Monday, November 29, 2010

Following Leaves

by Joan

My first manuscript was originally called Following Leaves. The title was meant to be a metaphor for the way we choose different paths, as though following leaves floating in various directions. (I mentioned it was my first, right?!) That manuscript morphed into The Cemetery Garden, but an underlying theme of the story remained: the consequences arising from choices made throughout one’s life. Here’s an excerpt (unedited since the original):

I looked out the window at a pile of leaves stirred up by a gust of wind. Each leaf floated through the air, separate and beautiful. One leaf, brilliant burgundy with orange markings, shaped like teardrops, fastened to the window and stuck there. Then it seemed to leap off the glass and blow away. I wanted to chase the leaf, follow its path to a new place, and forget about diaries and pain and death.

Oh, I was so proud of those lines. Luckily I’ve grown as a writer (and benefited from lots and lots of critique! As Kim says, “You’ve come a long way!”)

Five years ago I followed a path to Texas, after having lived only in Maryland. One of the many things I took for granted about the east coast was the autumn landscape. Broad brushstrokes of color over rolling hills, trees that reached the sky, and the smell of wood smoke and apples. Though the season is short in Texas, I’ve found a bit of autumn here.

At the retreat a few weeks ago, I collected leaves on a morning walk to the pier. Once home, I put my treasures in the annual retreat frame Susan gave each of us. Only after they were behind glass did I notice there were six, a distinct and colorful reminder of each of us, plus one, small and heart-shaped, as prized as a four-leaf clover (top right corner!).

Lately I’ve felt as though my leaves are scattered in all directions. In a few short weeks it’ll be winter and soon those leaves will float to the ground or settle under ice, and the trees will prepare for new blooms.

Today my husband and I took a long walk to enjoy the glorious sun and sky and high-sixties temps. The ground was covered in jewels. One here, one there, soon my hands held so many, I enlisted my husband to carry some. When I got home, I slowly twirled them in my fingers, noticing the fine, crackly lines and their fragility. One squeeze of my fist and they would be crunched to brittle pieces. I arranged them in a bowl, so I can hold autumn on my desk a little longer.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving break

What Women Write is on hiatus today in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

We look forward to returning to our regular posting schedule on Monday, November 29.

Happy belated Thanksgiving to our U.S. readers and we hope everyone has a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Review of Emma Donoghue's ROOM

By Kim

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

To five year old Jack, Room is the world. It’s where he was born, it’s where he and Ma eat and sleep and play and learn. There are endless wonders that let loose Jack’s imagination – the snake under Bed that he constructs out of eggshells, the imaginary world projected through the TV, the coziness of Wardrobe below Ma’s clothes, where she tucks him in safely at night in case Old Nick comes.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma it’s the prison where she has been held since she was nineteen – for seven years. Through her fierce love for her son, she has created a life for him in that eleven-by-eleven-foot space. But Jack’s curiosity is building alongside her own desperation – and she knows that Room cannot contain either much longer.

Photo by Nina Subin
About the author (from the book jacket):

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose novels include the bestseller Slammerkin, The Sealed Letter, Landing, Life Mask, Hood and Stir-Fry. Her story collections are The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Kissing the Witch, and Touchy Subjects. She also writes literary history and plays for stage and radio. She lives in London, Ontario, with her partner and their two young children.


I have a five-year-old, and while she’s very observant and mature for her age I can’t imagine many adults would make it all the way through a novel told from her point of view. Though Room came highly recommended, I had my doubts that such a feat could be pulled off.

I was wrong.

If Jack and his Ma lived a normal life, letting him tell the story would never work, but Room is anything but a normal place. Had Ma been the narrator readers would spend the first half of the book trapped in the deepest level of hell and the last half perhaps two rungs higher. As much as I would’ve sympathized with Ma, I’m not sure I’d have had the fortitude to finish.

Through Jack’s eyes, however, Room is a magical world. On the surface, his simple recounting of the events of his birthday may seem tedious but innocent observations, such as the number of times he hears the bed creak during one of Old Nick’s visits, alert the reader as to the darker reality of the situation. The fact that Jack himself is safe in Wardrobe at the time and has no understanding of what his mother endures is a testament of her complete devotion to her child. I challenge any mother to read this novel and not be moved.

I made the mistake of reading pages 122-142 while my family was home. Three wide-eyed faces stared at me when I blurted out “Oh, my God, no!” and pulled my Jack-sized child onto my lap in a crazy yet instinctual attempt to protect a fictional boy. Half the book remained, so I knew on some level everything would work out, yet I was so caught up in Jack’s terror, seeing my daughter in his place, that I imagined all the things that could go wrong in graphic detail.

If you’re looking for a truly original story, and are open to being overwhelmed by every primal emotion – terror, love, hope and hate – gather your courage and enter Room. You won’t regret it.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Which 'person'? First or second?

By Pamela

Recently Julie took on the difficult subject of point of view. I thought it might be fun to compare one piece of writing--in both first and second person points of view. Since I didn't want to seek permission from another writer, I chose something of my own.

I have a particular affinity for first-person, since that's what my current manuscript is in but also found myself moved while reading a wonderful short story written in second person. So, for my personal blog, I wrote an essay in second person. Here I'll show you how it would read in first person, followed by the version in second person. You can decide for yourself which you prefer. Then, challenge yourself by taking a piece of your own writing and changing the POV. If you are most comfortable writing in third-person, take a scene or chapter and try it in first-person. Or change it up another way. Maybe omniscient? Or perhaps another character in the story should be telling the scene from his or her POV. Like your original version better or the revision? Let me know what you discover. 

And This Is How It Begins
First-person POV

It starts on a walk through the neighborhood. I bring along a bag of carrots to feed the horses that occupy a nearby lot and notice a connection. Daughter and horses. She should be a little afraid given their big feet and huge teeth, the aggressive way they bite and stomp when another horse comes close, threatening to take the carrot she offers. But she isn’t.

Long ago she inquired about ballet and tap and tae kwon do and I stalled. Maybe someday. And then she asks about riding a horse, and I think, I can see that. Together we read Black Beauty and talk about what it means to care for a horse. We buy more books that explain tack and hands-high, and she spends hours playing the computer game Let’s Ride! Dreamer, but caring for a virtual horse is not the same.

Then later she spends a Saturday afternoon with her daddy, visiting some stables and asking about riding lessons. They form a connection with a trainer named Kate and ask me to check out some of the stables too. Like Goldilocks choosing her lot, I find one stable too fancy, one too stinky and a third that feels just right. Kate’s place.

And so we sign her up.

But first we must go shopping. Like a dancer with the right shoes or a martial artist with the right gear, she needs stuff—helmet and boots and gloves. I take her to a tack store and a teenage equestrian, with years of riding experience, shows my daughter her choices. Two helmets. One that’s good. Another that’s better. Because this is my daughter’s head and not just anyone else’s head, I figure this is not the time to save twenty dollars. The boots with zippers make the cut and choosing the gloves is easy; only one pair in the store is small enough.

On the first day of lessons, I take her to the stable and meet Kate. Then I see the massive beast my daughter is to ride. Where’s the pony? The gentle little guy who has to be bribed with sugar cubes in order to trot? But then I see the way my daughter walks up and pets this huge animal, talks to Crissy and laughs as the horse’s floppy lips nibble at her helmet. I relax just a little and try not to think about the caveat someone offered me yesterday: She’s not a true horsewoman until she’s been stepped on, bitten, kicked and thrown. Please, not today, I think.

As she mounts the horse in the center of a sawdusty ring, I take my cue to step aside. Kate’s got this. I watch this orchestration: trainer and child and beast while they form a bond. I watch the little girl I sometimes consider obstinate and argumentative and hear Kate compliment her assertiveness and confidence and think, Well, yes. That’s another way to look at it.

Thoughts of dance recitals and martial arts competitions fade away to images of future riding shows. Of one day, my daughter spending time in a barn, mucking stalls and offering apples to her best friend instead of riding in cars with boys of questionable character. I watch a beautiful teenage girl at the barn one day, long legs tucked into tall boots, her hair in a sloppy ponytail as she washes down her horse. Her boyfriend stands nearby, holding a piece of tack, clearly taking a backseat to her true love.

I can see that. I can totally see that. 

Second-person POV

It starts on a walk through the neighborhood. You bring along a bag of carrots to feed the horses that occupy a nearby lot and notice a connection. Daughter and horses. She should be a little afraid given their big feet and huge teeth, the aggressive way they bite and stomp when another horse comes close, threatening to take the carrot she offers. But she isn’t.

Long ago she inquired about ballet and tap and tae kwon do and you stalled. Maybe someday. And then she asks about riding a horse, and you think, I can see that. Together you read Black Beauty and talk about what it means to care for a horse. You buy more books that explain tack and hands-high, and she spends hours playing Let’s Ride! Dreamer, but caring for a virtual horse is not the same.

Then later she spends a Saturday afternoon with her daddy, visiting some stables and asking about riding lessons. They form a connection with a trainer named Kate and ask you to check out some of the stables too. Like Goldilocks choosing her lot, you find one stable too fancy, one too stinky and a third that feels just right. Kate’s place.

And so you sign her up.

But first you must go shopping. Like a dancer with the right shoes or a martial artist with the right gear, she needs stuff—helmet and boots and gloves. You take her to a tack store and a teenage equestrian, with years of riding experience, shows your daughter her choices. Two helmets. One that’s good. Another that’s better. Because this is your daughter’s head and not just anyone else’s head, you figure this is not the time to save twenty dollars. The boots with zippers make the cut and choosing the gloves is easy; only one pair in the store is small enough.

On the first day of lessons, you take her to the stable and meet Kate. Then you see the massive beast your daughter is to ride. Where’s the pony? The gentle little guy who has to be bribed with sugar cubes in order to trot? But then you see the way your daughter walks up and pets this huge animal, talks to Crissy and laughs as the horse’s floppy lips nibble at her helmet. You relax just a little and try not to think about the caveat someone offered you yesterday: She’s not a true horsewoman until she’s been stepped on, bitten, kicked and thrown. Please, not today, you think.

As she mounts the horse in the center of a sawdusty ring, you take your cue to step aside. Kate’s got this. You watch this orchestration: trainer and child and beast while they form a bond. You watch the little girl you sometimes consider obstinate and argumentative and hear Kate compliment her assertiveness and confidence and think, Well, yes. That’s another way to look at it.

Thoughts of dance recitals and martial arts competitions fade away to images of future riding shows. Of one day, your daughter spending time in a barn, mucking stalls and offering apples to her best friend instead of riding in cars with boys of questionable character. You watch a beautiful teenage girl at the barn one day, long legs tucked into tall boots, her hair in a sloppy ponytail as she washes down her horse. Her boyfriend stands nearby, holding a piece of tack, clearly taking a backseat to her true love.

You can see that. You can totally see that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Memoir and Real Life

By Susan

This post is not about writing as much as it is about real life.

I've always been a fan of great memoir. Last weekend I devoured two great tales of life stories- Mishna Wolff's I'm Down while flying east and Mary Karr's lit while flying west on my quick trip to and from Kentucky for my grandmother's 90th birthday.

Now, I will tell the truth about my Mama, my grandmother. Her past few years have not been easy. Her body has crumpled into itself, bones shattering and nerves misfiring. Her ears are shot. Her memory may be worse off than her hearing. Yet we had a huge party with over 100 people in attendance, and she showed up at The First Baptist Church's reception hall in a dainty corsage and a fuchsia blazer and was the belle of the ball. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

"Let's not have such a big party for my 95th," she said to my mother as we exited the church.
I thought about Mama's life story all weekend as I read the memoirs of others. She eloped with my grandfather right before WWII because of my great grandfather's disapproval--my grandfather, even at 21, had already been married before. She had my mother in '42, my aunt in '51, and my uncle in '58, well-spaced babies that each represent their own generation. She was the first woman on the school board in my hometown, she led polio drives after her pregnant sister died from the disease, and she traveled extensively--from Mexico City for the '68 Olympics to London in the 1980s to attend the theatre. When my Uncle Mark moved to New York City, she made regular trips to see plays with him on Broadway.

When I returned from Kentucky, I took a day to drive to Austin to see a friend of mine recently diagnosed with brain cancer--a grade 2 astrocytoma in the left temporal lobe, to be exact. He's 30 years old and we went to Juan In A Million to scarf down some Mexican food.

We talked about the tumor as several of the wait staff would politely interrupt us in Spanish to ask about the stitches lined up behind his left ear. He would answer them, simply, el cancer, el cerebro. We talked about his daughter, who is turning four next month, and about his beautiful wife, whose birthday is today. We talked about quality of life versus quantity of life. We talked about regrets and travel and the upcoming decisions he will have to make about his treatment options. We talked about insurance and money and the marathon--yes, the marathon--that he is training for.

I told him about my grandmother, about the party and the visitors and the funny things she would say. For a moment, we looked at each other, thinking about time and life and what we do with it all.

Now, I will tell you a little about this friend of mine. He is brilliant and athletic and snarky and kind. He's traveled to umpteen countries and continents in the last decade--including tours of India, Europe and South America. He runs a 5:30 mile. He helps others for a living and volunteers his time working with troubled youth and the homeless population in Austin. And he'd rather die young than live forever without his mind intact. His only regret is that he's not yet gotten that tattoo he's been thinking about. I told him if he found the right tattoo artist, I would pay for it.

I finished the memoirs this week and thought about us all, spinning quietly in our own lives, not thinking about death, not thinking about consequences and choices and our actions--just moving forward. I respect the writers like Wolff and Karr who write their stories--not just so they can learn from them, but so that we can too. We each have a story. Maybe like my grandmother, you will live to celebrate your 90th birthday surrounded by family and friends and neighbors who love you. Maybe like my friend in Austin, your body will rebel and scare the hell out of you well before your time--and you will be surrounded by friends and family and neighbors who love you.

Make it count, I guess is my point to all of this. Make it count even when you don't feel like it. Live your story and live it without regrets. Finish that novel, lose the 10 pounds. Complete a 5K for those that can't. Help others and donate to worthy causes. Travel. Go to the theatre. Love God, your family, and your friends. Make sure they know you love them too.

Take care.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing Rage

by Elizabeth

This idea is not original. An online acquaintance directed me to a Sparkpeople article comparing road rage to dieting. I skimmed the first few paragraphs and quickly realized it applied equally well to writing. Full disclosure: I haven't read the rest of the article yet (though I will have by the time you are reading this). I didn't want to color my impressions of the idea it planted, but I knew this was an idea I wanted to address here on the blog.

The gist of the article, as far as I read, is that diet rage, like road rage, doesn't get you anywhere. You're still stuck in traffic, no matter how purple your face; and if you're trying to lose weight and find yourself in plateau-land, coveting your diet-buddy's success won't make you lose any faster.

So it is with writing. Someone else landing an agent might make us feel like pulling out our hair, but we could pluck ourselves bald and it still won't force the subject of our latest query to pick up the phone and dial our number. A big fat book deal we read about in Publisher's Lunch might inspire a round of daydreams of where we'd go and what we'd do if it were me instead of thee, but musing does not write a manuscript or get one sold. And if a book we read and loved (or didn't) stays on the bestseller list for weeks and weeks, we might be tempted to grumble about our under-the-bed manuscript and how we know, we know, it could have done as well if only...but that won't attract the New York Times.

Road rage, diet rage, writer rage. All of it pointless.

In case you have been vacationing in Siberia for the past month, you probably know we at What Women Write are still in post-retreat mode--we geared up, cooked, then wrote, laughed, relaxed, revised. A great time.

We also learned a lot about each other, and how we each work.

The first night of the retreat, I accompanied Julie as we drove to drop her daughter off with a friend in a nearby town. (It seems some people, I won't mention their four names, had already partaken of a celebratory glass of libation by four o'clock, ahem.) As we drove back to the lake house, she shared some of her trials from early this fall. I listened, amazed, marveling that she'd been able to accomplish anything at all. I told her I'd had the impression she'd been uber-productive--and although she said it was not so, the words she later read, some of which have come from this dark season, were excellent. I thought of my own life those same months, and I felt the tug of comparison at how little I had accomplished compared to her.

Much later that night, the moonlight glowing on the lake outside our bedroom window, my roomie Susan pulled out her laptop and opened her photo album. We spent the next hour alternating between huge yawns and bigger laughs as she shared pictures and stories from her most recent trip to Ghana, where she works to save enslaved children. I've been privileged to hear several chapters of her work-in-progress, The Angel's Share, and have also relished our conversations about the themes and story of the manuscript, and am awed. The work she does for those children is astounding, and yet she still finds the time and energy to be a great mom, a terrific wife, and a novelist of stunning talent. I'm green.

Kim's eyes grew wide the second afternoon when I stood and stretched after a session in front of my computer and announced I'd just pounded out some sixteen hundred words. She was doing well, she said, to get four hundred in a whole day. And yet the next day I think she managed to match or better the number that had dropped her jaw her the day before. I could be wrong, but I believe it is a personal record for her, at least for her current project. She referred to that same chapter here, but I have to say, it was good despite what she heard us say, and now it's even better. A polished, lovely chapter with a slap of vinegar, ready for the publisher. Not bad, and my eyes widen right back.

I watched, practically glued to my chair at the kitchen table, as Joan worked just about everywhere--as long as it was quiet. (Which meant far away from me and my dreaded table.) One day she sat in the cushy leather chaise in the room she shared with Pamela, feet propped up and wrapped in the plushest Snuggie I've ever seen. The next day found her on the lower level porch, out in the fresh air, her back to Kim as they both labored in the brisk air. I was envious of her ability to work wherever whim seemed to take her. Plus, she managed a nap one day! Something I long to do yet never manage. And then she was back to work, with many of the fresh words she later shared surely destined to last through her final draft.

And Pamela. I'd say she is like the mom of us all, but that would belie how hip and cool she is, and how much better her hair looks than mine, and we won't mention her great skin and teeth. She casually baked up cookie dough she'd mixed from scratch at home (and dang Kim who ate far more than me and doesn't seem to have to worry about calories at all), brought to-die-for chicken and rice soup, and still managed to read near-perfect prose every night as we gathered around the table. She's like the best friend in one of her own books, a character you almost wish the book was about just because you want to know her more.

I have to say, with everyone reading from these wonderful and meaningful manuscripts, I felt like a clod with sixth graders flinging enchiladas and ranchero beans in mine. This is so insignificant, I thought, compared to nineteenth century English architecture, or turn-of-the-century Canadian art, or pre-WWII interracial romance, or characters struggling amidst the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement, or of parents and children facing some of life's biggest choices.

But my children read. And they are not unimportant. And while I believe one day they will read the published works of all of my partners here, right now the book they are likeliest to enjoy is the one I am penning now. I can't compare myself to other writers, and certainly I can't and shouldn't judge the merit of my work and find it wanting just because one of my characters slaps on a pair of wings and dances around a classroom. I'm writing the book that's calling out to me now, and that's what matters. That's what has to matter. And I have to believe that it will matter to readers one day, to kids who are just starting out on a lifetime of literature, and remember it has an important place.

And here's the thing. The commuter gets to the office. The dieter, if he sticks with it, will reach her goal weight. And the writer? There are no guarantees, true. But for those who keep writing, keep learning, keep writing--I believe the payoff will come. In the meantime, I'm stuck in traffic. So what? I'm working, and learning, and like a dieter who is in loss-mode, I'm really in training for the rest of my life. Getting mad, getting envious, no point.

Enjoy the ride.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Joan talks with Kim

Next in our series of getting to know the women of What Women Write, I chat with Kim. Kim and I met each other first, long before we knew we'd be part of such a great group. Even so, I still learned something new!

Joan: Tell our readers a little about your background.

Kim: I dread being asked where I’m from. Saying “nowhere” sounds evasive, even if it feels true. If I say “everywhere” people assume I’m an army brat or the child of missionaries. Mentioning that my father builds golf courses is a conversation starter, but it inevitably leads to talk of golf, a subject I know shamefully little about.

I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, but lived in nine different places by age three, including two foreign countries (Mexico and the Philippines). Much of my later childhood was spent in the backwoods of Maine, where my Dad temporarily took a job with the ski resort at Sugarloaf, but I never felt like I fit in there. Dad returned to the golf course business when I was sixteen and we moved to Finland for seven months. This would have been wonderful had we lived in Helsinki, where I could have attended the International School, but home was a small town where I had no opportunity to make friends. Having nothing better to do, I finished the last two and a half years of high school through the mail and started college early. My parents moved to Bangkok, Thailand, and I often went there for holidays. Being a fair-skinned blond with a quite prominent nose, I stood out in Bangkok. I got used to the stares though it was disconcerting when small children screamed as if I were their worst nightmare come to life. Despite that, I loved Thailand, and still miss the food.

The place I feel most at home, though I have never actually lived there, is Georgian Bay in Ontario. Perhaps it’s genetic memory.

I have a BA in composition and English literature from Truman State University in Missouri and an MA in English from Iowa State. I’ve been married for almost thirteen years and have two daughters. I live in Dallas, though I don’t feel Texan in the least.

Joan: How did your unique childhood prepare you to become a writer?

Kim: First off, writing is in my blood. My mother’s a writer. My paternal grandmother composed children’s stories for her own kids, likely because they couldn’t afford many books. I have the manuscripts and they are quite good, though a bit dated. My great-grandparents, Carl and Madonna Ahrens, the protagonists in The Oak Lovers, both wrote as well. Madonna had several published newspaper and magazine articles and was a copyeditor at the Metropolitan Magazine back in 1905. Carl dabbled in poetry and short stories.

My genes may have provided me with the ability to put words onto paper, but my background certainly shaped my desire to do so. Living at a remote resort in the Philippines when I was three, there were no other children to play with. My mother spent many hours reading to me to keep me entertained. By four I could read alone. I spent half of Kindergarten sitting off by myself with chapter books while my classmates were learning letters. Academically this was a gift. Socially it was a curse.

I had difficulty relating to kids whose worlds consisted of nothing beyond the county where they were born, and so I spent most of my school years observing my peers rather than interacting. Summers on Sugarloaf were wonderful because the pressure to socialize was off and I could just go off in the woods alone and live inside my own head. Eventually I started writing down my daydreams since they were far more interesting than real life.

Joan: When did you know you’d become a writer?

Kim: I can give you an exact date: July 21st, 1982.

The idea that I was meant to be a writer came to me as a jolt – literally. I was eight years old when my parents located my grandmother’s childhood home, an old stone farmhouse in Galt, Ontario, Canada. Listening to the owner reminisce about his boyhood encounters with a poor starving artist (my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens) and his pretty daughters (my grandmother and great-aunt), I learned that much of the art my parents owned had been created in that very room. With threadbare carpeting and ugly faux-wood paneling on the walls, it hardly looked like a space to inspire a painter. I fought the urge to blurt out, “Why did you ruin a perfectly good studio?” The words not only would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, but they made no sense. I had no idea what Carl’s studio had looked like.

I had other strange urges as well; to pull up a corner of carpeting to see if the wood floors were still there underneath, to run outside and hug a gangly looking elm tree that waved at me through the window, to seek out my grandmother’s old bedroom. One impulse I could not resist: As I left I touched the outside stone walls.

I felt an electric current course from the stones into my hand – a feeling I’ve never forgotten. At that moment I knew two things: I was going to write a book about Carl someday, and my grandmother was with me. We later learned she had passed away while we were at her old house.

Joan: What do you think your great-grandfather Carl Ahrens would say if he read THE OAK LOVERS? (I suspect he might!)

Kim: At the risk of sounding slightly crazy, I believe Carl and Madonna are both well aware of every word I write. I’ve dedicated several blog posts to this subject, such as the dream that still haunts me, being led to their old home in Meadowvale and my vision quest with the Ojibwa.

Carl was the hero of my childhood fairy tales thanks to my grandmother, whom we called Tutu. I inhaled the stories deep into my lungs, allowed them to linger there and take root, until The Painter's adventures flowed through my veins along with his blood.

At first they were just stories to me; I suspected Tutu made up the exciting bits about Carl meeting Calamity Jane and running off to live with the Indians. The old man in the photographs in my living room couldn't walk, much less throw a lariat, travel the American west by covered wagon, or paint trees that leap out of a canvas at the viewer. It wasn't until after Tutu died that I saw a picture of Carl as a young man, dressed in cowboy clothes, with the confident stance and chiseled features of a movie star. I knew then that Tutu had not tried to sell me a myth, or simply entertain me. She had handed me the gift of her father’s legacy.

My childhood mirrored Carl’s in some aspects. We were only children who grew up in small towns with no respect for artistic aspirations. We were both isolated from our peers; him due to illness, me to circumstance. The forest was, for each of us, a source of endless delight, a magical world filled with friendly spirits. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that when I looked at Carl’s paintings, even as a child, I understood that they were of far more than trunks and branches. His trees were portraits in disguise; they had souls, personalities, human emotions and desires.

Though I don’t paint, it is simple for me to get inside the mind of a painter. My method for constructing a narrative is strikingly similar to the way my great-grandfather created oil paintings. I start with a sketch, the skeleton of a scene, flesh it out with layer upon layer of editing until the colors evoke just the right emotion, and then abandon it.

Joan: You changed the focus from non-fiction to fiction. How has this change freed you to massage the truth, even while sticking pretty close to actual events?

Kim: It has freed me tremendously. For one, I no longer feel like I’m crossing an ethical boundary by including dialogue, even if I know “something like that” must have been said at some point. I can also give certain characters, such as Carl’s first wife, Emily, a voice. The ‘facts’ about her are pretty slim. I know her name, what she looked like, that they had three children, and that her marriage to Carl was eighteen years of hell (his words). That’s not a lot to go on. Now I can portray her as she likely was: a woman who married a man she barely knew only to find out that he was completely unsuitable for her. She’s not a villain any more than he’s a saint. I have no interest in drawing a rose-colored portrait of my ancestor. He had paint under his nails and he was not above using Watman’s drawing paper to cover up a faded shirt for a formal event. In other words, he had flaws, and I show them unflinchingly. Hopefully, readers will love him anyway.

Switching formats has also allowed me to condense the book down to the most interesting bits of his life, to not bog down the text with facts and dates that the reader doesn’t really need to know, and to move the plot along with a great deal of dialogue.

I take full advantage of all the raw material I have. Carl and Madonna’s story is compelling enough that there is little need to embellish in The Oak Lovers. Each character in the book, from Carl down to his one-legged rooster, Joffre, existed. All main events happened. I work in direct quotes where I can. I tell the truth whenever possible and I never put anything into the novel that I know to be untrue.

Joan: Because your book is so personal, how will this affect your expectations during the publishing process?

Kim: Rejections will certainly be tougher to take, but I know that I will get them at every stage in the game. I understand that publishing is a business, and I’m willing to make concessions to get my book out there. Knowing many agents are hesitant to take on books longer than 100,000 words by debut authors, I recently cut nearly 15,000 words to ensure the book ends close to that number. My critique partners are all well aware I have no problem with making revisions. I hope that when I start sending queries, an agent will not only see a book they love, but an author who has already worked for years to promote its protagonist through a website, articles, speeches and extensive networking. Hopefully my passion will be contagious.

Joan: What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Kim: Yikes, I’m going to cheat and give two answers here.

The first was when Melanie Benjamin, author of Alice I Have Been, said that authors have to be artists and love the creative process but we also have to learn to let our work go, and understand that everyone else will look at it as a product that needs to be bought and sold. She’s the reason I cut so much from my manuscript. I had to decide if including everything I wanted was worth the risk of having agents reject me before reading a word simply because of the book’s length. I saved everything I cut just in case I change my mind later, but I doubt any of it ever makes it back into the book.

The second was not so much advice, as confirmation that I’m not completely shooting myself in the foot by being such a compulsive re-writer. New York Times bestselling author Cathy Marie Buchanan wrote The Day the Falls Stood Still roughly the same way I’m writing
The Oak Lovers, and it took her nearly as long as it’s taking me, even though her children were a bit older than mine. I can’t tell you what a boost of confidence it was for me when she responded to my fan letter to her with a compliment of my own writing skills. I hope that some day my book will touch her as deeply as her book touched me.

Joan: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?

Kim: There is more than one book in me. As passionate as I am about The Oak Lovers, I have three more novel ideas ready to go after I type The End. All are historical fiction, of course.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Writing Retreats Aren't Just for Writing

By Kim

In case no one's noticed by now (after four other posts on the subject) we can’t say enough about our retreat. Those of you who follow our blog regularly have already read about the anticipation, the preparation, how what started as a comedy of errors turned into a productive and enjoyable weekend, and the wonders of having the perfect critique group.

I suppose the only thing left is to share with you what this retreat meant to me on a more personal level.

Let me begin with a confession. I believe all my colleagues here at WWW would agree that other than when I’m reading at critique (my voice projects), I am the quietest member of the group. Setting up my workspace in the dining room, as Elizabeth did, would be my worst nightmare. Since I must have silence in order to accomplish anything, I spent most daylight hours voluntarily sequestered alone on the back patio. (Joan joined me one day, but we agreed to ignore each other.) I had the lake and the trees to keep me company. Occasionally the neighbors’ puppy escaped from their yard and paid me a visit as well.

I’m not so much shy as the product of an unconventional and isolated childhood. I won’t go into that here because it will be discussed at length in the interview Joan will post next week. Let’s just say that I have no problem speaking in front of large groups and can pretend to be an extrovert when I must. While I’m slow to make the first move, invite me on a nature walk or out to coffee and I’ll probably jabber away like a bubbly teenager as long as it is one-on-one. Put me at a table with a group of people, however, even ones I know well, and I’m easily overwhelmed by all the conversations going on around me. Unless I believe I have something important to contribute, I never learned the art of jumping in gracefully. I sit there, nodding, smiling, perhaps even laughing, but inside I suspect that everyone views me as the socially awkward step-child. I know I do.

The beauty of this group is that they seem to accept my quirks and not take it personally. We all have our quirks.

I imagine most writers need to escape sometimes, to kick back in a hammock and get lost within a novel for a few hours, to stay up until two in the morning to finish a scene, secure that no children will burst into the room at dawn. In my case, I also needed the freedom to sit by the lake with my sketchpad. I hadn’t opened it in over a year and, as I watched my youngest daughter’s face form on the page, I wondered why I don’t make the time for this more often. Sure, I have to fumble and erase a lot to get the results I want, but I find that process oddly relaxing and it enhances my writing. What better way to get inside the head of an artist than to become one, at least for an hour.

Unlike at home, I had no problem remaining at the keyboard for extended periods of time. I had no husband or children to entertain, no errands to be run, I could eat (or not) whenever I chose, and I had no responsibilities other than helping Elizabeth prepare Sunday night’s dinner. Normally I’m lucky to get 500 words a day written. I tripled that one day. If I got stuck or needed someone to read over a paragraph for me, five honest (though differing) opinions were just a few steps away.

Piggybacking off of what Julie said in her post, a good critique group is as much a blessing as a bad one is a curse. I’m sure that anyone who took creative writing classes in college or graduate school has experienced the latter. It’s impossible to give constructive feedback to someone with whom you’re competing. I believe that what makes our group work so well is that the person who would reach for my book likely would not buy Pamela’s and vice versa. Elizabeth's and Susan’s audiences would not overlap, while Susan’s and Julie’s might, but only to a degree. Joan and I would share some readers, but we appreciate each others strengths and are grown up enough to bluntly say "this prose stinketh" if it does.

Trust is essential. It’s scary to read work aloud and then silently listen while five other people point out every flaw. That said, I’d rather friends point them out than agents or publishers. Instead of rambling on about how helpful everyone was in general, I’ll give a concrete example.

I spent most of Sunday writing a scene that takes place at a 1911 exhibition of Carl Ahrens’ work. I happen to have a lot of raw material about this event as it was the high point of my great-grandfather’s career. My workspace was filled with newspaper articles, photographs, reviews and pages from Madonna Ahrens’ memoir. My head was full of facts and figures as I banged out about 1700 words.

The comments after I read my scene out loud:

Susan: Um, Kim, this is a bit journalistic.

Julie: I perked up when you got to the dialogue. Can you start there?

Elizabeth: I'm not crazy about the first line and when you say “the viewer sees” something in a painting it feels rather intrusive. Everyone will see something different.

Joan: Carl and Madonna are always affectionate in public and they don’t care what anyone else thinks. That behavior’s not unusual.(She's the only one who has read everything so far.)

Pamela: There are a lot of names here, Kim. It’s Mr. this and Mr. that. Madonna’s the only woman so you don’t need to use her name in every sentence. (It was a ROUGH draft – what can I say?)

I could have let my creative bubble burst, I suppose, as I was only one of two writers at the table who were not handed a single rose to go with all those thorns that night. Instead, I mulled it over for a day or so, opened a fresh document and started over.

My original first line (universally hated): On the opening night of the exhibition, Madonna felt smug.

What follows: a description of the room and who was in it, Madonna pondering whether the current arrangement with Carl’s patron needs to be amended, and how this exhibition differs from others in Toronto. After that it gets to the good stuff, though even that could be stronger.

New first line: Madonna had not seen Edmund Walker since the day he unwittingly called her a whore to her face.

What follows: Madonna buttonholes Walker (Carl’s harshest critic) at the door, knowing that a meeting between the two men would lead to an altercation that would be recounted in all major Ontario papers the next day. An awkward and pointed conversation takes place where Madonna passive-aggressively criticizes the way exhibitions are generally run (Walker's domain), parrots Walker’s own remarks in a manner that makes him look foolish, and boasts of Carl’s successes that night. The gist: I'm not afraid to disembowel you with a smile.

Thank you, ladies, for caring enough to point out that my prose smelled a bit ripe.

I hope other writers are so blessed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Critique is ...

By Julie

Critique is fun.

Critique is hard.

Critique is flattering.

Critique is confusing.

Critique can be helpful.

Critique can hack you off.

Critique is thought provoking.

Critique can mess up a good scene.

Critique can really improve your writing.

I could put a stamp on this and mail it in right there, but I won’t, because that would be cheating a little on my scheduled blog post. It should be clear from those sentences alone, though, that critique can be a mixed bag.

Used correctly, it can really improve your writing. Used incorrectly, or if you end up in the wrong critique group, it can really mess things up, too.

It is not easy to find a great critique group or partner. Several of the six of us searched for years for the right group before What Women Write was formed through a providential series of events. We don’t take each other for granted and often wonder at the serendipity of it all.

During our annual retreats, we spend time several evenings reading scenes aloud and offering each other critique. In the past, we’ve offered the same service to each other over lunch. Frequently, we exchange work for feedback via email. Any way we slice it, it has been a great way for the six of us to grow our writing skills by leaps and bounds.

Instead of telling you how to form a critique group or what makes one work, I decided to use this post to paint a word picture of how ours works. (Your ideal group will likely look very different.)

First and possibly most importantly, during our retreat critique sessions, we almost always laugh.

Last year, we got the giggles as we started out whispering the love scenes we’d labored over all year and spontaneously decided to read for critique. Our landlords were unexpectedly on the premises, and we had no idea how well they could hear us through the walls of their private suite – right next to the dining room where we met. We figured they’d think we were up to no good if they could. But I’m pretty sure the whispers escalated as the wine and chocolate flowed, and eventually, we no longer gave a hoot if they thought we were reading bodice rippers out loud to amuse ourselves.

This year, we laughed so hard we cried as Elizabeth read a scene she’d composed that day using real life experience, though she apparently changed it up a bit to make it unbelievably hilarious. I suppose if any one of us hears the word sugarbugs in the future, we’ll be snorting out loud once again.

But we also gripe at Elizabeth to “SLOW IT DOWN, WOMAN!” because she reads out loud faster than the Roadrunner finds new trouble.

We holler at Joan to “SPEAK UP!” because we’re dying for her to reveal the compelling new scenes she’s created in the faraway lands she’s always writing about, but she reads so softly we can’t hear her at times!

We are baffled by Susan’s flushed face and neck, because she is really quite a confident woman and her writing is downright breathtaking.

We sigh with envy over Pamela’s soothing voice that seems to float out effortlessly as she reads from the emotionally spot-on women’s fiction she’s writing.

We marvel at Kim’s detailed research and dedication to telling her great-grandfather’s story as true as she possibly can.

And my tongue stumbles ridiculously over words, and I gag when what seemed so lovely in my head sounds like drivel when I speak it. But in the next moment, I’m overcome with emotion when my fellow writers tell me they really think I have a good thing going and forbid me from quitting.

Most of all, we trust each other.

We trust each other to take the hard stuff – no sugarcoating allowed – and not throw temper tantrums when we don’t like it.

We trust each other to take the changes we suggest and weigh them carefully to determine whether it’s just one person’s opinion or a real problem in the writing.

We trust each other to believe our words of praise; sometimes they are hard won.

We trust each other not to withhold praise or be overcritical when we are just the slightest bit jealous because one of us received a request for a full manuscript or another has written a scene so mesmerizing it makes the rest of us want to stick forks in our heads and give up.

Ultimately, we trust the group to help us little by little and bit by bit hone the rough material we’ve produced into a thing of beauty.

I’m no expert on how to form or find the perfect critique group, but I can attest that when you do find it, it’s a treasure you guard carefully.

(This picture is totally posed. You should see where we had to put the camera.)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Long live the post-retreat high

by Pamela

I woke up this morning with the same revelation I had last night: I need to bottle this state-of-mind I'm in. It's pretty close to perfect.

It's the kind of feeling you get after spending time in the company of good friends--wonderful women who inspire, motivate and encourage you.

The six of us spent Friday through Monday at a retreat in East Texas in a town that started with Frank but the ending mattered little. We descended upon our location after a rocky start. Joan forgot her laptop (but fortunately remembered before we got out of Dallas). Then she realized she didn't have the power cord either (but not before Julie left home and could bring her an extra one). And then we stopped for fuel and got busy gabbing and didn't realize the gas nozzle was overflowing due to a non-functioning shut-off feature. (The attendants pushed the van out of a puddle of unleaded.) Then we waited a while in the gas station parking lot for Susan to meet us, until I finally mentioned that I wondered what was taking so long and then someone said we were meeting her at the restaurant. Of course the restaurant served us five lunches, only one of which passed as real food...mine ;)

BUT...all was fine once we arrived at the lake home we'd call our haven for the next three blissful, carefree, child-free days. We found plenty of niches to settle into for quiet writing times, and our view of the lake changed from peaceful to inspiring to spectacular depending on what time of day we stopped for a meditative moment. The television remained off, the food and camaraderie were never lacking.

We grazed through breakfasts and lunches but dinnertime fare was planned and partnered off. Friday night Joan and I prepared pumpkin-glazed salmon and grilled steaks with pasta and crusty bread. Julie and Susan served venison lasagna (Susan's husband prepared this in advance), salad and bread. And for our last night, Kim and Elizabeth made an Asian feast of potstickers, rice, grilled chicken followed by dark chocolate covered fortune cookies.

As we read our fortunes, we decided to put a literary twist on the silly tradition of adding "in bed" to the predictions and instead added: "in the publishing world." This is how it played out for each of us. (some opened two)

Elizabeth: A fond memory will soon lead to a renewed friendship in the publishing world.
Joan: You will make many changes before settling satisfactorily in the publishing world. / Your curiosity will lead you to great achievements in the publishing world.
Julie: Remember three months from this date; Good things are in store for you in the publishing world. / Your lucky number for the week is the number two in the publishing world.
Kim: You will will attend an unusual party and meet someone important in the publishing world.
Susan: Your charm has inspired a secret admirer in the publishing world. / You will be traveling to distant lands for business purposes in the publishing world.
Pamela: You will be showered with good luck before your next birthday in the publishing world.

Each evening, after spending most of the day sequestered in solitude, we'd clear away dinner dishes and then pull out our laptops to share our writings with each other. I told Joan as we readied for bed one night, "I'd love to read a passage I've written and have each of you close your eyes, breathe a satisfied, collective sigh and tell me how gifted I am." But that would prove less than helpful. What each of us offered was encouraging but real. We critiqued in a manner that exceeded just pointing out grammatical errors or POV issues. As writers and readers--most of us quite prolific and voracious--we were able to see beyond our friendships and suggest what will make our writings that much better.

Today, the view out my window might be a little different than the serene lake images I savored over the weekend, but the encouragement and motivation remains. And even though our next retreat might be 364 days away, I can still reach out for my friends and know they are with me every step of the way.

For more photos, be sure to check out What Women Write on

Friday, November 5, 2010


by Susan

If you are a follower of What Women Write, you know that today is the day that we leave our normal lives and take off on our four-day retreat. We're talking food. A lake house. No children or spouses. And most importantly, time to write.

We prepare for this. I'm baking pies and thinking about packing. (I'll pack in the morning, and will probably bring more stuff for four days at the lake than I would for two weeks in Africa.) We prepare the schedule for our free time--we're talking about fishing, kayaking, yoga and jogging. We are preparing to read our sex scenes (gasp!)--a fun little sidebar to our retreat that we started last year. And we are preparing to write.

Kim publicly proclaimed her research and preparation for the weekend on Facebook; she's done her due diligence and is loaded for the next four days. In a flash of admiration for her readiness, I sat down tonight (instead of packing) and did the same. But where is the line between preparing to write and actually writing? One cannot work without the other. I'm ready to sit down and just write.

For years, I've researched the history that I will incorporate into my manuscript. I've matched scenes to actual events. I've pulled characters from real life and asked them to play bit parts in my drama. I've chosen 1968 as a setting for a crucial part of my manuscript, and have pulled the assassinations of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy into my storyline. Yet the research, I must remind myself, isn't the writing.

The writing is the writing.

And so, for this weekend, my goal is to write. Not to research or develop plot around historical events. Not to kayak (even though I love to kayak) and not to bake pies. My preparation is done, I have some words to put on paper and there is no better place to do so than a lake house with a bunch of my best writing friends who are ready and willing to write beside me.

So do your prep. Research your timeline and your topic. But when it is time to write, all you need to do is just that.

Sit down.

Open your heart.

And write.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Retreat, ReTREAT, RETREAT!!!

by Elizabeth

It's been a heckuva couple of weeks and, by the time this one screeches to its race car crash of a stop on Friday, I will be ready to climb gratefully into the back of Pamela's van and let it take me wherever she feels like steering. Hopefully, she'll keep to the plan and deliver me and the cooler o' goodies to our appointed house three hours southeast of here. But if she feels feisty and decides to drive to, oh, I don't know, Santa Fe? Pecos? Chunky, Mississippi? instead, I won't mind. Mainly because I probably won't notice.

For a variety of reasons, mostly familial, I've been whipped lately. This retreat is truly a retreat from life for me, a chance to withdraw from the daily tasks that scream for attention but will be unhearable in a rented house a hundred or so miles from home. Last year I looked ten years older and square that for how I felt by the time we pulled into Glen Rose. (NaNoWriMo had more than a little to do with that.) The time spent at the cabin went a long way toward a cure. This year I look a little better (we won't mention my hair), largely because I haven't run out of moisturizer like I managed to do in November 2009, but my edges are nearly as ragged. Bring on the countryside, the reams of fresh paper, and most of all, the luxury of time with no more commitment than half of dinner Sunday night.

The emails have been flying the past few days as we all anticipate this getaway. Some of them are warnings (Julie cautioned that no one better complain if they ask for four pancakes and she delivers three. It is my belief that Julie's life is gorgeous fodder for hilarious women's fiction.) Both Pamela and Joan hinted at possible grouchiness. I pre-authorized the good smackings I'm sure I'll earn, and Joan suggested we just get her deserved smacking over with now. At least Kim and Susan remained cheery, though Kim did threaten her inner Oscar might erupt if her allergies hit.

All this to say, I am really looking forward to throwing my ill-packed bag into the trunk come Friday, and that night sharing a few of the many fresh words I hope my manuscript will have gained by then. To sitting around the table later than my current exhaustion level would recommend, reaching for another chocolate pomegranate seed, and laughing with my gut spilling over my unbuttoned pants. To climbing into a bed I didn't have to make and sleeping as long as I want with no animals to feed or lunches to pack or appointments to keep to force me to rise.

We will all write. That's the main thing, right? You would think so, but I have to admit, a highlight for me is that we plan to dine well. Joan and Pamela promise salmon and steak on Friday night. Susan's husband is making venison lasagna to accompany one of Julie's famed salads and wonderful fresh bread. We've been promised killer pie, too, courtesy of Ms. Ishmael-Poulos herself, who claims she can't cook. Come Sunday Kim and I plan to deliver the kind of Asian feast my kids covet: all-you-can-eat pot stickers (and chicken and rice and veggies to make it seem somehow less gluttonous). Add to this slabs of cheese, pounds of crackers, piles of fresh fruit, pot after pot of good coffee, and whatever other goodies, alcoholic and otherwise, that we will tuck into our eastbound vehicles.

It's a treat, this retreat. Have I mentioned I can't wait?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Pomegranates, Monroe and Halloween

When I was growing up, my dad occasionally brought home a pomegranate. He’d stand over the sink and scoop out the juicy seeds, while we waited nearby, anxious to pop them into our salivating mouths, and my mom fretted about the mess. “Monroe!”

I’ve passed by the apple-sized globes in grocery stores, but aside from flavored juices, yogurt, and those highly-addictive, must-have-retreat-snack chocolate covered pomegranate seeds, I’ve not had fresh pomegranate in all these years. I guess because Halloween was coming up, last week I put one in my cart. I couldn’t remember exactly what dwelled inside, or how to remove the seeds, so I went online to get instructions:

Slice off the end
Score sections on one end without cutting through to the other end
Soak it in a bowl of cold water for 5-10 minutes
Remove the fleshy skin and strain the seeds

I followed the instructions, but the result was a big mess, stained fingers, and scarlet marks dotting a cream blouse I’d neglected to change out of. A lot of work for a tart, crunchy snack.

I’m remembering my dad today because twelve Halloweens ago I got the phone call that he’d died. It’s a weird kind of feeling, thinking how long it’s been, when I can still remember the pomegranate treats, can still see his round stomach jiggling when he laughed, can still hear his, “Thank you kindly,” when the old-time gas attendant pumped our gas. I can still hear his voice encouraging me to write.

Happy Halloween Dad!
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