Friday, March 29, 2013

I Took the Dare



By Kim



A couple of weeks ago our own Pamela Hammonds dared our readers to take a few risks. Among the challenges was to enter a writing contest. It’s been many years since I’ve done so, and I might have shrugged off the advice had Joan not alerted me to Pitch Madness, a contest led by YA author Brenda Drake and hosted on her blog, as well as the blogs of authors S.M.Johnston, Shelley Watters and Summer Heacock.

The good news: All I needed to do to enter was e-mail the first 250 words of my manuscript and a 35 word or less pitch. If the “slush zombies” sent me to the final round, a panel of fifteen agents would see the work and potentially throw darts (requests) at it.

The bad news: I didn’t know about the contest until a few hours before the deadline. The idea of trying to compellingly summarize my book in one sentence made me feel faint.

I remembered Pamela’s dare, and went to work. Joan kindly critiqued both pitch line and the first 250 words. Off it went.

On Monday, I knew the agent round was a day away and I hadn’t heard anything, so I assumed I did not make the cut. Then I received an e-mail that linked to a Twitter post featuring the Pitch Madness logo. I’m not on Twitter much, but I decided to dust off my account and see what was going on. I happened upon Brenda Drake’s site where she listed her 16 finalists. I wasn’t among them, but I saw a reference to 64 total finalists. I clicked on S.M. Johnston’s blog, and there I was. If you want to see my entry, here is the link.

The agent round is going on as I write this, but all requests will be revealed by the time the post is published. Hopefully, I’ll be hit by a few darts. No matter what, though, I’ve learned a few things from this experience.

I CAN write a compelling short pitch, painful as it was to do.

My opening 250 words make people want to read on.

Many agents are active on Twitter and they do tweet about their preferences. At the very least I should follow and lurk.


Anyone else take a risk with their writing recently? Tell us about your experience.

Update 3/30/13: I got hit by two darts asking for sizable partials.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Who Did You Miss?

by Elizabeth

I thought I'd read everything by Bebe Moore Campbell, beginning with Your Blues Ain't Like Mine, which I think I first read about ten years ago. I think my favorite is Brothers and Sisters, which I've read at least twice, and which I often think about it when I'm in the shower, actually. Don't ask. Sadly, Campbell passed away much too young in 2006, and hearing the news, I was sad there would be no  more works from her.

But at the library a couple weeks ago, I discovered a book of hers I'd not read, 72 Hour Hold. Of course I picked it up, and it did not disappoint. As with most of her other novels, the protagonist was a black woman (as was Campbell), and as with the others, the character lived in a world peopled with blacks, whites, Hispanics--in short, in our America. One reason I was a fan of Campbell was that she made her characters very real, and their complexity mirrored the world in which I live (or in the case of her first book, a world that once was and is thankfully no more). Reading about this woman struggling to help her daughter, it crossed my mind that Campbell would really enjoy Julie Kibler's Calling Me Home, and I hoped she would read it.

But she can't.

That got me thinking: I've been chasing publication for over half a decade, have queried two novels with positive reactions but no sales, and those are now tucked under the bed with a couple other half-written manuscripts even as I toil at my latest. Hopefully this one will be the one to fly. And thinking about Campbell and Kibler, it made me think: if it does, who won't get to read it that I wish would?

I'd like to think Jane Austen would be amused and appreciative of my main character, but since she was dead over 150 years before I was a glint, that was never an option. But earlier in my questing, there was still a chance that Maeve Binchy would be a reader, even (gasp) a fan. Since we lost her last year, that's no longer possible. I imagine she's a lost potential reader Joan laments as well.

I'm still not done with the first draft of this latest story, and once I am, there will be a period of critiquing and rewriting and then of course querying--if everything went gorgeously, it'd still be a long shot for this book to meet 2014. So, without being maudlin, it has been crossing my mind that there are some writers I admire, writers I would love to pay back with my own words, who might never read a word I wrote. Not to mention the writers who are already gone, my chance lost already.

If there was someone you could summon from the past, recent or distant, to read your work, I wonder who it would be?

Monday, March 25, 2013

Okay, a guest post by Philip Fullman


by Joan

I'm pleased to present Philip Fullman to our readers. As you'll see, a few of us met Philip during our early critique years in Dallas and we're the luckier for it. Philip has two new poetry collections out. His writing is wry, sensitive, and sometimes bawdy--an honest take on life, love and pop culture. 

And now, from Philip...

Okay, I’ll admit I’m nervous. I feel a little like the lone boy sitting at the girl’s lunch table. I promise to be on my best behavior, this means no swearing, even when appropriate.

I met Elizabeth, Joan, and Pamela in a critique group, the Lesser North Texas Writers Association. They were, as they are now, writing women’s fiction. There were several different genres represented. I was the lone poet. It took a while for me to become comfortable with the moniker, but the more poetry I read I began to see how my writing fell into that category. Still, I refer to myself as a writer rather than as a poet. Sounds a little less pretentious.

Not only were we writing in different styles, but in different voices. Obviously. I always appreciated hearing a woman’s perspective on what I wrote, I think in some way for them it was like pulling back the curtain and seeing the wizard. Another man in the group told me once that I wrote about the things that men would never want to admit to, that underneath it all, the bluster was vulnerability. I didn’t set out to do that; I just write what comes into my head. My Muse is really good at working with what I give her.

Another admission, I’m envious of the ladies' ability to craft elaborate tales, with multiple characters over hundreds of pages. I think the longest piece I ever wrote was eight pages, and that’s only because I don’t write all the way across the page. I’m not sure why I started doing that, probably because I thought that was how a poem was supposed to look.

The first time I ever wrote a poem was 1989. It was for a girl, of course. I met her while visiting a friend in San Antonio. She was the first woman who ever took my breath; maybe they call it falling because when you hit the air gets knocked out of you. I somehow convinced my parents to let me go back and visit her. Sitting in my room after a wonderful three days with her, I was sorely missing her. Long distance calls cost a fortune, so that was out. I felt like I would burst if I didn’t talk with her. So, I wrote her a poem. It was an awful poem full of clichés, and ham-handed metaphors. But when I sat my pen down, I felt much better. Ever since then I’ve picked up my pen and paper when I’m not able to say the words. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer now; I don’t hide behind metaphors or try to be clever. If I met her yesterday I would say:

The kiss was going to be memorable. Moonlight was pushing through the tree leaves casting spotted shadows on us both, and then there was the spotlight illuminating the cow statue. You don’t see that in movies. But there it was, bright as could be, behind us and to the left. So even if our first kiss had not been our last, even if it wasn’t the type of kiss you hope every kiss will be, even if it wasn’t a kiss that you’ll search a hundred pair of lips to find again, it was going to be a memorable kiss.

I believe that in fiction, story dictates the action, but in poetry action dictates the story, which makes the writer more vulnerable. I have struggled with the thought that it is egotistical for me to write something personal, share it and basically say “you should read this.” But then I remembered something I wrote in a poem called Counterpoint. A well-known poet was asked why he didn’t write about his personal life; he replied, “No one is interested in hearing about someone else’s personal life.” I disagreed. So, I put together a couple of collections of my writing for people like myself. 

Tales from the Bottom of the Glass is a collection of poems about relationships in all stages.
Maybe a Poem, Maybe a Song, Maybe a Short Story is a collection of stories about writing, my Muses, an general observations. In tone, it’s quite different.

During my time in the critique group, Elizabeth, Joan and Pamela were very encouraging. I don’t remember which one of them said, “I don’t understand it, but I think I like it.” That was all I needed to hear.

Thanks for stopping by Philip! Readers you can find his book on SmashwordsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

By Susan

There was a time when I spent too much brainpower deciding what kind of writer I was going to be. I felt an intense pull to name myself, to define what it was that I was doing with the words, to call myself something. If I couldn't name it, then was it real? Or was I just a scribbler, a pretender, a hack?

I came up with several options: Southern Literary Fiction Writer, Women's Writer, Kentucky Author, or simply Novelist. I practiced using each of those phrases in various forms. When it came time to send query letters to living and breathing agents, I was thrown once again. Who was I? And why would that agent want to represent me, an unknown amateur who couldn't even decide what to call myself, or my work?

The problem with any of these titles is that they limit my work-- the same way an implement used to prop someone up can in fact stunt their growth. Can a Novelist, for example, write poetry and non-fiction? Can a Kentucky Writer spin a tale about Africa? Is calling yourself Literary pretentious and off-putting? If you are a Women's Writer, does that devalue your work somehow, or keep men from reading it?

It all makes me wonder how much control we actually have over how we are perceived. I like to think that writing quality work is the best path to literary acceptance, yet I am not naive enough to believe that labels and stereotypes mean nothing. Instead of labeling myself, I've realized that by simply calling myself a Writer I've opened up doors that I'd previously closed without even meaning to do so. No labels anymore--just the words. I've had poetry place in a contest, I'm contemplating a narrative non-fiction proposal, and I'm stretching beyond my southern roots to write stories that are compelling to me--not just stories set in the South.

This blog, of course, is called What Women Write for a reason--even though we are all vastly different, we strongly identify with our roles as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters, and we are all writers. We are proud of who we are, and are proud of our words. In great part this blog was created to encourage other women who navigate this same culture--both with and without the labels.

So who are you, dear reader? Are you a writer, too? Or have you limited yourself by genre, gender, and guise? Because we control our image, to a great degree--not all of it, but quite a bit. Step outside of the labels you've scripted for yourself and see what kind of writer you can be.

You might surprise yourself.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Calling Me Home tour highlights: Part two

My husband and me near
Pike Place Market in Seattle
By Julie

At more than a month since the release of Calling Me Home, it's hard to believe how fast the time has flown. At the same time, it seems like just yesterday I was counting the months, then weeks, then days until release.

I've spent the last few weeks since my last update traveling more, doing events in Seattle, Spokane, and Palouse, Washington, and received some really big news in the midst of all that. I found out last Monday night, after a great talk and signing at Third Place Books in Seattle, and dinner out with a cousin and new friend after, that I'd sold the film option for the book to Warner Brothers, with Roy Lee producing.

I knew a deal was in the works for a few days, but it was really a pretty lightning fast process--a rarity in this business, from what I understand. I'm thankful to have a set of really awesome agents to handle these things, and knew my film agent, Jody Hotchkiss of Hotchkiss and Associates, had things well under control while I was gallivanting around doing book events. I *almost* didn't see the email late that night confirmimg the deal had happened, but Google alerts also had things under control. While driving across Washington State the next afternoon, one notified me that Hollywood Reporter had broken the news. Right about then, my Facebook and Twitter pages went nuts and it was a pretty fun afternoon and evening answering all the congratulatory posts and Tweets.

Warner Brothers produced the Academy Award winning film, Driving Miss Daisy, as well as The Departed, another winner, with Roy Lee. Lee and the studio seem very enthusiastic about the potential for developing Calling Me Home into a feature film, and I can't wait to see how this unfolds. Typically, these things take time, so I'm only holding my breath a few seconds at a time. In the meantime, it feels fairly surreal to get the occasional email from Roy Lee with updates. And ... I'd be lying if I said I hadn't put a few bugs in his ear about potential actors I could see playing parts. :)

Lonesome...

The last few days of my Washington trip saw my family and me digging through old photos and sorting through my Grandma's jewelry box, with my sister and me and my teenage daughters laying claim to things we particularly liked or remembered, more than 15 years after her death. I'm not sure I knew my dad had these things squirreled away in the attic until recently, when we started really contemplating what items remained that might give us additional insight into the woman who inspired Calling Me Home. I'm not even sure he knew or remembered he had them squirreled away until my brother mentioned something about them. This was my first opportunity to explore these family treasures since I started writing the book, and there are boxes upon boxes left for another visit.

We were all intrigued to find and examine photos of my grandma as a curvy teen with a sassy smile, and amused to see she'd written tiny notes at the bottom of several snapshots of herself-- "Just me" on one. "Lonesome" on another. She changed more, physically, from those teenage photos to adulthood, than any of her sisters. It felt like a bittersweet confirmation of the heartbreak it seems she suffered, though we also enjoyed seeing many photos of her being the sometimes goofy, playful person we all glimpsed at times, too.


Not my grandma's egg, but one just like it!
I brought home a small box of well-used cookie or biscuit cutters--stacked inside each other like Russian dolls, originally round, but now lopsided circles of various sizes. I also brought a little gold-etched Estee Lauder egg Grandma must have treasured as a gift from someone at Christmas. A few other things as well--gaudy costume jewelry, a set of keys, and silver bracelet that looks surprisingly modern and I've already worn once.

This has been a time of great celebration for my family, as well as a time of contemplation and memory.

I'm thankful for the prompting the publication of Calling Me Home gave us.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Classic Inspiration

By Pamela

On several occasions, I've finished a novel only to pause and think, Dang-it!  I wish I'd written that. I doubt I'm alone in that sentiment. So, last night, in a fit of insomnia, I thought about some classic (or soon-to-be classic) books that can inspire us in our writings. Whether you're in between projects and looking for something to jump-start a new WIP, need an idea for a short story, or would like to stretch your creative membranes, I hope these prompts will fuel your creative bonfire.

Charlotte's Web: Take an animal character in your story and let him take center stage. Perhaps he can communicate with other animals or even the two-legged creatures in your story.

The Art of Racing in the Rain: One of my favorite novels of all-time, this story is also told from an animal's point of view--Enzo the dog--but Garth Stein also melds two worlds that you might not imagine together: A dog and auto racing. Maybe in your book you take a character who shouldn't know much about a subject, and yet does, and tell the story from their unique perspective. For example, maybe the grandmother is an expert at assault weaponry. Or perhaps the toddler, who spends too much unsupervised time parked in front of the television, has become quite knowledgeable about African culture from watching The History Channel.


To Kill a Mockingbird: The classic story is told from the point of view of Scout, a precocious, motherless child. Perhaps you have a story to tell from a character wise beyond her years due to a life-changing event.


Novels by Pat Conroy or Carl Hiaasen: I dare you to get one chapter into either of these authors' works and not feel a sense of place. Conroy anchors much of his novels in and around South Carolina's Low Country and Hiaasen's devotion to Florida's everglades gives his novels both a setting and a launchpad for his concern about their preservation. What settings are you passionate about? Your hometown? A camp where you spent every summer of your youth? Your grandparents' lake house? Find a place that speaks to you and tell your story there.



Calling Me Home: Our own Julie Kibler found inspiration for her novel from a bit of family folklore. Her father once told her about his mother's first love--an African American boy her white family didn't approve of. Dig around in your family's history and see if there isn't a story waiting to be told. Did Aunt Beatrice get pardoned by the governor for a crime no one will talk about? Be the one to tell a fictionalized version of it.

Agents have been known to say they're looking for "great stories well-told." You don't have to reinvent the story-telling wheel. Just find a unique, inspired way of telling it.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Spring Break = Enforced Vacation

By Kim



Photo by Deborah Downes
It’s spring break for the kiddos this week, which means I’m lucky if I get anything at all done – hence the short post today. I’m not even trying to deal with queries or putting together submissions. Instead I listen to my seven-year-old daughter prattle on about Star Wars – her recent obsession – and watch my eleven-year-old daughter construct an enormous Lego battle scene from Lord of the Rings.

This week is an enforced vacation of sorts, and a welcome one, despite the occasional bickering. I’ve even managed to get out of the city, which is always a welcome prospect. A couple of days ago my parents and I took the kiddos out to Mineral Wells, west of Fort Worth, where there is a park littered with fossils that are over 300 million years old – back when this area was part of the ocean. It’s free and, even better, you get to keep whatever you find.

The kiddos and I - Photo by Deborah Downes
The search reminded me a bit of the agent hunt – there are a lot of agents out there, but it takes time, persistence, and a bit of risk to find one that is a perfect match. And luck, of course. The longer I’ve been writing, and the more authors I meet, the more I think composing the right book at the right time and getting it on the right desk is a prime factor. I’m not sure whether to be encouraged or depressed about this.

In hindsight, perhaps the fossil hunt is a better illustration of how the agent feels. Everywhere they go, they see segments of crinoid stalks. Some are ordinary, some are beautiful, but there’s so many of them that everything begins to look alike. It would be easy for them to overlook the primitive shark tooth they seek. Everyone wants those shark teeth. Unfortunately, they can appear like an ordinary rock unless you look closely enough and who has time to examine every rock?

I’m sure that every time a book becomes a runaway bestseller, a whole bunch of agents check past submissions and think to themselves, “Please tell me I didn’t let that one slip by.”

Fifty-nine of them did just that to The Help.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Setting the stage


by Joan

When we moved from Maryland to Texas almost eight years ago, we purged fifteen years of accumulated “stuff,” gave mountains of action figures and clothes to younger neighborhood boys, and sold or donated most of our furniture. Texas would be a new start with a new style. In Dallas, we found a few go-to furniture stores, ogled in others for ideas, installed window treatments, hung art and accessorized with vases and pillows. We made space for trinkets we'd picked up in our travels, a salmon-eating wooden bear from Alaska, an ancient Greek urn, a Turkish clay bottle and lots of pictures. Within a year we sat back and admired our eclectic choices.

Now as empty nesters we find it’s time to move again. "Rightsizing" the realtor called it. She sent a complimentary interior designer to stage our house for showing. For years I thought our house was well decorated, stylish even, but soon it became apparent I was a hack wannabe.

I heard, “This fabric doesn’t go with that painting,” and “No, these must go,” about my attempt at a silk flower design. Even my husband chimed in. “Yeah, she has many talents, but decorating isn’t one of them.” When we got to the guest sink, separate from the Jack-n-Jill, the designer picked up a small bowl of fake lemons and limes. “Oh, no no no. No fruit in the bathroom.” I felt crushed. Embarrassed. I had no style. Worse, I didn’t know I had no style.

She went on to point out the things we’d done right. “Let a buyer see the lovely floor plan, the potential for what they could do with it." We made a list of furniture to remove or relocate, accessories to pack away to make the rooms look as inviting as possible. I didn’t see the house as cluttered because I liked every trinket and knick-knack in it. They were my darlings.

After several agents rejected my full manuscript over the past year, I began to think I had no writing style. Maybe I was just a hack wannabe and nobody had the nerve to tell me. Since my partials were turning into full requests, I knew that couldn’t be exactly true. But I also knew there was something wrong. Why weren’t the fulls turning into offers of representation?

I needed professional help. I hired Stephanie Cowell, author of the beautiful Claude & Camille, as an advisory editor. Like my house stager, Stephanie pointed out plot clutter, sidetrack plotlines or details that got in the way of the main story. Just as I hadn’t seen my house clutter, I couldn’t see clutter in my manuscript because I liked everything in it.

Stephanie's detailed notes delivered exactly what I needed to hear. She captured the essence of my manuscript, pointed out not only what was working or not, but also the "why" of it. She gave me specific examples of chapters or scenes that needed clarification or grounding. She validated my characters, not by offering vague praise, but by pointing out what captured her heart. I will be forever grateful!

I would highly recommend her editing skills to writers seeking an objective, insightful look at their work. Thanks to her keen eye and close review, several agents are now reading my manuscript.

Next weekend I will deliver my house to another type of agent. And hope the offers pour in. 



Friday, March 8, 2013

Dreaming Big

By Susan

On Wednesday of this week, a good friend posted on Facebook about dreaming big. She wrote a great status update about her father's influence on her life and how we often forget that their big dreams for us used to be ours too, and how important it is to continue reaching.

As I read the update, I was on an Amtrak train from New York City to Boston, where I am now, for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference. I couldn't help but think about my own big dreams and the reality of the week I am experiencing right now.

I flew in to New York on Tuesday to meet with my agent and her assistant for lunch. I met them at Writers House and beyond the initial giddiness of meeting them in person, I was also quickly impressed with the calibre of agents within the walls of Writers House. I didn't have to remind myself to be incredibly thankful that my agent 1) actually read my query, 2) actually requested a full manuscript, 3) actually read said manuscript, 4) called me before she even finished reading it to offer representation, and 5) stood by me and became my biggest fan while I took on a year's worth of revisions that became an actual rewrite.

We left Writers House and went to eat at Maysville, a bourbon-themed restaurant right next to her office (coincidentally named for a town 30 minutes from my Kentucky hometown,) and we proceeded to have a two-hour lunch. I was thankful that we were joined by her assistant--who I highly suspect had a lot to do with helping my query letter and manuscript make it into my agent's hands--and we talked and laughed and became friends over the course of oysters and chocolate cake and a celebratory glass of bourbon.

I couldn't help but be struck by my own paralysis--not that long ago--at the thought of sending a query letter to an actual agent. What if I had never sent her the letter? After all, I'd had so many fears! That 1) she was out of my league, 2) my manuscript really sucked, after all, and 3) I was faking it and had no idea what I was doing. I was reminded again to continue dreaming big.

After another meeting Tuesday night with the freelance editor who prompted me to rewrite the novel, I settled in for the night in a trendy boutique hotel in New York's Flower District. The next morning, I headed for Boston.

Heading for Boston by myself on a train wasn't something I'd ever envisioned myself doing. Yet this conference, I'd heard, would be swarming with novelists and agents and editors, as well as educators and poets and writers like me--a person with a manuscript under her arm who's dreaming big. And it has been absolutely that--there are 12,000 writers here. Over 720 vendors and booths on two spacious showroom floors. There are Pulitzer Prize-winning poets presenting, and authors like Alice Hoffman and Don Delillo and Cheryl Strayed are wandering the halls with the rest of us.

For a writer, this conference is Literary FanGirl Heaven. And although I've seen lots of famous writers, I haven't actually met any. I'm wandering like the newbie that I am--wishing I'd taken my writing seriously when I was twenty instead of forty, wishing I'd gotten that MFA, wishing I was somehow up to the challenge of being a real writer. And then I realized that without dreaming big, I wouldn't even be where I am at this very moment. I wouldn't have gotten on a plane by myself to New York, or taken a train to Boston. Truthfully? I wouldn't have finished the manuscript, either--because that in itself was beyond my reach a few years ago.

Yet here I am. If I look up from my computer screen, I am surrounded by writers. Some look no older than teenagers, and some are clearly well-into their 80s (like last night's keynote speaker, poet Derek Wallcott, who is 83 and incredible.) And even though I've not met anyone famous, nor have I hobnobbed with the next big thing, I know one thing for sure. I'm surrounded by people who take their words seriously enough to show up and engage with other writers. And collectively, we're all somehow following our dreams--whether it's to teach a college class, or write a poem or a novel, or to pursue an MFA.

And it's a good place to be.
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