Wednesday, June 30, 2010

STRUGGLES ALONG THE WRITER'S PATH

OUCH, OUCH, OUCH. I THINK I'VE SUFFERED A FEW WRITER BOOBOO'S. One of the suggested topics for this blog for the month has been the struggles a writer might experience along the journey. Okay. I'll go there. Maybe some writers don't experience ANY of these obstacles along the way but those I know, good friends of mine (some who will be named and others left unarmed) have endured or continue to endure struggles of varies types. Bear with me. I'll list a few of my favorite struggles I've wallowed around in or hurdled myself through to the other side. I'm sure you have some of your own favorites that you can add! I'd love to hear them so post your stories.


Finding Your Tribe: 

It's amazing how many times we are asked (or maybe this is old school and doesn't happen anymore) what we want to be when we grow up. The choices used to be something like NURSE for Girls and FIREMAN for boys. Ah, yes, the good old days indeed. My granddaughter now has a quick answer to this. Famous. Why? To be super rich. Why? So I can buy a pony and a hamster. Okay, granted. Famous and Rich will get you critters. There's logic there. Deciding to be a writer rarely involves any type of logic or reasoning. It's more of a pull inside akin to the undertow of the ocean. I picture strange little children bumping around in the darkness not being able to come up with a single answer but they are usually making up stories in their minds, playing alone just fine thank you, or keeping a secret diary. Eventually, somewhere along the way, somehow - they see a 7th grade play, get captivated by a book, or a teacher finds in them a sleeping poet. Somehow, somewhere, they find their tribe along the way but until they day comes there is a restless non-belonging of not fitting that pervades.

Discovering Your Voice:

Once a writer discovers there identity they will eventually have to follow suit by finding their true voice. This isn't automatically related to finding your genre although it can be close. It's pretty much - well, now that you know you are a writer - what kind of writer do you want to be when you grow up? In teaching writing classes I love the moment where I see that writers have suddenly surprised themselves by writing in a voice they almost don't recognise. It's stronger and more powerful than what they had imagined. More creative, more original. That's when they've shucked their inner critics and broken away from the pack of writers they've been reading or trying to subconsciously emulate. The writers on special spark hits the page with a laugh or a dare you. What comes before is struggle up until this point. What comes after feels like putting on the right coat at a crowded party in the dark. You know it belongs to you and you alone.


Convincing Those People You Really Are a Writer:

Ah, yes. The struggle to make certain you are accepted, understood, respected. This struggle kind of goes on forever and ever if you let it. Usually, the first people a writer has to face are his or her parents that just might have envisioned a more logical life for their little jewel. Something with benefits and a steady salary. Unless you were born with parents who were Gypsy's or grew up in a theatre troop you will most likely meet just a few obstacles in this area. Spouses can be great supporters or naysayers. Siblings, best friends, and that person looking back at you in the mirror. Good luck. Just try to hold fast to other examples of writers that made it through this one.  Get some advice you trust from a great reader about your work and listen to the quiet place in your soul that speaks to you. Usually, there are great truths to be found in that space -even ones that are most revealing.

Finding a Mentor or a Critique Group: 

I was fortunate to find the right mentor at the right time and to go on working then for YEARS. It would be at least fifteen years before I had my first novel published. That doesn't mean it needs to be that way but remember back in the days of an apprentice? When someone literally worked for years and years to study under someone to learn. As a society we have so lost our patience with the process. We want bestsellers overnight and in a year (I know I sure did!) but when it comes to working the soul of your talent - like a garden it takes work. I've been thinking about writing groups and critique groups. Recently, I've met a book club in Nashville that has been meeting faithfully every month and seriously discussing their book of the month for about twelve years. They are reading great works. And breaking them down like nobodies business. I couldn't image a better critique group than this readership. By now - they are experts. Find the feedback you need that makes you better - really, really better.

Accepting the simple fact that Yes, you will most likely have to have, keep, love or hate - your day job.

I had someone in a writing lecture I was giving recently ask me how did she know when was the right time to quit her day job.  Most of us have really beautifully romantic ideas about the writers life. It involves writing ting a few hours in the morning, napping at will, wandering quint foreign streets in the afternoon in search of espresso - then dinner over a fine bottle of wine with other writer friends in the evening. This is it right? The good life! On some blessed great and glorious days - this really is it. They are far and few between because there is serious work to be done either in the writing or publicity end of things and yes, there are bills to pay. Very few writers in the United States live on their writing income alone. Most have either a spouse or significant other bringing in the bread. Or at least contributing to the bread. Many others are teachers to one level or another at colleges, writing programs and otherwise. Some put widgets together in the dark all night long so that they can write for a few hours during the day. No matter what unless you have opted to live in a van down by the river or have built some life sustaining lifestyle off the grid and in the woods - you and the day job  may need to be best friends for a long time. If so, find something you love anyway. Work for a non-profit or become a Barrister. The day may come when you can sustain your lifestyle steadily on your writing income alone but don't count on it. Learn the discipline of skipping those favorite TV shows and shutting yourself up to write for a few hours. And if you can swing it, apply for or arrange a writing sabbatical so that you can at least get away for a week or a month of uninterrupted writing time anywhere away from the clatter of everyday life.

Landing An Agent:  



I think this is one of the greatest, most significant professional struggles. Consider it like a dating game. You are looking for someone with capabilities likes and dislikes, the same work ethic, a open line of communication. I met my first agent at a writer's conference and I think that is a GREAT place to start. Often writing events offer a critique by a visiting agent for 25-50 dollars. Well worth the investment for a little one on one time and in my experience agents don't pull many punches or waste their time by leading you on just to be nice. The other is checking fiction or non-fiction that resembles yours as far as subject matter or genre and searching to see if the agent's name is in the acknowledgments. Usually - but not always (and no reflection on the relationship) the agents name is there. You can do a fast search on the Internet to discover if they are still accepting new material or what their solicitation requirements are. Or you could meet your new agent at an upcoming Dutch Lunch in Nashville where we gather book people for lunch every month for some face to face interaction. Don't be shy right now where this one is concerned - contact agents to start the ball rolling but have your very best submission work ready to go. Don't write to tell them you are just THINKING about writing a novel and here is the idea and do they think they could get you six figures for it. My suggestion - write the novel - first. The Internet offers many sources for guides to agents and publishers worthy of your time.

Landing A Publisher:

My first novel had my agent seeing stars. Naturally - I saw writers with her. And since I had broken that huge struggle of signing with an agent I thought all the hard stuff like writing the novel and landing the agent were out of the way. I was wrong. The struggle continued. My agent submitted novel here and there - maybe everywhere but trying to get someone to buy it was like chasing someone to eat green eggs and ham. And it's a great novel. Promise. I love it as opposed to regretting it. The struggle here - trying to accept the fact that the selling game just wasn't going as I had planned. My life struggles weren't over or even being alleviated by all the years I had poured into learning the craft, writing the novel, finding an agent. Eventually, the novel found a home and received great reviews and what I'd call a little fan ship following.  And if your novel doesn't get snapped up by the first two or twenty publisher - don't worry (so much). It could be the editor had a really bad day and nothing read well. Or they are running out of money. Or they just published/contracted with something too close for comfort.

The Editing Game:

The Editing game seems like it should be one of the easiest parts of this strange adventure. After all, the editor bought your book so surely all the hard work is over - right?
Publishing is now a very busy, competitive world. Yes, the editor at the publishing house may have bought your work but then there is the possibility that you will loose that editor due to budget cuts or restructuring and suddenly be working with an editor that wasn't part of the procurement process. In that case or even if you are with the first editor your shared vision for the novel must be unified. This may take a few discussion via phone or email. And did I mention budget cuts and that most editors are now heavily overworked. Don't panic if your phone calls are not returned right away or if your emails seem lost in cyberspace - chance are your weary editor wills surface with a long list for you. That brings us to the rewrites.  Some rewriting is expected. It's time to polish and tightened the story. Even if you spent ten years writing it an editor has a special gift for following story lines and finding where there are large missing sinkholes that readers might fall into. They help make the story stronger by suggesting you add a line or a page here or there, give a character more room to speak, or even cut 10,000 words to tighten up the story. They are really good at what they do but learning to maintain the perfect dance with your editor and to communicate calmly and clearly may take a little work. Don't worry - most great relationships do.  Even after rewrites line edits will find their way to you. This is one of the many stages where the writer has the opportunity to catch last mistakes, fix a line that stands out as screaming wrong, or brushstroke just a little. Typesetting doesn't like a lot of changes at this point but it really is the last time to make any changes. Just when you think you can't read your novel one more time and your eyes are more bloodshot than you've ever see them - Then comes the actual  proofing of every word and page. Yes, you will amazingly catch typos and mistakes if you are giving it a careful read and you should. Final Titles, Back  copy, inside cover copy and cover art are next. If you have cover approval that is great but usually that part is basically general agreement. I have some wonderful stories from authors on their cover screams, and shocks. Fortunately I have just as many stories on how perfect the covers were for their novels. Count me in the later. It's been a real, wonderful surprise. But be prepared to submit cover ideas. The struggle continues with the understanding that no matter how much you love the writing game - there is some real, continuous work involved. So far I have yet to vacation in Tahiti drinking something cold with a little umbrella in it.


Procuring Endorsements:

Okay. Yes. It is the truth. For the most part you are expected to ASK people if they would consider reading your work and if they like it - giving it a short blurb. Do writer people want to do this. No. Most don't even want to ask their own Mother for a blurb. Also, we really do care if people like our work and truth be told all writing is not for everyone. But the publishers don't just magically send our work out to a magical list of authors waiting breathlessly for your galley. They are in the middle of the own deadlines and they have personal life to juggle as well. Ask anyway. It doesn't hurt unless you let it. Unless you crawl under the covers when someone says flat out NO I'm too busy, don't wanna, can't come out to play! Or they agree and you never hear from them again. Let it go. It's just one for the struggles you'll encounter.

Getting Publicity:

More and more publishing houses are cutting back in their marketing and publicity departments. It's a fact. So the publicity people (and/or person assigned to you) will also  be juggling a huge workload of authors and deadlines. Cooperate. And while you can make a huge amount of great and creative suggestions - you might want to tread through those waters carefully. You can also just wear your publicity people down, overwhelm them, or make them feel that you don't think they are doing the best you can. Do what you can. To the best that you can. While you are also working as best you can in tandem with them. Many writers I know have entered into agreements with private publicists who all have different rate cards/situations in the way that they work. Many of them read this blog and for those who would like to drop your calling card here - just leave a comment! There are so many books of all types being published every month there is no question that now isn't the time to go into your cave. The time just before and at publication of your book is crucial. Accept it. You must promote your work no matter how introverted you may be. Writers and readers festival can be great places to meet readers and get connected as well. Find them all listed at the Library of Congress/Center for the book.

Reviews Good and Bad:

It's a part of your life now. You may get a great review, even a starred review in something like Publishers Weekly only to find yourself in a fetal position after someone lambastes your writing on Amazon or other blog/reader sites. Time will help with this personal struggle for writers. Personally, I had to give up reviewing books simply for this reason - I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the coin. I know how much goes into a work whether I relate to it deeply or I don't. And I know how subjective words and stories are. Why is one person's worthless is another's saving grace. Keep your perspective here and remember to breathe deeply.  Don't walk on air too long after good (or great) reviews - and don't go outside and eat some worms if you get bad words. Just keep working, writing, and getting better.


Connecting with Readers:

Every writer must meet this struggle and find a way to overcome it. Ad Hudler created his Summer Tailgate book tour. Susan Greg Gilmore just baked 100 pound cakes and took them to the famous NY Book Blogger convention. Kathy Patrick has done more through her Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Getaway Weekend than anyone I know to help writers connect with readers. Most publishers are no longer sending writers on all expense paid 50 city tours. Embrace the challenge and find creative ways based on your time and money to reach the reader. But do it. (Yes, Twitter, Facebook, Myspace count!)

The Dark Night of the Soul: 

Most the writers I know have experienced this dark night moment. Surprisingly it didn't happen in the early stages of the struggle. Not near the beginning when they were learning to write or trying to get published. It has happened after a bad review followed great reviews for earlier work. It has happened after they had pretty healthy (large) contracts followed by trouble getting a book sold or selling for much less money. It's happened when financial worries only grew instead of disappearing. When agents didn't like their latest novel. When they ran out of words and felt dry to the bone.

Returning to the Page: 

Ultimately, what I've seen again and again seemingly save them was returning to the page. Recognising that above all they were created to write no matter the numbers, critics, or your mother-in-law (love mine for the record :) ) might say about how crazy you are. Returning to the story always seems to center writers. And beyond centering, when we hit that tap-root of words where we know what we are writing holds beauty, and timeless truths - makes us laugh aloud, feel deeply, fall in love - the light breaks through and the struggles feel like just another bump in the road.


RIVER JORDAN is novelist who has survived a few struggles on the writer’s path. Her work has been cast most frequently in the company of Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee and her latest novel, The Miracle of Mercy Land will arrive September 7, 2010. Her first published non-fiction work inspired by a New Year’s Resolution – Praying for Strangers will be published in Spring 2011. Ms. Jordan teaches and speaks on ‘The Power of Story’ around the country and produces and hosts the radio program, Clearstory, on WRFN, 107.1 FM, Nashville. Jordan and her husband live in Nashville, TN. You may visit the author at www.riverjordan.us

PS - Without their permission in the first place - a few incredible authors who have shared some of the funniest stories about writing struggles along the path that I have ever heard - and they keep on writing in all their different and  amazing ways. Whether it was a book cover or a doctor that said - Whatever you do - forget about writing and just make babies (or something like that - they've all endured, survived, and SUCCEEDED BEAUTIFULLY!


Janis Owens, Michael Morris, Susan Greg Gilmore, Robert Hicks, Eric Wilson, Charles McNair, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, Patty Callahan Henry, Michael Lister, Tony Simmons, WaylonWood,  Raymond Atkins, Joshilyn Jackson, JT Ellison, Cassandra King, Darnell Arnoult, Silas House, and yes, Even The famous Pat Conroy who had us in stiches at the PQGW with writer stories and a few hundred unnamed on purpose or by mistake. Long live all that wave that crazy flag from the Tribe of Story. (And yes, I'm claiming that for a future title. :) )
The New Book


As I write this I am feverishly in the final days of getting my new book together. My publisher, Mercer University Press, has made it clear from the start I need to have the manuscript to them by the last day of June. Now that is a firm date and not some nebulous some day it will be due kind of thing.

The bulk of the book is completed. All of the stories have been written as have the prologue and epilogue. All that remains now are the acknowledgements and the dedication. Those two tasks should be easy enough to get done – but they aren’t.


With the acknowledgements I always feel I am leaving someone out. Of course there are always more people to thank than I actually list but I do the best I can. Since this is my sixth book you would think I would be more adept at this, but I’m not. I have tons of friends and family I could put in this part but it would make the acknowledgements longer than the actual stories that make up the book.

And what about my fellow authors? There are so many people who have been more than generous to me along the way. They have offered encouragement and suggestions, as well as a safety net when I felt I might fall or fail. How can I possibly name all of them, and if I name only a few what will the others think?


It is a quandary. I have so much respect for these people that I want to get down and kiss their feet. The least I can do is mention them in my thank yous. But again there is that “room” problem. I can’t let this thing run on and on.

I have found my name listed in the acknowledgements of some books and it is a real thrill to see it there. It is also humbling to think the author thinks enough of you to have your name listed as someone who has played a special part in the creation of this book. Knowing how this affected me, I am more than particular about the people I list in my books.


Then there is the matter of the dedication. With the past books I have covered my wife, my sons and all my grandchildren. Now I could start listing my friends but again we have that “who do I select first” question. A dedication is a very special thing. It means this is the one person you want to be remembered in this particular book. It was in effect written for him or her.

I have never had a book dedicated to me so I really don’t know how it feels, but I do know that in the past I have worked long and hard to make the right choice for the person to whom a book is dedicated. I have worked on the selection as well as on the wording of the dedication. I take it seriously, very seriously.

When I am writing the stories included in my books, that is the easy part. I am a storyteller at heart and so putting some of my adventures down on the pages is just like telling a story to a friend. I like to talk and I like to write and the two become pretty much the same. It is when I get to these two sections that I have my trouble. “Acknowledgements” and “Dedication” are two of the most important parts of my book and definitely two of the more difficult aspects.

Pick up a copy of BACK TO THE GARDEN next spring and you will be able to see how I resolved these issues.

JKC

Jackie K Cooper is the author of five books, the latest being THE SUNRISE REMEMBERS. His sixth, BACK TO THE GARDEN, will be published by Mercer University Press in the spring of 2011.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

When the Mosquitoes and Vampires Start Biting…

One of these days I'll get around to actually writing my own blog post again, I promise, but 'tis the season for debut authors, and I've got another treat for you today. Please put your hands together and welcome my friend, fellow ITW debut buddy, Southern Author, and acolyte of our very own Carolyn Haines, the marvelous Jeannie Holmes, whose first book, Blood Law, is scheduled to arrive at a store near you any day now. You can check out an excerpt HERE; you won't be sorry.

Without further ado... here's Jeannie:

I’d like to thank all the regulars here at A Good Blog Is Hard to Find for giving me a guest blog this week, especially Jennie Bentley who gave me a topic when my mind went on strike and refused to consider any form of work. I also want to give a big shout-out to my former teacher and current good friend, Carolyn Haines. Everything I learned about writing I learned from her. Hmm…should I really be saying that aloud? (Just joking. Carolyn knows I love her.)

When Jennie first approached me about blogging my debut novel, Blood Law, on a Southern writers' blog, I thought, “I can do this. I’m from Mississippi, and I live in Alabama. The book is set in Mississippi. No problem.” That’s what I continued to think until my brain decided to take an unannounced mid-week vacation last week. So when Jennie reminded me that I still needed to turn in a blog, I admitted I’d drawn a blank. She was nice enough to offer a topical setting question: Why are so many vampire books set in the South? Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

The short answer to this question is “I don’t know.” Honestly, I don’t know why or how vampires came to populate the South, but I believe it started with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. If you’ve ever walked the streets of New Orleans’s French Quarter, with its narrow alleys and brick-paved streets, it’s easy to image Louis and Lestat hunting the residents after the sun goes down. Conversely, if you’ve ever spent time in one of the many small towns that dot the rural landscape of Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, it’s equally easy to imagine the likes of Bill Compton or Eric Northman taking an interest in a local telepathic barmaid, such as Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse.

However, this doesn’t answer the question of why so many vampire books are set in the South. Well, I can’t speak for other authors, but I know why my debut novel, Blood Law, is set in small-town Mississippi. It boils down to writing what you know, and I know small-town Mississippi life and have been intrigued by vampires since my dad first allowed me to watch Bela Lugosi as Dracula when I was six. (My mother wasn’t very happy with him for about a week or so afterwards because she was the one who had to deal with my nightmares.) I’ve also had a life-long admiration for law enforcement so I combined all of these into a book and the result is vampire cops tracking a killer through the streets of a small Mississippi town. Ta da!

My personal reasons aside, what is it about the South that makes it fertile ground for vampires? I think it’s because the past is still very much a part of the present here. As my grandmother would say, “Even the ghosts have long memories,” meaning there are reminders of the past all around us. Whether it’s the antebellum mansions of Natchez, the Spanish moss-laden oaks of Mobile, or the wrought-iron balconies of New Orleans’s French Quarter, history is alive in the South. Vampires, especially the modern anti-hero variety, are walking remnants of that past and to place them in an ultra-modern setting seems almost a disservice. They are creatures of other places and other times, and as my Los Angeles-raised husband will tell anyone, “The South is a world unto itself where time slows to a crawl…at least until the mosquitoes start biting and then it’s every man for himself.”

###

Author Bio:
Jeannie Holmes is a Mississippi native who now lives in Mobile, Alabama with her husband, four neurotic cats, and an arthritic shaggy dog. Blood Law is her first novel.

If you'd like to hear more from Jeannie, she's also over on the Working Stiffs today. Yeah, I've been very bad about writing blog posts lately. Although you can catch me all week on 7 Criminal Minds, if you want.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

THE SETTING OF DIALOGUE

Setting. Hmmm. My mind’s been turning this topic over for a day or so as I ponder what wisdom I have to offer. I can remember way back as I was studying the craft of writing and reading a how-to-write-a-novel book that the author used this fancy word, milieu, in a section about setting. I had to look up milieu in my Webster’s, which said milieu is a noun, and means place, surroundings, and environment. My how-to-write book said milieu is of utmost importance in a story, and I agree wholeheartedly. I love nothing more than to be transported to some place. That’s why I read. And why I write.

I just finished the fourth and final edit of a book coming out this fall. It’s called I’ll Be Home for Christmas (after Bing Crosby’s famous song) and it’s set in the year 1944, in Watkinsville, Georgia, and in Trenton, New Jersey. Now, I thought I’d researched the milieu of those places fairly well. I studied climate and terrain, and things like the style of homes, travel, clothing, what restaurants were around, etc… Since World War Two is going on in my story, I read a fifty-pound book on the war. I was so proud as I incorporated things about various battles, which products were rationed, and how folks displayed their patriotism.

I sent the first go-round of the book off to my editor and waited, smugly. But, boy was I in for a shock when I got her comments back. I cannot tell you how many red editorial notes there were in the margin of my manuscript, saying, “This dialogue is too modern for this era,” and “This word did not appear until the 1960’s,” and “Julie, this is a fairly modern saying.” I found out I really needed some help on the setting in regard to . . . dialogue. Yes, what my characters were saying, their conversations, evoke a setting. Words like ‘workaholic’ (origin 1968) and ‘zilch’ (origin 1966) and phrases like ‘in denial’ and ‘freak out’ (origin 1967) and ‘into me’ were non-existent in 1944. Lots of slang that we use was not around back then. My editor changed one of the character’s exclamations (which I can’t remember off the top of my head) to “Jeepers!” Jeepers sounds so innocent, and indeed it does sound like something my Mother-in-law, who was my heroine’s age in 1944, would say. When I told my 12-year-old son, he just laughed. He said it sounded like something off of Scooby Doo.

In another instance, my editor said that calling someone ‘man’ is a fairly modern thing, and so I had to change some dialogue reading, “Hey, man, you okay?” These examples are just a tiny percentage of what I had to re-write as far as dialogue to bring the setting of 1944 to life.
Speaking of dialogue bringing a setting to life, I was reading Lauretta Hannon’s blog on here from June 24th, and I laughed aloud at the setting her dialogue evoked. Lauretta, author of The Cracker Queen, was saying that one day she’s going to set a scene in the waiting room of a rural Southern hospital. She had lots and lots of examples of the dialogue her characters would use - in regard to illnesses they suffered. Lauretta quoted her Me-Maw saying, ”Oh, I’ve had Cadillacs on my eyes for ten years now. I can’t get ‘em fix-did ‘cause you know Crazy Aint Carrie will steal my pain pills…” Because I had a rural and Southern Me-Maw myself, and because I’ve literally heard every single one of Lauretta’s examples of rural Southerners illnesses, I could SEE that scene in my mind plain as day. I would not have to have any other descriptions of setting; i.e. words about what town it’s in, the way the characters dress, what they drive, the landscape, to BE THERE. When I read Lauretta’s dialogue, I was immediately plunged into the scene, the setting. Those characters were flesh and blood to me as I sat here staring at my computer screen, reading and laughing and nodding my head. I could tell you what they had on, what they ate for breakfast, what they were going to watch on the TV later that night, what was on the backseat of their cars, etc… just by their dialogue.

I’m currently reading a friend’s manuscript and it’s set in 1919 in Greensboro, North Carolina, among educated land-owning gentry. What I’m really appreciating is the setting my author friend is evoking through the dialogue of her characters. Caroline, the heroine, talks often about how hard it is to remember that a proper lady keeps her ankles crossed at all times, and about the Cotillion Club. She says things to her friend like, “The boys will want to fill in our dance card at the beginning of the dance.“ She says, “Do we have enough butter laid by?” and “I took the flivver (that’s what they called Model-T’s) to town Friday morning, first thing, and I almost cranked it myself.” Also, “I saw an aeroplane today.” At one point her daddy asks her, “Are you blaspheming, Caroline?” He answers someone with, ‘People befitting our station as major landowners, as pillars of the community.” These snippets of dialogue whisk me back to 1919, a time when speech was much more stilted.

When I teach writing workshops, one thing I advise my students to do is to keep journals. I tell them it’s okay to eavesdrop and to record snippets of dialogue they overhear. This is about becoming conscious. I’m constantly amazed at what I hear people saying to each other – even on their cell phones while sitting in a stall at a public restroom! A good thing is, when you’re doing this in the name of your writing, your art, bringing a setting to life, it sort of sanctifies the act of eavesdropping. Now, go out there and listen.


Julie L. Cannon is the author of The Homegrown Series and The Romance Readers' Book Club. Her new novel I'll Be Home for Christmas will be out this fall.

Visit Julie at http://www.juliecannon.info/.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hooked on the Oxycondoms



One day I’ll set a novel in the waiting room of a rural Southern hospital. That way I can use the language I grew up hearing whenever illness was the subject.

Two dominant traits emerge when my people speak about being sick:

1. Extreme exaggeration of one’s actual condition (gruesome details   are a plus) and
2. Mispronunciation of words related to health.

So here’s what my characters in the waiting room might well say…

Couple 1

“Lord, I can’t believe Buddy’s back in the hospital. Just last week they drained 6 quarts of fluid off of his neck.”

“I know. Hospitals will kill you fast. Remember when that foreign doctor took a knife to Jolene Sugg’s back? When they saw what was inside, all they could do was just sew her back up. She was eat up with the cancer. And you know once that air got to it she was dead within a week.”

Couple 2

“Me-Maw, when did you start having so much trouble with your eyes?”

“Oh, I’ve had Cadillacs on my eyes for ten years now. I can’t get ‘em fix-did ‘cause you know Crazy Aint Carrie will steal my pain pills. She’s already been banned from the pain clinics in a three-county area. I caint let her get me in trouble. Bless her heart—I think she got hooked on the Oxycondoms after they gave her that croat-a-zone for her bron-i-cal tubes.”

Couple 3

“I just hope Scooter don’t have another tumor. That last one was the size of a grapefruit.”

“I know it. I still can’t get over the trouble LaDonna went through. I mean, they said her uterine fibroid was the size of a broiler chicken.”

And so it goes. My own Me-Maw relished poor health more than anyone. She embellished her angioplasty to become open-heart surgery. But when asked about the “surgery,” she gave the most succinct description of angioplasty that I’ve heard: “They went in down here by my right grind (groin)—down here by my privates—and undid that clog in my heart.”

She also had a sinister explanation for her robust appetite. “Now you can believe this or not, but there’s something inside of me that’s eating my food besides me.”

I still have family members whose first-aid kits overflow with the ingenuity of poor folks. WD-40 is relied upon to ease stiff joints, and our time-honored solution to all dental problems and deep cuts is Super Glue.

Healthcare professionals in these rural areas also engage in the melodrama. They have told my then-fifty-eight-year-old mother that she had the bones of a ninety-five-year-old. That if she risked having a colonoscopy she’d leave the hospital…feet first, through the back door, and in a body bag. They actually said “feet first” and “body bag.” (The colonoscopy proceeded without incident.)

It does please me that a few old superstitions and home remedies still exist. The most bizarre comes from the late Lily George of Centenary, South Carolina. She swore that if you’re bitten by a snake, it causes a real snake to “hang off your liver.” The cure is to cook a mess of greens and stand over the boiling pot with your mouth open—that will draw the snake out. Dr. Freud would’ve had a field day with that one.

I think I’ll go ahead and work the waiting room scene into my current novel. I can’t resist it. But I have to go now. I feel a little peaked and need to see what I have in the medicine cabinet. After all, it takes 1,000 milligrams of anything to work on me. 

Lauretta Hannon is the author of The Cracker Queen--A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life. Her book was recently named one of the Top 25 Books All Georgians Should Read. Later this year she'll be offering her popular writing seminars through her Down Home Writing School. You may learn more at thecrackerqueen.com.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Good Blog is Hard to Write by Patricia Sprinkle

Every few weeks I get an e-mail from Karin Gillespie reminding me it's my time to blog again. Karin is an amazing woman to keep this many authors' noses to the grindstone. It must be a bit like herding hamsters. Our hamsters if let out of their cages used to scatter in all directions. That's how I feel when I see my name on her list.

I spend my life writing books. Into them I pour all the knowledge, passion and imagination I have. What else could I possibly write about that anybody in blogland would be interested in reading?

Do you want to know that I'm a week from deadline on an unfinished book, working from dawn until late at night, and am slowly turning the color of uncooked dough while the rest of you lounge on beaches? That the birds have abandoned our yard because I haven't filled the feeders for weeks? That my husband meets me in the hall and asks, as to a stranger, "May I help you?"

The only exciting thing I've done this month is to start a new fashion trend. I gave my father and my husband hats--not caps, actual hats--for Father's Day. I was inspired when my daughter-in-law gave my son an Indiana Jones hat for his birthday the week before. He looked downright dashing. I thought, "Why not start a hat revolution?"

This is a selfish war. I live in a bald family. My dad is bald. My husband is bald. One of our sons is bald. I look at my grandsons' blond curls and suspect one day those cute heads, too, will be bald. And after 94 years of righteous living under the Florida sun, my father currently drives over to my house every day so I can scrub and dress five large, yucky places on his head where the dermatologist removed skin cancers. After looking at those sores for three weeks straight, I wondered, "Given the current green revolution, what could be more ecologically responsible than putting bald men in hats?"

For Dad I bought a black straw Fedora. For my husband I bought a khaki French Pith Helmet. I had to get them online, because none of the stores in our area carry men's hats. Why not? I asked myself. What guerrilla tactics can I use to foment a groundswell to save the scalps?

Writers know about product placement. Put the right brand name in your book and you might get a year's supply of mayonnaise. Years ago when Lucky Strike cigarettes weren't selling too well to women, they asked the fashion industry to dress women the following year in Lucky Strike green. Voila, new smokers.

So as of this month, I am putting my men in hats. Not just the men in my life, but the men in my books. I hope the books will be picked up by Hollywood and all the movies will feature men in hats. Hats were certainly sexy on Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. Why not on Johnny Depp and Hugh Grant?

If any of the rest of you want to join the revolution, it's free and open to all races, classes, genders, religions, and even men with hair. Tip your cap to a new generation of men in hats!

And if you are going to one of those beautiful beaches I haven't seen yet this summer, take along my latest novel, Hold Up the Sky.  I have been told it's a great beach read.

Patricia Sprinkle is the author of three series of southern mysteries and three novels, including this year's Hold Up the Sky.

Q and A with Jackie Miles

Jackie Miles's first two novels, Roseflower Creek and Cold Rock River have proved to be so popular, her publisher is re-issuing them this summer with a whole new look.

What’s the backstory behind ROSEFLOWER CREEK?


When I decided to try my hand at writing, I signed up for a class at the University of Georgia’s Continuing Education Center. The only class they had that wasn’t filled up was Murder and Mayhem for Money. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to write, but what could I do? It was the only one available. I immediately signed up.

When I showed up for class, there were thirty-five people in attendance. Most of them had substantial and multiple degrees and had been writing for years. Some were even published. Being the new kid on the block, they were curious about me. One of them asked what genre I was writing in.

I said, “John who?”

The class had a good laugh, but they let me stay on and suggested that I sign up for the writer’s conference coming up on campus that would feature editors and agents from all over the country including New York. There would be four-hundred students in attendance.

Soon, I found out we could take a portion of our work to the conference and have it evaluated by a professional. I immediately got to work on a mystery genre, creating the Kate Ferrington Mystery Series, which I billed as a Killer Series, since all of the titles had the words Kill Her in it: Kill Her Dead, Kill Her Gone and Kiss Her, Tease Her, Kill Her, Squeeze Her.

After finishing each chapter, I wasn’t sure it was what I really should be writing, but I persevered. I had nearly one hundred pages and was getting rather excited about attending the conference when I picked up the local newspaper one morning and spotted a United Press article on the front page. It went on to tell of a ten-year-old boy who had lost his life when his mother and step-father beat him to death for stealing five dollars in the lunch room.

I was reduced to tears. Having four children myself, all I could think of was how awful this was for this little boy: physically, psychologically, spiritually and mentally. Holding up the paper, I remember saying, “You poor little boy. It must have hurt so bad.”

A little voice in my head said, “Yeah, it did, and the morning I died it rained.”

I went to my computer and threw Kate Ferrington out and started writing what became ROSEFLOWER CREEK. My story was one that featured a ten-year-old girl in the 1950’s who loses her life when her alcoholic step-daddy takes things too far. I wrote the prologue, the first fifty pages, the last chapter and the epilogue without stopping.

A few weeks later at the conference, I met Ron Pitkin, the President of Cumberland House Publishing. He was enamored with the opening line: The morning I died, it rained, and asked to see the manuscript. I gave him what I had. He instructed me to finish it and send it to him as soon as possible. I finished the manuscript and sent it off. He called me a week later to tell me they were bringing in out in hardcover. I consider it a miracle. I was absolutely in the right place at the right time.

What’s your favorite line from the novel?


When Lori Jean is five-years-old, her father deserts them, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. Lori Jean’s mother Nadine, who is eight months pregnant, runs after the truck as her father drives off. Their dog Digger is running right beside her. My favorite line is when Lori Jean says: “It didn’t do Mama no good. My daddy kept on going till he was a speck the size of the fleas that drove Digger nuts.”

Who are some of your literary influences?


It started with John Steinbeck and THE GRAPES OF WRATH. That book triggered a lifelong passion for reading at a young age. I was also enamored with Carson McCullers THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING.

An author who inspired me to keep putting words down on the page was Anne Lemott with her non-fiction book BIRD BY BIRD. The book didn’t solve the mechanical aspects of my writing or lead me to a path of structural excellence, but it did spark my creativity, inspire me to write well-fleshed characters, and spurred me on when I became disillusioned. Another author who was a great inspiration was Elizabeth Berg. She wrote ESCAPING INTO THE OPEN: THE ART OF WRITING TRUE. She wrote that what you need is a “fierce desire to put things down on paper.” That I had. Her gentle nudging kept me going.

What was the hardest part about writing the novel?

The hardest part was staying true to the time and place. The novel is set in Georgia during the 1950’s. Having been raised in the north, I had to draw on all of my experiences once I settled in the south. When I wrote the novel I’d been in Georgia for thirty years, but my northern roots kept showing up and I constantly had to edit out dialogue and situations that didn’t ring true. Also, I was raised during the 1950’s, but sometimes it was hard to recall the actual events of the era and I had to do some research to make sure my scenes were “spot on”.

ROSEFLOWER CREEK is being reissued with a whole new look. Tell us about that.

When Sourcebooks bought out my publisher Cumberland House, they were enchanted with both ROSEFLOWER CREEK and COLD ROCK RIVER, my second novel. They made the decision to re-package both of them with new covers and a new launch and re-release them. I consider it a major blessing. How many novels get a second chance? ROSEFLOWER CREEK re-released May 1st. COLD ROCK RIVER re-releases July 1st.

I hope all my readers will check them out and write me back if they intend to! In the interim,

All great best and bless your reading hearts!

What is the premise behind COLD ROCK RIVER?


Cold Rock River is the parallel journey of two young women born a century apart. In 1960’s rural Georgia, Adie Jenkins, seventeen and pregnant is introduced to the diary of Tempe Jordan, a slave girl in 1863, also seventeen and pregnant. Adie is haunted by the death of her baby sister Annie. Tempe is grieving the sale of her three children sired by her white master. What’s buried in the diary could destroy Adie’s life.


Tell us about the research process.

Initially Cold Rock River was to be the story of Adie Jenkins, seventeen and pregnant and unmarried during the early 1960’s. I know today if you’re in her condition, they throw you a shower. In those days they threw you out.


As Adie’s story began I decided she would do some chicken farming to feed them when it became apparent Buck, her new husband, wasn’t going to be one she could count on. I went to the library to research Georgia chicken farming and stumbled onto the Slave Narratives. The complete collection— which contains more than two thousand first-person accounts—is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. They were commissioned by President Roosevelt during the depression years, in order to record the journey of those freed slaves still alive. Writers ere sent across the nation to search for them. Their accounts are as fascinating as they are poignant. Over the years, there’s been a good deal of controversy as to their accuracy, based on the fact that some of the freed slaves were fearful or perhaps suspicious of the government—brings to mind “forty acres and a mule”—and hesitant to speak candidly regarding the treatment they may or may not have received at the hands of their sometimes still powerful former masters. The collective consensus is that somewhere amidst the vast amount of material lies the truth. After months of reading, reviewing, and re-examining all of the narratives I could locate, Tempe’s portion of Cold Rock River emerged. Her story, based on what I found, is remarkable. Everything that Tempe experiences was lifted from the lives of actual people who wore the chains and bore the scars of slavery. I won’t ever forget her; nor am I able to forget those I ‘met” through the narratives, who bravely shared their life stories so that Tempe could tell me hers. The research took over two years.



You’ve written four novels now. Do you have a favorite and why?

My favorite is always the one I’m working on at any given time. Seems I can’t help myself. I get so attached to the people in my stories. I just finished ALL THAT’S TRUE. It follows the life of thirteen-year-old Andrea St. James (Andi for short), who discovers in the summer of 1991 during the first Desert Storm War, that her father is having an affair with her best friend’s sexy new step-mother. With equal joy and equal sorrow, the book celebrates Andi’s coming of age where she uncovers the allusive nature of truth and the devastating consequences of deception. It debuts from Sourcebooks in January 2011.


What is your writing process like?


First of all I try to write every day but Sunday, not always an easy task. Life tends to get in the way. But I work hard to stay on schedule. I’m a firm believer that keeping ones fingers on the keyboard is the perfect way to ward off writer’s block.

Initially, when I begin a book, I listen to the voice of my character and what they have to tell me. Usually these characters are inspired by an incident in my own life or something that I’ve read, as in Roseflower Creek. In my second novel Cold Rock River, the story came from the time my baby sister choked on a jelly bean. She survived, but fifty years later when I was trying to go to sleep, I recalled the memory and it was fresh as newly skinned knees. I got up and wrote the opening line:

I was five-years-old that spring Annie choked on a jelly bean. She was twenty months old; she wasn’t supposed to have any. Mama made that quite clear. Sadly I wasn’t a child that minded well, so I gave her one anyway. I figured she should taste how good they were. I figured wrong.

Once the protagonist is firmly planted in my mind I keep writing until they have nothing else at the moment to say. That’s when I sit down and start outlining the story, where it’s going, the story points that will get it there and what the best possible ending might be. Often times as I’m writing I don’t end up following the initial outline, but it does give me some type of structure to follow, and if I move outside the lines, I’m not concerned. Characters do have a habit of running away with the story and I usually follow them wherever they’re going.

Toward the end, I take another look at the story arc and see if I’ve fulfilled the promise I made to the reader when they picked up the book. Will it take them to a spot where they’re happy with the story? If I am extremely pleased, I have confidence that my reader will be, too. If I’m not, I go back and fix whatever it is that I feel is missing.

Then I start the process all over again with a new book and a new premise.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on Summer Ridge, my latest. In this novel, twelve-year-old Mary Alice Munford struggles with the knowledge her mother plans to marry her father, a man who abandoned them before she was born.

Here’s the opening:

When I was very little my mother told me stories about why my father wasn’t with us. First she said he was away in the war going on in Asia. Vietnam. Then she said he was trying to heal from the wounds in his head that made him forget us. Later she said he was on assignment with the Secret Service.

“Hogwash,” Granny Ruth said. “She’s filled your head with garbage.”

Back and forth all day long. They still can’t agree on anything. They can’t decide what bread to buy. They can’t decide on which church to go to. There are many in Summer Ridge. One thing’s for sure, they don’t agree on my father. My mother insists he’s perfect.

Granny Ruth says, “And pigs can fly.”

Ours is not a happy household. There’s me, my mother, Granny Ruth and Aunt Josie, whose husband, my Uncle Earnest, fell under a combine when I was four, so I never got to know him good. The day he died, I climbed up on Aunt Josie’s lap and wouldn’t leave even when it was time to go to bed. Mama tried to pick me up.

“You been sitting there all day, sweet thing.”

“Leave me lone, Mommie,” I said. “I’m helping Aunt Josie cry.”



Visit Jack Miles at http://jlmiles.brinkster.net/

Monday, June 21, 2010

Setting

I got up this morning with my mind on writing a blog about settings for A Good Blog is Hard to Find. You should feel flattered; this is not a likely time or place for someone to focus on blog-writing. It’s is the longest day of the year, the first day of summer, and our garden is in its full glory. I spent the early part of the morning pulling weeds among the silver queen corn as my chicken scratched and pecked amid the tomatoes. (Her name is Sorche, but whe I let her out of her coop, I like to cry, “Release the Cluckin!”) The peppers are big and full and the tomatoes are sweet and red, and when I brush against them or tie them to their stakes, they release the wonderful smell of bruised tomato vines.  Then I refilled our hummingbird feeder, and as I write this, I’ve got half an eye on it, waiting to see if my hummingbird will return. I haven’t seen him yet, but the feeder was empty, so someone must’ve been drinking it.


The gardenias are faded and brown now, and their intoxicating fragrance is no longer in the air – intoxicating is not hyperbole; when they were in full bloom, the scent could almost make you dizzy – but the lantana is just coming into its own and some big purple flowers that I don’t know what they are, but they sure are pretty. And our hydrangeas are rowdy – magenta, purple, and blue.

But I wanted to tell you my views on setting, and differentiate it from a na├»ve misconception that setting functions just as backdrop. I had in mind to say that setting is a container and that in some metaphysical way, you can’t change the shape of the container without changing the contents, but it’s really more than that.

But back to setting. Someone, I forget who, but a heavyweight literary theorist theorized in his heavyweight literary way that the setting is also a character. At the time I read that, I thought that he had conflated the meanings of character as a person portrayed in fiction and character as the distinguishing qualities of a thing or place, such as “This wine has a lot of character.” Back then it seemed to me he had gone too far, but now I don’t know if he went far enough.

I got up and walked around the garden as I thought about this matter. Sorche is scratching and hunting under the Rose of Sharon, just now with purple and white trumpet-shaped flowers. Big yellow flowers and little yellow flowers adorn the cucumbers and the zuchinni. Yellow hairs as fine as – well – corn silk fall from ripening ears and radio-aerial-looking stalks drop pollen dust on the corn plants. Japanese eggplant grows like drooping purple teardrops.

But I sat back down to tell you about setting and why I think it’s important.

I’m thinking of a line from C S Lewis or somebody that a fish does not believe in water until it’s pulled out of it. Lewis meant to suggest by analogy the existence of God, but I wanted to apply it to the concept of setting, that setting is not only background, but foreground, above-ground, and underground. That it envelopes, surrounds, and infuses us. Setting is not the steam of the coffee at my wrist – it is coffee and coffee cup, too – the crumpled blue packs of Equal Sweetener – the beetle-black coffee beans from which the coffee was brewed – the coffee plants, and the mist-covered mountain coffee plants grow on – the nation of Columbia – South America, North America. I think about the address of an envelope in Our Town, the specifics of which I forget, but it telescopes outward from a street number, to a city, state, nation, the solar system, the universe, and ultimately the mind of God.

Setting has something to do with all of this, but I can’t think of that now.

I just looked up and saw the hummingbird has returned to its feeder.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette.  His novella Scoring Bertram Wiggly is available exclusively on Kindle from Amazon.com.  His second novel, Paradise Dogs, is due out Spring of 2011 from Thomas Dunne Books.  His interviews with authors can be heard on Georgia Public Radio's Cover to Cover.  He lives in Atlanta with his wife Nancy, his dog Zoe, and chicken Sorche.

Muddling Through...

    My first book in two and a half years just came out. The comments back from my friend's and my mama are great. But they're reading it too fast. Because it's not like sister has another one coming out tomorrow! In fact, it won't come out until this time next year. I'm almost 60,000 words in, but oh my this one has been a challenge.
   I've never been an outliner. I'm a write as you go kind of girl. Hope the inspiration shows up in the morning and let's see where this story is going to take us. I always know the beginning, pretty much know the ending, but have no idea what is going to happen as we go. I like my characters. Really I do. The  theme is pretty heavy, so I'm having to find ways to lighten it up. But it's the muddling...I just feel like I'm muddling.
   Each morning, I have me some quiet time, fix my usual breakfast of toast with some peanut butter and homemade preserves, grab me a coke and a chair outside, until the humidity forces me indoors and I open up my Word document and stare at the page. Where do we go next? Is my question each morning.
   Thankfully each morning something shows up. I've always told people who want to write they simply have to start. And so that is what I am doing every morning, starting. Though each morning I'm just as scared as I was the day before. I remember after my divorce three years ago I didn't know if I'd ever have another story to write. I sat down at the computer and stared at the blank screen and just prayed that something would come up. I remember that sweet whisper in my heart from my heavenly father..."if you show up I'll show up." And He did. Otherwise "Hurricanes in Paradise" would have never been written.
   I feel like I'm not doing much more than showing up these days. Of course part of it could be the mental drainage that has recently occurred from my new marriage and now current "bonus mom" to five beautiful children, when I have never had children of my own. But whatever the reason, all I know is one day, just like I have so many other days in the past, I'll hold a finished piece of work in my hands and wonder how that ever happened. Muddling through ain't always a bad thing. Because remember, at least you're getting through...

Denise Hildreth Jones just released her sixth southern fiction novel to the applause of reviewers and readers alike. She makes her home in Nashville, Tennesse with her husband, five "bonus children", two shih-tzu's and an endless supply of Coca-Cola. And every now and then she gets to read a book herself.
www.denisehildreth.com
www.denisehildreth.typepad.com "Flying Solo" A blog for singles

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Q and A With Maryann McFadden, Author of SO HAPPY TOGETHER

What made you want to write SO HAPPY TOGETHER?

As anyone who has read my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, knows, I love writing about different generations, and using their points of view. So when it was time to write my second novel, which became SO HAPPY TOGETHER, I decided this time to have the characters in the same family. At the heart of this story is Claire Noble, a history teacher in her mid forties who has raised a daughter alone, led a small town life, and is about to reach for some of her long-held dreams: to travel, to study photography, and to marry the kind of man it seems she's waited her entire life for. But...and isn't this what makes a good story?... her family gets in the way.
The inspiration for this came from finding myself caught in the same dilemma, and having no idea there was actually a name for it: The Sandwich Generation.


What's the easiest part of writing for you? The most difficult?



I think the toughest part is starting that first draft because in the beginning the characters aren't real yet. And for me, it's all about the characters. I need to love them, feel them, be in their heads, because I want my readers to care about them so much. By my third draft, they're starting to become like family and it's much easier for me to know what they would really do and not do. But of course, we don't want anyone to be predictable, so there's that delicate balance. In the end, what I'm most proud of as a writer is my character development.

In this novel, we see what life is like through the eyes of Claire, her mother, Fanny, 78, and her daughter Amy, 23. All three of these women have dreams, but when they get to Cape Cod, they find their dreams changing, as they begin to look at life differently. The light on Cape Cod is famous for it's beauty. It's been luring artists and writers for more than a century. And I use the light literally and metaphorically to show how these characters transform, in some surprising ways, especially Fanny. For me, setting is like another character, both in my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, set on Pawleys Island, and SO HAPPY TOGETHER, set mostly on Cape Cod.


I love writing older characters. I think we can learn so much from them, and usually for young people they are the most surprising, because it's assumed that you reach a certain age, and the dreams fade, and you feel differently inside. But I remember my own grandmother at 80 telling me she still felt 18 inside. I never forgot that.

I’m also a big observer of life, and people. When I began writing Amy’s character, I sat and thought for a long time about my own children at that age, how I felt way back in my 20's, and took a hard look at the world today, and all of the challenges young adults face navigating this crazy place! Here she has to go back home and let her mother help her, something that also prickles her pride, because they’ve been estranged for several years. But Amy has a new dream, and with her mother’s and grandmother’s help, perhaps she can achieve it.

 What's the best craft advice you can give writers?

Polish, polish, polish. I begin every morning by polishing a few scenes back and continuing where I'm about to write fresh. That accomplishes 2 things, it constantly improves the language, the flow, the character development, and then when I hit the blank page of the new material, my mind is already in the groove. This is especially great when I'm tired, and unsure where I'm going with the new scene, because it kind of jump starts the creative process and it gets the thread of the story cooking in my head again.

My other advice is not to panic if you don't have an ending. I never do! For me the story, and the characters, grow organically. And I may write many drafts before I actually write an ending. With my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, it wasn’t until the 3rd draft, with over 400 pages, that the way to end it fell into place. I mean, I had an idea of what would be the “right” way—that is the “politically correct” way due to the growth of the character, but it didn’t feel right, and so I kept writing and letting things unfold until the true ending that had me going “Yes!” came to me.With SO HAPPY TOGETHER it took about 4 or 5 drafts until I wrote the ending, and my 3rd novel, which I’ve recently finished, it was the 6th draft!

So far, though, it works, because I’ve been thrilled with each ending.



Who are your influences?


F. Scott Fitzgerald, Annie Proulx, Anne Rivers Siddons, Emily Dickinson, and believe it or not, the reknowned editor Max Perkins of Scribners, who nurtured so many of our most famous writers in the first half of the 20th century. When I read the outstanding biography of him by Scott Berg, my take on novel writing changed and grew. I recommend it to everyone who wants to write.

What books do you have on your nightstand now?

I recently read Pat Conroy's latest, South of Broad, which I loved. It's a big book so it took me a while, as I was finishing up my own 3rd novel. I don't get to read as much as I'd like, because it seems I spend so much time writing that the rest of my life becomes triage, like in the ER! One of my other recent favorites is Bird in Hand, by Christina Baker Kline. And I am now on the very last pages of A Summer Affair by Elin Hilderbrand, which is perfect for me right now, as I wanted a light, fun escape.



What was the most exciting that's happened to you since you became a published author?

Without a doubt that would be my first Moveable Feast in Pawleys Island, SC. I went there in 2006 as a self-published author, feeling a bit like a fraud when I rolled into town for a signing. To return a few years later to a sold out luncheon, with over 120 people there to hear me read and talk about my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, actually brought tears to my eyes. Mine was a long journey, and it nearly didn't happen. That was some emotional, amazing moment!


Visit Maryann at
http://www.maryannmcfadden.com/

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Masterful First Lines

by Mindy Friddle

There are first lines, and there are masterful first lines.

Hi everyone,
I'm actually repeating this post, Masterful First Lines, which I ran on my own blog, Novel Thoughts. This post was great fun because it generated a lot of comments and emails. A number of writers and readers volunteered their own favorite first lines.

The best opening lines of  a novel or short story do many things at once: a first line may intrigue you, create tension or hint at a conflict, say something about a character. A first line is beautiful or lyrical or witty--always memorable.

Here are a few of my favorites (not including the works from our own authors here at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, of course!):

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
-- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
 [It's famous for a reason. I'm always amazed how that barbed hint about the firing squad adds suspense, hooks me, until I find out what happens.]

Riding up the winding road of St. Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.
--Ironweed, William Kennedy
[Francis is, as he refers to himself, a "bum"--a homeless alcoholic, once a star baseball player, who now digs graves to earn money for his next drink.The Catholic graveyard has large marble headstones for the wealthy families, and unmarked for the poor. The cemetery is a neighborhood in perpetuity, divided by class.]

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
--Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
[I remember being shocked when I read that first line at 14-- Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful? Huh?]

In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. - Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
[Love that line-- that confident narrator. Those characters.  Love that novel.]

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.-- Flannery O'Connor, "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
[The best short story written in English. I'm not partial-- just because O'Connor was a southern writer. That simple line is sharp as a blade and will bring about the doom of the family, put them at the mercy of a serial killer, a nihilist. The Misfit shows no mercy, and as he coolly threatens  the grandmother, he'll  espouse his theory: ("Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance.")-- and then bring about the grandmother's moment of grace....but you knew that, right?]

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. - George Orwell, 1984
[Love that matter of fact craziness-- the world is off it's rocker, and has been for some time. We get that right away.]

They shoot the white girl first. - Toni Morrison, Paradise
['nough said.]

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
[Panoramic wide-screen line, filled with big ideas and a narrator who takes you by the hand.]

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. - William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
[Faulkner is such a visual writer, when I read him I feel I'm in a vivid dream--and this line plunges one in the story.]

We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. - Louise Erdrich, Tracks
[Oh, that gentle play on words, that brutal meaning:  'to fall' like the snow, like death.]

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. - Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
[You have to read this, after that opening.]

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
[Both gorgeous and foreboding as only Plath can do.]

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. - Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea  
[The suffering caused by colonialism is in that first line.]

So, what's your favorite opening line?

Mindy Friddle is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin's Press), just out in paperback from Picador.  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. Find her on Twitter @mindyfriddle.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Setting Pretty by Kathryn Wall

First of all, if you haven’t read Cathy Pickens’ most recent blog entry here, you need to go back and do so. Cathy is one of those wonderful Southern writers who can make all of us transplants feel as if we should quit pretending and just scoot back across the Mason-Dixon Line. Not intentionally, mind you. You couldn’t find a nicer, funnier, more congenial lady. It’s just that she makes me feel as if I’m never REALLY going to get it, even though I’ve received a goodly share of kudos for “writing Southern” despite my lack of credentials.


When I began my Bay Tanner series, there was no question in my mind about setting it in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Though I had been a permanent resident for only a couple of years, my husband and I had visited our beach condo on Hilton Head many times over nearly a decade. I know, my resort community isn’t the “real” South, but the surrounding areas provide lots of glimpses into both the old and new manifestations of this often misunderstood and mischaracterized part of the country. I’ve tried to work those dichotomies into my mystery novels, always being aware that there were things I would probably not get exactly right.

I did cover my . . . um, back a little. I sent Bay Tanner to college up North, where some of her innate Southern-ness got diluted—corrupted, if you will, by those damn Yankees. I stripped her of any accent so that I didn’t have to worry about trying to mimic a dialect that might be off-putting to readers. And that I’d no doubt frequently get wrong.

But one of the blessings of being on an island that attracts visitors from all over the world is that I had a built-in audience. Yes, it was as much a marketing decision as a literary one. So shoot me. I used to be an accountant, and my husband and I operated our own business back in Ohio. I didn’t want just to write books. I wanted someone to read them. By interweaving actual restaurants, roads, businesses, and tourist attractions with a series of edgy, traditional mysteries, I hoped to be able to spread my books to areas I’d never be able to reach on my own through regular channels. And it’s worked out pretty well.

There’s always a lot of chatter on author-dominated listservs and blogs about whether or not to use real places as the setting of our books. I’m obviously firmly planted in the “for” category. Yes, it entails getting the details right. Yes, you often have to clear the use of real businesses with their owners to make certain they’re okay with it. But I think the value far outweighs the extra effort, especially if you’re in the fortunate position of being in a place that attracts a lot of visitors.

So, Cathy, I’m setting out to set on the porch and work on the 11th Bay Tanner mystery. Hope that sets well with y’all. Or all y’all. I’m never quite sure about that one, either. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

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, was released by St. Martin’s Press on April 27.

Monday, June 14, 2010

IT'S THE HEAT (OR IS IT THE HUMIDITY?)

IT'S THE HEAT (OR IS IT THE HUMIDITY?)

By T. Lynn Ocean
I'm going off topic this month, but I'm too darn hot to care. I was talking to my sister last night, who teaches for DODDS in Germany, and nestled outdoors to chat. So I'm outside, beneath the covered porch, with the fan turned on high. It was 5 p.m. my time (11:00 her time).  She was already past happy hour and flirting with bedtime, but I was just winding down. Since she's flying back to the states for summer and will be arriving in Florida on Father's Day, our conversation revolved around my dad, who passed away more than ten years ago, and who is still our hero. We miss him terribly, when we think about it too much. And we miss his advice, despite the lectures on annuities and the importance of staying out of the sun. (He was right, of course, on both accounts. Neither of us are great financial planners and we've both had skin cancer.)

Half an hour into our talk, I went inside to retrieve a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio, and sliding the patio door closed behind me, I realized that my tee shirt was drenched. My hair was soaked, too, even though it was pulled up into a pony tail. Returning to my patio chair, dreading being one of those people who talk about the weather, I did it anyway. In South Carolina, it's been damn hot lately. Hotter and more humid than I remember it being last year in June. Even my dogs lie around like beached whales, not even bothering to run and sniff the grounds for rabbits and other critters like they usually do. Which got me to thinking about writing and something a wise author told me years ago: embrace the senses of your reader.

As I sat talking on the phone, alternating between reminiscing over funny things we've done with our father and looking forward to getting together this summer, I embraced the heat and took it all in. The azaleas, whose leaves were limp, and the lack of birds flying around my backyard fountain. The neighborhood in general, which is usually buzzing with folks standing around in driveways, gossiping, but lately seemed to be a silent void, broken only by the hum of heat pumps circulating cool air throughout homes. The experience reminded me of something that is so important to writers of all genres and that is, SHOW, don't tell.

If you're writing a scene in the middle of summer in any sticky, humid, Southern town, show your reader that, yeah, it's freakin' hot. Don't say, "It was hotter than…" Rather, write that the dogs are panting, the plants are droopy, and the only sounds on the street are buzzing air conditioning systems. Paint the picture of shirts soaked through with sweat, and perhaps the sensual, visceral feeling of water droplets seeping through pores and running down the back of your character's neck or trickling, tickling, between her breasts. And remember that the weather certainly doesn't pertain only to one or two senses. Have you ever smelled a salt marsh at low tide when the heat index is into the 100's? Or a downtown city block at night, near a dumpster? Or, the sweet scent of confederate jasmine blooms mixed with warm, discarded beer?

Sitting in the smothering heat reminded me that writing is really all about painting a vivid picture in a reader's mind. When my editor first scrawled the notes, "Show don't tell" on a manuscript, I didn't quite understand what she wanted. I called her. She told me not to shove thoughts down the reader's throat, but rather to paint a scene and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Doing so makes for a much more challenging writing experience, but it pays off with a much more enjoyable read.

My point? If you're a writer, embrace the heat. Or the thunderstorm when it's raining sideways and dropping chunks of ice like little golf-ball sized air raid bombs. Or the blizzard that causes a vibrant northern city to come to a screeching halt in the middle of a January day. Writing begins with observations, and observations lead to wonderful stories. So instead of griping about this summer's heat, get out there and embrace, embrace, embrace! (An icy mojito may help, especially if it contains a few extra lime wedges.)

Happy summer reading (and writing),
Tracy
T. Lynn Ocean

T. LYNN'S latest book, SOUTHERN PERIL (St. Martin's Minotaur) is available download at your favorite online retailer. See http://www.tlynnocean.com/ for more info.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Writing Struggles by Susan Reinhardt


My writing career slammed agent-first into a brick wall.


It started when I gave up my long-time agent, thinking like a car, I should trade before the accelerator locks up, thus deals freeze.

My hot new agent, like a little red sports car, was young enough for me to have given birth. She up and fired me when she couldn’t sell “Chimes From a Cracked Southern Belle,” my new unpublished, lingering-in-limbo novel.

I have all but given up finding an agent to champion this Billie Letts type Southern fiction.

This leaves me with a writing career that isn’t tethered to the world of editors, agents and publishers. I’m floating free and out of control.

I gave a half-hearted attempt at finding a new agent, but life got in the way.

I can’t write. I don’t have time. I’m too stressed out. Has anyone ever felt this way?

My son is 17 and this past year has been in trouble at school, with the law (think Mr. Misdemeanor) and hooked up with the wrong crowd, the ones who think a bag of dope is better than the honor roll or even a new car.

I’ve been so out-of-control with the stress of finding him counseling and services, being turned down even though I’m insured, that writing has been swept into the corners of my creativity.

Do I even have any creativity? Where is my Muse? Is she sleeping off a bad hangover?

As for my son, I’ve been acting like Mrs. Kravitz from “Bewitched,” and following him here and there can get fairly creative. And rather exhausting not to mention time-consuming.

My church is tired of me jumping to altar call, then next, asking for the prayer team to anoint me and put some Jesus back into my boy.

Used to be I had time to write. But I’m entering the great anxiety den and find my muse somewhere in the bottom of a clogged drain. All my energies are focused on getting my son back on track.

When I do manage to send out a batch of queries, I hear the same thing. “You’re a talented writer, but I didn’t connect with the story.”

Please, someone, connect.

I mean, I consider myself a great mom but I guess I’m not connecting to my son’s life, either.

There has to be a point – both with home, work and getting my boy on the right path - – where there’s connection.

There has to be a phrase agents can use besides, “I needed to connect on a DEEPER level.” If I hear it again, I may throw my laptop over the deck. It sucks, anyway. Not the deck, the laptop.

I’m hearing a lot from editors and agents that it’s hard to sell women’s fiction. And I’m wondering if this is true, or just an easy way to let a gal down.

This is my dry spell. The desert of what was a promising career.

Maybe God’s trying to tell me that the kids come first and need me more than the anonymous reader in Kentucky.

My husband told me to return to writing humorous non-fiction, which I had no trouble selling. It’s just that I believe in this novel. My goal is to query 30 more agents, and then regroup.

Meanwhile, I’ll be in various therapies with my son, knowing he takes priority over publication.

Better times are sure to come. We writers must believe this.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Porches and Other Settings

by Cathy Pickens

Grammar Quiz:  Which of the following is correct?

A.      A.  The setting includes a farmhouse with a wraparound porch.
B.           B.  "We’ll be setting on the porch when you get ready to leave.”
C.           C.  They were setting out the plates when the preacher arrived.

All y’all who grew up in the South know all three are just fine, even if, once upon a time, your third-grade teacher turned all purply-pink when someone announced he was fixing to set himself down at his desk.

That’s what “setting” is all about, isn’t it?  Inviting readers into an interesting place where they want to set a while and visit.

In our lives, we’ve each found ourselves set out in all kinds of places.  My mama found herself back in the Southern Appalachian Mountains after a magical childhood on the Tampa Bay Keys.  I found myself in the big city, loving Charlotte but missing small-town hill-country life.

A friend of mine found herself in Charlotte, coming from even bigger Boston.  Some of us take to our new settings better than others.  Paula deserves to live in the South, she’s settled in nicely. 

On a visit back to Boston, she stopped in the big box drugstore on the corner.  Just like she was back home, she set in to chatting up the clerk.  “How are you?” she asked in her thick Boston accent.  “Sure has gotten hot quick this year.  Will you be able to take some time off to enjoy the holiday weekend?”

The clerk nodded faintly.  Her hand slipped beneath the counter while she kept a wary eye on Paula.

Uh-oh, thought Paula.  Silent alarm.  Her accent had given the clerk the wrong setting.  If Paula had a Southern drawl, the clerk would’ve written her off as a slow-talking kook of the harmless variety.  Paula’s Boston brogue told the clerk she might be a kook of the launch-herself-over-the-counter-without-warning variety.  Real Bostonians don’t carry on polite, directionless conversations with strangers.  Real Southerners can make strangers comfortable enough to show us their gall bladder scars, even when we don’t want to see them.  It’s all a matter of setting.

Finding ourselves in all kinds of settings—in the books we read and in real life—keeps life interesting.  We know some settings and their rules with an ancient wisdom we can’t explain.  Others, we acquire like a taste for cracklins in cornbread or chit-chat with strangers or humidity, because we become our settings.

I would allow as how that’s part of the fun.  So set yourself down, grab a glass of ice tea and a good book set wherever you would like to visit, and enjoy.  It’s too hot to do anything else.  (I might be South Carolina born and bred, but that doesn’t mean I can’t complain incessantly about the heat.  No setting is perfect.)

The setting of Cathy’s 5th Southern Fried mystery, CAN’T NEVER TELL, includes a hot South Carolina July 4 carnival.