Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Blog: Valerie Nieman

Writing in multiple genres – the Muse with Attention Deficit Disorder

Isn’t writing challenging enough? Isn’t it enough that we sweat and pray, bleed and cry, twist and turn in the dark like minor saints under attack by an imp, looking for a way to force those ideas and images to the surface and onto the page? Why complicate things?

Most writers identify themselves as poets or novelists or short story writers. We’re guided that way in writing programs and grant applications, in workshops and gatherings. After all, there is power in concentration, in doing one thing well.

By the time I was schooled that it was considered proper to have a single genre, it was too late. I’d been seized by words early in life and wanted to wrestle with them, race with them, lie beside them and listen to them snore.

Coming from common folks I didn’t know quite how to do that, but newspapering was a start. I started out with a journalism degree from WVU and a job writing for a small daily newspaper. That was a lucky and/or inspired choice. Journalists, especially the jacks and jills of all trades found at small newspapers, are as well-placed as anyone to see and hear and do the manifold things that will find their way into stories and poems. What give a piece of writing authenticity? The details of it, the sweat that rolls down your neck and wets your shirt, the mud that clings to the lugs of your Red Wings.

Now you can kick around from job to job, from fire warden to orderly to bridge painter, but there’s only a certain number of skills that any individual has and, in these days of downsizing and outsourcing, of 401Ks and IRAs, immigration issues and terrorist watch lists, not much interest in the unknown who blows into town and lifts the sign out of the diner window, “Short Order Cook Wanted.” But a curious and adventuresome journalist (and there should be no other sort) can get a taste of all kinds of other lives. Can get close enough to see the seams, feel the grit on their hands, smell the cooking, and then move on.

I agree with Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his journal, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

I’ve had the benefit of gratuitous living, as a journalist. I’ve been three miles into the mountain in a longwall coal mining operation – where a machine hit a methane pocket and the power went out for 20 minutes as they cleared the dangerous gas. You don’t know dark until you’ve been inside a mine when the lights go out. And you don’t know that a mountain moans until the machines stop, and you hear it groaning against the hydraulic shields that hold it up until they creep forward and let the plundered rock settle into the gap behind.

I have seen the playing out of power and avarice in the most immediate way, not by viewing CNN but in watching small-town politicians manipulate and threaten to keep control over a small financial scheme.

I’ve sat in a wooden kitchen chair in the sheriff’s home, behind the steel door to the 100-year-old jail, and talked with his wife about the time a guy tried to force his way out through the residence and how she talked him into eating first and so he was captured.

I’ve had holes burned in my shirt from drifting embers at house fires, and seen the faces of firefighters as they slumped outside the apartment building where seven people died.

I’ve had my shoe sucked off in the mud of a construction site … petted llamas and learned about their latrine habits … handled a woodcarver’s tools … ridden in the governor’s limousine on potholed roads in a rainstorm and learned about the cost of fixing mountain highways … listened to people as they talked about having to move away from the town their families had founded, where there was no longer any water.

There was a lot of living in those stories, and a lot of energy and desire instilled in that writing – in making the stories of plain folk come clear – but still the itch returned. I wanted to write stories that came from deeper and more personal places. All the time as I was grinding out daily articles about city council or the water board, I was accumulating images and anecdotes, characters and insights. I just wanted to use them in new ways.

I thought I was to be a poet. I had some poems published and took part in a poetry group. But I also wanted to write novels – insane, surely, because by then I was homesteading a West Virginia hill farm. So I began writing a science fiction novel – and short stories too, why not, and the poems were still coming, and long poems that were stories in verse. I was pulled in all directions by a muse with attention deficit disorder.

Then I ran into Fred Chappell. Ol’ Fred as he’s known in North Carolina, a writer of magnificent talent generously applied to fiction long and short, poetry epic and lyric. As a speaker at the West Virginia Writers statewide conference, he lured me into accepting the writing as the words came, and eventually into being a Carolina girl. By that time I had heard it was a species of bad manners to write in too many forms, but Ol’ Fred said, write what comes. All of it. And I looked at his celebrated – and prolific – career and said, why not.

Gertrude Stein, usually though of as opaque and difficult, had this straightforward approach to writing:

"Write without thinking of the result

in terms of a result, but think of the writing

in terms of discovery …

It will come if it is there

and if you will let it come."

So multiple genre writing kept coming through those years – at a pretty good pace, too, because I was young and full of energy. Along the way I accumulated publications in every area except screenwriting and playwriting. A science fiction novel, later a mainstream novel, and another now preparing for publication. Three or four other novels completed and unsold or reconsidered – SF, fantasy, mainstream. A double score of stories. A hundred lyric poems, collected and recollected over 20 years, until one version finally caught. Three or four long narrative poems. Some criticism, travel writing, columns, and editorials. And of course, the daily newspaper articles.

Ultimately, however, journalism stimulates the imagination, but leaves little time and energy for writing – like wine that provokes desire and takes away the act. The pressures of the daily story push away the time for reflection and revision. So it was time to leave behind one of my genres. I would make the move first into editing and finally into teaching – each of which has its own mental and physical demands. Writing is plain just not easy, as we know.

So what are the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres?

Consider it as cross training.

Maybe you are a poet and you have been thinking about a novel. In sports terms, that would be a sprinter deciding to take on the marathon. Before she could do that, she would have to change her training and learn different skills. Multiple genres each train a somewhat different part of the writing mind. For me, it feels physically different when I write a poem compared with times when I am working on a novel.

Cross-training combines exercises for various muscle groups and parts of the body. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses. Jogging is great for endurance and weight loss. Tai chi adds flexibility. Weight lifting builds muscle and increases upper body strength. You end up with good overall fitness, more strength and stamina, less chance of stress or damage. And the same with writing – different forms not only challenge your mind to master the techniques, but also liberate your writing mind by freeing it from the treadmill of repetitive motion. You learn to hear dialog in your poetry, and write with fine-tipped precision in your novels.

Working in various genres also eliminates the dreaded “I can’t think” or writer’s block – because if one thing isn’t flowing, you can work on something else. The athlete can’t complain that the pool is closed so he’ll just go eat potato chips. There is always the track or the weight room.

The former poet laureate William Stafford wrote: I believe that the so-called ‘writing block’ is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance... One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing... You should be more willing to forgive yourself.”

So you do what you can, and don’t beat yourself up over it. If you revise a poem, that’s progress – words addressed, even if the novel is on hold.

Of course, if there are pros, there must be cons. The most significant is that by working in many areas, you may spread your talents too thinly – and it could affect your career as a writer by diffusing your audience.

An anonymous literary agent blogging on Livejournal says it this way:

Think of three people who are close to you – Your significant other, a child you adore, and a best friend. Each of these people expects different things from your relationship. If you suddenly started telling your child all about your office gossip or the trauma with your significant other, they will clap their hands over their ears and cry. If you try to cut your best friend's hot dog into little pieces to make it easier for her to eat, she will stare at you like you're crazy… This is why, if you write in radically different styles, a pseudonym is a good idea.

Others disagree. An agent at Folio Literary Management says that it can be a good idea to switch between genres because it can broaden the audience – especially if the genres are in some way related, such as romantic suspense and mysteries. You can also get more books on the shelves without having them compete directly with each other. And, in a cyclical business, you can focus on the genre which is doing well at the time.

Pros and cons and expectations. But take heart from Ol’ Fred and Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas Hardy and Brad Leithauser and many others – there is joy in crossing boundaries.

Vladimir Nabokov – whose writing was after all just a sideline of his lifework as a lepidopterist – said:

"There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a story teller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three - storyteller, teacher, enchanter - but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.”

Ultimately, what we do is a kind of echolocation. Like a bat, flying at top speed in search of prey we cannot see, we are trying to find the form of the world in the dark.

Richard Wright wrote:

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”

And so speak – shout – and write. If that peripatetic muse leaps from chair to desk and onto the window ledge, all you can do is shrug and follow.

Valerie Nieman worked for three decades as a journalist while honing her skills as a poet, novelist, and short story writer.

Her third novel, Blood Clay, set in Piedmont North Carolina, will appear later this year from Press 53. Her first novel, Neena Gathering, was a science fiction title that was also translated for the Brazilian market. Survivors was a story of loss and recovery in a Rust Belt town in the 1970s.

Her collection of short stories, Fidelities, from West Virginia University Press, appeared in 2004 with stories that first appeared in The Kenyon Review, Arts & Letters, West Branch, and other journals and anthologies.

Wake Wake Wake was published in 2006 and included poems published in two chapbooks; in journals including Blackbird, Poetry, New Letters, and REDiViDER; and in numerous anthologies.

She has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, two Elizabeth Simpson Smith prizes in fiction, and the Greg Grummer Prize in poetry. A graduate of West Virginia University and the M.F.A. program at Queens University of Charlotte, she teaches writing at N.C. A&T State University.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Put Your Hands Together For...

by Jennie Bentley.

I've got a treat for y'all today. Please join me in making welcome my fellow Good Girl and Berkley Babe Elizabeth Lynn Casey, who's here to talk to us about her Southern Sewing Circle mysteries - the second of which will be in a store near you this coming Tuesday; it's called DEATH THREADS - and the inspiration of vivid characters.

That's me on the left, with the pink shirt, and she on the right with the romance novel. She writes those too. We were sharing a table and some wonderful times at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest last weekend, when this was taken. 

Here she is:

From the moment I first met Jenny MacPartland, I liked her. She was hard working, a devoted mom, and, well, she just seemed like a nice person. I guess that’s why I felt so awful when she lost her baby and her husband pointed to her as a suspect in the death.

But here’s the thing, Jenny MacPartland isn’t real. Not in the living, breathing sense, anyway. Instead, she was a figment of Mary Higgins Clark’s imagination in the book, A Cry in the Night.

It just so happens, that this same book became one of my all-time favorites…and the catalyst for my decision to become a mystery writer as opposed to the children’s writer I’d always assumed I’d be. I also believe it’s one of the reasons I work so hard to create characters that feel as real as Jenny MacPartland did to me.

I guess that’s why I get excited every time I open my laptop and start working on the latest installment of my Southern Sewing Circle Mystery Series. Because, in many ways, it’s like spending the day with old friends—people who have become real to me over the past year.

And just like real people, they all have a mind of their own. Take for instance, Leona Elkin. She showed up in my debut title, SEW DEADLY, as the woman who would take Tori Sinclair (my main character—a young Yankee librarian who has transferred to the small southern town of Sweet Briar, South Carolina) under her wing. I knew from the moment Leona hit the page, that this sixty-something woman was going to be fun with a capital F.

She’s the one who shows up at circle meetings with a travel magazine because she thinks sewing is a waste of time.

She’s the one who has taken it upon herself to teach Tori the ways of the south—the ways of the south according to Leona Elkin, that is.

She’s the one who never married, yet has a way of landing any man she wants regardless of age (particularly if they’re in uniform).

She’s the one who leaves a wide berth around anyone under the age of ten out of fear she might be asked to blow a nose or wipe a mouth.

She’s the one who’s more than a little prickly, stirring up trouble with her fellow sewing circle members whenever possible.

And she’s also the one who—in the middle of DEATH THREADS--kidnaps a garden variety bunny from a fellow Sweet Briar resident and falls in love, naming him Paris after a particularly memorable (read: man involved) overseas excursion a few years ago.

Wait. What was that last one?

That’s right. Leona has taken on a life of her own, leaving me, as the writer, wondering what she’s up to from one book to the next…

And she’s not even the main character.

Just don’t tell her that.



Elizabeth Lynn Casey is the best selling author of the Southern Sewing Circle Mystery Series with Berkley Prime Crime. SEW DEADLY debuted in August. DEATH THREADS—the second book in the series—debuts next week. For more information, visit her website:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Is it still called home-schooling if you’re teaching yourself? Like many authors, I am self-taught; mostly by being a voracious reader and by writing, writing and re-writing.

In addition to my insatiable reading and writing, I also collect books on the craft of my profession. I have a shelf full of what my author friend Jackie Miles calls ‘Hotta’ books, which when translated simply means ‘How-to-write-a-novel’ books. My Hotta books cover everything from first ideas to deepening your plot to publicizing your book once it’s published. I study these books over and over, but I never, ever feel like I’ve studied enough or learned it all. My Hotta books are tattered; their pages are dog-eared and full of underlines. Often I copy bits of advice from them onto scraps of paper that I stick all over my computer screen. Stuff like “Make sure there’s tension on every page,” and “SHOW, don’t tell,” and “Say NO to passive,“ and “Put the reader in the action,” and “Julie, use lots of synesthesia (using one sense to describe another).”

Though I’ve written eight complete novels (four published thus far) I still cannot manage to convince myself that I know what I’m doing, that I’ve got it all down now. I feel compelled to continue my education constantly. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just that I lack faith in myself and other times I think perhaps this attitude is good because I’ve read of these authors who’ve had some success and start to think that whatever they turn out in a first draft needs no further work. Later, they realize they’ve acted at their own peril when that second (or third) book falls flat.

These days I’ve been waking up in somewhat of a panic wondering where I should focus my home-schooling efforts. I eye my stack of curriculum and wonder what I need to study. That’s because I’ve got a book at both ends of the spectrum. Both ends meaning I recently turned one in that’s due to come out in the fall of 2010. This book was supposed to be 80,000 words, but when I reached The End, it had a bit over 90,000 words. Since my contract’s deadline had appeared, I went on and turned it in anyway, assuring my editor I’d be happy to try my hand at shearing off the 10,000 words before she plunged in to read it. After some back-and-forth emails, she told me she’d read it, ponder it and give me guidance on what to cut.

I was relieved to put it in her hands for a while and try to forget it because one of my Hotta books says that once you’ve finished a complete first draft of your novel, you should put it aside for a time (a couple of weeks) and then you’ll be able to read it with cool objectivity. With enough time, you’ll be able to look at it as if someone else wrote it and thus you’ll be ruthless in acknowledging its weaknesses. I also reassured myself that I was leaving it in the hands of this capable professional who would see any structural flaws and who would tell me how I could improve my story.

But, alas, during another stint of home-schooling I read about how editors in publishing houses are overworked. They put in long days at their office; taking calls from authors and agents, working with publicity and marketing departments, going to meetings about cover design, production scheduling, etc . . . and as a result, most of their reading and editing has to happen on nights and weekends, of which we all know there are never enough. All this leaves the editor little time or energy for a new author like me.

My Hotta book said that I should join a novel workshop where I read my chapters aloud to other authors and let the group make comments and suggestions. But my editor emailed today that her comments will arrive tomorrow and I’ll have a bit over a month to incorporate them into my second draft. I’ve done this enough to know publishing houses have schedules and the manuscript needs to be moving along to the next stage of production. There’s no time for a critique group at this point.

The best thing for me when I’m anxious about something is distraction. So, back when I turned that book in on March 15th, I decided I’d pour myself into writing another story. Well, a week ago, my agent called me and, miracle of miracles, informed me she’d sold a novel on one chapter and a synopsis. After a few days of pinching myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, my mind began to focus on the fact that now I’ve actually got to write the thing.

The story is in my head, and words can’t explain how excited and eager I am to get it down. But I bet you know what I’m doing now. I’m home-schooling myself like crazy. I’ve been memorizing this article I found on-line from Donald Maas, called ‘The Elements of Awe.’ It gives the writer four things for building what he calls ‘Awesome Characters.’ I hand-copied it down, highlighted specific parts, and made copious notes about how my newest heroine can inspire awe.

Also I’m studying my Hotta books like I have a final tomorrow at 8:00 A.M.. I rogued notebook paper from my 12-year-old to outline an article in The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Novel Writing. It may sound odd, but the reason I hand-copy so many things down is that this helps imprint it in my brain. The article I’m currently obsessing over is by Orson Scott Card, called ‘Creating Characters That Readers Care About.’ Mr. Card gives the writer three tools to lend stature to major characters.

In real life, I don’t like to inflict pain on other human beings, but apparently stories about happy, contented people are boring. Mr. Card advises a writer to use pain and jeopardy to avoid a boring story, to make a character memorable.

It’s fairly easy to see why the character who suffers pain is memorable to the reader. Whether it’s physical or emotional pain, most readers will wince in sympathy and your character will be more memorable and more important. I took my main character in this new novel, Jenny, from early childhood to being a teenager in the first two chapters. I got her to a place where her role in life becomes unbearable because of the emotional pain her parents, one intentionally and one unintentionally, inflict on her. I got her to where her present situation is absolutely intolerable and she sets out to change it. She’s suffered so much emotional pain that I hope the audience cares deeply about her future and will want to keep reading.

The second tool, jeopardy, is simply anticipated pain. Hopefully, the reader’s stake in Jenny is already strong at the outset of the novel because of all the poor kid’s endured. I tried to write in some hints, set up some anticipation within these chapters, to foreshadow that Jenny’s future, the pathway toward her destiny, won’t be lined with roses. The things Jenny’s has already endured, along with this hanging threat of hardship, will hopefully make the audience focus their attention and compassion on her.

The third tool Mr. Card advises to lend stature to your major character is that he/she has to be extraordinary in some way. Mr. Card calls it having heroic proportions. I worked hard to make Jenny unique, special, larger-than-life. What I did was give her this singing voice that other characters respond to as being incredibly beautiful, out-of-this-world. I didn’t want to just come right out and say she had this beautiful gift of music, so what I did is I let several adults overhear her singing. Each person is totally bowled over, reduced to tears almost when they witness her gift. Hopefully this will make her very important in the reader’s eyes.

Well, I know these three tools aren’t everything when it comes to creating memorable characters, and Mr. Orson Scott Card even claims they can be overused by unskilled writers, and he goes on to talk about more tools, including using the character’s past and the character’s motive process to deepen your story. But these basic techniques are a good start. They’re enough for me to home-school myself on today.

Look for Julie's next novel, I'll Be Home for Christmas, fall of 2010.  

Read more about Julie and her books at

Guest Blog: Gerrie Ferris Finger Author of The End Game

The setting for a story is often relegated behind plot and characters. Even theme is considered before setting as an important novel component. Why is setting treated like a stepsister? Don't readers often choose the setting because they like stories written in a particular venue? I'm not fond of the word venue. My newspaper editor once called the Gulf of Mexico a venue.

I digress.

A reader who likes westerns thinks horses, chaps, buttes, gunslingers, saloons, and characters wearing holsters and ten gallon hats or long skirts. Sooner or later, the reader will learn the characters names. Am I saying setting is the most important element of a novel? No. I'm maintaining that setting is a character and influences the plot as much as characters. We can leave theme alone here. She's universal.

I can't imagine The Great Gatsby situated in any other city than New York. The draw of New York for hopeful, up-and-comers is legendary. No songs have been written declaring, if I can make it in St. Louis, I can make it anywhere.

Like New York, or the Deep South of Faulkner (Could A Rose for Emily have been set anywhere than Mississippi?), a place (setting) has a history, unique demographics, culture, attitudes, social values, language dialect, etc. It's how your characters interact with this place in which they find themselves, just as they interact with the people they meet there or with whom they live, that makes the setting a character.

The End Game is set in Atlanta. I've lived in Atlanta for so long, I'm almost a native (given that Atlanta is a Mecca for transplants). Other cities have railroads and railroad communities like Cabbagetown. Other cities have old converted-into-lofts warehouses and venerated old cemeteries like Oakland Cemetery, but they don't have what Sherman did to the city during the Civil War (or War Between the States, as Southerners like to call that conflict). They didn't lose their pride and way of life, then concoct a motto calling itself: The City too Busy to Hate.

Moriah Dru and Richard Lake are the protagonists. Their families precede The War. They aren't society, but they come from a line of ancestors taught to protect their fragile society. When a few of Atlanta's unfortunate children are stolen for the overseas sex trade, Moriah makes it her mission to track and down and punish the offenders – the thieves of a childhood that should hold security, that's sometimes painful, but in a wondrous, growing-up way.

Setting. It's a wonderful, distinctive thing. Robin Agnew reviewed The End Game, and had this to say in her thoroughly positive review: "The Atlanta setting is used well also, something that bodes well for future installments."

I like what she says.

About the book:
Moriah Dru’s weekend off with her lover, Lieutenant Richard Lake, is interrupted when Atlanta juvenile court judge Portia Devon hires Dru to find two sisters who’ve gone missing after their foster parents’ house burns down.

A hunt for two young sisters propels Finger's compelling if at times sobering debut… A well-researched plot and snappy dialogue—plus some fine rail-yard K-9 detecting by Buddy, a German shepherd, and Jed, a Labrador retriever—keep the action moving. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Gerrie Ferris Finger is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She lives on the coast of Georgia with her husband and standard poodle, Bogey.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Q and A With Niles Reddick, author of Lead Me Home

What's the backstory behind Lead Me Home?

Lead Me Home was inspired by a moment of anger I had at work when I lived in Tennessee. I was mad because someone had been hired when I thought the money needed to be spent elsewhere. So, I thought this would be a good story---that a character gets angry and decides to leave and take another position. But I didn’t want to start with that. I wanted it to build to that, so I started with the narrator going home to a funeral of a great aunt he dearly loved. He realizes family is getting older and could be gone in the blink of an eye, and it makes him begin to think about going back home. The great aunt who died is really a combination of relatives---my grandmother, a great aunt, and an old maid cousin of my dad’s---sort of all wrapped into one.

Tell us about your road to publication.

I didn’t think much about publication when writing Lead Me Home, but when I didn’t feel like writing, I would look up publishers and agents. I guess, like the first book, I began querying agents and publishers before the first draft was complete. In fact, with Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, my first book, a collection of stories, it was due to the publisher on Monday, and I wrote the last story that weekend. I did that with Lead Me Home as well, but I was less worried about being published because I knew it would be; it was more about with which publisher and if I would get an agent or not. I actually had two offers from agents, both I decided against for various reasons, and the same was true with publishers. I had four small publishing companies and had to make a choice. To me, I chose based on distribution and marketing more than anything else. I think that’s the key, and while I am normally a very humble person and not much interested in self promotion, I have found you have to toot your own horn. The days of others doing that for a writer are long gone. I had friends who had agents and big publishers, but they didn’t get very much attention at all. I think it’s important to try, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

You have a lot of editing experience. How do your editing skills help with your own writing?

I was editor of “The Distillery,” a literary journal that was distributed by Ingram, and I’ve done some editing for university and main stream presses. I have a pretty good eye for detail and believe it or not, my writing and editing are really separate experiences I bring to something I’m working on. When I’m writing, I do compose on the computer, and there are times when I don’t even see the computer screen when I’m writing. After I’ve written a draft of something, I normally print it out and read it very slowly and carefully, making all sorts of marks to revise later. I think that helps because I have a good grasp of the rules. A lot of writers starting out who haven’t read a lot or who haven’t written a lot, other than maybe in a college English class, don’t have a good grasp of grammar. It is still important, and I think agents and publishers would much rather read a well-written query and first draft than one that isn’t, though I’m sure there are examples of poorly written ones that made it.

Who are some of your literary influences?

The Southern writers have influenced me the most, I would say, but the ability to tell a story, to tell stories within stories, seems to me to come from Cervantes in Don Quixote. Sometimes, I think the subplots have as much meaning, if not more meaning, than the overall plot itself. I think this is true in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, too, and interestingly, he mentions Quixote. There are similarities there. The stories within stories being important are true in Lead Me Home. The overall plot and story are good, but some of the stories within the overall story are my favorites and have more meaning to me than the novel itself. I described a tombstone in Lead Me Home that read “Her feet don’t hurt no more.” That’s a very small detail and seems insignificant, but it’s not. I don’t know whose grave it is, but the tombstone is in Sunset Hill Cemetery in Valdosta, GA. My mother was attending a funeral and called me on her cell phone from the cemetery to tell me I needed to use that in a story. As any good son does, I listened to my mother, and all kidding aside, it was odd to me that someone put that on a tombstone. But the fact of the matter is that even a detail as minor as that one has a story behind it. Of course, the reader wouldn’t know this story, but there are multiple stories within the story that are equally important.

What book are you an evangelist for?

I don’t think there’s one specific book that I’m an evangelist for, but since I’ve taught literature for years, I am fairly evangelistic in my classes about literature in general. Each offers something very unique. I admit that I love the Greeks and ancient literature, and Cervantes, and believe it or not, I do love the early Americans such as Franklin and Jefferson even though they are often dry reading. Probably the Southern writers have had the most influence on me are the modern ones---Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Janice Daugharty, and others.

What is your favorite thing about the writing process? Your least favorite?

My least favorite thing would be dealing with trying to get an agent or trying to get a publisher. I think that may be the most difficult part, and it’s even more difficult if one is as impatient as I am. In that way, I’m not realistic at all! I think my favorite thing about the writing process is the act of creating and watching it evolve into something, to see it take on a life of its own. Since I do incorporate so many other stories, I enjoy using those to help propel the novel and to build the reality. I remember details---a line someone uses in conversation, a name I love, a story I hear or experience. All these details make their way into a plot for me in some form or fashion, and I really feel like I’m honoring people by doing this. At least that is my intent. In Lead Me Home, for example, the story opens at the narrator’s great aunt’s funeral in Pavo, Georgia. Her name was Ophelia. Aside from the Greek character, I really chose this name to honor a friend of mine’s mother whose name was Ophelia and who I thought the world of and hated to see be taken by cancer

Born in 1964 in Valdosta, Georgia, Niles Reddick grew up in the small town of Hahira, Georgia. He graduated from Valdosta State University with a B.A. in Philosophy, University of West Georgia with a M.A. in Psychology, and Florida State University with a Ph.D. in Humanities and an emphasis in English and Literature. His dissertation, Eccentricity as Narrative Technique, included interviews with Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, and Janice Daugharty.

Reddick taught English and Psychology at Thomas University in Thomasville, Georgia, and Georgia Military College at Moody AFB, Georgia, before accepting an English teaching position at Motlow College in Lynchburg, Tennessee. At Motlow, he coordinated the Writer’s festival and secured such renowned writers as Michael Lee West, Manette Ansay, Jerry Bledsoe, and Sharyn McCrumb. He also served as Editor of The Distillery for two years, taking the journal from a regional publication to an international one distributed by Ingram and one that received recognition and acclaim from The Literary Magazine Review and Library Journal.

Reddick was asked to serve as Director of the Smyrna campus for Motlow College and served in that capacity for several years before being appointed the Dean of Humanities and Social Science for Motlow College. In 2007, Reddick and his family returned to Georgia, where he accepted a position as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, Georgia.  Visit him at

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caring About Characters

I’m teaching my high school class The Great Gatsby. (In addition to being a world-famous and justly-beloved novelist, I teach high school. We all have little pet dreams, I suppose; mine has always been to be a high school English teacher; I just write novels to pay the bills until the teaching thing works out.) Anyway, you remember Gatsby, right? It was the book they assigned in high school only you just watched the movie and read the Cliff’s Notes. So we get to the part after Daisy, who is driving Gatsby’s car, runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby, who has been carrying a torch for Daisy for the last five years is naturally going to take the blame for the hit and run. And Daisy, that bitch – sorry, there’s no other word for it – is going to let him do it! She won’t tell a soul it was she, not he, behind the wheel, and she’s going to let him face, a legal expert tells me, five to twenty-five years hard time for a crime she committed.

The thing about it is, Daisy is nothing more than ink spots on a page, but when they’re arranged in certain configurations, it still outrages me.

This sort of thing happens all the time; we read about purely fictional creations – creations we know are fictional in a book with a big fat warning – “a novel” – and a disclaimer like, “Any resemblance between characters in this book and actual people living or dead is purely coincidental,” and in spite of all this, we still worry if Inspector Mudge will unmask the killer or Rodney and Darlene will find true love. That we care so much for people we know full-well aren’t real is like… Well, imagine a magician saying, “I’m going to reach through a hole in the top of this trick hat, through a hole in the top of this trick table where I have concealed a specially-trained rabbit which I will extract from the hat as if he had materialized from thin air.” And then the magician doing exactly that, and the rubes in the audience saying, “Gaw-lee…” as they rub their slackened jaws in stupefied amazement.

But stories get this sort of reaction all the time.

Have you ever shouted – or wanted to shout – a warning to a character in a movie. “Don’t hide under the bed! It’s the first place he’ll look!” Or been unable to sleep because you needed one more chapter to see if Bilbo was going to outsmart a dragon in a cave. News flash, Bubby. Movie characters can’t hear you. And in The Hobbit, there is no cave, and there is no dragon. There’s the word dragon. The word cave.

Humans have this weird, almost pathological, ability to empathize. We feel sad to hear a stranger has died in an earthquake, happy when some frumpy lump turns out to have the voice of an angel, concerned when a kid floats off in a runaway balloon. (Later we’re furious – but equally entertained – that the whole thing was a hoax.) At some point, we don’t even care if the people are real, so long as the events are interesting.

I think this surely must have started at the very dawn of man. Two cavemen – not Geico cavemen, the real thing – we’ll call them – oh, what’s a good caveman name? – Lamar and Loomis. They have been chasing this one mastodon across the tundra for the last week. Lamar got a good spear thrust in him, and he and Loomis left the rest of the tribe, trailing him, skirting the face of a retreating glacier. It has been a lean winter, and no opportunity for meat can be allowed to slip by.

Of course being cavemen, they have no concept of a “week,” they just know it’s been a long time since they’ve seen another human. They also know they lost sight of the mastodon two days ago, but they’ve been following its tracks. Loomis claims the footprints show signs that their prey is seriously wounded and weakening, but privately Lamar isn’t so sure. Loomis says you can tell a lot from an animal’s tracks, but Loomis says a lot of things.

To make matters worse, the spring rains come early and Lamar and Loomis take shelter under an outcropping. It is very cold, and they are wet. And it is dark of a darkness none of us in our light-polluted world can ever imagine. Shut yourself in a closet, put a bag over your head, and close your eyes. It’s darker than that.

The situation is desperate to say the least. So Loomis begins talking – just nonsense, anything to take their minds off themselves. Silly stuff, the first thing that pops in his head. There’s a guy named Raindrop, and he’s on his way down the side of someone’s face, and he runs into Flea. And Flea and Raindrop have a conversation, oh, about a far-off land neither has seen, called Big Toe, and the two of them decide to set off to find it.

And at first Lamar is just listening because you can’t help listening when it’s dark and raining and cold and you’re lost and your belly’s empty and you don’t know where your next mastodon is coming from, but little by little Loomis’ magic begins to take hold. Lamar begins to wonder, will they make it to Big Toe, and if they do, what will happen there? And Loomis – who, if you remember, is making the whole thing up – begins to wonder himself, and not that it makes their lives any better, not really, but in the cold, dark, lonely rain they find themselves wondering and caring about two products of their own imagination.

And that was how the whole thing started: the wonderment we have at a story.

Do Flea and Raindrop reach Big Toe? Do Lamar and Loomis get their mastodon?

Man Martin is the author of the award-winning Days of the Endless Corvette.  His novella, Scoring Bertram Wiggly, is available exclusively on Kindle from, and his next novel, Paradise Dogs is due out next Spring from Thomas Dunne.  Visit him online at

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Guest Blog Rachelle Rogers Knight, author of Read, Remember and Recommend

The Must-Have Tool For Serious Readers

Read, Remember, Recommend gives readers a one-stop shop to keep track of their reading. Featuring 60 cross-referenced lists of literary awards and notable picks (Pulitzer, National Book Award, 100 Best Books of the Century), this journal offers more than 2500 suggestions to help readers discover great literature and new authors. The journal also provides room to record books read, jot down thoughts and ideas, and keep track of recommendations, books borrowed and loaned, and book club history.

Unlike anything on the market, Read, Remember, Recommend keeps readers coming back to bookstores to purchase recommended books, creates opportunities for add-on and return sales, and celebrates the readers' love of books.

How did you come up with the idea for READ, REMEMBER, RECOMMEND?

My inspiration for creating the journal came from a cluttered purse full of reading suggestions on scraps of paper - a lot of which were books I learned about from following award and notable lists. When I set out to buy a journal to keep these suggestions organized, nothing existed that provided the awards and notable lists nor places to kept track of everything I wanted to buy and recommend to others. In addition, as a book club member, I was always looking for ways to keep my thoughts and discussion points about reading available for discussing. The Read, Remember, Recommend journal was the marriage of both needs.

The book was originally self-published. Tell us about your journey from self-publication to traditional publication.

My journey from publishing my book myself to traditional publication with Sourcebooks has been an amazing, exciting experience. When I first created the journal, I didn't think to pursue a traditional publication route. I love projects and challenges and wanted to experience creating the journals from every angle. I started a small publishing company, Bibliopages, found a way to print in China (the format of the books made it too expensive to print domestically), set up a website and went to a few bookseller tradeshows. The sales of my journals was very grass-roots: I did all of the publicity, marketing and sales myself - and shipped boxes from my basement. After I created the teen journal, the volume of these tasks was too much. I wanted to continue on with journals for other genres, but wearing all of the hats of a business didn't allow time to do what I was best at - creating. So, I found a wonderful agent who in turn found me a wonderful publisher. Now, I can concentrate on the task I started and most enjoy; researching great books to read!

What are some recent books you're an evangelist for?

The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle

Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Mudbound, by Hilary Jordan

What books did you enjoy as a child?

The Littles series, by John Peterson

Timothy and the Two Witches, by Margaret Storey

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle, by Rumer Godden

How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell

How do you find about books you want to read?

I read almost exclusively from lists - both notable and award winning. I find that these are almost always trustworthy sources of amazing books. Each person or organization spends so much time choosing their picks, the result is the cream of the crop.

What are your reading habits like?

I read for at least two hours each night before bed, after my kids are asleep. I have to read every night; even if I stay up doing something else, I have to stay up even longer to read - it's like brushing my teeth, a habit I can't skip. I usually get through 1-2 books a week.

Rachelle Rogers Knight is a passionate reader who has enjoyed books her entire life. She earned a Bachelor's degree in Forest Biology from Utah State University and a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from Weber State University.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Like many authors, I’m often asked “how” I write a novel. Do I start with an idea? Do I know the ending before I begin? Do I outline?

Now that I’ve just finished my third novel, I recognize what I suspected when I was writing my second, SO HAPPY TOGETHER, and what I was too new to realize when I’d finished my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON.

Yes, I do have my own distinct process; one that might be considered different, a bit unorthodox, but I also suspect that a lot of other authors can say the same thing. Because in the end, as you type those two beautiful words THE END, you realize there’s something magical about writing a novel and for everyone it’s a different experience.

When I began my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, way back in 1999, I had no idea really what I was doing. After more than a decade of not writing at all (I’d left a freelance writing career for a more lucrative one in real estate), a longing to write again began to consume me. My kids were going off to college, I was a bit burned out, and I missed doing something creative. Since I’d been away from writing for so long, I decided to go back to school and get a Master’s Degree and jump start my way back. At the time I knew I really wanted to write fiction, but I figured, how many people can make a living at that?

In the very first class I took I was assigned to write a short story. In my real estate job I specialized in helping corporate families with their moves, so I invented a corporate wife named Joanna Harrison. In that short story, I had her walk away from her empty, rootless life, now that the kids were gone and her husband was still never home. Where was she going? I decided she was going to the place I would go if I were running away: my favorite beach in the world, Pawleys Island, SC. What happened when she got there? She found a position as a caretaker for a woman named Grace, and began to experiment with starting a new life. Not much happened, really, but I threw in a hurricane for a dramatic ending. It was just 25 pages.

Two years later, when it was time to write my thesis for graduation, I decided to take Joanna and see what I could do with her. The requirement was 120 pages, and I thought I’d have myself half a novel by the end of that semester.

What happened during those weeks of writing those 120 pages was the beginning of the magic for me. When Joanna moved in witthe older woman, Grace, I decided to write as Grace, and see the world through her point of view. Grace had also done something drastic in coming to Pawleys Island and was harboring a big secret. Once I was inside Grace’s head, I loved her! At 75 years-old, she had wisdom and guts, but also a cranky side to her. So Grace got her own story, told through her own Point of View, along with Joanna’s. I felt a richness enter the work.

On I wrote.

One day, while writing a scene where Joanna is arguing with her husband, Paul, a corporate warrior I could identify with because of my sales career, I decided to approach the scene from his Point-Of-View, to see if I could breathe more tension into it and make him more real. It was an experiment, really. When I was done, I hooted out loud. He was perfectly flawed-- arrogant, selfish, yet with a sensitive side that had long been buried. I loved Paul with all of his imperfections! I decided to give him his own storyline, as well, showing how he reacts to his wife leaving, and then losing his job, the thing that defined him. What I thought made this really special was that I was going to show both sides of the marriage.

With these three characters on three somewhat parallel journeys, I felt my novel really coming to life. Sixteen weeks after starting, I turned in those 120 pages and graduated. I have to admit, I had no idea what would happen next for Joanna, Paul and Grace. But when my fellow thesis students kept saying You have to finish this at graduation, I thought Why not?

And so I spent the next 2 years figuring out how to write the rest of the novel, getting up at 5 am each morning before my work day began, writing nights and weekends, and even taking my laptop on two more family vacations to Pawleys Island, thrilled to be able to immerse myself in the setting even more. We’ve now been going to Pawleys Island for more than 20 years and the decision to use that setting was a bit selfish—it allowed me to be there in my mind every time I wrote.

I didn’t always know what was happening in the next chapter, so I did a lot of walking to let my mind relax, with a little notebook (now I carry a recorder) and something else magical happened-- the characters started talking in my head. Details and plot ideas came out of the air. And I’d go home and write furiously. Scenes became chapters, and the book began to grow.

When I was about three-quarters through my first draft, I had no idea how I was going to end it. I had a thought, something that seemed to be the right thing for Joanna, but still, I wasn’t sure. So I went back to the beginning and wrote another draft, cleaning things up, beefing up the characters’ personalities, and again getting to the same point and…starting over.

It wasn’t until the third draft that I wrote my ending. It came to me while I was walking, how it could unfold perfectly, and I went home and wrote 50 pages without coming up for air over the course of 3 days.

When I wrote THE END, I had…500 pages! Those first 120 of my thesis turned out to be a drop in the literary bucket. But then I cut and polished and trimmed it down to about 400. And then it took me 5 years and self-publishing it myself to finally land my contract with Hyperion.

When I wrote SO HAPPY TOGETHER, I had just 14 months to complete it. I didn’t have the luxury of time. But I found the same process unfolding, and wrote about 4 drafts before writing THE END.

I broke the record with my new novel (which is in my agent’s hands so I can’t say a word yet!) writing 6 drafts before finishing and writing THE END!

Why do I continue to do this? Because I like it to fall into place “organically.” I don’t want to push my characters to a certain place. Because for me it’s always about character. That is where I start.

When I start my fourth novel, very soon, there will be some comfort in the routine I’ve established. It won’t matter if I’m not sure about my ending, nor that my characters won’t really come to life for me for a few drafts. The magic will still be there, just waiting to happen. And when I write THE END, once again, I will pinch myself, still unable to believe that this is my job! This is my life!

Because I refused to give up!

Maryann McFadden lives in New Jersey but wishes she lived in South Carolina. She continues to write books set at the ocean, so she can vicariously be there while she writes.

You can visit her at  where she'll be hosting a Book Club Giveaway to celebrate the paperback release of SO HAPPY TOGETHER on June 15 (an Indie Next Pick). THE RICHEST SEASON is also out in paperback now, and also an Indie Next Pick!

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Tree Crotches, Slush Piles, and Secret Keepers

by Mindy Friddle

Before I shamelessly self-plug at the end of this note,  I hope to earn the privilege. 

How? I'm going to share some tips with you about how to avoid the slush pile from a writer/poet/editor. [Not me!}

First-- an aside:
How's your spring? Are you sniffing and dripping on the keyboard? Are you able to pry one swollen eye open in the morning thanks to Allegra and Bobbi Brown? [That's not as naughty as it sounds.]  Me, too.

When I want to clear my head, I go outside among the tall, stoic trees. And lately, I sneeze. Everything is chartreuse. Everyone is sneezing and wheezing, suffering from all the trees'  floating "male gametes"--tree sperm.Yeah, Baby>

There must be some randy going-ons at night in the forest--which gives new meaning to "tree crotch."

So, what does that have to do with the slush pile? Not a thing. Here are the tips I promised to keep you out of the stanky pile o' slush:

A Few Tips to Keep You Out of the Slush Pile

From Jillian Weise's excellent class for the Writing Room in February, a few do's and don'ts that drew gasps from the audience. [Okay, I'm exaggerating-- not gasps, just mad scribbling as they wrote everything down.]  
Who IS Jillian? Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House and Washington Square, among other magazines. Her novel, The Colony, was published in March. Her  books of poetry include Translating the Body (All Nations Press, 2006) and The Amputee's Guide to Sex (Soft Skull Press, 2007).  She has worked on the editorial board of The Paris Review and currently works as an editor for The South Carolina Review. 
She suggests these Do's when you submit your work to magazines:

Use 12 point Times New Roman font.

Include a header with your name, address, phone number and email on every page.

Simultaneously submit, and keep a spreadsheet of your submissions. Jillian submits new work every 3 months, wave after wave. When rejections come in, she deals with them in the next 90 day wave. When acceptances come in, contact the other publications to which you submitted and let them know. 

Do use Duotrope's Digest to research and target magazines appropriate for your work. And--of course-- read and subscribe to magazines, and be thoroughly familiar with the publications you submit to.

Write a clear and succinct cover letter
  •  Keep it short and to the point.
  • Address to the editor by name if possible.
  • Don't end with "Cheers." 
  • Don't mention your blog unless it has higher number than Slate.
  • Don't kiss butt, with gushing compliments about how wonderful the publication is. Save that for a separate letter to the editor. [In other words, let your work speak for itself.] 
  • Do mention if you haven't been published before. Seems counter-intuitive, but magazines love to be the first to publish someone, and discover talent.
call the magazine to check on your work...withdraw your call...don't call the magazine for any reason.
And don't forget you can also submit online.

Ok-- so here's my plug, no longer shameless because--I hope--I've provided you with some information that just may prove helpful.

The paperback of SECRET KEEPERS, my second novel, will be out next month. ------------>
Picador, my publisher, says May 25 is the magic day.  

Thanks for reading this far, and hope you'll look for a copy.
Happy reading. Happy spring.

Mindy Friddle is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin's Press). Visit and her blog, Novel Thoughts: On Reading, Writing & the Earth to read excerpts from her novels, interviews with authors, book reviews, and random musings. Find her on Twitter @mindyfriddle.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Watershed by Kathryn R. Wall

A couple of weeks ago, a momentous event occurred: I received my Medicare card in the mail. I haven’t gotten so dotty that I didn’t know I was turning 65 this year. It’s just that I’d sort of put it out of my head. But that fat envelope with the small red-white-and-blue square of cardboard inside brought it all into focus—with a vengeance.

My government has officially declared me OLD.

Not that I wasn’t thrilled, in a way, to receive it. As a self-employed writer for the past dozen years or so, I’ve had to carry my own medical insurance. Being blessed with excellent health, I often felt that paying the premium was like throwing money in the street. It’s one of the facets of pursuing a writing career the how-to books don’t tell you about. That and self-employment tax, although my former career as an accountant actually prepared me for that one. For those of you non-writers in the group, SE tax is the payment of a double dose of the Social Security/Medicare withholding, both the employers’ and employees’ portions.

Okay, enough grousing. It is what it is. What all this really brought home to me was that under normal circumstances, I’d be thinking hard about retirement right about now. If I’d still been practicing accounting, I’d be looking to sell my practice or perhaps, if I were working for someone else, about hanging it up. The problem is, I did that—in 1994 when my husband and I sold our respective businesses and headed south. That early escape from the day-to-day treadmill is what allowed me to begin writing and, miraculously, to find this second career.

So now what? There doesn’t seem to be any guideline for how long a writing career lasts. Look at some of the people whose books we love. I know for a fact that at least a couple of them I’ve encountered personally are still going strong into their seventies and even eighties. There’s no one out there who draws a line in the sand and says, “Okay, that’s enough. Turn in your mouse and keyboard. We’re putting you out to pasture.”

Of course, in reality there are some folks with the power to bring a writing career to a screeching halt. Your publisher, for one. If you’re doing this to make a living, even a secondary one, losing a publisher can bring your career to a grinding stop. Unfortunately, that’s happened to way too many excellent writers in the past few years. Or the reading public can decide they’ve had just about enough of you—which leads back to my first point about publishers. Either way, the decision to hang it up may not be entirely the author’s. Not that one couldn’t keep on writing just for the sheer joy of it. I like to think that’s what I’d do. I don’t know, though. Maybe not.

Anyway, when this momentous birthday occurs, I will be out hawking Canaan’s Gate, the tenth Bay Tanner mystery, due for release next week. I do notice that the imminent arrival of my watershed birthday has slowed me down just a tad. I’ve cut back on the number of appearances I’m doing for this book, and I’m sticking a little closer to home this time. I don’t know if that’s a factor of age or repetition or the fact that my dear husband has, as I tell him, become like a linen suit—he doesn’t travel well. In any case, one thing I haven’t lost is my enthusiasm for writing and my deep gratitude to those who choose to buy and read what I write. Those e-mails and messages from people who’ve taken the time to let me know they enjoyed the latest installment of my series are enough by themselves to keep me going regardless of age or anything else.

And, now that I think about it, how often does the government get things right anyway?

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 10th Bay Tanner mystery, Canaan’s Gate, will be released by St. Martin’s Press on April 27.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Land of Lost Readers

by Cathy Pickens

Covers are supposed to draw in readers, right? Writers focus compulsively on their covers, as if they had magical powers, akin to the Pied Piper’s flute, to lure readers in droves.

But what really lures readers? I’ve seriously pondered that question, both as a reader and as a writer. As readers, we all want a good story, though what fulfills that is different for each of us. Covers can telegraph the story … or scare us off.

But what gets a reader to even consider a book? During one week, I stood in two different bookstores and watched two different readers enter the doors. One store was a wonderful used bookstore with the helpful and knowledgeable owner at the desk and a great selection of books. The young man in a military t-shirt and bulging biceps said, “I want to read some classics.”

She told him where to look. I spied him as he stood, staring at the shelves of books. I didn’t see him pick up anything. I saw him wandering around the store, looking at other offerings. He left without buying anything. He hadn’t known where to start or what he might like, so he abandoned the search. It broke my heart.

A few days later, I was in a big-box bookstore, books piled on tables in front. A man entered the store, looking about as if he was in unfamiliar territory. He walked up to the tables, looking at the books, lightly touching the covers of a few with his fingertips but picking up nothing.

He scanned the bright, cavernous room, looking at the section signs: Fiction. History. Regional. He stood for some time, looking about, as if in a busy train station without a ticket. He turned and walked out, never moving past the tables at the front stacked with books, as if he’d been afraid of getting lost.

Twice in one week, I’d watched someone enter a bookstore—which I consider a magical land of possibility—and leave empty-handed because he didn’t have a map, didn’t know the secret language, didn’t know how to converse with the natives.

I’m still sad, when I think of it. In a library, we have guides, knowledgeable folk who will lead us, if we have sense enough to seek their wisdom. Long may their tribe prosper.

But how do we reach those who want to read, but have no idea where to start? I fear it is particularly true of males, who as boys lose interest (because their verbal skills develop more slowly than girls, so they become discouraged? Because they can’t find books that speak to them? Because it’s sissy? So many reasons.) Too many lose their way and can’t find it again.

But what of my female English professor friend who loves to read but can’t find enough intelligent, well-written cozies to keep her interest? She knows the language, she has a map, she has money to spend; she still can’t find the treasure she seeks.

So what can best guide readers to their books? How do you find your way? Is it reviews from bookstore staff? Online reviews on individuals’ websites? Reviews on Amazon or or others? Recommendations from friends? Dumb blind luck as you stand in the bookstore? The cover? The blurbs? The description?

It is a topic worth some conversation. I read Amazon reviews, believing I can usually tell who is a friend of the writer and who is an objective reader. I read newspaper reviews (the few that still exist) and talk to friends and pour through libraries and bookstores. I wait anxiously for favorite writers’ next books to come out. But I don’t spend any time looking for books on FaceBook or such; occasionally—though seldom—I find something mentioned on a listserv.

Where do you turn? What do you ignore? Writers, book publishers, booksellers, and libraries are dying to know! Any guidance for them?

Stock Characters by Elizabeth Spann Craig

You’d think that there wouldn’t be many stock characters books these days.  Publishing has gotten really competitive and the market is tight.  Books that make it onto the shelves have catchy titles, eye-catching covers, and great opening lines.

But still---stock characters cram books.

To me, these characters jump right out of the book at me when I’m writing.  But is this because I’m a writer?  I’ll immediately pick up on the dumb blonde, the precocious child, the girl next door, the jock, and the alcoholic cop.  Fortunately, they’re not all in one book.  Well…there was that one book….

There’s a comfort, though, for readers of immediately “getting” a character: “Oh! Okay, she’s the shy librarian who is actually beautiful if she takes off those thick glasses.  Got it!”  It’s almost a shortcut for the reader for getting acquainted with a character. And readers seem to really connect them.

But then, of course, you’ve got readers who get bored with this.  They’re looking for something fresh and new.

Some of these stock characters do ring true to a certain degree, just like some stereotypes do.  I’m sure there are some really free-spirit accountants out there who go sky-diving after leaving the office…I just haven’t met any of them.

What I like to try to do if I use a stock character, is adapt them for my purpose instead of being lazy and just writing the character at face value.  Maybe I want the readers to immediately identify with them at the start and get the warm fuzzies about the character…but then I’ll have them be my murderer at the end of the mystery.  Maybe I’ll have a character who seems like the girl next door, but she’s actually got a secret.

We can also take a character that’s fairly flat (which stereotypes are) and give them more dimensions.  Do they react to other characters in surprising ways?   Do they grow or change during the course of the story?  What can they do that shows they’re unique?

Turning stock characters on their heads can be a lot of fun.  Have you used any stereotypical characters or avoided them completely?  What have you done to put a fresh spin on them, if you’re using them, and keep them from being too predictable?

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams
Pretty is as Pretty Dies--Midnight Ink
Delicious and Suspicious--Berkley Prime Crime...July 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In 1970, I read a book that changed my life. It was called “The Boxcar Children,” and wasn’t a series at the time, I don’t think.

From the moment I closed book’s covers, the love of reading light flicked on producing mega wattage. The characters in the book, I’ll never forget. And that’s been nearly 40 years later.

As a writer, plot eludes me. My strong point (if I have any) is in characterization.

As a reader, I’d much rather dive into a book with memorable characters, than have to follow a labyrinth of plot twists. Of course an ideal book would included both.

And it’s not that such turns of events don’t make for great, stay-up-till-2-a.m. reading. It’s just that if someone yanked wads of my hair and said, “Which do you prefer? Amazing characters or fast-paced action?” I’d pick the characters every time.

When my book club read all the Dan Brown books, I pretended to have read them, nodding when the questions went around the room, even giving the book our 1 through 5 rating. I’m sure the club is onto me and would have kicked me out long ago had I not provided such large quantities of mid-grade wine at my hostings.

When we select books by such writers as Barbara Kingsolver, I’m in heaven, knowing great characters are coming along with a decently paced plot. I will never forget the family in the “Poisonwood Bible,” or the heroine in “Prodigal Summer.”

On a lighter note, I read the “Bridget Jones Diary” years ago and her character is still with me. I fret over my weight and sometimes even say v.v.g., - her style for very very good. As for her later works, I’m cloudy on the characters and plot.

Maybe my book club put it best – though scariest for authors - “We don’t usually like to read the same author twice.”

“No wonder people didn’t buy my third book,” I said, suddenly enlightened.

My books are character driven. Some agents like this. Others don’t fool with it.

I start with a strong character and stick with her. I like to add in other kooks and quirkies as if pouring granola in a tub of premium vanilla ice cream. I’m starting to wonder if my last book didn’t sell because it was too heavy on characters and too light on plot. Writers can fret and go on and on over this matter. We tear up and re-do hundreds of pages of copy, trying to get that perfect blend.

This is what it takes. Both character and plot.

And this is where I’m still on the short bus to another NY sale. My learning disability seems to be plotting, while my characters are outrageous. I like to think of them along the lines of such memorable people as those in a Billie Letts movie, such as “Where the Heart Is.” I’ll never forget the folks in that book/movie. For those who didn’t read it, the story focuses on a young girl living in and having a baby in Wal-Mart and all that transpires after the blessed event.

Another character that has stayed with me for decades is Ignatius Reilly from “A Confederacy of Dunces,” my all-time favorite book. I’ve read it three times and have vivid images of Ignatius ranting against the modern world, his infamous valve opening and closing. I can close my eyes and see him leading a revolution at the Levy Pants factory or watching “Soul Train” and cussing the TV about the show’s vulgarities.

Hard to beat a more memorable character.
If I could just create a female Ignatius, and design at least half a decent plot, I might sell another book.

And if they put a fabulous cover on it, someone might actually buy it.

Susan Reinhardt is author of “Not Tonight Honey Wait ‘Til I’m a Size 6,” “Don’t Sleep With a Bubba” and “Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin.”

Today's Blog is Courtesy of  which features excerpts of Southern writing with an accompanying tourist guide. 

Excerpt from: In The Forest Of Harm by Sallie Bissell, published by Bantam

Attraction: Nantahala National Forest

Location: North Carolina

The following excerpt comes from the debut novel of a four-book series by Sallie Bissell featuring the fictional Mary Crow, a beautiful and compelling half-Cherokee prosecutor. This incredible series offers an enticing look into the mesmerizing landscape of the mountains of western North Carolina. In this excerpt, Mary is leading her two best friends on a hike deep into the Nantahala National Forest to a spiritual location first introduced to Mary by her Cherokee mother. Check out the link in the Tourism Guide at the end of this excerpt to learn about the real locations that inspired the story.

From In The Forest of Harm:

Alex turned left onto a gravel path that led to a small unpaved overlook, where she braked beside a tangle of wild honeysuckle. Thirty feet to the right, a tiny footpath seemed to plummet off the edge of the world.

The three women got out of the car and walked to a crumbling stone wall that skirted the overlook. Alex hopped up on the wall, putting her hands on her hips as she surveyed the expanse below.

For miles, a sea of trees undulated away from them. Still green at the lowest elevations, it swelled to red and gold and brown until distance tinted it mauve, then lilac. Finally it disappeared, miles away, into a hazy blue nothingness. As they watched two faraway hawks glide on a high thermal, the only sound they heard was the breath that rose from the forest itself. Cool and unwavering, it carried the fecund smells of growth and decay and made the fine hairs on their arms stand erect.

“Jeez,” murmured Joan, standing beside Alex. “And I thought Central Park was something.” She fumbled for her disposable camera that she had stashed in her purse. “I gotta get a picture of this.”

Mary watched as Joan snapped away. She knew from experience that her pictures would come out disappointing—the colors would be flat, the scope less majestic. Photography was frustrating that way. Only the images etched in your memory remained crisp, with colors undiluted.
“Can you imagine how the pioneers must have felt the first time they saw all this?” Alex spread her arms, as if all the acres below were a wild empire that belonged only to her.

Mary smiled. Alex’s imagination had always been able to soar at the slightest provocation, thrusting her back into history or forward into some crazy future. Though it made for interesting conversations, sometimes when she stood next to Alex she felt as dull as a stump.
“If we got lost could we follow those electrical wires out?” Alex pointed to a phalanx of power lines that stretched over the trees like strands of some giant spider web.

Mary squinted at the TVA cables linking the Cheoa and Calderwood dams. “I suppose, if we could climb a high enough tree to get a fix on one. It’s probably a day’s hike from pole to pole, though.”

Joan stared at the vastness before her and frowned. “Mary, are you sure you can find one little Cherokee hot spring in the middle of all those trees?”

“If this were New York, could you get us to Coney Island?”


“Okay,” said Mary. “Then just think of this as my Manhattan.”

“Well, okay,” Joan sighed. “But just remember I’m supposed to have dinner with Hugh Chandler next Saturday. I don’t want to have a broken leg or poison ivy or anything.”

“All you’ll have is thrilling tales of hiking through Appalachia,” Mary assured her. “Hugh will think he’s eating with Superwoman.” . . .
“Hey, Mary,” Alex asked, “when can we hike on to the spring?”

“Soon as the mist burns off.” Mary looked out across the huge cauldron of thick white mist that roiled just beyond the lip of the fissure. Only the tops of the mountains pierced through the swirling clouds. The view reminded her again of San Francisco, only here the mountains were the whales, dark forms breeching in a wispy white sea.

Joan flopped down between them. “Is all this fog why they call these the Smoky Mountains?”

"Shaconage,” Mary said without thinking.

“Excuse me?”

“That’s Cherokee. It means ‘land of blue smoke.’ Although actually,” Mary continued as she warmed her fingers around her coffee cup, “we’re in the Unicoi mountains, which comes from the Cherokee word Unaka.”

“Which means?”

“White mountains.”
Joan laughed. “You’re a regular thesaurus, Mary.”

“Don’t get excited. Ten more words and we’ll be at the end of my Cherokee vocabulary.”

Alex fixed them oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, then they waited for the fog to lift. By the time they struck their tent and repacked their gear, rust-colored mountains began to reappear as the thick white mist drained away. Overhead the sky turned from white to dazzling blue, and the breeze carried the aroma of apples and damp earth. It promised to be one of the singularly gorgeous fall days for which the Appalachian Mountains were famed.

Mary grinned at her friends, suddenly exhilarated. “Are we ready for the final assault on Atagahi?”

“I’m ready for any kind of hot tub,” replied Joan. “Electric, solar, or thermonuclear. These old bones need to soak in some nice warm water.”

Alex laughed. “Joan, you’re only thirty.”

“That’s in Atlanta years. Up here I feel three hundred.”

They doused the fire, buckled on their backpacks and followed Mary as she began to pick her way down from the cave . . .

They walked on, no longer stopping at creeks or listening to birds, just doggedly planting one foot ahead of the other, determined to make their destination. They crested the mountain, then Mary led them around the jutting roots of a massive overturned maple.

“There.” She grinned triumphantly and pointed below them. “Atagahi.”

A hundred yards away, ringed by huge boulders, a clear green pool glistened iridescent as a hummingbird in the sunlight. The calm waters glittered like an extravagant emerald on the finger of a czar.

Alex gasped. “Good grief! That looks more like Acapulco than Appalachia.”

“It even smells different.” Joan sniffed the air. “More like flowers instead of forest. And there aren’t any of those awful bugs!”

But Mary couldn’t speak. Atagahi was even more beautiful than she remembered. She could almost hear her mother’s laughter tinkling up over the water as they had lain floating on their backs, watching white clouds sail across blue sky.

Hurrying now, the three women picked their way among the rocks to the spring, ditching their backpacks under a drooping willow tree, their aches and complaints forgotten in the excitement of reaching their destination. At the lowest rim of the rock, they knelt and dipped their hands into the water.

“Hey, it is warm.” Joan looked up at Mary in surprise. “You weren’t kidding.”
“How deep is it?” Alex was peering into the fluorescent green depths.

“I’ve never known anyone who’s touched the bottom.” Mary sat down and began to unlace her boots. “But in a minute I’m going to try.”
She undressed. Her clothes made a small pile on the rock. She stood naked in the warm sun for a moment, then she poised on the edge of the pool and dived, her skin flashing pale bronze as she arced over the water. Seconds later, she surfaced ten feet away, her black hair slicked back and shining.

“This is incredible!” she cried exultantly. She arched her back and exhaled, floating, letting her weary arms and legs relax in the warm green water.
Did you touch the bottom?” Alex called, fumbling with the buttons on her shirt.
“Nope, I saved that just for you.”
“Are you sure nobody will see us naked?” Joan, who felt uncomfortable in the dressing rooms of Bloomingdale’s, peered around anxiously.
“Only that gun-toting red wolf we heard last night,” Alex replied. “And of course the ghost who slept outside our tent.”
“Oh, shut up, Alex!”

Mary closed her eyes and smiled as her friend’s voices danced in the air. They could swim or not, as they pleased. She would be content to float here for the rest of her life. In a few moments, though, she heard a western Yee-hiii! and felt a splash. Alex swam beside her; a moment later Joan did, too.

Her mother’s body is sleek as an otter’s. Martha smiles in the sun and dives headfirst into the spring as if she might find diamonds hidden in the deep green water. Her head breaks the surface and she calls to Mary. “Come on in, baby. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anything hurt you!” Mary strips down to her bathing suit and leaps into the water with far less grace than her mother. Down, down she goes, bubbles nibbling at her toes like tiny fish. She looks back up above her and sees the sun shining gold through the water and she gives one strong kick and surfaces in the honeyed air.

--Excerpted from IN THE FOREST OF HARM, Copyright 2001 by Sallie Bissell, published by Bantam.

Tourism Guide

I first discovered Sallie Bissell’s series about Mary Crow when reading an excerpt in Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains-A Guidebook by Georgann Eubanks, published by UNC Press. Sallie’s writing immediately jumped out at me, and I wanted to read more. I quickly read all four novels and loved every minute.

Although the suspense element is riveting, the humor and wry observations on character that lace the storyline throughout are the real gems to me, along with the breathtaking introduction to the rural North Carolina mountain landscape. The mountains call to Mary Crow, and she cannot resist the pull of their ancient spirits, nor can the reader. There is an artistic craft of style in Bissell’s writing that seems to constantly accompany the normal commercial thrill element that drives book sales.

I don’t normally read suspense/thrillers; I’m quite happy with Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but this style really made a literary impression on me. All great writers observe, and Sallie Bissell’s observations on the common characters that make up our real society are keen, inspiring, and often hilarious.

Mary Crow’s practical sensibilities make her a very solid, engaging character. When a fellow Cherokee political activist pushes a brochure on her about getting Native Americans into Congress, her reaction is priceless:

Mary looked up at Ruth Moon, wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. Did these Indians not know how their government worked? Rich people sent other rich people to Congress to protect their interests, and everybody else—black, white, yellow or red—could go to hell. (from A DARKER JUSTICE, Copyright 2002 by Sallie Bissell).

Mary is caught between two worlds, but not the ones you would expect: her love of a lifetime, Jonathan Walkingstick, against the predatory thrill of being a prosecutor. The latter world consumes her passions to the point of threatening her personal—and often physical—life with extinction.
After experiencing this series, readers will want to step into the story themselves to discover the rich landscape so far away from urban life. Even with the humor, there are some very gritty scenes throughout the novels, as you would expect from a prosecutor’s life. However, the sweeping majesty of the mountains will tempt you with a vacation and peace of mind that you won’t find in the crowded, expensive and over-commercialized hotspots that most of us think of as a “getaway.” This will be a real getaway, and one that you won’t ever forget. Please check out the informational links below to learn more.

Tourism Links

Sallie Bissell’s website

Nantahala National Forest 

Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative (for more places to visit with literary connections around the South)

Learn about all that North Carolina has to offer tourists

Bantam Dell Publishing Group

Facebook Group for SELTI at:

Photo by Dr. William Yelverton