Monday, January 31, 2011

The Pulpwood Queen fits right in with What Women Write

By Pamela

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a woman who wears as many hats (or tiaras!) as Kathy Louise Patrick. Where to start? Author? Hair salon owner? Literary promoter extraordinaire? I caught up with Kathy—founder of Pulpwood Queens Book Club and owner of Beauty and the Book salon— fresh off her eleventh annual Pulpwood Queen Girlfriend Weekend, a weekend with an itinerary that exhausted me just reading through it. I can’t imagine organizing it.

Tell us, Kathy, how Girlfriend Weekend started and how it’s grown:

Kathy: This all began under tents in my front yard. That’s right, my first venture as Beauty and the Book, my hair salon/bookstore, had its auspicious beginning in the shop attached to my house out in the piney woods of East Texas. Within a very short period of time we had the Oprah Winfrey organization contacting us to be featured on Oprah’s OXYGEN Network. They were doing a show called “Dallas Style,” featuring Texans who were doing things a bit out of the ordinary. It was mighty exciting having that happen, but I laugh when I tell you I was more excited about who I was on the show with. You see, it was a little unknown singing group out of Houston called Destiny’s Child. Just think, Beyoncé and I had our start at about the same time!  I’ve been trying to keep up with her ever since, hahahhahaha!
Authors as waiters at Girlfriend Weekend Author Dinner Theater.

So I digress, but from that first year under the tents with about 50 authors in attendance and 50 people showing up, we kept doubling in size, so we moved into town.  After years of continuously moving to bigger and bigger venues, we have landed at the Jefferson Tourism and Transportation Convention Center downtown and are at capacity. We have been blessed with tons of media coverage and then girlfriends kept telling their girlfriends and, voilà! We just finished an amazingly successful Girlfriend Weekend 2011.

Pamela: How have you managed to attract such huge names as Pat Conroy, Jeannette Walls and Jamie Ford? I know a few come back every year.

Kathy: This did not happen overnight. I had been trying to get Pat Conroy here for 20 years. All I can say is that if you work hard enough and long enough on something that is your passion, eventually your keeping your nose to the grindstone pays off. Of course, nothing would have been possible without my Pulpwood Queen Book Club members. What began with six complete strangers has now grown to be 405 book club chapters, making us the largest “meeting and discussing” book club in the world. And it’s a fact numbers talk. We all read the books I select and that seems to encourage the authors and their publishers to send that author to my book club or book club festivals. Then, because they are our book club selections, people purchase the books in droves. And Pat Conroy may be a big name, but Jeannette Walls and Jamie Ford were not when we made them book club selections. They were well on their way, and we just happen to think we gave them a little boost up the bestseller-dom ladder!

Pamela: Your latest venture is so exciting: an online book club, Beauty and the Book Show, featuring interviews with Random House authors--Fannie Flagg, Lisa See, Susan Vreeland, Melanie Benjamin. Quite an impressive list right out of the gate. Tell us how this got started.

Kathy: I had selected the authors and their books last spring, so we filmed most of the shows in my salon, Beauty and the Book, plus two trips to Los Angeles for Lisa See, Janelle Brown and Fannie Flagg shows and the rest, due to authors' conflicts of tour schedules and such, we just had to do Skype interviews with amazing NEW three-way technology, as the production company was on Skye, the author, a book club, and me, so actually three that you see and one Skype behind the scenes.

Kathy gets a smooch from Pat Conroy.
This all got started when Random House flew me to New York to thank me and to have a conversation on the success of my 2010 Girlfriend Weekend. Their authors Elizabeth Berg, Pat Conroy, and Jamie Ford had sent no less than eight emails telling them that I was changing the publishing world on how we connect books to readers. Through that meeting, Beauty and the Book Show was conceived and now my baby is BORN! My hope and dream is this NEW Online Book Club Talk Show will get picked up by the networks and, while I was celebrating my daughter's 21st birthday last night, Pulpwood Queens and Authors started a new Facebook campaign: PUT THE PULPWOOD QUEEN ON OWN, as they think I would be a perfect show for Oprah Winfrey's new OWN network! I am overwhelmed by the big-share love, but have to tell you, I think this show is perfect for her network too. Beauty and the Book Show is upbeat, positive, shows authors and their books in a new light, I mean, we do makeovers, highlight book clubs, and it's highly entertaining without being trashy or vulgar. Hey, I'm not the Senior High Youth Director for the First United Methodist Church for nothing. I think it's high time we speak out on what television should really be, and Oprah totally gets it!

Pamela: You started out with a pretty humble mission: Get people reading. And today, that hasn’t really changed, has it?

Kathy: No, my mission has always been to get everybody on the same page; that reading is the highest form of entertainment in the world! One person, one chapter of a book club at a time, we have grown to be an entity that I never ever could have imagined. When I say books saved me, I am not kidding. Reading changes people lives and, for me, for the better. I never dreamed that my favorite thing in the whole world to do, reading, would become not only my life’s passion, but my life’s work. What is that they always say? “Make your life’s work about something you are passionate about and then work will never seem like work.”  Every day I bound out of bed as I can’t wait to see where my reading will take me. I am excited about all the possibilities!

Pamela: Did you have an idea where you’d land and wind up putting Jefferson, Texas, on the map?

The Pulpwood Queen BB Queens of Jackson, Mississippi!
Kathy: No way! I have always been the type of girl who acts on a whim. I get bored really easily, so life has to be an adventure. When I came to Jefferson, Texas, I felt as if I’d found the best-kept secret in the world.  Jefferson truly is a step back in time; it reminds me of my magical childhood. It’s a place where kids can be kids, life is slower, people all know your name and your family, it’s a community that has problems just like any other city. But you remember Mayberry, like on the Andy Griffith Show? Well, I call Jefferson, “Mayberry on the bayou.” I married a guy from here and then raised two East Texas girls. I may be a modern woman, but I love living in a town where every little thing you do to pay it forward can make a difference in the lives of others.

Pamela: Does the original Pulpwood Queens book club chapter still meet? 

Kathy: Are you kidding? We had a meeting tonight or at least all the volunteers of my charter chapter, recapping our Girlfriend Weekend 2011, a meeting on how to make it better. I made a big ol’ pot of sausage and chicken gumbo and all my Pulpwood Queens brought all the side dishes and dessert. We love hanging out together and will just make up any old excuse to all be together with our Timber Guys in tow (that’s our husbands).

Pamela: What’s on your reading list this year?

Kathy: The following are our OFFICIAL PULPWOOD QUEEN BOOK CLUB SELECTIONS for the 2011 reading year so far:

January Main Selection: My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

January Bonus Selections: Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit edited by Sonny Brewer; They Came to Nashville by Marshall Chapman

Splinters (teen/adult crossover): If Holden Caufield Were in My Classroom: Inspiring Love, Creativity, and Intelligence in Middle School Kids

Pinecones (Children’s): Scout, Atticus & Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy

February Main Selection: I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg

February Bonus Selections: The Miracle of Mercy Land: A Novel by River Jordan; The Perfect Love Song by Patti Callahan Henry; Cheap Cabernet by Cathie Beck

Splinters (Teen/Adult crossover): Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Pinecones: (Children’s/Adult crossover): It’s a Book by Lane Smith

March Main Selection: Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland

March Bonus Selections: Every Last One by Anna Quindlen; The Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White; As the sycamore grows by Jennie Helderman

Splinters (Teen/Adult crossover): A Little House Traveler: Writings from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Journeys Across America by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pinecones: Art & Max by David Wiesner

April Main Selection: Shanghai Girls: A Novel by Lisa See

April Bonus Selections: The Inheritance of Beauty by Nicole Seitz; Goodness Gracious Green by Judy Christie; Redefining Beauty by Texas Poet Laureate Karla K. Morton; Mothers & Other Liars by Amy Bourret
Splinters (Teen/adult crossover): Mermaid: A Twist on a Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon

Pinecones: Madeline Goes to the White House by John Bemelmans Marciano

May Main Selection: Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show by Frank Delaney

May Bonus Selections: Royal Blood (A Royal Spyness Mystery) by Rhys Bowen; Mink River: A Novel by Brian Doyle; Larkspur’s Cove by Lisa Wingate

Splinters (Teen/Adult Crossover) Janis Joplin: Rising Up and Singing by Ann Angel

Pinecones: The Pirate of Kindergarten by George Ella Lyon

June Main Selection: Georgia Bottoms by Mark Childress

June Bonus Selections: Gone with a Handsomer Man by Michael Lee West; Woof: Women Only Over Fifty by Diana Black and Mary Cunningham; Miss Hildreth Wore Brown: Anecdotes of a Southern Belle by Olivia deBelle Byrd

Splinters (Teen/Crossover): The Rhinestone Sisterhood: A Journey Through Small Town America, One Tiara at a Time by David Valdes Greenwood

Pinecones: Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein

July Main Selection: The Killing Storm by Kathryn Casey

July Bonus Selections: Heart of Deception: A Novel by M.L. Malcolm; Murder at the Luther by Kathleen Kaska; Thunder Beach by Michael Lister

Splinters (Teen/Adult Crossover): TBD

Pinecones: A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip Christian Stead

August Main Selection: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

August Bonus Selections: Paper Children by Marcia Fine; A Cup of Friendship: A Novel by Debbie Rodriguez; Sue Ellen’s Daughter Ain’t Fat, She Just Weighs Heavy: The Belle of All Things Southern Dishes on Men, Money, and Not Losing Your Midlife Mind by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson

Splinters (Teen/ Adult Crossover): Matched by Allie Condie
Pinecones: Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown

Pamela: Wow, that is quite a list! I’m in awe that you’ve managed to stay focused on literacy and helping those, who haven’t yet learned to read, develop a love of books. Can you tell us about your work with the Rotarians and other projects?

Kathy: I love being in my local Rotary Club because it’s all about “Service Above Self”!  I have been literary chair for some time, but when I was president of our local chapter, I started the Dolly Parton Imagination Library Project here in Marion County. I am a big fan of Dolly Parton and her pre-school literacy program was something we were in dire need of here in Marion County as we have a 39 percent adult illiteracy rate. How do you break this cycle? Well, like Dolly, I do believe that if you begin at birth to show that reading is important, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life. 

This program sends a book a month to a child from birth to kindergarten to get them reading-ready. We just raised $6,000 for this project during our Silent Auction of author donated items during our Girlfriend Weekend to partner with the Rotary Club on a project that I know will make a huge difference. If you teach a child to read well, they have all the tools they need to educate themselves and live a purposeful and authentic life. Rotary International has endorsed promoting literacy, and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library shares that passion, along with their other amazing worthwhile projects such as eradicating polio and helping the world have safe drinking water. If we put all our efforts into more of these kinds of efforts, just think what a wonderful world this would be. I am a Pulpwood Queen and Rotarian for life; these are two organizations besides my church that are really making a difference.

Kathy and Lila
Pamela: What books have changed your life most significantly?

Kathy: The first book that turned me on to reading was Mary Calhoun’s Honestly, Katie John. That was about a little girl who was very much like me, a tomboy.  Then later, To Kill a Mockingbird, as I totally recognized myself in Scout. When I read Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, I finally knew and recognized that books would be my closest companions. I always felt different, like nobody understood me, and now I know that everybody probably feels that way sometime in life. I was just so very shy as a child and it was hard for me to talk to anyone about this. So when I read books that made me realize that perhaps there were others like me, I felt accepted. Books, authors and readers are now my tribe. To share a book with somebody is the greatest joy, besides my children, that I have had in my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t read a book and find out something about myself that I never knew before. My biggest fear is I won’t have time in this life to read everything I want to read, so heaven for me is an infinite library.  How divine is that? 

Pamela: Anything else you’d like to share with our audience?

Kathy: Yes, the thing my 54-year-old self would like to share with this reading audience is find that thing that you are most passionate about and let that become your life’s work. This may not go exactly as you planned but stick with it, whatever it is and don’t let anyone discourage you as long as it’s legally and morally safe. I never in a kazillion years dreamed that I could make my life’s career in books but that is exactly what I do. My second advice is: don’t worry about fame or fortune; invest your life in your passion and paying it forward. Because truly the secret to a happy life is your relationships with others. Gather friends, and you may never be rich but you will be rich in life. And work for what you want, earn it! You never will have better satisfaction in receiving anything if you don’t really work hard for it!

And to me, the best way to attain all these goals is to be a reader. Nothing connects people better than the sharing of stories. I know that my life would never been as profound or rich if I had not made my life all about authors, books, literacy and reading.

Pamela: We'd love to hear how Kathy Patrick has inspired you or about your own story of how books have changed your life. Leave a comment here by clicking on "comments" at the bottom of this post. And be sure to check in regularly with Kathy on her websites. There's always something new and exciting going on at Beauty and the Book.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Counting Down

By Susan

In coming close to the completion of The Angels' Share, my work in progress, I've become a bit obsessive about the math in my writing. I'm counting everything: chapters, words, plot lines, and all the loose ends that I have to tie up. With only 15,000 or so words to go, I somehow just now realized that I have a whole lot to say in a very short period. As in: 30,000 words to say in 15,000 words' time to prevent my novel from spilling over the 100,000 word count mark.

And so to manage all of the things that I am counting, I created a file I've named Nuts and Bolts. Word count, chapter lengths, character lists with DOBs and DODs, family trees, notes, and scene edits--they all go into that little manila file on my PC's desktop. (I imagine, if it were a real paper file, it would be bursting open with wadded and wrinkled pages covered in coffee stains and doodles.) The organization, I must admit, helps. I'm tightening up. In doing this, I'm also talking to other writers about scary things like word count. What is too long? What is too short?

Pamela advised me to allow the story to tell itself and to worry about the word count later.

Kim's final product, much like mine, will be at or over 100,000 words, and she's written about her own word count issues here.

Our prolific Julie, who is in the editing stages now of her latest manuscript, seems to know the sweet spot on good fiction and hits it every time.
Joan just hit 80,000 words on her WIP, the same marker I just crossed, and Elizabeth, who writes young adult fiction, keeps things short and sweet.
I've found an amazing list--Top 10 longest English language novels here--that makes The Angels' Share sound like a whisper. I've seen agent blogs on the topic and the comments from yet-to-be published writers goes on for days. Writers who write too much (like me) must learn to slash and burn. Writers who are too brief need to shore up their fiction.
If there is a 'sweet spot,' as I alluded to earlier, I would say that it is 80,000 to 100,000 words. Yet as Pamela reminded me yesterday, I need to tell the story. Complete the plot lines. Write it until it's finished. There's a time to edit. There's a time to revise. Right now, it's time for completion, and tools like my Nuts and Bolts file are helping me get there.
What are your thoughts? Is there a sweet spot for word count? How long is 'too long'? How do you organize the back end of your manuscript?
Share with us! And keep writing :-)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life is Funny That Way...

by Elizabeth

Just when you think you are finally in place, life happens. Ain't that the truth? (Wait, that was a cliche, wasn't it? Oh, who cares--life is busy happening!)

We make plans, we get excited, we buy dresses and suitcases and shiny new shoes...and then maybe the weather turns (more) sour and we have to wonder if our plans will work out at all. Or we make a plan, but someone gets sick. Or breaks a wrist. Or we break a toe. As Emily Whatsherface back on Saturday Night Live once said, "It's always something."

And isn't it?

But since the stuff that makes life interesting--life as we know it and life as we imagine it, both as we hope it will turn out and as we pray it never will--are the same things that makes books interesting, for writers, the quirks and turns and frustrations of life are often opportunities. That's maybe one of the best gifts of writing: no matter how badly something sucks, most of us will still think, "You know, I can use this."

Earlier today, Mapquest failed me. (Duh--and why did I trust it anyhow? Isn't that what my glossy new Android phone is for? Except--oops, still learning to use him, and I don't trust him yet, either.) I found myself driving west when my destination was actually east--twenty five miles and an hour into a ten mile, twenty minute drive, I arrived. Annoyed. Upset. To be honest, near tears. And I felt ready to throw in the towel for the day (oops: cliche numero dos)--but I didn't. I can use this, I thought. Somewhere, somehow, a manuscript or an essay or simply an object lesson for my kids (not writing, I know, but you can never force enough supposed wisdom down your kids' gullets, except, of course, when you do), I can use this. And here I am, using it, writing a quick blog post as I work out my frustration for a trip I might not be able to take after all. Dang snow.

But I can use that, too, can't I? I'm a writer, and the whole world is fodder for my pen, for my keyboard. Like Shakespeare said, all the world's a stage. Okay, I know that has nothing to do with this, except that good ol' Will was roaming around in my brain as I floundered behind the wheel earlier today, circling around Caruth Haven in search of Lover's which I never did find. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. And we are. We all have our parts, and my part today was to be lost, to be mad, to get over it, and to someday, somehow, use it.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Serendipity, defined

By Pamela

Have you ever eavesdropped on a conversation between two strangers? Gone a weekend road trip with a woman you've yet to meet? Had someone contact you after stalking finding you online? Do you have the nerve to approach a stranger in a public restroom?

For me, the answers to the above questions are: Yes, yes, yes and hell heck, yes! (my mom reads this blog)

In the fall of 2006, I attended a meeting of the newly-formed and not-yet-officially-named Writers' Guild of Texas in the basement of the Richardson Public Library. I slipped into the back row (because I'm Baptist and we never sit up front if we can help it) behind two women who quietly chatted during the meeting's breaks. At one point my ears pricked a little at the mention of "critique" and "emails." So, I leaned in as the meeting ended and said, "I couldn't help but overhear that the two of you said something about critiquing." Those two unsuspecting women were Joan and Kim.

Flash forward nine months or so and the three of us (as well as Kim's mom, Deb) attend our first writer's conference together in Austin. Later, Joan would connect with Elizabeth at a Lesser North Texas Writers' critique group at the Barnes and Noble in Plano. Then I met Elizabeth when she rode with Joan and me to the OWFI conference in May of '08. (This is the "weekend road trip with a strange woman" part.)

Julie happened to contact me after stalking me on stumbling upon my personal blog. I agreed to meet her for lunch (in a well-lit, very public place) and we immediately connected.

In the spring of 2009, I ran into Susan in the restroom at the DFW Writers' Conference. We were both about to pitch our manuscripts to agents and formed a bond based on shared nerves.

Lots of emails and lunches later, we had the idea that all we discussed--the critiquing, the goal setting (Who wants to join me in writing 10,000 words this month?), the encouraging, the networking--might benefit other women who write. (And possibly even a few men?)

Most of us were maintaining our own blogs anyway and Kim had a website dedicated to her great-grandfather's story and art, so how hard could it be to put together a group blog? Turns out, not hard at all. Since there are six of us, we determined it would be most feasible and manageable if we posted three times a week--Monday, Wednesday, Friday--and we set a schedule that, nearly 250 posts later, has varied little.

In order to drive traffic and attract new readership, we reached out to people more famous than we are--published authors, editors and agents--who generously lent their time and expertise to our blog posts. And continue to do so still today. (For a look back at who we've interviewed, see the list below our head-shots here on the right hand side of the blog. Click on any name to read the interview or guest post.)

Then, as most of us hopped on the Facebook trend, we decided we could reach readers that way, too. So we added a fan page on Facebook and continue to add new fans there as well. Folks who twitter can also link to us there.

Those who know me well have probably never heard me use the word "fate" or even "coincidence" much. I'm a believer in events happening for a reason. Every cross-country move I've made in my adult life, every meeting I've decided to attend, every stranger I've approached in a restroom, I believe has connected the dots in my life for a greater purpose.

While it's wonderful to have a support system at home or a mother who thinks you're the next Harper Lee, having friends in your camp who know firsthand the sting of rejection, the frustration of making time to write and the struggle to create prose that sings cannot be measured.

If I had had the opportunity to dictate whom I would meet, the women I would connect with and form life-long friendships with that extend far beyond our shared writing goals, I would have raised my hand and said, "I choose: Elizabeth, Joan, Julie, Kim and Susan." Rather serendipitous, I think, that they were chosen for me.

Photo by Rick Mora

Friday, January 21, 2011

Critique - What Works for Us

By Kim

For the benefit of those who couldn’t attend What Women Write’s presentation at the Richardson Library on January 17th, I thought I’d share my portion of the discussion.

Most writers quickly learn that a good critique group is as much a blessing as a bad one is a curse. What many of you may not be aware of is that the six contributors of What Women Write are not only partners on this blog, but we regularly critique each others work. Through trial and error as well as lessons learned from past experience, we have formed what we believe to be the best possible group for all involved.

Here are some of the secrets to our success.

Each of us has something different to offer

Joan will be blunt, but kind. She'll tell me when my prose is lazy and has eliminated passive voice from Pamela’s work. She's especially helpful when it comes to global and pacing issues.

Pamela's fearless about challenging me to do better, even if there's nothing inherently wrong with what I’ve sent to her. I just rewrote the opening scene of The Oak Lovers based on one of her suggestions, and it's made a tremendous difference. She points out when Joan uses too much description or too many analogies, or catches little things that Julie hadn’t even realized she did wrong. Pamela also catches little grammatical mistakes.

Julie is another grammar guru, and is fantastic at rearranging sentences for enhanced affect. She may give you a line edit even if you didn’t ask for it. (I’ll never turn one of those down, no matter how early the draft.) For pacing and tone issues, she’s your woman.

Susan claims she’s horrible at judging her own work (which is brilliant) but that she’s a tough editor for everyone else. She’s especially strong at finding little inconsistencies in voice. Susan and Julie have similar backgrounds and they work well together when it comes to big picture critiques.

We are all a little frightened when we receive something back critiqued by Elizabeth. There’s a lot of red ink and little of it will be praise. However, we’re all aware that she doesn’t give a detailed critique unless she believes the story’s worth it. She’ll be the last reader before I send out queries on The Oak Lovers. If I use a mid-twentieth century word in a 1908 scene, she’ll catch it. If a sentence is awkward, she’ll not only tell me, but offer suggestions for fixing it.

As for me, I’m a compulsive editor and perfectionist for my own work, but try not to interfere too much with the writing voices of others. I’m not a line editor, but I will catch places that are inconsistent or don’t make sense and I’m good with overall story impressions.

How we exchange work

We do the majority of our critiquing over e-mail, which has the advantage of allowing the reader to edit at their leisure. We all use the Track Changes tool in Microsoft Word. It saves time and allows the writer to see at a glance what needs work and where praise is directed.

We critique at our retreats as well. Feedback is immediate there, but the drawback is that sometimes little details are missed by listeners when the authors read out loud. Especially if Elizabeth reads--she forgets to breathe.

We have ground rules

The writer must be open to an honest critique or it’s a waste of time for all involved.

Whenever possible, writer and editor should agree on what type of critique to give. If it’s an early draft, global comments may be more helpful than line edits. If it’s time to query, call Elizabeth or Julie.

A critique relationship should be reciprocal.

Don’t send a first draft (though we break this rule at retreats).

If feelings are hurt, wait a day and read the comments again before responding.

Always say thank you.

Potential pitfalls and how we avoid them

Everyone is busy with their own writing, outside jobs, kids, or all of the above. Sometimes material does not get returned in a timely manner. If the writer has a deadline, tell the editor. If the editor drops the ball, apologize.

The tone of an e-mail communication can be misconstrued. If feelings are bruised, wait until you calm down and then call the person who wrote the e-mail rather than writing back.

We are six very different people brought together by a mutual love of writing. We accept our individual quirks. If a petty fight starts, others step in to diffuse the situation. We can agree to disagree.

What makes our group work

We do not compete with each other. A reader who picks up Pamela’s women’s fiction may not be drawn to my historical fiction. Elizabeth is the only one who writes YA. Julie and Susan use similar southern themes and settings, but entirely different stories. I likely write for the same audience as Joan, but we believe our best chance for success is to build each other up rather than plot sabotage.

We’re all serious about our craft and genuinely want to improve.

We’re all at the same stage in our careers.

We realize that one of us will land a book deal first and accept we might not be that person. This isn’t a race and there are no losers.

We trust that no one in the group be purposely hurtful or disrespectful to anyone else.
Left to right: Julie, Pamela, Joan, Elizabeth, Kim and Susan

These are the keys to our success. We’d love to hear what works for you!

Photos by Deborah Downes

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What You Don't See

by Elizabeth

I drew the good luck to get to post the first impressions of our very first official speaking event. As we have no doubt made clear in the previous weeks, last night the six of us at What Women Write were privileged to be the monthly guests of The Writer's Guild of Texas at the Richardson Public Library.

If you were there, drop a comment and let us know what you thought. If you were there, did you grab one of the terrific cookies Pamela was so kind to bake, giving us credit for her delectable work by sticking a mini-card with all our mugs on each bag? If you were there, did you detect the scent of fried chicken emanating from underneath the speaker's table? (That was my fault. As someone who shall remain nameless chose to point out, I talk and think and dream and plan about food a lot, and decided there was no way we could go on without dinner, and since Golden Chick is right across the street... Yup, any excuse to chow, that's me. It really is.)

I arrived a little earlier than planned, clutching a box of chicken and a magazine, thinking I'd scarf my dinner and read some trashy gossip. My plans were happily spoiled by the presence of Julie. Julie was already there! This was a first (she was the last to arrive at our retreat both years, too), but, as she later explained, this was at night. Our usual group meetings are around 11, which might be lunchtime for me but is still early in the day for a woman who doesn't go to bed until the sun is rising in Sydney. We both grabbed a piece and as we munched shared our latest news, then waved our drumsticks in welcome as Pamela and Susan rolled in, followed by Joan, and last but not late, Kim.

Then it was time to get busy. If you were there, this is what you didn't see:

Joan pacing on the far side of the room, ever the researcher, practicing from the notecards she'd studiously prepared. (There is a reason this is a woman who has not only completed several novels, but managed to excel in her career, be a football mom, and still manage to find time to help out her fellow writers when they need critique).

Pamela dashing about, arranging the cookie basket, buying water for everyone, dispensing hugs as needed, our mom, always taking care of us.

Elizabeth and Susan listen while Joan presents her part of our talk.
Kim and Susan and Julie and I--you know what? I don't even remember. I recall noting that Kim hadn't struck me as a wing-girl. I remember Julie's tale of her thirteen year-old's shout that she needed drama masks--as Julie headed out the door, flinging the good news that she was lucky to live in the age of Google if she insisted on waiting until the last minute to share such information. And Susan? Maybe fussing with technology, doing something that looked like fun but probably helped make the world just a little better.

I turned down Pamela's water offer, changed my mind, cadged a buck and a quarter off Joan, raced upstairs to the soda machine, pressed the wrong button, and ended up with a strawberry Fanta. I handed it off to Kat Smith, our hostess that night, and got a couple of styrofoam cups of tap water to quench my thirst instead. Mossy, but did the job.

Then, planted at the table at the front of the room, I watched our audience, our fellow writers, trickle in. Thrilled to see so many faces from The Lesser North Texas Writers, a critique group that meets every Thursday at the Barnes and Noble in Plano (that's a city in Texas, and yes, I heard the "plain ol' Texas" jokes long ago). These were people who'd heard my work, whose own work I'd critiqued (Pamela's and Joan's, too), and it meant a lot to me to see them show up to hear us speak. Well, okay: so most of them are regular members and attendees at WGT; I choose to believe they made the trip out that, um, not-really-very-cold evening just to support us.

And then Kat took the lectern, got some business out of the way, introduced Earl Stubbs who read a gorgeous and authentic tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. (I didn't know he'd been baptized "Michael," did you?), and then we were up.

Kim responds to a question as Joan looks on.
The rest, if you were there, you saw.

There is so much we never see. Last night that was true, and it's true when we pick up a fresh book, do the first thumbing of its pages, and then settle in for a glorious read. Whether it's historical fiction with perhaps years of research backing it up, or a whimsical middle grade bolstered by the writer's memories and experiences, every book holds so much more than the fifty- or hundred-thousand or so words between its covers.

That's maybe one of the best bits of magic about writing--about life. There is always so much more, and a really gifted writer hints at all the more there is without ever bragging about what is not there. We simply know it is. Because the writing is true. The characters real. Just as you know the librarian who takes your card or the cashier who takes your money or the phlebotomist who takes your blood has a life beyond the desk or the register or the hospital, so it is with great characters. Great reads. Great books.

There was a lot going on before Kat turned it over to Pamela. Her part centered on our own backstory, the tales of where we all met, how this blog began, what chemistry and serendipity and alchemy brought us together in that basement room, old friends and new smiling their encouragement, the smells of yeast rolls and coffee and fresh baked cookies perfuming the air. Last night, we got a chance to share our story.

Of course we didn't say everything; how can you say it all in just a few minutes? But with any luck, if you were there, you believed there was more, just as you do when you read your favorite author. And I hope--we all hope--that what we said left you, like with that great book, knowing there's more, and wishing for a sequel.
Julie, Pamela, Joan, Elizabeth, Kim and Susan after the talk.

Those sequels are our works-in-progress. If you were there last night, you heard us say we realize only one of us will be first to get a contract. When she does, what you won't hear will be the heartfelt cries of joy. What you won't taste will be the tears of congratulatory joy rolling down our cheeks. What you won't see will be the champagne spilling into glasses. But believe me now: we will shout, and tears will pour, and even this teetotaler will lift her glass to her friend and drink to the success I know she'll have earned.

Photos by Rick Mora.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pamela interviews our own Julie Kibler

By Pamela

Julie and I met a few years ago when she discovered my personal blog. She contacted me, we met for lunch and became fast friends after realizing we had much in common—similar upbringings and former careers, sons who are musicians, daughters who keep us on our toes and in hysterics, and a love of women’s fiction.

Today I’d like to share with you a little more about Julie—an insight into her fascinating mind and generous heart.

Q: When we met, you were finishing up a story with a deaf main character and I had completed one with a paraplegic character. Both of these ideas just showed up on our pages. Explain how it happened for you.

A: First, thanks for that bit about “fascinating mind and generous heart.”

In my last manuscript, I don’t exactly remember making a decision that this character would be deaf. He just was. In fact, at one point, I decided it would be easier if he were not. I was feeling extremely inadequate about writing a deaf character, considering my experience with the deaf world and Deaf culture (yes, with a capital D) was almost zilch. But it was almost as if I’d given birth and this was my kid and he was deaf. I needed to learn everything I could about deafness to help him succeed. If I’d given birth to a deaf child in real life, I wouldn’t be able to change him or her, so why should I change my character just because it was hard work?

I can’t believe how much I learned about this fascinating subculture, and I barely scratched the surface. I have online friends now I might never have known as a result. You just never know where your writing will take you!

Q: What can you tell us about the manuscript you’ve just completed?

A: Here’s a short blurb from my tentatively titled (because things change) manuscript, ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE: Dorrie and Isabelle make an unlikely pair, but when the black hairstylist's elderly white client persuades her to drive her halfway across the country to a funeral, their journey turns into more than just a road trip. Along the way, 88-year-old Isabelle divulges a story of forbidden love and heartbreak, and Dorrie realizes Isa's journey across seven decades and a thousand miles could shed light on her own parenting struggles and her inability to trust – even when a good man comes along.

It’s been a little terrifying writing these characters, too. They are nothing like me and everything like me. I really enjoy writing point-of-view characters who make me stretch, and I certainly didn’t skimp on choosing these ladies! The story riffs off lore from my own family vault, but we know very little about what truly happened, so it’s 99 percent made up. The photo on the left is my grandmother, and I always wonder if that was her dreaming about what might have been. I think that’s how most stories begin – we writers see something in “real life” that jump-starts our imagination, and off we go.

Q: After that initial seed is planted, where do you go from there?

A: My process has changed with each manuscript. I used to be a dedicated “pantser” – getting an idea and running after it by the seat of my pants, madly, writing furiously, and hoping I’d end up in the right spot with a complete story. Then I began to morph into a “plotter.” I did the smallest amount of planning, just making a list of five or six things that could happen next in my story, but still writing mostly by the seat of my pants.

With my current manuscript, I succumbed to the idea that being a plotter makes perfect sense for me after all! I find that structure keeps me focused, though I still allow myself flexibility where needed.

First, I spent a lot of thought and research time on my story before I ever began putting much on paper, thinking about my characters, my setting, the conflicts, listening to music that felt appropriate for the story, and so on, mainly while I was working on a previous project (which I eventually set aside because it just wasn’t working).

Then, I spent a whole month writing a detailed outline using a modified version of Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. I created a one-sentence logline for my story, then expanded it to a short paragraph (more or less what you see above in my blurb, though it’s been refined over time), then expanded that to a several-page synopsis, then broke that down into a detailed sketch of each planned chapter.

Last April (2010), I participated in a Backspace writing marathon and completed the first 30 thousand words on the story. Each following month, I wrote another 15 thousand words or so, taking a break during the summer when I was vacationing and then unexpectedly ill. I finished my draft this fall, and now I’m working on revisions. This method worked well for me and I plan to use it again, modifying it as needed. I hope to start a new manuscript this April as the timing seems perfect.

Q: What do you consider to be your strengths as a writer?

A: I think I’m able to come up with unusual premises. I’m good at the mechanics, but I have to be careful not to be too concerned about “the rules” as a result. I can suck the life out of my writing trying to do it “right.”

I’ve been told I’m good at getting into the heads of characters who aren’t like me, which obviously makes me very happy. I’ve been an avid people watcher my whole life. I’m also probably a little too nosy at times when I have conversations with people I don’t even know. But maybe that has made all the difference. I find it almost easier to talk to complete strangers than people I’ve known for years. Must be that journalism degree …

I believe my biggest strength is I just refuse to give up. A few years ago, I took a writing voice class with Barbara O’Neal (formerly Barbara Samuel), who was our guest at What Women Write recently and has been a mentor to me even when she doesn’t know I’m watching. Near the end of the course, she said something that stuck with me. It felt so right, yet I had never really considered it a strength before. In fact, it honestly worried me a little. Barbara said, “It is plain that you have vast, deep ambition, which cannot be underestimated in this business.” She went on to say (and of course, this didn’t hurt my feelings a bit!), “Your writing is very polished and you can do anything you want to do with it – honestly.”

I have held onto those words since – both parts – in the moments when I feel like throwing in the towel and in the moments when I get that fluttery feeling in my tummy that says, “Okay, Julie, I think you might really have something here!”

Q: Many writers admit they always knew they wanted to be a writer. Are you among those?

A: Look at that baby picture of me. Doesn't it look as if I'm already dreaming about my first manuscript?

Seriously, though, I like to think it was always in the back of my mind. I was always a voracious reader and always scribbling in journals or writing terrible poetry or short stories from the time I can remember. Of course, I thought I needed to have a practical plan. After a few unproductive experiments with classes in other fields in college, I majored in English and journalism. My big plan was to work as an editor for a magazine. I graduated from college in Abilene, Texas, and needed to stay there for a few more years while my then-husband finished school. The magazine business was obviously limited in Abilene, so I ended up with a ten-year career as a welfare caseworker – a job that traveled well as we moved frequently.

I eventually transitioned to customer service with an ophthalmic company. While there, I worked on my master’s degree in library and information science. And I mean worked. I was a full-time mother of three, a full-time student, and a full-time customer service representative, all at the same time, for almost two years. It was rough, but somehow, I survived and so did my family!

I thought I’d eventually work in the company’s now defunct research library or – my new “big dream” – as an independent information professional doing research for organizations or individuals. I did do that to a certain extent, but eventually found myself working at my original dream as well. I was editing on a contract basis, and eventually was managing editor of a public policy think tank’s journal.

It took all that time to get back to where I always thought I’d be. In the meantime, I’d started writing fiction in my spare moments (not many). I loved it so much that eventually my husband and I pared our budget down to where I could devote myself completely to writing for a time to see where it would take me.

That’s where I am now, though I do small editing jobs here and there, and I still love it. I hope I never have to get a “real job” (said tongue-in-cheekily) again. I’m so excited I’ve found my passion. It’ll be nice to be paid to do it one day!

Q: How do you think your background in library science has influenced your writing?

A: As far as the writing itself, I have killer research skills, which is obviously helpful. From a publishing standpoint, I have a huge appreciation for librarians and the unbelievable services they provide for authors: promoting their books, fighting for acquisitions in a shaky economy where libraries usually get the leftovers, and following eagerly alongside new technologies as we’ve morphed into the age of electronic books.

I know that when I’m finally published, I better be talking to librarians first, because they will have a critical influence on who gets to read my books.

Q: You’ve been a fan of Backspace for some time. And I joined recently on your recommendation. Tell us a little about what you’ve gained from the site.

A: Backspace has a huge membership (more than 1000 published and unpublished writers and publishing professionals), but the writing forum included with the membership has the feel of a much smaller community (complete with our occasional squabbles – ha!). I know if I have a question that can only be answered by a published author with lots of experience, I can go to Backspace and post that question and within hours, I’ll probably get the answer I need.

It’s also a fun place to commiserate (in a mostly positive way) with other aspiring writers as we keep trudging along the long road to getting published. In a nutshell, Backspace is a microcosm of the world of publishing. If I’m limited on time, I go there to find out what’s happening fast. I believe my membership dues, inexpensive at just $60 a year, have been worth every penny. When I finally get that agent and book deal, I know I’ll have a built-in contingent of fellow authors who will pay forward the help they received in navigating the process and promoting their own books.

Q: A little bird told me you got a Nook Color e-reader for Christmas. Like it? Has it changed how you read?

A: Not particularly, yet, but I feel sure it will. I am in the middle of reading my very first Nook book, Reflection from Diane Chamberlain’s backlist not otherwise available in print. It took me a day or two to get into the groove, find my preferred settings, etc., but now I’m really enjoying reading this way. I can’t tap the page turn fast enough, and don’t feel any different mentally than when I’m reading a print book, though I believe I will always love the feel and smell of a “real” book in my hands. I have enough printed books still in my to-be-read pile that I can’t give them up any time soon, at any rate! I also read the last 70 pages or so of my first draft of ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE last week and loved not being able to edit as I went along.

The Nook is also kind of a mini-tablet, so I have found it useful for quick check-ins on Facebook, which is obviously critical … or not. Also email when I don’t feel like booting up my laptop but want a screen bigger than my tiny (not iPhone) phone. I think I’d eventually like to purchase one of the e-Ink readers, too, because I am not crazy about the glare of the Nook Color screen and would like to be able to read outside whenever I like. The battery life is also not as good, and I got a little panicky when I realized my battery was going to die before I could finish what I wanted to read the other night. The cord is not quite long enough to reach my bed. That would never happen with a print book, right?!

But overall, I’m loving it.

Q: If one of your children came to you and said, “Mom, I want to be a writer, like you,” what would be your advice or reaction?

A: Start now. My son is a gifted songwriter, and I am incredibly proud of him for taking the bull by the horns and jumping in with his whole heart so young. I wish I’d found and followed my dream a long time ago, but I also know that often, life experience is what makes us unique as writers. So I’m okay with the delay, too.

But to them, I’d say, “Start now.”

Thanks, Julie, for taking the time to share your background, goals and current project with us. I can't wait until I'm up to read ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE. I'm sure I'll enjoy it as much as I did the last story you wrote.

And if you're in the Dallas area tonight, stop by Richardson Public Library at 7 p.m. and hear us share the story of how we met, how the blog came to be and other dying-to-know information.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A New Perspective

By Susan

I've written here before about writing uniquely, about critique, and about writing and real life. This post is about an interesting mix of all three.

I was in Kentucky in November for my grandmother's 90th birthday, and I wrote about it here. While there, my father, an ardent reader, begged for the beginning of my manuscript. He could tell me whether it was worth all the time I'd been putting into it, or not, as he so bluntly put it. My father is a 6-foot-6-inch mountain of a man, a retired high school football coach, and an intimidating and unlikely critique partner. I relented, and left the first 10 pages with him before I returned to Texas.

Four days before Christmas, my mother fell on the ice and broke her leg. After a week in the hospital, surgery, and struggles with pain medication, she is now recovering well yet is officially home-bound. Earlier this week, she called me, wanting me to send additional pages. Also a retired teacher and avid reader, she'd re-read the pages I'd left there in November.

"I need something to read," she said. "And I want to know what happens next."
Throughout the past few days, both of them have called me, peppering me with questions, suggestions, and insight. Since my manuscript is based on Kentucky families and their secrets through the latter half of the last century, and my parents have lived there their entire lives, they are suddenly my resident experts. My audience of one--myself--has now broadened to include a very unexpected extension--my parents. And as I told Pamela earlier this week, you never grow too old to glow from praise from your mother.

What I love the most is that when I started writing The Angel's Share, I thought my parents would disapprove. Was the content too close to home? Did I use a stronger version of "darn" one too many times? And why did my characters seem to be drinking bourbon all the time? (The backdrop of the novel is the bourbon industry). But they have surprised and impressed me. Not just with their thoughtful critique, technical detail, and fact-checking, but with their approval.
At What Women Write, we talk a lot about our critique circle, because we value the uniqueness of our alliances with each other. And at WWW, we all know each others manuscripts. We know each others plots, characters, and conflicts. I recommend that all writers find a group where you can receive healthy critique. Yet receiving an outside eye can give you an entirely new perspective.

For me, that outside eye came from the most unexpected and welcome place--home. And as far as my father's know-how on whether I should keep writing or quit now?

"Keeping writing, girl," he mumbled to me over the phone. I could hear the way the words stumbled out of his mouth, tripping over the cigar clenched between his back teeth.

And for a little girl who always thought her parents disapproved, it was the best thing he could have ever said.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A visit with Barbara O'Neal, author of How to Bake a Perfect Life

By Julie

I’ll never forget the first time I sat down to read a novel by Barbara O’Neal. I can’t remember where I got it – from the library? From a used bookstore? But I was glued to it. I couldn’t put it down. I laughed, cried, and was absolutely in awe of the writing in what appeared, from the cover, to be an average women’s fiction novel. But No Place Like Home (written as Barbara Samuel) was anything but average and will stay on that list of books I’ll remember for a long, long time. I still get choked up remembering two scenes in particular in vivid detail, because she’s that good. I found as many of Barbara’s other novels as I could and read them quickly, then eagerly awaited each new release.

Three years ago, Barbara debuted with a new name, and though her backlist is rich with details about food as well, her last three novels take food and its significance in relationships and family life to a new level. I dare you to read her latest release, How to Bake a Perfect Life, without getting the itch to follow one of the recipes posted inside while at the same time losing yourself in this lovely story.

About How to Bake a Perfect Life, from Random House: In a novel as warm and embracing as a family kitchen, Barbara O’Neal explores the poignant, sometimes complex relationships between mothers and daughters—and the healing magic of homemade bread.

Professional baker Ramona Gallagher is a master of an art that has sustained her through the most turbulent times, including a baby at fifteen and an endless family feud. But now Ramona’s bakery threatens to crumble around her. Literally. She’s one water-heater disaster away from losing her grandmother’s rambling Victorian and everything she’s worked so hard to build.

When Ramona’s soldier son-in-law is wounded in Afghanistan, her daughter, Sophia, races overseas to be at his side, leaving Ramona as the only suitable guardian for Sophia’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Katie. Heartbroken, Katie feels that she’s being dumped again—this time on the doorstep of a woman out of practice with mothering.

Ramona relies upon a special set of tools—patience, persistence, and the reliability of a good recipe—when rebellious Katie arrives. And as she relives her own history of difficult choices, Ramona shares her love of baking with the troubled girl. Slowly, Katie begins to find self-acceptance and a place to call home. And when a man from her past returns to offer a second chance at love, Ramona discovers that even the best recipe tastes better when you add time, care, and a few secret ingredients of your own.

About Barbara O’Neal:
Barbara O’Neal fell in love with food and restaurants at the age of fifteen, when she landed a job in a Greek café and served baklava for the first time. She sold her first novel in her twenties, and has since won a plethora of awards, including two Colorado Book Awards and six prestigous RITAs, including one for THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS in 2010. Her novels have been published widely in Europe and Australia, and she travels internationally, presenting workshops, hiking hundreds of miles, and of course, eating. She lives with her partner, a British endurance athlete, and their collection of cats and dogs, in Colorado Springs.
And now for a conversation with Barbara!

Julie: Interviews are one of my favorite parts about participating in the What Women Write blog. I love these conversations, especially with authors who have been on my list of favorites for years and have had a direct, profound influence on my own writing. Barbara is one such author. Having taken several small, intimate online classes from her, where I not only developed as a writer, but made some lifelong friends, I feel like this is a conversation with a friend I haven’t talked to in a while. (Facebook doesn’t count!) And so … what do you ask a friend when you haven’t seen them in a while? Duh. So, Barbara, what have you been up to lately?

Barbara: You know, I’ve been enjoying myself! 2010 was quite a year, including a trip to England and Spain, walking and walking. I rode trains across Europe by myself and navigated tubes and Metros and train stations without any great mishaps, which made me feel brave, A Woman Having Adventures. I have also been writing, of course, because that’s what I do, every day. The past couple of months, I’ve been doing research for the new book, set in a community garden.

Julie: Oh, I’m going to love that. My son and his girl are deeply involved in community and school gardens where they live.

If I were forced to name one thing about Barbara O’Neal that never lets me down any time I pick up one of your novels (because there are so many things!), it would be that thing we aspiring authors are always trying to chase down: Voice. You do a fantastic job in your online classes helping writers attempt to get a handle on this elusive element. How did you begin to recognize your own voice in your writing? And what’s all this stuff about the Girls in the Basement?

Barbara: Thanks for that! I don’t know that I was aware of my voice, particularly, for a long time, but I began to see that I seem to return to certain themes, settings, and characters, over and over, as we all do. My themes tend to revolve around family dynamics, women as sisters and friends, and how each of us handle the traumas in our lives. I am a native of Colorado, so it’s not surprising that my work is nearly always set in the West, against the mountains and deep skies that are the backdrop of my life. I noticed that the books that seemed to please both readers and writers the most were books that were very personal in some way—and that, of course, is what your voice is: you, all the things that make you who you are.

The Girls in the Basement is taken from the Stephen King book On Writing, where he describes his muses as a bunch of guys in the basement, hammering and nailing and doing mysterious things, then handing him some pages. The image grabbed me and I ended up writing a column for Novelist’s Inc, an organization of published commercial writers, for several years. It was about nurturing your creativity and recognizing that you can’t be a whole, healthy writer without taking care of your inner child, the teenager who creates.

Julie: Speaking of teenagers … You grew up in the restaurant business and food has played a major character in so many of your stories. Would you be willing to share a favorite “shop story” from your years growing up and working in and around restaurants?

Barbara: I wanted a job in a particular restaurant in the worst way—Michelle’s, in Colorado Springs. It was an European-style café, with pastries and ice cream and sandwiches and elegant little drinks, and had once been written up in Life Magazine. The reason I wanted to work there was not for any of those things, however, but for the hats the waitresses wore (we were still waitresses back then). The hats were blue or red velvet, trimmed with gold braid, and I thought they were so incredibly beautiful. I had Rapunzel hair at the time, and tucking it up beneath that hat made me feel like a medieval girl. Putting it on, I was 12x more beautiful than I was any other time. It was an enchanted hat, I know it was.

Julie: Picturing that makes me smile! And speaking of food as a character, Bread gets a capital B in HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE. I know you put a lot of time, energy, and ingredients into getting the recipes posted in your novels just right. I know you also place a lot of value in letting things beyond your own mind guide you as you write. Can you share a moment that enchanted you while experimenting with bread baking as research for this novel?

Barbara: When I took the pain au chocolat out of the oven and put it on the counter, I could hear hosannas. The pastry has to be rolled with a huge amount of butter, then chilled, and rolled, and chilled and folded and rolled. The ingredients are so simple: flour, water, salt, butter, chocolate, and the result is astonishing. It was all I could do to let them cool long enough that I wouldn’t burn my tongue on the chocolate. (There is a recipe in the book for very simple pain au chocolat using frozen dough that is very good.)

Julie: In the midst of reading HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE, I got such a strong hankering for pain au chocolat, I melted some semi-sweet chocolate chips on a roll (as I was taught to do in French class in junior high) because it was all I had in the house. It was good, but probably not as good as your recipe, which I still intend to make very, very soon.

In my own stories, I love experimenting with voices and point-of-view characters who aren’t like me. (It makes life so much more interesting!) I always completely fall for your characters, Barbara. This is a question you’ll see in many of the interviews I conduct for What Women Write because I am fascinated with how each unique author conducts this process. In this novel, you get into the mind and soul of Katie, a teenage girl who has basically been abandoned by her meth-addicted mom, and you explore what happens to an entire family when Oscar, a badly burned and injured Afghan war soldier returns stateside. And these are but a few of a cast of unique and richly embodied characters. How do you get into those voices that aren’t really “like” you or empathize with a character and describe a situation so foreign to your own experience?

Barbara: This is one of the best parts of writing to me, that something can take over and let me walk in another person’s shoes, walk around the world as somebody else. The process is pretty straightforward for me. I do a ton of research and then I put on their personality and life much the same way an actor would. I’m definitely a “method writer”, and immerse very deeply into the characters in each book. I have to know each character extremely well—I feel I should be able to order food in a restaurant as they would; I should be able to shop for their clothes and know what their favorite movies are and if they sleep well or not well. Everything. I think most writers do this in some way, and that’s why writing is so tiring—we are not just putting words on a page; we’re living all those other lives. Katie touched me deeply. Her story is sad in many ways, but she’s also mighty and willing to fight for herself, which I loved.

Julie: Yes, Katie is mighty. As a mother of a 13 year old, I absolutely love that!

Anyone who has read your blog over the years or spent much time researching you as an author knows you use some pretty unique methods for planning out a novel. Would you share about some of these and why they work for you?

Barbara: I never think of my methods as particularly unusual, but it is pretty organic. I feel like the girls in the basement hand me up a basket of stuff at the start of a book and there might be one thing I recognize—oh, a book about sourdough? That’s a great idea! I love sourdough! —and then I have to figure out from there what it’s all about. At the start, I try to stick with a lot of play: if I were to write a book about bread, what might it be about? Rising dough makes me think of a pregnant belly, and dough feels like a baby butt, so maybe it’s about mothers and children. I will collage through the first stages, which is less about the actual collage and what pictures are on it than it is about giving my right brain plenty of room to discover what the book is about, what images we’re working with, what themes, even what colors. I know a book is going to gel when I know the colors.

And I guess that does all sound slightly strange, doesn’t it? But I also use pretty standard techniques like first person bios and plotting tools like the 9-step female journey as presented by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in 45 Master Characters. I am also very attached to giant Post It notes that I stick to the walls and doors in my office.

Julie: Well, your stories are far from ordinary, and I know for a fact (having received some of it myself over the years as I’ve taken classes with you) that you have some advice about writing that isn't run-of-the-mill, either. What one tidbit would you like to share with our readers who are also aspiring authors today?

Barbara: The main thing is to be yourself. Give yourself permission to write a story you’d really love to read, and listen to it reveal itself to you. Therein lies your great work.

Julie: Thank you so much for that, Barbara, and thanks for being our guest today at What Women Write! I can’t recommend your books—those written as Barbara O’Neal as well as your backlist written as Barbara Samuel or Ruth Wind, highly enough to our readers!

Start with HOW TO BAKE A PERFECT LIFE, available now at all major booksellers (and currently a Target Pick!), and work your way backwards—you won’t be disappointed. And while you’re at it, stock up on aprons, pot holders, and ingredients. I guarantee even the most hesitant cook will find herself strangely moved to fire up the oven! (And probably a pallet of tissues, too. Fair warning!)

Monday, January 10, 2011

What Women Blog

by Joan

As we've recently mentioned, next week the six of us will present a program at the Writers’ Guild of Texas. We’ve been asked to talk about how we formed our group, why we decided to start blogging, and what we blog about. We'll also share our experiences with critique, the social media monster and our annual retreat.

During my five minutes of fame, I'll address content. Interesting, since as I mentioned in my last post, I’m the one staring at my computer for hours trying to be half as engaging as the other five! Often I share the same dilemma faced by many bloggers: What should I write about?

What I’ll tell our audience at Writers’ Guild is to first consider what you're trying to accomplish by blogging and what you can offer your readers. Are you trying to reach a certain audience? Gain a following? Promote your book? Air your deepest secrets? Since there are probably millions of blog posts published daily, yours should be, well, something that could only be written by you. (Readers who already blog, we'd love for you to share your link in the comments below!)

By just clicking on my Google reader, I can gain information about the Victorian Era from author Lee Jackson at The Cat’s Meat Shop, find the name of a new agent at Guide to Literary Agents, enjoy an insightful reflection from Dani Shapiro, appreciate gorgeous photography by Sarah Laurence, pick up querying tips from the all-powerful Query Shark, get a book review from Bibliophile by the Sea, read author Jamie Ford's BitterSweet Blog, peer into an agent’s world at Dystel and Goderich (our friend Jim McCarthy in particular!), throw out a story hook at TaleBait, and learn about the craft and business of writing with Writer Unboxed. The list goes on and on.

We started this blog with a simple mission—we wanted to share a little about our experiences and offer advice and insight to our writing lives. We offer observations on point of view or character, share personal reflections about struggles with issues in our manuscript--or lives. In lighter moments, we run book reviews, Q&A with authors, agents and editors, a list of our favorite reads, or a sneak peek at our annual retreat.

I hope we’re on your list of must-read blogs. We appreciate your stopping by, visiting us on Facebook, and mentioning us to your friends. And don’t forget, if you’re in Dallas next Monday, January 17, stop by the basement of the Richardson Library at Arapaho and North Central Expressway at 7pm. You never know what we might talk about.

Friday, January 7, 2011

An Audience at the Allergist's

By Kim

A few days ago I got my allergy shot. Typically, the most exciting part of this adventure is the mystery of whether or not the lab technician will hit a nerve and how large the lump on my arm will be by that evening. This particular shot was painless, and I settled down in the waiting room with my new color Nook preparing to lose myself in Kate Morton’s The Distant Hours for the required 20 minute wait.

Maybe 30 seconds passed before an elderly gentleman asked me how much I liked my Nook. Turns out that he has one as well and his wife has an iPad. We conversed a few minutes about how the devices have turned both of them from occasional readers to voracious ones. A woman sat beside me with her Kindle and declared she reads at least four times as much as she used to. I admitted that I’m a new convert because I adore the feel of a real book in my hands, the smell of the ink and, as a writer, part of me feels guilty paying the lower price for an e-book, knowing that likely converts to a smaller royalty for the author.

“What do you write?” the woman (her name is Jeanette) asked.

The question is one I hear a lot and, depending on my mood and how genuinely interested the audience, invokes either terror or glee. In this case it was glee, because she declared herself a writer, too.

Despite that our genres couldn’t be more different (more on that later) we shared many of the same perspectives about being a writer. It is not a hobby but a compulsion. If you can do anything else and be happy, do it. The process of composition is painful with the exception of those few times the muse smiles and world outside the novel vanishes. Compulsive editing is our mutual biggest weakness. “All the books say not to do it, but it works for me,” she said. Considering that she’s been successfully publishing and selling books for a couple of decades, I’ll gladly follow her advice to keep plugging away as I have been without apologies.

As I told Jeanette about The Oak Lovers and how I came to write it, I noticed a woman behind her anxiously glancing at her watch, yet remaining in her seat. When I met the other woman's eyes, she jumped in.

“I’m so sorry, but before I go I have to ask you where I can buy your book? I must read this.”

I sheepishly admitted that I still have about 70 pages to write.

“Well, what’s the title? When do you expect it to be out?”

I explained that it may be awhile, given that I need to find an agent and a publisher first. I gave her my business card and directed her to my website. I promised to contact her when it was out.

By this time I had been in the waiting room well over the required time, but I didn’t even consider leaving. I resumed my conversation with Jeanette, thrilled to have found someone who speaks the same language in this city of technology, finance and insurance. Gradually I became aware that the people who had been in the waiting room when I arrived were still there, including the elderly gentleman and his wife. Even the lab technician ignored her computer, perhaps because no one was in line to be jabbed.

The gentleman grinned at me. “I must say this is the most fascinating conversation I’ve ever heard.” A few others nodded.

We had an audience, and the storyteller in both of us leapt to attention. I expanded on how sometimes, when I write, it’s as though the characters are standing over my shoulder shouting at me that I have it all wrong. This drew a curious expression or two. “We hear voices,” Jeanette added in the same clear, direct tone she used when she announced earlier that she writes gay romance. “All writers—”

“Are mildly insane,” I finished.

I left the allergist’s office an hour after receiving my shot with a new friend, none of my own business cards and a sincere wish that I had a dozen or so copies of my book I could have sold out of the trunk of my car.

I also left with the motivation to make that happen. Carl and Madonna are waiting. I have a book to finish…

Don't forget to come by and meet us at 7 p.m. on Monday, January 17 at the Richardson Library as What Women Write are featured at The Writer's Guild of Texas monthly meeting. Rumor has it chocolate might be involved! All welcome, no admission. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bring It On

by Elizabeth

January 5, 2011

Look at that fresh shiny new date. Okay, not so new anymore, I suppose, not super shiny maybe, but still so fresh. Today is really kind of the first day of the new year for me--kids back to school, I'm back to work, everyone resuming the schedule we gleefully abandoned almost three weeks ago. The grind.

But it feels good. I spent a part of yesterday on the phone, making appointments for the next few weeks, including one today, which means I'm up and running at work again without a day sans kids and responsibility. I thought it might be nice to take an extra day to just veg, but now that I have things to do and people to see so to speak, I'm glad I don't have that bonus day. Enough is enough. Time to move.

And that means writing, too. Winter break is over, and with it, this lull in my writing as well. I got a job last year mostly to add more structure to my days, mostly for the sake of my writing. With all the stress and time involved in learning the new job, the writing structure part had not yet materialized. But now, a seasoned pro with a couple of months under my belt (insert cheesy grin here), I feel ready to tackle the job, tackle the words, and tackle the world.

I've got two novels underway that I plan to finish this year. One is close to the first round of critiques, and the other well underway. I think I can be done with both, rewrites and all, by year's end if I take advantage of this new found structure I've built. It means more fast dinners, more chores for my kids, and a lot less time trolling the Internet for me, but it can be done. I'm putting it out to the world here for accountability. Ask me in twelve months.

Bring it on. Hello January. Hello 2011. This could be the year.

Don't forget to come by and meet us at 7 p.m. on Monday, January 17 at the Richardson Library as What Women Write are featured at The Writer's Guild of Texas monthly meeting. Rumor has it chocolate might be involved! All welcome, no admission. Hope to see you there.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Matter of Perspective

By Pamela

My seven-year-old happened to be watching television recently when a commercial played for St. Jude Children's Hospital. As Marlo Thomas' voice-over faded, my daughter turned to me and asked, "How come, when a kid goes into the hospital, someone shaves his head?" I looked back at the screen and thought, That never occurred to me. So, I told her that sometimes, when people get cancer, doctors give them medicine to help them get better, but the bad part is, it usually causes people to lose their hair.

From my daughter's limited perspective on kids and cancer, hospitals and chemo, she assumed a bald head equated to someone having shaved it.

Later I thought about how this applies to characters and perspective. Unlike point-of-view, which Julie has explored recently, perspective isn't about who's telling the story; it's about how the characters spin their unique take on it.

In order to really nail perspective, you have to begin with fully fleshed-out characters. As examples, I'm illustrating two characters from television shows I watch: Dr. Temperance Brennan from Bones and Michael Westen from Burn Notice.

If you only occasionally tune in to watch either show, you may not understand why the characters react the way they do when placed in both everyday and unique situations. But as someone who has seen pretty much every episode of both series, I enjoy seeing how writers use these characters' profiles to determine their behavior.

For example, Dr. Brennan is not only a gifted forensic anthropologist, but the reason her personal life is usually a mess is because her parents abandoned her and sent to live in foster care. In one early episode, she discovers her mother's remains and solves her murder. In another, her father kills the head of the CIA--and both parents were bank robbers when she was a child.

In Burn Notice, Michael Westen is more than a burned former international spy. He's also the son of an overprotective, chain-smoking hypochondriac mother, and his father abused both him and his little brother. His best friend used to inform on him to the FBI, and his ex-girlfriend is a former IRA explosives/arms specialist. Can you see how he might be a little slow to build lasting relationships?

While all this backstory rarely surfaces, it goes to forming these characters' perspectives. It flavors and tempers how they react to the characters they share screen-time with. It influences their speech and body language.

When crafting a novel, it's imperative I know my characters' backstory like it's my own. In my current WIP, my main character grew up as the only child of an Air Force colonel and attended four different high schools. She marries a man for the stability he seems to offer her. "I latched onto Kent because I loved his family more than I loved him. Do you know his parents live in the same house his mother was raised in? That his grandfather named the town?" When she mentions being upset about a family crisis, she thinks about a "constricting knot under my sternum," not a burning in her chest because she's also a nurse. And when her son seems to be aging rapidly due to stress, he reminds her of a child suffering from Progeria, not a kid with that aging disease, as I might describe him.

Another character I'm writing is a 90-year-old widow who never had children. When schools bring children into her retirement village during the holidays, does she tear up and delight at their talent? Not at all! "It's the time of year I most yearn for hearing loss," she says. "Or at the very least, dementia. Tomorrow, lucky Helen Pierce won't remember how Rudolph got butchered by a five-year-old."

It's all about perspective. How characters see the world through their cataract-afflicted vision. How a burned spy has trust issues. How a child views someone her own age with a bald head. Did she lose her hair from a horrible side-effect or did a nurse shave it when she entered the hospital?

Stay true to who your characters are. Like you, they are unique...but possibly, they aren't like you at all.


For an in-person perspective from the six of us at What Women Write, join us Jan. 17 at Richardson Public Library at 7 p.m. as we present to the Writers' Guild of Texas' monthly meeting. No charge for admission.
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