Wednesday, December 30, 2009


By Julie L Cannon

Hmmmm. When I first read the prompt, ''How I took my writing to the next level," naturally I assumed it meant a higher level. You know, a step up. Well, now that I've given it some thought, and now that I've looked back over the past year of my writing life with a great deal of scrutiny, I'm not so sure that's it at all. Levels can be up, or down, or maybe even across a hanging bridge suspended over swirling waters.

When I read Patricia Sprinkle's lovely and very thoughtful blog (Dec. 29th), I realized that there are multitudes of things in a life that inspire, prompt, nudge, or in my case, shove a person to try new things; new levels. Patricia's story of her mother's physical/mental state, and hence her own change in genres, made me think of the saying that goes something like this: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may."

In 2001 I was happily gathering rosebuds. A short story of mine won a contest in a local arts magazine, and then my first novel practically sold itself to a local publisher, and then they sold the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster, who subsequently found an agent for me (they said "We don't like to work with unagented authors). Then, my agent sold two more books of mine to Simon & Schuster, followed by another one to Penguin in 2008.

I was happy on this level. I was writing. And selling. Well, then the recession came along, and I got a big, cold dose of reality. Still furiously scribbling along, I wrote two entire books in three years. Books which my agent loved, yet which met with a number of rejection letters. My agent said to me, "Julie, several years back these would have been a slam-dunk." She said the book industry was feeling some of the pain of this economy, too.

But, the thing was, the bills didn't stop arriving in my mailbox. Frantic thoughts circled in my head like turkey vultures. I'll go back to school, I decided one moment. I'll get a teaching certificate through the Georgia TAPP program and I'll teach English in elementary school. No, I changed my mind in the next moment; I'll get my Master's in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, and then I'll teach on the college level. But, then I talked to the head of that department, and she informed me that most area hires were generally Ph.Ds in Literature and Creative Writing who can teach both, mainly comp and lit. Anyway, job prospects were not the best, so I wrote that off. I called numerous places I might enjoy working, to no avail. I did part-time work which had nothing to do with writing. I applied for an odd sales job. I was not called for an interview. I was a little depressed.

Meanwhile, I kept praying and I kept writing, two things to hold my sanity intact. My agent worked with me on half a dozen proposals. Proposals where I'd write a very detailed (twelve pages or so) synopsis and a couple of chapters (anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 words). I did this for months on end, and she sent them out faithfully. I waited. But all we got were rejections. I tried to keep hold of my hope and my faith that something would take in this writing career. That I'd move on to "the next level."

One day as I took a break from spinning stories to check my emails, I noticed one from the Manager of Literary Programs at the Atlanta History Center/Margaret Mitchell House. Melanie wanted to know if she could hire me to teach a creative writing workshop. For cold, hard cash. A hopeful bubble formed inside me. Without hardly thinking, I wrote back, "Yes, I'd love to!" At least this job was in the field of writing.

I had done a few small, scattered workshops over the years; things mainly for high schoolers and young collegiates. But, for these I'd been given the curriculum, and so it had been more like I was just a facilitator of an hour-long workshop.

I went through the process of selecting a topic, researching it just a bit, outlining a course, and presenting it to Melanie. I decided on a class about memoir writing. I called it 'Canning Memories.' She approved it and sent out word to potential attendees.

When she wrote me that my class had received enough reservations to make, I got started on the real work. What we had decided on was that I would teach a three-hour class on the first Saturday in October. Well, to be honest, at first I freaked out. What could I offer these souls that would fill three hours and be worth their time and money? I'd never taught a three-hour class, much less one on memoir writing.

For two weeks solid I feverishly gathered material. I worked around the clock; ate it, slept it, and lived it, writing what amounted to a fat textbook. I read swarms of my books on the technique of writing, I dreamed up exercises my students could do, I practiced teaching my material. I made hand-outs with subtitles such as: Getting Started and Staying Started, Writing Deeper by Using Your Fears, From A Different Point-of-View (exploring the difference between First and Third Person), Simple Ways to Strengthen Your Prose, Open Mike (The Importance of Reading Your Work Aloud, along with Breathing Techniques To Relax), Tips for Turning Personal Experiences into Salable Fiction, and, finally, What a Character! The key to Unlocking Motive and Turning Real People into Interesting Characters.

In the end, I must have had gathered and written enough material to teach an entire college semester. I know after the class, there were pages and pages of material we hadn't gotten a chance to cover. One important thing I did manage to drill home to the participants was this quote by Jim Rohn (I don't know who that is) that I keep taped to my monitor; "Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment." I told them to sit their fanny in their writing chair every single day.

This new level of writing was beautiful proof to me that there are places full of potential for rich personal reward. I, who had entered this world with a fairly severe case of laliaphobia (fear of public speaking), thoroughly enjoyed teaching! I was genuinely happy up there talking for three hours straight, imparting some of the things I'd learned over my journey to class participants ranging in age from their twenties to their eighties. I got to hear stories from many of them. Stories which touched my soul. I know you've heard people who have gone off as missionaries into remote regions, and who came home saying things like "I got more out of it than I gave." But it's true! Words were just pouring out of these people. The different levels these writers were on was astounding. Several have communicated with me post-class and enriched my life even more.

Eventually, around the end of October, my agent called me and said that one of my proposals had found a publisher! So now I am taking my writing to yet another level. Like Patricia Sprinkle, it is a different genre than I am used to. I don't know if it is higher, lower, or across that shaky rope bridge hanging over swirling waters, but I am 50,000 words into it and enjoying the process immensely. The book is set to come out in October of 2010, and I imagine I'll have the cover art and more on it to share in one of my upcoming blogs.

Julie L. Cannon is the author of TRUELOVE & HOMEGROWN TOMATOES, 'MATER BISCUIT, and THOSE PEARLY GATES (Simon & Schuster), and THE ROMANCE READERS' BOOK CLUB (Penguin). Visit Julie at

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Impetus to Climb

By Patricia Sprinkle

Every other day I drive five miles to visit my mother. I park outside her large brick residence and walk up the drive to the front door. That’s as far as I can pretend this is an ordinary home and my mother an ordinary mother.

Mother has lived for eighteen months in the memory care wing of an assisted care facility. Most days she sits in the far corner of the dining room in a wheelchair, her once sturdy frame reduced to less than ninety pounds.

Mother was bright, a reading specialist who devised creative ways to help children learn to read. Now her conversation is reduced to gibberish. Mother was once vain about her appearance. Now food dots her clothing in spite of the helpers’ best attempts to keep her clean. She has developed a terror of water, so her hair—which used to be washed and styled every week by a beautician—hangs straight and greasy. The last time we tried to wash it, she spat on me.

I’m not telling this to garner pity or disgust you. Rather, I’m telling you why I have taken my writing to a new and different level.

For twenty years I wrote mystery novels. I enjoyed it. I met delightful readers, writers, editors, and bookstore owners along the way. But all those years I had other stories I wanted to tell—stories that did not involve murder and mayhem, but rather delved into the struggles of ordinary women to survive crises in their lives with a modicum of grace and success. “Someday,” I said from time to time. “Someday I’m going to write my novels.”

But someday never came. In this life we are restricted to yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. As Dolly in The Family Circus once said, “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it ‘the present.’”

Soon after we had to put Mother in the memory care unit because she needed more care than we were able to provide, I turned sixty-five. Sixty-five is supposed to be the year we retire, right?

I looked at Mother. She taught school for forty years, then retired at sixty-two to begin a new career as a successful artist—until breast cancer surgery cut a nerve and left her painting arm with a permanent twitch. Then she and dad started teaching a “how to retire successfully” course all over the country. When she had another bout with cancer, she twice called the chemotherapy center to tell them she wouldn’t be in that week, because she was teaching a seminar out of town. As long as her mind held out, Mother was always open to a challenge.

How many years, I wondered, do I have before my own mind begins to slide down a slippery slope? Possibly it won’t—my father is ninety-four, does the daily crossword, reads Atlantic and Mother Jones, occasionally still preaches, and goes to the gym three days a week. But life gives us no guarantees. Minds don’t always last as long as bodies do.

So like a trapeze artist who lets go of one bar in order to snatch another, I bunched up my nerve, left mystery novels, and offered a proposal to my agent for two books of women’s mainstream fiction. The editor liked the proposal, and gave me a contract for the two. I hope I’ll get to write two more, and two more after that.

Writing a different kind of book certainly involved leaving my comfort zone. In a mystery if the plot sags, you can always add a new clue, a red herring, or—my husband’s usual advice—a car chase. I have to confess that the first novel does have one small mystery and even has one mild "heroine in jeopardy" scene. After all, that’s what I know how to do. But as I worked harder than I'd ever worked before trying to create a new kind of book, I remembered advice from Stephen Spender on writing: “We can’t write it until we know it, and we can’t know it until we write it, so what are we to do? We write it wrong until we get something we recognize.”

By the time I'd gotten my first “unmystery” novel into a shape I recognized, I had discovered how flabby I’d gotten in mind and body, how accustomed I’d gotten to my little rut, and that I was actually glad to be stretching muscles I hadn't known I had.

HOLD UP THE SKY will come out in March from New American Library. It’s the story of four women who come together in a sweltering kitchen one summer, each facing her own crisis. They don’t even like one another at the beginning, but they discover that women’s strength comes not from independence but from interdependence.

I hope you’ll read it. I even hope you’ll like it. But whether you do or not, I’m feeling real good right now. I tried something new and finished it!

I would not wish my mother’s condition on any other soul, but if you are comfortable in a rut, visit a memory care facility. It certainly gives me the impetus every day to live out my dreams while I still can.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Next Level is Closer Than You Think by Kristy Kiernan

The first step to taking anything in life to the next level is understanding that there even is another level. There are so many buildings in the Big City of Writersburg, and we're always keeping our eye on those, aren't we?

We think we're on our roof, training our telescope on the swanky Sales Temple, the Advance Tower, the shiny mirrored windows of the Review Complex (which includes the heavily guarded New York Times Temple, the Publisher's Weekly Starlight Lounge, the Library Journal Hall, the hodgepodge Amazon Vineyard, and the recently boarded-up Kirkus Morgue), and the massive Industry Insider Internet Time-Suck, not to mention the welcoming Friends and Mentors Cottages and the dank, odiferous Paranoia Slum where our imaginary enemies skulk around plotting our downfall.

The noise from our crowded city practically deafens us, and at first it's exciting, stimulating, and we run hard to the next level in order to see the next levels on all those other buildings. We gaze hard on them, trying to figure out how to reach their next level, or even how to skip a few levels, Super-Writer style, leaping all those tall buildings in a single bound, and we begin to ignore our own building, the one we live in, the one we've stopped seeing, the one we take for granted.

It's the Craft Building, and it is the tallest, strongest skyscraper in our city, but there is no elevator, express, penthouse, delivery, or otherwise. Our building is filled with steep stairs, and the stairway doors are guarded, videogame-style, with all manner of nasty animals, like fanged Day Jobs, and clawed Child Care, and the dreaded poisonous Spousal Time Jealousy. If we make our way through the first few levels, fight our way to the Chunk of Time Rewards, then we start to learn our craft.

But something happens toward the middle of the building. Maybe we get tired of climbing those stairs, because they get steeper and longer, or we get tired of fighting our way through the Door Guard Nasties because it seems like they get stronger and more devious every time. Or we've achieved some level of success that makes us believe that the levels overhead hold nothing new.

But chances are, we've just become so dazzled by all the other parts of the city that we can now see, that all of our focus turns outward, and we stop achieving new levels in our own Craft Building, stop even realizing that we've stalled, rooted, stagnated.

We've become deaf to the little voice that strains to get through all the noise. The voice that tries to remind you that at one time you fought for time to write your novel, and that now you fight for time to write a pithy comment on a Facebook thread. The voice that reminisces about the time you used to spend reading literature that moved you to tears, and that now you read industry blogs that paralyze you with pessimism over the Future of Publishing. The voice that quietly asks if the sentence is really good enough, if the plot really holds together, if maybe you're…cheating.

If maybe you're…skating by.


And then it's time to quiet the city. It's time to stop obsessing over all the other buildings. It's time to take the weapons of knowledge you've already won, gird yourself, and attack the stairway. Fight through the Guard Nasties, whatever they are this time (the Spectre of Sales Past, the Willies of Expectations, the FoP [Future of Publishing] Ogre), and emerge into the white space of the next level.

The next level is silence. The next level is control. The next level is blank white walls and high ceilings and it echoes as you walk through it. The next level is solitary. You are the only one there. And your sales do not matter, and your advance does not matter, and your reviews do not matter, and what your friends and enemies are doing does not matter.

You will never learn anything if you never enter that silent blank white space, that empty echoing chamber.

The next level is up to you. It's there, waiting for you. You know what you need to learn there, and if you don't, then you're not listening hard enough, and you're concentrating not just on the wrong level, but on the wrong building entirely.

Kristy Kiernan's third novel, BETWEEN FRIENDS, will be published April 2010, and has recently been chosen as a Featured Alternate for the Literary Guild, Doubleday, and Rhapsody Book Clubs.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How I Took My Writing to the Next Level

It’s a lousy title, isn’t it? It sounds as if –

1. I won a special award for Next Level Writing.
2. I am a superior writer. No one’s interesting hearing about “Next Levels” from anyone he isn’t looking up at.
3. Writing is set up like a skyscraper, with successively higher levels to which writers aspire by hard-earned promotion, or maybe just getting on a different elevator. Why should I expect my levels to correspond to yours? Maybe I’m trying to go higher, but you’re going deeper. Or broader. Or thicker.

Nevertheless, and notwithstanding, I’m going to attempt to do exactly what my title promises; I’ll tell you how I took my writing to the Next Level, and I’ll do it with a minimum of humor and wise-cracking. Humor and wise-cracking, you see, is what I normally do; it’s what I’m good at; it’s what I like doing. Almost any other topic would elicit from me a flow of glib silliness: agents, publishers, bookstores, readers, writers, you name it. But when it comes to the topic of humor writing itself, I get serious.

As a beginning writer I believed, and still believe, that no other form of writing short of poetry calls for closer attention to craft, a better ear for rhythm and sound, or greater sensitivity for timing and nuance than humor. Maybe your prose drips with pathos, tension, and dread, but try – just try – writing a scene to make a reader laugh. And after you’ve torn out your remaining hair and worn your fingers to bloody nubs retyping the same thin sentences, compare your result to Thurber’s “Woman in a Trap,” about a husband wreaking havoc in the kitchen or Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters which opens with the most hilarious series of telegrams ever composed.

In writing workshops, beginning at Georgia College, and then at Kennesaw State University, and ultimately at Georgia State University, I was always acknowledged among my colleagues, and I say this without false pride, as the funny one. Typical comments from teachers and fellow students tended to fall into the category of, “This is hilarious” or “I laughed my ass off.” I valued those comments; I still do. I left others to write their tales about death and heartbreak and the mysterious pain of living. I wrote humor.

Over time, I found myself in the company of writers just as serious about their craft as I was about mine. And the praise began to dim. I was still acknowledged as the funny one, but that no longer seemed enough. A comment like, “Funny, funny stuff” would invariably be followed with a “but.” What came after the “but” was a complaint that my story lacked “weight” or “heft,” that I should do more than write for the sake of being funny, that readers wanted to actually care about my characters and not just see them get into funny scrapes.

Reading these comments after workshops, I began to anticipate the “but” and resent and resist it. How dare they complain my stories were “too light” just because they didn’t do anything but get laughs? Getting laughs is High Art. I’d worked years to get laughs. Saying my stories need more “weight” was like asking me to blow a cast-iron soap bubble.

My head is harder than most, and it took a lot of pounding from teachers and fellow students before I began to accept what they said.
My first attempts at giving stories a serious side were hideous. Serious didn’t come naturally. I hadn’t practiced Serious. I didn’t do Serious. It was like walking on someone else’s legs. I stumbled a lot back then, and I still do, but these days I stumble more intriguingly. A high-grade stumbler, me. A stumbler with style.

I still call myself a humorist and consider humor the most engaging challenge of writing, but I now see the richness that seriousness can add to a work. Characters do indeed have to face death and heartbreak and, yes, the mysterious pain of living. And incredibly enough, that “weight” makes my beloved funny parts even funnier.

So that’s the story of how I took my writing to the Next Level, and how you can, too. It doesn’t matter if you consider me superior, or whether getting to your Next Level involves climbing a mountain, getting on a submarine, or using a compass. All you have to do, is do what doesn’t come naturally. Do what you haven’t practiced. Do what you don’t do.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette. You can visit him at

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Her name is Maggie...

I know this is a blog about writing, but it's Christmas Eve and to be honest with you writing is the last thing on my mind. You know what is on my mind, Maggie. Maggie is my fifteen year old shih-tzu. Who on a bad day is called...well, you can imagine what she's called on a bad day. Today is her birthday. She's clueless, but it isn't lost on me. All she knows is that for some reason she's gotten a lot more treats today and a lot more attention and as far as she's concerned it should have been like this all year.

Maggie is Miss Independent. (The one laying down) Her sister Sophie is Miss Co-dependent. (The one in my arms) Together they make the perfect dog. Individually, I'm the one who needs the drugs at the end of the day. Maggie has been independent from the day I brought her home. She never wanted to be held. She'd let you know if she wanted to be petted, if her water bowl was empty, if she wants to be taken outside. Basically, she lets you know when you're needed. It's a slightly sick relationship.
But the last few years she's really started showing her age. It was her hearing that went first. Which honestly, because she's so dang ornery, took me about a year to figure out. I just thought she was her usual self and was ignoring me. It wasn't until I realized that when I came home and the alarm began to sound and she never stirred that maybe sister had gone deaf. Then the arthritis kicked in. On rainy days poor things reminds me of my Aunt Alice. She doesn't climb stairs anymore, which if you ask me still goes pretty well with her diva persona. I think she always thought she should be carried up the stairs anyway.
But she has been a gift to me. An angel in ivory fur. More tears have been cried into her backside than bottles could hold. She has walked with me through the heartbreak of divorce, the years of no children, and the death of her other sister Chloe. And she has been a faithful companion. So, tonight on her birthday I'm celebrating the fact that heaven gives a lot of good gifts.
There is much to sit and ponder in a season like this. It's even to get wrapped up in our losses. We've all had them. But I choose this season to get wrapped up in my blessings...the gifts of my family, the amazing love of my friends, the forgiveness of my Savior, and the companionship of a four legged creature who on most given days could drive me to drink, but today I am choosing to celebrate. May your day be filled with joy. Your new year be filled with peace. And your life be filled with companions as delightful and challenging as this one. Maggie, Merry's to fifteen more.

Denise, Maggie and Sophie make their home in Franklin, Tennessee where Maggie refuses to go on walks. So- Denise and Sophie take them by themselves.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Did that get your attention? It’s hard to get anyone’s attention right now, just a few days before Christmas when we are all so distracted by everything we have to do.

Write or Wrap? Write or Shop? Read? Forget it! Who has time!

Writing during the holidays is a particular challenge, for me anyway. Since I work from home, I’m always bothered when I’m writing by all the things that need to be done later. I want to do them now and get them out of the way. They nag at my brain, taking energy from the task of creating a character, crafting dialogue, or simply thinking…usually about what comes next. And since I write best in the morning, I have to endure the agony of letting the dishes, the laundry, the beds and all my little messes—and when I write there are lots of messes—all pile up until later.

So plot down (I meant to say PLOP DOWN! How’s that for a Freudian slip!) the monumental extras of shopping, wrapping, cleaning, cooking, decorating, etc. etc. and…how the heck can I possibly concentrate?

But I have to! Especially now, as I try to finish my third novel. My original hope was to have it finished by Halloween. Well, due to lots of travelling (I’m just the girl who can’t say no!), I didn’t make it. Not that I didn’t enjoy all of the book clubs and signings. I love it! Meeting people when you’re usually alone with your computer all day long—and hearing them discuss your characters as if they were real people—well, that’s every writer’s dream. But I found that being on the road is not conducive to good brain time for writing.

November was pretty productive, until my daughter went into labor with my third granddaughter! I took care of the other two, Alice 4, and Lily 2, while Mommy was in the hospital. But then they sent her home. This went on for 3 weeks, until little Julia Rose finally arrived. Needless to say, I didn’t make my new Thanksgiving deadline.

Which leaves my new self-imposed Christmas deadline, now 2 days away! Will I make it?

What do you think? Hell no. I’ve succumbed to the most wonderful time of the year after fighting it for weeks and... I love it. We’ve even got snow! Now I am still writing every day, but I’m quitting earlier and earlier because I still have presents to get, and wrap, and food to buy, and cook, and of course there’s some cleaning to be done. But my ending is plotted, I’m nearly there, and…my new deadline is New Year’s Day. Wish me Luck!

AS FOR THOSE FREE BOOKS…I WASN’T KIDDING! Just go to my website and see how you can win a signed & personalized copy of THE RICHEST SEASON or SO HAPPY TOGETHER!

Merry Christmas to you! May all your writing dreams come true in the New Year!

Maryann McFadden

Maryann McFadden is the author of THE RICHEST SEASON, set on Pawleys Island, and SO HAPPY TOGETHER, by Hyperion Books. She is actually from New Jersey, but her heart is in the Lowcountry. Read about her journey from self-published to the real deal at

Welcome to the Shiny Happy Digital Age*

by Mindy Friddle

* This title is not ironic. I really believe our new digital age is full of opportunity.

A few years ago, it was considered "quaint" for an author to have a website. Now, it's a must. The "planks" of our author platforms aren't just our published works, newspaper columns, radio gigs--they're Facebook, Twitter, networking.

Take Twitter, for example. Yeah, I hear you groaning. Some of you, anyway. Twitter is a little hard to get used to at first. "Why should I Tweet that I just ordered a pizza?" a friend of mine asked. "Who cares?" Well, nobody. But if your Tweet is "The pizza delivery guy is a dead ringer for Brad Pitt. The green mohawk is a poor disguise." That's a little more interesting.

If you're not convinced, read this guest blog post, "Why Writers Should Care About Twitter," on Christina Baker Kline's excellent blog, A Writing Life.
And for some intriguing examples of Tweets from writers, visit Jane Friedman's blog, There Are No Rules
She posts the best Tweets for writers every week. Example: What writers should know about Writing Contests @NathanBransford.

And don't think Twitter is going the way of legwarmers and Members Only jackets-- it's here to stay. As David Carr pointed out yesterday in the NYT: "...on Twitter, the elections in Iran outranked Michael Jackson, who came in second...In an age that is ridiculed as chronically unserious, a life-and-death struggle for freedom on the other side of the world is the story that rang the bell on Twitter."

One more thing: Since our topic this month is the future of publishing, I thought it ideal to spread the word about an upcoming event that addresses this very thing:

The Southern Social Networking Summit Wed., Jan. 6, 2010 (starting at 10am) & Thu., Jan. 7 (ending by 3pm)
at the Hyatt Regency Greenville, 220 North Main Street, Greenville, South Carolina. It's sponsored by a range of very forward-thinking folks: Fiction Addiction, The Open Book, The SC Book Festival, The NC Writers Network, and the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance [SIBA], just to name a few.

What you'll learn:
  1. How to make time for all the social networks - Facebook, Twitter, Ning, LinkedIn, Glue, Google, Delicious, Wet Paint, Net Galley, Author Buzz, Library Thing, Squidoo, FourSquare, CloudProfile and so many more…
  2. What’s on-line that will feed my work? What’s free and how do I get it? Marketing Partnerships and how to make them work?
  3. What does the research tell us? What trends are coming down the pipe? And how do we manage it all?
  4. Increasing the effectiveness of our combined efforts. How do we move the conversation from insiders to outsiders?

Hope to see you there!

Mindy Friddle is the author of THE GARDEN ANGEL (St. Martin's Press/Picador) and SECRET KEEPERS (St. Martin's Press). Visit and her blog, Novel Thoughts: On Reading, Writing & the Earth to read excerpts from her novels, interviews with authors, book reviews, and random musings. Follow her on Twitter @mindyfriddle.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Let it snow!

I've been sitting here all weekend in chilly but sunny Hilton Head, South Carolina, watching the reports of the blizzard of '09 as it blasts its way up the East Coast, and I'm reminded of my days in northern Ohio. We lived just a few miles from Lake Erie, out in rural Lorain County, on three acres of land with a pond in the front yard and a creek meandering its way along the western boundary of our property. We loved being isolated, feeling sometimes as if we were on an island in a sea of white when the Alberta Clippers roared out of Canada and dumped a foot or more of snow on us. I remember particularly the Great Blizzard of 1978 (I had a T-shirt back then announcing our survival) during which we were marooned for the better part of four days. Remember this was back before the Internet or cell phones, so when the electricity went out—as it almost always did—we were pretty much stuck with a transistor radio for news of the outside world.

Now what, you may ask, does all this have to do with writing Southern? Well, not much, really. What all the hubbub about this weekend's snow brought so vividly back to mind was that feeling of being snuggled in front of a roaring fire with candles and a few battery-powered lanterns for illumination . . . reading. That's what I think of when I remember being snowbound in Ohio. I had hundreds of books lining shelves on either side of the fireplace, and I would take one down that I hadn't read in a while, an old favorite, and curl up for hours while the snow swirled around the house and the wind off the lake piled it up into drifts past the windows. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, I could spend as long as I wanted with my books, secure in the knowledge that we'd be okay until the county came to dig us out. With my husband and stepson similarly occupied, we'd occasionally take a break to roast some hotdogs or warm a can of soup on a tripod rigged up inside the fireplace, but mostly we read.

Of course, I was thirty years younger during the Great Blizzard of '78. And, as is often the case, such a long perspective may have colored my memory just a bit. I'm sure it wasn't as snug and cozy as I remember it. I'm sure there were times when we all got stir crazy and snapped at each other. But still . . . In my mind, it was a time for setting aside all the unimportant things that caused me stress, for just being in the moment. With a good book.

If any of you found yourselves in a similar situation this past weekend, I hope you kept warm and dry and well-fed. And that you had lots of favorite books to help you pass the time. It would give me a tremendous amount of pleasure if one of them happened to be mine. Wouldn't that be the ultimate in synchronicity?

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 this spring from St. Martin's Minotaur. Look for Canaan's Gate on April 27, 2010.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Next Level?

by Cathy Pickens

Karin’s suggested blog topic “Taking Your Writing to the Next Level” made me smile. I’ve done just that … except some would argue that the next level was a step down or backwards or sideways.

The paperback edition of the 5th Southern Fried mystery, Can’t Never Tell, appeared this month (yaayy!). It’s the last in my latest 3-book contract with St. Martin’s. I chose, many months ago, not to seek another contract in that series. “Are you crazy?” said one writer friend.“Who walks away?”

I don’t know who else walks away, but it was the right time for me to try something new. Even though it was my decision, I was sad for many months, knowing that I might never again spend lots of time with Avery and her great aunts and the quirky folks in imaginary Dacus. It was almost like a friend was on life-support. Not dead and gone, just not … there.

But a comment I heard years ago kept coming back to me: mystery novelist Sue Grafton said, “Enjoy writing your first book. It will never be like that again.” At the time, as an unpublished writer, I thought, “Yeah, right, easy for you to say, you’re published.”

Now I know exactly what she meant. Having a contract is great. Knowing that someone will publish the results of your labors is very comforting. But with a contract comes a deadline. Someone is expecting you to deliver. That brings pressure – a sense that you must produce on someone else’s schedule.

I am now without contract. And I can now remember with crystal clarity why I wanted to be a writer. I work on my latest (nonfiction) project for long hours, wanting to be as satisfied with it as possible. I spend time on research, tracking down one more anecdote or fact, playing with the organization.

The next level may be a step back – but an artist steps back from painting to gain perspective, to see the work as a whole. I’m enjoying the view from that place right now.

Wherever you are in your work – whatever that work may be – take time to enjoy it. Remember why you set out on that path. Take a step back, if only for a moment, and remember …

Embrace It!


This month's blog topic is a toughie – the future of publishing. Times are a'changing and everyone has an opinion on how and why. One thing is certain: The cozy days of reading newspapers, magazines, and books while stretched on the sofa, lazily turning paper pages could soon be something more attuned to a Norman Rockwell painting than a slice of current reality.

Newspapers nationwide have cut staff, the physical size of their publications, and the column inches dedicated to arts & leisure. Several national magazines – including GOLF FOR WOMEN, a magazine that I wrote for – has shut their doors for good. The top dogs at all print pubs are doing everything they can to generate an online audience, as well as sell their subscriptions in digital format, which can be downloaded to your computer, Kindle, or Sony Reader. The book publishing houses, too, have responded to current economic conditions with layoffs, reduced print runs, and dropped series.

From an author's perspective, it's all a bit scary. I personally love books – the way they feel and smell and the fact that you can collect and trade them. And of course, I hope that readers will continue to buy MY books. So to observe the industry turbulence is really daunting, if I let myself think about it too much. On the other hand, what the hell. MOST industries are going through tough times. The suits at the top are paid the big bucks to make their companies money, so obviously they're going to take drastic measures as needed. They don't make decisions based on the warm & fuzzies.

As a writer, the only self-preserving and sensible thing to do is EMBRACE the future of publishing. Digital format really rocks, when you think of all the new exciting applications. Audio format, too, is growing in popularity for downloading to iPods and other devices. Newspapers, magazines and books are still being read aplenty – but technology has allowed advanced delivery systems for all three. For me, personally, I've got to tackle the learning curve so that I better understand the marketing side of things.

Meanwhile, I, like so many others, love to write. It's what we do. We get grumpy if we're not working on a project. Instead of getting bent out of shape that my Jersey Barnes series was dropped by St. Martin's Press, I'm staying upbeat. One of my Jersey books, SOUTHERN POISON, has been adapted into a spec screenplay – and you never know—it just might be picked up for option. And moving forward, my next book, a stand alone, should be out this spring. Five years ago, when my very first book FOOL ME ONCE was released, I couldn't wait to get a hot-off-the-presses hard copy in my hands. This next go around, I'll be just as excited to see the very first digital download of my new book. If I can figure out how to use my new e-book reader, that is.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Singing Those Publishing Blues

The time has come to rocket-launch my writing toward a much higher hemisphere.
For a year, I’ve anguished and wallowed in the misery that accompanies the writer with three published titles and nothing sizzlin’ on the burner. The writer who scored the fabulously hip New York agent. The writer who got nothing published any longer than a newspaper column this past year.
What happened to my career? It’s not as if I Lohan’d out and snorted coke and kissed women. Or even opened a den like Tiger’s, which is crawling with concubines.
I’ve been good girl, one who sat at the computer and didn’t hold a grudge. Well, not a very big one.
Sure, my novel, “Chimes From a Cracked Southern Belle” deserves better that what it got. Nada.
Oh, it was fabulous some editors said during our past economically- challenged year. But you know, it just was not fabulous enough. I needed mucho fabulousness to publish my quirky Southern novel. Actually, from the hints trickling down from New Yawk, I think it might be best just to leave the whole Southern thing out. I’m quite afraid some Southern writings (at least mine, anyway) have gone out of favor.
Desperation draped me in bolts of self doubt. I suck. I suck. I suck.
I suck and I’m Southern. OK, but wait. I can change part of that. It is high time I take my craft and craftiness to a new level.
I am no longer Southern. “You got that?” Ms. Hot Shot Agent who can’t sell my Southern novel. “You hear me?” I’m a new breed of ethnicity.
I’m calling it Afro/Asian/Vampire American. I’m changing the name of my new novel to “Chimes from a Cracked Jamaican Vampire.”
I hear the vampire lines are selling well, and I plan to create one made in part from T-Rex DNA, just to give it another selling point. Some people love anything Jurassic, ya know?
Meanwhile, this book has collected more rejections – albeit FABULOUS rejections, than Tiger at his latest cocktail joint. Then again. Some women. Just to do the wiggly-jiggly with somebody famous!
But then again. Some publishers. Surely with this next project, a new novel that DOES not mention Southern in the title, will titillate. Mercy, doesn’t that word sound nasty and crawling with STDs?
I’ve also risen to new heights to make sure this new novel gets the love. The love is what it’s all about. And as an Afro/Asian/Vampire American I’m all for the love and my fair share.
It just takes sooooo much work. Besides writing, rewriting, eating at the keyboard, writing, eating more, editing, cursing, eating again on the A row, I’ve got two other tricks to take it to the top. That next level.
You hear me? The top.
Here’s how you can have everyone thinking you’re the scorching Katherine Heigl instead of the less attractive Amy Adams, God love the little pixie.
Let’s call it the Hoo-Doo Voo-Doo of the writing industry. Here’s what you do. You become so superstitious you believe every star that blinks, every car without a headlight, and every chance to knock on wood is for you.
About those cars. Where I live, a goodly number of people have at least one headlight busted out.
Boom! Your chance for a big wish. Just yell, “Popeye!” and kiss the palm of your hand, place it to the roof of the car and make a wish.
Mine usually go something like this. “I wish for world peace and all the starving children to eat, and I wish those editors in New York will see my fabulousness levels have risen and buy my damned book with a nice advance, audio and film ops.”
I’ve even bought the perfect gown for the Oscars, dahlin’.
From the Goodwill
(P.S.) I was sober when I wrote this and plan to remain Southern. Vampires be damned.
Check out Susan’s work at

The Most Dreaded Critic of All by Karin Neches

When I was a teenager and used to buy paperbacks at a swap shop, I’d always read the back cover. Although I didn’t really know what Kirkus was, I’d come to discover that if they liked a book, so would I.

I’d never imagined that one day Kirkus would review my work. Several months before the publication of my debut novel, my agent prepared me for Kirkus. “They can be very ugly,” she said. “Don’t feel bad if they skewer you.” I started to truly dread what Kirkus would say. They seemed to take particular delight in tearing apart cute Southern novels, which was what I’d written. I was sure that once Kirkus was done with me, I’d be literary road kill.
The call finally came from my agent. “You won’t believe this, but you got a starred Kirkus.” Everyone was so excited. There was practically dancing in the streets. A special marketing meeting was called simply because I got a starred Kirkus. Apparently it was a big, frigging deal. To this day, I’ve thought I’d like my tombstone to read: Her lies Karin, who got a starred Kirkus.”

Yes, Kirkus anointed me with love on my first book but things went a little differently for my fifth book. I saw the review was coming up, and I felt pretty confident about it. I assumed with five books behind me I was a better writer. While I didn’t necessarily expect a star, I figured I’d get a good one.

If you’re familiar with Kirkus, you never really know what they think until the last sentence. Then they either praise you or zing you. And when they zing you, it’s never mild. My fifth book was set in Heaven and here’s what Kirkus said: “Heaven trivialized as a pop-culture paradise without evident irony-a hellish idea.”

That’s right. Kirkus, never one to mince words, thought my book was “hellish.” It doesn’t get much worse than that.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that Kirkus is closing down. A lot of sad things have happened in publishing this year, but the end of Kirkus has really bothered me. Even though they haven’t always loved me, I will miss them as will many librarians and booksellers who relied on their reviews to make buying decisions.

How about you? Any Kirkus war stories to share? I’d love to hear them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

You've Decided to Try for Publication. Now What?

The biggest moment in my writing career came with the realization that I wanted to be published by a traditional publisher.

Oddly, the big moment wasn't when I was accepted by a traditional publisher or when I found an agent to represent me--but when I decided that was the course I wanted to take.

At first I wrote for myself. I didn’t share what I’d written with friends or family—I was really just tinkering with my words, writing to see how far I could take a story. Can I write a poem? A short story? Can I string several chapters together in a coherent way?

When I decided to pursue publication, I became a serious writer. I focused on finishing a book.

Here are some tips to help with your journey to publication:

Read other books in your genre before you write. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t too far out of line with my efforts.

I’d also recommend turning to the community of blogging writers online. They’ll offer encouragement, support, industry information, and technical advice. There are many blogging writers that I link to in my blog’s sidebar at Mystery Writing is Murder that will give you a great starting point.

Get other people you trust to read your book. First readers who give truthful feedback in an encouraging way are incredibly helpful. If you don’t have any family members or friends that fit the bill, you can try online critique groups—you’ll read their work within a certain time frame and they’ll read yours. It may take some tweaking to find the right group. If you Google “online critique groups” you’ll get plenty of hits. I’d stick with a group that writes your genre.

Okay, so your manuscript is in pretty good shape. This means you’ve revised it many times. Others have read it and offered suggestions. You’ve read many books in your genre. Your manuscript doesn’t have grammatical or spelling errors.

Now it’s time to branch out. What kind of publisher fits your needs? A small press? Or something larger? If you’re interested in submitting to a smaller publisher (and there are many out there), then you can frequently submit without an agent.

You can learn publisher guidelines online at publishers’ individual websites. You can also go to your library and check their reference section for a recent edition of Literary Marketplace (which you can also get an online subscription to) or Writers Market.

Found a publisher that interests you? Go to your library or bookstore and read some of their recent releases. How does your book stack up? Do you need some more revising?

Do you need an agent in order to submit to your publisher? Try the listing of agents at and AgentQuery.

Is the agent or publisher reputable? Check sites like Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors to make sure your choices are scrupulous. There are many folks out there who prey on writers.

Write your query for your publisher or agent submission. Check sites like Query Shark, The Rejector, Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent, and Pub Rants for advice on writing a sound query.

Write a clear synopsis of your book. It shouldn’t have teasers, but should concisely tell your story in a compelling way.

Submit your query or your cover letter and first fifty pages. Make sure you’ve addressed your letter to the right editor or agent and have spelled their name correctly. Your manuscript should be formatted to a standard template. Be careful not to use unusual fonts or colored paper or anything unprofessional.

Expect rejections. Hope for the best, but plan for setbacks. If you’re fortunate enough to receive some feedback with your rejections, consider revising your manuscript via their suggestions.

The important thing is not to let your research and work immobilize you—let your research strengthen your resolve to make your book the best it can be…and then submit it.

Good luck with the process!

Elizabeth Spann Craig

Pretty is as Pretty Dies: Midnight Ink, August 2009
Delicious and Suspicious: Berkley Prime Crime, May 2010 (Penguin Books)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sign Me Up!

President Obama has finally accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, and it's a new day.

Some have found the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision perplexing. Astounding. Enervating, even. But I see it as great news. In fact, I am very, very excited.

Just think. Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means that anyone, anywhere can accomplish anything. All he or she has to do is....think about it.
The committee requires that nominations for the prize be sent in before Feb. 1 each year. This means that Obama was nominated about 12 days after he took office. Did something other than cocktail parties and the first family getting cozy in their new digs take place during those early days at the White House, that everyone somehow missed?
According to the Nobel Foundation, the prize is given to "the person who has done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." I don't think Obama has held any peace congresses — short of, perhaps, refereeing arguments between his daughters.
Fraternity among nations? Air Force One had barely made it over the Atlantic at that time. And I haven't seen any pictures of the president puffing on a hookah pipe with Arab warlords. Bowing to them, yes. But that came after.
Oh, wait. Could it be for his "abolition or reduction of standing armies." Like those in ... Afghanistan? At last count, he had sent in 21,000 extra troops and is about to deploy 30,000 more. So much for peace.
Maybe that's why audience members in Oslo gasped when they heard Obama's name announced. They weren't the only ones. The Times of London called it "absurd," saying that the decision "makes a mockery of the prize." However, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, told the Associated Press that the award acknowledged not what Obama had done, but that "great things are expected from him in coming years."
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg concurred. "The exciting and important thing about this prize is that it's given to someone ... who has the power to contribute to peace," he said. But Times reporter Michael Binyon highlighted the danger of handing out peace prizes based on hope.
"Mr Obama's prize is more be compared with the most contentious prize of all: the 1973 prize to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho for their negotiations to end the Vietnam war," he wrote. "Dr. Kissinger was branded a warmonger for his support for the bombing campaign in Cambodia; and the Vietnamese negotiator was subsequently seen as a liar whose government never intended to honor a peace deal but was waiting for the moment to attack South Vietnam."
Obama joins a list of revered names. The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Elie Wiesel, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walêsa all received the Nobel Peace Prize. So did Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa and Barack Obama. Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. Ever think you'd hear those names in the same sentence?
Mahatma Ghandi was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize but never received one. Just think about that for a second.
Don't get me wrong. I'm sure President Obama is a great guy, with noble aspirations. But Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King he is not.
I, for one, am looking on the bright side, however. After all, if we're now handing out major awards to anyone who has "the power" to achieve the things that these awards symbolize, we're all in luck.
It means I might receive an Oscar, based on the screenplays I'm writing. It means that one of my colleagues in the newsroom might receive the Pulitzer Prize, based on future stories she might write. Come to think of it, I'd like one of those, too, please.
It means that my daughter, who just qualified for the pre-swim team at the YMCA, should just go ahead and collect her gold medal for the 200 meter butterfly in the 2020 Olympics. Hey, she has the power. She has the potential. She may even master the dolphin kick soon.
So forget the recession. Forget unemployment. Forget Paris. If you're one of those people who never wins anything, this is your lucky day.
Heisman Trophy? Grammy? Rhodes Scholarship? Just step right up, folks, and send in your nominations, folks.
Oh, and don't forget to e-mail me your Social Security number, date of birth and underwear size, so I can deposit the $2.4 million prize money in your bank account, too.
Annabelle Robertson is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Southern Girl's Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You've Caught Your Man. She lives in Sumter, SC.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Panster Who Became a Beater by Karin Gillespie

Back in January of 2007, I happily started a novel. Since it was my sixth novel, I had every confidence that it would chug along as merrily as my last five novels. I’d figured I’d take a few months to churn out around 80,000 words, polish it up for another couple of months, and then, as usual, I’d have a shiny new novel published some time in 2008 or 2009.

I couldn’t have been more deluded.

Problems plagued the novel from day one. I had a nagging feeling that my first draft was monkey gook but continued to slog through it. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

I set it aside for a couple of weeks, read through it and discovered it wasn’t just monkey gook--it was steaming, rotting monkey gook. Monkey gook that needed to be handled with gas masks and protective gloves. Nothing, save for the words “the end” was useable. So I re-wrote it again… And again… And then once more. Finally I sent it to my agent who, you guessed it, asked for yet more re-writes.

Two years later, my agent finally sent it out on two test submissions, and though the writing was praised, the storytelling was not. One of the editors said, “If the author really wants to roll up her sleeves and work, this novel could be huge.”
Trouble is, I’d already “rolled up my sleeves,” I’d practically dug the world’s biggest ditch for the novel. What more did it want from me? A kidney?

Ever the optimist, I was willing to try one more time. Both editors had given me great feedback, so in the name of a book I couldn’t let go, I did the one thing every writer fears doing: I opened a new document and started from scratch.

Nine months later I was like Henry Higgins triumphantly singing, “I think she’s got it.”
My euphoria was short-lived because once I sent it to my agent, she said, “I hate to tell you this but instead of improving the novel you’ve just created more problems for yourself.”


Back and forth I went desperately trying to fix my novel until I realized I was almost at three-year mark with the manuscript, and I still didn’t love it. Not only that, I honestly didn’t know what else I could do with it.

During all this mess, I started a new novel to distract myself, and as I was writing it I had this horrible feeling of dejavu. The novel wasn’t coming together. Was I doomed to waste another three years?

I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I’d easily written five novels before and they’d ended up being just fine. Had I been cursed?

I began to question my methods. I’d always been a seat-of-the pants writer (or “pantser “as organic writers are sometimes called). Did I possibly need to re-think my way of approaching a novel?

In the past I’d read a lot of screenwriting books and discovered most screenwriters are meticulous planners. They have bulletin boards, index cards and push pins and very systematically outline the whole darn film before they would dream of writing the very first word.

To me their process seemed as restrictive as a strait jacket. Every time I thought about outlining a novel I’d get the heebie jeebies and would start hanging out on Facebook instead of working.

But then I happened to run across a screenwriting book called Save the Cat by the late, great Blake Snyder. His method of outlining a story actually seemed doable. First off, he didn’t call it “outlining.” Instead he talked about “beating out” a story which sounded so much less oppressive than outlining.

The more I read his book, the more I comfortable I became with the idea of beating out my next novel. Everything Snyder wrote started to resonate with me in a deep way.

So what the hey? I went to Office Depot, got my cards and started writing my key scenes on my cards and fit everything into a three-act structure. Then I beat out my story as best as I could. Whole process took a couple of weeks.

The beginning of October I started to write, and instead of my usual slogging, I was skating. Each day I slapped down 2,000 words with very little problem. Even though, I’d worked out the structure ahead of time, I didn’t find it the least bit confining. I also discovered plenty of opportunities for surprises along the way.

By the end of November, I had 76,000 words and was ready to type “the end.” I set it aside for a week and read through it. I was in shock, thinking “who wrote this thing” because I’d never written anything thing so tight before in my life. Instead of facing a string of endless re-writes I was looking at two or three passes tops.
Need I say that I am a convert? I’m now more committed to “beating out a story” then Tom Cruise is to Scientology. And yeah, I’m sure all the outline people are reading this thinking “duh.” But to me, a former pantser, I feel like I’ve found the Holy Grail.
As for my previous three-year project, if I ever have the heart to re-visit it, I’m going to have to totally re-think it. It was never built on strong structure so every time I messed with it, it just fell apart some more.
I hate to think of all the time I wasted but at least it forced me to take a long, hard look at what I was doing and for that I'm grateful. Incidentally if you’re a panster who’s thinking about becoming a beater, here are some amazing resources. No only do the following emphasize structure but they also analyze the crucial elements of storytelling. So go ahead: Drink the Kool-Aid.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers By Christopher Vogler
Also fellow Southern writer Alexandra Sokoloff has an informative blog about screenwriting tips for novelists.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Q and A with Quentin Whitwell author of If by Whiskey.

1.What is the backstory behind If By Whiskey?

If By Whiskey’s backstory has several components. The primary driving force behind the book being written was personal. Many of the scenes and issues addressed in section two, genuinely occurred in some form or another when I served as Student Body President at Ole Miss. Some of the intense rivalries existed, along with some of the racial rhetoric. For me, I needed healing, but also wanted to explore and push myself to uncover what being Southern is all about, both for black and white people. Another backstory that some folks may not recall is that the Presidential debate actually did take place at the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss as its alumni and students affectionately call their alma mater. Encapsulating a true story around a fictional one required more research and accurate outlining; however, I think it draws the reader in even more, to the point where one reading the book stops and asks herself, “Is this for real or just made up?” Of course, following this pattern enabled me to make some broader social points about tolerance, stereotyping, heritage, progress and race relations. Finally, there is a story behind the title but I see that I will answer that separately!

The novel is described as "Old South Meets New South." Can you elaborate?

I am not trying to sound like John Edwards in his “Two America’s” speech here, but in some ways there are two “Souths”. There are those who live in the old one and those who live in the new one. And watching the two collide in If By Whiskey is like being an eyewitness to a train wreck - - you know it is going to be bad! I wanted to ask and possibly answer, but at least add to the discussion, this question, “Who are Southerners (regardless of race) perceived as, and are those perceptions reality?” Ultimately, I found myself creating characters that fit the mold one would expect. Sometimes, I would break them down and recreate them to unimagined expectations. Other times I would play them out just like the girl next door with a few twists here and there, of course! Ultimately, to answer the question, Oxford, Mississippi is a microcosm of the South. Known for guarding the entry to its gates of an African-American seeking an education, now it serves as one of the South’s most progressive towns. From a race relations perspective, Ole Miss is known today for hosting Barack Obama, who received a warm reception in Oxford and for the story of Michael Oher recently released as a film with Sandra Bullock entitled The Blind Side. So, the South has changed but some of the ghosts from our tumultuous past reappear from time to time.

What was your journey to publication?

Whew! That was the worst part. I had written five chapters and outlined the majority of the book when I realized that even if I wrote an entire manuscript, I had no idea how to get a novel to print. Turns out, as small as this world is, that my neighbor is an entertainment attorney and wrote a couple of sports books. So I called him. He introduced me to one of his partners and she guided me in. She gave me a deadline to have the draft complete, edited it, had it proofread (there are still a couple of errors that drive me crazy!), got printing quotes, designed the cover art, and 4000 copies showed up at my front door one day. That day scared me to death! I self-published my first one for several reasons. First, I had a timely story that did not need to sit on a potential publisher’s shelf for an extensive period of time. Also, I felt like I had enough of a built in constituency in Ole Miss alumni to get the book off the ground. From there, I knew it could get its own legs. Plus, we turned out a great product. And finally, I have another book in mind that should have a broader appeal. That one, I want to have nationally published and a track record of good sales should help my efforts.

Who are your literary influences?

Ha! Great question. I may throw you off a bit with this one, but I bet many of the readers can identify. It’s not that I don’t read, I do. I have read and been influenced by some awesome writers - - Kafka and Hemingway the most. The Trial and The Sun Also Rises, respectively are my two favorites. When I was accepted to Yale’s summer school program, The Trial was in my reading assignment. Before I went, I had the chance to sit down with one of my English Professors at Ole Miss. The discussions that flowed from that conversation as it pertained to that book, influenced my thinking greatly. I never viewed government or our justice system the same again. Previously, I had been too Pollyanna, let’s say. Other writings I love include Siddhartha as a simple read but pure, Francis Schaeffer from a religious standpoint, Jeffery Archer is a contemporary favorite, and Faulkner although he is brutal. But, ultimately I see writing as an art. When I wrote If By Whiskey, I tuned in to the Blues music and some Appalachian Folk songs on my iPod and really got in a groove. I also found that it was much easier to listen to the Gin Blossoms and write about the nineties for some reason! But, in all sincerity, I would argue that being a writer is no different than being a musician or a painter or a sculptor. We all have a story to tell. The question is, can you channel your energies, focus on the task, and deliver a punch line? Thankfully, I did. For a while there as I was writing, I was scared the ending would be a bust!

What's the story behind the title?

Well, as I am told, the phrase If By Whiskey has been out there for years with a number of meanings. Although I have not uncovered all the sources, I am told Mark Twain may have used it a time or two. But for me, a boy from north Mississippi, the phrase “if by whiskey” alludes to the famous “Whiskey Speech” delivered at the old King Edward hotel in 1952 in Jackson, Mississippi when a debate erupted in the Mississippi legislature about whether or not the prohibition of whiskey should be repealed. Understand at this point in time, the state taxed it, the people poured it, there was even a division in the tax commission with employees to oversee it, but it was illegal nonetheless! Soggy Sweat was a young man then and he was both for and against whiskey in the same speech. Absolutely hysterical - - both the speech and his delivery. All the readers should check it out. For me, Anna Neimus, the main character, finds herself in a whiskey moment. She is torn by the Old South traditions and the modern progressive appeals of the New South. So, like Soggy Sweat, she chooses both!

You're traveling extensively throughout the South for book signings. Any interesting experiences you'd like to share?

Oh yes. I have been to a lot of places and going to many more. But my favorite story so far is from Gulfport, Mississippi. I was invited to sign at a wine bar. And that was just my kind of book signing. But on my way, I received a call from a local who asked if I could join him at the home of Dr. Bobby Little. I did not even know who Dr. Little was. But it turns out that Soggy Sweat was his fraternity big brother in Sigma Chi at Ole Miss many years ago. I got some great stories on Soggy from him. But the best story was about William Faulkner. Apparently, Dr. Little grew up around the corner from Faulkner. He had the pictures to prove it too. Dr. Little said that when he was about 14, Faulkner showed up to his home in the rain wearing a trench coat and knocked on the front door. When Bobby appeared, Mr. Faulkner, who was very proper and formal in his approach to everything as I am told, asked if Bobby would go downstairs and retrieve a bottle of whiskey for him. When Bobby returns, Mr. Faulkner thanks him and turns to leave. As he does, the slit of his coat in the back begins to open. Dr. Little said he had no idea what that man was doing but apparently he wrote and drank all night in the nude!

The novel is flying off the shelves. Why is the book resonating so much with readers?

Well, first of all, let me say that I am humbled by the response. I have had people say the book took them down memory lane. There are the non-Southerners who feel enlightened to see a book that walks through the progress of the South. Some guys just want to meet the college sorority girls I described! The female readers have complimented the fact that I took on and accurately portrayed a female. Some have called me brave for writing about subjects like sexual promiscuity and race relations that many southerners want to turn a blind eye too. Even the very few that don’t like my book have further reinforced for me the need to write this book. It is time we grow up and face our demons. If we don’t they will destroy us. I know I grew as a person by writing this book, and I hope many more people read it.

Quentin Whitwell holds two degrees from the University of Mississippi, a Bachelor of Arts and a Juris Doctorate. While at Ole Miss, he served as the Associated Student Body President and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Growing up in Oxford, Mississippi, he walked the path of William Faulkner learning that the legend of Yoknapatawpha still lives today with eccentric characters and folksy ways. An attorney and lobbyist in Jackson, Mississippi, Quentin draws from his life experiences to write this comedic fictional novel. Quentin is married to the former Ginger Gordon. They have two children, Davis and Gordon, and an English springer spaniel, Churchill. Visit his web site at

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Joys and Pitfalls of Writing a Series

As many of you have discovered, my current novel, Elvis and the Grateful Dead, is book two of my Southern Cousins Mystery Series. I’ve already written book four; I’m plotting books five, and I have the story bible for books six through umpteen. In other words, I’ll be writing this series as long as I can prop myself in front of the computer and still remember how to spell Evlis. Excuse me. Elvis.

One of the greatest joys in writing a series is getting to revisit characters I love. The Valentine gang and my basset hound who thinks he’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll reincarnated never cease to surprise and delight me. Elvis is always wise, always sassy. Mama and Lovie have more ways to get Callie’s goat than Elvis has fleas. And Fayrene’s pornographic memory and penchant for calling the highway control keep me in stitches.

I love being able to go into a new story with a sense of familiarity, a sense of coming home. Readers have told me they feel the same way about the Southern Cousins Mysteries. Another plus for series.
Then there’s the added attraction for both reader and writer of being able to follow characters as they break up, make up, marry, have kids, move out, move in, move on. A series gives me time and space to show my characters growing and changing through the years.

So what can possibly be the pitfalls? Remember the story bible I mentioned? It’s a spiral bound little black book that lists every character in my series followed by a long list of descriptive adjectives, favorite phrases, likes and dislikes. The little black book describes my characters’ cars, their houses, their jobs, their communities, their friends, their enemies. It even has their shoe size. Furthermore, it maps out the future for every character. Even the dog. Especially the dog. (Elvis made me add that.)

When I write an Elvis mystery, I keep the little black book open on my desk. Still, I don’t like to stop the flow of story to consult a story bible. I forge forward and cross my fingers that I won’t accidentally change brown eyes to blue, call a pink house yellow, have Callie leave home in her maroon Dodge pickup truck and drive home in her black Ford.
Even worse, I panic that I’ll make the same mistake I made years ago in my Donovan series. It was never meant to be a series. Tanner Donovan simply came to me two years after Paul Donovan had taken my heart by storm. I quickly researched Paul’s book, told myself, yep, he has brothers, then proceeded to write a whole slew of books about the feisty, lovable southern family.

There was one little hitch. In Paul’s book, Mr. and Mrs. Donovan were dead. In subsequent books, they were alive. When Bantam reprinted the popular series, my editor asked me to please write a letter to the reader explaining the “resurrection.”

I’d love to chat with readers about the joys as well as the pitfalls of series. Join me. I’ll be online all day.

Visit Peggy Webb at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Rejection of Christmas Past

If you’re reading this post about rejection, I expect you’re either:

A) A writer like myself looking to read some good war stories and perhaps find inspiration for your own writing.

B) A nice person who is genuinely interested in books and writers.


C) A sadomasochist, which may also qualify you for category A.

Three things I’ve learned in fifteen years of writing and with five novels to my credit:

1) Only a very small percentage of what comes out of my brain is inspired in any way, shape, or fashion.

2) Only a semi-chaotic, back-and-forth process of rejection between a trusted group of readers--not to mention agent, editors, publishers--and myself produces writing with which I am truly satisfied.

3) What scares me about a blog is that no one ever rejects my posts.

Peace, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to all.

(That guy born in the manger two thousands years ago? Now there was someone who ended up rejected.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

In our writing group, we share both our successes and setbacks, and that includes rejection letters. A few years back, we had accumulated quite a nasty little pile of these, so we decided that we’d meet for dinner and go over them in detail. Maybe, if we looked hard enough, compared the various comments, we find some little nuggets of advice—anything to help us get the letter that said “yes, we love it and we’ll publish it.”
We had rejections from some of the best agents and editors in publishing. They were so pleased/honored/happy that we’d chosen to send them our manuscript entitled fill-in-the-blank. After considerable consideration/careful reading /a lot of deliberation around the office, they’d decided that fill-in the-blank, just wasn’t right for them at this time. In our little letter sample, there were a variety of reasons for the rejection: we have too many first novels in house right now, your novel is too literary, your novel is too commercial (same novel, of course), there isn’t enough/there is too much action in your novel, your novel is set in the seventies/sixties, your novel just didn’t grab me/compel me/hit me where I live, and (my personal favorite) your novel was just too close to my own experience and I can’t relive this time in my life.
After several glasses of wine and some very tasty steak, it occurred to us: this was not some great literature we were reading here. These were the hurried missives of agents and editors, and let’s face it, their interns. They were doing a job--simply trying to get through a stack of manuscripts. Most anything they wrote other than “thanks, but no thanks,” was really out of kindness. So, parsing this language, searching the text for wisdom, attending to word choice and detail—all of this was completely futile. Here’s what we decided: ignore the actual words and look at the length of the rejection letter. The longer the letter, the more attention your manuscript has received. Anything over six lines means you’re making progress. Twelve lines and you’re in the ballpark.
We also decided that the size of our rejection stack—that was our badge of courage. Publishing is an endurance sport. Once you know you have a novel that is essentially publishable (which is a topic for another whole blog), then what you need next is volume volume volume. Every rejection letter stings (or worse), but this is what you’ve got to risk to find that single, fabulous agent or editor who has the good sense and good taste to say yes.
Eventually, all three of the manuscripts so rejected on that evening found publishers. This did not happen because we were so good at reading the tea leaves of rejection but because we listened carefully to each other. We reflected on the advice of our group’s careful readers. We revised and revised, and then, we sent out books back out.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How Much House is Really Necessary (Not Much!)

by Sarah Smiley (

Dustin and I had a large house in Florida. Most people there do. Perhaps it is the heat, which even in the middle of October can still feel as hot as the air from a hairdryer (only with less wind), but most homes in Florida are sprawling. Two-story houses are an anomaly; the bigger the footprint of a house in Florida, the better. This makes it so that no one ever has to touch or be near anyone else in their family. And in that type of heat, who would want to?
Our house was also typical in that it was covered almost entirely with tile and wood floors. Carpet gets too sticky when you're hot. And just like the majority of children nearby, our boys had a large playroom and separate bedroom. They had their own bathroom, too, which I am told stayed remarkably clean most of the time, but I can neither confirm nor deny this because unless I had a reason to venture into the boys' bathroom, I didn't see it. That's how big our house was. We had two extra bedrooms and one extra bathroom that were furnished but ultimately not used. We could have stored a mini-van in our attic.
So you can imagine our surprise when we received military orders to Maine, and an online search revealed that very few homes are larger than 2000 square feet. I fell in love with one that is just barely 1500 square feet.
"The house is perfect, but it just seems, I don't know, kind of small," I said to our real estate agent.
"You've never had to pay a heating bill, have you?" he said.
On moving day, our boys shamelessly cried when we gave away almost three-quarters of the toys that once filled their playroom in Florida. There just wasn't any room for them. It was my turn to pout, however, when we had to store my piano and the dining room set my grandmother gave to me. I was beginning to believe that our rented storage unit was roomier than our new house.
But then an interesting thing happened. While I swept the kitchen floor, I could hear my boys through the wall, playing in their bedroom, talking to each other about the scariest dream they'd ever had, their favorite new friends, and their best and worst subjects in school.
Had they always conversed with each other like this? I wondered.
Whereas they used to go up to their playroom to watch movies and cartoons, now they had to share the living room with everyone else. As I typed on my computer in the kitchen, I could hear the dialogue of the television program and intervene when necessary.
Was The Clone Wars always this violent? And when had the boys stopped watching Franklin? What other conversations and insights had I missed when my children were upstairs, shut in their playroom?
Once I was in the basement folding laundry when I heard Ford and Owen teasing their littler brother, Lindell. I directed my mouth at the ceiling and yelled, "Cut it out or you're both grounded," and like a snake sneaking up on its prey and bouncing forward to strike, my voice came through the vents on the floor into the boys' bedroom. They were stunned into silence. Maybe Mom does has eyes in the back of her head, I imagined them thinking.
One year later, I can't imagine living in a large house. Much like soldiers in barracks or college students in dormitories, my family is bonding. We are under each other's foot, in each other's business, but finally living with each other, if not on top of each other. Before, I wasn't sure how my boys would handle sharing a small room and not having a playroom. "I never had my own room until I joined the Navy," my dad said. "And I never had a playroom." He turned out just fine. Maybe even better because of it.
In hindsight, our old house was excessive. Our voices echoed off the tall ceilings and wide, open living room, signifying to me the distance that had grown between my family. Our voices don't echo anymore. They seep through the floorboards, out the open screen windows (maybe our neighbors know us a little too well), and through the vents in the next room.
One day, as I was getting dressed upstairs, I heard my boys talking in their room below. "Remember how Mom seemed kind of sad before," Ford said.
"Yeah, she's much happier now," Owen said.
I smiled to myself, my heart full and grateful. Then I put my lips to the vent on the floor and whispered, "I love you guys."