Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Writing Circles

By Susan

Over the past five years, my writing circle has expanded significantly. Or rather, I've gone from one circle of writing friends to several circles, and this summer, my circles are beginning to collide, in all the best possible ways.

My first writing circle is right here at What Women Write. Our group of six writers came together about five and a half years ago in Texas, and we've been writing and critiquing together ever since.

My second writing circle is one created by the long distance bond between my agent, the editor I worked with on a second draft, and the community of people passionate about books and bringing a new story into the world, and me.

The third circle is my Hindman family, and I can only call it a family because that's what it has become. We all met deep in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, where most of us are from, at the Appalachian Writers Workshop. Just last week, one of my Hindman sisters came and stayed a few nights with me here in Texas. This circle includes writers many readers have heard of: Robert Morgan, Silas House, George Singleton, and Barbara Kingsolver. And it includes my close friends— writers you haven't heard of yet, but soon will—Donna McClanahan, Denton Loving, Mark Powell, Wesley Browne, Tia Jensen, Catherine Childress, Robert Gipe, Carrie Mullins and more. Writers I'm proud to call friends.

My fourth writing circle is the new group of cohorts and faculty at the University of Tampa's MFA in Creative Writing Program. The visiting authors top the New York Times Bestsellers list, and my professors and mentors are incredible wordsmiths as well. Alan Michael Parker and Corinna Vallianatos have given me intense feedback on my own words already, and my new friends from school are ones I will carry with me throughout my writing journey. A few, like poet Mona Bethke and the fiction writers I've workshopped with already feel like friends for life.

This week, I'm embarking on a new writing journey: I'm currently attending the Sewanee Writing Workshop in Sewanee, Tennessee. Here, my circles overlap. Friends from Hindman will be workshopping with friends from Tampa. We'll have threads of commonality weaving through the room. My agent is a longtime supporter of writers and instructors from this conference, and has represented both faculty and fellows from Sewanee.

How does this help my writing, you may ask? What is the benefit of these writing circles? Writing, after all, is a solitary and lonely profession. How can knowing more writers help a fledgling writer like myself become the writer I want to become?

I can only say that to know you are not alone both when you struggle and when you celebrate is a joyous gift. Expanding and colliding circles of writers bring people together with similar joys, fears, roadblocks, and triumphs. It pushes me forward. It keeps me on track. And friends—especially writing friends—are always good to have. Who can argue with that?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Linklater's Boyhood Movie

by Joan

Every so often a book or movie comes along that is quiet yet profound, a story that makes you slam your back against the chair, stare at the ceiling and wonder how something so simple and understated can be so insightful. That book might be Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

I’m a fan of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, also simple and understated. Now in his latest achievement, Boyhood, writer-director Linklater delivers a brilliant look at a boy’s life from age six to eighteen. He filmed the movie over twelve years, a few days each year with the same actors, including Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Mason.

Watching  Mason navigate his dysfunctional world is a study in how life shapes us, how we’re deeply affected by our own decisions and by those around us, by our joys and mistakes and missteps.

When bowling gutter balls with his every-other-weekend dad (Ethan Hawke), Mason pleads for bumpers so he can knock down some pins. “You don’t want the bumpers,” his dad says. “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” And Mason’s surely doesn’t.

Patricia Arquette ages on screen in a raw and heartbreaking role as she makes one bad decision after another, both for herself and her kids. Toward the end of the movie, she says goodbye to Mason as he leaves for college, reflecting on their years together. After divorcing three husbands, getting her degree and landing a teaching job, after birthdays and graduations, she thought there would be more. She is left staring at her final milestone: death.

It’s the type of movie you want to talk about, to text your son about, to see again. It’s the type of movie that makes you want to write an understated and insightful story of your own, a culmination of your experiences and heartaches, your joys and mistakes and missteps, your quiet life.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Stepping Back in Time

By Kim

Inside the lobby of the 1886 Crescent Hotel
A few days ago my family and I returned home from a vacation in a little Ozark town called Eureka Springs, Arkansas. A more apt name, at least to this historical fiction writer, is Heaven.

Nearly every downtown building there features a plaque from the National Register of Historic Places, making the veil between past and present feel especially thin. For those sensitive souls (like me) who pick up on the energy of places, that veil was all but transparent in the lobby of the 1886 Crescent Hotel. For the benefit of those who have never had a physical reaction from walking into a building or over an old battlefield, this picture is the best visual representation I can offer for how it feels.

The Crescent has been featured on Ghost Hunters and is reportedly the most haunted hotel in the United States. Knowing this, I was neither surprised nor alarmed by the weight of the air in the room. I was taken aback, however, when my older daughter followed me out onto the back veranda and whispered, “Mama, I could barely breathe in there. Is it just me, or does this place feel heavy?”

Heavy was an apt description. Evidently she’s inherited more than my artistic bent.

She wanted to go back inside and see if the feeling came back. It did. She then said she wouldn't mind spending the night there.  (After watching some videos on You Tube later, she amended that statement to exclude room 218. She also declined my offer to take her on the ghost tour, which she was certain would scar her for life.)

My little one rides an old steam train
The longer I stayed in Eureka Springs the easier it became to look past the modern clothes, smartphones and other gadgets that ground us all in the twenty-first century. When I boarded a 1920s steam train in ninety-degree heat I could almost hear my great-grandparents laughing from their perch beyond the pearly gates.

“Where’s the air-conditioning?” my youngest asked once sweat dampened her hair.

I nodded toward the open window and inwardly grinned, chalking up the adventure to research for my novel. There was no breeze generated by a train inching along at five miles an hour, but this photo proves my child stoically endured her slow-roast in the metal oven that was our car.  I took it moments after our tour guide “conductor”, a sweet, elderly gentleman in period clothes, asked her to marry him. (She let him down gently.)

Borrowing her great-grandmother's style
While editing our vacation photos, I've lingered over those shots that could have been taken in another era, or those where my daughters adopt a pose, expression, or even a hairstyle once worn by a distant grandmother.  A few clicks in an editing program and the Technicolor world I live in fades into sepia, becomes a living past.

It makes me itch to write.

What about you? Have you ever been to a place where you felt history come alive, or that energized your writing? We’d love to hear about it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jojo Moyes in the Big D

Me being all awkward fangirl next to Jojo Moyes.
By Julie

It was a nice little oasis in the middle of this otherwise averagely hot summer in DFW to drive over to see British novelist Jojo Moyes speak at the gorgeous University Park Library last Thursday evening in support of her latest release, One Plus One.

I've been a huge fan of Moyes since ... I don't even know when. I was ordering online wherever I could and devouring her books even before they were available stateside, and I'm not even sure how I heard about her. Maybe I lucked into a copy of one at Half Price Books or something, but once I got started, I was hooked. In her novels and in person, she's charming, funny, and lovely in general. I was thrilled to get a chance to meet her, and I suspect I might have gone a little fangirl in my level of awkwardness as I approached the signing table.

Moyes has published twelve books since her debut in 2000, and I've long admired her courage to write the story her heart desires instead of trying to brand herself as an author with one very particular type of novel. This matters to me because I suspect I'm headed that direction. Nope, I'm not plotting a sci-fi, fantasy, or cozy mystery. Not hot and heavy romance. But I don't see myself writing "fiction that blends historical with contemporary," like Calling Me Home, every time I write a novel. It can be a little intimidating to step out onto that little ledge in this brand-heavy world.

I asked Moyes about this during the Q&A -- how her pubishler reacted, how her readers reacted -- and whether or not she saw a particular theme emerging even if she was writing fiction that didn't quite fit a mold. I knew the first part wasn't a new question. She's mentioned it in other interviews. Her response was that it was not so great when her sales weren't hopping, but since Me Before You broke out and proceeded to sell something like three million copies, it's been considered a plus. She smiled, and I suspect her answer was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I think I understood. What that said to me is, "Write your heart out, and when you break out, nobody will care anymore." Good to remember.

As far as the second, she said it was a new question. She thought for a moment, then said each novel seems to reflect the big question she's processing at that moment in life, even if it doesn't manifest the same way. That made sense to me as well. She mentioned it was less expensive than therapy. I quite agree.

I admire several authors who seem to have similar paths and responses to these questions, in particular Chris Cleave and Chris Bohjalian. Not surprisingly, these two plus Moyes are three of my favorite authors in general. (Or, I really like the name Chris.) This path doesn't seem to have damaged their careers much at this point in life, so I think I'll follow their lead, and in the process, follow my heart. Never a bad place to begin.

In the meantime, I can't wait to get started on Moyes' newly minted One Plus One, not least because it explores a topic dear to my own heart -- single parenting. I also picked up a copy of The Last Letter from Your Lover, one of the three in her list I haven't read yet. If you're new to Moyes, I suggest you start with Me Before You so you can see what all the fuss is about. If you're not so new but have missed some of her previous novels, give The Ship of Brides a try! I don't think you'll be disappointed, wherever you start.

Many thanks to Jojo Moyes for coming all the way to Texas, where she claims the backyards are as big as her English farm, and the hospitality and barbecue are overflowing, too!

Oh, and on the book front, while I'm talking about a UK author, is it okay and appropriate for me to brag that the UK version of Calling Me Home zoomed all the way up to #1 on the Amazon UK Kindle chart last weekend while on sale? I first ate seared duck breast in London last summer during a publicity day, so to celebrate, I had a not-nearly-as-good Texas version with my husband. Here I am looking equally as awkward, but not so excited about the duck. :)

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Quinoa--a Q&A with highly-creative debut author Tiffany Beveridge

By Pamela

Like many fun and interesting Web writings, I 'stumbled upon' a link to Tiffany Beveridge's imaginative and hilarious Pinterest board: Quinoa--my imaginary well-dressed toddler daughter. From there I learned she had a forthcoming book: How to Quinoa--Life Lessons from My Imaginary Well-Dressed Daughter. From a Pinterest board to a book deal?? I had to find out how this happened and get my hands on this book!

So, her people sent me a copy to peruse, and I was delighted to find the book even more engaging than I had imagined. More than just a collection of photos with hilarious cutlines, How to Quinoa is a witty albeit unintentional social commentary on how fun and outlandish we perceive our trend-setting tots to be. From trendy fashions worn by kids Tiffany has named Chevron and Boden and Kale to play-dates with fashion-forward props like industrial fans and
artwork, the book takes tongue-in-cheek to a whole new level of hip.

What I love most about this book is I left it on the kitchen table and, over the weekend, found my 10-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son both reading it aloud to each other, laughing hysterically. Thankfully, Tiffany graciously agreed to talk about her board-to-book journey with us.

And be sure to leave a comment to be eligible for a random drawing to win a FREE copy of How to Quinoa; contest closes Friday at midnight 7/18/14.

1. How did a hardworking copywriter and mom of two sensibly-dressed boys give birth to a trend-setting toddler diva? Would you please tell us a little about the journey that led to your debut book, How to Quinoa: Life Lessons from My Imaginary Well-Dressed Daughter (Running Press; July 1, 2014)?

I adore my two boys and their endless parade of T-shirts and basketball shorts. The only thing that ever made me pine for another child was the thought of dressing a little girl, which I ultimately decided was not a great reason to get pregnant again. So, I filled that small (and arguably shallow) void by creating a Pinterest board to enjoy dressing a daughter that I wouldn't actually have to breastfeed or potty train. As I began finding and pinning images, I was amazed at how sophisticated children's fashion has become. These over-the-top looks inspired me to create an over-the-top child to match them. In June 2013, my Pinterest board went viral. By September, I had a book deal. By January, I had written the manuscript. By June 2014, I had a book in my hands. It's been an incredible ride, and a dream come true.

Quinoa doesn't like being put on
display. She prefers a formal,
museum-quality exhibit with 
paid admission.

Photo Credit: Lee Clower (

Book: How to Quinoa (Running Press) 
2. What inspired you to use Pinterest, a site dominated by photo collages of crafts and food, to tell the fictional story of a preschool hipster?

As a copywriter, I've used Pinterest quite a bit as I create content, brainstorm ideas or look for inspiration. Pinterest is an amazing site, rich with ideas, but it's also a Fantasyland. We're able to curate the most fantastical worlds, full of dream vacations, weddings, kitchens and made-from-scratch dinners. If you take a look at someone's Pinterest boards, you'll get a peek inside their imagination. So, in that sense, there's probably a lot of implied fiction on Pinterest already. When I started writing funny captions about Quinoa's life, it felt very natural to put in writing the fictional process that was already happening in my head.

3. Did you ever imagine that your little Quinoa would go “viral” and become a huge social media sensation?

Absolutely not. I had always thought of it as a funny inside joke with the handful of friends who followed me on Pinterest. I had been writing the pins for more than a year before it went viral, giving it little thought at all. When it went viral, it was a huge shock. It was like I had been talking to myself in a two-way mirror and suddenly finding out that the entire world was on the other side. It was surprising, but also so flattering to see how much people enjoyed it.

4. Like your pins, How to Quinoa both spotlights and mocks cultural and social trends. Did you dream up Quinoa with a serious mission, or was your original intention just for fun?

I like to think of Quinoa as a social lens. We can look at things through her eyes and maybe see them in a new light. I obviously have opinions on a wide variety of things, but I have no agenda other than to make people laugh. I've found that different people focus in on different themes, some that I haven't even intended, and I think that's great. Take what you want from it and have a laugh while you're at it.

5. How much of a role did your real-life family play in the creation of your imaginary well-dressed daughter?

One time Quinoa earned after-school
detention for being obscenely precious.
Photo Credit: Alix Martinez Photography for
Book: How to Quinoa (Running Press) 

Well, I think it's safe to say that if I had two daughters instead of two sons, Quinoa would not exist. So, in that way, my real life family definitely played a role in this. We live a very fun and active life, but we don't do a lot of girly stuff. (Although, sometimes my boys will watch The Real Housewives with me.) I think the entire idea grew out of that, but maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if I had two daughters, I would have started a Pinterest board about my imaginary dirt-covered toddler son Harold.

6. Do your sons have a sibling rivalry with Quinoa?

No, they are delightfully detached from her. Although a few months ago, I was standing outside our house with my eleven-year-old, Max, lamenting that the house needed to be painted. He asked me if insurance pays for that. I laughed and said no, that hopefully Quinoa would pay for it. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, "Mom, Quinoa can't pay for everything."

7. Where do you find the stylish, stunning, and sometimes startling images of the children who represent Quinoa and her friends?

Every image I have used on the Pinterest board was an image I found on Pinterest. There is a never-ending supply! There are some incredible photographers and magazines that are taking children's fashion to a new level. It's quite an art form.

8. Do you know actual parents who dress their kids like Quinoa, Chevron, Boursin, Chobani, Hollandaise, and the gang?  

I really don't. I live in an area where the kids seem to dress primarily for comfort. It's been funny to read different things about Quinoa and her friends. People will swear I'm spoofing Brooklyn. Other people will swear I'm spoofing Austin, Beverly Hills, Portland, or even London. So while I don't know these kids, I'm convinced that they do exist.

9. While we’re (sort of) on the subject of naming names, how do you choose the names for your fictional characters? Do you have a favorite?

I love to find words that are beautiful and interesting as a word, detached from their definition. Quinoa is a fun word to say, as is Chevron, Boursin and Chobani. But I also like words that have some cultural reference, either gourmet foods, pop culture or even pharmaceutical. For example, I've had fun using names of medications like Paxil and Allegra and Humira.

10. Based on your extensive observations of children, do you think kids have a natural sense of swag? Or do you think parents and other adults have imposed this idea on them?

I think clothes are one of the very first tools of self expression we give to kids. Showing a preference for a certain color or style is a way that a kid can express who they are, before they have a vocabulary for it, and I think that's incredible. I love that children's clothes are becoming more diverse, less gender stereotypical. Obviously, when kids are tiny and not self aware, their "style" is a reflection of their parents, but I think for certain kids, they enjoy taking the reigns at a surprisingly early age. I have twin nieces and my sister-in-law would dress them the same each morning and by the end of the day, they had modified this or that and looked completely different.

11. Of all the fashion and cultural trends you’ve spoofed through Quinoa, do any stand out as exceptionally ridiculous?

There have been a couple images I've used where the girls look especially made up, with a lot of makeup and hairstyles that look more adult. Of course, if I saw kids who looked like that in real life, it would be disturbing, but I understand that this is an art form and a business and there's an editorial aspect to it.

12. What would you like readers to learn and take away from How to Quinoa? Or would you like your readers to just enjoy the humor?

Like the Pinterest board, I hope the book will allow people to find different themes that stand out to them. It was so much fun to write some Quinoa-inspired prose instead of one or two sentences for a caption, so I hope that people enjoy exploring Quinoa's world in a more in-depth way as much as I enjoyed creating it. And yes, I hope they enjoy the humor. I hope there are LOL moments on every page.

13. Now that she’s conquered the Web and gotten to star in her own book, what’s next for Quinoa?

Quinoa is quite driven, so she has a lot of great ideas up her sleeve. We're pursuing some fun options right now with TV and even a possible gaming app. She barely has time to take a nap anymore!

14. What’s next on your creative horizon?

Writing is my passion, so I'm excited to have published a book and look forward to many more projects. I'm working on a memoir right now, which is challenging and fun. Challenging and fun is my favorite kind of work.

Follow Tiffany's board on Pinterest here. Follow her on Facebook here. Follow the antics of Quinoa on Twitter here. And, by all means, go out and buy her book! I'd let you borrow my copy, but I'm rereading it ... again! And be sure to leave a comment to be eligible for a random drawing to win a FREE copy of How to Quinoa; contest closes Friday at midnight 7/18/14.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Reading Rainbow

by Elizabeth

You probably saw it in the news: LeVar Burton, forever Kunte Kinte to those of a certain age, forever Geordi to those of another, and the beloved host of Reading Rainbow to yet another generation, held a Kickstarter to reboot the show that ran on PBS for over 20 years, beginning in 1983. The new venture, which reached its initial goal in eleven hours, and raised over five million dollars from over a hundred thousand contributors, is an app and a virtual library. You can read about the kickstarter campaign and the plans Burton and his partners have here: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter. He's about to be famous to yet another generation, and as far as I'm concerned, that's terrific news.

I didn't really watch Reading Rainbow myself. By the time it hit the airwaves, I was a teenager (and a bookworm); and while my kids were young enough to be viewers when it was still on the air, it somehow missed our radar. No worries: both of them can be found every day of the week with their noses in a book. I can't think of a day this decade when that was not the case.

But that's not true of literally millions of children. Susan shared some grim statistics earlier this year. Those adults who don't read were kids who don't read, and many of them are raising a new generation who also won't read.

As a bookworm, as the wife and mother and daughter and sister and aunt of bookworms, this makes me sad. I've seen plenty of kids who don't read, don't understand the value of sitting down with a good book, who might never savor the simple joy of cracking a fresh spine and diving into a story. Reading has simply been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. So when I saw that Reading Rainbow, a show I hadn't watched but had admired as I passed the TV on the way to the bookshelf, was getting a fresh run, I got excited. I understood this is another chance for another generation to connect with books, with stories, to open a little vein and let ink enter their blood.

When books come up (and they always do; I suppose it's me), and non-readers hear how much my family reads (I swear it's conversation, not bragging), the inevitable reply is something along the lines of "Oh, that's so good!" And while I secretly agree, it hardly seems worthy of a compliment. It would be like me admiring how much they enjoy ice cream (another quality at which I excel). But then when I think about it (another thing I always do after these conversations), I wonder precisely why it's such a good thing. It's a pastime, isn't it, no different than playing the guitar or baseball or bridge?

But it's not. It's more. It's solitary and shared; it's silent and aloud; it's quiet and boisterous and heart-wrenching and contemplative. It's the opportunity to step into any world (including those of musicians and athletes and card players), any time, and to soak up the history of the world. It's a rainbow, every color, every stripe, and it's available to everyone.

Which is what the whole re-invigoration of Reading Rainbow is all about. Which is why I'm excited. And why it's time to stop writing this blog post: I've got a book I'm dying to finish, and LeVar, I'm going to go read.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Magical Libraries

by Joan

I love libraries. Last week one of my favorites, The Bodleian Library in Oxford, was offering tours of the old library and Radcliffe Camera. Such a magical place - if like me you adore rare books and bindings, onion-skin paper and dust. 
Bodleian Library at Oxford University, photo credit unknown
Since I’ve been in Texas, I’ve been to my share of neighborhood libraries, but also traipsed the stacks of the Fondren Library at SMU and trolled the basement stacks at the Fort Worth main branch

In 2005, my family and I ogled at the steps of this beauty, the Celsus Library at Ephesus. It was built between 117 and 120 AD but not excavated until 1904. A library with no books, yes, but still a place to absorb culture and history.

Celsus Library, Ephesus, Photo by Rick Mora 

I’ve never really made a bucket list, but I imagine it would include a visit to some of the amazing libraries I’ve seen in images floating over Twitter feeds or in magazines. 
Architectural Digest ran an article on the world’s best libraries. Of course, “best” is objective, as some of these, while architecturally dynamic and different, are too modern for my taste. Telegraph ran another article on the most spectacular libraries in the world.

And so here are a few I'll add to the must-see list. I wish I could post images of these lovely places, but because of copyright issues, I added links. If you're so inclined, click through and enjoy!

Here are just a few - if you've been to any, I'd love to hear about it. 

The library at the St. Florian Monastery in Austria with its Baroque main hall and other-worldly ceiling fresco. 

Trinity College Dublin - see fantastic images here.

The library at Pergamum in its day was said to have 200,000 volumes. Two other reasons to visit: Parchment was developed there, and there's a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom. 

Theological Hall at Strahov Abbey - image here.

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, France – images here.

Another in Oxford: All Souls Library designed by Hawksmoor, the brilliant 18th century English architect. Images here.

Despite living in Maryland for 45 years, I never visited the Peabody Library in Baltimore. Images here.

Your city might not have the most architecturally spectacular library, but I’m guessing you can find one with something noteworthy about it. Do you have a favorite library?  

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