Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween, Horror, and Suspense

By Susan

"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..." — Stephen King

We are not experts on terror here at What Women Write, that's no secret. Among us you'll find writers of women's fiction, historical fiction, YA, contemporary fiction and southern fiction. None of us purport to be Anne Rice. Yet at Halloween, it's always fun to think of the gross-out, the horror, and the terror, and finding a way with simple words to scare the beejeezus out of a each other.

The interesting thing about writing horror, I think, is that it's not the rabid dog or the possessed demon that gets us; it's the suspense the the author creates in taking us to that place where we are transported to the scene. Our breath quickens as our eyes move faster across the page. We think we know what is coming... but sometimes we're wrong. Dead wrong. With well-written horror it all becomes so fantastically believable that we leave our mundane surroundings and suddenly we are there, trapped by zombies and fighting for our lives, using the severed limbs of our fallen comrades as our only weapons in an epic battle of good and evil.

Of course, not all suspense is about zombies and rabid dogs, and for all of us "normal" fiction writers, I think we should take a lesson or two in creating tension in writing. How can we lead the reader down our trail of breadcrumbs until they arrive right where we want them to be? How best do we build suspense, remain unpredictable, avoid cliches, and create a novel that keeps you reading?

After an informal poll, here are some of the top techniques for creating suspense in fiction:

1) End chapters with a reason for the reader to keep the light on.
2) Only tell them what they need to know. Make them question what is coming next.
3) Make your story unique and interesting, yet somehow still plausible.
4) Edit with suspense in mind-and proofread your work actively looking for it. If it's not there, add it.
5) Think about pacing and immediacy--what is your character's emotion RIGHT NOW?
6) Expect the unexpected--and surprise your reader.
7) Add an element of danger.

Remember that you are writing for an audience, and your pacing, timeline, and flow of information must be such that the reader--and I think that this is just a little bit important--WANTS TO CONTINUE READING. Sure, we are writing for the sake of the story, or writing, to quote Mr. King again, "for happiness." But if your story doesn't carry some level of tension, then who is going to read it anyway?

Here's Joan's take on suspense in literature, and I couldn't agree more.

"The novels I find most suspenseful feature multi-faceted characters who are damaged or conflicted, faced with impossible dilemmas, and plagued with uneasiness about their futures. For writers, I think the key is to withhold vital information until absolutely necessary. Keep the stakes high, complicate it some more, and be unpredictable. Sometimes suspense stems from physical danger (Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants) or psychological (Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger), or maybe a combination (Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle). All three narratives drove the reader along a winding road in the fog, where visibility was limited and the unexpected lurked around every turn."

And so, for Halloween, I'm revisiting my manuscript and adding some suspenseful elements I may have forgotten. I'm changing chapter breaks, adding sentences of foreshadowing, upping the ante on plausibility, and planning a few new surprises. What about you?

Trick or Treat!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NaNo NaNo?

By Julie

It’s that time of year again. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, kicks off in less than a week and as always, the cyber world is abuzz with talk of who is NaNo’ing and who is not.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to get started on a new novel, though it doesn't work for everyone. It's also a fun time to make up your own rules and set a big goal even if it doesn't quite jive with the NaNo rules and you can't officially say you "won." The first year I participated, I made it NaNoFiMo -- National Novel Finishing Month. Last year, I set a goal of 40 thousand words, and I believe I made it to 30, but was thrilled with that.

I am not completely sure, but I think this is the first year in several that none of the What Women Write contributors are NaNo’ing. (Speak now or forever hold your peace if you are, ladies!) We had quite a time with it last year.

I will miss participating in the buzzy beehive of NaNo activity this year -- I love it! -- but I think I have a good excuse. I’m on the HOME STRETCH of my WIP! I have somewhere around ten thousand words or 40 pages to write, and then I will be able to type THE END on my first draft of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE.

I’d love to jump right into another manuscript. In fact, many writers suggest putting your first draft immediately aside for a time and starting something new. They claim your manuscript will be fresh when you read it that way, and that the things that need to be fixed will jump out at you a lot more.

Alas, I am not going to attempt this method this time around.

First of all, I’m not ready to start something new. The “something new” that’s been percolating in my mind for months now isn’t ready to be committed to any kind of paper just yet. I need to create an outline first, and I actually need to come up with a whole new idea for part of the plot as I discovered a favorite author wrote a book in the past that is FAR too close to that part. If I didn’t know her, I’d just plunge on, knowing there are no new stories, only new ways of writing them. But this is just too close to home. She’s about to re-release the book, too, so it would just be silly of me to use that idea. (Hello, Diane Chamberlain! Can’t wait to read Reflection!)

Second, I have not read my manuscript from the beginning since I started it. I managed quite a feat there. I only read back over the last chapter and sometimes only the last scene when I open my document to write the next bit. I’ve never done this before, but it’s another method seasoned writers suggest – just WRITE THE BOOK – and I did it this time. As they say, it’s flat out the Crappy First Draft.

I actually can’t WAIT to read the story I’ve been writing for about six months now. I am certain it will stink. I am certain it will need many complete overhauls before it can see the light of day. But it’s my baby. She’s been in the womb for all this time, and I am dying to know what she looks like. Hope she’s not too ugly!

So instead of NaNo’ing, I’ll be spending the month of November reading my manuscript (because surely I will have typed THE END before too many days have passed in the month) and starting to get a grip on the revisions it will require.

What about you folks? Who’s doing NaNo this year? We’d love to hear about your goals and hope you’ll keep us posted on your progress here or on our Facebook page!

EXTRA CREDIT: Five points to the first commenter who references the vintage sit-com the title of this post brings to mind!

Friday, October 22, 2010

How Do You Measure A Year?

By Susan Ishmael-Poulos

video
How do you measure a year?

In a week, I'll celebrate my 39th birthday- which gives me only 525,600 minutes before I turn The Big 4-0. God willing, I'll fill those minutes with family and love and travel and words. God-willing, I'll stand up for justice, support my friends, nurture my children and grow as a woman.

Laugh.
Cry.
Celebrate.
Grieve.
Love.

God-willing, this year ahead of me will be as full and as fun as the last.

Every year when the season turns from autumn to winter I evaluate the last 365 days and plan for the next 12 months. I don't make New Year's resolutions, I make birthday resolutions. Ending this decade, in many ways, is both a relief and a challenge. At 39, I'm finally a grown up. I'm settled in my skin, I know who I am and what I want. (Right? Please tell me I'm right). And my birthday resolution this year? To complete The Angel's Share, the manuscript I've held in my hands for longer than I care to admit. Forty for me is a good thing. It's a great motivator for getting things done.

Goal setting in writing is critical. This past week, Julie has challenged us to write 500 words a day, which means not just talking about writing, or blogging about writing, but actually writing. I took her up on her challenge and actually surprised myself: 1568 words in the past three days. Good words. Words that bring me closer to that light at the end of the tunnel. The beauty of this challenge is that as writers, we often rely only on internal motivation to write. If we are lacking in internal motivation- as many of us struggle with- it's great to have a friend challenge you to step up. External motivation in a powerful thing. My looming birthday is my biggest external motivation yet.

Where are you right now? Relying on you to motivate yourself to sit down and get those words out of your head and onto paper, or waiting on someone, or some thing, to challenge you? If you are of the latter, then here is your challenge. I'm stealing from Julie- (but she will forgive me)- Five hundred words a day. In the next 525,600 minutes you'll have written not one, but TWO manuscripts. Now: listen to the song I've attached above and get busy.

You can thank me later.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Clutter

by Elizabeth

I'm kind of a pack rat. Okay, "kind of" is putting it mildly. Let's say this: I'm not going to appear on reality television anytime soon clutching a Big Mac box left over from 1978, but I did recently come across a huge bag of letters written to me in the mid-'90s, and they did not land in the garbage bin.

So what happened the other day was sort of unusual. I was emptying the dishwasher, and found a chipped ramekin. I think my son loaded it poorly, and the water pressure knocked it around enough to break away a piece of its edge. I started to put it in the cabinet, and then on second thought, tossed it in the trash can.

For me, this was huge. Another day (maybe yesterday, or tomorrow), I would have put it away with its seven mates. Why? Just in case, I suppose. In case the day came when I needed to press the entire set into use at once, something that has never happened in the six or seven years I've had the things. Instead, it would annoy me every time I grabbed the damaged guy (we do a lot of dipping at our house), only to stick it at the bottom of the stack to rise and irritate again and again. But that didn't happen. Instead, I trashed it.

I did the same thing a couple of weeks ago in my garage. Sick of the tumble of boxes and crates and basket of loose junk cluttering the half my car doesn't demand, I skedaddled to Home Depot, bought myself a couple of huge laminate storage cabinets, and began sorting through the junk. (This is when the bag of letters showed up.)

A water-stained box taped up before my kids were born exhumed binders of notes and syllabi from my senior year of college. I took a second to admire my once-neat handwriting, then took a deep breath and tossed the bulk into the recycling bin. I retained only a folders-worth of term papers (it's terrific fun to revisit the pomposity of college, and my guess is I'll enjoy it just as much when I'm 85--perhaps even more), and felt no remorse or loss in letting go of the rest. In fact, I felt lighter, freer, better.

The next box was stuffed with cookbooks I'd long forgotten, much less used, and its contents met a similar fate. I held on to the apple cookbook written by the mother of an old friend, recipes I'd been called to be a guinea pig for back in junior high, and The Early American Cookbook was spared. The rest I hauled to Half Price Books, where they gave me ten bucks for the lot. (I guess there's not a lot of demand for Campbell's Soup recipes or Richard Simmons these days.)

My husband/fellow pack rat has even more junk than me. His things I left alone. (This is the man who replied, "That is correct," when I, exasperated, once snarled, "So let me get this straight: we are going to store this box of Army undershirts forever, and never look at them again, and when we are dead, the kids will throw them out?" At least he had the decency to look sheepish.) Besides, several tubs worth were comic books painstakingly tucked in plastic sheaths; I might need the money someday. (Sh!) Those got stored on top of the shiny new cabinets. They weighed a ton, too, and we had to reinforce the cabinet tops with plywood. Still, we already had it, and like I said: money.

Speaking of money and books, another item popped up, still in its mylar wrapper. That one I'm hanging on to; if something happens to Madonna, I'm betting the value will skyrocket. Just don't ask why I own it.

Wow, Elizabeth, you are likely thinking by now, it's really great you again possess the recipe for Kadi's Caramel Apples, and it's good to know yours is the attic to rob if I ever need a stash of ugly brown T-shirts, but what does this have to do with writing?

Simply this: by habit, or stubbornness, or plain old nostalgia, we hold on to things. That includes our writing. Sometimes it's okay to let it go. There are projects we may have started, once loved, and then abandoned, and while I'm not saying the actual trash is necessary, a distant file and a bit of amnesia are not always a bad thing. Too much old stuff, too tight a fist on a manuscript that never found a home, might be clutter that keeps us from the next thing, the new thing, even the best thing. There's a time to let go. Only we can determine when--and even how--but knowing that, and accepting it, are as much a part of being a successful writer as the writing itself. Well, that's probably an overstatement, but not by too much.

One of my favorite childhood reads was Where the Red Fern Grows, about a boy who struggles mightily to obtain a pair of hunting dogs. When he finally succeeds, he's faced with a new problem: obtaining a coonskin to train them. His grandfather tells him about a trap he can set: simply put a shiny piece of tin inside a ring of nails pounded into a stump on an angle, and the raccoon will reach for it, grab it, and be trapped by his own fist. The boy thinks for a moment, and then, crestfallen, realizes his grandfather is teasing him. "Why all he'd have to do is open his paw, drop the piece of tin, and he could pull it from the hole." True, the grandfather tells the boy, except the animal won't. When the boy sets the trap, he sees for himself the grandfather told the truth: once that raccoon had grasped his prize, he refused to let go. Even to save his own life.

Old letters from lost friends; a chipped ramekin; a moldering cookbook; a fizzled half-written manuscript; a circle of tin auguring peril. Some things we keep, but others should be let go, freeing up space, or time, or air to breathe in the new. Sometimes it's obvious what should go, other times it's less clear, but it's worth the minute or the hour to evaluate, to reminisce, and sometimes, with writing, to clear a corner under the bed and finally let it go.

Monday, October 18, 2010

You can’t scare me

by Joan

I’m afraid of spiders and rats and snakes. I’m afraid of the dark. I panic in tight spaces. I’d like to have 1/8th of Lisbeth Salandar's gumption. If I’d been buried alive in dirt, I’d have died of a heart attack before I could choke out, “Get lost, worm.”
I’m also afraid of irons, but that’s a long, boring story. No one would want to read a book with me as the main character. But Lisbeth Salandar? Whatever she’s up to next, I’ll read about it.


Our favorite fictional characters have quirks and flaws and fears. To write a memorable character, we must throw her into a most feared situation and watch as she claws her way out or adapts.

But it’s not only mud and snakes we dread. Fear of failure looms over many of us. Fear of getting our work torn apart when we read our first chapter at critique group, of querying our first agent, of sending a requested full manuscript. Or, my personal favorite, fear of speaking in front of a crowd.

In January, we What Women Write ladies will present our first formal workshop. We were asked to host one of the monthly Writers’ Guild of Texas programs and speak about our blog: how we conceived the idea, came up with the name, schedule blog posts, and what advice we would give to others who might want to do something similar. Luckily I can defer mostly to my five more eloquent partners, but I will have a short piece. (I’ll of course need to conquer this for my first author talk or book signing. Or maybe just pop a Xanax.) Lisbeth Salandar no doubt has this Gandhi quote as a screensaver: “There would be nothing to frighten you if you refused to be afraid.”

When my son was a toddler, we took parenting classes. One of the ways we learned to motivate a fearful child was to point out strengths in other areas or difficult situations they’ve overcome. So I tried this on myself: “Anyone who has been interviewed on camera at an NBA Basketball game can…” No wait, I choked and that interview never aired. Try again. “Anyone who has chatted with Emma Thompson…” No wait, I choked there too, and mentioned something silly like I was a writer. “You and everyone else,” she must have been thinking.

Okay, how about this? “Anyone who has spoken to a conference room full of scary investors, intimidating tax accountants, and menacing attorneys can surely speak in front of a group of harmless writers.” Now we’re getting somewhere. My fear level just cut in half. You writers don’t scare me.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Vision Quest


By Kim

A mother’s heartbeat is the song of her child, connecting her child to the world. You are the Earth mother’s child. Hear her vibration and connect to her pulse, for the drum speaks through her to those that listen. – An elder’s wisdom

This morning as I sat here in my “office” pondering what to write for today’s post I felt a slight shiver and promptly opened all the windows in the house. This time of year usually makes me long to lie on a carpet of fiery leaves and stare in wonder at the ceiling of a forest cathedral. (Such churches are in short supply here in Dallas, which is perhaps why I still don’t consider it home despite having lived here for thirteen years.)

It isn’t the forest I long for now, but a river. The smooth triangular shaped rock I plucked from the banks of the Saugeen six years ago today sits beside me on my desk as I write.

I’ve been to many places while researching for The Oak Lovers, following Carl Ahrens’ footsteps all over southern Ontario and western New York. Knowing that little remains of the reservation where he was once adopted into an Ojibwa tribe, I almost skipped making the trip to Southampton in 2004. It’s true that the rock garden and the amphitheater were not there in my great-grandfather’s time, but he surely stood on the bluff and watched the silvery light dance off the Saugeen River. I’d seen more dramatic landscapes, certainly, but never before had I heard music in the rustle of branches or felt such a profound sense of peace and belonging. My cousin, traveling with me at the time, dared voice the thought: “His spirit’s here.”

I saw no specter, heard no voice from the past in any conventional sense, but as I nodded my entire concept of the world and what comes after we leave it altered. My pulse, racing up to that point, slowed. The names, dates, places and events I had come to Canada to learn about were gently swept to a far corner of my mind. I saw them for what they were then; a thousand trees that would prevent me from ever seeing the forest. I took a deep breath, but before I could fully form the question in my mind, I felt a strong urge to get in the car and continue our journey to Tobermory. My vision quest had begun.
Three hours later and sixty-six miles north, I approached a ceremonial teepee in the woods behind an Ojibwa-themed campground. I expected a cheesy re-enactment of a full moon ceremony for the benefit of tourists, but curiosity led me to join a circle of eight strangers around the campfire in the center of the teepee. I was at least twenty years younger than the other women and the only one not holding a hand-made elk skin drum. The Ojibwa elder smiled and bid me welcome in her native tongue. As I watched her construct a tobacco offering resembling an umbilical cord, I realized that my need to be there was no longer about my book, or even my ancestor, but about me. I desired to listen with my instincts instead of my ears, to put my faith in those wonders that can be neither seen nor explained, merely experienced.

I followed her lead: one knot for myself, one knot for my children, a third for my ancestors, and a fourth for a special friend. The elder sang as she worked, a haunting melody in a language both unintelligible and oddly familiar.

Each woman in turn stood in front of the fire and said a payer of thanks. Some addressed God, others Kitche Manitou (Great Mystery). After dropping the tobacco offering onto the fire, each added a cedar bough, which smelled heavenly. Next came a water offering – one spoonful to the ground, one to the fire, one to the rock, and one to yourself.

These are the things I learned that night:

I can’t make a buffalo call to save my life, but I can feel it in my bones.

Crowded teepees are sweltering even on cold nights.

Time travel is possible. Listen to a native drum with your eyes closed and you'll forget which century you're in.

The combination of burning cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco will keep you blissfully disoriented until you can fully get the smell out of your clothes and hair. You will miss the intense dreams when you do.

I rose before the sun the next morning, something I never do, and this view greeted me.


What about you? Have you ever been on a vision quest or experienced anything that has altered your perception of the world around you? If you write, how has this affected your work?

Note: Painting is Indian Camp by Carl Ahrens, oil on canvas, undated.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The way I see it ...


By Julie

The author, in his work, must be like God in the Universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~ Gustave Flaubert

Last time I posted, I tried to give a basic primer in point of view, from my position as facilitator and definitely not expert. I promised I’d talk a little this time about how or why I select a certain point of view when I write.

Well, here’s the honest-to-God truth: Point of view chooses me.

I’d say in 95 percent of things I’ve written, I never even stopped to consider the point of view. I just started writing. I’ve written in first person and third person. I’ve used close (or limited!) third person and distant third person. I’ve never tried second or purposely tried omniscient.

Generally it just seems a story idea comes to me with point of view already chosen for me.

Sound a little nutty? A little too out there for you?

It could sound like a lot of hooey to me, too, because I tend to be a skeptic and I’m on the verge of cynical. But I am also a big believer in allowing something bigger than me to guide me in my writing and lots of other areas of life. Because I’m a skeptic, when I allow myself to be guided, it feels pretty overriding. Just plain “right.”

But I have stopped to contemplate the how and why of the points of view I’ve selected … or that have been selected for me.

Let’s consider it as given that first person tends to be very intimate. The reader is privy to nearly every thought the character has (of course, that brings to mind another kind of narrator or point of view I failed to mention last time: the unreliable narrator! Yikes!). Third person tends to be at least a little more distant.

As for me, here’s the way I figure it.

When I have a story idea, it’s almost always a very visual idea inside my head. I don’t tend to think in words alone. I am not an auditory learner at all. I struggle to listen to audio books, though they’ve come in handy at times. I really didn’t even like to be read to as a child much, and didn’t particularly enjoy reading to my own kids when they were small, poor little things. I always have to have my hands or eyes on something else while I’m listening to someone read. I am definitely tactile and probably almost as visual.

So when I am “seeing” a story in my head, I’m usually seeing it a certain way. I’m either seeing it as though: a) I’m an observer, or b) I am the character(s).

In other words, I’m either watching my character(s) acting out the story, or I am inside their head(s) acting out the story myself.

My previous manuscript used two third-person points of view. The characters, a mother and son, were extremely close and had almost identical worldviews. The story came to me in third person, and I suspect it’s because if I’d tried to write two first-person points of view, it would have been very difficult to tell the voices apart. Third person gave me a tool to show each interacting in the ways that made them different.

My current manuscript, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, is written in two first-person points of view. I can hear each voice, one an elderly white woman, the other a much younger African-American woman, from very different backgrounds and with very different worldviews, clearly in my head. They have different ways of speaking and dealing with the things around them. I can’t imagine this story in anything other than first person.

I like to consider it and explain it from a filmmaker’s point of view. Typically, when you watch a movie, the filmmaker either selects a fairly distant angle on a scene, where you (the audience) are observing the characters interacting with each other or with their environments, or follows right alongside the character, allowing you as the audience to see the scene just as the character is seeing it.

That’s how it is my head. And I’ve tried to fight it on occasion and it just didn’t work at all. I can play with tenses, using past or present, even change a story from one to the other, but I can’t seem to mess with point of view. It is what it is.

I suppose if a story came to me in an omniscient point of view, it would be similar to a camera panned all the way out, almost as though I were above a roofless setting, able to see every single thing going on below, no matter where it occurred or who was hiding what from another character.

I’m not sure how second person would look using this idea. And I doubt I’ll ever write a second person point of view, because I really can’t picture it using this model at all. I bet someone else could, though. Someone not me.

It may be that if you are a different kind of thinker or learner, you have to intentionally choose point of view, that you see it far differently than I do. It would be an interesting survey to match learning types with something like selecting point of view.

But if this works for you, it might help you know which point of view is right for your new story.

I’d love to hear how our readers select point of view. Do you have a similar experience, or have you actively selected whether to use first, third, or some other point of view?

Photo credit: Trenchfoot's Flickr photostream, by Creative Commons License

Monday, October 11, 2010

What Women Write interview with Susan Allison of Richardson Public Library

By Pamela

Since 2004, the Richardson Public Library in Richardson, Texas, has enthusiastically encouraged its community to read. Not really an innovative undertaking for a library, but their campaign, Richardson Reads One Book, has each person in town prompted to read the same title. A nightmare for a librarian, possibly?

The goals of RROB are to build community participation in an annual program that selects and reads one particular book that is carefully chosen for its general interest as well as for its timely, thought-provoking issues; and to encourage citizens of a richly diverse community to come together to openly discuss the book and the issues it raises. The chosen book will be available in paperback and preferably will also be available in another format such as an audio recording or a film. The book will be accessible to high school as well as to adult audiences.

Garth Stein recently spoke at RROB
This year’s book was The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. Previous titles have included:

Three Cups of Tea by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson (2009)
Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian (2008)
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2007)
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult (2006)
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2005)
Pay It Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde (2004)

I wanted to find out more about this undertaking and talked with Susan Allison, assistant director of The Richardson Public Library and current president of Richardson Reads One Book.

PAMELA

Having a community read one book didn’t start with your library, did it?

SUSAN

Oh, no. One Book, One Community is a nation-wide reading program created in 1998 by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl with the Washington Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. Her plan—and our plan as well— was to pick a single book that had broad appeal and that highlighted compelling issues and to encourage everyone in the community to build bonds through small group discussion groups and community events related to the One Book title.

PAMELA

Why did Richardson decide to become a part of the initiative?

SUSAN

The Richardson program began in 2003 when several interested people in the community decided to give it a try. The original committee included several of us at the Richardson Public Library, a former Richardson Arts Commission chair and English professor at Collin College, and the director of the Richardson Adult Literacy Center. To our knowledge, Richardson was the first city in the Dallas area to attempt a One Book program, and one of only a handful in Texas. We knew there were lots of readers in Richardson—interest was high. The challenge came with starting a community-wide program with little money. We’ve been amazed and gratified at the number of individual donors and loyal community entities, such as the hospital, community college, and civic groups, who have supported the program for the last seven years.

PAMELA

Having spent several years as part of a monthly book club, I know how difficult—and yet how important—choosing a book can be for a dozen people. The thought of trying to find a title that appeals to tens of thousands seems impossible. How is a title selected?

SUSAN

Our criteria is: the book must appeal to a wide range of readers, from high school to senior citizens; it should be provocative, with universal themes that lends itself well to group discussion; it should preferably be written at about a 7th grade reading level in order to be accessible to a wide range of readers; and it should be available in paperback, as well as other formats—such as a book on CD, in large print, or in other languages. We begin compiling a list of candidates in the fall—books recommended by people in the community as well as quite a few recommended by our librarians on the committee! The list usually has about 30 titles on it—both fiction and nonfiction. The committee reads for several months, and before the holidays we narrow the list down to our top four to six. At that point everyone makes sure they read the shortlist. We meet back in January/February to vote, argue and lobby for our favorites! Sometimes the choice is easy—sometimes it’s agony. After we make our choice, we contact an agent in New York we’ve worked with for years and she checks availability and cost of the author.

PAMELA

Wow, that sounds like an exhausting process and yet exciting to be a part of. How has the program grown?

SUSAN

The most important way it has grown is in name recognition. There is a great deal of community interest all year long now. People are eager to know what book we’ve chosen and there’s a lot of excitement around the time we “reveal” the One Book. The program has established credibility—even when we pick a book that initially makes people say “What?!,” we get support and attendance. Many who were not thrilled with a particular title end up reading it anyway after they hear the author speak; or some who did not care for the book at first reading, after hearing the author, decide that they’ll give it another chance. We’ve found some of the best book discussions are those where people have mixed opinions or just flat out don’t like! I believe our community trusts that the One Book is worthy of attention.

PAMELA

That’s strikingly similar to what I’ve experienced in a smaller group book club. Some of us, who begrudgingly read a title, end up loving it. Others will go back and read if the group discussion piques their interest.

But writers can prove to be a shy lot. Ever worry about how someone will do speaking in front of such a large group?

SUSAN

That’s always a worry. We’ve been fortunate that all of our authors have been well-spoken and used to large crowds. We had one you might consider shy or soft-spoken—but when he spoke, the auditorium was hushed—the audience held on to every word! I think most realize that their audience is supportive and eager to hear them, regardless of the size. And that readers want to hear an author, regardless of his/her public speaking ability.

PAMELA

It is fascinating to put a face and voice together with the written word. I was able to attend when Jeannette Walls spoke about writing The Glass Castle. I thought the crowd was very receptive to her talk. Do you get much feedback afterward from those who attend?

SUSAN

Yes we do! The excitement lingers for quite a while, as does the continued discussion of the book. Some book clubs purposely wait until after the author speaks to have their book discussions, feeling it provides an added dimension to their discourse. I’ve been a librarian for 28 years, and one thing I know for sure about the Richardson community: They love hearing authors, and reading and talking about books!

PAMELA

And it’s nice that you make the event available to those outside the immediate community. I know I hope to attend again. Can you tell us anything about the next book selection? Has it been chosen and when will it be announced?

SUSAN

The 2011 book will be chosen—hopefully!—in February, and then announced in late March or April. We are reading right now. We actually have two or three from last year’s list that we really liked and were runners-up for the 2010 choice. But who knows? That’s part of the fun of being on this board.

PAMELA

If someone was interested in starting a Reads-One-Book initiative in their community, what advice would you give them?

SUSAN

The best place to start is on the Center for the Book website. You can look at the programs in all 50 states and see what books and authors other cities have chosen. Their website is: LOCgov/cfbook. From there you can search for the One Book One Community programs, and then go to websites around the country to look for best practices. You can also find support materials from the American Library Association. They have marketing templates and helpful information on a CD you can buy: ALAStore.ala.org. Of course, no One Book program would be complete without support from your local public library. Librarians can be your best friend when it comes to reading and readers’ advisory!

PAMELA

Oh, I completely agree. Librarians have long been some of my favorite people and that affinity started way back in elementary school. Thanks, Susan, for your wonderful responses to my questions. I hope you’ve inspired others to start a book group—either one that intimately meets in a coffee shop or a community that bonds over a mutual love of reading. You’ll have to stop back by and let us know your 2011 selection!

Friday, October 8, 2010

My Own Personal Workshop

By Susan

This time one week ago I was stranded in New York City.

I bounced between two airports with a dead iPhone after a canceled connection, untethered from the rest of the world, fascinated that New York crazy was nothing like Accra crazy, amazed that this same hot sun that baked me in Africa could kiss me in Manhattan on a perfect and cool autumn sunset.

In my transition from one continent to the other, my mind looked forward to the completion of my novel. I starting planning my next phase of the book, a phase I am calling The Splice. I visualized printing the completed 75,000 words, laying them out on the floor in stacks, and moving everything around, chapter by chapter, mixing scenes from 1950 with 1968, juxtaposing 2003 with 1965. I decided, in the middle of my travels home, that what I needed was a Personal Workshop.

A Personal Workshop is unlike any writer's conference I've ever attended. It is tailored-made for me: it's two quiet days and nights in my own house with my own favorite meals. It's a curriculum that I alone create and present. I choose the topics. I get the work done and write when I need to write. Without interruptions. I can splice it up, I can write new chapters, I can get a grip and find some closure on my sprawling, never ending story.

Alone time does this to me, this day dreaming about the end of the novel. This desire to push myself to finish it, to wrap it up, to make it final. A Personal Workshop is just what I need. I've just finished two weeks travelling alone in Ghana. My work consumed me there, the early mornings and long commutes to meeting after meeting and the cool spells after the rains where I would sing hymns with a chorus of African voices at evening devotions. Yet in my alone time, I drifted back to The Angel's Share. In the taxi between Kennedy and La Guardia, it hit me. I need a Personal Novel Writing Workshop.

My plan is simple: for my upcoming birthday, all I ask is for two nights alone (sorry family, it's for my own good.) From there, I have the weekend scheduled with times devoted to certain elements of the story where I need the most help. This workshop, unlike others I've attended, is completely tailored to me and my needs. Here are the classes I will take in my two days:
1) The Splice--codeword for "Editing" chapter order with no re-writing involved
2) Point of View (hoping for a guest lecture from Julie over afternoon tea)
3) Finding Voice
4) Writing the Difficult Chapters (yes, actually writing them, not just thinking about them)
5) The Re-Outline (perhaps with a visit from a structure enthusiast?)
6) Finding the Plot Holes and Fixing Them
7) Completing the Timeline for the Manuscript

From there, I will segue to the November whatwomenwrite retreat, where I will crank out a few thousand words in three quick days. By December, I'll have a great idea of where I am, where I am going, and when I will actually be able to say "I'm ready."

And when I say "I'm ready," it means I am ready for the next phase. Ready to call it finished, ready to find an agent with a real editor, a publisher, and move forward. Ready to catch up to my friends who have submitted manuscripts, who have published their work, who have moved on from their first novel and are now writing their second, and third, and tenth novel.

As for New York? I made a connecting flight. I finally made it home after 22 hours both awake and in the air. A bit like my novel--I'm now ready to bring it in for a landing, safe at it's final destination. Because if I'm not the one to kick myself in the pants to say "I'm ready to land," then who will? It's time. And so here's toasting to epiphany moments, and to taking the long way home. Here's to my own Personal Workshop. I'll let you know how it goes!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

That's Not Fair

by Elizabeth

One of my favorite ways to find new authors is to peruse the "new fiction" shelf my local library kindly stocks directly across from the DVDs. I'll scan the spines, and when a title catches my fancy, I'll pull out the book, flip it over or to the inside cover to read the blurb, then check out the author's bio. Sometimes I read the bio first, and I always check out the acknowledgments to see if an agent is mentioned. I've learned that certain agents can be counted on to rep books I'll like. (And if I don't recognize the agent but love the writer, I'll add the agent to my to-research-for-queries list.)

That's how I found the book I'm reading now, Bird in Hand, by Christina Baker Kline. I'm only about forty pages in, but by the time I finished the prologue, I was already both hooked and depressed. Hooked, because this is a story I want to read. Depressed, because this is a story I want to write. That's not fair! my mind screamed when I recognized the bones of a storyline I'd been tossing around for a couple of years. Well, not really the exact story, but some of the same elements. Kline beat me to it. That's not fair!

I love it when my kids say this. I tell them they are darn lucky life's not fair, because if it was, their cushy lifestyle would go way, way down in quality. All it takes is a quick look at what Susan does every day of her life to realize that. Fairness goes both directions, and we Americans are almost to a man on fortune's A-list.

Still, even within our own circles, life is never fair. There will always be someone who is smarter, prettier, more successful, thinner, richer, healthier, stronger, taller, shorter, cuter, funnier, more serious, less serious, more flexible, a better mother or friend or sister or daughter. And then there is always someone who is less than us as well. Sadder. Sicker. More alone. Less alone. Hungry.

One of the things smart writers do when they get together but never publicly is gawp at some of the books that manage to get published. "This," we will say, but never write, never email, never ever blog or post, "found a publisher, and yet I haven't," or our friend hasn't, or the unbelievably talented guy at critique hasn't. "That's not fair!"

True enough, it's not. But it's also not fair that some people have a gift, some people don't. My dog can sing better than I can. And if you asked me to draw said dog, I doubt you'd be able to recognize the result as canine. When it comes to dancing, I'm possibly more pathetic than Elaine Benes. But I've always believed I could write pretty well, and the jury of my life would tend to agree. I'm honored to be included with these five women here at What Women Write, five women who are unfairly talented compared to the world, women whose work I believe I'll read in print, even if some other newer writer doesn't quite get their stuff and sees it as so. Un. Fair.

Life's not fair. Publishing is not fair, writing is not fair, talent is not fair, and there's not a lot we can do about it other than to embrace the good in our own lives and try to do our best with it.

So what if Christina Kline already published an idea I'd had in mind? Life is not fair, and one thing that is certain is the experiences that have colored how she sees the world and therefore what she wrote are different than mine. Which means that I can take that idea I had, use the unfair time I have when I'm not working a third job to put food on the table for my kids, use these undamaged hands on this computer I don't have to share, and write my own story even if the galvanizing event is similar. By the time my story unfolds, it won't be the same anyway. It might not be as good as what she wrote (how unfair). But it will be mine, and like every word on every page, it will be a reminder of the lack of fairness that allows me the luxury to write.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Q&A Swap with Janet Skeslien Charles

by Joan

Moonlight in Odessa author Janet Skeslien Charles and I are swapping Q&As today. We're thrilled to have her here, but I'm equally as thrilled to be showcased on her blog! Once you've finished here, click on over...

From the Publisher:
In Odessa, Ukraine, Daria, a whip-smart engineer, spends her days underemployed as a secretary—a job she was lucky to get in this rotten economy. She spends her evenings moonlighting as an interpreter at an agency that matches lonely American men with beautiful-but-broke Ukrainian women. She spends her nights wondering if there is more. When an American client offers marriage and a one-way ticket out of poverty, Daria jumps at the chance. She soon learns there's a reason that her husband couldn't find a wife in America, and that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the world. The perfect book for anyone who's ever been stuck in a dead-end job or relationship, Moonlight in Odessa is an exploration of language, culture, and the difficult choices we make in the pursuit of love and stability.



Joan: Moonlight in Odessa has it all—unique atmosphere, unpredictable plot, intriguing yet flawed characters. But one thing that struck me (while I was up until 4am finishing the novel!) was the pacing. I kept telling myself one more line, okay the next line, um, the one after that. I went back to try and figure out how you pulled that off. I’m still not sure—but I’m going to study it some more. Sentence structure? Dialogue? Please share your secret!

Janet: I am so glad that you enjoyed the novel! One thing I tried to do in every chapter was to raise the stakes. Daria’s life is one big obstacle course – she has conflict at work, trouble with men, and is forced to make tough choices at an age where she doesn’t have the maturity or wisdom to understand the consequences. Yet, at any age, how do we know what the right choice is until we make it?

Joan: Your introduction of wordplay into the narrative worked so well. Daria has studied English and finds great irony and wit in the differences between Odessans and Americans; she often interjects anecdotes and conjugated verb forms to prove her point. Even so, her perceptions and inner dialogue never strayed from advancing the plot. As a writer, I’m aware of the craft and attention that must have gone into assuring the wordplay didn’t bog down the narrative. Did you get resistance from agents or editors about this?

Janet: Thank you for your kind words! Since Daria was a very reserved character, I used the verbs and comparisons as a way for her to express her excitement, worries, and fears. I didn’t get any resistance about the wordplay, but pacing was a big concern to me. Another manuscript I had worked on for years did not have tension or action until page fifty. In Moonlight in Odessa, it was important to find a way to begin the action from page one and to raise the stakes throughout the entire novel.

Joan: An unexpected twist occurs when, despite Daria’s devotion to language, she overlooked a red flag. (I saw it at the time, but dismissed it!) I’ve been noticing a similar pattern in books with well-written characters: Sometimes a key strength undermines their ability to see the big picture. Was this intentional?

Janet: It was intentional. When many of us fall in love, we see what we want to see in our partners. We dismiss anything that is not part of the script we have written in our heads. Daria wants to believe, so she does. I wanted to show how a smart, feisty woman can have her confidence stripped away, one putdown at a time. And I wanted to show that women can find the courage to leave and start over.

Joan: Continuing our discussion on character, in an interview you said that in early drafts Harmon started with no redeeming qualities, yet he changed in ways you never expected. You wanted the reader to re-evaluate him after every chapter, wanted to make sure he evolved in a believable way. I gave great thought to his character as I was reading, so I think you achieved your goal. Harmon’s character is so real, it seems he had his own ideas of where the story would lead! Did you always know how it would end?

Janet: I thought that the book would have a sad ending, because the cases I saw of foreign women who had moved to Montana to marry American men did not end well. Then I decided that the past doesn’t have to dictate the future. I wanted to show that it is possible to start over and that sometimes we have more friends and resources than we think we do.

Joan: Daria’s revelation about her moonlighting job felt very believable. You’ve spent some time with the subject of mail order brides. (Or email order, as you refer to it the book!) Can you tell readers a bit about your experience?

Janet: My aunt lived across the street from an Odessan who had married a Mormon. Both had children from first marriages. They lived on an Indian reservation in a town that had a population of 200 people in Montana. Quite a shock for a woman from a city of over a million inhabitants, a city on the sea full of theatres, cafes, and museums. Her American husband expected her to bow to his wishes; for example, he wouldn’t let her drink coffee because it contained caffeine. When I met her, she seemed so very sad. She had made this bargain for her children’s future. Her choice underlined the sacrifices we make for the people we love.

I have done a lot of research and found that the one factor in a foreign woman’s happiness in a marriage to an American or Canadian man is location. Women who live in cities can take English as a Second Language classes, find work, and have friends of the same background. Women who live in rural areas are often more isolated and unable to work and are therefore dependent on their mates. It is estimated that 10,000 women who meet their husbands on international marriage brokers such as www.amorsi.com enter the United States each year on three-month K-1 FiancĂ©(e) visas. This means that they have three months to marry the man or they must return home. That is not a lot of time to make such an important decision.

Joan: I was struck by how different the Odessan culture is—especially their pride, in particular Daria’s inability or unwillingness to share her feelings with those closest to her. Did you struggle with cultural differences during your stay?

Janet: The first year I lived in Odessa was a time of culture shock. Everything was different – not necessarily better or worse, just different, from the way people approached food to their appearances. I think that Ukrainians had more balanced diets and did not follow fads such as the no fat or no carb or South Beach or North Pole diet. At the school where I worked from 1994-1996, boys had to wear suits while female students and teachers had to wear dresses or skirts. I only brought one dress and two skirts to Odessa – not enough to make it through the school year! My colleague wore a beautiful pantsuit and was chastised by the principal. On the other hand, the principal never had to deal with students wearing “lowrider” jeans.

In two years, I never saw anything go to waste – not a scrap of food, a piece of material, or a yogurt container. Everything was used or had a second life. That was an important lesson.

People were very kind and generous. I think Ukrainians are the best hosts in the world. I have never felt so welcomed and many people who have lived in the Ukraine say the same thing. But people were reserved, and it did take time before they would open up about their lives and families. My favorite coworker was ashamed of her apartment and would not tell me where she lived. Even when I left the country, she told me to write to her in care of her mother.

Joan: I enjoyed seeing all the various book covers on your website; the Taiwanese cover is especially stunning. Do you have a favorite?

Janet: I agree that the Taiwan edition is stunning. The different artwork amazes me! The artists have done a brilliant job of conveying different elements of the book. I like the playing card cover of the Swedish edition. I also really like how the Icelandic cover mixes lace, a Russian doll, and a one-hundred dollar bill to show that international marriage organizations represent both romance and commerce. The Dutch covers bring out the darker elements of the story and for that I think that they are the strongest images.

Joan: I understand your next book revisits Odessa. Will we see some of the same characters? Daria makes an appearance, right?

Janet: Right now, I am working on a novel from Jane’s point of view – an exploration of Odessa and her friendship with Daria. I’d like to bring back some of the characters and show them in a different light. Will anyone read the book? I haven’t shown it to anyone yet.

Joan: I’m copying one of your questions to me: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Janet: My good friend Jennifer Massman told me, “Be kind, many people are fighting tough battles.”

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me. I am honored to be featured on What Women Write!


Thanks Janet! Readers, I'm betting you will love the characters in Moonlight in Odessa as much as I did!
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