Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Making It Up, Making It Real

by Elizabeth

Okay, here's the deal. In a key plot point in my WIP, the main characters take a weekend trip and it's a turning point for them both. It's not really a vacation, but rather a particular kind of trip, with elements that spur the storyline.

The thing is, it's not a trip I've taken myself. In other words, I mostly made it up. And yet. Rooting around online today (we're going to call it "research" despite the fact that this scene was written months ago and is on its fourth or fifth draft), I found precisely the kind of trip my characters take, available close by. Next month. Should I go?

On one hand, that's kind of the job of the novelist, making stuff up. I read The Known World by Edward P. Jones about seven or eight years ago and was absolutely blown away by the fact that the guy invented his entire slave saga, right down to the very authentic-seeming inventory kept by the plantation owner. On the other hand, Amy Tan admitted that she tried to convince her accountant husband that she should be able to write off Chinese restaurant meals as research, since her characters were eating in such locales. (And she had cravings, the fact of which apparently made no difference to his negative response.) So which?

I guess I'd say both. Yes, as writers, it's our job to make stuff up. But it's also imperative that when we do, we get it right. I was nineteen when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by the late great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and all these years later I still remember being floored by the fact that he had me believing in the world he created, as though it were sociological fact, even as his characters sailed through the air on flying carpets. Aimee Bender, too, had me convinced that her character could indeed taste emotion in food, and that the girl's brother could do something more amazing yet in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
That said, as I read Margaret Dilloway's How to Be an American Housewife a few days ago, I appreciated the fact that her own life had informed the story, and the personal family history she provided in the author's notes lent credibility to an already believable story.

The particular events of the trip my characters take were touted on a website I found this morning. Not just close, but precisely. I'd written that a class unexpectedly had a specific theme, and the identical words were used to describe a class offering on a weekend retreat here in Texas. Less than two hours from home. Next month. And affordable.

Is it possible the universe is trying to tell me something?

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Healthy Writer

By Pamela

I read an article the other day that offered up some pretty grim news for us writers. Assuming you sit while you write and haven't sprung for a treadmill desk, you likely spend extended hours a day in a chair, pounding away at the keyboard. Unfortunately, you're putting yourself at risk for not only obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes but also certain types of cancer.

Because I don't want you to die before you're at least 100 and have written every word you wanted to pen to page, here are some tips for helping you stay healthy as you write.

Snack smart:

Avoid candy, chips and crackers and instead reach for healthful snacks such as nuts, raisins, edamame, berries, yogurt, bananas, carrots, light string cheese, granola, etc.

Decaffeinate:

I'll admit to keeping a tall glass of green tea within reach nearly every waking moment. It's actually a step in the right direction from the black tea I used to drink. At least my teeth stay whiter. Today I'll begin in earnest to alternate a glass of water with my tea. If caffeine is your source of fuel—coffee, tea or, God forbid, RedBull—then make a commitment to drink more water.

Move more:

If hours go by before you get up and move around, then set a timer to go off at least every hour and get up and move around. Walk around the block, eat lunch while standing, do some yoga stretches. You don't have to clock a 6-minute mile to improve your health, but get up and get the blood flowing. If you're so inclined (and you have a fat advance on your book), you can always spring for that treadmill desk. I'm sure they're wonderful if you're a boss at walking and typing. I'm going to stick to regular stretching, eating lunch while standing and taking the dog for walks around the block.

Find peeps:

If you're trying to finish a book, searching for an agent, vying for time to devote to your writing or wrestling with ideas for your next project, I feel your stress. I give 100 percent credit to the five women on this blog for why I still write. While friends and family members can be a great source of encouragement, only a fellow writer truly understands why you write and can empathize when the going gets rough. If you don't currently belong to a writing group, then look for one at your local library or book seller. Draw inspiration from an online group if a local one doesn't fit your schedule. Don't fret if the first group you find doesn't work for you. Keep looking. At the very least, join or start a book club to learn what your peers look for in a good book.

Kick crap:

If you smoke, please stop. If you drink more than you can readily admit, curb your urge. If you engage in any other behavior that inhibits your joy, your creative fire, your passionate you, find a way to quit. We want you to do whatever it takes to produce your best work for many years.    

Give back:

Volunteering not only forces you to get your mind away from you and your current project, but it also has been shown to lower your blood pressure and reduce stress. About a year and a half ago, I started a book club at a retirement home. This has allowed me to share my love of books, while giving me so much joy to spend a couple hours each month with incredible women with a wealth of life experience. It's also helped fill a hole in my heart that came last November when I lost my mom.

Joan has taught ESL, served as treasurer of Writers' Guild of Texas and volunteered at her son's school as well as sponsored his artistic endeavors at college. She also supports the Parent Encouragement Program.

Elizabeth  has long volunteered at her children's schools. She especially enjoys directly supporting teachers with the unexpected. She also worked with an organization that provides dental care to at-risk children.

Susan's work with International Book Project has helped ship books to orphans in Ghana and to nuns and monks in Nigeria. She's also busy putting together a prison literacy program in her home state of Kentucky while collecting books to distribute to at-risk families in eastern Kentucky.

Kim volunteers at her daughters' dance studio—particularly during Nutcracker. She loves watching not only her girls but the other children she's seen grow and develop as dancers over the last few years. Seeing others pursue their passions inspires her to pursue her own.

Julie, after selling Calling Me Home, was able to donate a portion of the proceeds to an organization that serves at-risk youth and, by virtue of that, help single parents, too. She also had the opportunity to visit with English classes at her high school in Denver—an inner city school that has struggled to stay afloat for years—and participate in some literacy fundraisers.

We all attend as many author book events as possible—not only because it gives us a chance to get together while drawing inspiration from talented authors, but it also feels good to support our fellow writers.

Recharge:

It's no secret that adults needs seven to eight hours of sleep each night. If you aren't getting your allotted amount, try to get more. Nap if you have an opportunity to. Your brain and your other organs need downtime to replenish themselves. Make sure you take care of you.


Image by Pacific Cat Ragdolls on flickr.

Friday, April 18, 2014

What’s on Your To-Be-Read List?

By Kim

Every so often I make a vow not to buy any more books until I make a dent in my towering to-be-read pile. I may even keep it until I see a launch announcement from a favorite author, a recommendation from a friend who knows my taste, attend an author event, or give into the temptation to walk into a bookstore. One whiff of new book or, worse, OLD book smell and my credit card leaps from my wallet.

At this moment I have sixty-nine unread hard-copy books sitting on my bookshelf, not including a couple dozen or so more research books. There are twelve unread e-books on my Nook, and twenty-nine on my wish list, each one screaming “buy me.”

Photo by Deborah Downes
Hello, my name is Kim Bullock and I am a book hoarder. An addict. If this condition is left unchecked, someday my house is going to look like this. (No, the photo was not taken in a used book store. It is a friend’s apartment. The view is the same from any angle, in any room.)

Instead of checking myself into the nearest 12-step program, I’m going to give you a glimpse of my bookshelf, the one filled with stories yet to be devoured, and invite you to do the same.

The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff

Admittedly, the cover seduced me first. A woman wears an expression like her world is about to end while she embraces a soldier. The Eiffel Tower looms in the background. The colors are faded, like a hand tinted historical photo.  Paris. 1919. Secrets. Danger. Romance. My heart races just thinking about cracking open the cover to this one.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

A female British spy is trapped in WWII France and arrested by the Gestapo. Will she give up her mission or face a grisly execution? I don’t know about you, but I have to know!

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

No, it isn't related to THOSE shades of gray. This one is another WWII story, YA this time, and takes place in Siberia. Oddly enough it had been sitting on my shelf a month when my daughter brought home a second copy from her school book fair, shoved it into my hands, and said “read this!”

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

This is one of the few non-fiction selections on my shelf, but all of King’s art history books read like densely-rich novels and, well, exactly like he speaks in person. This is a good thing.  It’s impossible to read anything by him without feeling both smarter and entertained.

The Josephine B. series by Sanda Gulland (The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, and The Last Great Dance on Earth.) 

What can I say? I love Napoleon and Josephine enough to stick with them for 1000 pages. 

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

I know little about this book other than it takes place in WWII from the point of view of a nine-year-old who encounters a fence and becomes friends with a boy in striped pajamas on the other side. In other words, it will tear my heart out by the roots.


This exercise has been enlightening. I never imagined that five of the eight books I chose from my stack would take place in France, and that all but one would involve war.  Hmmm…


So, what’s in your to-be-read stack?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

House Words

by Joan

The fantasy saga features many kingdoms, cities, rulers and lands. This series pits long-standing families against each other in a bid to put forth the one true King. The plot and characters are far too complicated to get into in just one post, but something that struck me is Martin’s use of House words, or mottoes.

A few examples:

House Stark: Winter is coming

House Baratheon: Ours is the Fury 

House Lannister: Hear me Roar (and, A Lannister always pays his debts)

House Targaryen: Fire and Blood

The family known as Stark are a cautious, practical bunch, wary of the pending dark times. Every move they make can be traced to their family words. The Lannisters are pompous, wealthy, conniving and manipulative. They lie, cheat and pay heaps of gold in exchange for power and safety. Children are schooled in these House words, so they grow up to know their enemies.

Just as a book has a theme, your character has a motto, whether you name it or not. If faced with an intruder, would your character draw a weapon, cower under the bed or offer all cash on hand in exchange for safety? If your character would fight a thief and an injustice, his motto might be that of House Martell: Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.

Which motto guides your character’s every move, her every step toward the one thing she yearns for more than anything, or away from what she fears most. I’m midway through the first draft of my next book. It’s time I figure out my characters’ defining words.

Think of your favorite characters. What are their mottoes?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Doctor, Lawyer, Soldier, Chef

By Pamela

One of my favorite riddles goes like this:

A man and his son were in an automobile accident. The father was killed instantly, and the boy was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment. After it was determined that the boy needed surgery, he was taken to the OR. The surgeon took one look at the patient and said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

How can this be?

Flickr image by Dr. Case
Before I reveal the answer, let's talk a bit about character. Often times we've heard characters referred to as cliched or stereotypical. The gay hairdresser/florist. The dumb jock. The blond cheerleader. The crooked politician. What's true about hobbies and professions can also apply to personalities. Not all mothers are loving. Not all old people are wise. Not all children are prodigies. Not all best friends are quirky. Be careful that you don't apply stock traits to your list of characters if you want them to be memorable.

I'm pretty sure my generation (and any before mine) tends to be quicker to put people into categories than our children are. Play a little game with me. As you read through the list of professions, assign a gender to it--the first that comes to mind.

  • Doctor
  • Nurse
  • Pilot
  • Flight Attendant
  • Teacher
  • Lawyer
  • Soldier
  • Dentist
  • CEO
  • Plumber
  • Electrician
  • Mechanic
  • Farmer
  • Jailer 
  • Landscaper
  • Maid
  • Jockey
  • Artist
  • Coach
  • Preacher
  • Programmer
  • Writer
  • Chef

(For fun, after you're finished, read the list to your child and see if he or she gets the same answers.) There's no crime in associating a certain gender with a particular profession. A lot of it likely has to do with your frame of reference. If every farmer you've ever met was male, then you'll naturally picture a man--probably wearing a pair of overalls and a John Deer cap--when someone says, "Hey, there's a farmer."

But consider taking a character in your story--particularly one who isn't coming alive on the page for you--and making that person the opposite gender. You might find his or her personality explodes once you've changed genders. Just be careful about going against type to the point of being obtrusive. If your main character is a female pilot who falls in love with a male flight attendant, only to find he's dying of cancer, and his oncologist is female, his nurse is male and they have to postpone building their dream home, so their female architect is put on notice ... it might work or it might be a little jarring.

As your reader gets younger, worrying about a character's gender should be less of an issue. For instance, my 10-year-old has a female dentist and a female pediatrician. Her dog's vet is female. Her fifth grade teacher is male (as was her fourth). Her principal is female. She doesn't assume gender like I do. My friend Maureen is a pilot and her son, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, said he really wanted to be a pilot but that was a girl's job. But if your reader is 30 or older, he or she likely has more preconceived notions about what to expect from characters. Take that into consideration and then decide how to make your characters come alive.

Back to the riddle at the beginning of this post ... in case you haven't figured it out: When asked to operate on the boy, the surgeon said, "I can't operate on him. He is my son."

The surgeon was his mother.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Avoiding the Words

By Susan

We all know that anyone who writes is a writer, yet we also know that there are many ways writers avoid sitting down and putting words on the page. Here's a quick list of my favorite distractions and some easy solutions on this lovely Friday morning:

1)   Work. "I need to work, so I can't focus on writing now." This is true—we do need to work. How about today when you take your lunch break you opt to eat outside? Bring a notebook with you and write for twenty minutes. If you can't muster up a few paragraphs, make some observations about your surroundings and write them down. They can be great prompts for later.
2)   Facebook. "I'm just going to see the new baby pictures for my next door neighbor's daughter's third grader teacher's new grandbaby that was born in Alaska that I will never meet in real life. It will only take one minute." We all know this is not true. You will spend two hours on Facebook engaging in arguments and clicking "like" and chatting with a long lost friend. Please. Log off. 
3)   Important Things. "I've got to go the post office and the grocery and drop the dog at the vet. Did you not see my to-do list?" Yes. We all have Important Things. They all get done. But that doesn't mean you can't bring your computer with you. I've been known to edit or revise while sitting in the school parking lot, waiting to pick up a daughter at the end of her school day. Make your writing one of the Important Things, and it will get done.
I drew a bird. 
4)   Draw. "Oh, look. I could draw that bird." Or maybe that's just me?
5)   Read. "I'll just finish this one chapter." That's a lie, but that's okay. I'll always say if I'm not writing, reading is the next best thing.
6)   Clean. "It's Friday/springtime/dusty in here. I can't just sit and write with all of this clutter!" Write one sentence before you pick up that mop. Maybe the sentence will turn into a paragraph, maybe not. But one good sentence is better than none. Make deals with yourself, and stick to them.
7)   Exercise. "But it's beautiful outside! I've been cooped up all winter! I need to run!" I can't fight you on that one…in fact, I'm a huge proponent of exercise as a great breeding ground for new ideas. Just make sure that you translate that thinking time to the page when you return. Focus your monkey mind and allow your creativity to flow while you sweat. Then write it all down.
8)   Tend to Everyone Else. "I simply can't take the time for myself right now. Everyone else needs me." Well. Yes. At times, this is true. But have you ever heard a male writer say this? Not often. We women tend to quickly put the needs of others—children, aging parents, neighbors, even people we don't like—ahead of our own needs. And this also applies to viewing our writing time as a bonus rather than as a necessity. Write as though you have to. After all, don't you?
9)   Wallow. "It's all crap anyway. There's no point." Oh wait, maybe this is just me. The only solution for wallowing is to write anyway. 
10) Research. "I can't write this scene until I understand how a Byzantine soldier would navigate the streets of Constantinople in the year 1242." No. Just no. Research is a fabulous tool, and a necessary one. But don't allow it to usurp your writing time. Set a timer. Research for thirty minutes. And then write.


The most important advice? Stick to it. Hold yourself accountable. And so for me, on this lovely warm spring day, I'm off to write on my patio, thankful for the words, opportunity, and time to do what I love. I suggest you do the same. Happy Friday!


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review of The Promise by Ann Weisgarber

By Julie

Here's a repost from 2013 that's relevant again with a few tweaks and updates. Congratulations to Ann Weisgarber, a fellow Texas author whose second novel is out in the U.S. this month with a gorgeous new cover! (Skyhorse Publishing / April 2014) 

I wrote this review last year when The Promise published in the U.K. I've since met Ann in person. She is lovely, kind, and gracious -- and she can write up a storm. Literally, in this case.
 

If you're in the DFW area, join Ann at her talk and signing at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Park, Dallas, April 17, 2014 at 7:00 p.m. Some of the What Women Write crew is sure to be in attendance!

I read Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel Dupree in 2012, and was blown away by this intense, moving story. It was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers and long-listed for the Orange Prize in the U.K., and was chosen for the ABA's Indie Next List and Barnes & Noble's Discover program when it released here in the States. I devoured it and couldn't wait to read something new from her.

Well, one of the perks of having a second English language publisher for Calling Me Home (Pan Macmillan in the U.K.) is getting occasional advance review copies from the U.K. My editor, Sophie Orme, discovered I had an interest in novels by Weisgarber, one of her authors and a fellow Texas writer, and she put a proof copy of The Promise in the mail that winter. (It published in the U.K. in April 2013.)

I read it over the holidays in whatever moments I could steal away from all the hullaballoo, and once again was startled and drawn in completely by this novel—most especially by the voices, exactly as I was with Rachel Dupree, a young African-American pioneer, in the previous novel.

The Promise is the story of Catherine Wainwright, a pianist who flees her Ohio home in disgrace, impulsively accepting the proposal of the man who worshipped her from afar when they were young. Oscar Williams is still rough around the edges, but he's stronger and surer of what he wants than Catherine expected when she agreed to marry him. He lives far away in Galveston, Texas, where he has built a dairy farm on "the ridge" far "down the island."

The Promise is also—and maybe more importantly—the story of Nan Ogden. Nan has been Oscar's housekeeper since his first wife died tragically. Upon Bernadette's death, Nan promised to always watch out for Andre, Bernadette and Oscar's only child. But there's more to her story: Nan harbors secret feelings for Oscar.

The story alternates between the distinct voices of Catherine—refined and stunned by her new life—and Nan—practical, realistic, and completely unable to deny the pull of her promise and her feelings.

It feels like a quiet story at first (intentional, I believe!). With careful and deliberate language and plotting, Weisgarber develops her characters through loaded interactions between Catherine and Oscar, Catherine and Nan, and Nan and Oscar, as well as Catherine's tentative struggle to become a mother to Andre.

But then the story marches toward the historic 1900 Galveston storm, the worst natural disaster in twentieth century American history. By the time I arrived at the second half of the book, through the warning signs and eventual arrival of the hurricane, my heart literally pounded as I read of Oscar's attempts to secure his animals and home and the people for whom he feels responsible. I stopped stealing bits of time and had to demand the few hours I needed to finish reading The Promise and learn what its heart-wrenching conclusion would be.

It's not an easy story to read (again, like The Personal History of Rachel Dupree). If you are easily frightened or like stories that tie up things with a pretty bow, you might not like it. But if you're like me—a reader entranced by realism, even when packaged in tragedy—you'll likely find it nearly impossible to tear yourself away from this story until you've finished, and then it will haunt you for days.

I highly recommend The Promise.

You can find Weisgarber online at annweisgarber.com and on Twitter at @AnnWeisgarber

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. I am making this statement in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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