Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Flight of Dreams

by Zachary Steele

 A little more than seven years ago I created a world. It happened without a bang, came without a word, and anchored itself into my mind with nary a concern for what it would do to my life. A forest evolved from darkness, mountains rose into view, the starry sky embraced a full moon that blanketed the lush terrain in a bath of iridescent light. I flew above it, gliding effortlessly, chilled slightly by the cool embrace of the night. Euphoria, giddiness, a certain boyish delight: they tempted me with recognition. I knew this place, though I had never before seen it.

The flight carried me beyond the forest, skimming the surface of a swiftly moving river, where I spread my fingers and trailed them through the water, gazing gleefully at the wake left as I zoomed forward. The forest returned beyond the approaching bank and I lifted once more toward the heavens. Though the sky invited me wholly, I chose instead to zag along the treetops, cutting in between gaps in the branches. I watched the forest floor, spotting life rustling below, my path all but forgotten, my trust in the guiding force complete and unwavering. I knew my destination. I knew what I would find.

When the forest thinned, the trees parting like open palms, the lush green turf broadened, expanded, and welcomed me into an open field. In the center of that field sat a solitary white crypt, tendrils of ivy coating one side of the gleaming marble surface, a faded iron door sealing the interior. I stood before the crypt, the weight of the moment abolishing my fears. I had journeyed to be here. Something magical awaited me. As if answering my call, the door opened, echoing through the field as metal ground against metal, as the hinges issued a squeal of protest. 

The light from within overwhelmed my vision, yet filled me with warmth. It invited me forward. And so I walked, stepping into the light and through the doorway. My feet, which only now I realized were bare, waded across the sandy floor. I paused, the certainty that what I saw, what lay before me, held the answer to my quest, the essence of my journey. Risen upon a slab, I gazed upon the white tomb with a sense of awe and wonderment, lost in the artistic swirls along the pristine surface, mesmerized by the depth of life I sensed despite the reminder of death it endowed. Only then did I notice the angle of the lid and the revealing glimpse it offered to the interior of the tomb. I wanted to know. I had to see.

I stepped onto the concrete slab, my eyes meeting the length of the tomb, then the smooth edge at the lip. Hesitantly, I forced myself over the edge, my heart racing, and peered within and saw nothing.

That would have been about the time the music slowed, the cadence of the choir drifting to an easy completion. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. I may have continued that stare for close to an hour, watching the images wash over me in a continuous loop. When I finally roused myself enough to gather my thoughts, I detailed the scene in a notebook. It would be the first account, in the first of many notebooks, regarding a world called Elysium. A world inhabited, created, and saved by a character known only as The Storyteller. Only recently did I compile the five notebooks of story into a massive file. By then I had already written Book One in The Storyteller series: The Heart of Darkness

A five-book young adult series--drawn from five notebooks full of research, character bios, locations, magical items, magical creatures, political landscapes, actual landscapes, and so much more. All drawn from countless hours of daydreaming. Daydreams drawn from a single flight above a single forest toward a single destination. A single flight drawn from one piece of music.

One song created a world.

It still haunts me.  Granted, I want it to. Give it a listen. Fly a while. You'll never be the same.

by Libera 

Zachary Steele is usually a lot funnier than this, but, oh well, what are you going to do, right?  He is the author of Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO, Flutter: An Epic of Mass Distraction, and the forthcoming young adult series, The Storyteller. He has been featured on NPR and in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Publisher's Weekly, and Shelf Awareness, and can be found boring the world with his thoughts at The Further Promotion of ME, as well as the newly minted blog, Who is the Storyteller.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What's in Your iPod?

What's in Your iPod?
Man Martin

Walter Isaacson looked into Steve Jobs’ iPod while writing a biography on him, and what he found was Dylan, Beatles, and some selected Rolling Stones. I do not have cool stuff like this on my iPod. In the unlikely event my biographer would want to look in it, I shudder to think what he would discover there. In the somewhat more probable event that somebody mistook my iPod for his, I can imagine him shrieking and ripping the ear bud out in revulsion and shock.

I resisted for the longest time getting one of these devices, being a techno-troglodyte, by golly, and proud of it, the sort of person who secretly misses the whirr and click of a rotary dial phone. (And what’s with text messaging? Why does anyone need text messaging? You’re holding a phone.) But my daughter has persuaded me to begin running again and among the assorted paraphernalia of shoes and ibuprofen, I have acquired an iPod nano. Let me say, I love it. I’ve loaded it with all my favorite music, the sort of stuff that out of a decent respect for the feelings of others, I cannot listen to in the house any more than I would smoke cigars made out of old tires and bath-mats. But running along, with my ear-bud safely jammed in, I am in a private world of favorite music without giving offense to anyone; each song that comes up is like being greeted by beloved but half-forgotten friend.
This is music of simple, direct emotion, simply and directly expressed. It’s the sort of thing that actually sounds better on an 8-track. Take a lyric like: “I'll see you every night Babe, I'll woo you every day, I'll be your regular Daddy, If you'll put that gun away.” In two short lines Al Dexter tells not only of undying love but a reasonable desire for self-preservation. And when I get to the end of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” my heart simply soars. (My wife says I’m just glad it’s over, but that’s not it.)
If someone ever does write my biography, I’ll have to buy a decoy iPod and load it up with Brandenburg concertos and Wagner, but this is the music that speaks to me; it’s the music I listened to as a little boy when I’d sneak into my mother’s record collection, old LP’s as shiny as a palmetto bug and 45’s with wide holes in the center that needed a special adapter to play. You’d set the needle on the groove, and there would come a short prelude of hiss and crackle and then a song would emerge, like “Cattle Call,” “the cattle are prowling, the coyotes are howling.” I grew up in small towns where cows were a familiar sight, but I would never have thought to describe their desultory plodding as “prowling” but no matter – when Eddie Arnold gets to the part he yodels, it just sends shivers up my spine. (Yodeling! Why aren’t there any more songs with yodeling?)
I will never - and never attempt to – convert anyone else to my taste in music. You can’t play someone a tune like “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and expect him to get how great it is when Vaughan Monroe sings, “all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw, a-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw.” A song about demon cows is flying through the air just silly, unless, like me, you’ve listened to it from the time your were five – and even when the radio was playing – and you were listening to – Dylan and The Beatles – that melody and those lyrics had sealed themselves into your bloodstream and were always in the background of your imagination, so that even at the age of 52, running beside your daughter who’s listening to more sensible lyrics like, “Me and Allah go back like cronies, I don’t got to be fake, cause he is my homie,” you can shiver at the dire warning, that unless you change your ways you’ll end up chasing “the devil’s herd across the endless skies,” and the childhood afternoon stuck inside during a North Florida summer squall comes back to you, and your heart beats at that same certain rate it did four decades ago.

Man Martin's first novel, Days of the Endless Corvette, won a Georgia Author of the Year Award.  His second novel, Paradise Dogs, was selected as "required reading" by The New York Post.  He is currently at work on a third.  He lives in Atlanta, where he writes, teaches, and jogs while listening to execrable country-western music.  He blogs at

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality

by Susan Cushman

The best piece of writing advice (the theme for this round of posts) I’ve ever received actually has two parts:

1.     Nothing is wasted, and
2.     Be patient.

Writing is hard work, as everyone knows who actually sits with their butt in the chair and waits—sometimes for hours, days, and years—for just the right words to tell the story they’re trying to tell. And even if you find the right words, you might discover that you’ve been trying to tell the wrong story. That has happened to me three times since I began writing seriously in 2006.

My first novel, The Sweet Carolines, is still in a box in the closet of my office. I think of it fondly, the way one remembers her first training bra, or maybe her first kiss. But the time I spent writing that novel was definitely not wasted. One of the minor characters later became the inspiration for the protagonist in my current novel-in-progress. And the feedback I got from two freelance editors at the time was much like what one might learn in an MFA creative writing program.

The next two books I wrote are both memoirs, also in the closet, but not because the writing isn’t good, or at least better than the first novel, but because I decided not to publish them. A New York agent was interested in one of them, but I had to apologize when I realized I really didn’t want to go public with some of the story, and couldn’t figure out how to edit out the parts I didn’t want to share without destroying the story. This is where Part 1 of the writing advice comes in.

In 2010 I pulled together an essay inspired by one of those memoirs, “Jesus Freaks, Belly Dancers and Nuns,” for inclusion in an anthology from the University of Alabama Press—Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. This venue allows me to give a glimpse of that story without publishing things I don’t want to share. I’m so excited about Circling Faith, which just came out! I’m honored that my essay—“Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shadow”– is included with essays by Mary Karr, Beth Ann Fennelly, Alice Walker and a dozen other amazing women authors writing about spirituality. You can read more about this anthology on the site created by its editors, Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne.

Part 2 is the hard part. I turned in my essay for this anthology almost two years ago. It’s sooooo hard to wait for that first book, or in my case, even the first essay to appear between the covers of a real book. These past two years have felt like an eternity! But I’ve been using them to write a novel, which I hope to complete in the next few weeks, actually. It was two years ago this month when I wrote my first post for A Good Blog, “A Novel Idea,” announcing that I was writing this book. And now Cherry Bomb is hopefully coming to completion soon. I know I’m going to have to strap my patience on for what could be a lengthy process of securing an agent, getting a book deal, working on revisions and eventually (hopefully) publication of Cherry Bomb. I’m glad for the experience I’ve had with Wendy and Jennifer working on Circling Faith.

(Wendy and Jennifer's first anthology, All Out of Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, includes essays by Sue Monk Kidd, Cassandra King Conroy, Lee Smith, Frances Mayes, and others. I met several of those ladies and fell in love with their writing at the 2006 Southern Festival of Books. All Out of Faith is available in hardback and paperback. The cover art on both anthologies is by Birmingham Artist, Bethanne Hill.)

Susan Cushman has ten published essays. She was Director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop, Co-Director of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, and she is again working with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes to organize the 2013 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb, made the short list for the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, which is associated with the annual New Orleans Words and Music Festival. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, she lives in Memphis and blogs at “Pen and Palette.” 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Do you write with vivid detail?

by Karen Harrington

“In all the major genres, vivid detail is the life blood.” 
John Gardener, The Art of Fiction

“Specific, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction.” 
Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A  Guide to Narrative Craft

“Be specific. Don’t say “fruit.” Tell what kind of fruit—“It is a pomegranate.” Give 
things the dignity of their names…" 
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bone

How to fill in the details of a story?

As I was considering this question, my five-year old was coloring in her Disney coloring book. I am in awe of how specific she is about coloring. How she will match the color of the necklace to the hem of a dress. No one taught her to do this. She just looked in her box of crayons and made her choices. To my word-loving delight, she asked me to read the name of each crayon color. Purple Pizzazz. Red Violet. Midnight Blue. Mango Tango. She was just as excited about the descriptions, too. (I'm the same way. The other day, I bought a nail polish called Back To The Fuschia, largely because the name tickled me pink!)

So it got me to thinking that writing the details of a story has a lot in common with coloring. You begin with the thick black sketch of an idea, and then you look in your box of crayons and begin filling in the image with your own specific idea of what colors should go where.

When I set out to write in vivid detail, two lessons come to mind that I gleaned in my college novel writing class.

1/ WRITE VERTICALLY - As a writer, I'm a sprinter. Most of the time, I can get that black sketch outline on the page with no problem. But to be a writer of details, which I believe is essential to good fiction, I had to learn to be a marathoner. My writing professor chided me for "writing horizontally." He said, "Write vertically. Slow down and write downward, really getting underneath the scene." Good advice. When I stop and linger inside a scene, I understand what it means to stay with a specific image or idea long enough to stretch it out from north to south, instead of being concerned with going so far east to west.  After many years of practice, I think I'm more conscious about writing vertically from the very start.

2/ CHOOSE DETAILS THAT REVEAL - The second lesson I remember about details was when my professor made an example of me in his class.  I'd written a scene about a housewife ironing that read something like, “She did her work in solitude, moving the iron back and forth as if it was her dance partner.”

Nothing brilliant here. But the lesson my prof illustrated was how this sentence made an inanimate object come to life, personified it in a way that suggested this woman might be lonely, how she might be underappreciated. This example has stayed with me to this day. I like noticing how characters, and all people, are constantly revealing themselves with objects and body language like my lonely housewife. Most writers I know collect details in a notebook for this very reason. For example, I recently noted the way a woman I know rubs her thumb across the cool metal of her wedding band. Why? To check if she’s still married? Or, to check if she’s STILL married? Another observation I noted recently was when I saw a happy, bouncy woman run up an hug another woman. From my point of view, the Huggee's arms stayed by her side as she was surprised by the action and wore an expression that suggested she wasn't a hugger, or perhaps, not a fan of the Hugger. Who knows.

So, do naturally write vertically or horizontally?
Do you keep a detail notebook?

I'm the author of JANEOLOGY (2008) and SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, due out in early 2013 from Little, Brown. Visit me at