Thursday, October 30, 2008

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! from Cathy Pickens

Cool day to draw for a blog -- Halloween. Except it's the night before and I've made myself sick on Halloween candy. (I allegedly bought it for the tricker-treaters, those I won't be home to greet, so might as well get an early start on bloating myself with sugar).

I LOVE Halloween -- which led me to write a ghostly walking tour of Charleston, South Carolina, one of my favorite "haunted" cities ... and which led me to include some ghost-hunters I lovingly refer to as "ghosters" in my latest mystery, Hush My Mouth (out in paperback in November).  

One of my favorite travel treats is to find a really good
ghost tour. My long-suffering husband rolls his eyes dramatically, but he always comes along. I've never heard him scream, but he's jumped a time or two.

One needn't wait for Halloween to partake in a ghostly tour because, my goodness, one wouldn't have time to see very many. For whenever you have time, may I suggest some delights?

In Wilmington, NC, they have some wonderful storytellers who conduct walking tours around this historic seaport city. A little farther south, try the harbor boat/ghost tour in Georgetown, SC (check the times and dates, though, because they're usually closed in the winter). 

Charleston, SC is, of course, awash in ghosts, as is Savannah. And don't forget the Jekyll Island Club, on a sea island on the Georgia coast. Spend the night there and imagine all sorts of hauntings. While you're traveling, continue on down to St. Augustine, which has a fun tour.

Not coming South any time soon? The Boston ghost tour is one of my favorite -- complete with a hearse-like bus to chauffeur you around. Seattle has an Underground Seattle tour which is spooky. Or try yet another boat tour -- near midnight in Chicago. Beautiful and mysterious.

While combining beauty and scares, put a night tour of Alcatraz on your San Francisco itinerary. It's the most beautiful view of the city, and the U.S. Park Service (as always) does a spectacular job of storytelling. Book before you leave home -- it's often filled during peak vacation times.

Going abroad? None can beat the haunted Edinburgh tours, unless it's the several mystery walks in London -- the Jack the Ripper walk is a fave.

For me, it's the stories and the unusual views of familiar places and a sense of history that lead me to these tours. So while you're making your Thanksgiving and Christmas travel plans (something to distract the family from a squabble?) or your summer vacation, don't forget to check whether there's a ghost tour nearby. One website includes tours in a variety of states.

Anyone else have any out-of-the way favorite ghost tours? Let us know! I've got to go have a lie-down -- too much candy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Brainstorming Rocks!

Brainstorming Rocks
by T. Lynn Ocean

Some people try to get inside the heads of others because it's what they do for a living. Psychiatrists, character actors, and hostage negotiators are a few examples. Me? I enjoy getting inside someone else's head for research. I'm not talking about the generic emailed interview or even a face-to-face Q&A over lunch. What I'm referring to is brainstorming. Think cerebral orgy. Brainstorming with intelligent people is one of the most fun activities you can do with clothes intact! Imagine a game of Truth or Dare combined with Balderdash.

A down-and-dirty brainstorming session is good for any type of problem-solving, but since this is a Murderati blog, let's say that you're in the process of creating a character. She's an elementary school teacher. Her plan is to kill the owner of a nearby dry cleaners, but she wishes to stay out of jail afterward. This simple setup can be the core of an hour-long brainstorming session that starts like this: If you were the teacher, how would YOU do it?

You can brainstorm with your spouse, friends and even strangers. If you've gathered the right type of open-minded and fun people, you'll most likely walk away with several ideas on how the teacher can murder the business owner. One of the ideas just might be fresh, fabulous, and a perfect fit for your plot. If you decide to give brainstorming a try, choose your topic, have a notepad handy, and follow THE RULES:

First, anything goes. Second, no criticism is allowed.

The 'anything goes' rule is just as it sounds. Maybe the teacher isn't a teacher at all. Maybe she doesn't have a degree and she faked her resume. Maybe she is really a former pest control technician. And maybe the dry cleaners is experimenting with a new environmentally friendly cleaning solvent. Maybe there is a giant pothole in the road and a hubcap from a passing pickup truck knocked a vial of the solvent into a nearby Bloody Mary, and it turns out that the solvent is toxic when mixed with tomato juice.

What does any of this have to do with your main plot? Maybe nothing. But then again… the nature of brainstorming is that one idea fuels another, and that idea fuels another, and so on. It doesn't matter if somebody verbalizes a thought that is wacky, tacky or totally unrealistic because someone else will take that cerebral stimulation and run with it. You'll be surprised at the morsels that can turn up in a brainstorming session.

As for rule number two, no criticism, that one is simple. There is nothing that will bring a creative sharing of ideas to a screeching halt more quickly than a negative person spouting, "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Or, "that would never happen."

So the next time you're working on a plot, planning a big event, or solving a problem at work—find some willing people, have a great time, and remember the rules.

Anything goes. No criticism allowed. Oh, yeah and one final thought. You might want to be careful where you have a brainstorming session, especially if you're plotting ways to get away with murder.

# # #

Harlot Halloween

Even though I spend my days writing or editing, life DOES go on. And we writers are moms, wives, daughters, employees, and must participate.
As I set out to buy my 10-year-old innocent cherub a Halloween costume, I envisioned her as a princess or pop star, preferably a teeny-bopping singer who wears clothes and hasn’t been in rehab or prison.
Oh, but no. The winged fairy outfits nor the ballerina suits did a thing for her pre-teen tastes.
She and her friends marched straight for the gigantic Hoochie Mama Section of this particular Halloween mega-mart. The mannequin capturing my girl’s eyes dazzled upon long thin legs, thigh-high boots and a snug as Spandex “Batgirl” outfit that would have Robin running for the hills and screaming, “Alert! Estrogen! Alert!”
I thought the getup was for grownups but was dead wrong. Children’s Halloween costumes this year have become racy, sexy and not the Snow White suits of yesteryear.
There’s always been the harlot fare for adults, such as the French Maid suit, the Playboy bunny costume and other revealing garments those with great bodies can’t wait to wear to parties while they sip from a cauldron of potent punch.
But lately, the trend seems to be stitching up some mini-skirts over in China or India and shipping them over here for our prepubescent babes to parade around in.
“I want that ‘Batgirl’ costume,’” my daughter begged.
“You’ll freeze,” I said. “Plus it’s not Batgirl. It’s Bat Hussy.”
“It’s no skimpier than my swimsuit,” she protested as only the young can do, those who are as good at manipulating as sneaky lawyers.
“Well, we’re not going swimming, now are we? We are going trick-or-treating in 30-degree weather. I’m not buying that Lexington Avenue outfit.”
“You’re mean. I don’t know what you’re talking about so I’m not speaking to you.”
“Fine. Sounds reasonable. But if you do decide to talk, there’s a darling little nun’s suit over on aisle 4. How fun is that? We can put some wings on it and you can be the Flying Nun.”
Her eyes roved toward a costume called “High Seas Hotties.”
Not a good sign so says the American Psychological Association that has shown adult-themed sexuality is marketed more and more to kids at younger ages. The study also revealed this early parade of young girls’ bodies could be linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.
The study concluded parents could be protective and positive role models.
“OK, missy. I have an idea. You can go as a moose and I’ll go as Sarah Palin.”
“I don’t want to be a moose. No one will see me or know who I am.”
“Yes, but you’ll be warm.”
“Look around, mother. Do you see a moose costume here?”
I was afraid to go down aisle 7. It wouldn’t surprise me to see partial fur, perhaps made into a string-bikini, a couple of antlers and a sign on a costume that said, “Sexiest Moose in Alaska.”
“I can sew you a moose suit.”
“You can’t sew.”
“You’re right. So I have a better idea. I’ll be Sarah and you can be Obama.”
Susan Reinhardt is the author of “Not Tonight Honey Wait ‘Til I’m a Size Six,” “Don’t Sleep with a Bubba,” and “Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin,” her latest.
This is the opinion of Susan Reinhardt. Contact her at

Monday, October 27, 2008

Possibly Maybe Probably Writing

" F*** rap, I'm givin' it up, y'all, I'm sorry
'But Eminem, this is your record release party!' "

And, with those words, the modern poet Marshall "Eminem" Mathers, in his song titled something I wouldn't say in polite company (which of COURSE we around this blog are) perfectly summed up my current plight:

I am so scared of writing my book, y’all. And I mean that. With every earnest, sincere fiber of my being. I have absolutely no idea what I’m in for. I mean, I discussed last time I was on here about how I’m not an author by any stretch of the imagination and yet a handful of things have me, lately, thinking I can do some sort of memoir in November. Which, dear readers, is, like, NOW.

*Sigh*. This is why writing is a craft and shouldn’t be left to untrained putzes like yours truly.

I’ve been attempting to stretch my writing wings (note to self: they’re called “fingers”. “Fingers.”) as of late, and as such have expanded my vast (not-vast) media empire (tire-swing fenced into a back yard somewhere that I’ve never seen) to include my own personal blog, which, fittingly and creatively enough, is available at The Russ Marshalek Blog (maybe I should make "the" "thee", and class it up a little?). As of right now, there’s nothing overly spectacular or enlightening on there, because I’m finding it, oddly enough, more and more difficult to be transparent, to be forthcoming, to want to plumb the depths of my memory to find something-humor? Terror? “Art”? Ugh, art. Art’s the last thing I want to be responsible for creating, especially knowing the ins and outs of the brain that I have. Art’s nowhere around.

And that brings me to a point that has me stuck, spinning my wheels: the amazing, cut-throat memoir has been done. I made several mistakes in the past week or so that have impaired my thinking, my go-getting-ness about this whole “Russ can take on a memoir and have it result in anything that anyone would ever want to read and/or find enlightening”: each of those mistakes being in the form of someone else doing some facet of what I, myself, desire doing: being able to mine those depths and find jewels, or at least jewels in the rough.

First and foremost was the memoir penned by the frontman of the fantastic and oft-overlooked rock band Eels, Mark Oliver Everett. Things The Grandchildren Should Know is not-at-all the quintessential “rock memoir”-rather, it’s funny, painful and oft both at the same time, describing in vivid detail the sheer tragedy Mark seemingly walked into day after day after day…not the least of which was finding his blisteringly brilliant scientist father dead in bed one morning as a child.

Jesus. Between that and writing “Novocaine For The Soul”, which is a lost anthem of my generation (no, seriously, it is), how can I compete?

In terms of absolutely phenomenal, flooring books, I also recently finished Matthew Kneale’s When We Were Romans and Andrew Porter’s short story collection The Theory Of Light And Matter.

When We Were Romans is heartbreaking from the get-go, as the story, captivatingly told by the thrust-into-adulthood 9-year-old narrator Lawrence, who, in the course of the story, becomes one of the most memorable characters in recent modern fiction. This and Beginner’s Greek are the two books from this year that I really, desperately want to keep in the event I am locked in a cave, or a vault, or some other thing that locks/can be blocked off, for years to come.

Andrew Porter’s O’Connor-award winning The Theory Of Light And Matter came to me at a time when I needed it, namely when I was trying to find flesh and skin in the industrial-esque minimalist compositions of Amy Hempel. Don’t get me wrong: I love Hempel. I’ve recently become addicted to Hempel. Every moment that I don’t own her collected stories, I find myself wondering about word choices, phrases, thinking that there’s a magic of language located somewhere within her skeletal constructs. However, I was in a place, stuck in a moment, so to speak, where I needed stories with life and breath and feathers-on-wings, with people possessing hearts that filled with blood and oxygen. Porter’s stories stretch with life, but within the framework of memory, be it lost or found. Usually love itself is a factor, to a point where I was literally faking sick to remain at home, curled in bed, shivering into the words on the page.

Anyway, all this is a fancy way of saying: I AM HAVING COLD FEET. FOR REAL. Who am I, thinking I can write a memoir…and, and….and SELL IT? (Because, unlike some of you, I just don’t have the cash to self-publish. I mean, really, I just can’t AFFORD it, that’s what that’s about.) I’m not a Sedaris…despite what the photo below may indicate:
(l-r: Amy Sedaris, ME OMFG ME!)

That is, in fact, Amy Sedaris. And no, though it would appear as such she is NOT, in fact, my mom. God, I wish.

Anyway, November’s creeping in. I’m going to wring my hands for a few more days, listen to a lot of Hope For Agoldensummer, and dig in. Here’s hoping I see the other side and have more to show for it than the “just another failed memoirist” t-shirt that I am currently designing and then manufacturing for myself...
as a way to avoid writing.

This is a picture of Russ Marshalek, Marketing/PR director for Wordsmiths, with Food Network star Sandra Lee. He hangs out with famous people and takes pictures of said encounters as another way to avoid writing. He also, for the record, while in college at Oglethorpe, wrote an essay comparing Eminem to John Updike. Neither party has ever seen said essay, but Mr. Marshalek received a grade of 92 on the paper and enjoys talking about it immensely to anyone who will listen.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween is Scary

I’m not frightened by the shrieks and eerie moans coming from haunted houses. Nor do I tremble at the sight of Jason and Freddie or a plastic machete slicing the air. To me there are much more scarier things about Halloween. Like snack-sized Butterfingers and my capacity to devour an entire bag. Or Hershey Kisses in their come-hither harvest colors of gold, yellow and red.

Halloween, after all, begins the candy-eating season, which stretches all the way until Easter. When the first autumn leaf falls, it’s as if a starter pistol is fired: Time to gorge on mellowcreme pumpkins, candy corn and gummy worms.

Since Halloween candy begins to appear on the shelves. I’ve found myself trudging to the grocery store several times before Halloween to restock for trick-or-treaters. Truth be told, by the time the little goblins show up at my doorstep, I’m usually forced to hand out less traditional treats like sticks of margarine or packets of Sweet ‘N Low, because somebody (and I won’t name names) has gobbled up every single piece of candy in the house.

If the treats weren’t frightening enough, the chore of selecting a costume is downright chilling. It used to be that Halloween belonged to little kids in superhero and fairy princess costumes. Now every watering hole in town hosts a costume party, and even daytime businesses get into the spirit of things. Mild-manner bank tellers flap their capes and bare their fangs, and the werewolf at the dry-cleaners snarls, “Have a nice day!” These days if you don’t dress up for Halloween you’re considered a party poop.

Unfortunately Halloween is supposed to be a scary holiday and what woman in her right mind wants to look frightening? Wrinkles and cellulite are terrifying enough. And if you’re like me, you get your fill of the heebies jeebies every swimsuit season when you first bare your ghostly-white skin under the fluorescent dressing room lights at the department store.

Most women opt to look comely instead of creepy on Halloween, a strategy that can backfire. There’s nothing scary about a woman dressed as a belly dancer. But there’s something very scary about a belly dancer with an affinity for Jelly Bellies. Ditto for French maids who are overly fond of French fries.

The costume issue also becomes more complicated if you’re part of a couple. People expect twosomes to come to parties dressed as a matched set, and frequently men and women don’t see eye-to-eye on costumes. How many men, after all, are willing to be Raggedy Andy to her Raggedy Ann? How many women are willing to be Princess Leia in a gold bikini to his Jabba the Hut?

But the absolute scariest thing about Halloween is its proximity to Christmas. On Nov.1 the Creeper Peeper candy eyeballs are replaced with candy canes, and the dreaded countdown begins. Suddenly there’s not a parking space left at the mall, the radio station is playing Christmas carols twenty-four hours a day and you’re shopping for a fir tree in flip-flops. Now that’s really scary.

Karin Gillespie has a new blog! Come visit her at

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Guest Blogger: Suzanne Adair

The South's Other War

You've seen the bumper stickers and T-shirts:

"The South Shall Rise Again!"
"Forget, hell!"
"Dern tootin' I'm a rebel!"

Obviously we're talking about the Civil War — for many people, the only war of significance in the South. From school history classes, most Americans have received the impression that the Civil War was fought almost exclusively in the South, while the North claims the Revolutionary War. Yorktown, Virginia gets passing mention in history texts as the place where General Cornwallis surrendered during the Revolutionary War. Most people forget that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were part of the original thirteen colonies. The fact that Florida was strategically important for King George III is almost unknown.

St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the United States. It was settled by Spaniards in the sixteenth century, decades before the English founded Jamestown. The Spaniards who lived in St. Augustine weren't weenies. They endured hurricanes, epidemics, famines, droughts, and attacks from the French, the British, and local Indians. They reluctantly handed over St. Augustine to the British after the Seven Years War because they'd sided with France. During the Revolutionary War, St. Augustine belonged to the British. In fact, the British also had strategic bases in Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. But do any of those facts make it into the average American's history text?

As a kid growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, these omissions annoyed me to the point where I resolved to find a way to put Florida on the map historically for the general public. I wanted to show the importance of Florida, thought of as a Southern state, before the time of railroad tycoons Flagler and Plant, before the Civil War. Florida, important in the war that's so often attributed to the North, the Revolutionary War. That opportunity arrived with my first published novel, Paper Woman. The Florida Historical Society awarded me the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award for it.

In my subsequent novels, including the recently released Camp Follower, I continued to explore the South in the Revolutionary War. (Dr. Christine Swager, who also writes fiction about the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, calls it, "Stamping out the frontiers of ignorance.") Major, decisive battles occurred in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The South is where the British strategy to subdue the colonial insurrection finally collapsed. Most historians now believe that more battles were fought in South Carolina than in New York. But almost none of that information makes it into history texts. So I keep writing, and I wonder why the South gets gypped for recognition when it comes to the Revolutionary War.

From the extensive research I've conducted for my own series, I've derived theories, of course, but I'm a novelist, so I leave those complex social and political elements to history scholars. However, voices from the South are often heard with more skepticism than those from other regions. Southerners have deep roots in folklore. Sometimes, we embrace folklore so well that we fail to distinguish it from fact. When that happens, we shoot our own credibility in the foot.

This summer, I received email from a columnist (I'll call him "Jimmy Olsen," for the cub reporter in "Superman") from a small Georgia paper. Mr. Olsen was writing a piece about how the South's contribution during the Revolutionary War has been downplayed, and he wanted feedback from me, a novelist who writes about the South in the war, to substantiate his views. Huzzah! With all my traveling, by the time I got back to him, he'd already published his piece. However he said the publisher would be delighted to print my response to his piece as a letter to the editor. I asked him to email me his original article.

When I read it, I cringed. Not only had Jimmy Olsen gotten facts incorrect about the Revolutionary War in the South, he'd accepted as fact tales of Southern folklore. I'm sure he meant well, but the bottom line was that we Southerners had shot ourselves in the foot. Again. Why should anyone bother to take the South's claims of significance in the Revolutionary War seriously when Southerners cannot even get their facts straight and believe in myths and boogey monsters of the war?

My publisher suggested that I submit a letter that supported Jimmy Olsen's overall premise and gently corrected his mistakes. I did so. The paper never published my letter. Did I irritate them? Embarrass them? I certainly hope I did. Either way, it appears that they dropped the topic. What's more disturbing is that Mr. Olsen told me he also teaches high school. That means he's perpetrating factual errors upon subsequent generations.

More than 225 years ago, Southerners fought hundreds of crucial Revolutionary War battles within the Southern colonies. Today, Southerners are fighting ignorance about their own history. This ignorance is perpetrated in a vicious cycle from school texts to schoolteachers. Even Hollywood doesn't get the story right; "The Patriot," released in 2000, purported to show facts of the war in the South but only reinforced the folklore.

The best way off this rat wheel is to explore the history for yourself. For starters, here are some well-written sources:

A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens, Dr. Larry Babits
The King's Ranger, Dr. Ed Cashin
Southern Campaigns of the American Revolution, Dan Morrill
Journal of a Lady of Quality, Janet Schaw
Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton, Dr. Tony Scotti
The Oldest City: St. Augustine, Saga of Survival, Jean Parker Waterbury, ed.
The Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, 1780 – 1783, Francisco Morales PadrĂ³n, ed.

Have fun!

Suzanne Adair won the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society for Paper Woman, the first novel of her mystery and suspense series. The Blacksmith's Daughter and Camp Follower continue her fictional ventures into the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. For more information, visit

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A World Away

Cats & Computers
I found a tiny starving kitten crying on my front porch the other day. The little tortoiseshell beastie was so desperate and pitiful, I petted her and fed her and told her she could stay. The next day this guy showed up (clearly well fed and totally relaxed):
A few days later the "kitten" had 3 kittens! Here are the 2 adults admiring a couple of the charming offspring.
I went from 0 to 5 stray cats in the blink of an eye.  Hey, what's going on here?  I meant to be taking in only one small cat...  Now my front porch is TOTALLY COVERED in cats!!
When I complained about this to a colleague, she admitted this is what had just dropped in at her house:
The interesting thing about this (to me) is that one incident happened in Strawberry Plains, TN, while the other was happening in Delhi, India.  Small world, huh?  In my day job I'm a webmaster who is unworthy of the title.  I live in the Smoky Mountains. The crackerjack computer programmer who is the key to my success lives in India. Despite being on opposite sides of the world, clearly we are both tools to be used by cats.

And despite the cats being on opposite sides of the world, they are still capable of dominating and controlling the brains of even the smartest of women.
What is it about cats?
What is it about cats and computers?
What is it about cats and computers and women?
Anybody need a nice pet?
:  )
Contact Carolyn

Monday, October 20, 2008

How to know if your child is The Naughty One

by Sarah Smiley,

After the first few days in a new classroom, especially if it is in a new school in a new state, your child is likely to come home and claim he doesn’t know the names of any other students.

“You can’t remember even one friend’s name,” you’ll say, desperate for all the details. But your child’s lips are sealed. Only after your relentless prodding will your child finally confess: “Well, there is this one kid ...”

That “one kid,” the only student whose name your son or daughter knows, is guaranteed to be the naughty kid.

Every class has a naughty kid (remember that; it’s important later). Other children quickly learn the naughty kid’s name because they hear it called aloud by the teacher — with various undertones of anger and frustration — over and over again. 

Beware any child whose name is the first one that your son or daughter learns, especially if your child says this person is his new best friend.

But what if your child is the naughty kid? How will you know? Your first clue might be if your son or daughter says there isn’t a naughty student in the class. (Remember, there is always a naughty kid.)

ME (speaking to my 5-year-old son, who just started kindergarten): “Owen, did you learn any friends’ names today?”

OWEN: “No, Mom.”

ME: “Not even the naughty kid’s name? Your older brother always learned the naughty kid’s name on the first day.”

OWEN: “We don’t have a naughty kid in our class.”

ME: “No naughty kid? That’s impossible. Every class has a naughty kid.”

OWEN: “Not my class.”

ME: “Well that’s good. But you don’t know anyone’s name? You didn’t hear the teacher saying someone’s name over and over again?”

OWEN: “Nope.”

The second clue that your child is the naughty one in his class: Other parents know your child’s name.

ME (speaking to the mother of someone in Owen’s class): “I’m sorry, what is your daughter’s name? I’m still trying to match parents to children.”

ANOTHER PARENT: “You're Owen’s mom, right?”

ME: “Yes.”

ANOTHER PARENT: “We hear a lot about Owen.”

The third and final clue that your child is the naughty one in class: They seem to always have a new seat.

ME: “Owen, what was your favorite part of the week?”

OWEN: “That I’m sitting at my friend’s table again.”

ME: “You’ve switched tables already? It’s only the second week of school.”

OWEN: “I switch tables every day, Mom. Each time I get in trouble, the teacher finds me a new seat.”

I was shocked when I finally put it all together. I didn’t want my child — my Owen — to be “that kid.” I didn’t want him to be the naughty one. When I talked to my husband, Dustin, about it, he chuckled and said, “Owen has come a long way. Do you remember when he wouldn’t talk at all? Do you remember how you worried that he would always be shy?”

Dustin is right. Just two years ago, our Owen, who has always been in the third percentile for weight, was a scrawny 4-year-old boy who couldn’t keep even size-2T pants on his hips. He seldom talked, and he cried every time I left him at preschool. He had trouble making friends.

Now our pint-size little boy — the one we used to call “Tiny Tim” — has blossomed into someone who apparently can’t stop making friends. Even during circle time and rest time. And while it’s nice to see him growing, that doesn’t mean he can misbehave.

“I guess I need to call Owen’s teacher and arrange a meeting,” I said aloud to myself that night, and my oldest son, Ford, overheard.

“I bet the teacher will answer and say, ‘Well, hello there, you naughty parent,’” Ford said, bringing a whole new element into my dilemma. If every class has a naughty child, I guess it makes sense that there is a “naughty parent” as well.

Owen came into the room and heard us talking. “Oh, come on now, stop,” he said. “Let’s not go calling my teacher or anything. I’ve got it all under control.”

Which, of course, is Clue No. 1 that you need a parent-teacher conference pronto.

Covering The Story: How cover design makes a first impression

Do you ever wonder if painters want to leap in front of their canvas and explain to art lovers what they should see? I wonder if authors want to do the same thing. Do we sometimes wish our cover suggested or emphasized one idea over another? Are we sometimes baffled by a casual observer's 10 second judgment of our book by its cover?

My answer to this last question is YES.

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE my cover design (right). The artist incorporated the puzzle piece imagery based on my suggestion that Jane, the character in the center of JANEOLOGY, is really a puzzle to all who knew her, especially her husband. But when a couple of blog reviewers suggested recently that when they first saw my cover they thought the book was Sci-Fi (instead of psychological suspense) well, it kinda threw me.

So I've added this week's comments to the category in my diary known as Debut Novelist Lessons. There are many. And while I was thinking about my own cover, I began scanning my own library and made an interesting discovery - many covers suggest something different from the story. Or perhaps more interesting, the hardback vs. the paperback cover of the same book seems to suggest a different energy, possibly a different story atmosphere. Here are a few samples of hardback/paperback covers from my stacks. Interesting, huh? Care to share responses you received to your own book covers?

Visit the site Book Covers to peruse dozens of book covers, old and new. Writers and designers can upload their own covers on this site.

Stop by and visit my daily blog:
Or to read a chapter of JANEOLOGY and view the trailer, visit

Friday, October 17, 2008

Guest Blogger: Augusta Scattergood


I’m a writer. I’ve never really aspired to radio. Oh, sure, I listen in the car to NPR. I nod, turn the volume up in traffic, tell my husband to keep his hands off when he attempts to change the station. But it never occurred to me that I, too, could be on public radio.

To be truthful, I’d flirted with radio fame once before. My friend Ken claimed he’d heard my magazine essay about the Southern ephemera decorating my powder room. Turns out his wife collects articles for their car trips and was reading to him. Reading my essay in Mississippi Magazine. He was confused. But perhaps Ken planted the seed of what might be.

Still, I was skeptical when an e-mail popped into my inbox, claiming to be from an assistant producer on a weekend public radio show. She’d loved my Christian Science Monitor essay about how I’d left the South but still journeyed to Mississippi from New Jersey each summer to pick figs from my sister’s tree. And would I speak about the fig essay next Saturday on the show?

I stared at the computer screen. Her name sounded potentially spam-ish. But Googling proved me wrong. The show had a legitimate website, filled with pictures. I answered her e-mail. I’d love to talk and here’s my number. I’d hardly hit the “send” button before the phone rang.

A frenzy of calls and e-mails from California to New Jersey followed. Would I travel back to my sister’s Mississippi fig tree this week for an on-site interview? (No) Could we tape the interview in the shade of a New Jersey fig tree? (You’ve got to be kidding.)

In my newspaper essay, I’d written about shopping for figs at our local Farmer’s Market. The price of a ripe fig in New Jersey—even one grown locally—made flying to Mississippi for free figs almost worth it. I would find a fig tree in New Jersey. Public Radio was calling!

At the third nursery, I struck fig paydirt. The address scribbled on the back of a sales slip was a mile from my house. I’d found my figs—37 glorious trees full of budding fruit. I knocked on the gardener’s door, explained my dilemma. He showed me the mature trees he lovingly wrapped in burlap to protect them from the harsh northeast winters. He touched the young grafts lined up in their green plastic tubs. His trees had traveled to his New Jersey backyard from as far as Italy, from as close as North Carolina. I remembered what I loved about growing up around figs.

Off went another round of e-mails to “my” new producer. She hired a sound engineer, and he and I rendezvoused at the fig grove down the street. Feeding me questions via cellphone, the young producer in Los Angeles reminded me to answer in complete sentences. “These fig trees remind me of my grandmother’s trees. Just touching them takes me back to the playhouse my sister and I made underneath those fuzzy fat leaves.” Like that.

A loud 737 headed for Newark International Airport and the street traffic whizzed by, but the sound guy held the microphone close to me and smiled at my comments. Meanwhile my friend the associate producer kept up her encouraging cellphone banter for almost an hour.

I drove home dreaming of my radio career. For the topic of late summer gardens, my charmingly Southern voice was irresistible.

But wait! Another e-mail arrived. She’d forgotten. They needed pictures. Pictures? For the radio? I was wearing sweats and sunglasses. And although the figs on my sister’s Mississippi tree might be plump and purple, the figs in New Jersey remained mostly green and tiny. Hardly photogenic.

But I persuaded my husband to return with me to the grove to capture the essence of those New Jersey trees with a (very) long shot of me fondling a fig leaf. I e-mailed the photos to the producer, for the show’s website, and waited for my big moment. “Pictures are terrific,” she e-mailed back. “You’ll hear from me soon.” I waited. And waited. And waited.

She was busy interviewing the Dali Lama. I could understand that. He surely trumped my fig commentary. Next week, she promised. I alerted my sister, my Writers Group, my high school friends, my neighbors. Tune in next Saturday! I’ll be on the radio.

But alas, my big moment wasn’t meant to be. I was rejected by the radio. My friend the assistant producer had an emergency. She left the country. They filled in with other topics. Perhaps next fig season, I’ll show up talking about figs. I guess I don’t mind being replaced by their pieces on fluffernutter and leaf peeping. And especially by the Dali Lama.

But from now on, I think I’ll stick to writing about it.

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

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Say It Ain't So...

by Nicole Seitz

I'm feeling a bit like Joe this morning--Joe the Plumber, Joe Sixpack, and Java Joe, altogether. I'm sitting here, drinking my second cup of coffee, getting the jitters, thinking about the economy and the future of our country, my life, my children's lives. And then I get a hold of myself. I remember the face of a lady I once worked with years ago. We were at a major corporation that was going through a merger. Everyone walked around with these permanently-fixed grimaces on their faces, me included. We said things like "woe is me" and worried incessantly at the unknown. Would we and our jobs--our livelihoods--survive the coming changes?

Then one day, I was in the bathroom of said company, and a woman who worked down the hall heard some of us coworkers bellyaching. She looked us in the eyes and said, "People are acting like they have no faith. Walking around with these sad faces." She was disgusted. She was a believer. And hey, I was a believer. All of a sudden, I was disgusted with myself. I paid closer attention to the look I wore on my face and my attitude after that. And you know what? When the dust settled, I was one of the "lucky ones." Many were let go, but there I sat at my same desk, doing my same job.
Here's where it got interesting. After a while, I left that job. It wasn't what I wanted anymore. I watched people being forced to leave and saw them landing on their feet. That shake-up had left me with an awareness that perhaps there was something different, yes, maybe even better, out there. I eventually left the company, started my own home-based business, which, in turn, allowed me the flexibility to begin writing. My whole life changed, and I would argue, for the better, because of that uncertain time.

All of us were better because of that merger. Some of us had to wait a little longer to find the good part of it, but eventually, we all did. We learned what we are made of. And that is a hard-fought and valuable lesson. Something I take with me to this day. Was it easy coming to that conclusion? Not at all. But why did I let myself go so gray over it?

So this morning, I'm thinking about the volatile stock market and watching our savings deplete and wearing my worried Joe American look, when I remember my old co-worker saying, "where is your faith? You act like you don't have any faith." And you know what? She's still right. I do have faith in these uncertain times. In my experience, God always takes the opportunity to use an existing shake-up to show us what we're made of. To allow us to imagine what-ifs, to plan for the future, to realize things we need to pay more attention to.

Last night my family had stuffed peppers. The night before we ate roasted peppers. Now mind you, everything was delicious and varied, but the peppers were on special. A REAL DEAL! These are the sorts of things I--and every other American--am doing now as a result of these uncertain times. We are watching what we spend. We are looking for things that have real value, lasting value. Yes, we've stopped going out to eat as much, but for some reason, we're attending charity events. The money we're spending needs to go further, not just end in one sitting. A charity event is the meal that keeps on giving. Like my peppers. They lasted a whole two dinners. Think of all the savings! Think of the value.

I wonder sometimes about what other things people are cutting back on. Sometimes, I wonder if they might cut back on buying books. I start getting this worried, drawn look on my face, saying things like, "oh woe is me, people won't buy my books," and then I realize, where is my faith? THINK about the value of a book! It's not something you ingest in one sitting. You savor it for days, maybe weeks. Maybe years. It lets you escape, learn, experience--all from your living room sofa. The value of a book, to me, has never been higher. It's the gift that keeps on giving. For the holidays this year, I'm making a list of books that I think my loved ones will love. I will put some real thought into it. And the gift of a book will keep on giving. Hey, in this economy, it might just make its way back into my hands after said loved ones read it and pass it on. So I better buy books I might like, too. Just in case.

This economy we're in? This election we're heading into? This country's next four years? It's all good. Might not be easy, but I guarantee it will be interesting, and there will be some amazing creativity and innovation to come out of these times--much like my delicious stuffed peppers--much like the books we authors will continue to write. I love our country. Americans will land on their feet. As for me and my house, we will walk around with smiles on our faces, knowing that every valley has a mountain, and our faith is indeed strong enough to carry us through.
Nicole Seitz is a wife and mother of two in the beautiful Charleston, SC area. She is the author of Trouble the Water, a novel about faith and healing, and The Spirit of Sweetgrass, a novel about family and heaven. Her next novel, A Hundred Years of Happiness, will be out in Feb/Mar 2009 and explores the after-effects of war on families and next generations. She writes with a hopeful heart and works hard to find silver linings in every dark cloud.
Nicole is also a published illustrator and paints the covers of her novels. You can visit her website to watch a book trailer for her upcoming novel or see some of her artwork ( Better yet, come to Circa Gallery in Asheboro, NC two days after the election for a talk/art opening, featuring some of Nicole's new works. (Hey, paintings are gifts that keep on giving, too.) Whichever way the election goes, Nicole promises to have a smile on her face :)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Parents Put My NYTimes Article on the Fridge

On Sunday, I had an essay in the Modern Love column in the Style Section of The New York Times -- about my ex-therapist who wrote me a love poem.

I've gotten some very odd responses from strangers. One man accused me of vanity -- didn't I know my therapist was in love with me? This email included the word "duh." A therapist whom I don't know weighed in to tell me that I was right and my ex-therapist was wrong. A psychoanalyst wrote in to ask me to read and offer a critique of her essays on getting banned as a result of some major (undisclosed) indiscretion, because I seemed to really understand and forgive humans -- as if I were the new spokesperson for screwed-up therapists.

Going public as a writer has always been hard for me. Fiction allows me the thin veil -- which I appreciate. But essays, even benign essays, even humor essays, but especially very personal psychological essays (that are supposed to have a humorous bent) leave me wide open to be misunderstood.

Quick illustration: I had a guru in college. He was a security guard and patrolled campus. He once asked me if I'd rather be loved or understood, which has become a recurring theme in my work. I said I'd rather be understood -- what is love without understanding?

But over time, I've seen examples of love without a deep understanding -- and it can be pure in its way and sometimes very comforting. I don't know that my 90-year-old grandmother and I understand each other in some fundamental ways. Our generations are so very different, and yet our love is whole and good and maybe purer, in fact.

In general, though, I write to overcome misunderstanding. I write to communicate. Communication banishes loneliness -- in the best scenarios. And yet when I write -- especially if I've dedicated myself to an entire novel -- and it's misunderstood, I feel an incredible ache and loss. If I cannot bridge the gap from one human to another with this much communication, with this many words, how will we ever connect to each other?

I suppose I'm forgetting something very fundamental. Readers don't come to MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS, for example, to communicate with me. They come to communicate with my characters ... And they really come to the novel not to understand someone else more deeply -- or not necessarily -- but to understand themselves more deeply.

I always respond to my emails. I love the ones that I get from kids -- scads of them. (I write novels for the younger set under the pen name N.E. Bode.) But the adults who write emails to authors are a different breed. Some write beautiful emails, grateful ones, in fact. But often my job with the emails I get from adults is to remind them that I'm not an author, but a human being. They want to tell me what I've gotten wrong, to their mind. And, well, a lot of the time, they want my agent info, an in with an editor, or for me to read their work in my spare time -- as a mother of four with a full-time gig as a professor and a full-time gig as a writer.

I haven't written back to all of the strangers who've written in this time, but I will, one by one. I'll say maybe I am vain. I'll say thanks, but I think I got the part that my therapist was wrong. Check. I'll say, I don't know what you did wrong to get fired, and it's none of my business, and I can't really save you. Sorry, but I'm not a therapist myself. Only a writer.

Or maybe I'm really a translator. This is the world in all of its complications. And I turn that experience into language. And I turn to the reader and hand it over -- line by line. In doing so, have I banished loneliness? No. Loneliness is elemental to the human condition -- and maybe that's one of the things I'm translating ... here.

--Julianna Baggott's latest novel MY HUSBAND'S SWEETHEARTS was written under the pen name Bridget Asher.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guest Blog: Maryann Miller

As a child, all I ever dreamed of was being a writer. When I grew up, I became a journalist. Not that there's a whole lot of difference between the two in spirit, it's only definition. We who put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, do so out of a driving need to say something. Thoughts, ideas, opinions, feelings stir around inside us seeking some sort of expression.

For writers of fiction that expression comes through worlds they create. For journalists it comes through worlds created for them.

So, you might be asking yourself, what's the big deal?

The big deal is not the difference between writers and journalists; it’s the difference between dreams and reality.

Once, my daughter handed me Ann Rice's Feast of All Saints with the comment, "I'd be a writer if I could write like this.”

My daughter went on to explain that numerous times through high school and college teachers would tell her she should consider writing. (Must be in the genes.) They'd praise her ability to be articulate on paper, not an ability to be taken lightly, and for a moment a glimmer of possibility might shine. Then it was snuffed out with the attitude "If I can't do it like one of the great masters of language, I don't want to do it at all."

How many of us as authors have gone down the same mental path and let that thinking deter, or even quash a writing career?

What a shame.

It took me a while, but I finally came to the realization that my use of language may not be as poetic as Ann Rice's, but it does have a flavor that is uniquely mine. It is my voice and sometimes that voice has something worthwhile to say. And I believe that is true for all writers. We just need to trust that voice and that passion that drives us to write.

As a journalist and author, Maryann Miller amassed credits for feature articles and short fiction in numerous national and regional publications. The Rosen Publishing Group in New York published nine of her non-fiction books including the award-winning, Coping With Weapons and Violence in School and On Your Streets, which is in its third printing. Doubletake, a mystery written as Sutton Miller, was published by Clocktower Books. Her latest releases are One Small Victory from Five Star/Gale, and Play it Again, Sam from Uncial Press. She has also written several screenplays and stage plays, and was the Theatre Director at the Trails Country Centre for the Arts in East Texas for five years. Miller is currently the Managing Editor of, an online community magazine for a small town in East Texas where she lives on some acreage with her husband, a horse, two goats, three cats, two dogs, and a variety of wild critters that wander through. Visit her at

Monday, October 13, 2008

Books Alive! Is Back and Getting Better and Better!

When I moved to East Texas twenty plus years ago, I never dreamed I would be dealing with hurricanes. In fact, I moved from California to Texas because I was missing weather. What’s that old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” Sunny San Diego, California was living like always you were always on vacation, sublime but after while; you miss work and a good thunderstorm. Great weather is boring. Growing up in Kansas, we were forever running for shelter from tornados. Electric storms were terrifying but also beautiful to watch in the night sky. Now with the onslaught of hurricanes, I can now say that I have lived through some beauties, Katrina, Rita, and mostly recently Ike.

Besides weather, I love reading. I am one of those people that forget to eat, sleep, and put off going to the bathroom until I am in dire straits because of a good book. I am a die hard booklover, thus have devoted my life to promoting reading. That is why I own a hair salon/bookstore, Beauty and the Book, and run the largest "meeting and discussing" book club in the country, The PUlpwood Queens! If I ain't reading, I'm not breathing!

A little back-story, one weekend on my birthday and it was one of those life changing ones, I decided to hold for myself a party. Only once in your life are you 49 and I was wanting a life changing experience. You may have heard this story before but like all good stories, they bear repeating. I had told all my family and friends that I had packed a bag, come kidnap me, and take me away for my birthday. I love surprises but I received the biggest surprise of my life. No one came to my party, no one. Talk about a life changing experience.

Now let me preface that by saying earlier in the day friends and family had stopped by to drop off gifts with reasons why they couldn’t join me later. A storm was brewing and it looked like a biggie! That just made my adrenaline run even faster with anticipation of my big surprise birthday. What happened folks was Hurricane Katrina hit!

My town had sandbagged the doors of businesses, we took cover. Jefferson seemed like it faired pretty well. Branches scattered, some trees down, a bit of water damage from the winds but what unfolded in the weeks ahead was something I had not ever imagined. Our town filled with displaced families that weekend from the hurricane. Good folks who drove out in their S.U.V.s, t-shirted and flip-flopped, maybe with the family pet, to ride out the weekend in our fair city that is known as a tourist town for it’s brick lined streets, museums, antiques stores, mom and pop eateries, bed & breakfasts, carriage and train rides on all the bayou. What happened that next Monday changed all of us! The levees broke.

What would you do if you lost everything? Your home and all it’s contents first, then no way to get home as it was flooded. What if you couldn’t get to your work or your bank? What if you were stranded in a town hours and hours away from home with the clothes on your back and maybe a credit card?

I believe that we all are about two weeks away from being homeless. You lose your job, your home, then how long can you go on a credit card? Not long my friends so that is when my church came into the picture. My church, The First United Methodist Church of Jefferson, began to help coordinate the efforts of helping these good folks, people displaced by the hurricane. My shop too became a place where they could go to get internet access, view the latest news on CNN or Fox as most bed & breakfasts did not have televisions, or perhaps get a relaxing shampoo. People were parked on my porch for hours just trying to get out of their rooms with no money to spend, just waiting. I brought out books and began reading in-between appointments to these folks and my children began reading to the children. For awhile we all were able to escape our lives and make time go perhaps a little less painfully slow as they waited for the word they could go home.

We are talking weeks. Weeks of waiting, most folks had to leave the bed & breakfasts as they had other reservations booked or their credit cards were declined. We opened the doors of our church and the community opened the doors of their homes. The Hamburger Store here in Jefferson through their own generousity and that of generous donations fed over 2,000 free meals. I never knew how much I loved Jefferson until that weekend. Our church and our town embraced mission and outreach.

My life was changed during those weeks as I will never look at a possession of mine the same way ever again including my books. What if that had been my family?

What I learned was that life is not about things. Life is about relationships. I had to do something to help but what? Being a bookseller, I didn’t have any real money to help. What could I do? I could do something that I do best. I could hold a Christian and Inspirational Author, Book, and Music festival to be a total fundraiser for the church. We call it Books Alive! You see the church depleted every resource they had from food and clothing bank, to funds to help others, to members of the church digging into their closets and pockets to help others.

The first year of Books Alive!, I emailed all my author friends to see who could come and help me put on this fundraiser. Denise Hildreth was one of the first authors to come aboard and guess what? Most of the authors to come aboard and let me state at their own expense were southern authors. That was nearly three years ago and it’s time again for Books Alive again, November 7 – 9th here in Jefferson, Texas. This will be our biggest year ever!

We have had quite a few more storms since then most recently, Hurricane Ike where we housed a family of almost fifty from Port Arthur, Texas at our church. I personally with my minister, Allison Byerley closed out our Books Alive account to help buy groceries and necessities for these people. We are back again this year flat broke. The family that stayed with us were Hispanic and even insisted on one night before they left cooking up a fiesta for all the volunteers. Great times my friends. The nicest people in the world. What if that had been our family?

I have to tell you I received the best birthday present that year and since then. One that I did not expect, but one that has made me a better person. If you are reading this you are a passionate reader. My books use to be my most cherished possessions but now I see them only as something to give away and share with others. My library use to be in my house, now I house my library in my heart. I have also found that they more you give, the richer your life becomes.

Every chance I get, I read these authors blogs. Everyone is a treasure. I am finding that a book loving community is all the home I will ever need. Share the love and pay it forward. And like me try to remember that your birthday should be worth celebrating by helping others. God made us all for a purpose and this Pulpwood Queen believes that is service to others through reading!

Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens Book Clubs and author of “The Pulpwood Queens’ Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life
Beauty and the Book
608 North Polk Street
Jefferson, Texas 75657
And for more information on Books Alive go

P.S. Photo above of my church this past weekend taken during break as we were unloading a semi-load of pumpkins for our fundraiser, PUMPKIN PATCH!

Thursday, October 9, 2008


Recently I read about how Eudora Welty sent William Faulkner a love scene she'd written. She wanted his opinion. After waiting and waiting for his response, she decided to call him.

"Did you receive that love scene?" she asked him.

When Faulkner said he had, Welty asked him what he thought.

"Well, it's not how I would do it, honey," he told her. "But you go right ahead. Go right ahead."

As a writer who has requested more than her fair share of advice, I'm comforted by this tidbit. To think the masters sought feedback from others, too.

My early advice came from critique groups, formed by classmates who still hungered for input when the class ended. So with ten-twenty pages in hand, we gathered in each others homes once a week. There is something painful and amusing about a critique group of new writers. I imagine every writer that has gone through such groups has their own stories. They are probably like me, recalling the cast of characters with smiles, chuckles and gritted teeth.

Some of the home environments we met at were less than ideal for creative endeavors. One fellow member owned about seven cats. A few minutes into the session, I figured out that those cats ruled the house. We sat around the kitchen table while the felines circled on top, sizing us up. If they didn't like us, they stopped, arched their backs and hissed. If they did take a shining to us, we were not much better off. They would spring into laps and rub against chests and under chins until we sneezed. It was kind of like playing spin the bottle. No one knew where the cat would stop or what was in store for them. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I suggest you forgo the refreshments.

I left the group fairly soon and tried to start one of my own. I wrote an announcement in a local writing organization's newsletter, stating that I wanted to start a critique group for people interested in writing for children. We met on Tuesday afternoons at my house. The session lasted about two hours. Then everyone left to go home.

After one session ended, I happened to glance out the window thirty minutes later. One member was still in my driveway, sitting in her car and staring straight ahead. I went to check on her, but when she noticed me opening the door, she drove off. The next week, she did the same thing. Finally she confessed that she had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She had trouble driving off because she had a strong feeling that she'd left something. That also explained why she was usually late. She kept checking the front door to see if it was locked.

These kind of inconveniences and oddities come with the territory. What we really are concerned about is the advice, right? This is where it can get interesting.

If you become a member of a critique group, you'll find out quickly that some folks are really there for the refreshments. When it's time for them to comment on your manuscript they will give you the kind of advice your aunt Betty Lou would give you if you showed her your newborn baby's picture. "It's so sweet! You should be proud!" They usually follow this up with an offer for more snicker doodle cookies. If you are the sort of writer that cries when anyone says your manuscript needs improving, you might want to have a lot of Aunt Betty Lou types in your group.

A few members would be better off plopping down eighty bucks and stretching out on a psychiatrist's couch. They are there to share drama. Their drama. Their manuscripts are thinly disguised autobiographies and when you suggest something, they will say, "It didn't happen that way."

You will tell them that you are sorry. You thought they were writing a novel.

They will say, "Yes, I am, but you see this happened to me." The next thirty minutes they will cover exactly what happened to them and why it must be exactly like this in the book. This is if they bring their manuscript. Because many times they didn't get a chance to write that week. Because of the drama.

Almost every group has a Punctuation Queen. Bless them! They tell you, "There's a comma missing in the third sentence in the fifth paragraph of page eighteen." Actually I love these meticulous people who catch my sloppy oversights. But do not expect them to comment on your characters or plot. Their eyes are too dizzy from your missing punctuation.

Beware of Hatchet Man. He uses his pencil like an ax. Chopping, chopping, chopping at your prose, ignoring voice and rhythm. "It should start here," they inform you. How did you not see that?

Closely related to Hatchet Man is Connect-the-Dot Dotty. Repetitive words cause her hand to draw little circles around them. Then as if you could not see them clearly enough, she joins them with a continuous line that zig-zags down your page.

With all the above warnings about critique groups, you might assume I've soured on them. Not at all. I've learned from almost every person who has been generous enough with their time and comments. In those years of being a new writer, I'm embarrassed to admit, many times I made a lot of the changes that were suggested without really thinking it out for myself. At the time, I lacked the confidence in my own work.

After trying several groups, I was invited to join a group of children's writers. They'd been meeting for ten years and when they asked me to join them, I felt like I'd received a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.

These women taught me something new every week. I valued their advice. Each had their strengths. I can only hope I offered them something of worth during the four years I met with them.

Today I still depend on a small group of people--my friend Charlotte, my mom(who borders on an Aunt Betty Lou type, but that's okay. I need one of those.), my daughter (my first reader since she was seven) and four friends that I meet up with for a week every year at a writing retreat. And of course--my editor.

Although I don't participate in a traditional critique group any more, I rely on those folks and welcome their input. They inspire and challenge me.

I wish I knew what had happened after Welty received Faulkner's opinion of her scene. Did self-doubt seep in? He was the William Faulkner. Or did she say, "Thank you very much, honey. I believe I will go right ahead."

Because after all, even if we seek advice from others, our stories belong to us. Sometimes that means just going right ahead and doing it our way.

Kimberly Willis Holt is the author of ten books for young people, including the National Book Award winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town.

Do People Sing to Celine Dion? -- A Simple Desultory Philippic by Sharyn McCrumb

It never fails.
I had just finished giving a talk about my work to a group of perhaps a hundred people, and afterwards I sat down at a table to sign copies of my books, which were being sold in the back of the room by a local bookseller.
The first person in line (with a dozen people behind her holding books) was an earnest-looking young woman, who said, “I don’t have a book for you to sign, but I’m an aspiring writer, and I wanted to know…”
It ALWAYS happens and the person is ALWAYS in the front of the line. And I find myself wondering: What is wrong with those people? Are they just so self-centered that they don’t realize how inconsiderate they are being to all the people waiting? I’m mystified.

I have certainly given lots of advice to aspiring writers, at workshops, conferences, and even informally-- but when 50 people are waiting to get books signed? -- No. That is not the time or the place for it.
I am always tempted to say, “Well, there are certain things you have to know if you’re going to be a writer. For instance, do you know the difference between a book signing and a writers’ workshop?”
“Oh, yes!”
“Well, which is this?”

Another variant of this gambit is the person who stands in your line in order to give you a plot summary of their proposed novel. Surely there is no more pointless exercise on earth than that. You simply cannot tell from a plot summary if a book will be any good or not.

Imagine yourself in a publishing house some forty years ago, when a mild-mannered, elderly British gentleman comes in with a manuscript, saying, “This is the first thing I’ve ever tried to write. All I’ve ever done in my life is to take care of sick farm animals in Yorkshire, and that’s what this book is about. I want you to print at least a million copies.”
Wouldn’t you throw him out of your office? Doesn’t it sound like an appalling idea for a commercial book? Based on the plot summary, you might well conclude that—but you would be wrong. The book was All Creatures Great and Small, one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century. It succeeded because James Herriot was a wonderful writer; but in someone else’s hands, that plot line could have been deadly dull. The plot summary won’t tell you who can pull off an idea and who can’t.
Sometimes I say to people, “If I give you two eggs, can you tell me if the cake will be any good?”

Occasionally, an oblivious oaf will go one better: she’ll be standing in a booksigning line with a beatific smile, clutching her own unpublished manuscript which she apparently expects you to read. Or if she’s totally undermedicated, perhaps she thinks you will spring up from the table, whip out your cell phone and instruct your agent to accept her as a client right on the spot.

I was once doing a signing with two other authors, and the guy-clutching-the-manuscript stood in each of our lines consecutively, undeterred by the rejections of the first two authors. Afterward, we authors compared notes. One of us told the guy that she had a deadline, and she had no time to read manuscripts. Another one said that she was flying, and thus she had no space in her luggage to take such a large package in her travels.

But I think the best answer was number three: “Because of the possible danger of litigation, my agent will not allow me to read manuscripts except in a formal workshop situation.” -- Is that true? Strictly speaking, no. My agent would prefer that I not rob gas stations or smoke rolled-up pictures of Raymond Carver, but she really has no commandments about my professional choices regarding manuscripts. However, the litigation danger is certainly real.

People don’t know what you’re working on until at least a year after the book is finished. So, suppose somebody gives you an unpublished manuscript about, I dunno, ancient Peru, and, unbeknownst to them, you have spent the past three years working on a book about ancient Peru. Well, if you had accepted their manuscript, and then a year later you published a book about that same subject, it would be almost impossible to convince them that you did not steal the idea. It’s safer not to read unsolicited manuscripts.

I finally concluded that people who accost authors in these ways are childishly self-centered (“Let everybody else wait, while I take twenty minutes of your time.”) and they are lazy. It is much easier to badger whatever writer that Fate has cast into your path than it is to go to a good writers conference, or attend a formal workshop, and to actually pursue a writing career in an organized and professional matter.

Suppose one tried to become a doctor like that? “I don’t have time to go to medical school. Tell me how to perform brain surgery in the next five minutes.”

Mark Twain wrote a wonderful essay about the unsolicited manuscripts he received from would-be authors. He said – I’m paraphrasing here—“You’d like to help these people, but they cannot be helped." The people with a chance of succeeding, said Twain, are those who do their own inquiries, take charge of their own futures, and prepare themselves for the job they want.”
They do not lurk in lecture halls looking for fairy godmothers. Things haven’t changed since Twain’s day. The form letter he composed in reply to these solicitations would still work. I recommend it.

Sharyn McCrumb, known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels including New York Times Best Sellers She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket, won an East Tennessee Historical Society Award for Ghost Riders. Her novel St. Dale won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and the AWA Book of the Year Award.

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

She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop in Paris, served as writer-in-residence at King College., and given programs at libraries and colleges through the country.

A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production. She has just co-authored a new novel with a race car driver. (More about that later.)