Monday, December 29, 2008

The Anti-Resolutions

Cathy Pickens'New Year’s Anti-Resolutions: What you’ll stop doing this year

     ‘Tis the season for resolutions, to take stock of seasons past. Most of us dust off the old list: lose weight, make it to more of the kids’ ball games. Or we just don’t bother, resolving to plug along. New Year’s Resolutions have become passé, predictable, reliable only in reminding us of failures past.
     This year, why not try some anti-resolutions—what you’ll stop doing this year:
     1. Stop ignoring what’s around you. Take a good look at the people in your life—your spouse, children, parents, siblings, co-workers, friends. Take a good look at your circumstances. Pay attention to the people and things that make your life run smoothly, more pleasantly. Take a deep breath when you walk out into the crisp air. Develop a child-like curiosity about even the most mundane. Write it down. Don’t use writing only to communicate with others. How about talking to yourself once in a while, see what you’re thinking? Your “journal” can be scribbles on a legal pad or in the back of your DayTimer. Creativity and “flow” expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests noting one thing each day that surprises you, as a way to awaken your awareness and broaden your focus. Talk to yourself on paper about how to solve a problem or what makes you smile today or ways to open the presentation you have to make next month. Ask yourself “what if …?” and “why?” You’ll be surprised how it helps you focus.
     2. Stop taking the easy path. Try something that scares you—or at least stretches you. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, an object at rest tends to stay there. Conversely, as Matthew Arnold observed, “Genius is mainly an affair of energy.” Accept a speaking engagement, hike up a mountain, take a ballroom dance or cooking or kayaking class for fun, or work on another college degree —or finish your first degree. Any of these requires initiative and risk-taking for the beginner but get easier—once you’ve done them. Get moving, preferably along an uncharted path.
     3. Stop being one-sided. Learn the delicate art of balance. Aristotle urged us to seek the Golden Mean, emphasizing the importance of balance. Identify where you are out of balance. Develop an area in which you feel weakest. Read something you wouldn’t ordinarily read. If your bedside books are all history or technical manuals, try some well-written fiction or a book you loved—or wished you’d read—when you were a kid. Try listening to a book on tape (the library will loan you one for free!). Visit a museum. Turn off the TV.
     4. Stop sitting in the same seat. Perception if often more powerful than reality. Practice sitting in someone else’s seat, seeing from her perspective, testing your own. Maybe you should, literally, sit in someone else’s seat in a meeting, to break the routine. Or you could look at an issue from someone else’s point of view: from your customer’s or co-worker’s or boss’s or spouse’s seat.
     5. Stop being inconsistent. What do you value? What’s important to you? Would someone know your values by what you say, by how you spend your time, by the decisions you make? In trying new things, make sure you’ve grounded yourself, that you know who you are. Take time to nurture your spiritual life. Philosopher William James said, “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.” What can you overlook to allow more time for what’s important? That wisdom cannot be gained in the push and pull of your busy life. Be still. Turn off the car radio. Get off the treadmill and take a walk…outside. Be alone with your thoughts. Recognize who you are and what you value.     
     6. Stop being so serious. When was the last time you felt inspired or motivated by a humorless drudge? Does the fate of the free world actually rest on what you’re doing? Okay, maybe it does. But you can still lighten up.
     Oh, yeah, and stop promising to get in shape and just get moving. Getting enough exercise is more important than your pant size. According to the latest brain research, not just your body but your brain benefits from a walk. Hit the gym or the sidewalk. You’ll need the energy for all the things you’re going to stop doing this year.
     One thing to DO, if you haven't already? Check out Hush My Mouth, the Southern Fried Mystery now available in paperback from St. Martin's. Happy New Year!

Think Outside the Circle to Ring In 2009

2009 is Coming... Do it Differently
by T. Lynn Ocean

Forget the Box! Maybe it's a circle, or a triangle or just a kidney-shaped blob. Either way, why not think outside of it for your New Year's Eve celebration?

After all, everyone is pinching pennies these days and extravagant parties with bacon-wrapped sea scallops and hundred-dollar bottles of champagne just don't seem right when so many people are facing economic hardship. I'm thinking that, since America's chant for the upcoming year is CHANGE, perhaps it's a good time to start by doing something totally different on New Year's Eve. Translation: be thrifty.

Staying home doesn't have to be boring. Invite your open-minded neighbors and friends, and provide a bed or sofa for anyone who wants to spend the night. Don't be shy in telling everyone to bring an appetizer and their choice of libations. And come up with a fun theme. A few can't-miss ideas to get you thinking:

Outrageous Polyester Party - A few dollars and a trip to a thrift store, and your guests have their outfit.
Ugliest Dress Party - Tell the women to wear an old bridesmaid dress or the chiffon number their eccentric aunt gave them for Christmas 1993, and be sure to have a prize for the biggest fashion faux pas.
ReGift Party - Who says you can't go ahead and get rid of that ridiculous jalepeno-shaped salt & pepper set or pair of neon green polka dot socks right now? Have everyone re-wrap their worst Christmas gift (no name tags, of course!) Then do a gift exchange by drawing numbers. When it's their turn, each partygoer can choose a wrapped gift, or 'steal' one that's already been opened by somebody else.

And while you're throwing a themed party, play a game or two. Have everyone write down a new year's resolution, put them all in a hat, and then draw them out one-by-one. Your group can try to match the person to their resolution. Or if you're having a retro / polyester party, throw down a game of Twister and see what happens. For that matter, dust off your old game of Operation, Monopoly, or Uno. Get silly. Have fun. Forget about the fact that your 401K has plummeted to 50% of last year's value. And be sure to make a toast to the things that really matter: friends and family. Oh, yeah. And change in 2009.

Cheers to Everyone,
T. Lynn Ocean

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A special holiday guest blog

An elfish Santa Claus straddles a life-sized trout. In the old man’s hands is a fishing pole in full bend, and at the end of the line a hook firmly set in the trout’s upper lip. On St. Nick’s back is a wicker basket filled with fishing floats, and around his waist on a rope are wooden lures half the length of his body. His heels are dug into the trout’s flanks for the ride of his life.

While it’s certainly not the most beautiful addition, an odd trinket hangs about a foot below the lighted angel this year, a prominent position. Two wooden beads—the lower one a round ball, the upper a four-sided, carved diamond shape—are skewered on a brown pipe cleaner which then wraps itself around the beads and completes an oval.

Three youngsters—not quite children, not quite adults—are in front of a Christmas tree holding a trio of pets: a wire-haired guinea pig named Murphy, a white kitten named Penny Lane, and a wide-eyed fat cat known as Fettucini Alfredo E. Neuman, who answers to Alf. The kids are smiling real smiles, not some put-on pose-for-the-camera grin; they are truly happy.

These are a few of my favorite things.

I’ve never really been consumed with things. In fact, very few of the objects I’ve collected over a half century of living have any value other than sentimental. Maybe I think and feel in metaphor and symbol: these favorite things are only favorites because of what they represent, not what they actually are.

The hand-painted, resin figurine of Santa Claus riding a rainbow trout was a Christmas gift years ago. I saw it at a holiday open house at O’Bryan’s Flowers & Gifts and wanted it. It showed up at the house a few days later, early enough to be enjoyed that season.

After carefully packing it back in its styrofoam and box every January, and storing it in the hall closet, I decided that Santa and his trout should be on permanent display. The old man is forever trying to land that big fish on a shelf in my office at home.

That odd ornament of wooden beads and pipe cleaner has been on our tree for thirty-one Christmases. Lynda made it in 1978—our first Christmas as a married couple. We wed in August of that year, were both full-time college students living just off campus in Clarksville in the coldest apartment ever constructed. The walls were concrete blocks, bricked on the outside, with apparently no insulation in between. The single-pane windows that frigid winter froze into a solid sheet of ice on the inside. It made you want to sleep in your coat.

We cut a redcedar from the side of the roadway and stood it in a corner of the apartment in a large can filled with gravel. We didn’t have many ornaments, most of them homemade, with a construction paper star at the top. The pipe cleaner ornament—some might even call it ugly, and at the very least, nondescript—was on that first tree.

The photograph of Dylan, Hadley, and Joey, and the ever-present pets, is just one of hundreds of Christmas photos taken over the years. I can’t really explain why this particular snapshot is so special, but I think it’s because of their faces: relaxed and at ease, worry-free, caught in the moment. They are young enough to be unconcerned about challenges life will eventually throw at them, old enough to know and appreciate that family is as essential as air.

All three objects, for me, represent so much more than what they are.
I hoped one Christmas for a frivolous gift, an unusual figurine that likely has no appeal for anyone else, but has brought me years of pleasure. I look at it almost every day.

Those first years of marriage, we subsisted on Campbell’s tomato soup, crackers, canned tuna, and whatever we could take back with us after weekend visits home. We lived on love and feasted on hope that sacrifices made on the front end of wedlock and education would pay off in the long run.

For those three young people in the photo, I have long hoped and continue to pray for only one thing: happiness. They seem to have always been so, and like your children—I hope—are your heroes too.

This Christmas, with loved ones away at war, and friends looking for jobs, and bleak economic forecasts, a healthy helping of hope is exactly what we all need, along with a few favorite things to remind us every day that hope is at our fingertips.

Dr. Randy Mackin is editor of the Buffalo River Review, and Assistant Professorof English at Middle Tennessee State University, where he teaches researchand argumentative writing, introduction to literature, contemporary Southern literature, and directs the Tennessee Literary Project.He currently serves on the board of directors for the Tennessee Writers Alliance,and is editor of the TWA’s online journal, Maypop, available at a journalist his editorials have won fi ve UT Press Institute/Meeman FoundationAwards and a National Newspaper Association award, and he is a two-time winner of the Tennessee School Board Association award for education writing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Letter to Christmas:
Dear Christmas,
Where are you?

This is the question that Cindy Lou Hoo asks and sings in the The Grinch. Where are you Christmas? For the past week, this is what I’ve been singing (not in front of anyone, of course).

Now don’t get me wrong – I KNOW what you, Christmas, are really about. I grew up as a preacher’s daughter. Besides being observed at every moment for the slightest infraction of thought, word or deed, this also meant I attended church anywhere from three to five times a week. Between church, youth group, choir, Wednesday night bible study, and the extra holidays, well….I obviously know what Christmas is all about -- Christ, the gift and Word of heaven.

But knowing something and feeling something aren’t the same.

And this year, I am asking where are you, Christmas?

Not in the mall where the over-decorating (which arrived at Halloween) screams at me to spend money I don’t have on things no one needs.

Not in my teen’s faces as they study for exams and attempt to survive the winter calendar of activities.

Not in the night where our family went to buy a Christmas tree and argued over its size until my daughter went and sat in the car alone. (Is it only in movies that the Christmas tree buying-thing is romantic??)

Not in the endless errands I must run in the rain, in the cold with irritated drivers all around me in Atlanta traffic.

Not in the hanging of the garland (where I almost fell off the ladder), nor in the tangled lights I dragged up from the basement.

So where are you?

Well, last night I found you, and now I see you everywhere.
I dressed up, grabbed my daughter, sister and mother and went to the FOX Theater to hear Amy Grant and Vince Gill’s Christmas concert. And there you were – the Spirit of Christmas -- in the heart-mending songs of a Silent Night, a Holy Night, in the fun songs of Winter Wonderland, in the melancholy voices of two of the most talented singer/songwriters known. You were there in the sadness of the reminder about those who won’t be coming home this year, and those loved ones we’ll miss, or those without a home or love.

Now you’re everywhere, sweet Spirit of Christmas:
In my ten year old who writes long letters to his stuffed elf, expecting an answer.

In my sister, mother and daughter together, laughing about jokes only we understand.

In my sixteen year old daughter when she came to help me hang the lights on the tree because the boys were too busy watching football.

In my fourteen year old son when he jumped out of the car to take his history exam, and then tossed over his shoulder, “I love you, Mom.”

In the phone call from a friend I love, at the moment I needed it the most.
In a lunch with my college girlfriends where we laughed so loud and long that I remembered who I am.
Sometimes I have to be reminded of what I already know: you, Christmas, are in the small grace-filled moments of our life. And you always have been.

Patti Callahan Henry is the National Bestselling author of four novels with Penguin/NAL. (Losing the Moon, Where the River Runs, When Light Breaks, Betweeen the Tides). THE ART OF KEEPING SECRETS was released on June 3, 2008. Visit her at

Monday, December 22, 2008

A new southern author

Hey guys, this is Russ, the Marketing/PR Director for Wordsmiths , and this is my normal blog-time spot. However, I wanted to throw the ball this time around to Zachary Steele. Not only am I just a swell guy like that, but I am

a) fighting a cold

b)fighting pink eye

c) pressing on trying to judge the Creative Loafing Fiction Contest essays.

So, basically, this gets me a little breathing room. Also, full disclosu
re: Zach is both my boss at Wordsmiths and a personal friend, but he is also just about ready to join the ranks of "southern authors" (far more than I, mind you), as his first novel, Anointed, is going to be published in March by Mercury Retrograde Press. It's a really, really GOOD book, and that's all I'll say about it, because, well, more full disclosure: I'm also working publicity for the title , so for me to give any sort of review, well, I'd feel a bit...sheepish. Instead, I grabbed Zach and said HERE. DO THIS BLOG THING. WRITE ABOUT YOURSELF.

And, surprisingly enough, he agreed.

I feel like I just fell through the rabbit hole and into Wonderland…

So, I have been decreed a “guest blogger”, with the glowing task of filling the grand shoes of the great and magnificent Russ Marshalek, who I believe has decided to finally seclude himself in order to write the first three words of his long spoken of memoir. Don’t tell him I told you, but I know for a fact that those first three words are, “I am awesome…” I’m not sure where he goes from there. Something about a Webbie, the Creative Loafing Fiction contest, and a bottle of ketchup I would imagine.

Anyway…introductions! Where are my manners? (they’re not in my coffee, I assure you) I am Zachary Steele, owner and operator of Wordsmiths Books, and the author of the forthcoming novel, Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, my first, due out March 2009.

Anointed is, well, it’s, um…hey, you know that story about the guy who does some miraculous stuff with water and wine and gets a bunch of people to follow Him, and then kind, of, well, dies? Yeah, well, this isn’t His story. It’s actually the story of the corporation that was built in His name. The Christ Corporation, to be exact. A corporation of Divine proportions, two-thousand-plus years in the making that has eschewed morality and religion in favor of prophets and glory. And the glory of profits. Over time, The Christ Corporation has remained steadfast in its determined effort to remain separate from religion. They are, rather, the business in religion and a calming force over the heretical insanity of the modern media. What has kept this financial behemoth intact is the service and face of their CEO, the one to whom they refer to as Christ. Every thirty-three years a new CEO is anointed (lest fate befall them beforehand, something that has occurred only a handful of times in their many centuries of operation), and positioned at the forefront of the operation as the public face of the Company. Until, that is, Timothy Webb gets the job. Idealism and Christ…two words that had not been seen in partnership since the days of the Founder (Jesus, to you and me), and a thorny crown atop the head of those who believe themselves to be the engine of the religious machine.

Throw in an Anti-Christ hell-bent on ruling the world, a slandered and misrepresented angel (and soon to be closest friend of the newly anointed Christ) known to the common world as Satan, a God who doesn’t like to leave messages, magnificently robust salaries derived from the sacrificial giving of others, twelve bumbling disciples (one of whom seems to have a history of deceit), and Mr. Potato Head, and you’ve got a nightmarish combination of insanity that is meant to make you laugh, meant to make you think, and if you’ve a weak emotional constitution, you might even find a tear or two. Who knows? I know writing it made me cry, but, that’s a different matter that has nothing to do with the story, but everything to do with the process of writing.

Anointed is accompanied by a new-media push that has opened strange, new, doors for me as a writer. Writing a book is nice bit of fancy-pants, getting it published by someone who is willing to pay you to print it is fantasmicarrific, but learning about viral marketing and the concept of broadening the story and characters through new channels has been mind-bogglingly sensational. Aside from the website of The Christ Corporation, and a blog only fit for a Christ, there’s also a fan page for Anointed on Facebook, a Myspace page and a Twitter account for the outgoing CEO, Billy Christ (which is splendid fun, being able to give life to a character with a multitude of updates each day). All of these outlets have given the universe of Anointed a wider berth and have allowed me to expand on characters and scenes as I would have never been able to do before. Additionally, it gives readers a larger spectrum in which to immerse themselves. And, beyond that, it’s just a whole hell of a lot of fun!

Since I have a bookstore, I’ve decided to host my own book launch (didn’t see that coming, did you?) on February 21st, beginning at 7 pm. It’ll be an active party, with plenty of food and drink, music and entertainment, authors and industry types, and, well, the very first public reading of Anointed. Eeek! I look forward, as I’m sure you can appreciate, to finally being able to sell the piece of work that has lived in my computer for seven years now.

I’ll depart here. Maybe Russ needs help with the next few words. More likely, I have a store to run and a Holiday kicking me in the shin. Thanks for the opportunity to pipe in and talk about me for a bit. I was going to talk about grits—quite possibly my second most favorite topic—but if there’s ever a second chance, I’ll save it for then.



For what it's worth, I (I being Russ) obviously did NOT write the book I was going to during the month of November. I think I prefer just being a PR/Marketing guru to other people's babies.

Friday, December 19, 2008

by Mindy Friddle

Every family has one. A little embarrassing perhaps, baffling to outsiders, but it persists nonetheless.

In my family it is pink and cold.

I'm talking about a family recipe. Or--a specialty. Sort of. Sometimes elaborate, mostly just quirky-- family recipes can be as simple as sugar sandwiches (on Sunbeam white bread of course), or elaborate (fig and jalapeno preserves), but they usually come with stories and nostalgia and a fanatical commitment to continue passing the concoction through the generations. (For those of us old enough to have watched The Waltons-- remember the spinster Baldwin sisters and their secret family"special recipe" in those Mason jars? They gave it out to anyone who would take it and apparently they never drank it themselves, but everyone else knew it was gut-rot moonshine.)

In my family the special recipe is PINK SALAD.

Rumor has it the recipe came from a Good Housekeeping magazine circa 1969. My mother, who had started college as a Home Ec major and was always trying out new recipes, made it for a holiday family dinner. It was the age of Aquarius. A tumultuous time of war and protest and, as the textbooks say, great social upheaval. Schools in South Carolina had yet to be integrated (Mom taught Social Studies and coached cheerleaders at one of the African-American high schools) to help put my father, who had recently returned from Vietnam, through law school at USC in Columbia. My father remembers trying to study one day in the law library with his eyes burning, and looking up to find the room full of people who were crying. Outside, there was a huge anti-war protest, led by Jane Fonda, and the National Guard had been called in to break it up with tear gas, which seeped into the buildings. Hence, the library full of weeping students. Meanwhile, I was in kindergarten singing "I'm Leaving on a Jet Plane," and looking forward to a new show for kids on television, called Sesame Street.

But I digress. (Part of the charm of family recipes are the stories that go along with them.) mother made the recipe from a magazine that featured women with that winged hairdo look of Pat Nixon and Dear Abby, women who wore aprons and heels, and looked as if they were on the tail-end of the Mad Men era. This was still the time when a woman's role was to set a fine table, before cholesterol and Lipitor put the brakes on mayonnaise, sour cream and butter, prior to the worries about red dye in Maraschino cherries. Mom brought the frozen pink salad to the family Christmas dinner. No one had ever seen anything like it-- of course we'd had Jello salads, a staple of any southern dinner, but this was...exotic! Both my grandmothers adopted it. Since then, when we've had strep throat or tonsils out or kidney stones or surgeries, it's the first food we ask for. And for nearly four decades, planning our family dinners start out with the same question: Who is going to bring the Frozen Pink Salad?

The thing is, the boyfriends and girlfriends and husbands and significant others throughout the years have never taken to our pink salad. We serve it cut in an individual square on a limp piece of iceberg lettuce (ewww, I know, but this is a nod to the early 70's) on a little salad plate beside your dinner plate, and there it sits like a handsome carved-out chunk of salmon-flecked granite counter top. Is it dessert? They want to know. Is it a sorbet? (Yeah, right.) Jeez it's, isn't it? This from my husband. That's okay. Family recipes are the secret handshake between relatives.

In the generosity of the season, I share this family recipe with you. Serve it chilled, with a wink, and admit that yes, it is full of nuts, and definitely pink.

1 cup sour cream
1 cup Duke's mayo
1 cup drained crushed pineapple
2 bananas, mashed
1/2 cup chopped nuts
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons chopped cherries
Add lots of cherry juice for color. Mix it all up and smush it in a square metal pan and freeze it until firm. Then cut into squares.

Mindy Friddle is author of the novels The Garden Angel (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and Secret Keepers, forthcoming from St.Martin's Press in May. Visit her website and blog, Novel Thoughts. Friend her on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Confessions of a Christmas Klutz

I’m Christmas-challenged, tinsel-impaired. Christmas lights tangle in my wake, eggnog sours. I choose gifts, not because they suit the recipient, but because they are easy to wrap. If you get a gift from me it will almost certainly be square.

My mother doesn’t understand my deficiency. Mistletoe is in her blood. Each year she relishes the search for the best-shaped tree, the tastiest oyster stew recipe, the bushiest poinsettia.

So how did she beget a daughter who considers white fudge Oreos to be Christmas cookies? Who briefly flirted with becoming a Buddhist just to get out of decorating her tree? Whose idea of creating a holiday mood is to spray spice-apple scented air freshener around the room?

It wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d born a boy. Christmas expectations for males are much more modest. Once they’ve wrestled the Christmas tree into the stand and dropped the turkey into the deep fryer, they can call it a season. The song isn’t titled, “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” for nothing.

But as a female, I’m expected to be handy with holly, as adept as an elf. The pressure gets worse every year. People take Christmas decorating very seriously these days. In some neighborhoods the competition is so fierce that if you are unwilling to transform your yard into a holiday fairyland, you better move or have a menorah burning in your window.

For the last few years, my mother has taken pity on me and has started “helping” me with Christmas. It started small. A poinsettia left on my doorstep. A red ribbon on my mailbox.

With each season she’s “helped” me a little more. This year elaborate Victorian stockings hang from my fireplace; swags of garland and ribbon festoon the picket fence outside my house. Holly and berries drip from every surface, and my tree rivals Rockefeller Center’s in it seasonal splendor. What was my part in this year’s holiday extravaganza? I followed on my mother’s heels, holding the wire cutters.

All of the sudden I have one of the most festive houses on the block, and people are looking at me with new eyes. My husband has suggested that I wrap all the presents this year “ as I’m so good at that sort of thing.” A couple of friends have asked me to help with their own decorations since I have such a “flair.” My son (who should know better) even had the courage to ask for a Christmas present this year that wasn’t square.

“No,” I said in protest. “You don’t understand. This isn’t me. This is my mother’s handiwork."

“Oh, don’t be so modest!” they all said.

As for my mother, she’s already plotting Easter decorations.

“Honey, what would you think of an egg topiary for a centerpiece? And maybe a string of pastel lights? Don’t worry. I’ll be glad to help you.”

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Good Knock-Knock is Hard to Find

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
You who?
Don’t get so excited, it’s just a joke!

You have to go with the phonetics on that one. It’s the joke of the day, the week—heck—the month, for my seven-year-old daughter. And here’s another one for you:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Me who?
You don’t know who you are?

This time the “who” operates as designed. And that one, though she doesn’t serve it up as much, I like much better. For a writer, what better question?

Because most of the time, I’m not a writer. That part of my life happens between 5:00 and 6:40 am, which is when said seven-year-old has to get up for school. After that, I’m a mom, an errand runner, a volunteer, a worker hoping to make it to wherever I’m going on time. Occasionally I’m a writer when I show up for a book club gathering or a conference, like last month’s wonderful High Point University Phoenix Literary Festival, which brings together college and high school students for a day of workshops capped with an awards ceremony. Though I was thrilled to be asked to keynote (what, someone blew my cover? They know about that writing sliver of my life?), the best part was watching those students walk across the stage to claim their awards.

Who knows which, if any of those students, will keep striving to wedge writing into their lives? Reading John Jeter’s account of the years he struggled to find that elusive voice, to push all that desire out, line by line, is a strong reminder of what a challenge it is, day by day, to keep going at this writing business. (Thanks, John, by the way, for the comparison to hand-kneaded bread—though I have to admit I feel more like an author sandwich, too. Or maybe just kneady).

My daughter tells jokes, and I tell myself little lies. Get up, I tell myself. You’ve been stuck on the same section of this novel for two months, but today is different. Today you’ll make your break. Most days I believe it and come back for more. This is why I would never hit the tables in Vegas. I would be picked clean in an hour.

But I guess that capacity for belief, along with a willingness to work past the frustrations, the rejections, the bad reviews or no reviews at all, is what is necessary for one to write. We have to be willing to play the fool, to not anticipate the punch line, to be surprised.

In a season where we’re supposed to ask ourselves and everyone around us what we want—in wrapped boxes or in the coming year—it’s good to remember what we need. Enough faith to get out of the bed, or to stay out of it while the rest of the family has gone to sleep. To show up at the desk, go back to that scene, that paragraph, that line, and believe that today we’ll get it right.

A quiet room, enough light, a love for the souls of our flawed characters. It’s enough. Just enough.

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Boo who?

I’ll let you take that one from there.

Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel , High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife. She lives and tells knock-knock jokes in Greensboro, NC. Visit

Monday, December 15, 2008

First-novel freak-out & the weirdness of immediate gratification

With Carolyn Jourdan and Quinn Dalton flanking my entry in this month’s blog-calendar, I feel a bit like an author sandwich. I hereby slap my baloney between two slices of warm, rich, lovingly hand-kneaded bread. (I would have been less intimidated, thanks, by crusty sour dough and wry.) So while I was considering a half-baked entry, the fact is I’ve got a meatier issue on my plate: Next month, the wait is over.

My first novel will be published.

After two decades of dreaming and working and . . .
For the past two years, I’ve been telling friends that the slow crawl from acceptance to publication is akin to watching a glacier melt. But now that the glacier’s melted, to throw even more metaphors in the soup, the time hasn’t flown, it’s been an intercontinental supersonic missile.

Now – and I should way not go there, but what the heck: after this 24-month gestation period, the contractions are beginning, along with the wonder, awe and tingling OMG fear.

THE PLUNDER ROOM will be published Jan. 20.

It took 20 years and seven novels, including four incalculably bad ones, to get to this place. The four earlier books were banging-my-head-against-the-wall practice sessions; receiving form-letter rejections; and going through the same hazing that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of artists have endured before me. (“What IS ‘voice,’ anyway?” I actually put that question to Russell Baker once and, uh …)

If anyone had asked me one score years ago what my most compelling goal/dream was – and few did - I would have said, To get a novel published. I daresay the endeavor might have been a bit easier then, but that’s just sugarcoating history, much like saying that Gordon Gekko could “earn” money with far more debonair savvy than his turn-of-the-millennia successors on Wall Street. The truth is, throughout that entire period, I had a devil of a time, as most everyone does, I imagine, to keep from Going Faust, without selling my soul to some worser fate, whatever that might have been.

In the previous year or two leading up to the abrupt and surprising sale of THE PLUNDER ROOM, I had been working on, then peddling a whole ’nother ms., one I still love. Bear in mind, this was nearly four years ago, and at the time, the particular draft of that particular book that wasn’t so much a street urchin as it was in need of a strong foster home, where it could grow and mature. One of the writers I admire most, Ashley Warlick – in part, for her mystifying generosity and her willingness to believe that I might actually make something of myself one day – had told me the novel wasn’t ready to send out. Neither, she told my wife with adroit end-run tact that I really do appreciate now, was I “ready” to do the archaeological digs required to get at the trinkets that could salvage the thing. However, being that much younger, smarter, blah blah blah, I went ahead and ran my Titanic premature-draft into the expected iceberg of rejections and heartbreak. Devastation so severe that, one pseudo-maudlin morning after receiving a fresh batch of rejections (“The book has too much internal monologue,” followed by, “a well-written story that could use infusions of internal monologue”), I emailed her, “I quit.” I had decided that so many years, the effort and heartache that went into trying to achieve my Paramount Dream had overwhelmed me. I was done. Ashley sent me something back. One of her trademark hyper-pithy emails or voice mails or calls that went something like one of these: Blessit. Get over it. Whatever.

Shortly after that the idea for THE PLUNDER ROOM blasted me like . . . like that time you’re sitting at one end of the bar and that really beautiful smart – you get the picture. In the three months that followed, God did the writing, I did the typing, the manuscript was done. Next, I took an Intensive Novel Writing Workshop, thanks to the Emrys Foundation and a fortuitous Metropolitan Arts Council Grant, taught by the too-well-read and redundantly beneficent Ashley Warlick. She read the first two chapters of my first draft, which was required seminar homework, and declared it the best work of mine she’d ever seen – not a bar too high to vault; she had seen enough of my earlier efforts.

With resurrected vigor (and the support I had always had), I heaved my fresh new project over the transom at Thomas Dunne Books at St. Martin’s Press in April 2006. One morning in early May, I received an email from the editor, opened the message and went into a writer’s equivalent of anaphylactic shock; one never develops immunity to rejection allergy. Then I woke up my wife, and we started rejoicing, me in my immediate-gratification way. Two years later, the baby’s about to be born.

Talk about pacing, frayed nerves and high anxiety. What if folks think my firstborn’s ugly? I know it’s already got 10 fingers and 10 toes. Has a beautiful face, too. Ashley’s been nurturing. Ron Rash said nice things about it. Even Mom likes it. My wife, who’s been putting up with this quixotic nonsense for our 16 years together thinks it’s great (she better, she spent as much time editing it as I did writing it, so that the house changed not a word once they got the final draft). George Singleton was kind. And Karin Gillespie … well, I’m here, and that’s an honor as large as the largesse she lavished on my book-jacket blurb.

Still, in 30 days, the world -- which apparently isn’t buying books – will be invited to enter THE PLUNDER ROOM. So I must sprint to unlock the mysteries of and unleash the nuclear energies behind the marketing wizardries of Joshilyn Jackson and Mindy Friddle to convince said non-book-buying world to buy my book.

In any event, we’re having a book-launch party at The Handlebar on Jan. 23. My wife and I opened the venue in Greenville, SC, 14 years ago, and it’s a concert-hall nightclub, my day job, which frightens my Muse away, but that’s a whole ’nother blog. Everyone’s welcome to the party. There might be food. Probably going to be a band. The whole thing’s free. And you’re guaranteed immediate gratification.

(Book trailer: David Martin & Glen Craney (c) 2008)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is it Possible to Write Southern Literature Without a Drunk Terrorizing the Family?

Sonny Brewer & Co. concocted a terrific event in Fairhope, AL, in late November where a wide variety of southern writers appeared. Getting to meet the writers at Southern Writers Reading and experience their work was deeply moving.

But as I sat in the audience, spellbound, listening to Tom Kimmel sing and Rick Bragg read, an idea began to creep into my head: What if southern men ever stopped drinking too much? What if they stopped terrorizing and abusing their families? What if southern women stopped being enablers or martyrs? Would there be any more southern literature? Could the genre exist without these particular stereotypes?

I hope so. Because surely we've had enough generations of this sort of thing to sufficiently explore its artistic potential. It seems like a crucial time to bring this up. Southern lives have long been fodder for the rest of the country, both as literature and as parody. I'm a comic writer, I love comedy. But, in my opinion we've reached a point where if we continue in this vein, we'll be reducing our own culture to absurdity.

It may actually be absurd. My life is. But maybe it's time to get the drunks into treatment, get the martyrs and enablers into therapy, and move on if at all possible. This is because for every great artist who is somehow able to emerge triumphant (or apparently so) from this morass, there are thousands of other people who do not.

For the sake of these others, artists need to do more in their writing than just survive. They need to go farther in processing, transforming, and redeeming their trauma. A description of the battlefield is not enough to lift my soul.

Every single person on earth is operating with a battered soul. And every person on earth faces significant challenges in their life (whether or not we are in a position to know what those are). Maybe we'd get farther toward helping create a better world if we did more than simply catalog our heartbreaks before committing them to paper.

And goodness knows, there's gotta be more aspects of southern lives to ponder than alcoholism, violence, and professional victimhood.

At least I hope and pray that's true.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sarah Smiley: The North has plenty of water. But it's all frozen.

by Sarah Smiley,

(This was written after my first three months living in Maine. Previously I had only lived in Virginia, Alabama, Florida and California.)

The human body is 60-percent water. Seventy-percent of our planet's surface is covered in water. Every day, in order to live healthfully, human beings must replace 2.4 liters of water, taken from the planet, for their body. The world, it seems, is kept in balance with water. Which might explain why my fence gate won't open in the morning.

At first I thought the latch was jammed. I reasoned that kicking at the bottom of the gate would probably help. It didn't. And then I realized something that blew my mind. My gate was frozen shut. Soon after, I would learn that my car door was also frozen shut, the windshield wipers stuck in the down position. If I wasn't careful, my children, who had never seen snow until this November, might get so excited, they would lick the light post and freeze there as well.

Water posed a different kind of challenge for me when we lived in Florida. First, the water in the South only comes in two forms: regular and mist. Gates don't freeze shut down there. But leave a bottle of water in your car on a day when the temperature reaches 100-degrees, and you will find out what happens to water molecules when they get very hot. They create steam. Pour that water onto the concrete (careful not to let your bare feet touch the hot ground), and you will actually hear it sizzle.
This doesn't happen in Maine. I left a bottle of water in my car one day, and it froze, just like my container of foaming, waterless hand soap did, too.

The South also has plenty of water that is in its regular, not-frozen form. Flowing water is everywhere: the beaches, the lakes, a pool in every family's backyard, the neighbor's concrete statue of a naked baby pouring water from a bucket, drainage ditches, the 2-foot crater in the side yard that never empties and by the end of summer is a pool of hot, steaming mud. Still, replacing those 2.4 liters of water in your body each day is quite a challenge when you live in the South because you are always sweating it back out. This is why the stereotype of Southerners is to have a large glass of iced-tea, condensation streaming down the sides, in their hand. I miss iced-tea. It's hard to come by up here. No one in their right mind wants more ice when they live this far north. But Southerners can't get enough ice in their drinks. My mom, a true Southerner, always orders her Diet Cokes the same way: with alot (and I mean, alot) of ice.

After a decade in the South, I developed a habit of drinking a cold Diet Dr. Pepper every morning. I knew the day would be hot, so I didn't want hot coffee to start it off. I also grew quite fond of ice-cold beer. Here in the North, I am clinging to these favorites for as long as I can. My new friends have an ongoing bet about how long it will be until I switch to hot coffee. They might soon win. It's true that holding a cold can of diet soda while walking the kids to school on a frosty 28-degree morning isn't ideal, so I am considering coffee, or hot chocolate, at least. As for the other vice, my brother, Will, who lives and drinks cold beer in Holmes Beach, Florida, told me this: "You'd better switch to something that warms your scotch."

Some things, however, don't change, no matter where you live. Just the other day, one of our neighbors brought home a freshly-hunted deer. "He just strung that thing up by its feet," my son said flatly to my back as I washed dishes. He had seen plenty of hunters in Florida. Then my son said, "He left the deer hanging from a tree in his backyard," and I turned around, soap dripping from my hands. Oh the stink that thing will cause, I thought. There will be flies everywhere!

But the next day, on our walk to school, there wasn't even the slightest whiff of dead animal. There were no flies. And that's when it hit me. It's cold enough here in Maine to hang meat and keep it fresh. Until it freezes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Dear Author: Please don't do this

by Karen Harrington

You’ve read the passage before.

As he walked into the room, as confident as George Clooney, and looking every bit like his twin brother, he winked at the blonde Paris Hilton look-a-like leaning against the bar.

Actually, my blog post could end right now. Way over here in Dallas, I can hear you retching with disgust at this bad writing. It is also lazy and lacks originality. There are no real descriptions, save confident and blonde.

So I ask you: Does trading on celebrity looks hinder the power of the story? Survey says: Yes. It weakens the writing and it can also date the story. (Of course, it’s hard to imagine a world without George Clooney, and who really wants to, but one day it will be so.)

Apparently, book bloggers are exposing this weak, celebrity short-hand when they find it – and they are finding it in the books of best-selling authors.

I offer into evidence a recent post over at the fab blog My Friend Amy, where the esteemed book blogger ranted about an author’s use of celebrity’s as a short-cut, or shorthand, for character description.

Dozens of her commenters agreed. Don’t do it, authors, they decried. It steals their own imaginative powers. It robs them of forming their own mental picture. It insults their own sensibilities.

For yours truly, I sometimes insert a famous name into the first draft of my manuscript with the intention of fleshing out the character later. Perhaps, after I’ve gotten to know him/her more, I will learn that he is a rabid pen clicker or that she has a thing for toying with her left earring when she’s nervous. But I do not keep the famous name in subsequent drafts for the same reasons these blog readers cited: it breaks the reader's flow from the story.

To be fair, I did trade on one famous name in my debut, Janeology. I used a pop-culture icon to draw a comparison between my protagonist’s looks and those of, Dave, the attorney defending him. My editor kept it because he said it not only worked as a comparison, but also revealed a bit about the self-image of Tom, my protagonist.

It reads:

I noticed a young female juror glance at Dave and smile. It probably didn’t hurt my defense that he was so good-looking. It’s not that I am unattractive. I’m tall, fit, green-eyed and still have all my hair. But cast us together in a movie and Dave Frontella is James Bond and I’m Man in Elevator #2.

So next time we write about how a handsome, self-assured character crosses the room with a sly grin on his face to meet a lithe woman who looks like she never met a bleach bottle she didn’t like – let’s just say that.

On second thought, let’s say something better than that. In fact, I challenge each of you to take this sentence and make it into something altogether unforgettable. The winner will receive my life-long esteem.



Karen Harrington is the author of the psychological suspense novel Janeology. Visit her daily reading and writing blog:

South Speak by Augusta Scattergood

Not long ago I read a rant by a writer, possibly a book reviewer himself, most likely on a blog advising us how to write. He was pontificating about overused words. Words he wanted banished from the pens of critics. As someone who often reviews books, I read it carefully. I can’t remember much about that list except that one of my favorite words showed up as persona non grata: Quirky. I love quirky books and I love the sound of that word. Maybe it’s because so many characters in Southern novels are downright quirky.

So when I read Southern funny guy Roy Blount Jr.’s new book, ALPHABET JUICE, I glommed right onto his take on quirky. He suspects the word was born following the “union of ‘quick’ and something more pejorative, perhaps ‘jerk.’” Fascinating? Definitely.

If you happen to be a word junky like I am.

Blount calls himself a hyperlexic. Now that’s something to aspire to. The book’s subtitle says it all: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Pits, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory.


Sometimes as a writer, I linger too long over words, worrying that I haven’t followed the advice of Mark Twain in a quote attributed to him: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Now I’ve seen lightning (In fact, I’m told I live in the lighting capital of the country. A place that named its hockey team the Tampa Bay Lightning) and I love lightning bugs. And, believe me, there’s a big big difference.

But what about mosey, a good ole’ southern word if there ever was one, and stroll? How about saunter? How do we choose? We’d better choose carefully, even if the difference isn’t as pronounced as those lightning bugs.

Southern writers are at a word advantage, I’m sure of it. We just have more words to tell you what we want to say. My friend Beth Jacks maintains a website at There you’ll find what she calls Southern Speak, an exhaustive list of southern words and phrases her readers tap into, add to and comment on. Words long gone from most tongues, like corporosity and nary. Fixing to (that one’s not so long gone where I come from!). Swaney. And a whole host of food words nobody outside the South might recognize, including my favorite road food: Nabs (We Southerners know that’s not somebody grabbing you).

My own list of Southern Speak is endless, even after I’ve lived in the north most of my grown-up life. Words swirl around me like those Sunday dinner-time stories of my childhood. Maybe that’s why I’m partial to something else Roy Blount wrote:

"My goal in life is to make some tiny headway toward lifting from Southerners some tiny bit of the burden of having to prove [to Northerners] that we are being tongue-in-cheek."

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned to say what I mean, what I want to say anyhow, even when it flies right over the heads of those Yankees. Thank you, Roy Blount, for making me appreciate the spirit and energy of the words I grew up loving.

Augusta Scattergood is a contributing writer for Skirt! Magazine and Delta Magazine. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the St. Petersburg Times, and Mississippi Magazine as well as the USADeepsouth and Children’s Literature websites. She’s hard at work on two middle-grade kids’ books with her critique groups who, sadly, do not serve snickerdoodles.
Visit her blog at

Monday, December 8, 2008

On Ending Well

By Nicole Seitz

Every cool morning after the kids are strapped in my husband's truck and we've said our goodbyes and I love yous, I do a little something extra. I exhale warm breath on the cold window and use my finger to draw something for the kids to see as they're pulling out of the driveway to go to school. The first day I did it, I drew a heart. It instantly became a hit and was expected every day. Then, I had to draw on BOTH passenger windows. Next, I came up with different images: a cat, a happy face, a house. Now, the kids request things. This morning, my son asked for an airplane and my daughter, a bird. They may not have been the best or most recognizable images, but I did my best and I watched as they smiled and my son traced the airplane with his forefinger from the other side of the glass. This little tradition of ours has become quite an important part of our morning routine. As long as it's cool weather, these window paintings will keep a-comin'.

So I was thinking about how important they are, these images, these last impressions I leave with my family. You must understand how hectic things are for the thirty minutes leading up to the backing out of the drive. There are proddings to finish breakfast. Warnings to put down that toy. Pleadings to come upstairs and get dressed. Some days there is hair pulling (mine), heart racing, "We're late, we're late!" moments. So much commotion for four humans to make! And then...once the truck doors are shut and the children dressed and bundled and strapped, there is a moment of quiet as my finger goes to glass and a last impression is created between mother and children...and husband. I love the smiles. I love the oohs and aahs. But I love my family most of all. I don't want them to remember the running around and rushing that morning. It's so important that they savor that last impression from home to carry with them to the next place.

I think book endings are very much the same way. We, as writers, create this cacophony of words and images, scenes, commotion, turmoil, heartbreak, heart-leaping across hundreds of pages...and then...the ending. An ending to a novel is so powerful, it cannot be underestimated. Have you ever loved reading a book and had the ending fall flat? How did you feel about the book afterward? You remember that slight disappointment at the end, at least, I do. And then, we've all read a book that's going along fine, we're getting into it, and by the end, WOW! what a zinger. I did NOT see THAT coming. How does the ending color the book? It can make or break it. The ending is your final goodbye, that thing that you leave. What do you like to draw for your readers?

I have to admit, I'm in the school of surprise endings. I love when I don't see it coming. I'm a savvy reader, and this goes for movies too. PLEASE don't let me guess correctly who-dunnit. Please don't let me peg from the opening scenes who the bad guy is, what the secret is. I love endings. I LOVE my readers. I want my readers--no matter what they've gone through to get there to the end of my books--to be satisfied, sometimes surprised, and definitely entertained. It is the end that we, as writers, give our readers as that lasting image, drawn with warm breath on a foggy window. The details of the book will fade away mighty fast, but that faint image of a smiley face or awkwardly drawn birdie or great big warm heart will remain.

Here's another thing I've noticed about the window images and novel endings: They've got to be fairly quick and simple. No Sistine Chapel ceilings here. Why? Because the fog on the glass only lasts for so long. You've got to get that image drawn the best you can in the short amount of time you have. Otherwise the fog will disappear and you're left with a half-drawn something-or-other that could be a cat or an airplane--we can't tell. And let me tell you, my son will turn to my daughter's window if he can't figure out what I've drawn for him. Kids are like that. Kids, and readers--we all love a good ending that we can trace with our finger from the other side of the glass and take with us wherever we happen to go next. A great ending is the one thing that lasts and lasts.

Nicole Seitz is the author of Trouble the Water, The Spirit of Sweetgrass, and coming in March, A Hundred Years of Happiness. She also paints the covers for her novels. Visit her website at to watch book trailers, look at artwork, and learn more.

Image courtesy of Friends of Randolph Library and Circa Gallery, Asheboro, NC.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Economics: Buying from the Industry You Want to See Survive

Or ... Title #2

How to Give an Entire World as a Present on a Shoe-string Budget

My 11-year-old son's Christmas list includes this item: Lobster (not for eating). My 8-year-old son wants a nerf gun. He knows I'm against guns so he pronounces it "NERF (gun)." My 13-year-old daughter wants nothing. She knows there's an economic crisis, and believes in cutting back instead of blind consumerism -- she's political. My one-year-old wants a vacuum cleaner.

None of them have asked for books, because they know that books are a given.

This year I'm getting books for every single person on my list.


Because in times that are this tough, I worry not about individual companies as much as I do entire industries. I want to look back on what I bought this year and see those items as a reflection of what I value in the world. I value books.

Now, as a writer, this might be seen as selfish. But if I weren't a writer, I'd still be a reader. I'd still want to handpick books for the people I love based on their interests, as a way of telling them that I've been listening. I'd still want to boost the imaginations of kids. I'd still want to give the gift of words, images, entire worlds.

How to give an entire world on a shoestring budget?


Join me.

Julianna Baggott is the author of fourteen books across three genres. Visit her at: for an overview, to get info on her books for kids, and for news on her latest book, MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS. To get a FREE COPY of her upcoming book for kids THE PRINCE OF FENWAY PARK, visit And, if looking for an opportunity to get free books to underprivileged kids in the state of Florida, go to the nonprofit she co-founded:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

You Say It’s Your Birthday
It’s my birthday too, Yeah!

by Sarah R. Shaber

Today is my birthday. I am in my late youth. To be more specific, the four crooners you see singing were my contemporaries. I didn’t have my driver’s license when they first visited the States, but in all other aspects I was a fully developed human being.

What is it about birthdays, anyway? Why is a birthday so fraught with symbolism, celebration, and sometimes anxiety?
It’s just another day of the year. You’re pretty much the same person on your birthday as you were the day before.

Except on that first birthday, the day before you were born you were nothing and nobody. You were zero. On your birthday you became one day old. Ever listen to little kids talk about their birthdays? “I’m four years and three months.” “My birthday is in 17 days.” “I was born in the morning, but my party’s going to be in the afternoon.” Your birthday is an absolute. It was the day you became someone. Rather than no one. Somebody instead of nobody.

Non-existing is an ancient, primitive human fear. Being here is vastly preferable to not being here. This is why we cling to life so tenaciously, no matter how ugly life gets. It’s why mortality sucks. We want to stay right here with our loved ones, go to all the new George Clooney movies, see our children and grandchildren grow up, eat at our favorite restaurants, live long enough to find out if there is alien life on other planets. We don’t want to miss anything cool. Even if we have to suffer through root canals, colonoscopies, Sarah Palin, or recession on our journey. Life is still better than not-life. Even people who are deeply religious want to take the last train out. So we celebrate each and every birthday. Thank goodness I’m still here!

What, you might ask, does this have to do with writing, in my case, crime fiction. Everything. Murder is the most heinous of criminal offenses. It has no statute of limitations. Murder case files are never closed. Even anonymous murder victims, some found years after the crime, are investigated with the same zeal as if they were discovered yesterday. It’s said that detectives never forget the cases they couldn’t solve.

Enter the novelist and the reader. The murder victim in a crime novel represents any person who dies before his or her time. We are all anxious about the premature death, the car out of control, the suspicious dark spot on our body, arteries filling up with gunk. Some of us will fall to the wayside before our threescore and ten.

The crime writer exploits this anxiety by allowing us to deal with the unfairness of early death and its aftermath in an entertaining way—reading a mystery novel. We’re permitted to experience the whole horror of death—the violence, the grieving, the questions, the ramifications of someone becoming nobody again. Never having another birthday. Using fictional characters, of course. No one we know personally.

Then there’s the detective. Our hero. He or she tracks down the killer, justice is done, and the reader breathes a sigh of relief. The world continues to rotate. Without the victim, of course, but the reader still feels comforted by the predictability of the form. The writer is happy if she has communicated something she feels is important about life, or if she has exorcised her own demons. And justice somehow lessons the sting of death.

Enough heavy philosophizing. A large piece of double chocolate cake awaits me!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dear Southern Authors and our readership!
Yes, this is a Christmas letter to all of you! Ever since I have made my life an open book with the publication of my life story in books, “The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life”, I have vowed to tell only the truth and nothing but the truth. After all it’s like that old adage, “The truth shall set you free!” So let me begin with what prompted me to write a Christmas letter.
I was decorating the last of the five Christmas trees in my house, upstairs in what we call our movie room, our other favorite pastime in the Patrick family besides books. I was cross-legged sitting half on the side table and arm of my chair when one 52 year old leg sprung loose and I was suddenly falling backwards towards the floor. My life did not quite flash before my eyes but I knew the landing was not going to be pretty. It was as if I was falling in slow motion, seriously. I turned to try to break by fall by putting down my hand but not fast enough. The back of my head hit the corner of my inch thick glass coffee table and I landed with a thud. The shock of pain hit my head and hand and I began wailing. As my high school old daughter, Madeleine, ran up the stairs to see what happened, I felt my head to see if a chunk wasn’t missing or if I was bleeding. Nope. My head was still intact and the coffee table was not broken. A miracle indeed as this past year of book release, book tour, and more has fluffed me up to marshmallow stage. To put it nicely, I have become quite fluffy. My weight alone in hitting that table should have caused considerable damage to my head and to my table.
Now I hurt, my head was throbbing; my arm seemed a little out of whack, as my wrist. I checked to see but nothing was broke so I counted my blessings that I am addicted to milk, strong bones my friends. I’m sobbing by now and Madeleine is asking me what happened, what happened. I am trying to explain and she’s laughing as she goes, “Momma are you alright?” As I crawled my way back up to a sitting position, I told her to quit laughing and get me some ice. A goose egg the size of a lemon was popping up on my head. She laughed all the way down the stairs.
First of all, what made that event so funny? Beats me but one thing I know, it could have been a whole lot worse, tragic actually. I could have died. Okay, so maybe that’s a tad bit melodramatic but as I write this, that glass coffee table still gives me the shivers, thus this Christmas letter.
Ever since my book was published this past January, I have had this sinking feeling that I better get my life down on paper. Weird premonition, whatever. I know I have a bunch to say, so let me begin.
Right after the New Year, I hit the road in a Texas Cadillac, (Excursion provided by my generous publisher), with four of my Pulpwood Queens in tow. We traveled ten states through the mid-south and south, 27 stops with sometimes eight events a day for my book tour. I mean how many authors get to go on book tour with their bestest friends, make that paid vacation with their bestest friends. I am counting my blessings having Grand Central Publishing as my publisher. We had a blast as I was doing BIG HAIR Makeovers at all the book store stops! What fun! Our Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend was right smack dab in the middle of book tour and what was I thinking. It’s all a blur now but a happy blur!
Home at last and both my co-workers bailed out on me while I was gone. Alone again working at my Hair Salon/Book Store, Beauty and the Book but thankfully, many of you all came to visit me plus tons of Red Hatters, book clubs, and women having Girlfriend Weekends to my now hometown of Jefferson, Texas.
This past year I tried to prepare myself for my oldest daughter leaving for University of Texas at Tyler. I did not prepare myself well enough because I spent most of the early fall in crying jags missing my Lainie. She adjusted very well to the college experience, so well, she called us bright and early one Sunday morning to tell her father, sister, and I, if we wanted to see her bail out of an airplane at 10,000 feet to get our booties over to the Gladewater airport a.s.a.p. I have never dressed so fast and in fact, watched all ten of her college Outdoor Adventure Club members jump out of planes that day. My heart was literally in my hands and going ninety miles an hour praying as she jumped, parachuted, and leisurely drifted down to land successfully on sold ground. God is watching over for me and mine for sure my friends. And did I mention the tattoo?
Oh yes, my daughters just a couple weeks ago came to me to tell me something. I panicked. What’s up? Madeleine explains, “Don’t get mad Momma, but Lainie got a tattoo!” I flashed back to the sorority girl who pierced my ears with a needle and potato when I was working for my aunt at the Stillwater Country Club, one college summer and all of us waitresses were on break. My parents threw a major hissy fit and told me I had maimed my body for life. Only white trash got their ears pierced, what was I thinking? As I asked to see where she got the tattoo, praying to God it was NOT above her bootie crack or on a boob, she informed me it was on the instep of her foot. Wow, that had to hurt, I was thinking as I inquired, “What is the tattoo?” She showed me and all spelled out in gothic writing was, “THE THIRTY”. Aha, The Thirty was a heavy metal rock band, a Christian heavy metal rock band of which the members were also my daughter’s best friends. “Why Lainie, why? What if the band breaks up and for gosh sakes, you’re going to be a doctor! With a TATTOO!” Now I’m praying there won’t be any more, or piercings!
Then if the skydiving, tattoo wasn’t enough, my husband who I swear has been going through midlife crisis the past ten years, decides after watching Lainie skydive, that he’ll take back up getting his pilot’s license. Thanksgiving morning he was gone at the crack of dawn off flying. It was bad enough to have one bird leave the nest now the Jaybird was off flying into the wild blue yonder. What gives?
Did I mention my life with my youngest Madeleine? This past year she has been the Junior Varsity Mascot, Pup Pup, a Bulldog character. I have attended more football games and Pep Rallies than I care to mention and by somebody who hates football. Did I also mention we made the District Playoff’s so more hauling Madeleine and that big grey Bulldog costume around East Texas? Did I also mention it has been freezing cold?
By the last game, I finally got into it and we lost. I was screaming at the top of my lungs, “Blood makes the grass grow, KILL, KILL, KILL!” Again God was watching out for me because I was getting way too into the violence of that game.
Madeleine and I moved on. Screaming and crying, “NO, NO, NO, I will not take you and your girlfriends to the midnight showing of TWILIGHT! Over my dead body, Madeleine, for goodness, it’s a school night. I desperately need my beauty sleep. NO WAY!” 7:30 p.m. that evening we arrived at Marshall Cinema to stand in line for the twenty tickets left for the midnight showing. I was number nine.
I was going to hate this movie, after all, it was about vampires, and I hated all those vampire movies from the 70’s when I was in high school. I could remember, disgustingly, how the last vampire film I watched had a male vampire chasing another male vampire. They were just too pretty, you know what I mean. And I left in disgust after a girl vampire bit another girl vampire on the boob. I mean what was that all about?
To make matters worse, all of us parents from Jefferson and our teenage daughters had to sit on the front row. Talk about a neck crook. As the film, began I was all ready and waiting to hate this film then something happened. I was mesmerized by the characters and the story. I walked out in a daze as all the girls were talking about how they had to come back and see it again. All I knew was I had to read the books. Madeleine and I proceeded to read, (she was already almost finished on book one), all four of the books in one week. We bonded over Stephanie Meyer. I will be forever indebted for her giving me a common ground with my teenage daughter who nothing I do normally seems to please her. We have spent hours talking about the books, the characters, and both think that the Edward character is just about the finest thing to ever walk this planet besides Johnny Depp.
Somehow I have managed to survive this entire year. I have lived to tell the tale and now hard at work on not one but two books. I am alternating between another non-fiction book, “The Pulpwood Queens’ Guide to Reading for a Higher Purpose” and my first novel called “Eureka!” As I have said before, I have a lot to say and feel like time is NOT on my side. Pray for me!
Did I also mention this past year I have done the coolest thing I have ever done, I am teaching a life writing class at the homeless shelter, Newgate Mission in Longview, Texas? I have initiated as President of the Jefferson Rotary Club, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program here in Marion County which provides books to new borns until they start school, a book a month. I also now have over 200 chapters of The Pulpwood Queens up and running from Anchorage, Alaska, to the Jersey shore, from Florida to California and ever where in between and not. I also have members and chapters in eight foreign countries with a chapter soon in works, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
My life has been blessed from reading books. As I traverse this country this next year speaking to library associations. Friends of Library Association, Rotary Clubs, (I’m President here), churches and more, don’t think I let everybody know that it’s all because I have been blessed because I am a reader. I may never be rich, moneywise, in my lifetime, but I am enriched because of my family, friends, authors, and books. Okay, this Christmas letter I was going to work in all the skeletons in my closet but that door is going to remain closed. Who has the time to read a 10,000 page book! Nobody can be as up as me to not have their down times too! But I refuse to let my dysfunction get in the way focusing on the FUN in my life. Life is fun and even funner, is that a word, if you become a real reader!
Thanks for inviting me into this southern author book family. Again God has blessed me BIG TIME!
May you all have a Merry Christmas and that may be politically incorrect but so am I. I pray to God, I salute our flag, and I am proud to be a Christian! Thank God we live in America where we are free to make our own choices. May you also make the right choices and choose the right path. I assure you I have stumbled many, many times, but always turn to God, who is leading my way!
Now on to truly celebrating Jesus birth and decorating my shop for Christmas! I’m only doing one tree and standing up the entire time, so no worries. Pray for me anyway!
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Club
P.S. The blonde is my oldest daughter, Helaina, and the brunette is my youngest Madeleine with her peeps!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Thursday morning I climbed out of bed before dawn and headed to the kitchen. I believe it's a great advantage to be an early riser on Thanksgiving. The side dishes were finished and the turkey was roasting in the oven before my husband and daughter awoke. Creating the Thanksgiving feast was a breeze.

It wasn't always that way.

Twenty-three years ago, I was a newlywed, eager to prove to my family that I was capable of cooking a holiday meal. I felt confident about making the three-bean casserole, stuffing (in a box), and sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping. The problem was the turkey. I'd never attempted to cook one. This was the bird that graced the dining table in every weepy holiday commercial. Golden crisp on the outside. Moist and tender on the inside. I didn't want to blow it.

I sought advice from everyone. "Cooking a turkey is easy," said one friend, "just don't buy a Butterball." She then proceeded to tell me how I should smear two sticks of butter over the body. "Make sure to leave some for the inside of the cavity," she added.

The what???

It sounded so complicated so I called my mom. "It's easy. I don't know why people make such a big deal about it. Just buy a Butterball."

I heard other methods--cooking it overnight at a low temperature, and someone even swore it was better to cook the turkey breast-side down. "Trust me. You'll never do it any other way," they said.

Apparently I was not the only frustrated one. I hear there is a turkey hot-line, twenty-four hours of roasting advice offered by an expert. That must be some job. At least they had some funny stories to tell around their holiday table. I can just hear them. "Then there was the one who thought she'd give the turkey a golden glaze by coating it with sugar and torching it. She had to throw it in the fireplace and start over!"

Eventually I learned how to roast a turkey my way. It begins with ignoring the instructions on the label that advises allowing two days for thawing in the refrigerator. I don't know about you, but my turkeys take five to six days. Most years, my turkey has turned out pretty decent. It just took a few Thanksgivings to build my confidence and rely on my own instincts.

Learning to roast a turkey is not unlike my writing career. Early on, I received tons of advice. "Don't write in first person," one of my creative writing teachers said.

"Why?" I asked, mainly because all of my first stories came to me from that point of view.

Annoyed, she said, "New York looks at it as amateurish."

For awhile, I struggled to write in third person. It sounded forced, but I didn't want New York to think I was an idiot.

"You overuse the word look," said a critique partner. Never mind that she tended to be fond of gaze. But what did I know? She'd been writing for a few years. My characters started to gaze at the green meadows.

"If you want to write for children, leave out the parents." This bit of info came from a published writer. "Make them orphans or just keep them out of the story."

I tried to be obedient. And for awhile, I was. But the joy left the process. Then one day a story came to me, a story in first person. The main character lived with adults. She liked to look at things. I continued to listen to what others told me about my story. I considered all the advice I received from editors in rejection letters. Sometimes I applied it. Sometimes I did not. I'd learned to trust my own gut. After all, it was my story. Those were my characters. If it sold, my name would be on the book.

Three and a half years later, it did sell. Once my editor told me, "Kimberly, the thing I like about working with you is that you always consider what I have to say about the manuscript, but ultimately you do what you think is right." Some writers are born with that instinct. I'm not one of them. I came to it eventually, leaving fear behind, relying on my gut and instincts.

Not unlike roasting a turkey.

Kimberly Willis Holt's first book, My Louisiana Sky, was published ten years ago. Since then, she's written a few more and even roasted a few turkeys.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sharyn McCrumb: Nut Cases Get the Form Letter

Stephen King Wasn’t Kidding, Y’all

Crazy people write to you, too, right? I’m not the only one getting this stuff.

She seemed so normal at first. She e-mailed a brief message to the “Contact the Author” address on my web-site, saying how much she loved my books, and then she asked if I planned to write another book in the old series that was still her favorite,

She was referring to books I wrote twenty-five years ago, back when I was in graduate school, back when I had two children in diapers and very little time for contemplation. Short, fun books that were marketed as genre fiction, but when you’re working full-time, writing term papers, and taking care of babies, you don’t have time to be Virginia Woolf, trust me.

I get about one letter a week asking about those books, and I have half a dozen stock replies, depending on my mood. I sent her the nicest one, I promise you I did. I explained that while many wonderful, clever people read those books, far too many other people read them as if they were verbal Twinkies, missing all the satire, symbolism, etc. And those people then mistake my later works for genre fiction, too, which I will not stand for. I said that since people were teaching my later works in universities and writing dissertations about them, and awarding me literary prizes, I thought it best to move on. Often I compare my career to that of actor Tom Hanks, who, after winning two Academy Awards, is not going back to doing his old sit-com Bosom Buddies, either.

She wrote back with a stern lecture saying that I had “sold out” and that I had abandoned my fans to curry favor with academics. The tone was strident and over-wrought. She lectured me as if I were twelve years old. I did not reply. The next day another letter arrived from her, this one even more hysterical, beginning with her declaration that I had lost her as a reader (Thank you, Jesus), and saying she would tell everybody that I had sold out. What she was saying did not seem even remotely connected to the response I had originally sent her.

What reply did she expect to her diatribe? Did she think I would beg her to keep reading my work? That I would see the “error of my ways” and begin immediately to write a new installment in a series I had written back when Reagan was president? Not bloody likely. I hope she does stop reading my work. It makes me nervous even to know I’m sharing the planet with a lunatic like her.

I was tempted to send her one sentence “Thank you for your interest in my books,” and add a postscript saying “Nut cases get the form letter.” But I did not reply.

Do not write back to crazy people. Not only because some fans are dangerously crazy – remember Selena? John Lennon?—but also because you can never convince these people, and you can never get the last word. They want to be angry for two reasons: 1) It makes them feel emotionally connected to you; and 2) As long as you even read their messages, they are exerting control over you. You are giving them power.

I get one whacko letter a year, and you can never tell from their first message that they are mentally disturbed. They say the same sort of nice things most people say, but they take exception to even the most innocuous reply. It is usually evident when they reply by arguing with you, and taking a hostile or condescending tone. They are embarking on the power trip. At that point, I’m gone.

You know, when I first read Stephen King’s novel Misery, back when it first came out, I thought it was a wonderful imaginary tour-de-force. As the years went by, I came to realize that it is as close to non-fiction as you can get without being an autopsy report. Stephen King wasn’t kidding.

Remember Misery? It is less of a horror story than it is an examination of the dynamics between the reader and the writer. Oh, readers thought it was scary, because the best-selling author of historical romance novels is injured and trapped in a remote mountain cabin with an ax-wielding maniac who calls herself “his number-one fan.”

When “Annie Wilkes” discovers that her favorite author has no intention of writing that series any more, she keeps him prisoner, chops off his foot, destroys his new novel, and forces him to write the book she wants him to write.
All successful but sincere writers would be terrified by that book-- even if the hero had been kept in comfort in the sunny guestroom of the president of the Charleston Garden club, because the horror to us isn’t the deranged sadist, it is the readers who think that devotion to your work gives them any say-so in the process.

In part 11 of the first section of Misery, the author Paul Sheldon thinks of his captor:

And while she might be crazy, was she really so different in her evaluation of his work from the hundreds of thousands of other people across the country-- ninety per cent of them women-- who could barely wait for each new five-hundred page episode in the turbulent life of the foundling who had risen to marry a peer of the realm ? No, not at all. They wanted Misery, Misery, Misery. Each time he had taken a year or two off to write one of the other novels-- what he thought of as his “serious work” with what was at first certainty and then hope and finally a species of grim desperation-- he had received a flood of protesting letters from these women, many of whom signed themselves “your number one fan.” The tones of these letters varied from bewilderment (that always hurt the most, somehow) to reproach to outright anger, but the message was always the same: It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I wanted. Please go back to Misery. I want to know what Misery is doing! -- He could write a modern Under the Volcano, Tess of the D-Urbervilles, The Sound and the Fury; it wouldn’t matter. They would still want Misery, Misery, Misery.”

Stephen King wasn’t exaggerating. He spoke for all of us who write because we have something to say instead of to push a product at consumers. Maybe you can vote what a genre hack will write next (I can name you twenty), but their works are ultimately as ephemeral as cotton candy.

Here’s the truth about any real writer’s work-- Stephen King, again, in Misery: “It was never for you, Annie, or all the other people out there who sign their letters “Your number one fan.” The minute you start to write, all those people are all at the other end of the galaxy or something.”

* * *

Real writers all have the same moral standard: Never write just for money; never tell lies to curry favor with readers, and never write a book unless you have something you feel is worth saying.

That’s all I owe anybody. Integrity.

The “number one fan” thinks that she can tell you what to write. She thinks that having read your book (probably via used paperback) that she is entitled to dictate your career choices, but writing is a strange vocation-- it's not like Burger King, where the slogan is "Have it your way." Good writers never really write for anyone other than themselves. The ones who don't turn out garbage. Trust me. You know what they say about people who do it for money instead of for love.

Writers are crazy, too, but since most of us are loners, at least we don’t torment real people.


Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, whose novel St. Dale, is the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of racing legend Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. This Canterbury Tales in a NASCAR setting, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award as well as the AWA Book of the Year Award.

McCrumb, who has been named a “Virginia Woman of History” in 2008 for Achievement in Literature, was a guest author at the National Festival of the Book in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the White House in 2006.

She is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including New York Times Best Sellers
She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket, which deal with the issue of the vanishing wilderness, and The Ballad of Frankie Silver, the story of the first woman hanged for murder in the state of North Carolina; and The Songcatcher, a genealogy in music, tracing the author‘s family from 18th century Scotland to the present by following a Scots Ballad through the generations. . Ghost Riders, an account of the Civil War in the mountains of western North Carolina, won the Wilma Dykeman Award for Literature given by the East Tennessee Historical Society;

McCrumb’s other honors include: AWA Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award; the Chaffin Award for Southern Literature; the Plattner Award for Short Story; and AWA’s Best Appalachian Novel. A graduate of UNC- Chapel Hill, with an M.A. in English from Virginia Tech, McCrumb was the first writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. In 2005 she honored as the Writer of the Year at Emory & Henry College.

Her novels, studied in universities throughout the world, have been translated into German, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian. She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and at the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop in Paris, and served as writer-in-residence at King College in Tennessee. A film of her novel
The Rosewood Casket is currently in production, directed by British Academy Award nominee Roberto Schaefer