Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Importance of Goals

The Importance of Goals

In preparation for the 2012, I clean house and set goals for the new year. This week, I found a Polaroid of my daughter taken when she was in kindergarten. It was fireman’s day, evidenced by the lopsided hat atop her tiny head. She stood with her friends, all were smiling, looking directly at me and the future ahead. Beside the picture was a Steven Covey journal with a ten year old personal mission statement which read, “someday I would like to write a book.” Blinking away tears, I realize so much time has passed. My daughter has grown into a beautiful teenager and my dream is a reality.

Becoming a published author made me realize the importance of community. It also added pressure to produce more than one book. This year instead of finishing the novel I was working on, I released: Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice forthe Newly Published Author… a project that was not on my “to-do” list.

I wrote Stress-freeMarketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author after meeting two North Carolina authors at a conference. One had a beautiful memoir filled with professional photographs. However, in today’s market the $ 34.95 price tag was professional suicide. The second author remortgaged her home only to see her dream disappear in foreclosure while unsold stock gathered dust. Each day images of these women haunted me making it impossible to focus on my manuscript. Then the muse fell silent.

Upon sharing my intent to write this book, my husband and I had quite the “discussion.” He argued I was making a terrible mistake. He believed emerging and self-published authors are obstinate, opinionated and “dead set on doing what they want to do regardless of who tries to help them.” Further, he explained, “this is why they self-publish, because they don’t want to listen to anyone in the industry.”

I defended that “even though I am not self-published, if someone had tried to share marketing tips with me when I was starting out, I would have listened.” Surely, I reasoned, newbies would listen to someone who had “been there” and “done that.” Surely they would want to do everything in their power to sell the books they had worked so hard to write.

He crossed his arms and reminded me that I am “not like everyone else.” He reminded me that I had spent months researching my market and compiling contacts. Then he gave me a we’ll see look before saying, “Trust me, writers aren’t going to listen to a word you have to say.”

I tried not to cry as his resolve remained. I explained that writers help each other and that I am “doing my part to pay it forward.”

The eternal skeptic was unmoved.

Veteran authors whom I interviewed agreed with my husband. They suggested I lead marketing workshops, instead of authoring a book aimed at emerging authors. I listened…kinda.

Partnering with local brick and mortar bookstores and small businesses, I now offer workshops to emerging authors at a ridiculously low price. Workshop attendees receive a copy of the book, a password to a community blog specifically designed for new authors, and two hours of instruction from yours truly. Businesses who host a workshop receive half of the fee. This is my way of saying thank you for shelving copies of In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life & Tomatoes. I hope these classes will encourage and teach emerging authors as well as benefit small businesses, especially in the winter months when business is slow. The workshops will not make me independently wealthy and the fact that I am not promoting this book with a tour means those who monitor sales information won’t be pleased. Insert pouty face and crossed arms from the beloved.

I like to think of Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author as a community service project…voluntary, not court-ordered. Someone needed to guide the fledglings and who better than a fellow fledgling that experienced extraordinary success with her first publication. Thank you readers, booksellers and book clubs! Offering the workshops have allowed me to rest knowing that I have written something that, when read, will guide others on their pathway to publication. I have done my part. The rest is up to referrals and the magic of social media. If I can save one author from financial ruin, my work is done. Once again, the muse is smiling. Once again it is time to set attainable goals. Have you set goals for 2012?

As 2011 closes, many of us wonder what the future holds. Hopefully I will finish the novel or perhaps the sequel to In the Garden with Billy. I will continue to support independent booksellers and volunteer at the public library, both need our help. And my personal mission statement remains, “I will write a book.”

Visit Renea Winchester’s website for more information about her work, or visit her blog: http://adviceforauthors.wordpress.com .

Thursday, December 8, 2011

All Work and No Play* Makes A Dull Writer

Have you ever read the work of a young, uncorrupted writer? It’s like venturing into a jungle: Fresh. Green. Wild. Monkeys beating their furry chests. Parrots shrieking. Anacondas curling around trees. A chaos of creativity.

Such a writer is ruled almost entirely by her subconscious. The subconscious—let’s call her Crazy Daisy -- doesn’t know the difference between a gerund and a dangling participle; she only cares about expressing herself. Writing is play not work.

Unfortunately Crazy Daisy, charming as she is, has a problem: Her work meanders like a toddler strewing petals at a wedding: she needs to be reigned in.

Enter Ms. Grind.

 Ms. Grind cares most about the rules.

She’ll tell Crazy Daisy that a sentence can’t run on for three pages or that exclamation points shouldn’t be showered over a page like pepper. She’s so bossy and judgmental she frightens away Crazy Daisy. Ms. Grind doesn't care; she doesn’t needs that wild little girl hanging around anyway. Yet when she tries to have fun with her prose, it’s scary like having Dick Cheney ask you to pull his finger. Most of her writing comes out freeze-dried and soulless.  

Fact is, all writers are slightly schizophrenic, their mind divided between Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grind. We usually start out dominated by Crazy Daisy but once we immerse ourselves into the sea of endless writing rules, Ms. Grind tends to take over.  

Can Crazy Daisy and Ms. Grim live harmoniously in a writer’s head? In other words, is it possible to create prose that’s technically proficient but also has passion, wonder, and playfulness? Yes, but only if you allow Crazy Daisy and Ms Grim to play to their strengths.

New ideas usually come from Crazy Daisy.

You’re talking a walk or daydreaming and suddenly… BAM! You get a great idea. Crazy Daisy, impetuous minx, wants to start writing immediately. It’s like she has a case of diarrhea. You’ll be tempted to run with her. Don’t do it. Stop and take a moment to diaper the little imp.

Believe it or not, it’s time to bring Ms. Grind into the equation—not to shoot down the idea--but to structure it. Ms. Grinds loves outlines and plans and she’s good at them. After a little structure work, she might find that the idea isn’t workable after all. Sadly not all of Crazy Daisy’s ideas are golden. She likes to take risks and some don’t pay off.   

In fact, it’s wise to begin with every writing session with Ms. Grind and structure your thoughts when you sit down to write, whether to compose a short scene or a brief essay. You’ll satisfy Ms. Grind and give Crazy Daisy some perimeters. T.S. Elliot summarized this process:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its upmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.

Keep Ms. Grind Out of Your First Drafts  

Once structure’s in place, time to let Crazy Daisy loose. Allow her to scribble on walls, turn somersaults or eat paste. Sometimes she might break down structural walls and that’s okay too. Ms. Grind, however, isn’t allowed in.  Why? Because she’ll keep up a steady stream of inner dialogue that sounds something like this:

That sentence was abysmal. It must be fixed immediately. Can’t you do anything right? Who do you think you are, passing yourself as a writer?

Occasionally Crazy Daisy interjects, bringing flashes of brilliance, but mostly it’s Ms. Grind who stands over the writer, wielding her ruler.  

Not surprisingly Ms. Grind doesn’t give up her authority easily. How can you keep her out of your head when you're drafting?

Learn How to Break the Judgment Habit

Most people aren’t aware of the stream of criticism flowing in their mind while they’re writing. Thinking is so fast and transitory; it can be hard to catch Ms. Grind’s endless digs. That why it’s helpful to develop a habit of sitting quietly and meditating for fifteen minutes each day. Ms Grind will no do doubt object saying, “What a ridiculous idea.  Do you realize we’re wasting valuable writing time sitting around doing nothing?”

She’s no dummy. Ms. Grind knows that meditation is the best way to access all of Crazy Daisy’s wild brilliance.  Meditation helps you to recognize Ms. Grind’s judgmental thoughts, and to ignore them when you’re drafting a piece.

When Crazy Daisy takes over the draft, watch out, because diamonds and gold nuggets will start shooting out of your computer. BEWARE. Don’t pat yourself on the back because that, too, is a judgment and any time you make a judgment, you’re issuing an invitation to Ms. Grind. The time for judgment, positive or negative, is in the re-write. Not now.

Writing will suddenly be fun again and as effortless as letting out a whoop of joy. You’ll find yourself falling in love all over again.

One caveat: Crazy Daisy is very messy. 

When you go back to revise, you might be horrified at the results. Yes, the writing was intoxicating but the hangover’s a killer.  Ms. Grind will say, “I told you so.”  Don’t listen to her. Simply ask her to help you clean it up. She’ll balk at first, saying, “If you left things to me there wouldn’t so much clutter.”

True but neither would there be so much fresh, wild writing. Give it a try and see. It can be a little disorienting. You might not even recognize your own prose. 

By the way, there’s an easy way to tell which personality dominates your writing. If you love the drafting phase and hate structure and rewriting, Crazy Daisy probably dominates your writing. If you like outlines, loathe the drafting phase and love to polish your prose, you need a T-shirt that says “Team Ms. Grind.”    
*If you resisted reading this article, thank Ms.Grind. She’s not interested in articles about making writing fun. It threatens her authority. She much prefers list articles like “Ten Ways To Punch Up Your Dialogue.” They’re useful; this article is a waste of time. Crazy Daisy, indeed. 

Karin Gillespie is novelist who loves to pick daisies. Follow her @gillespiekarin.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Best Advice I Ever Got

By Man Martin

“Experience is a dear teacher, but a fool will learn by no other,” Benjamin Franklin

I am a school teacher, and one thing life has taught me is that you have to be very careful what you say around students. The same child who cannot master a simple lesson you have drilled into his head for three weeks will be able to recall verbatim a random wisecrack you made in passing and quote it back to you, often in the context of a parent-teacher conference.

I myself, who have been educated to within an inch of my life, have often taken away more from a teacher’s passing comment than from all the carefully planned curriculum on earth, largely because most of what writing teachers have to offer is advice, and I have never been good at taking advice. This is not owing to a lack of good advice coming in at regular intervals from all sides. I am not proud of the fact I’m not good at taking advice. Had I taken advice, my teeth would be whiter, my cholesterol lower, my waist slimmer, my bank balance fatter. But, like I said, I’m not good at taking advice.

I do not know if this is because I’m cocksure, stubborn, or just a slow learner. Certainly being a slow learner is part of it. Usually I appreciate the value of advice – “Check your tire pressure every week” – only when I’m already stranded on the side of a long, deserted stretch of black top with a broken jack and a spare that is – also – flat.

I have received boo-coos of writing advice, all of which I’ve ignored, which is understandable enough when it comes unasked from friends and family, but which is downright inexplicable when it comes from respected professionals whom I’ve paid, at least in part, for the valuable advice they offer. I’m talking here about college professors under whom I’ve studied writing and who must have on more than one occasion shaken their heads in pained wonderment at my mulish stubbornness, persisting in doing things the way I want to do, dammit, and not listening to their seasoned wisdom which would have made my task lighter in oh, so many ways.

Or if not lighter, at least more productive.

Tonight as I type this the advice that comes to mind is from my dear teacher Tony Grooms. Grooms, author of Trouble No More and Bombingham, was one of my writing teachers at Kennesaw State University and taught me many things. He taught me the essential quality of a character is that he or she must care about something. “It doesn’t matter as much whether they care about their lover, their children, or their rosebushes, but they have to care about something or the reader won’t care about them.” He also said that while an ambiguous phrase might be very nice in poetry, it should probably be avoided in fiction. Clarity is the sine qua non of fiction. Next to characters we can care about, what the reader wants to know is just exactly what the hell is going on.

But all of this wisdom, plus much more besides, wisdom that I heard and neglected until I’d pounded my own fool head against the concrete for myself, testing that, yes, pounding your head on concrete probably is a bad idea and something that should be desisted from in future – Tony also warned me against excessive cleverness or “cuteness” in my writing, a lesson I may never learn – the thing that sticks in my head is one phrase.

Two hundred words a day.

He said this in an off-hand way during a summer workshop. He had graciously opened his home to his class, and we met there weekly to exchange and critique stories. It was there I debuted the first chapter of Long Gone, my novel and Masters Thesis, the only copies of which sit on a shelf somewhere in the KSU Library. The thing was never published and never will be; it was what we euphemistically call a “learning novel.” Too much ambiguity and the characters didn’t care about anything, is my post-mortem diagnosis.

Anyway, one summer afternoon before or after workshop when I was enviously admiring the tomatoes he’d already gotten from his garden long before ours were ripe, he said apropos of nothing much, “If you wrote just two hundred words a day, at the end of a year, you’d have a seventy-thousand word novel.”

He said this in the most casual way imaginable, a man nonchalantly observing that three hundred sixty-five times two hundred is seventy thousand, but what a light bulb went off in my head! Two hundred words a day. Anybody could do that! I could do that!

Thank you, Tony.

I have written two novels and am well into a third. Given my nature, I have had to learn the other lessons you taught me the hard way, pounding my head over and over against stubborn realities until the stubborn realities sank in. Stubborn Realities: 1, Head: 0. But I was able to learn what little I have because of that other thing. The two hundred word thing. I know I have a lot more to learn, and God willing, I’ll learn at least some of it before I die. But if I do, I’ll learn the hard way. Pounding my head. Pounding my head. Pounding my head.

Two hundred words a day.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette and Scoring Bertram Wiggly, a novella.  His second novel, Paradise Dogs, was selected by Atlanta Magazine's December "Best Of" issue, as one of the top five novels for 2011.  He is writing a third novel, 200 words a day.  He blogs at manmartin.blogspot.com

Friday, November 18, 2011


by Shari Smith

For a good bit, I had a stalker.

He read a piece I wrote about the boys who hang out at the Claremont Café and liked it well enough to repeatedly call the Café and leave messages. I knew that would wear thin in no time. They don’t much care to answer the phone when someone wants to place an order to go. Not much chance they would enjoy playing at being my secretary. He continued to call until one day, he told Angie that if she could get me to call him, I’d have to leave a message because he’d not be available for a few days.

“I got locked up.”, he explained.

I immediately sent an email to all my successful writer friends and told them that they could have all the awards they could carry, lock in their big, fat advance money and count up all their loyal fans but mine would literally give up their one call to a lawyer or bail bondsman just to tell me they liked my writing. Joe Galloway said he’d kill to have that story to tell but it belongs to me.

It almost didn’t.

I’ve had the names of some of the South’s best writers in my speed dial for more than ten years, now. Been to dinner with them, cooked dinner for them, arranged readings for them, sold a pile of books for them and been trapped in a car with a couple of them I felt like killin’. It’s true that some folks need killin’ and two I know of are from Alabama.


If they ever perfect beaming a body from one place to another no one will choose to ride in a car with either of them, again.

In February of 2006, Sonny Brewer told me I should write. He said I was good at it. He turned to me, one night, while we waited for a buddy of his to buy pork rinds and bottled water at a Run-In grocery and gas station which everybody knows it just wrong. Pork rinds should only be eaten while drinking a Sundrop or a Cheerwine, if you can get it. Sonny told me that I needed to take it more seriously when good writers told me to get busy. I said that I was a reader, not a writer and I meant it to sound as haughty as it did.

Claremont is full of storytellers. I used to listen to them, mostly in the Café, and run home to write emails and send them to all my writer friends. In reality, I was writing to only one of them. I thought he was the best, still do. I thought that he was the best as writing about the people in my South, working people, real people who line up at sewing machines or pound together furniture frames, people who can never quite get the red clay stains off their hands or out of their overalls.

I wanted Claremont to have the best.

I knew when I had a good one. I’d listen hard to get the dialog right. Mess that up and the story is ruint, a shadow of what it might could have been if you’d been paying better attention. I wrote them as fast as I heard them, one after the other, and believed that if I could just get one to stick, one to make its’ way in, I would have given my people the thing they most deserved. They would not have to settle for a writer who would portray them as sweet or quaint or any other word that sounds like a compliment but is not.

I believed it was my job, my calling.

Maybe, if I did it, if I wrangled a lion into telling the story of Claremont, North Carolina, it would pay them back for the way they made me family though I am not kin to a one of them. Maybe it would make up for all the tourists who drive by Exit 135 without noticing there’s a town here, without realizing what extraordinary kindness and laughter waits on them if they would forget about getting to Asheville for art galleries and $200 meals and, instead, take a left off Oxford and a right onto Depot Street. If I could give them a book, a real book, they would finally know, these good people, that they are worthy of being written about, of living forever as words on paper and they would know how much I love them. It was a good plan, one I believed would work-

Only he kept telling me that I should write it.

Hanging with writers had taught me that they say things like that when they don’t mean it and that they always say it like they do. I’ve heard it said to the woman standing in line to get her book signed who is sure her Great Uncle Kenny should have a book written about him. I’ve heard it said while a writer is trying to shut his car door and drive to the next bookstore but can’t without knee capping the man who won’t cut short his tale of the time his daddy shot a bear. Besides, I believed we were friends and friends try not to hurt your feelings if they can help it.

It ain't the first time I’ve been wrong.

On this November weekend, four years ago, I was introduced to a publisher as “the best unpublished writer at this conference.” It embarrassed me. “I’m a reader, not a writer.”, I insisted, as I shook his hand intent on being the only person there not to try and pitch to him a book idea. A writer I met that night liked my Claremont stories so much she would later tell folks she “discovered me”.

She didn’t.

But it was on Sunday afternoon, out on the Waterhole Branch of Fish River, at the dining room table of Joe Formichella and Suzanne Hudson that I started listening. We sat for hours while I told them the stories I knew, told them of how I came to Claremont, how I stayed hidden and distant for too long from the very people I now call my own. Feeling good, feeling safe, I told them my plan, confided that I was going to get my people in a book and it would be a best seller, it was just a matter of time. Suzanne said that I should be the one to write it.

Writers say things like they when they don’t really mean it and they always say it like they do.

I said, no, of course, that was a bad idea. It needed to be a king, a man whose name is as big as he is. “They deserve that.”, I insisted. “My people. They deserve him.”

Joe stared at me from across the table. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. I didn’t know it, then, but I know it now, that the quieter Joe Formichella speaks, the more he feels it.

“Why”, he asked, “Why, why in the hell, would you let anyone else be the voice of your people?”

If I was a writer before that day, I never knew it but it is the day, the moment, I first took the deed to a parcel I would come to own as mine, to a label I would be proud to wear. It was in the time it took for Joe Formichella to finish his sentence that my plans changed, that I began to work at something I now, unbelievably, get paid to do. It was the day I took to heart that I need not to let them down, to honor the privilege of being their voice, the voice of people mostly unheard, often unnoticed.

Joe Formichella is the guy you believe. He’s that guy.

That editors pay me to be that voice is largely disbelieved by the folks in Claremont. Doesn’t sound like an honest day’s work to them because it isn’t. I’m not climbing ladders to paint a house or jumping in and out of a truck to read meters or herd cattle that got gone. They know what work is and it ain't sitting at a computer writing about the time someone set their outhouse on fire trying to rid it of spider webs or the night the Baby Jesus got took from the manger at St. Marks.

That ain’t workin’.

I told the Boys at the Back Table of the Claremont Café about my stalker when they demanded to know why a police car had been parked in my driveway. I explained that I had a diehard fan who didn’t know that he didn’t know me, that because I tend to write about things most people would consider highly personal, a reader had decided that he loved me true. Rick Bumgarner said, “And that you are gonna love him back even if it takes rope and duct tape?”

Sam sits, every day, at the end of the table. He couldn’t understand it. “All on account of your writin?”, he questioned, and shook his head in disbelief when I answered, yes.

Jerry took off his hat and scratched his head with the same hand. He put it hat back on, leaned on his elbows on the table and said,

“Has he seen ye?”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Stephen King on writing, his fears and his new book 11/22/63

by Karen Harrington, author Janeology

Last Friday, I had the privilege of hearing Stephen King speak to a 1,000 member audience in a Dallas suburb. Now I know this month's blog series is about exploring our day jobs as writers, but since mine is currently all about meeting an actual writing dead-line, I hope you won't mind if I share a post I just wrote for my own blog about Mr. King's inspiring talk!

I was delighted to find him optimistic, charming and entertaining throughout his entire 45-minute event. Like so many established writers, King is not only a talented writer, but also a natural oral story-teller.

Fears and First Recognition

Dressed in a relaxed t-shirt and jeans, King began his talk by stating he most often gets asked what scares him. Good question. He replied that his fears include "spiders, snakes, the elevator in his hotel room and death." Then he followed this subject by scaring us with the fact that "1 in 75 people will leave their homes unlocked allowing a psychopath to get in." He said that probably 50 people in the audience had left their cars unlocked and how we might want to check our backseat before we got into our cars. This drew a laugh from the audience, though I'm sure some folks laughed with unease. He went on to talk about his life as a writer, recalling the first time he was ever recognized in public. He was in Pittsburgh promoting a little book called The Shining. There, the men's room attendant recognized him and asked him for an autograph, all while Mr. King was, well, on the john. 

A few years later, he said, he was at a dinner with Bruce Springsteen when he noticed a young girl approaching their table. King prepared to demure to the singing idol, but was elated when he discovered it was HIM she wanted an autograph from!

Researching The New Book

After a few minutes, Mr. King read from his new book 11/22/63, which features the infamous Kennedy assassination and poses the question what if you could change the past? In the novel, his protagonist uses time-travel to do just that. But before setting out to write the book, he did research. He said that writing "is a visual process for me. I need to know what's on the left and on the right" when writing about a place. He came to Dallas and spent a good bit of time in the School Book Depository, even getting special permission to sit in the perch where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fateful shots. 
Here's a short interview where King talks about this new book. 

Writing And Rituals

In the end, Mr. King concluded his talk by revealing that while most people might say, oh, he's a professional, he's a hot-shot writer, they would be wise to remember that even he approaches a new work and "has a feeling of inadequacy" at first. But he said when he gets going and "warmed up" it's as if he's under some kind of hypnosis and the work begins to flow. He shared his writing rituals, which include making hot tea and setting out his toothpicks before diving back into a story and employing that powerful admonition that a writer's job is to "get the words on the page." 

Memorable Quotes And Notes

"The worst day I had in that [writing] chair was still terrific." 

"I've never texted in my whole damn life!" 

"I feel like Rick Perry at the Republican debates." [following a forgetful moment on stage.]

He was 17 when JFK was assassinated and heard the news on the radio while driving home from High School.

He's finished the sequel to The Shining.

The new Dark Tower book will be out in June 2013.


Bravo, Mr. King! I'm looking forward to reading this new book. 


Lucky me! I got a signed copy.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I Will Not Climb on the Roof

by Susan Cushman

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. The first money-making opportunity I remember was in fourth grade. My sixth-grade brother talked me into climbing on the roof of the school with him to collect baseballs to sell. It would have been a great idea, except that when we were climbing down I jumped onto the catwalk that connected the main building to the temporary classrooms and broke a hole clear through the tin roof. I landed on the sidewalk, but fortunately only sprained my ankle. I don’t remember selling the baseballs, but I do remember staying after school every day for a week writing “I will not climb on the roof” over and over for an hour. And my parents made us use our “fair money” to pay for the roof repair. I think that’s the year I started thinking that boyfriends were a good idea for things like the fair.

Another job my brother and I did together (still in elementary school) was selling used Christmas trees after they were tossed out of the classrooms when the holidays started. Mike and I would pull the old tinsel off of them and set up our own Christmas tree stand with great prices for used trees a week before Christmas. It’s amazing how many people wait ‘til the last minute.

In fifth and sixth grades I canvassed the neighborhood selling personalized Christmas cards for the Friendly Card Company. Easiest money I ever made—just took the orders, made the deliveries a few weeks later and collected up to $500 a season. That’s when I realized that the money was in sales.

By junior high school I had moved on up to selling lottery tickets. Well, I don’t know exactly what you call what I was doing, but there was this company (how on earth did I find this pre-internet days?) that would offer all sorts of items—transistor radios, watches—to people who would sell chances to win them. I was selling these tickets at school when the principal found out and called me into his office and threatened to call the police. (Worse than that, he threatened to kick me off the cheerleading squad.) I never did find out if it was illegal or just against school rules. But I got some cool junk before they made me quit.

My sales career ended with a Christmas season of working in the children’s clothing section of a department store while I was in high school. Minimum wage (I was 16) and boring boring boring. That’s when I knew I needed to be doing something more creative.

At Ole Miss I typed (and edited and ghost wrote a few) papers for other students, for which I charged different rates, depending upon the amount of editing/writing they wanted. This was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Or an editor. It almost didn’t matter what the subject was. The joy of putting those words together on the page (I even like to type) and making the piece look good got under my skin.

During the early years of our marriage I worked as a medical secretary to put my husband through medical school. This was the least rewarding work I ever did. Science just doesn’t interest me, and transcribing medical reports and dealing with insurance companies was definitely not my cup of tea.

That's me, middle left, in the black and blue checks.
I took a detour in the early '80s to run an aerobic dance studio (yes I was that girl--see photo at right) where I "had the time of my life" but didn't do any writing. But choreographing aerobic dance routines and inspiring women to live healthier lifestyles while struggling with my own warped body image and eating disorders definitely informed my future writing projects.

Newsletters caught my interest next, and I produced several for corporate businesses, and even served a year as newsletter editor for the Memphis branch of the Society for Technical Communication. On the non-profit side, I produced our church’s first newsletter, for about 15 years, for which I also did most of the photography and the layout.

By the early to mid 1990s, I was back on the entrepreneurial track—this time publishing a trade magazine for builders and architects. (see left) This was probably one of the most valuable experiences I had in the publishing world, since I did almost all of the work of putting together each (monthly) issue—writing most of the articles, selling all the ads, going on photo shoots and helping set up the shots—but I still wanted something more. I wanted to be telling stories, not selling houses and products.

In the early 2000s I followed a spiritual path, studying the ancient liturgical Byzantine art of iconography, mostly at Orthodox monasteries around the country. I learned to write (which is what painting icons is called, because you are writing the life of the saint with color) icons and then did commissioned pieces and taught workshops for a few years. I officially “retired” from iconography a couple of years ago to focus exclusively on my writing.

Looking back, I can see the benefit that each of those “day jobs” has brought to my present work as a writer. My novel is peopled with characters who are as colorful as the real people in the many worlds I have inhabited in sixty years of living. And with the publishing industry the way it is today, it will certainly help to have some background in sales! I’m thankful that my husband “keeps me” (as we say in the South) these days so that I can write full time.

Having done some freelancing (magazine articles) somewhere in this story, writing essays and sending them out for publication came naturally to me, so that’s where I began.  I also wrote a “beginner novel” and two memoirs (which are all on a shelf) while working on those essays. Nine published essays later, I’m finally close to finishing a novel that I would be proud to have published.

Until then, I'll try to learn not to climb on the roof.

Susan Cushman has nine published essays. Cherry Bomb, her novel-in-progress, made the short list in the novel excerpt category for the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition this year. In spring of 2012, her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow,” will appear in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, the second volume of the anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, from the University of Alabama Press. Susan was Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop in September. She was a guest speaker at the Boulder (Colorado) Writers Workshop in August. Susan blogs at "Pen and Palette." 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Listening to Your Life...

     My husband and I were talking about the difference in our lives just the other day. I started working when I was fourteen. Waiting tables by fifteen. And thus began my "real life" experiences. I remember at one season in college I had three jobs! But now life is different. If you asked me what my hobbies are I would tell you that they are writing and teaching. I have been writing now for over fifteen years. Many years for other people. And the last ten for myself. I have also been teaching for about as long. It began as teaching Sunday School for College and Career and has turned into a non-denominational Bible Study for our city. These are my hobbies. My job I feel is something different...

      The great writer Frederick Buechner said we should "listen to our life." And in doing that we can often encounter the very heart of God. I spent many years just trying to "make" it through life. And a few years back after the heartbreaking loss of my thirteen year marriage I have lived very differently. And what I've discovered is that my best stories and most meaningful lessons are often birthed through movies I've seen, conversations I've had or great food I've tasted.

      We live in a generation that often wishes life away. But I have found that in being truly present with the life that I have, whether it is screaming at a nine-eleven year old football game, or eating ice cream in the middle of the afternoon, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola on a Saturday morning, or walking down the streets of Charleston with a forever friend, life is speaking to me. I have one job. It is to be present in this beautiful life that I have been given. And in doing that, I am better at each beautiful opportunity I have been given, wife, bonus-mom, friend, daughter, writer, teacher.

     May you take in your children today. May you really taste your food. May you actually listen to that story your spouse is telling. May you actually read the book you hold in your hands and not skim it. And may you soak in the sunshine, or dance in the rain. We only get one life. May we listen to it...

Denise Hildreth Jones makes her home in Franklin,TN where she leads Reclaiming Hearts Ministries. She enjoys riding bikes with her five bonus-kids, watching movies with her husband, good books, long walks and cold Cokes. And every now and then she writes a few novels. Her latest is The First Gardener.
Jones's novel offers comfort and challenge, and readers will find it lingering in their hearts and minds long after the last page has been turned. Publisher's Weekly

Monday, November 7, 2011

Road Writer

by Andy Straka

I've had many jobs, but probably the one that has most informed my writing was working as a sales representative.

From publisher's rep (college textbooks) to medical sales (pharmaceuticals then orthopedic implants, then medical imaging and neurodiagnostic equipment), my road warrior years gave me a street level view of multiple worlds. Big cities and small towns and everything in between.  From New York City to Connecticut and Massachusetts; from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, Charlottesville and Virginia Beach, North Carolina, and West Virginia.

 My novels are all set in one of these locales. And even years later, in the era of GoogleMaps, I can close my eyes and picture the sights and sounds and smells of a neighborhood in the Bronx or Richmond's West end, the tony suburbs of Greenwich, CT, a winding switchback highway in the West Virginia mountains, or a beach town on the North Carolina coast. The inside of hospital operating rooms, corporate boardrooms, military bases, fly-by-night trade schools in Brooklyn—any one of these may come to mind when I write fiction.

My writing career was born on the road as well. In lonely hotel rooms at night, where I began to bang out stories and the first draft of a novel.

I've long since given up the sales life and escaped to the woods, or at least my little piece of the woods where I am blessed to be with my family, fly my hawk, and write. I’ve also had the good fortune to travel to many other places, including China, Mexico, and South America, and maybe I’ll be writing about some of those places one day as well.

The beauty of books is they can allow us to experience places we might otherwise never have the opportunity to see. Where have you traveled, and what sights and sounds and smells of different places have you experienced in your own life? How have these memories shaped you as a reader or a writer?
Publisher’s Weekly has featured Andy Straka as one of a new crop of “rising stars in crime fiction.” His books include A WITNESS ABOVE (Anthony, Agatha, and Shamus Award finalist), A KILLING SKY (Anthony Award Finalist), COLD QUARRY (Shamus Award Winner), KITTY HITTER (called a “great read” by Library Journal), and RECORD OF WRONGS, hailed by Mystery Scene magazine as “a first-rate thriller.” FLIGHTFALL, a Frank Pavlicek novella, was published as an ebook in August. His latest book is  THE BLUE HALLELUJAH a novel of suspense, just released in trade paperback and ebook.
Andy has worked as a book editor, movie production accommodation agent, commercial building owner and consulting vice president for a large specialty physician’s practice, surgical implant and pharmaceutical sales representative, college textbook sales and manuscript acquisition representative, web offset press paper jogger, laborer on a city road crew, summer recreation youth director, camp counselor, youth basketball coach, assistant parts manager at an auto dealership, assistant manager at a McDonalds restaurant, and even been registered as a private investigator. (Not to mention a longstanding stint as a stay-at-home Dad to six, which makes neurosurgery look like tiddlywinks.) A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is a native of upstate New York and a graduate of Williams College where, as co-captain of the basketball team, he “double-majored” in English and the crossover dribble. He lives with his family in Virginia.
Learn more at Andy's website/blog "The Hawk Writer's Guide To The Galaxy" at www.andystraka.com

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tips for Writing at Home--by Elizabeth S. Craig

We're focusing on day jobs this month at the blog. Day jobs can frequently be a hurdle to us in getting writing done.

But what if you stay at home and write?  What if your day job is parenting and running a household? It seems like it should be a lot easier to get writing done...but instead, the at-home writing can be a pretty big challenge all its own.

The biggest challenge of writing at home is the interruptions.  These interruptions can be as major as rearranging a day around a sick child's doctor's appointment or as minor as the continual demand of dishwashers and dryers ending their cycles.

This is what I've found helpful:

A routine:  At least a skeleton of one. It's good to have at least a *plan* for working at home. We all know what can *happen* to plans, of course.  But it's good to have a routine in place so writing fits in naturally.

Flexibility:  This is key. When your routine is completely shot, you need to have some flexibility to write on the go. Make sure you have pencils and index cards or a small notebook in your car so that you can write when you have a second. Sometimes I even have official plan bs and cs for days that go seriously awry.

Quick recognition of a problem: If you realize you're not getting anything done at home, assess what's going on. Do you have too many windows open on your computer? Are you getting constant interruptions from the children or the phone?  Can you leave and write at the library or a coffee shop for a while?

Lists: I live by lists, and not just grocery ones.  I make lists of what I want to accomplish with my book for the day. And, on days where I'm under a serious time crunch, I'll make lists instead of writing--lists about my characters (traits, their likes and dislikes, etc. ) ways to forward my plot, 5 different ways to end or begin my book, etc.)

Timers:  I also live by timers. If I didn't use a timer (and there are some helpful free ones online), then I could easily lose an hour just replying to emails.

Wheel and deal with kids:  Got children at home? I've had success in the past by making deals with mine--I'll play a game with them if they give me twenty uninterrupted minutes (fewer when they were very young). Then I gave *them* a timer.

Do something you didn't want to do first-thing: This is a great way to start off the day with a win. Even if the rest of your day is less-productive, you still feel that sense of accomplishment.

Make time to put the writing away:  When my family is talking to me, I make a point to put the computer away and focus on them. That's another danger of writing at home--the novel is always around! Set a time to go off the clock.

Try not to multi-task: I'm a multi-tasker with *some* things (brainless activities like vaccumming or cleaning the kitchen combined with brainstorming, etc.) But if I try to update Facebook, check emails, and talk on the phone--I start feeling stressed. And I've found that I'm actually *less* productive.

Got any tips for working at home?  How flexible are you with your writing routine?
Elizabeth’s latest book Hickory Smoked Homicide released Tuesday, November 1.  Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers
Twitter: @elizabethscraig

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Day Job

Quick. Name the first, best job that pops into your brain when you think Aspiring Children’s Writer. Okay, bookseller works. Mom. Scout leader, camp counselor.

But I’m thinking about my own day job. The best job in the world. I was a school librarian.

I started my career in fifth grade at the Hill Demonstration School in Cleveland, Mississippi. Our school library filled up a small room on the first floor, across from the principal’s office. I was invited by the principal and my teacher to be the librarian. I don’t know who the real librarian was. I don't think we had a librarian most of the time. I spent no time cataloging, ordering, or even reshelving books. My fifth grade position entailed reading and recommending. 

I read the books with winning stickers on the covers, but I’m not ashamed to say I read every single Nancy Drew book and most of the Childhood of Famous Americans “biographies” (which have since been mostly discredited as true biography. Or true anything.). Perhaps because they were shelved directly behind the Librarian’s Desk, that great, solid piece of bulk where I sat, wielding power with the little rubber date stamp.

I went on to become a Jr. High Library helper and even a high school library volunteer. 
My career path was pre-destined.

After college, when friends fretted over what city to move to, what boyfriend to follow where, what school to teach in, I calmly chose the graduate school that specialized in children’s work.

I won’t bore you with my entire school library career. (Boston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Summit, NJ). 
But here’s what prepared me for my current career as writer of both middle-grade fiction and book reviews:

I’ve read almost every Newbery-winning novel ever published.
I know the answer to the question “Can I have the yellow book with monkeys on the cover?”
I can talk about a 250-word novel in three sentences or less.
I know when the little girl who loved the Dear America series might be ready for Lois Lowry.

Recently, a writers’ listserv shared a letter from a young Indiana girl. She’d sent this to the newspaper:

Dear the government,

I don't like that you're firing our school librarians. I am a first-grader at Childs school, and I think that Ms. Williams is a great librarian. She reads wonderful stories, and her voice goes up when it is supposed to and down when it is supposed to.

She helps me find books and makes me interested in reading and makes books
exciting for me. Ms. Williams makes us feel special. She knows each kid's name.

Childs school will never be the same without Ms. Williams in the library.

Why are you firing our school librarians?

Anna W.

If libraries are not staffed by professional librarians who know their stuff (books), love kids, and have time to connect the two--not to mention realize what parts of the story need a voice going up-- what a tremendous loss to girls like Anna.

I left the library world to write full time. But I still hang out in libraries. Researching facts for historical fiction, finding a quiet place to write, chatting with the librarians about what kids are reading. I can't even imagine what those kids without librarians do. Even in my Kindled/ Googling/ Facebooking world, I need my library.


Augusta Scattergood blogs about reading and writing at her own blog: http://ascattergood.blogspot.com/

Her first middle grade novel, GLORY BE, is about to launch in January from Scholastic.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!!!

In honor of the occasion - and since I don't have a day-job I can talk about; I write full time, in addition to handling the kids, the dog, and the husband's real estate business - I figured I'd chat a little about my favorite spooky books instead.

To be honest, I've never been big on paranormal phenomena. Vampires are creepy, werewolves are hairy, and demons are scary, not to mention scaly, and as a mystery writer, I tend to think that evil is wrong, anyway.

I do, however, have a fondness for ghosts. Not because I've ever seen one personally. I haven't. I keep hoping that maybe one of these days I will - we vacation in St. Augustine, Florida, every year, and there's a restaurant there with a haunted ladies room (swear to God!) which I make it a point to visit - but so far, no dice.

But I do love a good ghost story. I even wrote one myself once. It was the second DIY book, called Spackled and Spooked. It concerned a supposedly haunted mid-century ranch where murder had been committed seventeen years previously, and a skeleton buried in the crawlspace, among other cool things.

One of my favorite ghost stories was released 43 years ago, back when I was but a gleam in my mother’s eye, practically speaking. Barbara Mertz, writing as Barbara Michaels, wrote Ammie, Come Home in 1968, and it has one of the most chilling examples of ghostly possession ever penned. Like all of Mertz/Michaels/Elizabeth Peters’s books, it’s also marvelously written, quite funny at times, and with a very satisfying love story or two.

Since we’re on the subject of Mertz/Michaels/Peters, she also wrote Devil May Care, and House of Many Shadows, and Witch, and The Crying Child, and a slew of others, all of which handle ghosts and spirits in various incarnations, and all of which are stellar. 

More recently—like last year—Jennifer Crusie’s latest, Maybe This Time, arrived in stores. She’s an autobuy for me, and you can imagine my excitement when I not only found the expected humor and fantabulous love story, but also ghosts and—yes—even an instance or two of possession.

Not that I have a particular thing for possession, you understand, but ghostly possession can be a lot of fun. To read about, I mean; like the ghost-sightings, I’m not so sure I’d like it if it happened to me.

And then there’s Lillian Stewart Carl, whose every protagonist generally deals with ‘ghost allergies.’ You can’t really go wrong with a Lillian Stewart Carl—she’s been compared to both Barbara Michaels and the brilliant Mary Stewart—but if I had to mention one book in particular, it would have to be Shadows in Scarlet, a paranormal romantic suspense romp in which Amanda, a tour guide at a historic home in Virginia, falls in love with the ghost of James Grant and ends up taking his spirit to his home castle in Scotland. I won’t go into details of the story, but it’s great, and even includes—for those of you who get off on that kind of thing—a ghost/human sex scene. There may be more of those out there, but this was the first I’d read, and quite well done, I might add. (And in case you wonder about the feasibility, as does a certain character in the book, to quote Amanda, who ought to know, “he had plenty of substance.”)

I could keep going, but I won’t. Instead, why don’t you leave a comment to tell me about your favorite ghost book, and help me add to the TBR pile.

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Jennie Bentley is the New York Times bestselling author of the Do It Yourself home renovation mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime, as well as the Cutthroat Business mysteries, written as Jenna Bennett. You can find out more about both of them at www.JennieBentley.com

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Golden Summer

Before I started my full time career as an attorney I had several part time or summer jobs. Most of them were fun including being a camp counselor for a few summers, working at the “Green Giant Cannery” for another, delivering dry cleaning another. But the one I remember best was the summer I worked as a rod man for the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

My father got this job for me the summer I was eighteen. I had just finished my freshman year of college and was home for three whole months. My stepmother was complaining that I should get a job somewhere where I wouldn’t have to live at home, but my father held firm and I stayed at home. This meant I would not have to pay rent and I could bank most of the money I earned.

The man I would be working for was named Mr. Hill. His assistant was a guy named Rick. They were a surveying crew and I was the person who was hired to hold the rod as they surveyed. Mr. Hill would pick me up in his truck every morning and then we could go pick up Rick and head toward the site of each day’s work.

Mr. Hill was a very kind and soft spoken man. He never fussed about anything and never got frustrated. He just did his job calmly and efficiently. Rick, well he was a different story. Rick knew a million stories to tell, which fascinated me. He also knew a thousand jokes. Some were a little off color but when he would get too extreme Mr. Hill would just say “Rick” and the jokes would get milder.

On the first day I asked Mr. Hill if we could stop so I could get a Pepsi and a pack of potato chips since I hadn’t had any breakfast. That automatically became part of our routine. At lunch time Mr. Hill and Rick had brought sandwiches to eat. Since I didn’t have anything Mr. Hill allowed me to take the truck and go get something to eat. The next day when it was lunchtime he said Mrs. Hill had packed some extra for me in his lunch sack and that continued all summer long.

It was a wonderfully hot, cloudless summer. My uniform was khaki shorts and a tee shirt. Most of the time I just wore the khaki shorts, and while I held the rod I got the best tan of my life. Since we walked from one area of surveying to another, except for moving to a new location, I also got in the best shape of my life.

When it rained the three of us would sit in the truck and wait out most showers. Rick would tell stories and Mr. Hill would add in a word or two. Me, I mostly just listened. I have always been fascinated by other people’s stories and I absorbed all they said like a sponge.

During that summer I was dating the cheerleader who I had been dating for a couple of years. I thought I was in love and maybe I was. At least I was for that summer. We saw each other just about every night and I actually had the money to pay for gas for my car so we rode and rode and rode. We also went to the movies or to parties with some of our friends.

Everybody needs a perfect summer like this one in their lives. It was something I definitely needed. I had been through some bad times since my mother died and this summer made me see that life still had some good spots.

I don’t think I ever saw Mr. Hill or Rick after that summer ended. The next summer I got a job in Washington State which pleased my stepmother so much. I was definitely out of the house. The cheerleader and I eventually broke up. The perfect summer lived on only in my memory.

There have been good times and bad times in my life. I have had some near perfect moments but that golden summer when I was eighteen stands out in my memory. It still brings me pleasure just to think about it.

Jackie K Cooper is the author of six books, the latest being BACK TO THE GARDEN. He also writes for "The Huffington Post."

                                                                                                                                          Jackie K Cooper