Friday, April 30, 2010

What's your landscape muse?

by Kim

I imagine every creative person has a place of inspiration, a place where words flow effortlessly or the eye sees colors, shapes and textures with heightened sensitivity. Back in 2004, I found my landscape muse, a place I dream of, long for, and that forever changed me both as both a writer and a woman. Those who have followed us here at What Women Write for awhile already know I refer to Georgian Bay in Ontario. For those of you who have joined us more recently, click here to read the story about how a Texan fell in love with this rugged landscape of turquoise water, lopsided windblown trees, and rocky islands.

I’ve often told family and friends that if I could camp out in my friend’s cabin on Wahnekewening Beach, I could finish The Oak Lovers in six weeks. The cabin’s available anytime. With a husband and two small children here in Dallas, however, I don’t anticipate being able to move in anytime soon.
A couple of weeks ago, suffering from writer’s block and feeling restless, I decided I needed to find a closer source of inspiration, preferably one within fifteen minutes of my home.

I’ve driven by Restland Cemetery almost daily since moving to Texas back in 1997. When I’ve paid attention to it at all, I’ve noticed a perfectly manicured park. On this particular day I saw monarch oaks scattered over the grounds, inviting benches, and a complete lack of screaming children. Perfect.

An hour later I parked my car near the cemetery office and aimlessly wandered the grounds, waiting for a tree to call to me (so to speak). Since my novel features arguably one of the greatest forest painters the world’s ever known, I knew it could not be just any tree. Even if I had not spent the last four years hearing Carl Ahrens’ voice in my head, his blood runs strong in me. I’d recognize one of my great-grandfather’s wood spirits at a glance; I simply had to find something he’d have been moved to paint.

Within moments I saw an enormous oak with branches spread so wide I'm surprised it could hold them up. There's my tree, I thought. It couldn't beckon me more clearly. Upon reaching it, I peeked around the tree and saw my true destination – this pair. I smiled, seeing the womanly form enveloped by her larger male companion. Oak Lovers. In their shade, back to bark, I effortlessly composed an entire scene in a little over an hour.

I'm unsure if my burst of creative energy came from the tree itself or from the fact that I sat inches from two graves. Perhaps Edna Coursey (1894-1985) or Grace Newell (1899-1988) was a writer. Either way, I’m thankful, and plan to visit them again soon. Perhaps I’ll bring flowers.

So how about all of you? Tell us about your most surprising or unusual place of inspiration.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What a Coincidence!

by Elizabeth

So I'm trekking along with my WIP, and things are going pretty well. I didn't include its beginning in Karen's post the other day, because the current first line won't survive long. What's more likely is a scene now in the middle will open the novel, and the work of crafting the first sentence is yet in my future.

Although my blog reading recently has given me a touch of pause about one aspect of said scene. My main character is rushing off to an emergency and encounters a person from her past, a minor character who nonetheless matters later. What a coincidence! But maybe too much of one?

Over at the ever-useful edittorrent, Alicia recently blogged about coincidence in writing. Her thoughts sent me scooting around the web (ahem, research, not procrastination), where I found a useful essay in Rebecca Talley's blog. To sum it up, she urges writers to make it real if coincidence is to be used. Good advice.

Now I had to think hard about my own scene. My character runs into a man she once knew when his taxi runs into her. He's in town for business, and she, distracted and injured, doesn't recognize him at first, though he knows her immediately. The question is, will readers buy it?

Well, for what it's worth, I once ran into a fellow California college student in the McDonald's in the French Quarter. (Before you are appalled at my Crescent City dining choices, let me assure you I was merely confirming the weird rumor of biscuits and gravy on the menu. It was true.) Another time I saw a man I'd met in the jungles of Belize at an airport in Phoenix. And just yesterday a guy gave me a quote to trim my photinias, and I'm pretty sure he shared my row on a flight to Dallas in 1993. Coincidences all, and while you probably don't doubt me here, would you believe these things if you read them in a novel?

Jane Austen relied on coincidence; think of the revelation of Willoughby as the scoundrel of Colonel Brandon's life, and that circumstance eventually winning Brandon the woman they both love. Snape's dark motivation through all the Harry Potters is eventually revealed to be tied to the fact that he and a fellow young witch happened to play at the same park as children; what a coincidence! (At the same time, J.K. Rowling points out that sometimes things are too convenient, like when Hermione chides Hagrid's lack of suspicion when a hooded stranger happens to possess a dragon egg, something Hagrid covets.) In Julia Glass' wonderful novel I See You Everywhere, a chance meeting, the merest of coincidences, serves as a kind of glue. (Not a spoiler, don't worry.) Did I believe all of these? You bet I did. Because the authors did their jobs, and made these fictional lives as real as my own.

So that's the trick, I guess, and something my beta-readers will be warned to be on the lookout for when they get that first chapter: Is it real? Do you believe it? If they don't, I haven't done my job well enough and revision will follow. But to leave coincidence out of a book would be like erasing it from life. And what fun would that be?

Speaking of fun, oftentimes coincidences are just that. You are probably already familiar with the Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy stuff, and how the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" fit perfectly into the Gilligan's Island theme song music. (It's even more fun to sing the Gilligan verses with the hymn's tune.) But Love Boat and Star Trek? Who knew! And what about you? Any fun coincidences in your life, or a favorite from fiction?

Monday, April 26, 2010

There's Nothing You Can't Do

by Joan Mora

The other day I was in the car running errands. The radio was on, which for most people isn’t unusual, but I rarely listen to anything but books. It’s not that I don’t like music; I just like to take every opportunity to read more. That day, I had given up on two books on CD. I hadn’t fallen in love with the characters (oh, no, not that lame excuse again!) and the dialogue was cliché (or that!), so I ejected the discs and flipped the channels around, looking for a song I connected with. I was looking for something; I just didn’t know what.

As I scanned channels, I came upon Alicia Keys singing “Empire State of Mind.” For some reason, I got all choked up. I love New York, but I don’t think that was what struck me.

I’m from New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothing you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York

It might have been the melody pulling at my heart or the relevant lyrics, but mostly it was her stunning voice. The delivery. Just as in a novel, a good plot and interesting characters are essential. But if I don’t deliver the story in a compelling way, no one will want to finish reading and no one will remember it if they do.

Long after the song ended, it played in my head. Recalling Ms. Keys’ words, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. And I started to think about this dream of mine, to not only spend my life doing what I love best—writing fiction—but to also get paid for it.

As writers, we need to stay motivated. It’s a tough industry, full of rejection. Plenty of gifted writers give up their dreams all the time. We’ve heard it before—it takes more than talent. Rachelle Gardner recently blogged on perseverance. And Nancy Kress recently wrote that it takes practice. Ms. Keys believes: There’s nothing you can’t do.

Since that day in the car, I’ve had the song on my mind. I listened to a few versions on YouTube. Ms. Keys recorded one version with Jay Z, but I was looking for her solo version. I found it on “I Heart Radio.” At the beginning of the clip, she talks about her excitement at hearing one of her songs on the radio for the first time. I imagine it would be much the same as an author seeing her book on the shelves for the first time.

We are so lucky to have many new readers, thanks to our new Facebook page. We are What Women Write, and one thing I’ve noticed (in addition to a few of you being men!) is that the writers following us are in various stages of their careers. Some are new writers looking for advice on craft, others on querying, and still others have published one, two or many books. We have some industry folks as well. What do we have in common? Our desire to succeed in this crazy business.

Thanks for joining us here and remember: There’s nothing you can’t do!

For you pubbed authors, tell us, what did you do the first time you saw your book on the shelves?

Friday, April 23, 2010

On the Art of First Impressions

First Impression: noun - a lasting effect, opinion, or mental image of somebody or something.

I've been thinking about the first impression writers make with page one of their works. I don't know about you, but the first few sentences I write for any work-in-progress are written and re-written and re-written. This is all for good reason. Imagine the casual bookstore customer picking up a book at the store, reading the jacket flap, then the first page, only to put it back on the shelf because the style or immediacy of conflict or setting didn't pull them in. I confess - I am one of those casual readers. It may not be a fair assessment, but with so many books on my ever-expanding wish list, it's the one I use.

Now, I don't have any special advice to offer on the subject of first impressions other than this: you have to make a compelling one. One of my writing professors advised his students to do this by ensuring "your first sentence puts your own soul in jeopardy." I think what he meant by this was that the opening had to suggest something that touched a lightning rod within the writer; something that might even skate close to an idea or theme that troubles your sleep. When I was working on my novel JANEOLOGY, the questions that kept me up at night were: Aren't there signs when someone is about to have a mental break-down? And if so, wouldn't a person's spouse see the approaching storm? So for this work, my opening was: "I stared at my attorney as he began his defense that I did not share the blame in the murder of my son."

I think there's no better way to learn the art of the literary first impression than to read as many opening lines as possible and see how they hit you.

So, I'd like to invite everyone to contribute the first line of his/her work-in-progress in the comments section of this post. Don't be shy! Several of us at What Women Write will get the party started. Here are the first lines of our works-in-progress.

- - -

Martha Niles glanced at the stack of afternoon mail, still untouched on the table. The top envelope, identical to several others she had received over the past few months, bore the signature orb and cross logo of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora. This one was addressed to Sarah Wainwright, her mother. – from THE OAK LOVERS by Kim Bullock

My mother once told me: Never date a man you wouldn’t marry. This followed on the heels of: You’re never fully dressed until you smile. Like most of her pearls of wisdom, I pretended to pay attention and then did whatever I pleased. - from WAITING TO KNOCK by Pamela Hammonds

Here is something you have to learn on your own: Not every person responds to words the same way. For example, my father shouted, got red in the face and told me not to call my mother crazy even though she tried to kill me. But I looked up crazy in the dictionary so I know I’m right.. - from TELL ME IN YOUR OWN WORDS by Karen Harrington

When we first met, a decade and a handful of change ago, I was hateful to Dorrie. She thought it was because of the color of her skin, but she was wrong. Up around eighty or so – maybe even seventy – a person forgets to use her filters. Or she’s beyond caring. - from ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE by Julie Kibler

I actually met Mac at the supermarket, so there goes any justification for disdain at my mother picking up men there. Still. This is hardly the same thing. For one, we weren’t lingering over a dish of chana masala, but in the regular, non-fragrant American supermarket, skimming blueberry muffin mixes, which are about as un-Indian as you can get if you think about it. - from KICK PUNCH BREATHE by Elizabeth Lynd

Gabriel Tucci felt the walls constrict, remembered each stroke of graphite on parchment, each thwack of setting maul to stone above the nave. No fat lemons, no olive trees, no grappa; when you seek a city of buildings and straight lines, do not be surprised when you are stabbed in the heart. - from THE ARCHITECT AT HIGHGATE by Joan Mora


Okay, now it's YOUR turn. Share YOUR first lines and/or tell me if there's a book with an opening that left a lasting first impression.


Three Writing Resources to Help Craft Your First Impressions

1. The 100 Best First Lines of Novels according to the American Book Review.
2. A cool selection and analysis of opening lines from famous novels featured on
3. Susan Ishmael-Poulos' must-read piece on great beginnings.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lazy River

I started the month of April with the intention of doing another writing marathon. I thought I'd set a goal of thirty thousand new words on my manuscript. I've done 40K two times -- 30K should have been a piece of cake, right?

So, here it is April 21, and I'm up to about 10K new words on my story. But I'm not crying. In fact, I'm pretty excited about those words and how they're flowing, even if they're flowing rather slowly. Sometimes, I think, a lazy river runs the deepest.

This story is kind of a different genre for me. It's still all about relationships and families, but I threw a historical element in there for the heck of it (well, and because it's the story that's been gnawing at me for about three years!). I never dreamed how much that would slow me down, though I'm not complaining. I've had many stops and starts, fine tuning the settings and time periods and voices.

I'm telling the story from the first-person voices of two women, one modern day and one in the past. I've given myself additional challenges beyond that by making these women extremely different from me – in age for one, in race and life circumstances for the other. Stories I've written in the past had point-of-view characters who were different from me, but they were all third-person, present day, so it was almost as though I were transcribing a movie I watched in my head. I didn't have to be quite as concerned with how these characters thought or worded things unless I was writing dialogue.

This time around, from first-person, it is both easier and more difficult to find my characters' voices. Each is quite distinct, and yet, when I get into the narrative, I still have to think carefully about how they'd view the scenes before them and how they'd tell them, being careful to keep them true.

I'm really enjoying telling this story from first person, though, and I believe it's both stretching me and making use of some writing abilities I don't usually get to show off in third person.

So, I think I'll be pleased to make it to twenty thousand new words by the end of the month, but you know what? I might only make it to 15K. Or I might make it to thirty. And I'll be happy I'm floating in this new river, wherever it takes me.

Photo credit:
Al HikesAZ's Flickr photostream, by creative commons license

Monday, April 19, 2010


by Pamela

Many people say, "I always wanted to be a writer."

I’m not one of them.

I’ll admit to a life of floundering. My résumé reflects a pattern of two- to three-year stints. In my defense, most of the job changes were beyond my control, even though I do feel restless after working in one place for a few years. But when I review my job history, a common thread has been writing—ad copy, marketing materials, newspaper articles, magazine stories. Every job I’ve had up until now has paved this path to writing.

One life-constant has been reading. I learned to read at the age of four and pretty much read whatever I could get my hands on. (Not all of it appropriate, I’m afraid.) And from this voracious appetite for stories, I developed the desire to tell my own.

And so, one day, I sat at the computer and hammered out A FORGIVING SEASON, the story of Maggie and Wade. And while I’m still convinced there is still a story there, I know now the execution was not well done.

Since that first attempt, I’ve read many books on the art of writing fiction and attended a handful of workshops and writing conferences—a self-education process that has made what I write today much better than that first attempt.

So, I thought I’d share here, the top ten writing tips I’ve gleaned that have formed my writing career—which is still a work-in-progress.

“In the beginning, when you’re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment to finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish. …there is no point in practicing if you don’t finish.”
Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life
, "Writer's Block"

“There are actually two beginnings to a novel: the first words the writer puts down to start the manuscript, and the first words the reader sees as she opens the completed book. These two…are not always the same…just start somewhere and sometime. You can always go back and redo the beginning.”
Bob Mayer in The Novel Writer’s Toolkit, “Tool 5: Your Story”

“Dialogue is to the writer what the veto is to the president: It gives you great power and authority. If you overuse it, people…will resent you for it; if you use it wisely, they will applaud your control, your willpower.”
Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages

If you feel a scene isn’t working, look at the point of view and consider changing it based on who has the most to lose/gain in the scene.
Sandy Blair, RWA Golden Heart winner, paraphrased from her talk at the DFW Writers’ Conference

“When you’re working on a story, remember the question that generated your story; let it be a chief organizing and focusing principle.”
Paula LaRocque in The Book on Writing, “Archetype, Character and Plot”

When you finish a scene or chapter and are ready to stop for the day, DON’T. Continue on and start the next section. That way, when you open the file again, you’ll find it’s so much easier to pick up and go on rather than start from nothing.
Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, paraphrased from her talk at the Dallas Museum of Art

“A responsibility of literature is to make people awake, present, alive. If the writer wanders, then the reader, too, will wander. There’s a fine line between precision and self-indulgence.”
Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones—freeing the writer within, “Don’t Marry the Fly”

“…stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
Stephen King in On Writing, section 29

“At some point, you have to put the writing books aside and just write. Otherwise you’ll be the best writer no one ever reads.”
Joan Mora, my writing partner and dear friend

“No matter how good you are, nobody is going to come knocking at your door. You have to take the risk of rejection and get that material out there.”
Elizabeth Berg in Escaping into the Openthe art of writing true

So, now it’s your turn. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Review of Stephanie Cowell's CLAUDE AND CAMILLE

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

In the mid nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiates the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.

But once there, he was confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. Except there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group who together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and who supported one another through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace their lively Bohemian life.

His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet – and believed in his work – even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.

But Camille had her own demons – secrets that Monet could never penetrate, including one that, when eventually revealed, would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. Although Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.

A vividly rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, is above all, a love story of the highest romantic order.

About Stephanie Cowell (from the book jacket):

Stephanie is the author of Nicolas Cooke: Actor, Soldier, Physician, Priest; The Physician of London (American book Award, 1996); and The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare. She is also the author of Marrying Mozart, which was translated into seven languages and has been optioned for a movie.


Normally I can breeze through a 330 page novel in an afternoon. CLAUDE AND CAMILLE took me five days. Like a Monet painting, I wanted to linger with it, to savor the composition, the colors, the emotions within. That Stephanie Cowell was raised by and around artists is evident from both the lush, visual imagery and the conversations between Monet and his contemporaries. She writes as a painter paints. A sensitive reader will, in turn, read in the manner of an art lover gazing upon a canvas.

Even if you don’t love art, you will be moved.

The bond between the two protagonists is so consuming I physically ached for them. I rejoiced in their triumphs, wept with them in their despair, and forgave them their trespasses. Camille may have been Monet’s muse, but there would be no water lily paintings today if it weren’t also for the love and devotion of Cezanne, Pissarro, Manet and Renoir. The power of friendship between these men can not be discounted.

Until recently, the only images I had seen of Claude Monet were photographs of an old man in his garden at Giverny. That man appears in the book, though a much younger Claude is at the forefront. On Stephanie Cowell’s website, you can see a stunning portrait of Monet as he would have appeared when he met Camille Doncieux. I confess to having a bit of a crush on him before even opening the book. After hearing his voice so vividly in my head for over 300 pages he’s flesh and blood to me; a loving, moody and virile man. If I were an upper-class Parisian girl with a stuffy fiancé, I’d be tempted to throw it all away for him, too.

I considered skimming a brief biography of Monet in between reading sessions, but refrained, and I urge anyone reading the book to do the same. You will only find facts about Monet there. Cowell offers something far richer; a glimpse into the artist’s soul.

I don’t advise reading the last thirty pages in public. Have tissues handy.

Today, I will visit the Dallas Museum of Art to see an exhibit called The Lens of Impressionism. I have already warned my companion that if she finds me lingering in front of certain Monet canvases she should forgive me the tears that will surely flow. Thanks to CLAUDE AND CAMILLE, part of me will always feel as though I stood beside Monet, watching him paint the Normandy shore.

CLAUDE AND CAMILLE is available at bookstores throughout the United States and Canada. You can also purchase it here at

Author and book cover images were taken from the author's website. Author photo by Russell Clay.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Paper Towel Method

By Elizabeth

A friend of mine (and if you need a tight and tiny gorgeous female with a great set of pipes when Hollywood calls, you must call her--but I've got first dibs!) blogged the other day, linking to a post about keeping a couple of paper towel rolls to track your weight loss.

It got me thinking, because in so many ways, putting out a manuscript is like losing weight. Both take dedication and time; both have room for edits; both are worth the effort. (Though only losing weight is likely good for your health.)

Basically, the article said to get two rolls of paper towels, think of each sheet as a certain amount of fat, and every time you lose, say, a quarter of a pound, tear a sheet off one roll. Leave the other one alone. The first few weeks, you won't see much difference, but as the weight comes off, each sheet will make a bigger difference, until finally you are down to a svelte cardboard roll, a tub of Ben & Jerry's to celebrate (oops--see "room for edits" above) and perhaps really clean kitchen counters from all those paper towels you've used. The full roll is a reminder of where you started.

So how does this apply to writing? Well, the big rolls of Bounty I buy have 147 sheets. If you're aiming for a 75K word manuscript, give or take, that's a sheet for every 500 words. Which means every time you write 500 words, you tear off a sheet and, by the time you are down to a skinny brown tube, you're basically done. Okay, sure, it'll be a little short, but once you pen those 73K words, you can figure out a few thousand more. If you are really ambitious and know you'll have to cut the heck out of the manuscript anyway, shoot for 147K words, tearing off a sheet every 1,000 words. Or meet in the middle, go for a paper towel for every 700 for a nice just-over-100K manuscript. So long as you're not writing middle grade, you're golden. And that other roll, still fluffy and pristine, is a reminder of how far you've come, sheet by sheet.

When doing the nitty-gritty of our job, writers are often in a solitary place, and more often, probably, without any really visible proof of progress. Oh, sure, the notebooks get fuller and multiply (if you're dumb enough like me to write longhand), or file size gets bigger, but sometimes it's hard to envision how much we've accomplished. That's where the Bounty comes in. Towel by towel, one or two or five a day, that roll slims down as we get closer to the end.

I really love this idea. Peeling off the layers, feeling the satisfaction of doing something when I've wrenched my pen across paper, I can see the reward motivating production. Like with weight loss--and anyone whose talked to me for more than ten minutes knows I'm practically a Weight Watchers evangelist--like getting on the scale after a week of being true to your intentions and your plans, there's a payoff. Another paper towel gone, another squirt of Windex, and a slimmer roll revealing how far you've come.

I can even imagine keeping the old rolls in a place of honor on a closet shelf, like that old pair of fat pants half of us have hanging in the back to remind us where we once were. Or the skinny pants from college we cherish to--well, remind us where we once were. Relics, all of them, and the empty tubes, now that I think of it, will happily soak up the ink of a Sharpie to record the title of the book they tracked.

And in my case, my countertops will get an extra dose of swiping. Which is a good thing. Just trust me on this one.

Monday, April 12, 2010

NYT Bestselling Author Danielle Trussoni

Last month Danielle Trussoni stopped in Dallas as part of her cross-country book tour for Angelology. Lucky for us, she graciously agreed to this interview.

Part literary thriller, part fantasy, this book has all of the elements of a great story: quirky characters, forbidden love, danger, lyrical language, and atmospheric wonder, not to mention a killer cover. Lucky for us, Danielle agreed to stop by What Women Write.

From Publisher’s Weekly:
A covert age-old war between angels and humans serves as the backdrop for Trussoni’s gripping tale of supernatural thrills and divine destinies. Sister Evangeline, the secretary who handles all inquiries concerning the archives of angel arcana at an upstate New York convent, receives a letter from researcher V. A. Verlaine inquiring about an unknown link between the convent and philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller dating to 1943. It turns out that the Rockefellers were interested in a legendary artifact associated with an order of fallen angels. That priceless artifact is coveted by Verlaine’s employer, Percival Grigori, a Nephilim — offspring of the union between mortal and angel parents—who will stop at nothing to retrieve it for the awesome power it will give his race over humanity. Trussoni (Falling Through the Earth) anchors this fanciful dark fantasy to a solid foundation built from Catholic church history, biblical exegesis, and apocryphal texts. Suspenseful intrigues and apocalyptic battle scenes give this complexly plotted tale a vigor and vitality all the more exciting for its intelligence.

Joan: Thanks for stopping by What Women Write! Angelology has received so much positive press (including a fantastic nod in the New York Times Book Review). Did you anticipate the novel would be this big?

Danielle: I hoped it would be big, but one can’t know how a book will be received. The review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review was astonishing. I was thrilled and surprised.

Joan: We’re thrilled for you! Mixing Bible lore, World War II, New York City, Greek mythology and nuns, you’ve created an intelligent, elaborate plot with fantastical characters existing in the midst of real society. I imagine you must have planned out the storyline well in advance of writing. How did you keep it all straight?

Danielle: Actually, I had an overall impression of how I wanted the story to unfold, and a general idea of the Angelologists and their mission, but I didn’t have a strict storyline planned. I’m a more intuitive writer and I needed to play with things quite a lot before finding the structure.

Joan: Well, it was seamless. Your descriptions of the angels, particularly the first time we meet Percival Grigori, are gorgeous. What brought the visual to the page for you?

Danielle: I looked at a lot of paintings and images of angels while writing Angelology. I went to museums and collected books with colored plates. I love Dore and William Blake and the Renaissance painters’ interpretations of angels. I tend to be a very visual writer, but I knew that capturing the physical characteristics of creatures so ethereal as angels would pose a big challenge.

Joan: In addition to the visuals, the characters' names were especially fitting to the novel. Did you settle on names before you started writing?

Danielle: I found names for the characters as I developed them. I like to have a clear picture of the character before I put him/her on the page. The names were especially fun to come up with.

Joan: I found the concept of the adoration chapel interesting and the way you weaved its significance into the storyline clever. Do the nuns of the convent where you stayed practice perpetual praying?

Danielle: I did research at a convent where the nuns have been practicing adoration for over 125 years. The adoration chapel in Angelology is very similar to the one at the convent I visited and the prayer is also really close to what the Sisters were doing. I wanted to make this element of the book as authentic as possible.

Joan: Interesting, no wonder it felt so authentic. What was it like living in a convent for a week? Are there really nuns as young as Evangeline?

Danielle: There were a few young nuns, but in general the Sisters at Saint Rose Convent were older. There is some difficulty in recruiting new members and so there are fewer younger Sisters than there used to be.

Joan: Without giving away the ending, I liked the way you resolved the story and also paved the way for a sequel. You wrote that the next book will be a love story between Verlaine and Evangeline. Will the storyline mirror Gabriella’s?

Danielle: Not at all! Verlaine and Evangeline’s love story is uniquely theirs. It will necessarily be complicated by what happened to Evangeline at the end of Angelology, but it’s clear to me that the next book should be a love story between our hero and heroine.

Joan: Looking forward to reading it! Many of our blog readers are writers. When seeking publication, we are often advised to keep manuscripts below 100,000 words. At 450 pages, your novel is long. Did you get any resistance when trying to sell it?

Danielle: Not at all. I think that there is an audience for longer novels, so long as the length is justified. If you have a 150,000 word meditation on color theory or spend ten pages describing a character’s breakfast choices, then perhaps you need to cut a bit. But if the story plays out over many pages, then length is necessary. Angelology is 170,000 and some readers have told me that they read it very quickly. It all depends upon pacing.

Joan: Excellent point. You mentioned that you wrote your book in 3 ½ years. Do you have the same lead-time for the next one? Will it take less time since most of the research and world building is done?

Danielle: No, I’m trying to write the next one a bit quicker, which I hope will be possible. As you mention, I’ve created this imaginary world in Angelology and I will be able to draw from this in the next book, which is called Angelopolis.

Joan: Great title! Now what’s a question you’d love to answer but no one has asked?

Danielle: Who is your favorite muppet?

(It is miss piggy, of course!!)

Joan: Thanks so much for joining us!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Great Beginnings

By Susan Ishmael- Poulos

I'm terrible at beginnings.

And everyone knows that whether it is beginning new friendships or the beginning of a novel, the most critical impression you will make is in the first thing that comes out of your mouth, or out of your pen. My mother always warned me about first impressions. Now I'm writing a novel and that old advice keeps coming back to me: "Always smile," she would say. "You need to make sure you make a good first impression!"

Starting a novel should be easy: just start at the beginning. It's a simple concept, yet determining when the story begins seems as complicated as determining when life begins: the story, like life, is always there. Where is the beginning? I took a look at my manuscript. My first impression? It was bad. In fact, what once was "just fine" now seems boring and pointless. I actually heard myself saying out loud to a friend and proofreader, "Just get to chapter three. That's when everything happens." The minute I said it, I knew I was all wrong. What was I thinking? I was setting myself up for a horrible first impression. I certainly wasn't leading with a smile.

The key to a successful manuscript is hooking the reader immediately, according to Noah Lukeman, agent and author of The First Five Pages. His point is that if the agent isn't interested in the first five, nothing will matter, because your manuscript will never make it beyond the agent's desk. Lukeman goes on to say that rather than the first five pages, the title of his book should have been The First Five Sentences, because that's the real test of whether an agent is going to keep reading or not. It's simple: apply your best possible effort into your first impression. Then carry that diligence through the rest of your work. By the time we complete it, it is a polished and perfected piece that will not only engage an agent, but the publisher as well. Whether we like it or not, that's the only way our manuscript can ever become a book, held in the hands of the most important critic of all: the reader.

Luckily, as writers, we are in control of our first face. What do I want to tell the reader first? I dove in to my manuscript and started moving things around. I chose to begin with the action instead of history and the weather (I mean, really. What was I thinking?) I read Lukeman's book again. I searched online for blogs and articles full of to-do and don't-do lists for opening a manuscript. I thought about the reader, not the agent, and attempted to read my first few chapters as though they were new to me. Then I slashed, cut, arranged, and wrote.

Is it that polished and perfected piece that we all seek? Far from it. Yet I think it's better. As I learn, I implement the edits that I think will make it a stronger manuscript. By going back to the beginning, perhaps I can make this novel what I want it to be. Hopefully, I can pull together a great beginning and make that wonderful first impression. Because Lukeman is right: that's the only way we're ever going to get it past the first agent.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Conversation with Kristy Kiernan

By Julie

What Women Write welcomes Kristy Kiernan as our honored guest today. Her highly anticipated third novel, BETWEEN FRIENDS released Tuesday.

About Kristy (from website): Kristy was born in Tennessee and raised on the beaches of southwest Florida. She developed a love of reading as a child, devouring Nancy Drews and Trixie Beldens at a disconcerting clip, and graduating to whatever anyone left lying around when she ran out of girl detective stories. She knew she wanted to be a writer at a young age and, with the support of her husband, finally pursued publication in her thirties. Her first novel, CATCHING GENIUS, was published in 2007 by Berkley Books and went on to become a word-of-mouth hit with reading groups. Her second, MATTERS OF FAITH, was an IndieNext Notable Selection and won a bronze medal in the Florida Book Awards. She lives with her husband in southwest Florida and still spends as much time as she can reading on the beach and daydreaming about the story she'll write next.

About BETWEEN FRIENDS, from Penguin:
Thanks to modern reproductive technology – and the gift of her friend Cora's eggs – Ali Gutierrez is the mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter. Now, yearning for a second child, Ali asks Cora's permission to use another of the frozen embryos that have been stored away in anticipation of this decision. But Cora has a secret that could not only change Ali's plans for the future, but tear apart her life right now. BETWEEN FRIENDS . . . A provocative new novel about birth, death, and the stuff in between.

After following Kristy's writing career for the last several years and getting to know her on social networking sites, blogs, and the ever-amazing Backspace Writers Forums, I was thrilled to catch up with Kristy this week in the midst of her hectic release schedule. I received an advance review copy of BETWEEN FRIENDS, and I devoured this novel last weekend. I can't recommend Kristy's stories highly enough. Not only is she an accomplished novelist, but she's a down-to-earth gal and funny to boot. I hope you enjoy eavesdropping on our conversation!

www: Kristy, characters with unusual careers or hobbies always make for a more entertaining read, giving the reader a peek into new worlds. Cora, Ali, and Benny each introduced me to new things in BETWEEN FRIENDS. How did you research these characters' unique jobs or pastimes? Are any of their hobbies ones you've pursued yourself?

KK: I'm interested in everything! I want every job out there. So I get to explore all those careers that interest me when I write my books. Cora's wind researcher job came about because I found an old book on wind roses in a used bookstore in a little tiny Florida town, and grew fascinated by the beautiful illustrations. I wondered if I would have pursued something to do with weather if I'd seen the book when I was a kid, and I knew I'd make a character in a future book a wind researcher. And, really, it couldn't have been a better choice for Cora. Ali's music store is a natural extension of my abiding love of music, all kinds of music, and my deep respect of people who are talented enough to make it. And I've known several cops in my life and understand what a stressful job it is, so Benny's job was perfect for him, not just plot-wise, but personality-wise, also.

www: I loved Benny's character, as much as I wanted to shake him a few times! And as a reader, I definitely agree no other career would have done. I assumed from the cover copy that the story revolved around the conflict between Ali and Cora, the adult best friends. I was surprised to discover 14-year-old Letty's point of view represented in BETWEEN FRIENDS. Did you realize from the first that Letty's voice was critical to telling the story, or did her voice simply creep in until you knew she had to speak, too?

KK: I got the voice creep with Letty, for sure! But it happened early, at least, so I didn't have to go back and tear apart the structure to add her in. It just seemed to me that if I was going to address IVF (in vitro fertilization), then I had to address the person created from that. And at 14-going-on-30, I felt she had enough of her own personality to deserve a voice. I did, however, write her sections in third-person, so she's at a little bit of a remove from the main story of Cora and Ali.

www: I loved Letty's character, too, as much as I wanted to shake HER a few times! (In fact, there was a lot of character shaking I wanted to do. I think as a writer, that's something you're happy to hear. It means your characters became real to the reader.) Speaking of Letty, one plotline in BETWEEN FRIENDS required another teen's mother to access her daughter's email and MySpace accounts to find information to help Ali rescue Letty from a bad situation. Ali was surprised at how much access the other mother had. She reconsidered her own theory about the amount of privacy Letty was entitled to as a teen. This happens to be one of my soapboxes. I require my girls to follow the age guidelines on social networking sites, keep me updated on any they join, and notify me whenever they change passwords. They know I can "spot check" their email or any account when I feel like I need to. It's sad to say, but many parents might be horrified to discover what their children are doing online. Kids, vacillating as Letty does between adult and child, sometimes from minute to minute, often don't have the foresight or experience to understand that online activity can dangerous, and that once there, it's a virtual permanent record even if they hit the delete key. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. What led you to include this scenario in your story?

KK: I think if I were a parent today, I'd have spyware on my kid's computer. Isn't that awful? But there is so much out there they don't have the emotional maturity to deal with yet. Heck, there are things I've run into online that I don't have the emotional maturity to deal with! And, of course, they think they do. I have always believed that no matter how involved you are in your kids' lives, there is plenty you don't know, and some of those secrets are okay and important for them to keep. But some are dangerous, and those lines aren't as apparent online as they are in real life, especially to teenagers. I'm so glad we didn't have the Internet when I was fifteen. I'm so trusting that I think I would have gotten into some trouble. Oh, and the permanence of it all! That one photo taken when just being silly, that conversation or comment thread that gets out of hand, that Facebook rant ... it's all, always there. And what kid really understands how that can affect their future? Yes, a scary world, and I don't blame any parents for their attempts to monitor their kid's Internet usage.

www: Kristy, in BETWEEN FRIENDS, as well as in your previous novels, you've done an excellent job of portraying the actions and emotions of people who aren't necessarily like you. I was particularly struck by a scene where now 15-year-old Letty allowed her mother to hold her hand as though she were a little girl again. It felt completely genuine, and I've had moments like that. I suspect a tear or two even slipped out while I was reading. Similarly, Cora's feelings about her illness seem spot on, though I've never experienced anything like PKD (polycystic kidney disease). What or who do you draw from to help you see through the eyes of characters who may have different family structures or life-changing situations than you've experienced?

KK: You know, a lot of people ask this, and I just don't have a great answer. My mother always said that when I was a kid, I was always sticking up for the "little guy," the picked on kids. I was a pretty quiet kid until I thought someone was being treated unfairly, no matter who it was, and then I'd get all ninja on whoever was being mean to them. So I think I've always been overly empathetic. I just close my eyes and imagine how they'd feel, I do (I know this sounds weird) become them. If one of my characters cries, chances are I cried just before I wrote the scene because I put myself in their place, with their life experiences and current situation firmly intact within me. It takes me a while to change points of view. I tend to take a break when I switch POV so I can let go of the last person and be the new person. Either that or it's magic. Take your pick.

: I pick both! And I think I was that kid, too – both the picked-on and the one who went ninja when I saw it happen to others. Maybe it's all part of a writer's DNA. And after reading my third Kristy Kiernan novel, your author voice is becoming more and more recognizable to me, too, by the way. Voice can be such an intangible, incomprehensible idea to convey. I love how your characters call each other honey, and I can just hear you calling your own friends honey with the southern drawl you're bound to have after growing up in Tennessee and Florida. Have you become more comfortable in recognizing your own voice with each novel you've written? When you go back and read your work now, do those little trademark mannerisms or the ways you put words together jump out at you, or is it as much a mystery as ever?

KK: Oh, how funny! Yes, I do call my friends honey. All the time. I'm naturally affectionate toward the people I love, heck, to people I barely know, and I think that comes through in my characters. I have grown more comfortable with my "voice." I'm more comfortable carving out a space in which I just write what and how I want without any outside noise, without worrying about what anyone might think about it. And aside from reading one or two passages out loud at events, I don't go back and reread my work, so nothing has jumped out at me. I have noticed that my characters tend to drink a lot of wine though ...

www: ... and your Facebook followers know you never drink wine. (Ahem.) Gosh, Kristy, you're practically a seasoned author now with the release of your third novel. How was producing novel three different from the others?

: Ah, the third one has been interesting. I know everyone compares their books to their kids, but it has been a little similar for me. I am much more relaxed on my third one. I'm all Zen now. I let it run around without a diaper, play in traffic, get on the back of motorcycles with inappropriate boys. I'm even considering buying it short shorts and a pack of cigarettes.

www: And I bet you never washed its pacifier off after the paci fell on the floor either. I mean, I never did that with my third kid. Well, rarely. Kristy, last but not least. Wait. Maybe most important of all. I've heard it said that every novelist is writing to answer "one big question," and that question shows up in their writing through theme, conflict, characters, setting, and so on. Have you discovered your "one big question?" Would you care to share, or do you have any supporting or conflicting thoughts on this idea?

KK: I think I'm obviously fascinated by the balance of power and control in long-term relationships, parent/child, husband/wife, friends. The yin and yang. Push and pull. I think it's related to empathy again. I want everyone to really understand everyone else and live happily ever after. I'm such a sucker.

www: Well, you are one talented sucker, and we're so pleased you found the time to visit with us here at What Women Write. Thank you! We wish you lots more amazing novels and your own happily ever after.

BETWEEN FRIENDS is available now at all of your favorite retailers, but why not give IndieBound a look and support your local independent bookseller.

Monday, April 5, 2010

That would make a great movie

By Pamela

This fall, once school commenced, I promised to treat myself to a movie once a week. I even internally named it Movie Monday, knowing once I'd given it a catchy title, I would fully embrace it.

Now that the calendar shows mere weeks until school lets out for the summer, I realize my plan has failed miserably. How many movies did I treat myself to? One. And I can't even remember which one it was. Maybe Leap Year, because I do remember seeing that one solo. Like many of my plans, this one failed out of the gate because I failed to make it a priority.

I love going to the movies. I love the feeling of being surrounded by the screen, the sounds, the smell of popcorn. Even the sticky floor sort of grounds me--and reminds me not to set my handbag down.

Last Friday, with my daughter whisked off to see How to Train Your Dragon with the neighbors, my teenage sons and I went to see Shutter Island. I fell in love with Dennis Lehane's writing after a friend told me to read Until Gwen, a short story by Lehane. (Lehane also wrote Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River--impressive, no?) I didn't realize, until this same friend pointed it out, that Lehane also wrote Shutter Island. I was not disappointed. The story was superb and now I'm eager to read the book.

Which feels backward.

Typically I'll read the book and then see the movie. Once I've seen the movie version, it's hard to read the book and not see the characters as the actors who played them. But there have been times when I so identified with a character in a book--pictured them so vividly in my head--that the movie felt wrong, as though the casting director didn't read the same script as I had.

Recently, my son and I saw The Lovely Bones. After the movie, he asked how close it was to the book. Honestly, it had been seven years since I'd read the book, so I wasn't sure. All I know is that I enjoyed the book more than the movie.

I've never interviewed an author whose book has gone on to become a movie (except for Jackie Mitchard--The Deep End of the Ocean--and I forgot to ask), but I suppose it's a goal many hope to achieve. For some, it must be immensely satisfying to see their story come to life. For others, though, I'm wondering--especially if they don't write the screenplay, as few do--if seeing the movie is like sending your child to school one day, only to have a different child step off the bus and call, "Mom, I'm home!" I know Stephen King expressed regret over the movie version of The Shining, so much so that he bought back the rights.

The best book-to-movie adaptation I recall was Cider House Rules, by John Irving and, I suppose, it's largely due to the fact that Irving also wrote the screenplay.

I've yet to see some recent movie adaptations, including The Time Travelers Wife and The Other Boleyn Girl. Maybe I'm afraid I'll be disappointed in the interpretation. I read the other day that the movie rights to The Help, one of my recent favorite reads, has just been sold. I hope the screenplay does the story justice and that it's cast well. (I have a few suggestions, if anyone cares.)

What about you read books after you've seen the movie, or do you avoid seeing movie versions of books you've loved?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Gearing Up

by Elizabeth

Conference season is upon us, and in just over a week I, like a couple hundred other North Texas writers including Joan and Pamela, will pile into cars and head for the wilds of Grapevine. For those familiar with the vastness of Texas and awed by such a journey, let me admit here that it's about a thirty minute drive for me. No hotel required.

This will be my seventh conference, and I'm thinking of it a bit differently than those past. Those first conferences were all about learning about agents, and above all the pitch session itself. I soaked in every word, took copious notes, and generally held my breath after the agent I met with asked for a full manuscript. I would be the exception, I thought, and land the very first agent I ever met! Needless to say, this did not happen. Now I blush remembering the version of the manuscript I sent that kind woman who sent me one of the politest rejections I've ever received. Classic case of querying too early. I thought I was done, but alas, the true finished product was yet a couple of years off.

DFW Writer's Conference sent me its schedule the other day, and rather than the industry insider sessions I eagerly rushed to those early conferences, this time I find myself drawn to classes aimed at improving my craft. Sure, a query letter matters, and knowing what to say to an editor is important. But since I first got serious about a the idea of publication and a career in writing, my needs have shifted. I've got the nuts and bolts of the pre-agented stage down pretty well. I know how to write a query, how to send a partial or a full. I even know how to write a manuscript. But now what I want to do is improve that last part. A tighter story, thicker plot, irresistible characters that refuse to let the reader go. So I'll be found in the front row of classes like "Archetype as Story Engine" and "How to Write Snappy Dialogue." A dilemma, though: should I attend "Understanding Scene: Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Disaster" or "Writing the Sex Scene"? (Although perhaps the former encapsulates the latter.)

As I ponder my choices, I'm also realizing how much I've changed since I first wandered into NETWO in late March 2007. I had a finished manuscript, as I said (or so I thought), I was eager and excited and by the end my thrilled buzz was matched only by the headache I'd acquired from staying "on" for two solid days. A good preview for what a book tour might feel like, it occurs to me. The very next week I headed north to Oklahoma City for OWFI, and I was hooked. I loved, in both instances, the camaraderie, the unified air of hope, the excitement of this-could-be-it that permeated the very air. Of course, it's usually not in fact, "it," but it still could be. It could be.

So DFW. For me, the goal is improved craft and no headache. Toward the latter, Saturday night a group of friends and I plan to settle back at dinner, relax and laugh, and just be. My pitch session comes Sunday, and don't get me wrong, I plan to go in there and hit it with my best shot. But this time, it's not the purpose and point of the weekend. Will the agent ask for my manuscript? There's a good chance, sure. But it's really no more than a very personal query letter, and if the agent asks for more, I won't treat it like a tippling basket as I once did. Instead, I'll note the address, make notes to send it the next week, and then head to my next session, probably "Creating Three Dimensional Characters." Because while the book I'll pitch may be the first I'll publish, maybe it won't. But writing is forever, not just a weekend.
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