggy Sweat was his fraternity big brother in Sigma Chi at Ole Miss many years ago. I got some great stories on Soggy from him. But the best story was about William Faulkner. Apparently, Dr. Little grew up around the corner from Faulkner. He had the pictures to prove it too. Dr. Little said that when he was about 14, Faulkner showed up to his home in the rain wearing a trench coat and knocked on the front door. When Bobby appeared, Mr. Faulkner, who was very proper and formal in his approach to everything as I am told, asked if Bobby would go downstairs and retrieve a bottle of whiskey for him. When Bobby returns, Mr. Faulkner thanks him and turns to leave. As he does, the slit of his coat in the back begins to open. Dr. Little said he had no idea what that man was doing but apparently he wrote and drank all night in the nude!
The novel is flying off the shelves. Why is the book resonating so much with readers?
Well, first of all, let me say that I am humbled by the response. I have had people say the book took them down memory lane. There are the non-Southerners who feel enlightened to see a book that walks through the progress of the South. Some guys just want to meet the college sorority girls I described! The female readers have complimented the fact that I took on and accurately portrayed a female. Some have called me brave for writing about subjects like sexual promiscuity and race relations that many southerners want to turn a blind eye too. Even the very few that don’t like my book have further reinforced for me the need to write this book. It is time we grow up and face our demons. If we don’t they will destroy us. I know I grew as a person by writing this book, and I hope many more people read it.
Quentin Whitwell holds two degrees from the University of Mississippi, a Bachelor of Arts and a Juris Doctorate. While at Ole Miss, he served as the Associated Student Body President and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, he walked the path of William Faulkner learning that the legend of Yoknapatawpha still lives today with eccentric characters and folksy ways. An attorney and lobbyist in Jackson, Mississippi, Quentin draws from his life experiences to write this comedic fictional novel. Quentin is married to the former Ginger Gordon. They have two children, Davis and Gordon, and an English springer spaniel, Churchill. Visit his web site at www.ifbywhiskeynovel.com.
Monday, December 7, 2009
The Joys and Pitfalls of Writing a Series
As many of you have discovered, my current novel, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, is book two of my Southern Cousins Mystery Series. I’ve already written book four; I’m plotting books five, and I have the story bible for books six through umpteen. In other words, I’ll be writing this series as long as I can prop myself in front of the computer and still remember how to spell Evlis. Excuse me. Elvis.
Then there’s the added attraction for both reader and writer of being able to follow characters as they break up, make up, marry, have kids, move out, move in, move on. A series gives me time and space to show my characters growing and changing through the years.
Even worse, I panic that I’ll make the same mistake I made years ago in my Donovan series. It was never meant to be a series. Tanner Donovan simply came to me two years after Paul Donovan had taken my heart by storm. I quickly researched Paul’s book, told myself, yep, he has brothers, then proceeded to write a whole slew of books about the feisty, lovable southern family.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
If you’re reading this post about rejection, I expect you’re either:
A) A writer like myself looking to read some good war stories and perhaps find inspiration for your own writing.
B) A nice person who is genuinely interested in books and writers.
C) A sadomasochist, which may also qualify you for category A.
Three things I’ve learned in fifteen years of writing and with five novels to my credit:
1) Only a very small percentage of what comes out of my brain is inspired in any way, shape, or fashion.
2) Only a semi-chaotic, back-and-forth process of rejection between a trusted group of readers--not to mention agent, editors, publishers--and myself produces writing with which I am truly satisfied.
3) What scares me about a blog is that no one ever rejects my posts.
Peace, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to all.
(That guy born in the manger two thousands years ago? Now there was someone who ended up rejected.)
Friday, December 4, 2009
In our writing group, we share both our successes and setbacks, and that includes rejection letters. A few years back, we had accumulated quite a nasty little pile of these, so we decided that we’d meet for dinner and go over them in detail. Maybe, if we looked hard enough, compared the various comments, we find some little nuggets of advice—anything to help us get the letter that said “yes, we love it and we’ll publish it.”
We had rejections from some of the best agents and editors in publishing. They were so pleased/honored/happy that we’d chosen to send them our manuscript entitled fill-in-the-blank. After considerable consideration/careful reading /a lot of deliberation around the office, they’d decided that fill-in the-blank, just wasn’t right for them at this time. In our little letter sample, there were a variety of reasons for the rejection: we have too many first novels in house right now, your novel is too literary, your novel is too commercial (same novel, of course), there isn’t enough/there is too much action in your novel, your novel is set in the seventies/sixties, your novel just didn’t grab me/compel me/hit me where I live, and (my personal favorite) your novel was just too close to my own experience and I can’t relive this time in my life.
After several glasses of wine and some very tasty steak, it occurred to us: this was not some great literature we were reading here. These were the hurried missives of agents and editors, and let’s face it, their interns. They were doing a job--simply trying to get through a stack of manuscripts. Most anything they wrote other than “thanks, but no thanks,” was really out of kindness. So, parsing this language, searching the text for wisdom, attending to word choice and detail—all of this was completely futile. Here’s what we decided: ignore the actual words and look at the length of the rejection letter. The longer the letter, the more attention your manuscript has received. Anything over six lines means you’re making progress. Twelve lines and you’re in the ballpark.
We also decided that the size of our rejection stack—that was our badge of courage. Publishing is an endurance sport. Once you know you have a novel that is essentially publishable (which is a topic for another whole blog), then what you need next is volume volume volume. Every rejection letter stings (or worse), but this is what you’ve got to risk to find that single, fabulous agent or editor who has the good sense and good taste to say yes.
Eventually, all three of the manuscripts so rejected on that evening found publishers. This did not happen because we were so good at reading the tea leaves of rejection but because we listened carefully to each other. We reflected on the advice of our group’s careful readers. We revised and revised, and then, we sent out books back out.
Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is http://www.lynnyork.com/.