Thursday, May 27, 2010

Call for Names by Susan Cushman

When I read that the optional theme for this month at A Good Blog was “covers or characters,” I knew right away what I would write about. Since my post on March 30,"A Novel Idea," I’ve been researching and outlining a novel, and I even have a few pages of the first draft done.  It’s been a slow start. The problem isn’t the plot—I’ve pretty much got that in my head and notes. I’ve even got a “story board” of sorts—a bulletin board by my computer with sticky note cards and a few pieces of art printed off the internet. And the characters aren’t slowing me down—I know who they are—but it’s their names. And the name of the book itself.

Joshilyn Jackson (who did an excellent post on “covers” a couple of weeks ago), told me once that she can’t get a new novel started until she settles on the title, and a killer first line. I get that. Even though it might be changed in the end, by editors or agents or publishers.  I just have to know the characters I’m writing about, and for me that includes being comfortable with their names.

(My first published essay, “myPod,” was about naming an iPod Nano.)

I’ve added a third main character since the inception of the novel. She’s based on an artist who was part of the “New York School” of abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s. But now I’m struggling with whether or not to change her name, or just write her as “historical fiction” the way Michael Cunningham did with Virginia Woolf in The Hours. (I love how he structured the book, weaving together the lives of the author, one of her characters, and one of her readers. How cool it was, the way he wrote about a fictional day in the life of a real person, and then a real day in the life of two fictional characters.) So, if I leave the artist’s real name in, will I have to be concerned about how much stuff I make up about her? If I change her name, will the character be as strong? And should the fictional name resemble the real one? Hmmmm.

And then there’s the completely fictional character in the book. I’ve already changed her name several times, and I just can’t move forward until I settle on something.  She might be the love child of a couple of hippies, born in 1965, so I Googled popular names from that movement, but I’m just not happy with “Star” or “Sun” or “Serenity Dawn.” Or she might be an orphan who runs away from a cult and grows up in a foster home. 

Anyway, I’ve been writing her as “Mare,” (I’ve always loved Mare Winningham) but I’m considering “Meg” or “Emma,” or maybe “Maggie,” or “Kate.” She grows up in the South (small town in Georgia, actually) so the name needs to feel right for the geographical area.

Names were on my brain Sunday afternoon when I went to the ballet. It was a children’s ballet theater recital that my seven-year-old Goddaughter, Sophie, was performing in. She was a swan in “Swan Lake.” While I was waiting for the show to begin, I read the names of the children in the program, and I was amazed at the trends in this fairly small group of little girls:

Maddie, Madeleine, Meghana, Maya, Mara, Maggie, Mary Madeline and 3 Madisons
Isabelle, Isabella, Emerson Belle and Bella
Addison, Ava, Anna, Alyssa and Avery
Emma, Emily, Erin, and Emme
Kasha, Kylie, Katherine and Kate

No wonder I’m so confused! When I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s, most of my friends had names like Carol or Jan or Peggy or Nancy.  And while many of these little contemporary ballerinas’ names are lyrical, I’m not sure any of them would fit a small town Georgia girl born in the 1960s. Any suggestions? Seriously, leave them as a comment here—I’d love some ideas! Meanwhile, I’ll just be here inside what’s-her-name’s head, working on interior monologue.

As this post goes to press, I’ve gotten a good start on chapter one. Each chapter will have one of the three main characters' names as its heading, and will be written in that character’s voice. For now, the first chapter says, “Kate,” but I’m still open to changing it to one of your brilliant suggestions. Please leave a comment!

And now for a title….hmmmm...

Susan Cushman lives in Memphis with her husband of 40 years. She has three grown adopted “kids,” a ten-month-old granddaughter (and another on the way), and thirteen Godchildren. Her essays have been published in First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life, The Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Journal, skirt! Magazine, Southern Women’s Review, Mom Writers Literary Journal, and Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. Later this year, her essay, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” will appear in the second volume of All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spiritualitypublished by the University of Alabama Press. Read Susan’s blog posts at Pen and Palette. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The One In Which I Argue With My Character

by Karen Harrington, author Janeology

Me: I wish I could quit you. I hate you. I love you. I want to break up with you!

Character: Gee, that’s a bit harsh.

Me: You keep changing and morphing and making me doubt if I should continue. Plus, you just informed me that you are NOT the neighbor's boyfriend, but the neighbor's BROTHER. Do you realize how much work it will take to make that change?

Character: Well, that’s my thing. Besides, now Nathan Fillion can play me in the movie version.

Me: We should be so lucky. Well, now I want to start a new story.

Character: You’d go cheat on me with some other characters?

Me: One of the bad habits of being a writer is the love of beginnings. Everything is possible.Nothing is yet wrong with the structure.

Character: But remember all those days when I was working out really well?

Me: Yes. That was when we first met. Our chemistry was quite good then. And YOU were still the boyfriend, not the BROTHER!

Character: You're not going to let that go, are you?

Me: No! You bother me. You pop into my thoughts and give me a new problem on a Sticky Note while I'm in the school car line that has a domino effect on the ENTIRE story. Do you know how much work that takes?

Character: Well, you ignore me some days now.

Me: Do not! I open your file…

Character: And you just stare at the blinking cursor and give me nothing to say. Admit it.

Me: I do that sometimes.

Character: You type nothing on those days. You vacuum. You reorder your spice cabinet. And, I caught you watching Dr. Phil!

Me: I really just want to curse at you on those days.

Character: But remember how you stumbled upon that particular scene where I discover the girl's biggest secret while we're watching The Price Is Right? Oh! That was good.

Me: Yes, I remember. I still like that scene. That was a good day.

Character: If you don’t finish me, none of those days will happen again. And worse, no one will read me about handsome I am.

Me: But right now, this thing looks like a bunch of colored quilting squares on the floor. I have NO IDEA what color goes where or how to sew this together.

Character: You exaggerate.

Me:  It's a job requirement.

Character: This ain’t your first rodeo. You HAVE written a novel before you know.

Me: I know, but….

Character: A cake just doesn’t go make itself, does it? It’s a bunch of random ingredients on your counter and then you follow a recipe and Voila, It’s a cake!

Me: You're comparing baking to writing? Whatever!

Character: Tsk Tsk. Nobody likes a whiny novelist!

Me: (rolls eyes)

Character: Still want to quit me?

Me: I want you to be BAKED already.

Character: Well, get to work and stop scobberlotching.

Me: All right. Just promise you'll stay put as the brother now and stop changing.

Character: No can do. It's a job requirement.

Me: Argghhh!


Come say hello and distract me from writing. No really. Please distract me. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bartlett and Me

By Augusta Scattergood

Don’t all writers have one? A journal, a 3X5 box, a plain manila folder covered in coffee stains, maybe a document on the computer’s desktop? A place we stuff our favorite quotations, ready to insert one into a piece of writing or just reread for inspiration?

My quotation collection spills out from a leather-bound journal, its beginning inscribed with care, the last pages degenerating to a collected hodgepodge. I copy words heard on the radio. I pencil in favorite passages from books. I rip pages, willy-nilly, from magazines, everything from the New Yorker to Oprah.

My earliest collecting bears the date of July, 1957, summer camp in the mountains of Mentone, Alabama, when I meticulously copied snappy words and lyrics into my green Penney diary. If I listen hard enough, I can still hear one song as it was played and replayed that year on WMCT radio. My best friend and I rested on top bunks in our screened-in cabin and sang together: “When I was just a little girl, with long and pretty curls. My mother told me honey, you’ve got more than other girls. You may not be good looking but you’ll soon wear diamond clips...” 

I had no curls. It was a very long time before I wore a diamond of any shape. But, hey, a girl could dream. So I wrote in that diary and dreamed.

Years later, as a newly-minted school librarian, I sat in a 4th grade classroom one late September afternoon, listening to a bored, overworked educator report in, and my attention went right to the corkboard closest to me. I copied the words in strong, black ink, block letters: It isn’t easy having a true-false mind in a multiple choice world. And at that instant, I made that quote mine.

I still have that slip of notebook paper tucked into my quotation book.

In 1983, we relocated to New Jersey. Moving was a harrowing, lonesome, unrecoverable experience. Perhaps dislocated better fits what happened to me. Friendless in an unknown part of the country, when I took a wrong turn on the way to the supermarket or spent long days writing letters to old friends, I felt I’d never fit in.

I adjusted so well that now I hardly remember copying these quotations:

What’s worse, though, is saying goodbye – being at a stage when you are anxious to get to the next one and you don’t really realize it’s goodbye. How many people have been lost to me that way.
Laurie Colwin, Goodbye without Leaving. Recorded in my journal 6/84

And this journal entry from March, 1992, ten years into my life in New Jersey:
Dislocation can knock you off balance. If you’re in the wrong place, you can’t live your life right.
Jon Hassler, North of Hope.

It took a long time to love New Jersey.

Eventually I was guided through the maze of new friends, new restaurants, and new situations by quotes from Miss Piggy (“Eating in places with live plants in their windows is always good”) and Maurice Sendak (“There must be more to life than having everything”).

In 2003, as we were moving again, South, I recorded this, from Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’:
Someday…some Yankee photographer will drive past, see it as quaint, and put a picture of it on a coffee table book. That’s where a big part of the Old South is, on coffee tables in Greenwich Village.

I love quotes from Southerners. This appeared on the announcement sign at a country church on a dirt road outside a small North Carolina town. Sandwiched between the starting times for Wednesday night Prayer Meetings and summer Bible School was this good advice:
If God is your co-pilot, then swap seats.

Once while driving through the Missisisppi Delta on a hot July morning, a retired farmer told me to notice the fields speeding by. “They say if you can hide a rabbit in the cotton by the 4th of July, you’ve got a good crop.”

That’s the kind of good information that needs filing away for a story. After all, the great Eudora Welty warns writers “Don’t ever have the moon in the wrong part of the sky.” We need to get those details right, and how else will we remember if we don’t write it down.

Now if only I could find a place for this favorite, from Charlotte:

We don’t want Zuckerman to think Wilbur is crunchy. He might start thinking about bacon.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Summertime, and the writing is...well...

by Pamela Duncan

This summer, I need to write a book. Need to. Not because of finances, job security, or audience retention, although those are important considerations. Need to because without writing I go ever so slightly crazy.

Since I moved across the state and started a new job in 2008, there's been very little writing in my life. No morning pages, the daily writing I've done for years, writing that skims the scum from the surface of my brain so I can focus on the good stuff. No fiction, no storytelling, the writing that helps me try and make sense of the world. The only things I've written lately have been syllabi and comments on student papers. Don't get me wrong. I love my job, but so far it has been all-consuming, of my time and energy. I told myself I’d get to my own writing as soon as the semester settled down, but it never did. Then I told myself I’d write all summer, but last summer sped by, filled with readings and teaching gigs and family obligations and car wrecks, and not a word to show for it.

Now my second summer lies before me and I'm terrified. People say, “Aren’t you happy/excited/lucky to have summers off, all that time to write?” Yes, all that time to write. All those blank days, blank pages. All that pressure to not waste any of it. But what if I can’t think of a story to tell? What if I procrastinate the whole time? What if everything I write is total crap? I’m also faced with the dilemma of writing what I want to write versus writing something the publishing industry will be interested in. Why can’t they be the same thing?

I just got back from a week at the beach with my girlfriends, a week spent eating, laughing, walking, talking, and reading. There’s nothing like the pleasure of sitting under a beach awning, surrounded by blue sky, sea breeze, and the sound of waves, and diving into a good book. (I recommend historical romances, especially the ones with pirates and wenches – they seem to facilitate daydreams and naps.) Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a whole summer of that? Don’t I deserve to relax and recover from all that hard work? Do I occasionally indulge in pity parties?

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

I couldn’t bring the beach home with me to recreate that particular pleasure, but I’m trying to remind myself that, as with reading, disappearing into the writing of a novel has particular pleasures of its own. What are they again? It’s been so long. Let me see. Losing myself in a good story. The joy of invention. The delight of discovery. The delicious satisfaction of getting the words just right. Okay, it’s coming back to me now, that feeling I had as a child playing with dolls, making up stories, escaping into a world all my own. The operative word here, the one I need to write at the top of every page (along with my other writing mantra: you can do this!) is play. The best writing comes when I stop worrying about whether it’s any good or not and allow myself to simply play.

When I wrote that first novel, I thought the hard part was over and writing would only get easier, less scary, less overwhelming. I was wrong. No matter the circumstances, each book is like starting all over again – the same doubts, fears, insecurities. Each book feels like the last, like there's nothing left, which means now I'll be found out as the imposter I am, not a real writer at all. Still, there is a little magic that carries over from book to book: the proof that I've done it before, the faith that the well does fill back up so I can do it again, and the irresistible lure of setting stories down on paper. This I can do.

(Novelist Pamela Duncan is the author of Moon Women, a Southeast Booksellers Association Award Finalist, and Plant Life, which won the 2003 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. She is the recipient of the 2007 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South, awarded by the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her third novel, The Big Beautiful, was published in March 2007. She teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Visit her website at

Sunday, May 23, 2010

How to Kill a Character

How to Kill a Character
By Renea Winchester

I was washing dishes when Miranda, my muse, spoke. Known for their elusive behavior, muses rarely speak in forceful tones; however her message was clear.

One of the characters in my book must die.

We’ve all read books that lure us into a relationship with characters we adore, then from nowhere… BAM! They’re dead. We clutch our chest, dab our eyes and ―let’s be honest ― we get angry with the author for taking our friend. Other times, we devour words while eagerly turning pages, impatient to discover how the end comes for the scoundrel who gets his just reward.

Readers expect death from Steven King and Catherine Coulter, but from me. What do I know about killing?

Miranda stood propped against the wall. Her arms were folded. She grinned the all-knowing, I’m-never-wrong smile that said, “you can do it.” Then I did something a writer should never do, I argued with Miranda.

“I can’t,” I whined. “The story isn’t about him; it’s about Lucy.”

“You must,” she countered.

“But, I don’t want to.”

Miranda vanished, leaving me to mourn the death of a character I loved deeply. I cried. I literally shed tears, while fretting how to humanely kill him.
Writers are known to communicate with their protagonists, at times even verbally. My next step was ask Lucy her opinion. She waited while I explained my thoughts. Then gave me the same all- knowing smile and imparted infinite words of wisdom.
“Death is a part of life.”

Uugh. I can't prove it, but I think Lucy and Miranda had been talking about me behind my back.

Evenutally, I determined the death would be a quick, bloodless affair, perhaps only a sentence. Steven King and Catherine Coulter would have artistically splattered blood across multiple pages without shedding a single tear. I on the other hand, cried while typing. There would be no pain, agony, or dripping plasma for this innocent, precious creation. Quick. Clean. Dead.

Geeze, I’m a wimp.

Afterward, I understood Lucy better. She is going through a painful life-altering process, and I must share each part, not just the warm and fuzzy stories. Miranda and Lucy are right. Well-written prose requires conflict, even death.

Believable characters are strong, yet weak; perfect, and freckled with faults. My job is to pluch an emotion from you. I mean, who likes to read boring prose? If I’ve done my part, you either want the character to live forever, or die a slow tortured death. Perhaps you’ll shed a few tears. You might even send an email asking, “Why did he have to die?” I hope you will.

Readers often believe the writer controls the creative process. Nothing could be further from the truth. Characters speak to writers, more so than the muse. Our job is to listen, observe, and sometimes kill the very thing we worked so hard to create.

Renea Winchester is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book In The Garden with Billy: Lessons on Life, Love and Tomatoes, a book where everyone lives happily ever after. She blogs about her fun with Billy at  She is currently working on her first novel.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Editing Fail

by Zachary Steele

I are an writer.

It isn't the best start, I grant you, nor is it the best use of the English language, but it's what the cat wanted, and so shall it be.  Because, let's face it, cats get what they want, and there's nothing we can do about it.  Sure, we can whine, stomp our feet, curse to God, and grandmothers departed, but the cat will just tilt its head, perk its tail, give you some simple affection and commitment-free gratitude, and watch as you crumble to its will.  You have to have masochistic tendencies to own a cat.

And so, too, to be a writer.  Because, in the end, your cat at home has nothing on the editor who helps make your work into the shining beacon of literary beauty that it will become.  And she will usher you through the process with a harsh, and heavy hand, and you will whine and wail, stomp and holler, and ultimately capitulate to her will, because, well, that's the order of things.  Because, hey, you want that book published, right?  And for all your great skill, and crafty craftiness, you don't always know best.

I got a hefty reminder of this recently, when my dear, wonderful publisher (believe it or not, that was quite sincere!) call me in for a meeting to discuss my forthcoming second book, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction.  She didn't bring a hatchet, nor did she wield a blunt object to throttle me with over mistakes, miscues, failed plot points, or the like.  Rather she wanted to let me know how thrilled she was over the course of the book, how much improvement there was from Anointed, and how excited she was to launch it full-force into the market.

When I finished it, that is.

Did my cat just bite me?

The problem, you see, is that my manuscript ended on an open note, hopefully to lead into a continuation in the third installment of the series.  That was my plan, and I stuck to it.  But, you see, that continuation--as my publisher so directly put it--was better served as the third act of Flutter, and not as another novel.

That sound you just heard was my heart dropping.

There is nothing quite so painful as handing over a book you slaved over, listening to the raves of the person who ultimately hands it to you, the reader, and realizing that what she is saying is wonderful, thrilling, and terribly horrific all in one.  You realize, then, that all the time you put into the book was not for waste; no, it was incomplete.  That you have another couple of months work ahead of you before it can finally depart your world of creation, and enter the world our dear readers deem as, 'reality.'  That your release date has just gone from a set date, to an undetermined endpoint, contingent entirely upon your ability to get it done on schedule.  All before your burrito even arrives.

I asked my cat, Maggie, what she thought of it, and she said something about how she knew I wasn't finished all along, had told me so many times, and it was my fault I thought she was begging for treats.  Then she rubbed my leg, mewed, and waited for treats, which I dutifully offered with my head hung low.

But you know this when you get a cat, and if you don't, then you shouldn't have gotten a cat to begin with.  They will abuse you, mentally wear you down, and make demands you feel small children would be offended by.  And at the end of the day, you'll smile because she's curled up against you, purring away, and making you better for the experience.

Or at least that's the way I see it.

Such is the order of life.  Cat Editors can be harsh, uncompromising at times, and cut you with their claws, but you love them regardless, because you would be nothing without them.

Zachary Steele is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, and the forthcoming Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness. He can be found boring the world with his thoughts on his blog, The Further Promotion of ME.

The Pulpwood Queen talks about Judging a Book by it's Cover and a Cover by it's Book!

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  What does the first picture say to you?  That photo was of me in the 5th grade.  How about the second image which is the book cover of my book, "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life"?  That's me front and center, well a couple of years ago when I was blonde, but me.  So which is the real me?  Guess what?  I am both of them but each image sends a message to the potential reader, which book would you want to read?

I was an art/geology major in college so I see everything very visually. I do judge a book by it’s cover and in fact, I pick up a book because that cover speaks to me, in such a way, I am inspired to see what the copy says on the book jacket.  Often times, I read the first few pages but this is what really gets me to purchase the book, the story.  But the cover is what entices me to pick it up in the first place, right?   Confused? Continue.

So when it came to viewing the first version of my book cover I waited anxiously with bated breath! Since my whole life revolves around the book, my book cover had to speak of the "real" me.  You can imagine my surprise and dismay when my first book cover arrived in my email box.  I opened the file and lo and behold, oh no they didn't.  You see the first book cover they sent me was orange with tiger stripes.  I had three old hags sitting under hair dryers gossiping over some trashy magazine.  Their hair styles were out of date, 1940's do's and the only thing that could have been worse is if they had been smoking.

You see in my book I clearly had stated that the Official look of my book club, The Pulpwood Queens' was Hot Pink with Leopard Print!  The artist who did my cover had obviously NOT read my book.  I actually called my literary agent to tell them that this would not do as I was afraid I would lose it on the phone.  My publisher decided to redo the cover.  The next photo was a photo of me from the eyeballs up peering out from behind a book in front of a bookshelf.  The only problem was the Red Hat Club author had the very same cover on her book and two more romance books too!  Nix that cover.  So I politely sent to my literary agent what I dreamed my cover should be.

First, I wanted the photo to be shot on the banks of Big Cypress Bayou here in East Texas where I live, with the Spanish moss dripping down, perhaps at twilight with the fog rolling in.  I wanted to place the Art Deco dresser of my girlfriend and Pulpwood Queen Joyce Jackson Futch right before the water's edge. (The chapter of my book that sold it to my editor was the chapter on Joyce that began with me the first time doing her hair, as her hair had just grown back from chemo therapy, to the last time I did her hair at Home Sweet Home Funeral Home.)  I had purchased her dresser at her estate sale after she had died as I wanted something very personal to remember her by.  This was the dresser where she put on her makeup everyday.

On the dresser was to be stacked NOT beauty products but all my Pulpwood Queen Book Club Selections with more of the books spilling onto the ground..  I would be sitting at the dresser with my back to the viewer but my face visible in the mirror.  In  other words, beauty is in the books and I was a reflection that knowledge.

Behind me coming up out of the water all dressed in white baptismal gowns would be my Pulpwood Queens each carrying their favorite book!  The message?  Baptise me in the name of Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost for true beauty comes from "within" and within we are all unique, beautiful, and readers.

Perhaps the cover would be all in black and white with perhaps, a touch of pink in a ribbon binding the books.  I wanted the book to reflect that from the "good book" to good books, you can find your purpose in life by being a reader.

My literary agent helped me to send this suggestion off to my publisher.  I was convinced they would love this artistic and unique take on my life saved by books, running the only Hair Salon/Book Store in the country and the largest "meeting and discussing" book club in the world.  I was wrong.  They dismissed my idea and forged on to capture that Hot Pink cover you see above.

Bookstore owners and booksellers have told me they hated that cover.  In fact, some almost dismissed me as they thought my book was perhaps just another Ya-Ya or Sweet Potato knock-off. No one likes a knock off.

People who bought my book have emailed me that they did so as my book looked like it would be a fun read.  The cover made them laugh out loud!

Personally, I don't like the cover.  I think I look crazy then again, perhaps indeed I am.  I just happen to really think that what most people perceive me as being is a party about to happen.  Don't I make reading Big Time Fun!

Indeed, I do, that is my intent but at the same time this all comes from a very small place from a very quiet, shy tomboy who grew up in a small town in Kansas, who always had her nose either stuck in a book or her head stuck up in the clouds.  I had big dreams and still do.

My personal thought on all of this is, I think an author should have more say in the cover.  I also think the author should have more say in the film.  I think the author ishould have more say period as they are the creator of the story, they are THE AUTHOR!  We should have more say in everything pertaining to the books we work and slave over until our babies are born.  But my baby is now two years old and as author, Mark Childress told me, turn that baby over to God.  I did indeed but I never give up hope that my next book, which I now call, "Kat on a Hot Tin Roof, RUSTED!  The Pulpwood Queens' Guide to Reading and Writing for a Higher Purpose", will have the cover I have envisioned in my head.  Of me, sitting up on the tin roof of my Hair Salon/Book Store, reading with my READheaded hair bent into the book while all my book club members are holding up their favorite books to me for all the world to see.

What a Wonderful World It Would be Indeed, if we had a say in our own book covers!  And seriously, perhaps then people would buy more books!  Letting someone else design my book cover is kind of like letting a stranger dress me in the morning.  Sorry, but that just will not do!

Besides, it's as I always say anyhoo, "Who Made Up That Rule?"  If you have big dreams, really big dreams, make up your own rules!  I guess that is why I call myself The Pulpwood Queen!  The ONLY rule I have is "where tiaras are mandatory and reading good books is the RULE"!  Won't you join me!

Tiara wearing, Beauty and the Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
Author of "The Pulpwood Queens' Tiara Wearing, Book Sharing Guide to Life", Grand Central Publishing
Founder of the Pulpwood Queens and Timber Guys Book Clubs
P.S. Stay tuned too for our Book and Author Summer Concert Series here in the Pulpwood Kingdom  in the piney woods of East Texas featuring authors, Charles Martin, Ad Hudler,  David Marian Wilkinson and our Official band, Destiny Duke and the Hazzards!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Q an A With Carolyn Haines Editor of Delta Blues

Tell us a little about DELTA BLUES and the idea behind it.

Delta Blues is a collection of short stories centered around the unique musical form that sprang up in the Mississippi Delta, the blues, and a crime or noir element. There are 19 stories by some of the finest writers working today, and a forward by Morgan Freeman, who owns a blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, his childhood stomping ground. The stories run the gamut from true noir to classic mystery to a touch of humor and a pinch of the supernatural. With writers like James Lee Burke, John Grisham, Charlaine Harris, Ace Atkins, Tom Franklin,DenaJames, Les Standiford and so many more--the writing styles and contents are varied. That's what makes short story collections so fascinating to me. I asked each writer to do a story which included the blues and a crime element. Otherwise, it was wide open.

How did you come to edit it?

I met Benjamin LeRoy, the publisher, at a writers conference in Florida, and we hit it off. We talked a lot and came to realize our feelings about writing and publishing ran parallel. He'd published a very successful collection, CHICAGO BLUES, and he knew I had a series set in the Mississippi Delta (the Sarah Booth Delaney series) and he asked if I might be interested in editing a Mississippi version. I jumped at the chance, though I was a bit hesitant to put myself forward as an editor. But as we talked about the project, it was such a wonderful opportunity to work with writers I'd admired for such a long time and also to have some new voices. There are several debut authors in the collection.

How did Morgan Freeman get involved?

Mr. Freeman is very active in the Mississippi community. He's partners with Bill Luckett in several business enterprises in Clarksdale, the blues club among them. They do a lot of good things for the arts in the region. Ben and I both are deeply interested in supporting reading and writing, and the Mississippi Delta has some real problems in the area of literacy. We wanted to do something special as a book, and we wanted to involve the community. It was a long shot to ask Mr. Freeman to do the foreword to the book, but he agreed. And for each book sold, $1 will go to the Rock River Foundation, a non-profit that supports many good things in that region, including literacy. We're actually working with the Mississippi Writers Guild (the people in that organization worked hard to make all of this happen--very dedicated writers!) and Rock River to host a creative writing workshop next spring for high school students and adults. We had a writing contest this year, and the winner won a college scholarship (funded by the MWG) and a free pass to the MWG conference in Vicksburg in August.

Ben and Alison Janssen at Tyrus Books are very special people who see the circle of writing, reading, community very clearly. If we don't involve the young people in the act of creating and reading, we're not going to have an audience or new writers. I have to say this whole experience has just been tremendous.

How did the band come about?

Wow. I still can't believe we pulled it off. I had this crazy idea, since Mr. Freeman had agreed to do the foreword, that we should launch the book in Clarksdale. All of the contributors love the blues (or why else be in the book?) and several members are talented musicians. So even though we're scattered everywhere, I proposed the band idea, and everyone wanted to do it. We only had two practice sessions before we took the stage at the blues club, Ground Zero, but the stronger musicians carried the rest of us. We also had the advantage of Mike Utley on keyboard. Mike and his wife Fran are old friends, and when he agreed to play with the band, it was just incredible. We rocked that club!

 What was the most gratifying part of this project?

Holding the book! We all worked so hard to make this happen, and now it is real and I can pick it up and re-read the stories and think--these writers are so talented! And they trusted me with their stories. I'm still amazed. Each story is a gem. (Do I sound like some proud mama or what?) Every time I pick it up I just want to dance.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Going Under Cover

by Nicole Seitz
I didn't mean for it to happen. Honest. I just pulled out my tackle box of paints, grabbed some brushes, and let the Spirit take me and my wild, waving hand all over the canvas. I hardly remember doing it. I remember praying about mid-way though and watching as the image revealed itself like magic before my eyes. When I saw what I'd done, I slapped that puppy on the front page of my new web site. How cool was it to have your own website using your very own name? I was happy. Truly happy. And I'd painted with wild abandon. It showed.

My then publisher saw the painting after browsing my new site and said, "This is what we want for the cover of The Spirit of Sweetgrass." Just like that. I was going to be a book cover illustrator.

Now, I had illustrated for magazines and such before, but to have your painting on your very own novel? It was more than I could handle. I've had more comments on that cover...people say they pick it up because of the the colors, the feel, the woman in the water. It thrills me to think my spirit-filled painting caused a reader to pick up my spirit-filled book.

Next came Trouble the Water. Readers had responded to my artwork so we tried again. Not so easy this time. Different publisher, trying to work with me on it. I did a painting of two girls on the beach. Two young-children-y. I found a painting I'd done of a marsh and storm coming. Too dark. Next, I did a painting of a woman waist deep in water. Almost there, but she looked like she was from another era. Too old-fashioned. I was beginning to feel like Goldilocks. So I took that painting and took off some of her clothing, seriously, arms, showed a little leg. At last we had the cover. I have prints of some of my artwork and that one stays sold out.

The third book was even harder to illustrate. I tried a fish (there is a prominent one in the book.) Too fishy, too masculine. I tried a woman, a Vietnamese woman from the back. Almost there, they said, but no cigar. The winning image for A Hundred Years of Happiness used the fish painting on top of the woman painting with a photograph of water lilies I'd taken. This is definitely my most complex cover, arguably for my most complex book. I think it works.

When it came time for the cover of Saving Cicadas I had my daughter pose for photographs wearing a princess dress and Barbie wings. The narrator is an 8 year old girl. I got some really good ones of her. I painted one. Boom. We had it on the first try. I adore that cover. My daughter likes to tell her little friends, "That's me," while pointing at Mommy's book. My son doesn't like it so much because as he put it, "It's not me." Well, you can't please everyone. fifth book is being edited right now. We're working on a cover. My publisher wanted something a little different for this book. The characters are older (and adorable, lovable...can you tell I'm in love?) It's also inspired in part by a photo of my grandmother that made it's way up to the World's Fair in 1939. I haven't seen the final yet, but I've seen the comps and let me tell you how thrilled I am to have that photo of my beautiful grandmother on the cover along with illustrations of plants and flowers I painted. The feel of the book is different, but there's a whole lot of meaning behind it all. Looking forward to sharing it with you as we get closer to pub date.

I can't tell you how honored I am that I've been able to illustrate the covers of my novels and touch my readers, not only in the literary sense, but visually too. It makes it even more intimate for me. It's a long road and hard work, on top of the writing. Some day (egad!) it may not be feasible for me to paint my covers but for now, I am so grateful to the publisher who lets me paint and to the readers who respond to my brush.

God bless you all.

PS. Which cover do you like best and why?

Nicole Seitz is the author and illustrator of four novels, The Spirit of Sweetgrass, Trouble the Water, A Hundred Years of Happiness, and Saving Cicadas. She is busy working on her next book for Thomas Nelson. Some day she aspires to do children's books, too.

Learn more about Nicole's books and artwork at Click on SHOP on the homepage to purchase her notecards and prints. Click on the Artwork link on the bottom of the page to view her art portfolios.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Joshilyn Jackson: Cover Girl

In the year and a half I attended the second of my many colleges, I met this hippie-tastic genius of a theatre professor named Yo. I loved her then, I love her today, and I have firm plans to continue loving her tomorrow. Scott and I were hugely influenced by her---not just how we think about art and performance, but how we think about life in general.

We wanted to emulate her. Not just the passionate, committed way she approached theatre, but the way she lived. She had such gentleness with all little living things. Her yard was RIFE with five inch long waspy-waisted banana spiders, huge vile beasticles that I would have smashed with hammers while screaming, while Yo found them to be beautiful and useful. I so admired the non-judgmental, accepting way she loved any broken, ridiculous human who came into her orbit for exactly who and how and where they were, not for their potential or for what she wanted from them. Even the not very loveable ones.

She is currently the director and part owner of a black box theatre in Pensacola that was the inspiration for Thalia’s Fire Dog Theatre in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. Yo's place is called Loblolly, after the ubiquitous Florida pine tree, and they do amazing stuff there. Yo herself pens 90% of their plays.

Back when she was teaching and I was at UWF, I took as many classes as I could with her. All her courses were self graded; So I knew I would be giving myself an A, but I still showed up on time, did the reading, passionately participated in the discussions, and learned. That tells you what kind of a teacher she is.

In her playwriting class, she had an exercise where she would show us a painting and we would all try to express the painting using words. We couldn’t be descriptive. We couldn’t be referential. There was a whole list of other things we couldn’t be. The idea was to pare away all the things that led us to write ABOUT the painting, and to write the painting itself, purely.

That’s how I feel about the cover image for Backseat Saints, only backwards. This is a visual image of what the book actually is. I’m blown away by it, because I do not have any kind of visual-y artsy talent; I never could have come up with anything like this, or even thought of the concept.

Backseat Saints tells the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a minor character from gods in Alabama, as she fights her way out of a deadly marriage. It begins with an airport gypsy telling Rose Mae a thing she knows in her gut already: Her beautiful, abusive husband is going to kill her, unless she kills him first.

My editor Caryn came up with the cover’s concept, but she wasn’t sure how or even if the image of a woman holding her own severed braid could be...not creepy, not horror-novel-y. Still, she wanted to try. And so the beautiful people at my publishing house, may God righteously bless them with many goats and ripe fruits, hired a brilliant art photographer named Cig Harvey and discussed several concepts with her, including this one, but this was what Caryn secretly hoped would work.

And Cig Harvey did it. She did it by deeply reading the book, and then responding its themes in her own language. She did it with location, putting Rose in the most verdant meadow on the planet. She did it with contrast, dressing Rose in a red-hot vintage dress that burns against all that cool green. She did it by getting a model with the most beautiful skin in the world and finding a thousand points of light in it. And she did it by continuing the image on the back cover, where we see Rose Mae’s tattered back hair in a wild ruffle, lofting her braid up to the sun in total victory.

That’s Rose, right there, that’s a visual expression of who my narrator is. Perfectly caught, it is a picture of someone I thought only existed in my brain.
Viva la Cig Harvey.

Backseat Saints launches on June 8th; one day very soon I will walk into a bookstore and my eye will catch on this image, blazing with all of Rose’s bright wildness.

I. Can’t. Freaking. Wait.

Joshilyn Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Georgia with her husband, their two kids, a hound dog, a scurrilous Boggart-kitten, an unkillable beta fish, and a twenty-two pound, one-eyed Main Coon cat named Franz Schubert. She wishes their neighborhood was zoned for goats. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her Georgia Author of the Year Award winning second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 BookSense picks for the month of their release, making Jackson the first author in BookSense history to have Number 1 picks in consecutive years. Her latest, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, was a NYT Bestseller. Her fourth novel, BACKSEAT SAINTS, launches June 8th.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Guest Blog: Jenny Gardiner

Shortly after I received my Kindle e-reader for my birthday a few months ago, I was reading in bed at midnight, not loving the book I had downloaded, but wanting to continue to read something. So with the magic of my electronic reader, in two minutes' time, I found another book on Amazon, downloaded the thing, and had begun reading it. How cool is that?

Dramatic changes have been underway in the publishing industry in recent years—changes that--combined with a faltering economy--have left traditional publishing in a bit of a tailspin. While the cumbersome infrastructure of the publishing industry is perhaps not quite nimble enough to as easily embrace and adapt to these changes, authors are on their own figuring out how they can achieve their end goal--to reach readers hungry for their work.

I've been fortunate to be teamed up with a literary agent—the wonderful Holly Root—whose agency (The Waxman Agency) is an innovator and has undertaken a bold new program of offering up high-quality books to the reading public via a digital imprint called Diversion Books.

I jumped at the chance to be part of this program because in many ways I am a convert to e-reading and I believe that society is on the cusp of a major shift in how people read books. I've always felt badly that there is a tremendous amount of paper waste with books—that books that don't sell get sent back to the publishers and ultimately destroyed. And as one who has on many occasions found at least three books lurking in the bowels of her purse (which gets heavy!), I love having all of my reading neatly compiled into one small, lightweight and very portable device. And strangely I find I can focus more readily when reading in a public place with an e-reader. Go figure.

I think that as competition increases with the introduction of new e-readers, and prices come down in the near future, soon electronic readers like the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader and the iPad (of which 1 million units were sold in 28 days) will become as commonplace as cell phones (with smart phones already an e-reading option for many).

Are e-books the perfect solution? Not at all. I hate the idea that e-books contribute to marginalizing wonderful independent book stores, and hope that somehow some of the talk—of e-book downloads being available at stores, perhaps, will help to mitigate that. And I hate to sit back and watch layoffs and consolidation in the publishing industry, as really good people, fabulous editors, publicists and artists are squeezed out as the business changes. The music industry experienced these same sea changes and frankly nothing about it is easy. But as the mainstream industry goes more and more toward sure-bet books to the exclusion of the vast mid-list, which is really like the middle class of the writing world, more authors will by necessity seek alternatives to continue to pursue their passion and to reach their readers.

I decided to publish digitally with Diversion Books rather than cold turkey on my own because, alas, I am such a Luddite. Well, not fully. But I am technologically stunted and I don't have the time in my life right now to figure out how to do this on my own, and I am happy to be able to work with such wonderful professionals to collaborate on an end-result we can all be proud of. It's early enough that I can't tell you how the outcome will be, but so far so good and I really just hope I can get the word out to enough e-readers about the book—I do find that those who are early adapters with e-readers are enthusiastic to buy books, which is a good thing for everyone in a market in which so few books are being purchased. And I hope that my readers will be able to access this book.

Of course tangible paper books aren't going to go away, but the convenience of downloading books and carrying literally hundreds of them in such compact form is awfully hard to beat. And I'm thrilled to be at the forefront of such exciting innovations and to be able to offer up a book that I absolutely love and think that you will too.

Many of you may know me as a novelist who was able to successfully market my way into a publishing contract with my first novel, SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER, which was the winner of Dorchester Publishing's American Title III contest a few years ago. Back then I sort of stumbled into the frontier of capitalizing on what would soon become the most comprehensive way to market and publicize books—via networking on the internet.

Since that time, the industry has shifted in none-too-subtle ways as the internet has become an integral part of the publishing picture. So much so that e-publishing, which used to be considered an unconventional means of publication, is clearly being viewed now as the wave of the future. The future is already upon us, and I hope that you will join me in this brave new "frontier" and check out my debut e-novel, SLIM TO NONE, in which Abby Jennings, Manhattan's premier food critic, is outed on Page Six of the New York Post, and to her chagrin she realizes she's too recognizably fat to now remain incognito in her job. Her editor gives her six months to shape up or ship out, and so this ultimate foodie--a woman who is paid to eat for a living--must vastly curtail her eating in order to continue being able to make a living.

SLIM TO NONE is a story near and dear to my heart. Like probably every female out there with a heartbeat and a stomach pooch, I have been on the dieting treadmill since I was oh, born. Well, wait, I guess after I started walking. It was then that I knew I needed to stop cramming down the Froot Loops my mother kept insisting was the only thing I would eat, and instead turn to steel-cut oats direct from Ireland for the best proper nutrition.

Alas, Froot Loops won the day, over and over again. In what seems like an omnipresent dietary smackdown between Brussels sprouts and Fluffernutter sandwiches, the latter prevails every time. And with that has been the roller coaster of dieting and hating to diet and then never having pants that fit and a closet full of awesome clothes collecting dust that I really ought to just purge and give to someone thinner and more deserving, but instead I hold out mournful hope that I again will jam my fat ass into a size 6 pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans (yes, friends, it has been that long).

With that albatross secured snugly around my neck, I decided to tackle the ups and downs of this way of life in a novel—and decided upon a foodie for whom food had to become the enemy. I loved the idea of taking someone who has to eat for a living then not be able to eat in order to continue to be able to eat for a living. Such a quandary! And then of course I wanted to pile her up with all sorts of issues that she has to overcome.

I hope you'll join Abbie on her journey of self-discovery and while you're at it enjoy many of the yummy recipes you'll find within the pages of SLIM TO NONE.

Jenny Gardiner is also the author of the recently released WINGING IT: A MEMOIR OF CARING FOR A VENGEFUL PARROT WHO'S DETERMINED TO KILL ME (Simon & Schuster's Gallery books), and the award-winning SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER (Dorchester books).  

Take a sneak peek at the first chapter of SLIM TO NONE here:

Here's a link for the amazon page for Slim to None:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Q and A with Kathryn Wall Author of CANAAN’S GATE

Tell us a little about the Bay Tanner series?

I began the first book in the series, In For a Penny, as part of a writing course I was taking back in the late nineties. I’ve been a mystery buff since my teenaged years, so the choice of genre was easy. I created a main character in Bay Tanner who was old enough (38) to have had some life experience but young enough to have the physical and emotional stamina to carry a series of several books as well as allow for growth over the passage of time.

All the books are set in and around Hilton Head Island, SC, where my husband and I retired in 1994. I think they’re best classified as traditional mysteries with a strong female protagonist. Bay is a former accountant (like me), widowed prior to the opening of the first book when she witnesses her husband’s murder. She comes to investigating as an amateur when her financial expertise is called upon by an old family friend. From there, she finds she has a taste for detecting, primarily because of the puzzle-solving nature of the business, and eventually teams with her father in opening a small inquiry agency. The fact that she sometimes finds herself in personal jeopardy is one of the issues she struggles with because she doesn’t see herself as a brave person. She is, however, highly moral, with a strong intolerance for injustice and cruelty.

There is also a core cast of supporting players: Bay’s father, retired invalid Judge Talbot Simpson; Lavinia Smalls, the black woman with a mysterious past who has all but raised Bay; Red Tanner, her sheriff’s deputy brother-in-law; and Dolores Santiago, who first comes to help Bay recover from the injuries she suffered during the attack on her husband and stays to be both housekeeper and trusted friend.

There is some mild profanity, but the sex and violence are most frequently found off-page. I promised my mother that I’d only use the swear words I learned from her and that I wouldn’t write anything that would embarrass her in front of her friends.

What attracted you to mysteries?

Probably the same things that attracted me to accounting: the solving of the puzzle. Believe it or not, my former profession is as much about applied logic and reasoning as it is about numbers. The difference is that, in accounting, there’s always a right answer. Put in the right numbers in the right sequence and combination, and you’ll always come up with the correct result. People, on the other hand, are much messier and harder to control. That’s the part of the process that keeps me writing.

What's the latest installment about?

Since this is the tenth book in the series, it’s hard to give a synopsis that doesn’t give away many of the things that have happened in prior installments. But I’ll give it a shot. Canaan’s Gate is basically about greed and desperation and divided loyalties. Established in the inquiry business, Bay and her partner Erik Whiteside (first introduced in the second book, And Not a Penny More) are hired by a mousy bank employee who believes one of her coworkers is involved in scamming the elderly and very wealthy Castlemains, who live in one of Hilton Head’s most exclusive enclaves, and that he may be in league with the couple’s flamboyant caregiver. Before they can even begin their investigation, Bay and Erik are stunned to hear that one of the old folks has died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. Bay’s never been a big fan of coincidence, but she has nothing to prove it wasn’t a natural death. Then their client disappears, and the whole case is thrown into confusion by the appearance of the couple’s grandson, a charming and arrogant D.C. lobbyist, who seems intent on injecting himself into the investigation. Throughout the novel, Bay struggles against the feeling that she might have made some costly mistakes, both personally and professionally.

What's the biggest challenge in writing a series?

Backstory. It’s a constant worry about how much of the past to reveal in each new book. Thanks to a reprint house, I’ve been able to keep all the previous nine novels in print, so I’m especially wary of giving away too much. On the other hand, I think it’s vital to keep fresh readers in the loop, especially about the relationships of the characters to each other. I do my best to drop a few hints about major events that have occurred in earlier installments without spoiling someone’s enjoyment if they decide to go back and catch up. It’s a real high-wire act, and I’m not sure I always manage to pull it off.

Who are your literary influences?

This is really a wide open question. I read voraciously, and I read in the genre. I know a lot of authors think that’s a no-no, especially when you’re in the throes of a manuscript yourself. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t read the kinds of books that I’ve loved all my life. Of course I began with Nancy Drew, moved on to Agatha Christie, and then the gothics: Dorothy Eden, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt. I was blown away by Mary Higgins Clark’s Where Are the Children as well as by the early Sue Graftons and Patricia Cornwells. Right now I’m into historicals—CJ Sansom, et al. I also love John Sanford and Anne Perry and Preston & Child and Jeffrey Deaver—I guess my reading preferences are pretty eclectic within the genre. I’m also a sucker for wonderful Southern stories, especially To Kill a Mockingbird, which I reread every year.

You live in Hilton Head. What's it like to live in a vacation spot all year long?

Most of the time it’s heaven. What’s not to love about being surrounded by world-class beaches, fabulous restaurants, and a climate that calls 50 degrees winter? There’s no denying it gets hectic in the summer, when hordes of tourists descend on us. But most of us began as visitors, so we try to have patience. One thing you do learn is to adjust your own lifestyle to accommodate such a huge influx of people. We go out to eat earlier, try to plan our shopping for the times when most tourists are at the beach, and certainly pay more attention when we’re out on the roads. Oh, and always avoid going off-island on Saturday morning or coming back on Saturday afternoon. It’s called turnaround day, and we tend to hibernate until Sunday morning..

It’s been a wonderful decision to set the Bay Tanner mysteries here because folks seem to enjoy reading about places in the books that they’ve visited while on the island. I get lots of e-mails from people who come on a regular basis and always look for my new book as part of their trip. It’s been a good business decision as well as just a wonderful place to be retired.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Those Pesky Characters

Those Pesky Characters
By Carolyn Haines

I’m certain I’m not the only writer whose characters stage major revolts! I mean really, if my characters aren’t stirring trouble somewhere, they aren’t happy. They work in my subconscious while I’m sleeping, and by the time I wake up, they’re so far ahead of me I play catch-up all day long.

They’re on Facebook, cracking wise and colluding with my friends to nail me. If you think I’m kidding, go looking for Sarah Booth or Tinkie. Or Jitty—who has all but put out an S.O.S. in cyber-space to get Sarah Booth laid. And all of this in the wee hours while I think I’m asleep. I wake up to the wildest posts. 

Do you realize what a trial it is to have such frisky characters?

But first I should make the proper introductions, as any well brought up Southerner would know. Sarah Booth, Cece, Tinkie, and Millie are the “gals” from the Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mystery series. The latest book, BONE APPETIT, will be out late June. These four women have forged a friendship that is stronger than almost any bond humans can make.

I’ve lived with these characters for over ten years and ten books. They are as much a part of my life as my flesh-and-blood friends. But they are often as mysterious as my friends. And heaven knows, I am not in charge of the decisions these characters make. At least not all the time. Not even half the time.
I wonder how many other authors feel this way?

There is something remarkable about the relationship between a writer and series characters. While a reader may speed through one of my books in four or five hours (some people read much faster!) I spend the better part of each year writing about these people, and they are people to me.

Each book reveals more about Sarah Booth and her Zinnia friends. Things I originally thought about a character turns out not to be true. It’s a rather amazing journey to take, but it requires something I’m not very good at…surrender. I simply have to give myself to the story and trust the characters and see where it takes me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t write an outline. I do. I write mysteries, so it’s incumbent upon me to make sure the clues are laid properly and the reader has an enjoyable experience while romping through the pages of the book. To do that, I have to have some idea of what the story is about. While I may not be steering the canoe, I am plying the paddle. I have to keep us going downstream, at least, even if we ram a few tree stumps and sandbars.

But once I have the story figured out, I have to turn it over to Sarah Booth, Jitty, and the others. As the story unfolds, opportunity presents itself for a character to take one action or another—and that action must follow the nature of the character. Believe me, Sarah Booth and particularly Jitty get a little snarky if I try to tell them what their true nature is all about. They have an idea that I need them a lot more than they need me!

I’ll give you a for instance. In HALLOWED BONES, Sarah Booth is supposed to meet Hamilton Garrett V at the airport. Instead she drives to Zinnia, abandoning him and his proposal of a wonderful life in Paris. Try as I might, I could not make Sarah Booth go to the dang airport. She wasn’t leaving the Mississippi Delta. Not even for a trial run at happiness with a wealthy, handsome heir. She had her P.I. business, and Dahlia House, and her friends, and her future—which she was not trading for hot sex and a wealthy man. Trust me, I was shocked at her choice.

But not disappointed. Never disappointed. It has taken me long years to develop a trust in my characters, but I do trust them. They are fully formed now, with a lot of history (writers may call it back story) and a firm grasp on where they want to go. While I am in charge of the mysteries, they are in charge of themselves.

Is this a good thing?

I’m not sure. But I am sure that a lot of writers have the same experience. It’s part of the joy of writing.

Carolyn Haines was recently given the 2010 Harper Lee Award. She is releasing her 10th book in the Sarah Booth Delaney mystery series, BONE APPETIT, in June 2010. Feel free to visit her website and be sure to sign up for her newsletter. You can also follow her (and her characters!) right here on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How NOT to publish a book: A nightmare in cover design

By Ad Hudler

My first novel, Househusband, was about a guy who decides to stay home to take care of his daughter (yeah, that's me), and he does it really well ... out-cooking, out-cleaning and out-parenting all the moms in the neighborhood. Well, the sequel and my most recent novel, Man of the House, is about this same guy, named Linc Menner, who after 15 years of doing the mom thing rebels in a huge way and goes on a tear to reclaim his inner male. (yeah, that's me, and yeah, it's a comedy. It's also the Pulpwood Queens' official pick for July)

So you can imagine how surprised I was when I got this for the book cover of Man of the House.

Ad to Editor: Okay, this is ALL WRONG! The book is about Linc Menner NOT doing the laundry anymore; it's about Linc Menner learning how to shoot guns and use a hammer drill. And I said, 'GUY', not 'GAY!' And what's with all the perfectly-folded pastel-colored clothes? No! They should be a MESS! Didn't the editors at Big New York Publishing House even read this book!? (Disclaimer: There has been huge turnover in publishing lately, and Man of the House has actually had four different editors...which means the editor who bought it left long ago, and the book got dumped on some other poor, overworked soul.)
So they tried it again, and came up with this:

Ad: WTF!? Linc is working construction now. This guy's hands haven't seen sunshine or dirt in their lives! And look at the typeface: It looks like it should say "Breakfast at Tiffany's," not "Man of the House."
So they tried again and came up with this:

Okay, SOME improvement here. At least this guy has hair on his legs, which they actually photoshopped in because I said he still looked too androgynous. But where are the tools? Where are the man toys? I finally talked with a senior-level editor, who asked me what I wanted. I told her: Toolbox. Darker, bolder, boy-like colors. "Oh, hell, just photo-shop a hammer hanging over the edge of the laundry basket." And they came up with this:

But the FONT, I whined. Look at that curly font. What's that all about? Why do you insist on making this look like marketing materials for a day spa? And, finally, after several weeks of Ad Torture, the art director finally agreed to change to this:

So that's what we have, folks. Not a perfect cover by any means, and it still really doesn't portray the content of the book, but it's better than what we started with. You can tell that they also punched up the palette a bit; the colors are bolder. And, I may be mistaken here, but I think they put more hair on his legs. (Ain't digital manipulation grand?) And I have to admit that I do like the Clint Eastwood-inspired line they added in the upper left-hand corner: "Go ahead, make my bed."

So ... as writers we do get a say in the covers ... but we have to choose our battles carefully.
Until next time, catch me on facebook or twitter or at my blog at Have a great summer. Enjoy your kids and the nice weather.

Q and A with Minrose Gwin, Author Of The Queen of Palmyra

An atmospheric debut novel about growing up in the changing South in 1960s Mississippi in the tradition of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. In the words of Jill McCorkle (Going Away Shoes), “Minrose Gwin is an extremely gifted writer and The Queen of Palmyra is a brilliant and compelling novel.”

What's the backstory behind THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA?

The original title for the novel was "What I Didn't See," and my impetus for writing it was to explore how certain forms of blindness or not-knowing can occur when the stories people may have in their heads don't line up with what's right in front of them. Back in the civil rights period and before, there were so many people who saw and knew that bad things were happening, but they didn't act as witnesses at the time. Some came forward many years later, but the trials and punishments that resulted at those late dates were meager compared to what they should have been. Anyhow, I’ve always been concerned about this kind of blindness, and i wanted to write about it--how does it happen and why? So it wasn't any one story, but several.

You have an extensive writing background but the Queen of Palmyra is a debut novel for you. What did you find most challenging in the writing of it?

Driving the plot forward. I'm prone to focus my attention on language and character development, but with a novel you have to make things happen. some days I'd find myself ceaselessly rewriting to polish the prose when what I should have been doing was getting my people from one point to the next.

How do you approach novel writing? Organically or do you outline?

I began this novel with a picture in my head: a terrified girl in the back seat of an old car, her father driving, then stopping, then doing what Win Forrest does. The girl seeing but not seeing, knowing but not knowing. I thought I knew where the novel might go, but quickly realized it wasn't going there, so I let it take its own course. what I've found in writing this, and my memoir too, is that if I try to control the action and the characters too tightly, the story becomes old and tired rather quickly. I need to keep myself interested to keep writing.

Who are you literary influences?

I read a lot of fiction and teach a lot of fiction, so I have many favorites--Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Doty, Michael Cunningham, Jill Mccorkle, Lee Smith, not to speak of Faulkner and Welty. Voice is of utmost importance to me, and these are all writers with a strong sense of voice.

What is one of your favorite sentences in the novel?

I like the first sentence quite a bit: "I need you to understand how ordinary it all was."

A lot of aspiring writers read this blog. What was you path to publication?

I first published my memoir, WISHING FOR SNOW, about my mother's mental illness and my miserable job of taking care of her, with a university press that has a strong stake in creative writing, and that got me a toehold into the publishing world. I'm really grateful to LSU press for taking a chance on me. Then, through a very generous writer friend, I got a wonderful agent to read my manuscript, and the rest fell into place at Harper Collins with an incredible editor there. I did major revisions each step of the way. It was arduous and took some time. I'm lucky and grateful.

Minrose Gwin is the author of the memoir Wishing for Snow, cited by Booklist as "eloquent" and "lyrical"—"a real life story we all need to hear." She has written three scholarly books and coedited The Literature of the American South. She teaches contemporary fiction at UNC–Chapel Hill and, like her young protagonist, grew up in a small Mississippi town

Sunday, May 9, 2010

All those piano lessons finally pay off

About now, I wish I had a really good roadmap for working on my next novel. No matter what I tell my students, my fellow writers, every novel is different. There is no map. For me, much of the writing process has to be reinvented along with the plot and everything else. If there is one comfort to me, it is that I pretty much know where to begin—and that is with a character, one that lives and breathes, in my mind and (on a good day) on the page.

I know that many writers say that they don’t use people they know as characters in their fiction. Well, I will admit that I almost always draw from life—my aunt’s way of sipping tea, my volleyball coach’s frown, my husband’s snore—bits and pieces, mostly. As I hunt for my characters, I am most attracted to people I have known in passing, rather than my intimates. I need to know just enough about a person—too much and the facts get in the way, too little and there is not enough there to hang my hat on. The main character of my first novel, Wilma Mabry, is a good example. She was inspired by a piano teacher that I had as a child. We called her Miss Wilma, and yes, I borrowed her first name for my book, may she rest in peace. Miss Wilma was a fixture in our town--one of those strict, steely-eyed teachers who can strike terror in the heart of any child (or grown-up, for that matter). I was a terrible piano student, and I was scared to death of the woman. Miss Wilma's best student, James (I've forgotten his real name), had the lesson time just before mine on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. James was a wonderful pianist, and on some days, I could put aside my terror and simply enjoy his playing. I noticed over the course of the year that James was preparing to go to college as a music major and perhaps for that reason, Miss Wilma was as mean (if not meaner) to him than she was to me.

Years later when I decided to write a little character sketch of Miss Wilma, I remembered a particular lesson time in the spring—just before James was to go for his music scholarship audition. On this day, the day when Miss Wilma was having the young man do his final run-through, I arrived at my lesson to find that Miss Wilma was entirely transformed. There was not one ounce of meanness in her. She was completely in a dither—her eyes fluttering—she seemed to alternate between girlish excitement and nervous mothering. James had his family's old, old, station wagon parked out front and Miss Wilma kept asking him, "Do you have enough gas? Do you have money? Oh, do you have your sheet music?" Understand—I was ten, maybe eleven at the time, but there was something about that moment that seemed important to me. I was seeing something rare and unknown in this person whom I thought I knew through and through.

For whatever reason, it was this powerful memory that came to me when I began to write the first scene about Miss Wilma. In about an hour, I wrote three short pages that were the beginning of my novel. Of course, by the time I got to the bottom of the first page, the Miss Wilma I was writing about was not the real Miss Wilma, but someone else altogether, a character with a life, a history, a personality all her own. However, Miss Wilma Mabry -- the life of the character -- was born in the memory of that particular moment and somehow propelled forward by it. The scene itself—those first three pages—survive in the novel (much revised, of course) as the beginning of Chapter 2, which begins exactly as I began that first sketch: "Of all Miss Wilma's students, James Moody was the prize…"

Everything in The Piano Teacher grew from that first scene: the other characters, their relationships with Miss Wilma, the town of Swan's Knob, and even the plot. All of these things were really a function of Miss Wilma's character, an outgrowth of it. It’s hard to remember exactly how I came to transform Miss Wilma from the buttoned-up piano teacher worried even about the marks she's made on her students' sheet music into the woman, who in the end of my novel, subdues a murderer with a kick of her Aigner pump.

During the time I was writing the book and to this day, I think of her mostly as a real person—in much the way you might think of a beloved aunt who has long ago passed away. You can no longer actually touch her, have a conversation together, but you can fully imagine a conversation with her about any topic, you can remember exactly her touch, and she is bound visit you in your dreams, as Miss Wilma did. Shortly after I finished the book, she appeared in a dream and lectured me about the state of my wardrobe. Then she marched me down to the local department store and bought me a dress.

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, May 6, 2010


I attended this workshop on characters and learned the most amazing things. The first thing I was told is that the center of your character lies in their ability to care about something. This will make your reader care.

Example: Assume that Joanna Mott is married, insecure about her looks and her identity, and is devastated by her discovery that her husband is having an affair with their attractive single next-door neighbor, Felicity. As a reader you know that Joanna has abandonment issues from childhood, though presently she doesn’t even know the word exists. She simply feels unattractive. You know from the narrative that she was left in the care of her aunt as a child and grew up with her female cousin, Miss Alabama.

Now you have the makings of a sympathetic character with an element about which she truly cares. You’ve made her a wife who feels extremely unattractive with rational insecurities who desire more than anything to keep her marriage intact. You’ve assigned a caring element to the character and thus have committed her to a stance by which she will live.

This is the character’s dominant dynamic. You can now write with more assurance that you know where you are going. The character who cares passionately about something, and is willing to make a stand because of it, is worth bothering with.

Alfred Hitchcock said it best:

“First you decide what the characters are determined to do, and then you provide them with enough characteristics to make it plausible that they will do it.”

Then ask yourself what makes them tick. Here you are free to be creative, so long as it’s plausible, for no one ever knows undisputedly what causes people to behave the way they do. Why does the rich housewife steal? Was she poor as a child or is it the thrill of pursuit when she gets away with it?

Next remember that character is always linked to contest. Scarlett is nothing unchallenged by the Civil War. What are Romeo and Juliet without the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets? “To Kill a Mockingbird” is left adrift without the prejudices of the south coupled with the fragile innocence of Boo Radley.

Another good thing to do is tag your characters. Give them names that distinguish them, names that evoke images and feelings in the reader’s mind before the characters even begin their journey with the reader. Assign them characteristics that make them stand out. In the story above regarding Joanna, she has arms as long as a monkey’s attached to hands as small as an infants. As a child she was known to swing from anything that dangled, causing her aunt to fret that her limbs would get even longer. Now fully grown, she tucks them one across the other, anxious for others not to notice. Regardless of her efforts, they notice.

Add contradictions. Play against the norm. Surprise the reader, especially with the villain. Give them human qualities. If the antagonist is after the protagonist’s husband, craft a scene where the antagonist is wounded when she is put down in public by her mother, who favors the younger brother and sister. The antagonist may be an evil, conniving husband stealer, but this scene will show she’s also very human.

Next, give your reader some idea of how your character looks, but allow enough room for them to use their imaginations. Use tags. Scarlett’s main of hair is a tag. Auntie Mame’s cigarette holder is a tag. Kojak’s lollipop is a tag. The list goes on. Get creative. Instead of your character having a cat, how about a miniature pet pig she takes for walks on a leash?

Years ago when I was selling insurance, a client had two of them. They climbed under the table where we sat and tried to eat my shoes.

After this, you will have to identify your characters abilities, speech, mannerisms, and attitudes. Only then is your character fully-fleshed. Once you’ve done that, simply give your character something to do. Put him in a tight spot. Craft that which your character wants more than anything and send him on his journey in pursuit of it, with plenty of obstacles in his way.

When you design a sympathetic, flawed character, you have the first element of a story. When you construct that which is important to him and why, you have the inner essential of a story. And when you take that flawed character with his specific passions and rationalized behaviors and place him on a path to discovery and change, you have the makings of a story worth reading.

And always remember the core of your character lies in his actions. If Joanna, in my example above, is terrified of being abandoned and swears she will do anything to keep her husband from leaving her and does, think how effective it will be when she finds she can not only let go and move on, but triumphs because of it.

This is the essence of characters we can’t forget. They have human fears, human desires and the ability to rise above their circumstances, to conquer, and to change. These are the characters we can’t get enough of.

The teacher who spoke to me of what makes a good character left me feeling I could indeed create memorable characters. I just had to follow the rules. I can do that. I know you can, too. When you are working on your next novel, may you be blessed when creating your characters. May you find the right words to bring them to life. May you dazzle your reader with their antics. And may they forever leap off the page.


Jackie Lee Miles is the author of Roseflower Creek, Cold Rock River, Divorcing Dwayne and All That’s True (to be released January 2011). Visit the website at Write to the author at