Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE JOB OF WRITING by Maryann McFadden

First there’s the dream of writing a book. And then, if you’re lucky, there’s the job.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, and that dream followed me into middle age, a long and winding journey that took me away from writing and then back to it again. In my forties, I entered a Master’s program and then wrote my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, with high hopes of being published. But then the dream began to fade, as the rejections trickled in, and in. You get the picture. Until I took matters into my own hands and self-published it.

Guess what? I got the deal I’d always…yes, dreamed of. I became a full-fledged author. And writing books became my full-time job.

The biggest difference in writing the second book as opposed to the first, is having a deadline. You are no longer simply accountable to yourself, and no longer working on the muse’s schedule. As an author under contract, you are working for your publisher, in my case Hyperion Books (owned by Disney, you know “when you wish upon a star…” which a friend used to sing to me as I dreamed of my book getting taken). Okay, back to the job of writing the second book.

Having a one year deadline was a bit terrifying, to say the least. My first novel took me 3 years, but I was also selling real estate full-time. Now I was going to write full-time. But as often happens to me, my life got in the way. My daughter needed me to help each week to care for my granddaughters while she taught online. My mother-in-law’s Parkinson’s worsened, and my husband and I pitched in a bit more. And my own mother was still suffering from an autoimmune illness, so I was spending time with her at various doctors. Needless to say, fitting writing into that schedule wasn’t easy.

I realized, as all this was unfolding around me, that an opportunity was presenting itself. I was now officially part of the “sandwich generation,” women, and men, caught between the needs of their children and grandchildren, while also helping with their aging parents. In other words, my mother and daughter were the bread and I was the bologna! What a great topic for women’s fiction. And so my plot was born, a fictional “sandwich generation” story, with 3 generations of women. Not us, believe me.

As I began to make progress with my writing, I would find days where I got nothing done, too exhausted from babysitting, or distracted at my mother-in-law’s to concentrate. And for me that was the hardest thing, having to get the momentum of the story going again. Sometimes I simply had to read through the entire manuscript from the beginning all over again, just to get the thread of the story going in my head again.

While I wrote this new novel, creating a fresh cast of characters, I was constantly revisiting my first novel, THE RICHEST SEASON, to proof catalog copy, jacket copy, and all the little, exciting details I’d waited my whole life for. I wanted it all to be perfect, so it wasn’t unusual for me to halt the new book in its tracks, to spend a few days honing these tiny pieces of text that would hopefully convince booksellers, and then readers, to pick up my book.

After those few days, content that the book jacket was the best it could be, tantalizing without giving too much away, I went back to the new book. Switching gears became second nature, after a while, and before I knew it, I had half the novel finished. I submitted it to my editor, terrified.

After all, it had taken me 3 years to write my first novel. This was a six month effort. Two long days passed and then I heard from my editor. She loved it!

I kept writing, breaking again to agonize over covers, write copy for my new website, get business cards and book marks made up (again, agonizing over ever line of text). Soon, it was time for THE RICHEST SEASON to debut nationwide in hardcover. And I was still writing the second book.

The book launch party kicked off about a month of events in the northeast and the south, with me traveling to signings, stopping at stores along the way to sign stock, fielding e-mails from book clubs (yeah!) and interviews with newspapers and radio stations, as well as some local TV. During this wonderful, crazy, busy time I was still…writing the second book. It was due 6 weeks after the launch, and it didn’t seem possible I could get it all done.

But I did. When I finished my book tour, I went to Cape Cod, where my second novel, which became officially titled SO HAPPY TOGETHER while I was on tour for THE RICHEST SEASON, is set. I spent nearly 2 weeks at my sister’s house, writing 10 hours a day, until the book was finished. I submitted it to my editor and…she loved it! So did my publisher! So do I!

Having a deadline, I’ve decided, is not such a bad thing. If not under pressure, I know I would have taken longer to write the new book. Writing with a contract simply means managing your time a bit better, learning how to switch gears, juggling family demands, and deciding that, ultimately, you want to keep living this dream.

I am living my dream. I’m writing my third novel. And as I write this new cast of characters, I’m still living with the previous two, as I meet with book clubs for THE RICHEST SEASON, handle interviews for the launch of SO HAPPY TOGETHER next week, and wonder just how many people can possibly talk in my head at the same time!

Maryann McFadden is the author of THE RICHEST SEASON, now out in trade paperback, and SO HAPPY TOGETHER, debuting July 7. You can learn more about Maryann, or visit her on her upcoming southern tour, by visiting maryannmcfadden.com.

Dispatches from the Road: by Mindy Friddle

These days, a book tour is real...and virtual.

As an author, I've learned publicity goes with the job description. Book touring, blog touring, book clubbing, Facebooking, Tweeting, Skyping, e-newsletters, contests...I'm game. But I've also learned that the publicity part takes a whole different set of muscles from toiling in isolation at your desk with your gin & tonic.

For six weeks now, I've been on the Bootylicious Book Tour for SECRET KEEPERS, my second novel. I've visited brick-and-mortar indie bookstores--where I left boot planters behind to be raffled off or displayed. I hit the virtual road with a WOW-sponsored blog tour-- guest posting or being interviewed at dozens of blogs for the month of June. Topics for my guest posts have covered not just writing and books, but the importance of book covers, photography as a stress-reliever, travel, to-do and to-be lists, and how to certify your yard as a wildlife habitat. In a word--whew! Time for some shady R&R.

But it's great fun to talk and correspond with readers--it's a real pleasure. People are so generous. The emails from readers are wonderful. I put them on my website. All I have to do is read them in dark moments, and I feel a surge of gratitude.

Which leads me to the month's BQ [Big Question]: What advice would you offer aspiring writers?

When I started my first novel, I wrote on weekends because I was a single mom for a number of those years, and I worked full time. I found that by writing 5 or 6 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, and one weekday morning or evening, I could keep a momentum going. A novel is a marathon. Someone once told me that, and it's true. So, when people ask my advice about writing and finishing novels, I tell them I find it helpful to do a couple of things:
  • Set up a schedule. Write at least three times a week for two hours or more each session. Commit to this schedule.
  • First Draft: Think Flow. Have a daily word count goal for the first draft--1,000 words, for example. And while you're writing the first draft, don't get up from your desk until you've met that goal. Even if it's wild sentences, or you find yourself on a tangent, write your 1,000 words, and don't judge just yet. You'll develop a habit of writing on schedule, and you'll at least have something to revise down the road. After 4 or 6 months, you'll have a big, baggy monster of a first draft...and you can put it aside for a while, and then jump back in to figure out what the story is, and cut away and revise, revise, revise. Think FLOW with your first draft. Keep the portal open.
  • Save polishing for later. Resist the temptation to re-read and polish those opening pages. Some writers may work this way, but I think for many of us pushing through to the end is the best way to handle a first draft. You will be resistant to changing the opening if you invest too much time and energy in it. That first chapter or two will be reading better and better, but the fact is, the opening may eventually need to be discarded or moved.
  • Find a group of fellow writers. You can read each other's work. Here's why: You'll often learn a great deal about your own writing by closely reading and critiquing a fellow writer's work. It's amazing how this helps! [Of course, be gentle...point out what works. Knowing what works in a piece is so helpful.]
  • Consider Contests & Apply for Grants. Something I love about entering work in contests: the deadlines. Sounds funny, maybe, but consider two important points: 1. You have to prepare and submit something by a certain date—which can motivate you to finish or polish. 2.You’ll find out whether your manuscript made it or not within a certain time frame. Even if your work didn’t make it this time, take heart. So often when you submit a story or article for publication, you wait a loooong time to find out if it was read, much less accepted. At least in contests, you’ll know for certain if your work was considered or not. Poets & Writers has an excellent calendar and listing of contests. You can find them at bookstores and also online.
  • Read widely and deeply: all genres, all kinds of books, on subjects that enthrall you and on topics you don't know much about. Feed your head.

THE GARDEN ANGEL took 8 years from the idea--an image of a crumbling, beautiful homestead-- to publication. I didn't work on it every day in those years--I was learning HOW to write a novel, and that took patience. I would finish a draft and put it aside for a while, or have readers give some feedback, then revise. Figuring out the structure--how to tell the story--that I pondered, worked on, revised.SECRET KEEPERS took about four years from start to finish. I'm hoping the next one will take two years. Half-life, you know, like in nuclear physics. Now that's a subject I know a lot about!

Mindy Friddle's first novel, The Garden Angel, was selected for Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program in 2004 and was a SIBA bestseller. She was awarded a Fellowship in Prose from the South Carolina Arts Commission in 2008. Her second novel, Secret Keepers, was published in May by St. Martin's Press. Join her on Facebook and Twitter.To read excerpts from the novels, visit her website www.mindyfriddle.com and her blog, Novel Thoughts: Musings on Writing, Reading & the Earth.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bean Counters Are People, Too

I’m going to admit right up front that my take on the topic of advice to aspiring writers is more prosaic than most. Before launching my second career at fifty-plus years of age, I was an accountant, and I think my former profession may make me uniquely qualified to talk about the business of writing. Please, hold the yawns and give me just a couple of minutes.

My inspiration for this post came straight from a popular listserv where a regular poster announced that his newest release would be the final one in his series. The publisher had not offered a contract for further installments. A hue and cry went up from fellow members, some vowing to begin bombarding the dastardly publisher with e-mails in the hope of encouraging a reversal of their decision. Others soon hopped aboard the bandwagon. It’s perhaps a natural reaction, and one for which I’m sure the author feels very grateful. I know I would.

But here’s the bottom line: Publishing is a business. If you’re an aspiring writer, your life will be a lot simpler if you go into it knowing that up front. And understanding it. Sure, it would be nice to think it’s all about the art, but it isn’t. The publisher’s business model isn’t very different from that of the manufacturer of widgets. (In my accounting courses light-years ago, we always did our practice sets for the makers of widgets.) You invest your money to start a company. You purchase or lease premises and the necessary equipment. You hire people to work for you. You sell your product or service to willing buyers who perceive value received in exchange for money paid. If you’re lucky, your sales revenues exceed your expenses, and the business thrives. If you’re unlucky—or perhaps incompetent—the reverse happens. If this goes on too long, you go out of business.

In a capitalist system—or the pale shreds of it we have left today—people vote with their dollars. In the above scenario with the dropped author, not enough people cast their votes his way. It’s not some vast conspiracy or hard-hearted disregard for the feelings of authors that causes publishers to drop them. As a former bean counter, I can assure you that we don’t run the world. It’s a simple matter of math: Revenues - expenses = profit. Reverse that equation for too long and you’re gone. And a publisher’s going out of business isn’t good for any of us.

It’s hard to say what makes some books succeed and others fall short. As a reader, if you want your favorite authors to continue to be able to provide you with stories, you have to buy their books. New, mind you, not secondhand from Amazon. Or encourage your local library to do so. As authors, we can write the best damn books we can and do everything in our power to get them noticed. The publisher’s sales force and marketing departments place their offerings in the hands of booksellers, reviewers, big box retail buyers, and others. And then it’s pretty much a crap shoot. Even if everyone along the food chain does his or her job to perfection, there are no guarantees. The public is fickle, and tastes vary and change. Look at the movies no one’s ever heard of being offered on Nexflix, and you’ll see the same principle in action. We are not alone, cold comfort though that might be.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer, find out how the business of publishing works. Understand that your part in the process goes far beyond just writing the book. Read and do the best you can to comprehend your contract. Study and understand your royalty statements. And most of all, realize that your publisher is in business to make a profit. It’s not a nasty word. It’s what greases the wheels of our economic system, and it’s worked pretty well so far, the current recession notwithstanding. Go into this business with your eyes wide open, and be prepared to be a contributing partner in your commercial success. Be informed. And if you get thrown lemons (as will undoubtedly happen to all of us along the way, with the possible exception of Stephen King and Nora Roberts), be prepared to get out the hammer and nails and start putting up that lemonade stand.

And by the way, we bean counters are not evil people. Well, not most of us, anyway. Honest.

Kathy Wall grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. She and her husband Norman have lived on Hilton Head Island since 1994. Her 9th Bay Tanner mystery, Covenant Hall, was released in April from St. Martin’s Press.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Writing as Life?

by Cathy Pickens

What have I learned from writing, from life as a writer, and from other writers?

1. Persistence trumps talent every time.

2. If you’re waiting on the muse to show up before you get started, you’re wasting valuable time. If you’re not where you’re supposed to be (with pen or keyboard at hand), how do you expect the muse to find you?

photo by _StaR_DusT_

3. There are no born writers … or painters or race car drivers or bankers. They work at it.

4. Everyone is creative. The lucky ones recognize it and enjoy it. The unlucky or doomed believe whoever told them they weren’t. Everyone is creative and can develop and enjoy what they were given, whether it’s writing or cooking or gardening or juggling or …

5. Wishing you had someone else’s talent is silly. Like wishing I could be tall and thin like my sister, all the while she’s wishing she had straight hair and curves, it’s lots of wasted time and energy. Easier and better to enjoy what you got.

6. There is a special place in a very bad place for those who tell little kids they can’t paint or write or draw or sing or dance or whatever. No one has the right to take that away from another person. No one.

7. If someone ever told you that you that you couldn’t paint or write or draw or sing or dance or whatever but you like to do it, don’t listen to them. Do it any way. [Don’t expect to get rich or famous doing it … but what’s that got to do with enjoying it?]

Show up. Pay attention. Play. Be grateful. Be generous. Enjoy.

Cathy Pickens is the author of the “Southern Fried” mysteries [St. Martin’s Press], set in South Carolina.

What it's taught me... by T. Lynn Ocean

My Best Advice for Aspiring Writers… following the theme this month for the blog, I'll give it a go. I recall—and it wasn't that long ago—being crazy excited to learn that my first book had been picked up. I did the happy dance. And then I learned that I didn't have a clue about much of anything in the publishing world. If you're an aspiring writer, or a newly published writer, you may not either. But, seriously, don't let that stop you!!! My fifth novel, SOUTHERN PERIL, is due out this week. And the more I've learned over the years, the more I realize I still don't know. Hey, it's a process.

First and foremost, if you love to write then by all means, do it. Read a lot of whatever genre you want to write. Go to writers' conferences and mingle with those in the business. Subscribe to some applicable blogs and magazines and podcasts. But most importantly, sit your butt down at the computer and pound out some words until you've formed a story! It's never gonna happen if you're not actually…WRITING J

My other advice is that for newly published folks: learn how to self promote. Figure out how to market and sell your work (without spending a ton of your own money). Even if you're with a major publishing house, you'll need to be creative and stay on the ball looking for avenues to sell your book. Network. Get blurbs. Traditional book signings are great, but think outside of that box. Your publisher will do some promotion, but you' must be willing to pitch in. Sell yourself and your books. There are a lot of choices in the bookstores—plenty of ways for people to spend their dollars, in other words. Figure out how to get a bigger share of those dollars.

Personally, I love to write and I get grumpy if I'm NOT working on a project. I haven't made it to the big list yet. And even though that's my hope and my goal, my main priority is doing what I enjoy. Write because you love it.

Cheers, T. Lynn Ocean

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What Writing Has Taught Me by Susan Reinhardt

Writing dilutes my pain. It also enhances all the good that blows my way.
Few hobbies, or in this case, livelihoods, can do both.
I’m going through a really hard time with my teen son. He’ll be a junior in high school and was once a prodigy in golf. While he’s still on the golf team, he lost complete interest once he turned 16 and got his driver’s license.
Instead of being at the driving range in the afternoons and hitting his 7 iron, he veered about town testing other clubs. Get my drift?
For me, this meant nothing but worrying night and day.
“Where is he?” I fretted. “Why won’t he answer his cell phone?” “He did what? Traded his Wii for a paintball gun?”
I’d call friend for support. We do this regularly, exchange miseries so that one will weaken the other. Pining and penning about grievances and pissy situations always coat the wounds in a form of written Neosporin.
“What did he do now?” she asked, voice weary.
“I’m now 32 percent gray due to giving birth to this ‘undisciplined teen,’” I said. “It costs me twice as much at the hairdresser now that I’m a ‘double processed’ girl. First the roots, gray as granny’s pewter, then the highlights.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Well, I got fruit flies.”
“Fruit flies? Did you say fruit flies? They don’t end up in Juvie!!! They don’t terrorize grannies with bursts of painful paint pellets.”
“I have a few wolf spiders, too,” she said, trying to up the ante.
Good grief. She’s childless and clueless.
Meanwhile, I’m aging fast, and you sisters in motherhood know where I’m coming from.
I’m too poor to get Botox, which I desperately need due the wild teen and what occurred 17 years ago in a church cemetery.
Never do the bidness in a church cemetery. You WILL conceive. It’s God’s way of punishing one for getting happy near the headstones. I blame my pre-embryonic man/child’s latest behaviors on this act of poor judgment on my part. I was simply trying to be daring and sexy on what was then my third anniversary with my now ex-husband.
Soon I blew up with child – and I don’t mean one of those cute movie star baby bumps – but a full-fledged fat attack. People wanted to put red-eye gravy on me. They said I made Hardee’s biscuit look flat and lifeless.
This graveyard pregnancy turned me into Kirstie Alley prior to her whittling with Jenny Craig. I had four chins, pelican pouches for triceps and an ass that could double as a dinette set for a family of four.
Top that blubber off with some pregnancy complications, such as a breech child, and you know you’ve been cursed for lovin’ in a boneyard.
Nothing doctors and midwives suggested urged this stubborn breech boy to turn from sitting upright in my womb like a king on his throne.
“Shine a flashlight down at your…region,” said the midwife, referring to my “hoo-haw.” “See if he won’t turn toward the light.” She sounded like a Spielberg movie.
You should have seen my husband (ex) when he walked in from playing pinball at Frank’s Pizza and witnessed me shining a flashlight at my possum. That’s our pet name for va-gee-gee.
“You are officially insane,” he said.
“I’m trying to get this kid to turn. Hand me that extra pepperoni pizza. I’m so hungry I could eat 12 slices.”
Next up they told me to try headphones and make my hoo-haw a musical paradise. So I placed earphones “down there” and still my baby boy wouldn’t budge.
Well, it’s been 16-plus years and nothing’s changed. He’s still breech, in the sense he won’t turn his life around the right way. I’ve learned that fighting and threats only make it worse.
But writing about it….ah, the therapy of letting all of you know I got myself a wayward kid. Thanks for letting me pour it all out.
P.S. He’s really a charmer deep down inside. One day, the old wise ones promise, he’ll come to his senses and fly right. Meanwhile, Lady Clairol and Oil of Olay await.

Susan Reinhardt is the author of three best-selling humor books. “Not Tonight Honey, Wait ‘Til I’m a Size Six,” “Don’t Sleep with a Bubba,” and “Dishing with the Kitchen Virgin.” She is a frequent speaker and stand-up comic.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Q and A With Florida Author Shelia Curran

Tell us about your latest release and the inspiration behind it.

EVERYONE SHE LOVED is a story of old money in the New South, legal entanglements, romantic confusions and the unbreakable bonds between four women – and a man.

I got the idea when I was telling a friend about an article I’d written about two little girls who’d lost their parents within a few months of one another. They’d been adopted by their mother’s best friends, a pair of sisters who’d never married or had children. One was a lawyer and she told me that in many states, unless you specifically name a guardian, your children will be taken into foster care. I started wondering then about who I’d want raising my kids if I were to die. I have lots of siblings, and so does my husband, so we’re lucky, but as I was talking about the agonizing process of trying to decide upon your children’s parents in the event of your own death, an even more frightening scenario occurred to me. What if my husband remarried and the woman he chose was super-nice to him but secretly awful to my children? Being a worrier, I thought about how to prevent that from happening. “Maybe,” I said, “Whoever he marries would have to be approved by my sisters and best friends. They’d sniff out a snake in a heart beat.”

From there I came up with Penelope Cameron May, who has more money than God and an imagination that keeps her awake at night. Because she lost her own mother at the age of six, and her grief-maddened father married a deep fried bimbo, big of breast and small of soul, she thinks her husband Joey might similarly fall prey to the advances of a gold-digging wicked stepmother. Her solution? To talk her husband into signing a codicil to her will saying that if her remarries before her children are eighteen, he will have to gain approval from his late wife’s sister and three best friends. Because she’s healthy as a horse, her husband and friends think this request is ridiculous, but she won’t relax until they sign it. The contract gathers dust and its own share of hilarity for several years. Then the unthinkable happens and everyone she loved must find their way without Penelope.

The novel opens two years after she’s gone. Her husband and children have been living with Lucy since the night their mom was killed. Despite the passage of time, the children’s welfare is still in question, especially the eldest daughter Tessa’s, whose eating appears to be spiraling into some sort of disorder. A very attractive newcomer in town appears to offer solutions to all sorts of problems, but she disapproves of Lucy as well as Penelope’s other best friends. Conflicts ensue, complicated by interfering distant relatives, romantic confusion, legal entanglements and the sort of visibility that attends old money in the New South.

How do you go about choosing a setting for your novel? Does it, like New York in Sex and the City, almost play the part of another character in the book, or could the plot be transported to another setting and work?

My setting had to be a small southern beach town for EVERYONE SHE LOVED. Old money in the New South…that sort of thing. And for my first book, Diana Lively is Falling Down, the settings had to be Oxford, England and Arizona.

If your book were to be made into a movie, who could you see playing the lead role?

Patrick Dempsey (McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy) or Liam Neeson could play Joey Adorno. Jessica Sarah Parker or Kyra Sedgewick could play the interloping nutritionist. Penelope Cruz or Holly Hunter would be great as Penelope. Lucy, Kate Winslet, Scarlett Johannsen, or Catherine Keener, who played Harper Lee in Capote and the love interest in 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. Martha, Cameron Diaz or Ellen Barkin. Susannah, Sandra Bullock, Tea Leoni or Kate Hudson.

Tell us why your editor is the best editor ever in the universe.

Because she picked up a nobody like me. Her other writers are Jodi Picoult, Vince Flynn, Brad Thor and Jennifer Weiner. And she took a chance on me! Plus, when I didn’t like the first cover they sent, she actually listened and had the new one made. Plus, she’s got a knack for cutting out superfluous and self-indulgent prose. PLUS, she came up with the title, and I think it’s a gem. It’s short, sweet, and can be understood on so many levels.

What has brought you the greatest joy since you were published, and what has caused you the greatest angst?

Oh, hearing that I was able to give someone a few hours of enjoyment is right up there with the pleasure of having had a great writing day, so lost in my characters that I feel as though they’ve inhabited me. The greatest angst is worrying about the nearly impossible task of getting copies into readers’ hands. I know that once they read me, they’ll buy my next book, but it’s getting them to give me a try that’s so challenging.

If Oprah invited you on her show to talk about your book, what would the theme of that show be?

Who would you pick to take care of your children if you were to die, and what sort of issues might you fear most about another mother raising your kids.

What was your writing journey like, i.e. how did you become a writer?

Accidentally in part, though when I look back on my life, it all fits. I waitressed for years, and wrote simply to tell myself I was at least working on one skill while I wasted my life. I’ve always been a reader, and I just imitated the form I read most at the time: murder mysteries. I wrote two, found agents along the way, but when my novels were rejected by publishers, I assumed they weren’t good enough. So I dumped the manuscripts and started over. Fast forward through children and a day job, all the way to a midlife crisis that coincided with my husband’s sabbatical in England. I finished Diana Lively over there, returned home, threw everything away but the first chapter and started over. A year later, when I had a manuscript I loved, the gods smiled on me and I found Laura Gross. She took a month to read it, and by the end of that time I was sure she’d ‘pass.’ I decided to self-publish, make a movie, keep on writing, and then I got her call saying she loved it. Several months went by while what seemed like thirty publishers rejected it, so again, I assumed I would never ever get it published. Finally, on April 19th, six months after Laura took me on, Susan Allison at Penguin bought it. By that time I was 49 years old and had been writing for 22 years!

What books are on your nightstand?

DREAMERS OF THE DAY, by Mary Doria Russell, THE PRETEND WIFE, Bridget Asher, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, Geraldine Brooks, THE STORY OF EDWARD SAWTELLE, D. Wroblewski, BONES OF DECEPTION by Jefferson Bass and THE VANISHING ACT OF ESME LENNOX by Maggie O’ Farrell.

The Need For Speed by Karin Gillespie

I’ve never been attracted to yoga as a form of exercise. It seemed too tame, and not very resulted oriented.
I didn’t have time for leisurely neck and shoulder rolls that didn’t make me feel the burn.
For several years I had a similar attitude toward my writing. My first novel took me over a year to write but, hey, it was my first. Novels number two and three took six months a piece. My editor and agent at the time were impressed with my speed. Could I write a collaboration novel in three months? Sure thing. I liked a challenge. Totally pulled it off. I was Super-Novelist. Faster than a blinking cursor.
Novel five didn’t go quite as quickly. It took me almost two years, and it was only 75,000 words. I felt like a total wuss; after all I know some romance novelists who were writing four novels a year. Plus, since I came to novel writing pretty late (in my forties) and felt I couldn’t afford to futz around for two years on one novel. Not to mention that most publishers like authors to write a book a year.
So with novel six, I did some prep work. Instead of writing by the seat of my pants, I outlined; I did character sketches. I figured I’d knock it out in six months, seven months tops.
So much for best laid plans: I’ve been working on novel six for two and a half years and counting, and I’m still not done.
To be honest, I thought I was finished several times over, but the feedback I got said otherwise. I was completely annoyed with myself. Why was I taking so long? Had I forgotten how to do it? How was that possible after having written five previous novels?
Finally, after lots of tears and sleepless nights, my muse and I had a come-to-Jesus meeting of sorts and this is what I learned:
1. Every novel has its time table and this one had decided it’s a long distance runner, not a sprinter. No amount of hissy fits on my part would change that.
2. I’m hit a learning curve in my writing. I’ve wanted to do things the old way but this novel won’t allow it. It’s pushing me in a different direction.
3. It’s all about the journey. I can get across this country using Interstates or bumping along back roads, but I trip is going to be all the more memorable if I’m not so intent on completing it by a certain date.

Once I made the decision to let this novel take its own sweet time, it’s been giving back more to me in more ways than one. It’s reminding me to slow down in other areas of my life, even my exercise. I actually bought a yoga tape, and I loved it so much I decided I wanted more tapes with more exercise. Maybe I’d even take class at the Y and read some books. Maybe I’d eventually become an instructor.
It took me a few minutes to realize that I was back to my old tricks. So I took a deep breath through my nostrils . Time to slow down.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Guest Poet: Patrcia Neely Dorsey

Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A Life in Poems is "a celebration of the south and things southern".

There are so many negative connotations associated with Mississippi and the south in general. In my book, using childhood memories, personal thoughts and dreams, I attempt to give a positive glimpse into the southern way of life. I would love for you to Meet Mississippi (and the south) Through Poetry, Prose and The Written Word.
For more information about the book, please check out my website at: http://www.patricianeelydorsey.webs.com/


If you want a glimpse of Southern life,

Come close and walk with me;

I'll tell you all the simple things,

That you are sure to see.

You'll see mockingbirds and bumblebees,

Magnolia blossoms and dogwood trees,

Caterpillars on the step,

Wooden porches cleanly swept;

Watermelons on the vine,

Strong majestic Georgia pines;

Rocking chairs and front yard swings,

Junebugs flying on a string;

Turnip greens and hot cornbread,

Coleslaw and barbecue;

Fried okra, fried corn, fried green tomatoes,

Fried pies and pickles too.

There's ice cold tea that's syrupy sweet,

And cool, green grass beneath your feet;

Catfish nipping in the lake,

And fresh young boys on the make.

You'll see all these things And much, much more,

In a way of life that I adore.


There's nothing like a Southern man,

He's a man that you should know;

He's one to whom you'll find no equal,

Anywhere you go. He has a sweet molasses talk

And a slow, smooth gliding walk.

He's got strong, firm hands to let you know,

Real work is nothing new;

He has no problem with the fact, That he should provide for you.

There are certain kinds of values This man is sure to hold

His love of home and family Is sure to not grow cold.

He'll deeply love his mother It's a bond that's always there

All throughout his life, this man Will show her tender care.

He's one that you can count on, To do the manly things;

He'll change the tire and check the oil, And fix the backyard swing.

But, underneath a tough exterior, A gentle soul lies, too;

He's one who'll rock the baby, And even cook a meal for you,

On Sundays, he'll sit beside you singing, On the same church pew.

There's nothing like a Southern man,

He's a rare and special kind; If you look forever, anywhere,

He's the best you'll ever find


Let's go for a ride in the countryside, And make lots of stops along the way; Let's soak in all the warm sunshine, And create a perfect day.

Let's stop at someone's roadside stand, And maybe buy some fruit;

Let's pretend it's some great find, Just like a pirate's loot.

Let's go inside a country store, And have some bologna cut;

Let's sit outside and eat our fare, Like some treasure from King Tut.

Let's always enjoy life's simple things, And to their full extent;

Let's always spend these kinds of times, And make it our intent.

© 2008 Patricia Neely-Dorseyfrom Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia-A Life In Poems

The book is available
at www.reeds.ms/books.asp
or http://www.amazon.com/

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reasons to Stop Writing in my Pajamas
Peggy Webb

I’ve been wearing pajamas all day for five days (different ones, since you asked), and I don’t how to stop. But I DO know how it started.
Day One: I woke up to the sound of rain pelting my skylight, and said to myself, “Oh, well, I’m not getting out in that. I might as well not even get dressed.” Since I write in my office at home, nobody would notice, anyhow - except my two fierce watchdogs. And they never change clothes, so why should they care?
It felt great to putter around in Betty Boop pjs feeling smug as the rain drenched those unfortunate people who had to put on clothes and go somewhere. Even better, I had a cup of hot green tea chai in one hand and a cell phone in the other. (You know what I’m talking about. That other appendage. The one you absolutely can’t do without because the minute you put it down, somebody Really Important will call and they might be so disappointed they didn’t get you on the first try, they NEVER call back.)
Day One was a gift I gave to myself - permission to be a slob.
Day Two: Same rain, different pjs. With cuddly fleece pants. Because rain makes you cold, even in summertime. Probably because the air conditioner is turned too low. Still, I was home alone (don’t tell my dogs I said that) and had just finished a huge literary novel (which I’ll tell you about in a future blog), and didn’t I deserve to treat myself two days in a row?
The Fed Ex man who delivered a galley at one p.m. was shocked when I appeared at the door in pink fleecy pjs featuring sparkly Tinkerbells, plus red Betty Boop slippers with pom poms on the toes. But what does he know? He gets to wear a uniform, for Pete’s sake. He never has to coordinate an outfit, wonder whether his shoes match.
And forget about purses. He gets to wear pants all the time and carry a flat wallet that holds EVERYTHING.
Granted, he doesn’t get to sit in front of a computer all day making up stuff…and reading email from fans who ABSOLUTELY LOVE what you made up. Still, he does get to ride around all day in a neat truck that’s big enough to haul every rose I could purchase at Home Depot, plus all the mulch I would need for my gazillion gardens.
I could envy his truck.
But I didn’t because…
Day Three: I got to wear pjs again. All day! Not because it was raining, but because it was now a HABIT. And everybody knows habits are hard to break. Never mind that the postmistress looked at me funny when I appeared at the call window in bright blue fleecy pants featuring leaping lambs and an oversized orange T-shirt that advises, Keep American beautiful. Stay in bed. Plus, I was wearing a baseball cap to cover my lank locks because if you’re going to stay in pajamas, why bother combing your hair?
Postmistress: “Are you sick, Peggy?”
Me, chagrinned: “I think I’m coming down with something.”
Feeling slightly foolish and a bit unwashed, I slunk home rationalizing that writers are supposed to be eccentric.
Day Four: Everybody knows an orange T-shirt doesn’t show dirt, so why bother to change? Just put it on with the cute pj bottoms featuring grazing cows. Besides, it was raining again. Furthermore, if I didn’t crank up the washing machine and needlessly waste all that water, not to mention laundry detergent, wasn’t I saving the environment?
The only logical conclusion was that if I never got out of my pajamas I could save the world. (Aren’t eccentric writers also supposed to be green?)
But just how far can a writer take eccentric without crossing the line and becoming Somebody You Chase with a Net and Haul off Somewhere for Professional Help - or even worse, becoming Somebody the Neighbors Talk About.
Which is exactly what happened on…
Day Five: I ran out clean pj bottoms because I was saving the world by not doing laundry…and I was already wearing the orange T-shirt…and though the rains had finally stopped, I was so exhausted from all that relaxation in sleepwear that I didn’t have the energy to change.
A long nap was what I needed…and when I woke up, a visit to the bathroom…where I proceeded to sit on the throne thinking of nothing…until the BIG snake slithered from under the closet door and covered the ENTIRE FLOOR…between me and the door. I leaped over said creature (screaming), ran through my house (still screaming), burst onto my front porch (now hysterical) and lost all control. NOW I was on my front porch in wet T-shirt, screeching for the neighbors, who kindly dispatched the fearsome snake, then promptly went out and told the story to Everybody They Knew.
Day Six: I gave up saving the environment in favor of freshly laundered slacks, crisp white blouse, real shoes, combed hair and full makeup. If anybody asks me why I no longer wear pajamas while I write, I answer with one word: SNAKE.
This is a true story. Mostly. Especially the part about the snake, who was looking for a way out of the rain, climbed a tree, dropped onto my roof, entered the attic through that thingy that does I don’t know what, then proceeded to my bathroom in search of water. (At least, that’s what the pest control man told me.)
Do you love to lounge around in your pajamas (or T-shirt, wet or otherwise) all day? Have you ever wished you hadn’t? I’d love to hear your story!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Writer Flies Alone By Andy Straka

A hawk flies alone.  Hunting to survive.  Keenly aware of its surroundings and driven by its hunger. 

Each spring, thousands of new red-tailed hawks hatch from their eggs and, after being nurtured for a time by their parents and learning to fly, are pushed from their nests.  Over seventy percent of these juveniles, known as passage birds, will fail to survive their first winter on their own.  In fact, despite being at the top of the food chain--proud and noble creatures that they are--the five-year mortality rate for wild red-tailed hawks remains around ninety five percent.  

            I wonder what the metaphorical mortality rate is for those of us who fancy ourselves as writers?  We die every time we receive those rejections, don’t we?  Every time we fail to meet those self-imposed goals or deadlines?  What about when we fail to live up to our potential as artists?   

            Camaraderie among writers is a wonderful thing.  Consulting with others about your work is a time-honored tradition, and as published authors, we may even enjoy the consultation of a trusted editor or agent. Conventions, writers associations, and group blogs such as this, have also become great tools for the working writer.  Some of your best friendships may even be with fellow writers.

             But when you come right down to it, when the friends, mentors, and colleagues have all gone home and the door is closed, no one else is going to sit down in front of that keyboard but you.  No one else can tell your story.  No one else can offer us your insights or place your particular spin on the human condition.  In the end, armed only with imagination, an ear for prose, instinct, guts, and sometimes just downright stubbornness, a writer, just like the hawk, must fly alone.

            The good news is I can testify from personal experience that red-tailed hawks are most definitely not extinct.  Nor are they endangered or expected to go extinct at any time in the near future.  Indeed, thousands of them are able to overcome the harsh realities of our natural world to survive and even thrive every year. 

So what can you and I learn from the hawk’s temperament that we can apply to our lives as writers?  What lessons can we draw that will not  only prevent our writing careers from going extinct, but maybe, if we are lucky, even allow us to soar. 

I think there are four traits the hawk possesses that serve to optimize its chances for survival.  I think if we’re to survive as writers we need to cultivate these same qualities in one form or another. 


 A hawks predominate sensory input is visual.  Birds of prey possess binocular vision and can resolve minute detail and detect even the slightest movement at great distances.  This highly developed sense of sight gives them an edge when game is camouflaged and scarce, and as you can see from the statistics I quoted earlier, they need all the edges they can get.

            What is your awareness as a writer?  What is your vision?  What type of work are you trying to create and sell to publishers and what is the reality of today’s marketplace for that type of work?  Sometimes the minutest detail can cause us to miss an opportunity.  Take my own case as an example.  For many years St. Martins Press in New York has offered an annual contest for unpublished private eye novels.  First prize is a $10,000 advance and publication of the book in both the United States and in England.  Now here’s the ironic part. Last year I was asked to serve as one of the judges for this contest, but back when I was  trying to sell the unpublished manuscript for A WITNESS ABOVE, I never entered the St. Martins contest.  Why not?  I’d never heard of it.  That was a big lack of awareness on my part. 

And I’m not just talking about marketplace awareness.  It should go without saying that if you want to write a science fiction novel, you should have read and continue to be reading piles of science fiction, particularly the classics; but have you gone beyond just reading works in your chosen genre?  Have you ever attended a science fiction readers convention or gone to a science fiction writer’s conference?  How many scientific  periodicals do you subscribe to?  Are you merely looking to dabble in science fiction or are you hoping to make this a career?  The time to ask yourself these questions is before not after you’ve spent six months or six years slaving away to create your first or your next opus. Because we fly alone, too often we writers are guilty of working in a vacuum, and that lack of awareness can sometimes cost us. 


A mature red-tail hawk, skilled at taking prey, will stalk and continue to pursue a particular quarry via multiple dives called stoops until it has either taken the game or exhausted all possibilities of doing so.  This persistence isn’t just blind stubbornness either.  The wise bird will continually adjust its angle of attack, probing for weaknesses, looking for opportunities, whereas a juvenile often lacks these skills.

Are you persistent with your writing?  Do you make the time necessary to pursue your goals?  Do you even set word count or production goals?  Most importantly of all: are you willing to rewrite and revise, rewrite and revise, rewrite and revise again and again until you have made enough of your own literary “stoops”, as it were, to know that you’ve gotten it right and that the work is as good as you can make it.  It’s hard work catching game in the wild.  It’s hard work, this business of being a writer. 

And while we’re on the subject of persistence, let’s talk about rejection.  Every writer has their work rejected.  Generally, the more commercially successful the writer, the more rejections they have received.  But ask yourself: are you still taking your rejections personally?  I know I am.  I’ve never met a writer or author who at least on some level didn’t.  But we also know we need to try to move away from this, don’t we?  Do you think if the red-tailed hawk spent two or three days sulking on a branch over just missing that big fat juicy rabbit, it would survive?  Maybe you’ll have to forgo the rabbit for now; maybe you’ll have to settle for a mouse.

What about when you receive rejection letter after rejection letter regarding a particular manuscript or query?  Do you blindly just cross the latest one off the list, label the rejecter as an idiot, and go on?  Or do you adjust your angle of attack, perhaps seek some outside help or opinion, try something a little different?  You’ll need to, if as a writer you hope to survive.


 It can take time to produce good writing.  Just ask Charles Frazier.  He spent seven years full time writing COLD MOUNTAIN.  I’m not suggesting we all need to do that, but I am suggesting that as writers we need to cultivate more patience.  Well, you may argue, some of today’s bestselling authors seem to be able crank out two, three, or even more books per year.   But even among those authors I would suggest that a certain amount of patience is necessary in order to produce the volume of work they put out.  Many of these authors have dozens of projects percolating at any given time, most of which will lie dormant or in various stages of development for years.

In trade publishing today, commercially published books generally have a shelf life not much longer than a loaf of bread.  We can wail and gnash our teeth all we want about this state of affairs, but it isn’t going to get us very far.  Better to be patient, to develop our visions and plans, and to produce our work at the pace that will best optimize its chances to be accepted and communicate what we want to our audience. 

Speaking of acceptance, if you’ve had an experience at all in the book publishing world you know that publishers, like lawyers brewing a legal battle, tend to respond to new opportunities at a glacial pace.   Why should they move any faster?  Publishers today are basically gamblers looking for diamonds in the Himalayas without any maps.  Not only that, authors hoping to make a name for themselves in the mainstream marketplace often take multiple books over many years to reach such a status, usually with very little economic return before they manage to finally “break out”, as booksellers like to say.  For every overnight success, there are thousands of published mid-list authors, and even for many overnight successes the path to long-term brand name status is often a long and painful one with many ups and downs.


The last of the hawk’s qualities we need to try develop as writers is perhaps the most difficult.  Successful hawks are not only able to make the minor adjustments necessary to capture a particular quarry, they can adapt on a larger scale to the particular hunting environment in which they find themselves.  They will take a wide variety of game, depending upon what is available at that location at a particular time of year.  They’ll hunt near major roadways, where the slightly warmer temperature of the pavement causes many rodents to build burrows.  They’ve even been known to soar overhead following combines in the wheat fields in the Midwest, knowing that the huge machines tend to flush out all the ground animals in their paths.  And, unlike the vast majority of raptors, a couple of different species of birds of prey, Harris hawks and Golden Eagles, even break my opening premise.  They become wild collaborators, not just hunting alone, but cooperatively in packs lives wolves, because that is what is needed for them to survive in their particular environment.

I don’t know about you, but when I find a particular genre and characters, and techniques that are working with my writing I tend to want to stick with them.  But at the same time I’ve had to come to realize that if I fail to evolve in my writing, I may find myself writing sonnets in a world where very few, if any, are reading sonnets anymore.  To die with the sonnet, at least in the commercial sense, may well be a noble choice and one we decide to make, but we must also understand the consequences of our actions.  Commercially successful writers today tend to be adaptable in their writing, not to follow fads, but to stay aware of trends, what their audiences are reading.  What kind of book or article are you planning to write next?  Will you stick to familiar territory or strike out for new ground?  

 Next time you’re driving down the highway somewhere and spot a hawk, perched high in a tree or maybe soaring skyward on a thermal, think about the qualities that allow it to survive and how you can apply them to your life as a writer.  Ironically, each time the hawk flies after game it risks its own life as well.  A broken primary flight feather, a nasty bite from a squirrel that can lead to infection—any of these can mean its imminent demise. 

In your writing career, every time you put your words on paper and see them published, you too are taking such a risk, are you not?  Spend some time in the next day or two at your favorite bookstore.  Don’t stop to read anything—just spend a few moments walking the aisles and perusing the covers of all the brand new books, magazines, and newspapers for sale.  All those words, headlines, and titles calling out to you—they are there because some writer took the risk to create them and some publisher took the risk to invest in the paper and ink and myriad other costs of production and distribution to make them available. 

All of them are seeking an audience.  All are competing for attention.  Unfortunately, most will fail to gain a large enough audience within the short sales cycles offered by many big box retailers to justify continued presence on store shelves.  Thousands of copies may end up being remaindered eventually, be burned, or reduced to pulp, while their authors must learn to live and write another day.

The great news is that, like the hawk, many authors will.  Many will even learn to exhilarate in the thrill of the hunt.  There has never been a better time to be a writer.  It’s pretty wild and wonderful out there.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My home's in Alabama by Theresa Shadrix

Kathryn Tucker Windham, Scarey Ann and Theresa Shadrix at the 2009 Alabama Book Festival.

With the latest issue of Longleaf Style magazine focusing on roots, even a Bubba could figure out why I’ve been thinking so much about home and the South. In the summer issue, we have Rick Bragg’s “Why I write about home”, Diane McWhorter wrote about Birmingham and the civil rights and Nathalee Dupree gives a tasty ode to Southern cooking. To think about anything other than the South would a downright shame after reading it.

Truth be known, I used to feel somewhat like a carpetbagger. Yes, I was born in the South and I’ve lived in the South for over two decades. But, my childhood memories of the South are slim, thanks to my mother’s second marriage to an Army man. (Vincent O’Neil, I so understand your post!)

With two separate tours in Germany, I was a bonified cultured girl. I toured castles and camped under the stars in Munich. I shopped stores downtown markets. I bought fresh pretzels from street vendors. I never went to church and didn’t know one single thing about VBS, GA’s, or Sunday School. I learned to play soccer with kids who couldn’t speak English. I listened to Oingo Boingo, Led Zeppelin and Generation X. I got my ears pierced in Frankfurt. I read C.S. Lewis and Trixie Beldon.

I was in the 9th grade when my family returned to the South and made our home in Alabama. I couldn’t have been more out of touch with Southern reality as I was then. In the mid-80s, I was a European-inspired fashionista who talked funny. My “oil” rhymed with boil and I had not grasped the concept that anything that came before “bless your heart” was probably an insult in sweet disguise. I didn’t eat biscuits or grits or lard in my green beans. I had never seen the Andy Griffith Show. I was really quite pitiful.

But, I’ve come a long way. I married a born-and-bred Southern boy almost 18 years ago. I live in the country and drive by pastures with grazing cows every day o my way to work. I can make biscuits from scratch, prefer creamed potatoes to rice, can’t stand to eat those five minute boxed grits and green beans are not cooked unless seasoned with a touch of lard. I reference tweezers to Barney and hunting tigers. I love my relationship with Jesus Christ more than I love fried okra and home-grown tomatoes. I also prefer to listen to Rick & Bubba than Larry the Cable Guy because they are real good ol’ boys. Speaking of which, I’m not scared of rednecks, overalls, trucks or camo shorts. I can’t wear white to before Easter, even if they do in New York. I don’t flinch if I see a Memaw put a pinch of chewing tobacco in her mouth after supper. And, for Heaven’s sake, I capitalize “South”.

And, I love Southern authors!

As an editor, no writer has influenced me more than Kathryn Tucker Windham because she was one of the first “girl reporters” in Alabama. And, she has a mess of talent even at 91 and she really, really loves the South. At the Alabama Book Festival, she told the crowd that something was wrong with people who put sugar in cornbread. She was serious too. She cried when I gave her a "Scarey Ann" doll that I found online. If you don't know why "Scarey Ann" means so much to her, well, read her latest book "Spit, Scarey Ann & Sweat Bees."

I really love to recommend Southern authors to my friend’s cause there is nothing like telling someone, “”One Mississippi” by Mark Childress will leave you feeling a little beside yourself but just remember that not everyone down here is crazy. He just wrote it that way for fun.”

Most recently, I recommended Cassandra King’s “Sunday Wife” to a northern writer friend, who is also a pastor’s wife. I also told one friend, who suffered minor headaches, to read “Ray in Reverse” by Daniel Wallace and she said she had to think so much that it cured her. (I’ve also learned to embrace my sense of humor, which, I think, comes from walking barefoot in red clay in Alabama.) The only books by northerners I recommend are “Life with Father” by Clarence Day, Jr., who died in 1935, and anything by Erma Bombeck.

My list of authors who influence, entertain and, sometimes, warp me is very long. I bet it will continue to grow. I like reading Southern authors because they make me feel at home. I may have lived for a few years in another country but I wouldn’t live anywhere else than in Alabama. I think it’s because the South has a way of wrapping her arms around you and squeezing the city right out of you. Bless all our hearts.

Theresa Shadrix is the managing editor of Longleaf Style magazine. Her first book “Naked before God” is in the Lord’s hands, on her agent’s mind and hopefully soon will be in a publisher’s heart.

Gardens and Children Both Involve Some Weeds

by Sarah Smiley, www.SarahSmiley.com

Last month I spoke at a military-spouse event in Virginia, and a woman in the audience told me that her children, who are now grown but were raised in the military and had made dozens of moves during their childhood, each considered a different city to be their home.

This led me and my husband, Dustin, to a familiar debate about where to raise our children. It's a debate that is somewhat beside the point for military families who usually don't have control over where they will live and for how long. In any case, Dustin and I asked ourselves, is it better to expose our children to different experiences and environments, perhaps at the risk of diluting their sense of place or having roots in a "hometown"? Or is it better to give our children one city, one house, one community to come back to and say, "this--this very place--is where my brothers and I grew up"?

"I think kids are alot like seedlings," Dustin said as we drove along I-95, headed for Hampton Roads. "You can't just take seeds that are started indoors and put them in the ground. You have to expose them, little by little, to the elements first."

Just before we left for our vacation, I had done that very thing with a tray full of seedlings. The leggy sprouts with delicate leaves had never been exposed to wind, rain, or extremes in temperatures. For their entire existence thus far, they sat on the windowsill in my boys' bedroom, insulated from the outdoors, yet still able to soak in the sunlight. In fact, as the new plants grew taller and their roots began to crowd the small container, the stems arched, at first almost imperceptibly, and then later with astonishing aggressiveness, toward the light coming through the glass. It was as if they were almost begging to get out of their cramped pots and spot upon the sill. So I took the trays outside for a few hours at a time at first, and never at night. I watered them, made sure they were warm, and then explicitly and methodically exposed them to the harsher environments that they'd eventually need to stand up against. Once I was sure that the plants could handle it, I left the tray outside overnight. I let the rain pound the thin stalks down against the dirt. And then I carefully took each one out of its container, made a hole in the ground, and set the plants free in the garden.

I suppose Dustin is right. I'd like to be able to do the same thing for my children. I'd like to shield them from the world while at the same time pruning their branches and keeping the soil free of weeds. However, as any gardener (or parent) knows, even the best weed prevention is no match for the yellow dandelions of spring, whose roots are as big as industrial rubber bands and seem to grow from and grab hold of the very bottom of the Earth. My tray of seedlings needed extra attention, bordering on coddling, in order to thrive. But an unwanted weed? Well, those seemingly pop up over night despite your robbing them of sunlight and water. If a tiny dot of poison makes its way onto a seedling's tender leaves, it will kill it. Yet a gallon of poison often isn't enough for the largest dandelions.

I had also sprayed our yard for weeds before our vacation. When I came home a week later, I found that the weeds were mostly gone, and so was and a large section of our grass. It's the same way with the kids: I teach them one thing ("Don't talk to strangers"), only to unwittingly stamp out another ("Why didn't you answer that nice lady at church when she talked to you?" 

"Because you told me not to talk to strangers, Mom.")

Yes, both children and gardens are incredibly fickle things to manage, but as important and necessary to this world as the air we breathe. It seems deceptively easy to get it right when you and your husband are sitting in an air-conditioned car comparing and contrasting big-city living with small-town life. And yet gardens can also be like raising children when many seasons later, after noticing all the weeds you meant to pull but eventually overlooked, or the bare ground where you thought you'd plant some flowers but never did, you realize that your garden hasn't necessarily been growing because of your best intentions. Indeed, often times, it has been growing despite them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Guest Blogger: Vincent O'Neil

What Could a Yankee Know About the South?

One of the reviews for my novel Murder in Exile questioned my choice of the Florida panhandle as the location for my mystery series. Noting that I’m originally from Massachusetts and currently hail from Rhode Island, the reviewer suggested that Providence might have been more appropriate than the fictitious town of Exile, Florida.

In fairness, this critic could not have known that I lived in the South while serving in the US Army, and that I spent a fair amount of that time in northwest Florida (hereafter referred to as the Panhandle or the Emerald Coast). I first came to the area as a student in the Army’s Ranger program, parachuting onto Eglin Air Force Base and then spending two fun-filled weeks in a surprisingly underutilized chunk of the base known as the Yellow River.

As you might have already guessed, this prime piece of real estate was mostly swamp. I wandered through it for many days with my fellow Ranger students, armpit-deep (and frequently submerged) in the aforementioned Yellow River. So although I don’t qualify as a local, I do know a portion of the region in a way that many of the people born and raised there do not.

This raises one of the benefits of setting a story on relatively unfamiliar ground: Outsiders often bring a fresh set of eyes to their new surroundings. I tried to showcase this benefit in my mystery series by making my main character, Frank Cole, a newcomer to the Emerald Coast. As a Yankee transplant, Frank approaches his adopted home with a mixture of awe and ignorance—which puts him on the same footing as many of the book’s readers. Writing in the first person brings Frank even closer to the audience, as they discover the region right alongside, and through, their narrator.

This was a particularly enjoyable facet of writing this series, as I wanted to introduce people to a place I have grown to like very much. The Panhandle is a great location for a book series because it has a little bit of everything: Big cities, small towns, sandy beaches, lush forests, major universities, and (unlike some other parts of Florida) changing seasons. The choice of an unfamiliar location helped with the storyline as well: By dropping Frank into the town of Exile, I was confronting him with an alien environment where he had no friends to help solve the murder that would shortly be thrust upon him.

And maybe that’s the best reason for writers to go beyond the things they know by heart: By challenging Frank in this way, I was also challenging myself. Instead of placing him in a locale which I knew intimately, I was now required to acquaint myself with a new setting in much the same way as Frank. Beyond that, I had to recognize the differences between the part of the country which I call home and the region where I had exiled my main character. In the middle of writing a seemingly simple scene, I would be confronted with questions such as: Do people on the Emerald Coast call a District Attorney a “DA” the way we do up north? And if not, what is the term they use?

Of course there are easy ways of answering these questions, such as looking up an online version of a Panhandle newspaper or calling one of the many people I know in the region. But that’s not the point: Having to slow down and consider fine points of narration that I would normally take as a given (if writing a piece set in my backyard) causes me to slow down and look at the entire story with the same level of concentration.

And what writer doesn’t benefit from that?

Vincent H. O’Neil won the St. Martin’s Press “Malice Domestic” Writing Competition in 2005 with his debut novel, Murder in Exile. The series now contains two other books, both featuring Yankee transplant Frank Cole and the town of Exile, Florida: Reduced Circumstances and Exile Trust. Sample chapters and reviews are available at his website, www.vincenthoneil.com

Maybe you know the drill. Been in this situation. Bought the t-shirt.

You attend a reunion party.

A few people ask you what you've been up to in recent years. One person actually has heard about your book. A few more old friends circle around to ask questions. Oh, you think. This party is going to be swell.

But then your old friend says, “I can’t believe that story came out of your brain! How did you think up that idea?"

Now, this comment could be interpreted several ways, but I chose to be flattered. In fact, I think that’s the best review I’ve ever received. (Of course, this comes after the internal “Mwah, ha, hah, hah…I wrote an actual book and you just thought I was kidding about that way back in the 80s when my shoulder pads were huge, my brows were questionable and a tweet was still a sound a bird makes!”)

I think most writers secretly wish that those who know them are surprised by their ideas. If you're like me, there’s no one answer to the question "where do your ideas come from." But when I was ironing the other day, a “what if” idea popped into my head that is starting to feel like it might become a novel.

Here’s what happened.

I was ironing a shirt for my daughter. For some reason, my brain receives good ideas while I’m ironing or blow drying my hair. Must be the heat. Anyway, I’m doing the back and forth thing, zoning out, skimming over my mental calendar. I think about my hubby’s upcoming 4-Wheel Bronco trip. (He’s an off-road enthusiast with a SWEET rebuilt Bronco.) I think about how fun it might be if he invites our next door neighbor’s 12 year-old son to go along with him. He’s a Boy Scout and the prospect of charging over giant granite rocks inside a vehicle with tires that are more than half his size would be right up his alley. Then the mamma bear in me thinks, well, what if he got hurt? I would feel terrible. His mother is one of my best friends.

Then, the magical story palette appears and I start choosing colors.

What if a man took his neighbor’s son on a trip and he was accidentally killed or injured? What would that do the relationship of the neighbors – particularly as they watched their other kids grow up? Could they still be friends? Would someone have to move? Would both women carry different versions of Mom Guilt with them forever? What would it take to heal? What if the mom who didn’t lose a child was somehow more damaged as a result of this event while the mom who lost her son achieved peace?

Suddenly, I was very interested in the human drama that would play out between these two families in a Jacquelyn Mitchardesque kind of way.

After I finished ironing, I made a few notes about the questions I would have if I were the Gladys Kravitz neighbor across the street. You member Gladys, don’t you? She was the busybody neighbor on the TV show Bewitched and it’s my experience that every neighborhood has some version of this nosy character. If I was Gladys, peaking out from behind my window curtain at the houses of these two neighbors, what would I want to know? What questions would I ask? These questions are making me so curious that I'm now writing answers. This could be the genesis of a potential story.

How about you? Do you get asked the question, “where do your ideas come from?” If so, how do you respond?


Karen Harrington is the author of Janeology
What did Jane do and why?
Read an excerpt at http://www.karenharringtonbooks.com/
Visit her blog – http://www.scobberlotch.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reading Made Me Write

This month’s blog question? What writers have influenced you?
For me, it began in sixth grade. My elementary school had a library, a musty room in the basement where certain select students were chosen to be librarians. A lot of (boring, bookish) sixth grade girls thought lining up book spines in perfect, straight lines was fun.

Oh, wait. That would be me.

I didn’t mind shelving books because that meant I got to see what everybody was reading (I was a nosy-busybody type back then) and I could take new books home first. Like those Childhood of Famous Americans series, their orange and their turquoise covers calling to me as loudly as their titles: Jane Addams: Little Lame Girl, and Frances Marion: Young Swamp Fox. Remember those? Don’t say you’re too young because they’re still being published even though they’ve totally fallen out of favor with many educators. Bad combination of truth and fiction. Terrible writing model? Maybe. But I only stopped reading them when a new Nancy Drew book hit the stores.

Luckily, my teachers actually read great books aloud each day after lunch. In 5th grade, Mrs. Wiggins read Tom Sawyer. In sixth grade, Miss Cain read the Old Testament. (This was a while ago, when nobody cared what happened behind the closed doors of a classroom) And sometimes the library girls got to pick the books they read. Oh, we reveled in our lofty position.

By the time I hit high school, I was a dedicated library aide. I still got to read the new books first, carefully opening them so as not to crack their pristine spines. And I hung out in the library work room with all those date due stamps and 3X5 cards, stacks of special tape and book pockets and – well, I digress. Back to the books I loved.

In my high school library, my taste improved. I gravitated to the gigantic section of Mississippi Writers. They reached from floor to ceiling, those shelves. Eudora Welty, Ben Ames Williams, Margaret Walker. Many of the names have slipped into history and out of my mind, but I still read Eudora Welty’s stories when I need to remember what it is to be a perfect storyteller.

Those early books shaped my love of reading and writing. When it came time to choose a career path- no surprise- I became a school librarian. Reading books aloud to young children gave me an ear for language, and sharing books made me think hard about who it would appeal to, and why. All good skills for my future as a book reviewer. Not great preparation for writing fiction, I’ve learned. I was reading like a teacher. I needed to read like a writer. So I set out to read differently.

I’d always loved books by Southerners, set in the South. Since I hoped to write middle-grade fiction, I chose books created by writers whose books won awards voted on by actual young readers. Plus, I was now looking for something. I was trying to decode how a writer could portray real, true, honest Southerners who didn’t sound like the Beverly Hillbillies. No offense to Jed Clampett or Daisy May and Ellie May, but that wasn’t the South I knew and loved.

First I reread Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May. How could she write so poetically a book that children loved so much? I was captivated by her first sentence:

When May died, Ob came back to the trailer, got out of his good suit and into his regular clothes, then went and sat in the Chevy for the rest of the night.

How could you not love that writing?

I moved on to Deborah Wiles’ Each Little Bird That Sings. Hey, wait a minute. I had a friend like Comfort who lived next to a funeral parlor and I’d never thought about how that felt till Comfort told me. My childhood friend was just a normal girl whose family ran the funeral home. Comfort was far more interesting. But I took that book apart to see how a person like that might jump from real life (mine) to a made-up, fun-to-read-about, real live character in a book. With a few extraordinary twists, as it turns out.

One of my truly favorite writers about the South, Barbara O’Connor writes books that remind me so much of home. But now I had to stop myself from reading too fast, turning pages, sighing and worrying over her characters. Because now I had a mission. How’d she do that? I tore apart the scenes, slowly. I examined the dialogue beats. I creeped up on her language and made lists of words that were also part of my own voice. Durn. Like to Died.

After Barbara O’Connor, I discovered Kerry Madden’s mountain trilogy and knew I not only needed those funny, interesting, strange characters, the way they talked and the places they lived and cared about. But oh, no! I also needed a story. Plot. The hard part. Dang.

It was time to stop and write. And I realized how difficult writing good fiction is. How much work it is to sound so seamless.

By now I’d reread much of what I’d been handing to students in my libraries, saying “this is perfect, you’ll love it” and I’d re-focused on how writers actually put great books together.

So, this blog is asking this June, who influenced my writing?

All those early teachers—including grandparents and other caregivers who read to me. All those authors, from a long time ago, the great Southern writers from Miss Eudora to Ms. Madden.

Thanks, y’all.

Augusta Scattergood reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor, the St. Petersburg Times, Delta Magazine. Her essays and articles have appeared in Skirt! Magazine, Mississippi Magazine, Highlights for Children and various other publications. However, her big break in fiction is yet to happen, but she'll keep reading, writing and hoping.