Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Does my middle look saggy, or is it just me?

By Julie

There's a popular term among writers: The Sagging Middle.

I've experienced it myself, mostly when I was flying by the seat of my pants and writing without any idea where I was headed – known as "pantsing."

But I've discovered something else this week: The Meandering Middle.

But I'm not talking about the story. I'm talking about the writer.
I'm slightly beyond the middle of my current manuscript – about 47,000 written of my anticipated 90,000. I'm using a detailed outline for the first time, so I know exactly where I need to go next, and it's moving along at a nice clip. In fact, I've even decided to up my personal word-count challenge so I can get to "The End" faster because it's going so well.

It doesn't seem like my middle is sagging. In fact, I'm just about to enter the portion of the story where so much stuff hits my characters, they almost can't stand it. So, I'm not bored writing, and I hope my readers won't be bored reading when they come to this point.

What's annoying, though, is that even though my middle isn't sagging and my enthusiasm isn't dragging, I'm getting distracted. Even with my handy-dandy outline to keep me on track.

And guess what? It happened to me the last time, too. But that time I quit right in the middle. I did not have an outline that time, so I'm certainly seeing the exponential value in this nifty tool.

So, what's distracting me, you ask?

My attention has been grabbed by the new story idea that's rambling about in my brain. The next new thing. The thing I now can't wait to write when I finish writing and revising ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. I had a glimmer of the unique setting before, but the "what if?" hit me between the eyes last night.

When I was tired and clueless in the middle of writing the last manuscript, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE called to me like a siren of the sea, and I shipwrecked. I made the transition as if I were dating a boy who just didn't thrill me anymore and a newer, fancier model came along and asked me out. I said yes. I had no commitment to the old story other than the time I'd put into it, which wasn't a little … but maybe wasn't quite enough.

Well, this time, I'm not jumping ship. I spent too much time on that dadgummed outline to quit now.

Besides, I still love the story. We're comfortable with each other, and I'm in it for the long haul.

But it doesn't mean I can't cheat a little on the side. You know, just a coffee date now and then to say hello and catch up on what's new with Shiny New Story. Like they say, just because you're on a diet doesn't mean you can't look at the menu.

So last night, I allowed my mind to go totally gaga over the new story for a few hours, then again this afternoon. I wrote a potential nutshell synopsis, then honed it down to an elevator pitch/logline. I conducted some quick and dirty Internet research. (That's what researchers call it, I promise … I learned the term in grad school.) I took notes, brainstormed a little, walked around in my characters' brains as they faced the day, just to see what kind of cereal they eat for breakfast.

But now I'm back to my current manuscript. I'm not giving up. I just needed to check out the competition for a few hours.

I'm happy I went to the trouble of spending a month to make that outline. It's kind of like wedding vows:

Me and ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE … together forever. Or at least until "The End" does us part.

I won't grieve long. When I'm a novel widow, I'll already have my next partner all picked out.

Photo credit: diamond geezer's Flickr photostream / by Creative Commons license

Monday, June 28, 2010

Write what you glean

By Pamela

I’m assuming most people who read The Glass Castle had reactions similar to mine—they felt empathy toward Jeannette Walls and her siblings, for all they endured in their childhoods. Similar thoughts went out to Augusten Burroughs after I finished Running with Scissors.

But possibly my next reaction is unique: How come my childhood had to be so boring?

I had the fortune/misfortune of being raised by loving parents in a middle class home, in a rural Midwest town. My siblings and I attended public schools and the First Baptist Church, spent summers at my grandparents’ lake house and winters playing in the snow. We were expected to mind our manners and get part-time jobs along with our drivers’ licenses. My parents didn’t even divorce until I was an adult! We were boringly predictable and didn’t apologize for it.

As a result, not even my mother would bother to read my lackluster memoir.

So how do I find interesting fodder for my characters when writing a manuscript? Several ways I’ll share here.

Observe and Report

I try to absorb every nuance of my life—from how the crossing guard at my daughter’s school says “you-ens” to the things my plumber says he’s found in drains. I interview people for my day job, so I probably ask more questions than most people and I have a pretty good memory.

I’ve also had friends share stories from their pasts that I may someday use in a manuscript—with details carefully disguised, of course. I’ve held packets of info and observations in my grey matter, waiting for a scene or character in a story to need a nugget I’ve been saving.

Bottom line: Get out in life, look around, ask questions and listen more than you talk.

Read the News

I love scanning the newspaper’s columns and features for interesting pieces. Our Sunday paper has a “how we met” story that showcases a couple who overcame odds to get together. The obituaries also reveal interesting quirks about people. One recently touted a man as having an awesome collection of vintage handcuffs. (Wondering if he meant for that to get out.)

Elizabeth has me reading the advice columns for strange family dynamics. Recently she read about people who are known for “accidentally” leaving their wallets behind when out to dinner or drinks with friends. They always promise to pay up later and never do. Guess what one of her characters has in store for her? Yep.

Dear Abby, Miss Manners, Ask Amy…they all have people who write in with the craziest stuff.

Listen to the Radio

One morning show I listen to has two regular bits: “Does that make me crazy?” and “It sucks to be me.” On the former show, callers tell the hosts about weird things they do and then members of the morning team decide if the caller is crazy or not. People have admitting to: smelling dental floss after flossing each tooth, scanning the side-ditch on the morning drive for a good place to dump a body and talking aloud to characters in novel as if they were real people. And those were from the same day!

On the latter show, a woman said it sucked to be her because someone took a nailgun to her tire, leaving nine nails buried in the tread. Hmmm…sounds like a jilted lover to me. Certainly a character in a book could have the same thing happen to him.

So, if you’re dull like me, embrace your vanilla-ness. Think of the money you’ll save on therapy and get over the fact that you’ll probably never sell your life story. You can find fun stuff to write about. Turn on the radio, open the newspaper or ask your garbage man what’s the coolest thing he’s found on the curb. People can be refreshingly candid and just about everyone I’ve met loves to talk!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer Survival Strategies for Writers

By Kim

Summer is here. The days are hot, the children are free, and my writing…well, let’s just say not a heck of a lot of it gets done. While I rarely have more than five uninterrupted minutes at my keyboard, images from my story and conversations between my characters still haunt me. As I’m sure many other writers with children can attest, it’s easy to get frustrated and resentful when kept from our work, from our daydreams, and from the peace and quiet so many of us require.

Last year I put little thought into how I was going to make it through the summer holidays. Even though most days I only had one of my two bundles of joy at home, I wound up longing for a solitary vacation within the first few weeks. This year I’ve come up with a survival strategy that I hope will allow me to keep my sanity, get a little work done, and keep my family happy.

I will accept the fact that it will be impossible to write every day and that some days I shouldn’t even try. Nap time is officially a thing of the past in the Bullock household and my office is, for all practical purposes, in the same room as the television and game consoles. I have a choice - sit at the computer and stew about my inability to concentrate over the theme song from The Wonder Pets or sort laundry in the relative peace of my bedroom. This year I will choose the latter.

I will involve my four-year-old in chores. She wants to help and those days where she thinks it is fun to help mom empty the dishwasher and dust furniture are limited. Who knows, maybe if she actively helps prepare dinner, she may even be inclined to eat some of it.

I will bribe my eight-year-old to entertain her sister. It may at least allow me to get my blog posts done.

I will relax and enjoy my family on our vacation to Italy this summer with no plans to get anything done beyond exploring villages, watching my older daughter’s face light up (like mine) at the history of the buildings while my younger one dashes up every set of stairs she finds. Of course, this will all partly depend on my husband’s (questionable) ability to drive a stick-shift.

On those days when I can’t work, I’ll do related things from which I can be painlessly interrupted. I can transcribe old letters and update my website. Even painting alongside my children can be considered “research.”

I will not feel guilty for putting one child in day camp and the other in summer school for part of the vacation. I will make writing a priority on those days.

I will not feel pressure to keep the house spotless. Wait, I never do that anyway!

How about you? Leave a comment and share your strategies for keeping the muse happy during the summer holidays.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Unexpected

by Elizabeth

I got an email from my mom the other day, a forward from her cousin letting us know that the cousin's father is very ill. Totally out of the blue. Well, not so much out of the blue since he's on the far side of his eighties, but out of the blue as far as the diagnosis goes.

As luck would have it, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, and we had tickets to a play over there just two days after the email came. I trek over to see them several times a year, but hadn't called them this time as babysitters are expensive and it was already a busy weekend--just figured I'd see them the next time. I called, of course, made arrangements for the babysitter to come a few hours earlier, and off we went.

They need help. It was clear to me, someone they could trust needs to come in there and be a mom to them. The cousin had to head back to her own home and family three states away, the son in town has a sick family member himself, and the other son is in another state as well. Chemo was beginning in a few days, and while hospice had been called, and various arrangements were underway, my younger cousin was distraught over the situation.

It occurred to me the day after the visit that I might know someone who could help, a recent college grad who used to work in the daycare at my gym. Lovely young woman, caring and warm and someone I'd trust with my wallet and my keys and my kids. I emailed her on the long shot, and was astounded when an email came back explaining the job would be ideal for her this summer as she'd moved to the town where she'd start grad school in the fall, but hadn't yet found a job.

On Joan's advice, I'm reading All Other Nights by Dara Horn. I won't give anything away since you should read this book, and one reason is the way Horn keeps the story going with plot points that are unexpected and vibrant. Nearly every turn of the page brings an idea or circumstance leaving me shaking my head in wonder at how life is such a puzzle sometimes, one that makes sense even as it twists around on itself. We experience this in real life, and so when it works in fiction, the novel becomes more plausible and therefore more satisfying. In other words, the kind of book that makes people love books.

I've found that happen in research as well. A couple years ago as I was plowing through the first draft of my second manuscript, I needed an historical character to be in New York City at a very specific moment in time. "It's fiction," I excused myself, determined to just write the scene. I started, then gave up with a sigh and started researching. Lucky I did: I discovered a letter he wrote from New York the very day I needed him to be there. Serendipity or the unexpected, a twist I needed that worked with historical fact (not unlike Horn's book, which includes real people from the Civil War), and the words flowed from there.

Life has turns, and the real ones, the ones that seem like a coincidence, in fiction, done correctly, are part of the satisfaction of literature. Like my cousins and the girl who may be able to help hold down the fort during this stressful summer; like Horn's Jacob Rappaport who finds heroism and villainy and love and redemption as the pages turn on his remarkable twists; like George Washington taking his stepson to college in the spring of 1773: the unexpected keeps us engaged.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Guest Blogger: Agent Jim McCarthy

by Joan

Today I’m thrilled to introduce guest blogger, agent Jim McCarthy from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Over the past few years, a number of agents have requested my work, but Jim is the only one who's read all three of my completed manuscripts! He's one of the nicest agents I've come across and any author would be lucky to be represented by him.

Here's Jim's take on dedication and why you should NEVER give up:

Depending on who you ask, I’ve either sold 21 or 22 books by Victoria Laurie. She insists that the novella she wrote for an anthology called DROP DEAD BLONDE counts. I think that’s crazy cheating. Regardless, since I signed her on in late 2003, we’ve signed a lot of contracts for a whole lot of books. So it amuses me all the more that our relationship began with a rejection letter.

Victoria’s first book, ABBY COOPER, PSYCHIC EYE landed on my desk in the Fall of 2003 when I was a brand spanking new agent. I had been with the company for a bit but had just started signing my own clients earlier that year. From the slush pile, I discovered a query from a professional psychic intuitive who was writing a mystery novel about another psychic, Abby Cooper, who became involved in a criminal investigation and got swept off her feet by one Detective Dutch Rivers. I read the manuscript and knew that Victoria had a voice—it’s the one thing in writing that I just don’t think you can fake. What I wasn’t as wholly convinced of was whether she had a publishable novel. She was funny, her characters were winning, and I just loved reading her writing. I didn’t think the book held together structurally, though. So after a bit of wavering, I decided to pass. I sent an email explaining how much potential I thought she and the book had, and I left the door open for her to resubmit.

Now, seven years is quite awhile, so I’m sure she would refute what I’m about to say, but I’m pretty sure she sent me a revised manuscript fourteen seconds later. Whatever it was, it was FAST. So I began reading again with some trepidation. No one can revise that quickly, can they? I was sure she was bluffing and had made the slightest cosmetic changes, hoping to con me into signing it on. The crazy thing is: the changes weren’t cosmetic. They were fabulous. So I signed her on, we did a little back and forth, and then the manuscript went out there and got snatched up in a hot second.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Victoria had been turned down by over one HUNDRED agents. When she told me that, I nearly choked on my Diet Coke. Let me say this—I never doubted that she was determined. But 100 people?! And it wasn’t even the first novel she tried to place! That’s some crazy ass dedication.

So seven years later, here we are. Victoria has three series ongoing—the Psychic Eye and Ghost Hunter mysteries with NAL which keep hitting higher and higher on the New York Times extended bestseller list with each publication, and the middle grade Oracles of Delphi Keep series which debuted last year from Delacorte.

Over 100 people turned her down. Now she has 22 books under contract. These are enormous numbers. And I use them not to brag about the fact that I was the person smart enough to sign on this wonderfully talented writer who so many readers have fallen in love with (well…not JUST to brag), but to remind writers that the path to publication is almost never easy but that there are rewards if you can stick with it.

It’s easy for me to tell authors to keep trying. It’s a million times harder to actually do it. So I offer Victoria’s story as a hint of motivation. So in the bleakest of moments, when you can’t face another form rejection letter, remind yourself that there is still hope. You can still make it. You just need to find your one in a hundred.

Jim is open to queries and is looking for commercial fiction of all varieties. Make sure you let him know that you found him here!
Jim McCarthy
Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
1 Union Square West, Suite 904
New York, NY 10003

Jim's submission guidelines are here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Raising a Writer

By Pamela

When my children were born, I read to them as soon as their eyes could focus on a page. They devoured their first books—literally! Teething rings had nothing on board book versions of Goodnight, Moon! or The Runaway Bunny.

I was raised a reader, not by example necessarily, but by encouragement. Books were readily available and school librarians were some of my favorite teachers. But I think raising a writer calls for a unique approach.

Having the necessary tools available certainly helps—paper and crayons to start with, advancing to pens and computers later. But learning the structure of a good story is something I wasn’t taught until later in life. In fact, I’ll admit I’m still learning the components of writing fiction, long after I feel I’ve mastered the basics of grammar and spelling.

After I wrote my first manuscript and then took the bold leap of allowing others to read it, I was shocked to learn how much I didn’t know about the elements of story. Point of view issues abounded. “Head-hopping,” Kim wrote frequently in the margins. Joan kept encouraging me to up the conflict. Me? Conflict? I avoid that at all costs in my personal life.

Determined to plant early seeds for my daughter, should she decide one day to be a writer, I’ve started grooming her, so to speak, as she learns to read. (I have two teenage boys who raise an eyebrow if I try to offer a helpful writing tip, so they’re exempt from this experiment.)

As a preschooler, my daughter eagerly accompanied me to toddler time at our local library. The librarian always introduced a book by stating the title, the author and whether it was fiction or nonfiction. When the librarian would ask what nonfiction books were about, a gaggle of toddlers would shout, “Real stuff!”

So, I took her lead and began to use our time at home as an opportunity to do more than just read texts. I began by naming the book, the author and the illustrator. While reading Stellaluna, I might remind my daughter that Janell Cannon also wrote Verdi plus she illustrated her stories. Books became more than just objects on the shelf; they were written by authors, illustrated by artists. We read bios when available and talked about the individuals as though they were friends. Once we even emailed an author and got a personalized response.

While reading, at times I'd pause mid-page and point out literary devises such as alliteration, and I took pride in the fact that, at three years of age, she knew what an onomatopoeia was. (Even though I never remember how it’s spelled!)

Now, as we’ve progressed to chapter books, I’ve upped the ante by introducing point of view. We’re reading a series of books about a horse farm with characters who are growing up and moving on as the series progresses. I stopped in the middle of book five and said, “Who were the first stories mostly about?”

“Ashleigh,” she said.

“Right,” I said. “They were told from Ashleigh’s point of view. We heard what other characters had to say, but we knew only what Ashleigh was thinking. If Charlie was in a scene, we never knew what he was thinking because it was in Ashleigh’s point of view. She could tell us what she thought Charlie might feel because of his actions, but we never knew for sure. Whose point of view is this book in?”

“Samantha?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Ashleigh is still a character, but now we know only what Samantha is thinking or feeling since it’s in her point of view.”

We talked a little about conflict—about what makes a story interesting—how if everything on the horse farm was always good, then the book would get pretty boring. And if Samantha’s horse won every race, then the parts about the track would be predictable and we’d lose interest.

I’m careful to not make reading too much about the craft for fear she’ll view our “snuggle time” as a sly version of home-schooling. But I want her to know there’s more to building a story than just tossing text onto a page, so we also discuss protagonists and antagonists, conflict and resolution. Big words, maybe, but she gets it in the same way she recalls names of dinosaurs and absorbs concepts such as evaporation and pollination.

My goal here is two-fold: I want her to appreciate writers and illustrators—what makes books treasures, plus I’d like her to understand what’s involved in composing a good tale. Maybe someday she’ll become a writer. Or maybe she won’t. If she does, I’m betting her first critique partners won’t have to do quite as much work as mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

WHEN Women Write

By Julie

Does when and how you write (or do your work in general) say anything about who you are?

Apparently, it's important enough, anthropologically speaking, that most of us label ourselves either "Night Owls" or "Early Birds." Interestingly, an online search mostly turned up quotations about night owls, or tongue-in-cheek statements about birds. And, unfortunately, most of them were by men. The quintessential Shel Silverstein sums everything up nicely with his double entendre from "Early Bird" in Where the Sidewalk Ends:

"Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird
And catch the worm for your breakfast plate.
If you're a bird, be an early bird –
But if you're a worm, sleep late."

My highly scientific analysis of the quotes I found says night owls worry more about being owls than early birds worry about being birds. This makes sense. I've always felt slightly off kilter with most of the world, wondering if I am "okay" or "abnormal" because of an extreme night owl sleep cycle.Last night, I eased into the routine I've followed the last few months while drafting my new manuscript, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. The house had settled. My daughter was sound asleep. The dog was no longer restless. And my brain went right into writer mode.

I read over what I'd written a few nights earlier, thinking I might edit a sentence or two and go to bed like a good girl. But, of course, I ended up adding another 1,300 words to the story and certainly wasn't unhappy with myself – even when I had to catch up on my sleep this morning.

And that is how my evenings go when I'm drafting.

I find it easy to edit and revise during the day. I've even trained myself to draft daytime words when necessary, but I find they tend to come from a different mental place. They don't flow as naturally, and they expose my voice less than I'd like. In a pinch, daytime drafting works, but because my schedule allows me to write at night, I take advantage of it. I write most of my words between eleven p.m. and two a.m.I try not to beat myself up too violently over my night owl ways anymore. I used to feel horribly guilty that I stay up until the wee hours and then nap in the morning after sending my kids off to school. (Yes, I sleep a split shift.)

I still feel guilty when my husband and many good friends drive off to work at daybreak. I still cringe and want to hide some days when my stay-at-home mom friends post Facebook updates about the volunteer activities they're doing during the day with their school-age kids. I get the shakes just imagining trying to rise early and be dressed and pressed and excited to spend the day chaperoning large groups of children. But if I can sign up to send brownies? Dude, I'm there.

The topic of "writing time" is explored often in craft books or conference breakout sessions. Some experts insist you must rise at the crack of dawn or even earlier to put in your hours of writing before your household wakes. Some advise that setting a strict schedule of writing or revising from eight a.m. to noon and one p.m. to five every day is optimum, just as if you worked in an office environment. Others, like me, find night time is the right time for write time.

But you know, there is more than one way to skin a cat … errr … write a book! And it takes all kinds to produce the vast quantities of fiction and nonfiction we love to read.We like to celebrate our differences here on What Women Write, so I asked writers, published and unpublished, to share short bits about their writing routines.

NYT bestselling author Luanne Rice, whose recent novel, THE GEOMETRY OF SISTERS, is now out in paperback, says: "I write early, first thing, before my dreams have dissolved and before the day imposes its own reality. I love seeing the light come up, and I love being surrounded by still-sleepy cats."

Multi-published Diane Chamberlain's latest, THE LIES WE TOLD, released this month. She writes: "This completely depends on what point I'm at in the manuscript. Early on, I write now and then throughout the day. Starbucks in the morning. My porch in the afternoon. Sooo relaxed and at ease! As deadline approaches, I write in my office from early morning to late at night, sweat dripping from my forehead, panic mounting as I hunch over my keyboard, reminding myself that writing is my passion and I love it. The month before deadline, I tend to forget that little fact."

Deadlines seem to be a common factor among published authors when it comes to writing schedules. Kristy Kiernan, who we featured on the blog when BETWEEN FRIENDS released, says: "I am disturbingly unregimented when it comes to writing time. I will write in the morning when I wake, until lunch. Or I will write after lunch through the evening, until dinner. Or I will write from after dinner until two in the morning (when you would assume I'd go for a little snack ... but no). I write when the words are coming. Until I run out of time. And then I write as much as I need to, whenever I need to, to get it done. My muse starts showing up a lot more when she notes a deadline approaching."

Lauren Baratz-Logsted manages, along with her husband and daughter, to write and publish books at the speed of light for tweens, teens, and adults. (Check out the gorgeous covers for upcoming YA releases, THE TWIN'S DAUGHTER and THE EDUCATION OF BET.) Her answer explains it all: "Before being published I used to start my writing day between 2:30 and 4:30 in the morning so I could get a good chunk in before going off to do all the jobs I used to have to do to keep the mortgage paid. Now I start at 7 a.m., when my daughter leaves for school, and pretty much work straight through until she returns at 4 p.m. Sometimes I also write nights and weekends. I used to favor mornings – it's great to start early, just like with exercise, before laziness sets in – but I find now that I can pretty much start anytime. Just so long as I've set a goal for the day, I know it'll get done somehow before I call it a night."

Tish Cohen's THE TRUTH ABOUT DELILAH BLUE, just released and her previous title, TOWN HOUSE, is in film development. It seems she's an early bird!:"I love to just get up, not say a word, and go straight to the computer. I find I am more open before anything gets between my dream state and my keyboard. But more often than not I have kids to get out the door, a dog to take out, or a phone to answer. What also works well for me is walking in the woods with my dog before writing. The quiet time plus the exercise can set me up well for a long day of writing."

Our WWW Facebook friend and aspiring author Carolyn Serratos writes:"I am an early morning person. I enjoy writing early. I think better and my thoughts are fresher and more open to ideas. During the day, when I get busy, I journal thoughts and ideas. That gives me focus for the next morning."

Another WWW friend, Ida Centineo, says:"I tend to write late in the day. I've always been nocturnal -- worked nights for years as a nurse. My best material, interestingly, comes with PMS."

That is interesting, Ida! My longtime online buddy and frequent WWW commenter, Kathy Holmes (whose MYTHS OF THE FATHERLESS was featured on MSNBC this week!) shares this: "When I started writing my first manuscript I wasn't working, had the house all to myself – just me and the three cats, but, yet, I didn't write until 4 p.m. – it took all day long to find the courage to write. I wrote my third manuscript out on our screened Lanai in Florida and after that, I worried I'd never be able to write any place else. Now, after several manuscripts under my belt, and several interstate moves, I can write anywhere at any time. Often I wake up in the middle of the night to write. And, now, juggling a day job as a tech writing consultant from my home office, I work on my manuscripts whenever I get the chance throughout the day."

And Gabrielle Luthy, who's eagerly awaiting the results of RWA's 2010 Golden Heart Awards because she's a finalist for her manuscript, THE LAKE EFFECT, says: "If I had my druthers, I'd write from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., but while I'm still in that pesky office job, I write in the morning – usually at Starbucks, though sometimes I get up at 4.30 and write at home. Getting words down before anyone intrudes on my day makes me feel I've done something of meaning, which makes it much easier for me to handle what the day throws at me – and makes me much nicer for other to deal with. ;)"

Here's a comment that made me chuckle from WWW fan, Gail Clark, who says she keeps intending to write, but life just never seems to slow down: "My best writing time is … tomorrow."

It could appear among our own What Women Write contributors that we have a preponderance of early birds, but I happen to know Susan is an owl like me. She writes: "I usually write at night. When I was still writing longhand, I would write on my lunch hour or any time that I had a free moment. Now that it is all in the computer, I usually wait until everyone in the house is asleep, and I wind down a bit before digging in. I've tried the morning but writing is such a luxury for me that my mind thinks of all the things that I am 'supposed' to be doing that I get sucked in to the day. Night works best for me!"

Pamela says: "This morning I got up at 6 a.m. and managed to write for an hour before anyone else was up and demanding to be fed or driven to some place. Tomorrow, I'm setting the alarm for 5:30. But I also find I'm most productive if I take my laptop in the car with me and write at my son's soccer practice or while he's in drivers' ed--no Internet to distract me."

Joan writes: "I generally start writing after my first cup of coffee (sometimes it's 6 a.m., sometimes 8 a.m.!) through around noon. I try to write (or edit) again for two hours in the afternoon. I get distracted, or work/work gets in the way, but I really try to stick with that schedule. If I can steal a few hours on the weekend, that's bonus time!"

And Elizabeth: "I write best when I do it early – get up, get life squared away, then head to a coffee shop with a pad and a buck and sit down and write. When I do this, I write fast, spitting out maybe twelve hundred words in forty-five minutes. I often have a secret timer, known as a 9:30 a.m. yoga class, to give me a tiny deadline. Days I manage this, it seems everything goes well. I've accomplished, and it seems so easy, it's crazy it isn't every day I do this. Come fall and school again, I hope to be better, and have words out each morning with the last sip of coffee."

Yoga class as a timer? Who knew?

So what about YOU? We'd love to hear from more of our readers about When women write! Let's stir it up in the comments.

Photo credit: Flowery L*u*z*a*'s Flickr photostream by Creative Commons license

Monday, June 14, 2010

Be An Original!

By Susan

Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same...

(Shakespeare's sonnets #76)

If Shakespeare can feel it: that lack of originality, that empty feeling of failure, then can't we all?

I'm at that place now, where I have driven my narrative as far as (I think) it can go. There's conflict, suspense and pain. There's longing, there's love. It's got generations of conspiracy and deception and passion. Yet as I pick apart each scene, I catch myself thinking: Is this familiar to me because I wrote it, or because I've read it from other authors a thousand times before...? The threat of the common plot line and flat characters is as scary as, well, being average.

I grew up in a house where being average, blending in, and not making a scene were considered the most honorable of all traits. In fact, to go-with-the-flow was expected. Go to the same church, college, country club, and live in the same town as "we all always have." I rebelled against this notion from the start, trying to go farther, live louder, and do more than anyone around me (to the sometimes-chagrin of my parents). In fact, in my youth I would rather fail spectacularly than be average, and am still that way today. In some ways, that methodology helped me. Other times, I simply crashed and burned (a lot).

When it comes to writing, I reach to find the ceiling of the plausible. I research likely scenarios, draw "what-if" charts, and plot endlessly. I try, to my best ability, to at the minimum be interesting. Not to be cliche. To first keep myself interested enough to keep writing. Only then can I even guess that I would keep my reader interested in what I have to say.

Yet now, here I am. Thinking that the cliches are slipping in to the story line. Thinking my love story has gotten predictable. I'm finding holes in my crime and evidence, and my dialog seems, well, just boring.

And overall, I'm terrified that my biggest fear may actually be true: Maybe I AM normal. So, I go back to the drawing board. Back to my original goal for this manuscript: To complete it. To love it. For other people, maybe, to love it too.

My goal was never grab an agent or sell the manuscript or even to publish it. My manuscript, The Angel's Share, is simply a labor of love. In many ways, it is a love letter to that deeply-rooted family I complained about above. It's work that is my own, and more than anything else, it's FUN. I hope it is An Original. I hope it is a reflection of me, yet something that stands on its own as well.

And I hope yours is An Original too.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Conversation with Catherine Hall

By Kim

Those of you who read my last post, a review of Catherine Hall’s Days of Grace, already know I am a fan of both the book and the author. I was delighted to recently have the opportunity to interview Catherine for What Women Write and am delighted to share our conversation with all of you.

KB - I’ve read that you were once involved in the production of documentary films. How do you believe this work may have influenced you as a writer?

CH - Well, it was very good discipline in how to tell a story as simply as possible. Being involved in editing scripts and the films themselves was great training in stripping things down to essentials, and in showing not telling. For example, a scene that illustrates a particular aspect of someone’s personality is far more powerful than just saying in a voiceover ‘she was a difficult woman’. Making documentaries taught me how to let your characters speak for themselves.

KB - As a writer, I’m in awe of how tight your prose is, yet you pack so much sensory detail and emotion into it without ever being melodramatic. Do you write long and then edit like mad, or does it come to you like this?

CH - Thank you! That’s a lovely compliment. You’re right with the first guess, I write long and then edit, edit, edit. It’s the only way I can do it. It took me a year or so to write Days of Grace, then about two years on and off to edit it, cutting about 60,000 words. Every time I read it through I discovered mistakes, or things that weren’t quite right. But I’ve also learned that there comes a point when you’re just too close to it and you have to let someone else have a look.

KB - What came first for you – Nora or her story?

CH - Nora. She came out of a particularly difficult time when I’d just ended a long-term relationship. The character of an elderly woman came into my head, the sort of woman that I, in my post-break-up state of mind, thought I might turn into one day – awkward, slightly difficult, and lonely.

I think her character then tapped into lots of things that I’d been thinking about for a while. I’m struck by how invisible old people seem to be today. In a culture that’s obsessed with youth, it’s almost as if they don’t exist. I was fascinated by the idea that an ordinary old woman - ignored by everyone who passes her by - might have an extraordinary history. So Nora became my heroine. The next step was to trace back and work out how she ended up so alone.

KB - I confess you had me in tears by the third page. In hindsight I’m convinced that it was because while it was clear what Nora’s illness was, you did not use the words ‘cancer’ or ‘tumor’ for quite some time. It felt like a secret that Nora had decided to share with me alone. What prompted this approach?

CH - It was partly because it seemed to fit with Nora’s character. She isn’t someone who gives too much away, or if she does, she takes her time. And cancer is such an immediate, emotive word that means so much to so many people. I wanted to introduce the idea of a terminal illness but not be too clear about exactly what it was, at least for a while.

I think also, I wanted the cancer to be almost a metaphor for the feeling of things not being quite right that Nora has felt all her life. When I was researching the book I was struck by the psychiatrist and scientist Wilhelm Reich’s description of cancer as “a disease following emotional resignation… … a giving up of hope.” Whether or not that’s entirely true, it seemed to fit Nora and her situation.

KB - It is interesting that DAYS OF GRACE is described as a beautiful mediation on love, friendship and family, yet it also unflinchingly tackles many controversial issues. Despite them, I felt the description was accurate. You never came across as having an agenda. How did you keep the controversies from taking over the story? Have you received mean-spirited press about any of it?

CH - You’re right, I didn’t have an agenda. But I did want to explore how things are usually more complicated than they seem. The controversial issues were just part of the story, rather than being added to make a point. I guess things that become ‘issues’ actually always start off like that – they’re just things that happen to people. It’s when they’re analyzed that they turn into issues. So I just stuck to telling the story, and letting the characters lead it. Thankfully, I haven’t received any mean-spirited press. They seem to have felt the same way as you, and focused on the story rather than any issues around it.

KB - One of the controversies (alluded to on the book jacket) is Nora’s growing desire for Grace. Homosexuality is still a rather loaded issue in the United States. Is it less so in England?

CH - I guess it depends where you are. I’m lucky to live in London, one of the most liberal, diverse cities in the world, so in the circles that I move in, it isn’t a problem. But I’m aware that it isn’t the same for everyone.

Homophobia still exists – one of the worst insults in the school playground is ‘you’re gay’ - and it’s still hard for young people to come out of the closet.

On the other hand, a lot of the people who’ve enjoyed the book are from places in rural England that I might have imagined to be less tolerant! What I find interesting is how people interpret Nora’s feelings for Grace. Many people see them simply as a schoolgirl crush, of the sort that many women have as teenagers, whereas I, and other lesbians I’ve spoken to, are sure that they’re much more than that. So people see what they want to see, I guess.

KB - I was surprised Nora eventually married. It seemed out of character for her, and I wondered why she had done it? Pressure to conform to society? Pure loneliness?

CH - There’s a story behind that! In the original version of the book, Nora lives alone all her life until she takes Rose into her home. But when I was first trying to find a publisher, an editor said she wanted to see that Nora could show some sort of adult capacity for love, and asked if she could have been married. To my mind, that wouldn’t work, because she’s a lesbian, but on further reflection, I decided she might have married someone, for security and companionship, as she knew she didn’t have a chance of erotic fulfilment. So I married her to Bernard, with whom she experiences a different sort of love. But I made sure that he wasn’t capable of having sex - I spared Nora the indignity of that! The editor didn’t take the book in the end, but at least I showed willing…

KB - The novel Rebecca is mentioned many times throughout the book, as well as the works of Shakespeare. They are, as Nora says, her friends. I’m sure you had reasons for picking these particular stories. Can you elaborate for us?

CH - I first read Daphne du Maurier’s novels as a teenager and was captivated by the sense of place and the darkness that hovered just below the surface, not to mention the vaguely lesbian sensibility of her books and indeed of her life. I mention her novel Rebecca in the book, partly as a hint to readers, holding a mirror to the sapphic undercurrents of Mrs Danvers’ the housekeeper’s obsession with the dead Rebecca, and partly because it’s a book that would have appealed to someone with Nora’s slightly dramatic teenage sensibilities. Shakespeare I mentioned because I wanted something that was both conventional and at the same time not. On the surface, Shakespeare is very establishment, something that every English schoolchild has to read. But underneath the stories are different, transgressive and thrilling. It depends how you read them. I wanted to give Nora the opportunity of doing that, and to direct the reader, again, to look under the surface.

KB - Many Americans are probably unfamiliar with the idea of children being evacuated from London near the start of the war. Can you tell us a little about this and your decision to make Nora an evacuee?

CH - Of course! In the summer of 1939, the British government urged parents to register their children for an official evacuation scheme, arguing they would be safer and healthier in the countryside. Operation Pied Piper began on 1st September, just before the outbreak of war. In the next four days, two million children left the major cities by train. Luggage labels tied around their necks gave their names – all they carried were their gas masks, a change of clothes and a stamped addressed envelope to send to their parents to tell them where they’d ended up.

Some evacuees came to see the war as the best years of their lives, loving the freedom of the countryside. Others suffered terrible homesickness, feelings of abandonment and, sadly, mental or physical abuse from their hosts. For some, it was impossible to get over the trauma of separation from their parents, never again managing to form close relationships. Their lives had been saved, but the psychological damage was enormous.

I wanted to explore that trauma of separation, and of course, it’s a situation in which someone is thrown into a new and alien world, which works very well for writing fiction. Also, my work for an international peace building organization meant that I’d seen first-hand the effects of separation between children and parents during war. I think that also informed my decision to make Nora an evacuee, albeit sub-consciously.

KB - DAYS OF GRACE is your debut novel. Many of our readers are hoping to have one of those someday. Would you share your success story with us?

CH - Well, it took a while – over 20 years. I first decided that I wanted to be a writer aged 11, but it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties, after a degree in English at Cambridge that terrified me into silence, and a career in documentary production, that I started to seriously write. Eventually, my boss at the production company allowed me to go freelance and so between series I wrote a novel.

Three years later I was stuck in a job I hated and desperate to leave. A colleague gave me the name of a friend who was an agent. We met, and she told me I could write, but that this novel wouldn’t get published, and that I should go away and write another one. My grandmother told me that she had been planning to leave me some money when she died but that I looked as if I needed it now. I quit my job the next day, and started to write.

After two years I had a manuscript, but when I phoned the agent to tell her she said she was very sorry but she was about to go on maternity leave! So I had to look for another agent…I found someone who said she thought it needed work, but had possibilities. We edited for another year, then sent it to publishers.

They all rejected it, but one said she would look at it again if I would consider making some changes. I did. She still didn’t want it. So my agent sent it around again. By this time I was doing freelance work in a refugee agency to pay the bills. I was at the office one day when I saw that my agent was calling. I managed to sneak off to the bathroom and listen to my voicemail. She told me that a publisher was interested – a small, independent with a good reputation. My book was finally going to be published!

KB - I’ve read that the whole promotional side of writing used to terrify you. Has your stage fright subsided over time?

CH - Not really – and I suspect it never will! One of the reasons I write is because I find speaking difficult, especially in public but even in groups of friends. I’m a shy show-off – I want my voice to be heard, but I don’t want to be seen whilst I’m doing it, so writing is the perfect profession for me…

Photo credit: Beth Crosland

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis in the hope that I would interview the author for this blog, though I was under no obligation to do so. I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. I make this statement in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Way to Not Read

by Elizabeth

Confession time: a great strategy to reduce average reading from some 2500-3000 pages a month down to maybe 500 is to publicly commit to reading something because it's good for you.

Yeah. Got through Rebecca happily, snoozed through parts of Utopia, trudged through about two-thirds of the stridently modern Dracula--and the month was over (thank goodness). This, after a year so far of eight or more books each month prior.

But it was good for me. Though--was it?

My kids are both voracious readers, and re-readers, too (like their mother). They read like some boys throw balls, without thinking, unable to stop, and if there's one around and their hands are empty, they'll pick it up. That said, they both have particular tastes and have no issue turning down a book I suggest if it doesn't appeal. Some of the books I loved as a child have been rejected (oh kids! A Wrinkle in Time!), some later read and loved and others still waiting on the shelf, perhaps never to have the spine cracked.

I brought a couple of books to Half Price Books the other day, just to see what kind of offer I might get. (Okay, I admit it: to get an idea of how much I might make if I could wrest a few thousand of my husband's paperbacks he insists on keeping that we have no space to store.) The lady gave me a few tips, including that they are always desperate for reading list books: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Farewell to Arms, that sort of thing. Can't keep 'em in stock, and condition didn't much matter because half the kids would never read the copy anyway, just needed one in their hot paws. Classics, required reading. Required, and often unread.

So many times we put undue pressure on ourselves, rules that go far beyond the real rules. I'm a big fan of Weight Watchers, have read their message boards for years, and I can't begin to count the number of posts from people inventing their own rules which make the diet plan a lot harder than as written. All the moms who turn what should be a simple game day snack into elaborate cheese soccer ball sculptures, complete with goal post pretzels. Whoever it was that deemed decades ago that he who dies with the most toys wins, so that twenty-plus years later the country's fiscal well-being is buried under a pile of unpaid-for junk most people probably didn't really want until they tried to keep up with the false rules.

I took a book I enjoyed and turned it into a month of obligation that robbed me of fulfilling mental diversion for the better part of thirty-one days. And why? Because it was good for me. Deprivation, cheese and pretzels, keeping up with the Joneses. And the end result was a book and two parts read, very little satisfaction, and I don't feel smarter or wiser or better read for it at all.

This doesn't mean I'm banning classics, not at all. Those high school lists the bookstore is slavering for? I, like countless others, read The Catcher in the Rye sheerly for pleasure before it was assigned, and as I constantly harp, I've read all of Jane Austen, never once under order. I picked up and enjoyed Les Miserables all on my own (well, except that slog in the middle about Waterloo, but if you're reading almost fifteen hundred pages of one story, what's forty in the middle?).

I just bought the first three Anne of Green Gables books for my daughter, excited because the play is being staged here early next year. She's game and ready, but when she picks up the first, if her reaction is like that for Little House on the Prairie thus far (though she loved the audio book version of Farmer Boy, go figure), I'll stick them on the shelf and let her get to them in her own time. Reading shouldn't be a burden, especially for those of us lucky enough to consider it one of life's most sublime delights.

And now I'm cutting this off. It's June, and a stack of novels I picked without any consideration to their literary merit or future placement on reading lists awaits. I've got some catching up to do, and I intend to savor every minute I can steal for books.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Joshilyn Jackson chats with us about Backseat Saints

By Julie

New York Times Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Georgia with her husband, their two children, and way too many feckless animals. Her debut, gODS IN ALABAMA, won SIBA's 2005 Novel of the year Award and was a #1 BookSense pick. Joshilyn won Georgia Author of the Year for her second novel, BETWEEN, GEORGIA, which also a #1 BookSense pick, making her the first author in BookSense history to receive number one status in back-to-back years. Her third novel, THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, was a Breakout book at Target and was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction. All three were chosen for the Books-A-Million Book Club.

Her latest, BACKSEAT SAINTS (June, 2010), tells the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a fierce, tiny ball of war wounds who was a minor character in gods in Alabama. Her life changes dramatically when she meets an airport gypsy who shares her past and knows her future. The gypsy's dire prediction: Ro's handsome, violent husband is going to kill her - unless she kills him first . . .

Booklist gave BACKSEAT SAINTS a starred review and said: “Positively breathtaking.”

Bookpage said: “Jackson has a magical way with words, injecting fearless insight throughout the novel. . . . . It's the work of a first-rate writer.”

We’re delighted to have Joshilyn Jackson as our guest here on What Women Write today. I’ve been a fan since my very first writer’s conference, when a panelist used Joshilyn’s first novel, gODS IN ALABAMA, as an example in her talk. I was riveted by the cover. I knew I had to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve waited eagerly for each new release since, and BACKSEAT SAINTS is no exception!

www: Joss, we’re thrilled to have you as our guest today! Let’s talk first about that stunning cover for BACKSEAT SAINTS. The lopped-off braid is a very specific reference to your story. This doesn’t look like any stock photo pulled out of a hat by the publisher. Was the shot done specifically for your book or were you just exceedingly lucky? And you hunted down that dress to wear on your book tour, right?

JJ: Yes, they did a shoot, and the photographer was the amazing Cig Harvey. The whole thing makes me want to kiss Grand Central Publishing on its metaphorical (and possibly subway-train-tasting) glossy lips. Cig Harvey read the book very deeply, and responded in her own language — and she speaks light and shadow and balance and texture like a native. That image is perfect. The hair and the pose and the red-hot vintage dress that burns against all that cool green. That model has the most beautiful skin in the world, and she found about a thousand points of light in it. There’s another shot on the back cover, where we see Rose Mae’s tattered back hair in a wild ruffle, as Rose lofts her hacked off braid up to the sun in total victory. It’s like she reached into my brain and pulled Rose out and photographed her. And of course I am going to wear that dress! Just as soon as I am twenty again. And a curvy size two.

www: After reading your fourth novel, I believe I could pick up a book with no identifying marks and recognize your writer’s voice. It’s unique. It’s colorful. It’s startling. It’s over the top. (In a good way!) I’d guess your voice in “real life” is more like your casual writing in on your blog (Faster than Kudzu, which, by the way, is frequently side-splitting!). How do you prepare for stepping into character? Where does this mesmerizing voice hail from?

JJ: Oh, thank you! That’s about the nicest thing you can say to a writer, because, yes, I want all my books to have different plots and characters and be variations on the themes that drive me to write, but you always hope you have a voice, you know?

Yes, I do talk more like the blog than I talk like my fiction. The difference is revision and craft and intention. The blog is off the cuff, but when writing novels, I probably spend 80% of my time revising. I read aloud to myself. I stand up and block out scenes playing all the parts. I read through at least once for every character in the scene and make sure that, no matter what the narrator is focused on, every character in the scene has their own agenda and all are behaving like themselves. The narrator might misinterpret their motivations, but what they do and say has to come from who they are and what they want in that scene.

www: Wow, that makes sense, and those are great ideas for aspiring writers. BACKSEAT SAINTS is more “issues” related than your previous novels. (Though Usher Syndrome was a strong element in BETWEEN, GEORGIA, it was not the topic.) This novel tackles domestic abuse head on. How did you conduct research on the topic? Are you partnering with any domestic abuse agencies or organizations in the release of BACKSEAT SAINTS?

JJ: Yes, I sort of got “backed into” writing about domestic abuse. Books, for me, come from characters and voices, not issues or ideas. I felt compelled to write about Rose Mae, and I knew from gODS IN ALABAMA that Rose’s daddy was a violent man and that her mother had lit out and left her to him when she was little. Rose’d been raised thinking, “This is what men are like, this is what marriage looks like,” and she was carrying that baggage long before I started writing this book. I knew in order to write about her, I had to deal with Rose’s long standing and extremely self-destructive love affair with violence. I was, quite frankly, intimidated by the subject matter, but I loved her too much to let a difficult topic scare me off.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Liz Nickels and the organization she works with, Building Futures with Women and Children in San Leandro, California. Liza gave me her time and her knowledge, took me around to see her organization’s offices, took me to a safe house to speak to the residents and volunteers, and gave me all kinds of literature to read. She was fantastic to me.

I’m delighted that Books, Inc in nearby Berkeley is hosting a party to benefit this particular organization. I’ll be there on Saturday, June 19th, at 7 PM, and 15% of all proceeds will go to BFWC.

A wonderful independent store called The Alabama Booksmith will be hosting parties in Birmingham on June 16th and in Tuscaloosa on June 26th to benefit local shelters. If you live in those areas, you can contact the store about tickets (

www: Joss, the manipulation cycle in the story felt so real. It was difficult for me to read in spots, but I was glued because you did it so well. I reacted viscerally at times. How did you manage to write these scenes? What did you draw upon to understand Thom’s actions and Ro’s reactions?

JJ: I think it was coming to understand that it’s just one of the thousand ways we package self-destructive tendencies. Which I have. In spades. I’ve spent time flirting with eating disorders, let’s just say I made some bad chemical choices in my youth, and I’m an ex-smoker. Mmmm, Smokey Death tastes so delicious first thing in the morning with a cuppa coffee. It was killing me; I couldn’t stop.

How is that different from Rose Mae loving Thom? Finding places in my life, the beams in my own eyes, instead of judging the beams in hers made a big difference. I didn’t start the research and the interviews until I could approach women who were trying to escape marriages like Rose’s with empathy and respect for their courage instead of pity and self-protective distancing. Pity is insulting, sympathy is just good manners.

I learned to approach experiences well outside my own in this way while doing the research for BETWEEN, because when I started, Usher Syndrome was very frightening to me. I had to get past that and see how much my own fear was limiting Mama as a character. I was limiting her in ways real deaf-blind people who live full, happy lives are not limited.

No matter how far someone’s experiences are from your own life, to write respectfully you have to empathize. Otherwise its voyeurism, it feels creepy and mean, and it rings false.

www: I love that answer. It really speaks to me as an aspiring author. Now . . . I heard a rumor you learned to shoot a gun as part of your research for BACKSEAT SAINTS. Care to elaborate?

JJ: Yes, I did learn to shoot. I tried out rifles first, hunting guns, and even went to a skeet shooting range to try blasting away with a shotgun. I thought it would be distasteful, but I really, really dug it. I am surprisingly good shooting things.

My brother took me to a meadow and let me shoot plastic Pepsi bottles with my grandfather’s old .32. Its pin is broken off, just like a smaller caliber version of Rose’s pistol. I knew that day Rose was a pistol girl, and I had been wasting my time with the rifles.

www: Wow. Don’t you love how random little experiences like that can speak to you, then make their way into the writing, showing up in both characterization and plot? That’s perfect. So . . . how does it feel to release your fourth novel? Does the swing of things get any different/easier/harder this far along in the game?

JJ: I always freak out, and say, “I have never been this excited, horrified, nervous, and vomit-level hopeful in my whole life. My heart is going to pop. My brain is going to come out my ears. I am going to lie in the road and die of joy and fervent horror. I have never felt this way before.”

At this point, my husband just rolls his eyes and gently says, “Well, not since the last book released, anyway. So.”

Apparently I do not learn.

www: Well, maybe not, but we’re glad you keep going and all of these things do not come to pass. I know about some of your unique writing processes from reading your blog. Can you share about some of the unusual methods you use to get the job done?

JJ: I write in huge spurts, disappearing to the homes of like-minded friends who are also writing for four or five days at a time. If none of my posse is drafting, I beg and borrow cabins and off-season vacation condos, or rent cheap business class hotels I can get with my points and go alone. I will then spend months revising the hideously bad mess of text I generate into large polished pieces of an actual novel. Then I have to creep away from my family and home for another big word push. I have no real schedule. I don’t outline. I sometimes go 10 or 20 or 30 thousand words off track and have to throw it all away and go back. It is a hideous and inefficient way to write novels and I cannot recommend it.

I also can’t seem to do it any other way.

I think all those books on how to write novels actually only tell you how that guy writes novels, not how you need to write them. Some of them, you read anyway because they are gorgeous books. (BIRD BY BIRD, for example). Some you read because learning how that guy writes novels will give you things to try and adapt and bend to your own method, which will develop as you go along.

www: That is some priceless advice you’ve just given our readers for free! Thank you. Joss, Your stories are not for the faint of heart – sometimes profane, often graphic, frequently violent, and always heartbreaking. I love them, but I’m not easily shocked. As writers, we must be true to ourselves and to the writing, which you seem to do well and without much self-censoring. How do you deal with readers or friends and family who might be offended by the gritty honesty in your writing?

JJ: Oh Lord, I have HUGE issues with self censoring. I muffle things and leave things out – out of cowardice – and have to work to give myself permission to put in the things I know must be in there for the story to say what I want it to say. It is a constant struggle.

But we live in a broken world, and so I write about broken people. I am a person of faith, so I am hopeful in my brokenness, but make no mistake, I’m broken as hell. I have to accept that the kind of stories I have it in me to tell are all those things you say. I push myself out of my comfort zone precisely because I try to be truthful, and I feel okay with it because I try hard to never write anything gratuitous.

Yes, some of my characters have colorful vocabularies, yes my scenes are often visceral or overtly sexual or violent, but all these things are serving a purpose, and I think my purpose is good. I am interested in grace and redemption as a writer, and you can’t write about redemption if you are afraid to write about sin. You can’t write about grace if you write about perfect people who do not need any. (Also? Those people do not exist.)

I’ve gotten a little flack here and there, sure, but not in any of the places I call home. My family is so proud of me. My writing group calls me out for holding back and worrying people won’t think I am nice . . . they have never told me to hold back and write things that are more ladylike. Folks at my home church are more focused on hope and mission than worrying about if one of my characters says the eff word. We belong to a motley, dirty hippie kind of a church with a very diverse group of weirdos who all accept each other because we agree on the important things. Hope matters. Grace is free. Love wins.

www: Once again, I am awed by your response here. We should all be so lucky – or blessed! – to be surrounded by folks like that. I blogged recently about characters doing the unexpected. Your characters get into some ridiculous predicaments. In BACKSEAT SAINTS, Ro Grandee, AKA Rose Mae Lolley, is no exception. I literally held my breath while she crawled out of these situations little by little and rarely the way I expected her to. Any thoughts on this process?

JJ: No. None. They do that on their own. I know a novel is working when my characters begin surprising the hell out of me. I say a mental apology to my mother and try to roll with whatever weird or awful thing they want to do.

www: Funny how those folks who live inside our heads can do that, isn’t it? I love it. And I’ve loved having you as our guest here. Thank you SO much for taking the time to talk with us at What Women Write. We wish you nothing but really big things for BACKSEAT SAINTS! One last question . . .

You’re a southern girl to the bone. What southern comfort food would you require if you were stranded on a desert island? Where can we get some of that?

JJ: Shrimp and grits. This is the best recipe I know.

Thick cut Bacon baked in brown sugar, Southern Living Style, served with grits; my husband makes this once a year, on our vacation. He does the grits Frank Stitt style.

Grit Fritters, which you can get at Miller Union, my new favorite Atlanta eatery.

Are you sensing a theme here? It’s because grits are nature’s perfect vehicle for delicious fat. There is not an amount of fat you can put in grits to over-fat them. They expand and welcome more. If you want to be comforted, you can take whatever fatty deliciousness you have and pair it perfectly with grits. Also, on the desert island, you don’t have to wear pants, so it won’t matter that after a few days of this diet you will have no hope of fitting in yours . . .

Readers, get your copy of BACKSEAT SAINTS, available Tuesday, June 8! Why not look for it at your local independent bookseller?

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

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


By Joan

I’m not the first writer to acknowledge how truly embarrassed I am by the first manuscripts I sent to beta readers. One early reader suggested my first attempt (ultimately abandoned!) would be better if reserved for a private journal. That stung a little then, but in retrospect, she was probably right.

In March 2005, I actually sent my first completed manuscript to an author friend with this note: “Well, believe it or not, I’ve managed to finish my manuscript. There is a problem with length; it’s only a bit over 40,000 words.” She was polite enough not to tell me to find another career, quickly. Then she proceeded to read it and send it back, with extremely helpful comments. I didn’t even know enough then to be embarrassed by what I’d sent her!

Thankfully, I quickly figured out I needed guidance and stumbled first upon DFW Writers’ Workshop and then Lesser North Texas Writers (a small group of dedicated writers who meet every week to offer critique). From there I found some new critique partners, many of whom spent hours reading my work. (Finding the right critique partner is essential to improving your writing.)

Then I began querying. As much as I’d thought my first manuscript had improved (now 75,000 words!), it still wasn’t ready. I never received a hurtful rejection—some agents sent generic “Dear Author,” but never, “This is drivel.” Their rejections forced me to become a better writer because I practiced my craft, studied books in and out of my genre, read about both the writing craft and the publishing industry. Last year I ran an agent appreciation post, but it’s time again.

I’d like to thank the agents who requested a full manuscript and encouraged me to keep writing. As I mentioned here, I’ve had some close calls. Now writing my fourth manuscript, with continued perseverance and a little luck, I might soon get THE call.

I’m still amazed at the generosity of other writers. Last month, Charlotte Lanham, author of numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul stories, helped me tweak a short story for submission. She spent much of her valuable time helping me brainstorm and revise my story. Now I find myself eager to do the same. Yes, it takes time from my own writing, but I remember all the people who offered their valuable time to me and know I must give back. And since I’m not yet faced with the task of writing an acknowledgments page, I’ll say it here:

Thank you, beta readers. Thank you, agents. Thanks for encouraging me to work harder and write better.

Who has helped you become a better writer?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...