Friday, April 29, 2011

I Have a Book to Finish

By Kim

The blogosphere has many posts about balancing the writing life with real life. I even wrote one myself at this time last year. Summer vacation loomed and I despaired at the thought of accomplishing nothing on my novel during it. My children were, to be fair, only a fraction of the problem. I had reached a point in the manuscript where my muses weren’t talking, or perhaps I just didn’t like what they had to say. I needed to tune them out for awhile.

Now I can’t ignore them. They jabber away in my head while I run errands, do laundry, and tend to my family’s needs. Even when I have the house to myself, other obligations prevent me from taking dictation for hours on end.

If I didn’t share posting duties at What Women Write with five other women, there’s no way I’d ever finish my manuscript. I’m not the sort of writer who can bang out five hundred words in an hour and throw it up on this blog anymore than I can compose three (or even two) thousand words in a day. I envy authors who can, but I’m too much of a compulsive editor.

A typical post takes me a full day to compose, edit, and put up on Blogger, and that’s after I know what I intend to write about. A book review is far less time consuming to compose, but requires me to read a novel before I can write it. The same goes for an author interview, only in that case I need to tack on at least an hour’s worth of time to come up with questions the author hasn’t already answered on twenty blogs, in the Q and A sections of their books, or on their websites.

Before the tone of this post scares my WWW colleagues or you, I should clarify that I have no intention of bowing out of my blogging duties. I’m simply taking stock of the time commitment involved in the hope that our readers who may toy with the idea of starting a blog of their own will find it helpful.

Painting by Carl Ahrens
Having to write on a deadline, even when ideas and words don’t flow, is a valuable exercise. Someday I hope to have a new novel to write, a finished one to edit, and a published one to promote. I’ll have book club meetings to attend, guest blog posts to write, Facebook and Twitter to update, interviews to give and, I suspect, my sanity to lose. I know I’ll look back with longing on this time when I had no writing obligations other than a novel to complete and a blog post every other week.

That said, I still must prioritize my time. I have roughly 80 pages left to write before The Oak Lovers is complete. My posts may get shorter. I may have a looming blog deadline and not be at a place where I can leave Carl and Madonna’s world longer than it takes to recycle an old post. My prose may be less than perfect once in awhile. I’m not slacking, and I trust that you will forgive me.

I have a book to finish.

Photo of Kim and her children by Deborah Downes

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Diane Chamberlain and The Midwife's Confession

By Julie

How lucky am I? Already in 2011, I've had the privilege of interviewing two of the authors who have had a major influence on who I am as a writer today. One of them is Diane Chamberlain, our special guest today. (The other, you might remember, is Barbara O'Neal.)

Diane's fabulous latest, The Midwife's Confession, released Tuesday, April 26. Congratulations, Diane, on your TWENTIETH published novel! (Wow!)

About The Midwife's Confession, from the publisher:

Dear Anna,

What I have to tell you is difficult to write, but I know it will be far more difficult for you to hear, and I'm so sorry. . .

The unfinished letter is the only clue Tara and Emerson have to the reason behind their close friend Noelle's suicide. Everything they knew about Noelle-her calling as a midwife, her passion for causes, her love for her friends and family-described a woman who embraced life.

Yet there was so much they didn't know.

With the discovery of the letter and its heartbreaking secret, Noelle's friends begin to uncover the truth about this complex woman who touched each of their lives--and the life of a desperate stranger--with love and betrayal, compassion and deceit.

And about Diane:

Diane Chamberlain is the bestselling author of 20 novels. Her books, frequently set in the southeastern United States, are complex stories about love, compassion and forgiveness with a touch of mystery and suspense.

Prior to her writing career, she was a hospital social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice, working primarily with adolescents. Diane’s background in psychology and her work in hospitals have given her a keen interest in understanding the way people tick, as well as the background necessary to create real, living, breathing characters.

More than a decade ago, Diane was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which changed the way she works: She sometimes types using voice recognition software. She feels fortunate that her arthritis is not more severe and that she is able to enjoy everyday activities as well as keep up with a busy work and travel schedule.

Diane has three married stepdaughters, three grandchildren, and two shelties. She lives with photographer John Pagliuca in North Carolina where she's at work on her 21st novel.

I (Julie) started reading Diane's books almost by accident several years back when I rescued Keeper of the Light from a stack of books my mom had collected to give away. (Please don't take that personally, Diane--my mom doesn't save books!) I set it aside for a while, then read it and enjoyed it so much, I looked for more. And the rest, as they say, is history. I became involved with Diane's very active blog crowd long before Facebook became popular, and now I enjoy reading and posting comments on her status as much as the next fan. She is one of the most genuine, generous, down-to-earth writers I know, and I've learned so much not only from her blog posts on the craft of writing, but her character. She is truly a role model to me.

And guess what? I got my very first book acknowledgment from Diane. No, it wasn't for all the wisdom I shared with her on some topic. It wasn't for supporting and encouraging her through thick and thin. It wasn't for being her agent or her first reader or her amazing photographer.

Nope. I'd forgotten until I cracked open Diane's 2010 release (The Lies We Told--LOVE this book!) that one day a few years ago, she put out a call on Facebook for suggestions: What kind of small tattoo on a finger knuckle could be seen from across a room? So. That tiny black star on a bad guy's knuckle near the start of The Lies We Told? Uh-huh. That's my star. The one I came up with. And yes, I did get an acknowledgment for it. I was delighted to read it out loud to my daughters, whom I tracked down in my excitement.

That was a long intro. I hope you hung in long enough to get to the best part of this post--our fun conversation about writing and The Midwife's Confession!

www: Welcome, Diane! Thank so much for joining us on What Women Write! Let’s start with a less than unique question I usually refrain from asking for that very reason, but I know you have an unusual answer! How did you come up with the idea for The Midwife’s Confession?

DC: In a dream. If only that would happen more often! I took an afternoon nap and had a dream in which a couple of friends learned something that would have a devastating impact on a third friend if she knew about it. In my dream, the friends tried to decide if they should tell her or not. What was the moral and kindest thing to do? That became the seedling of the idea for The Midwife's Confession, although my imagination took me to places I never anticipated going once I began writing.

www: I think that's awesome. I'm going to be thinking a lot harder about my dreams now. :) We know that life experience influences writer voice and writer choice. How do your particular life experiences influence how you write or the subjects and characters you choose to explore? How about for The Midwife’s Confession?

DC: My background was as a medical social worker and psychotherapist--a great foundation for a fiction writer! I worked in a maternity unit, an ER and an adolescent unit, and my private practice was with teens, so teenagers are frequently an important part of my stories, as they are in The Midwife's Confession. Obviously the maternity unit gave me fodder for this book--oh, the stories I could tell! What happens in Midwife is completely made up, I hasten to add. I often have a medical element in my stories and I know that's from my background in hospital work. I've been lucky to have two careers that have been very rewarding.

www: You have a lot of teen readers, too, which just goes to show how well you capture the teen voice. And speaking of teens ... one of the characters in The Midwife’s Confession has childhood leukemia. I know researching this disease had a big emotional impact on you. Would you be willing to share about this?

DC: I am teary-eyed just reading your question. I followed many blogs about children with leukemia during the research portion of Midwife. I was moved by all of them, but one in particular drew me in. It was written by the English-speaking Dad of a ten-year-old European girl. I followed the blog as she battled leukemia, received her transplant, went home, came back, went home, came back, fought infections, lost her hair, grew it back, etc. Her father shared lots of pictures and I began corresponding with him both on and off the blog, something which continues to this day. The little girl was such a fighter, but she ultimately lost the battle and my heart still breaks for her family. I've dedicated the book to her.

www: It's amazing how writing takes you places you'd never have gone otherwise and introduces you to people you never would have met--even when it breaks your heart. Diane, I also know that even multi-published authors deal with disappointment sometimes. As a longtime reader of your blog, I remember how the timing of writing The Midwife’s Confession was tricky—it didn’t exactly follow your “preferred” schedule.

DC: When I came up with the idea for The Midwife’s Confession, I wrote my proposal and submitted it to my editor who flipped over it and gave me the go-ahead to start working on the book. Writing a proposal takes me about a month, so I’d put a lot of work into the project already. I was thrilled with my editor’s response and got down to business.

About a week later, I heard from her again. She’d discussed my proposal at an editorial meeting and learned that another author at the publishing house was already in the middle of writing a book with a similar “hook” as Midwife. Therefore, I could not write this book at that time and would have to very quickly come up with a new idea.

To say I was upset is an understatement, but the publisher couldn’t be budged. I somehow managed to come up with a new proposal and wrote The Lies We Told, a book I ended up loving, but I can tell you, this was not a fun experience. Ultimately, The Midwife’s Confession turned out to be absolutely nothing like the other author’s book and the hook is completely different. Maybe this falls into the “all things happen for a reason” category? I hope so.

www: Well, as much as I adored The Lies We Told, I am thankful you wrote it. Maybe you wouldn't have without this bump in the road. But this wasn't the only tricky part about delivering The Midwife's Confession, right? (I'm feeling like a slightly cruel interrogator by now, but Diane is just this transparent. That's so much a part of why I love her!)

DC: I only had about nine months to write TMC. (Hmm ... I just realized the irony in that.) I wasn't completely happy with it when I turned it in. I knew there was something missing. It was my editor who helped me see what it was: the midwife herself. But the midwife, Noelle, is dead, which was why I hadn't initially thought of adding her point of view to the story. I realized my editor was right, though, so I added eleven chapters from Noelle's point of view. Wow, what a difference that made! It brought her to life and added many new dimensions to the story. Noelle told me things I had no idea had gone on in her life. This is the value of a wonderful editor!

www: And speaking of transparency, how have the Internet and social networking changed your writing life?

DC: In both good and bad ways. The bad is that Facebook and corresponding with readers is a terrible time sink. The fact that I'm a Facebook addict doesn't help. But I get so much joy out of my contact with readers, something that was limited in the past. This morning, for example, I was overwhelmed by all I had to do but when I checked in on Facebook and saw all my "friends" and what they were up to, it lifted my spirits. Kind of crazy. Maybe it has to do with how isolating writing is. I still have that need for social contact. There's also the fact that I can alert people to the publication of new books and where I'll be touring, but honestly, that's become secondary to the fun of getting to know so many wonderful readers. Please join me on Facebook here!

www: You’ve made extensive use of e-publishing with your backlist in recent years. How has this process worked for you? What kind of impact do you find this makes on sales, publicity, or marketing in general?

DC: I have seven books that are out of print, meaning I have the rights back to them and can do anything I like with them. So as an experiment, I put my personal favorite, Secret Lives, up as an e-book to see what would happen. It was a steep learning curve, preparing the book for the various e-book formats, and I said some bad words as I worked with the document and created a new cover for it. But wow, it was so worth it! Not only has e-publishing brought in extra income, it's helped me find new readers and satisfied the need of my long-time readers to be able to read older books they'd been unable to find. I now have five books available and hope to put the final two up in the next few months. Here's the page on my website where I describe these backlist books. Of course all my in-print books are available as e-books as well.

www: One of these, Reflection, was the very first ebook I purchased for my brand new Nook in January, and I'm so thrilled I got to read it! And another interesting note: I got to read my advance copy of The Midwife's Confession as an e-galley, also on my Nook!

Okay. I admit I know the answer to this next question, but I think our readers will enjoy it, so I have to ask: What is this Opium Den you so frequently speak of in blog posts and Facebook statuses?

DC: About ten years ago, I was doing the dating thing and the guys would often suggest meeting at Starbucks. I'd never been in a Starbucks before then, but I loved the cushy chairs and the sense of having a little "home away from home." (The men are a whole other story…) I began taking my work there in the mornings and became so addicted to the place that I started calling it the Opium Den. (This is the second time I've mentioned being an addict in this Q and A. Wonder what that's about?). So for ten years now, I've been taking my writing to Starbucks in the mornings. I've met other writers and many readers and it's nice to see the regulars there each day, but everyone knows I'm there to work and once I turn on my laptop, I'm in my own little caffeinated world.

www: And it's amazing how many of us writers actually met our significant others on ... errrr ... at the Opium Den. (Ahem, yep, including me!) And because we like to keep it unique here at What Women Write, I have one final question. What is one fun fact about Diane Chamberlain that nobody else has heard about on the worldwide web?

DC: I MUST play Scrabble on my iPad in bed at night. It's become something of a ritual. I tell myself I'm learning new words, but if I'm being honest with myself, I guess I have yet another addiction! :)

www: Readers, I suspect if you start reading Diane Chamberlain, you'll find yourself with a new addiction, too! Diane, thanks SO much for coming by What Women Write today. Big, huge congrats on your twentieth release, and best wishes for continued success!

The Midwife's Confession is available now at all major booksellers! But hey, why not try your local independent bookseller first?

Photo credit: John Pagliuca

Monday, April 25, 2011

Writing for Work

By Pamela

We devote a lot of space on this blog to promoting authors and the craft of writing fiction. Today I thought I’d detour a bit and talk about writing nonfiction—articles, Web content, features—as a means of building a name for yourself, getting bylines, making a little money, or for whatever motivation you choose.

For the past dozen years or so, I’ve worked from home as a freelance writer/editor. I have a degree in marketing but no formal writing education other than some wonderful English teachers and professors who encouraged me along the way. If you’ve wondered how to get articles published, I’ll share how I got started.

CLASSIFIEDS I happened to be reading the want ads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch one Sunday morning and found a listing for a stringer. Part-time, work from home, covering the Illinois county where I lived. I sent off a résumé and assumed I’d never hear anything since I didn’t have journalism credits. But someone called and, for the next two years, I wrote the High School Focus page and wound up with about four published articles a week plus photos—a decent income and hundreds of bylines to my credit.

VOLUNTEERING It’s not hard to find volunteer work as a writer. After my newspaper stint dried up due to budget cuts, I found myself helping out at church, writing the weekly bulletin. After a few weeks, the church started to pay me. A few weeks after that, a member of the pastoral staff approached me about a religious paper in need of an interim editor, and that became my job for nearly two years. From volunteer to paid position in about a month plus editing credits now on my résumé. I’ve also been paid to write a school district newsletter and some education promotional pieces. Sometimes, you just have to ask if there’s a need.

REGIONALS After moving from Illinois to Texas, I spent a few months solely writing fiction before deciding it was time to contribute financially to the family coffers and began poking around for venues. I sent off some essays and ideas to some regional parenting magazines, but came up dry except for a couple that didn’t pay much. (You can find a listing of these here and, if you get in with some of the bigger ones, you can make a little bit of money; submit the same article to many, as long as you retain reprint rights, and you can end up with a decent return on your time.) I also contributed to a local women’s magazine for a short time before it went out of business. And I started a personal blog as a means to keep an online journal and found it a great outlet for trying out essays.

Then I found a regional lifestyle magazine delivered to my house each month that looked as though freelance writers contributed to its content. So, I emailed the editor to inquire about submitting. No response. I followed up with a phone call. This time I had better success and, after sending her some writing samples and my résumé, she gave me an assignment. Now, in my fourth year of regular assignments, I’m also editing for the magazine as well.

So many times we’re cautioned not to pick up the phone but, had I not followed through on my initial inquiry, I wouldn’t have found this awesome job that I continue to enjoy. Nor would I have met some wonderful people—some of whom have hired me to write marketing pieces for them.

ELSEWHERE Although I’ve yet to explore these options, I have had friends pass along writing opportunities they’ve seen posted on Craig’s List and other sites. I’ve known people who’ve gotten leads via Facebook and other social networking sites as well. I mentioned volunteering and, although I know your time is precious, you can accept small projects and you never know what might spring from those. Also, it’s good to offer your expertise to nonprofits. Even if you never make a dime, it’s great to give back.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Big Reveal

By Susan

Last night, four of us from What Women Write attended a special pre-screening of the highly-anticipated movie, Water for Elephants, the screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s runaway bestseller by the same name.

Let me make it clear: I loved it.

Today I read several glowing online reviews of the movie and one terrible one. It called it predictable. It called it clichéd and happily-ever-after. As I read the review out loud to my mother-in-law we laughed and nodded. Maybe the characters were less complex than say, Hamlet. Maybe the antagonist seemed a little too terribly terrible. And maybe the critic was right: this love story didn’t change the world. But as a film? It hit the mark.

As I watched the movie, I cheered for the protagonist. My heart was racing at the climax of the story, even though, since I’d read the book, I knew what was coming. I felt invested in their success. And I cheered when the ending gave me what I wanted.

It got me thinking of my own “big reveal”--how does each story end? We’ve all read novels where we toss the paperback across the room at the finale, disgusted with the choices of the main characters at the closing of the novel. Sometimes the author gives us too little, too late, leaving us dejectedly wanting more. Yet other times the writer may be ridiculously over-the-top with added drama that doesn’t resonate as true. We’re allowed to be disappointed. After all, we’ve invested in these characters. We need the ending to hit a sweet spot of satisfaction, tension and drama.

I am at that point with the ending of my manuscript: struggling between a nice and clean closing or adding an element (or two) of chaos to the scene. And then, where do I leave them? Is there such a thing as too-happy of an ending, what the critic alluded to in his review of Water for Elephants? I have thoughts for my characters' conclusions, yet they seem to want to tell their own story. Where I’ll land, I think, is somewhere in the middle of my characters' desires and my own, hoping to disappoint no one, and hoping to be true to the souls of the characters I’ve created.

And yet therein lies the rub. In my hopes to disappoint no one, I may be missing the point entirely, which uncovers my biggest terror regarding writing to begin with: somebody’s not going to like it. Someone may even...gasp...hate it. Agents will toss it back, unimpressed. And if it does see the light of day, I’ll surely get reviews that tell me I am clichéd and over reaching, or boring and predictable. Hopefully, it will resonate with most readers, and those that check the "like" box will outweigh any "thumbs down" I may receive. As far as pleasing everyone? Fat chance for me. All I can do is end my manuscript pleasing myself, and telling the truth. Maybe my big reveal will knock your sock off. And then again, maybe it won’t. Maybe my skin won’t be thick enough to handle criticism.

But I won’t know unless I try.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First Loves

by Elizabeth

We got a kitten today, a white scrap of indiscriminate energy who got dubbed Taz (think Warner Brothers) before we left the animal shelter. He has a Mohawk-style toupee perched between his ears, and his ability to rassle with our seventy-pound mutt is what earned him his permanent vacation in our home.

The kids ask if I love him yet. Do I? I don't know--but I will. I know I will.

Right now, though, I am still mourning our black cat with the debonair little white beard who went missing over a week ago. The new kitten's presence is because George needs a companion, and the past couple of hours are proof that the four-legged set are thrilled with the new arrangement. But I have to admit, that's not the only reason we got Taz. There's a bit of magical thinking on my part, the idea that by taking on the hassle of another life, taking on the expense and work will somehow secure the return of the cat that I do indeed love, and miss far more than I probably let on.

It's hard to let go, especially when there is still hope. Since Gomez slipped through the dog door ten days ago, failing to return as he always had before, numerous people have shared their stories of lost cats returning a week, a month, even years later. I haven't given up on him.

I feel sort of the same way about the manuscripts I worked over and loved, worked and reworked and queried and sent fulls and then never saw fly. I haven't given up, not really, not hope. Once in a while I'll see an interview with an agent I'd not heard of before, who seems like a good match for my manuscript. Off the query will go, perhaps even getting one of those requests so like a casual "I think I might have seen your cat" comment--but so far, no dice. Nice rejections, finally, and the admission that this cat didn't have any white on him after all. Or was orange. "But maybe it was him." No, it was not him. But that does not mean he is not still out there, hiding or lost or chowing down inside another house, having lost his collar and just awaiting the opportunity of a carelessly open door to slip out again and come home to his true family, where he belongs.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Commitment to Critique

by Joan

For a few years now I've been touting the merits of critique. My first critique experience in Dallas wasn't a great fit for me, but I was lucky enough to find the Lesser North Texas Writers—run by Benign Dictator, Carol Woods. Carol's been running her group for years, (Thursday nights at 7pm at B&N Park & Preston--you should go if you're in Dallas!), and it was here I truly learned the value of critique, not to mention I became part of a writing community that I cherish. Shame on me for waiting so long to ask Carol to join us here.

Lesser North Texas Writers' Mission Statement: To provide peer support, an information exchange, and informal self-education opportunities for published and non-yet-published writers of fiction and non-fiction.

WWW: What inspired you to form the Lesser North Texas Writers’ Critique Group?

CW: Actually, what I wanted to do was join a critique group so I put my name on an interest sheet at a local writing conference. Less than half of the signees showed up at the organization meeting and none of them wanted to be the leader, most had never written anything, some clearly thought a critique group would be a great place to "meet someone," and no one wanted to host the next meeting. So I took it on. The name came about because an opportunity for our information to be published in a directory of Texas writing groups.

WWW: How long has Lessers been in existence? After all these years, how do you stay motivated to keep the group going?

CW: Since October 1987. The group keeps itself going. New people bring their talent and stories; long-standing members start new stories. People disappear for a few years and then come back. It's a fluid group so from one Thursday to the next, I don't know what to expect. I always learn something, whether it's about writing, group dynamics, or the world around me. More than once, when members learn how old the group is, someone will comment that the group has lasted longer than his or her marriage (or marriages, in some cases).

WWW: How did you get the title “Benign Dictator?”

CW: I gave it to myself. I'd not met with any success in getting someone else to take on the leadership role, so I announced that if I were going to keep it, I'd be known as the Benign Dictator, and to watch out!

You give so much to the local Dallas writing community—can you share a success story or an instance where you noticed an exceptional growth in ability?

CW: Me. When I learned the difference between exposition and narration.
Manuscripts finished, polished, and sent out. Publication for some; I have a bookshelf dedicated to LNTW's authors. Writers who've had a difficult time grasping a concept such as point of view, finally getting it, then teaching it within the group. (We learn from each other.)

WWW: What’s your best memory of the group?

CW: The camaraderie (for the most part; some people thrive on divisiveness and LNTW has had its share of those).

WWW: I imagine over the years you’ve seen quite a few characters. Without naming names, what’s the most bizarre situation you encountered?

CW: The liars? The plagiarists? Writers who referred to the group as a therapy session and treated it as such? Thrown chairs? Thrown manuscripts? A pet tarantula carried in a shirt pocket? The writer who believed he'd been born in the caves of Mars? The pretty blonde who left the group to explore her sexuality? The writer who spoke like deep-country Texas yet wrote lyrical, erudite stories and lived in his pickup under a bridge in Plano?

WWW: Pet tarantula! I'm glad I missed that one. As an AWOL member of the Lessers, I know first hand how invaluable this group can be. What advice can you give others who are considering putting together a similar group?

CW: There's no one "right" way to develop or conduct a critique group. If you attend an existing group, and go home energized and eager to write more, that's a good group for you even if you received a lot more critique than praise. Conversely, if you go home in despair, that's not the group for you. If you can't find a group that satisfies your needs, grow your own. In the Lessers, each attendee, whether reading or not, is given an opportunity to critique; this is unusual for critique groups but I believe it's a fast-track learning curve opportunity (and remember, I'm the Benign Dictator).

WWW: (Readers, also see Carol's list of rules at the end). In addition to running Lessers, you are also a freelance editor. What type of work are you looking to take on and how can someone reach you to find out more about your services?

CW: My email is I prefer full-length men's fiction, but also work with other types of manuscripts. If I'm not right for the writer, I'll try to find an editor who is.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Carol. Readers, here's a list of rules Carol implemented after a few run-ins with troublemakers. This list might come in handy if you're thinking of starting your own group. And if you decide to join Lessers, tell them you heard about it here!


1. Must play nice with others. No temper tantrums. No thrown chairs. No offensive language. No exceptions or excuses. You blow, you go. Permanently.

2. LNTW is a critique group. Period. It is not a discussion group; it is not a class; it is not a weekly therapy session.

3. A critique group critiques. If you do not know the difference between critique and criticism, find a dictionary.

4. When a writer is being critiqued, he/she does not respond, does not defend. (Remember, this is NOT a discussion group.)

5. A critique may suggest corrections or a re-write, but said corrections or re-writes are the original writer's job.

6. A critique focuses as much on what's right with a manuscript as on what still needs work.

7. If your turn to critique has passed, and you think of something else, either wait until all have had their turn and then ask to make a further comment, or write a note to the author.

8. If a writer provides copies, put your name on the first page, and mark up those copies. Most of the time, anything that can be written on the copy does NOT need to be brought to the attention of the group. (Incidentally, one of the most frequent complaints I get from writers is that they go to the expense of providing copies and when they get them back, many carry no marks at all.)

9. Not every member will love your story. Deal with that.

10. Whether you're reading or not, come prepared. That means bring a pen or pencil.

11. It is okay to pass if you don't have anything to say—just say, "I pass." This is a no-fault step; you don't have to have a reason, let alone give one.

12. It is bad form to re-read the same thing twice in a row unless it has been substantially re-written, and an insult to the group to bring it back a third time unless it is a complete revision.

13. If what is being read offends you or is something that you don't care to listen to, take a little walk, buy a book, whatever. Come back when that reader is finished.

14. Any time we have more than four (4) readers, expect critique time to be curtailed.

15. Not everyone will get to read every time. I try for a balance between newbies and ongoing stories, but 3-1/2 hours is only 3-1/2 hours no matter how you cut it.

16. Define for yourself what you expect to get out of the group, and what you expect to put into the group. Bring these two elements into balance.

17. Don't waste the group's time; don't waste your own; above all, don't waste mine.

Prepared and copyrighted by Carol Woods.
First copy free, 10 cents for first replacement copy,
25 cents for second replacement copy. No further replacements.

Friday, April 15, 2011

An Interview with Kristina McMorris

By Kim

Over the last month or two, I’ve become acquainted with Kristina McMorris through Facebook and Writer Unboxed, and I am delighted to welcome her to What Women Write today.

As many of you know, my current work in progress deals with the lives of my great-grandparents, so when I heard that Kristina’s debut novel, Letters From Home, was inspired by her family history, I became interested in seeing how she pulled it off.

Don’t be fooled by the sweet, nostalgic cover. While the story has elements that are both sweet and nostalgic, and the audience for the book would mainly comprise of women, Letters From Home is as much a war story as a love story. Readers will see not only the hardships faced on the home front, but they will also witness the horrors of the war from both a man’s perspective (in the trenches of Europe) and a woman’s (in a hospital in the jungles of the Pacific.) This is a rich novel with lovably flawed protagonists and a strong cast of secondary characters.

If you enjoy bittersweet love stories filled with people you’ll miss after the final page has been turned, or you’re simply a fan of the World War II era, Letters From Home will surely fit the bill.

About Letters From Home (from the book jacket):

Chicago, 1944. Liz Stephens has little interest in attending a USO club dance with her friends Betty and Julia. She doesn’t need a flirtation with a lonely serviceman when she’s set to marry her childhood sweetheart. Yet something happens the moment Liz glimpses Morgan McClain. They share only a brief exchange—cut short by the soldier’s obvious interest in Betty—but Liz can’t forget him. Thus, when Betty asks her to ghostwrite a letter to Morgan, stationed overseas, Liz reluctantly agrees.

Thousands of miles away, Morgan struggles to adjust to the brutality of war. His letters from “Betty” are a comfort, their soul-baring correspondence a revelation to them both. While Liz is torn by her feelings for a man who doesn’t know her true identity, Betty and Julia each become immersed in their own romantic entanglements. As the war draws to a close, all three will face heart-wrenching choices, painful losses, and the bittersweet joy of new beginnings.

About Kristina McMorris:

A weekly TV host since age nine, Kristina McMorris has garnered more than twenty national literary awards since writing her debut novel, Letters From Home (Kensington Books, Avon/HarperCollins U.K.). This WWII love story, inspired by her grandparents' courtship, has been hailed as "ambitious and compelling...[a] sweeping debut" by Publishers Weekly. Book club rights have been sold to Reader's Digest and Doubleday, and the film rights are represented by the renowned Creative Artists Agency (CAA) of Los Angeles. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two sons. For more, click here to visit Kristina's website.


WWW: Welcome Kristina! I’ve read that the inspiration for Letters From Home is tied to your family history? Can you tell us a little more about that?

KM: I'd love to! Several years ago, I was creating a Christmas present for the family, a self-published cookbook featuring recipes my grandmother had collected and created over decades. While interviewing her for the biographical section, she began to talk about her courtship with my late grandfather. That's when I discovered, much to my amazement, that they had dated only twice before getting married. Apparently, their relationship had developed almost entirely through an exchange of letters during World War II. Grandma Jean then retrieved from her closet a gorgeous stack of those very pages, each one full of romantic and heartfelt messages.

Needless to say, long after leaving her house, thoughts of their letters lingered in my mind. And soon I found myself wondering how different their relationship might have been if their correspondence had been anything less than truthful. This became the core idea of LETTERS FROM HOME.

WWW: While you fictionalized the main complication (other than the war) keeping Liz and Morgan apart, did you give either of them any of your grandparents’ traits?

KM: I did, which is really what makes this story special to me. Bits and pieces of their personalities are sprinkled throughout the book and in several of the characters.

My grandfather, whom I called "Papa" (as Liz does with her own grandpa), served as a navy signalman on a destroyer escort like the character Christian, yet like Morgan, he was also an Iowa farm kid with dry humor and good looks stemming from his dark-Irish roots. His penchant for limericks and card playing I gave to other GIs in the story, and the female tattoo on his forearm, which my grandfather used to make "dance" by wiggling his knuckles, went to the soldier named "Boomer" (my grandfather's nickname).

As for my grandmother, like Liz, she worked in a nursing home as a teenager. Also, the Midwestern adages from the character Viola (e.g. "slipperier than a log in a mill pond") are from my grandma, whose full maiden name, Irma Jean Cordell, is divided among three various characters. And yes, I even borrowed a line or two from my grandmother's collection of love letters.

WWW: Your secondary characters (Julia and Betty) are well-rounded and sympathetic. Where did you get your inspiration for them? Betty’s situation, in particular, must have required a great deal of research.

KM: Poor Betty; she's such a lovable train wreck, isn't she? Even as the author, it's hard for me not to laugh and shake my head whenever I hear her name, thinking back to what trouble she always somehow created for herself. To pen her scenes—serving as a nurse's aid in the jungles of the Pacific as part of the Women's Army Corps—I did do a large amount of research. The most helpful resources were memoirs and the amazing archivist at the U.S. Army Women's Museum.

As for Julia and Liz, I'm so happy you enjoyed them. I think my own traits went into creating Liz more than any other female character, namely because she's an independent, career-driven woman ahead of her time, which makes her very similar to women in today's society. Julia was inadvertently inspired by a combination of my dearest friends who have faced the dilemma of choosing motherhood over career aspirations. As a mom myself, I certainly understand the constant challenge of finding a healthy balance between the two.

WWW: Several of your characters have absent or deceased parents. Is there a reason for this?

KM: Well, perhaps now is a good time to vent my secret and evidently violent grudges against my mother and father…LOL. (Be sure to ask me this question again after you read my second book!)

Aside from creating a plausible way to allow three young, single women to live together without parental supervision during the 1940s, the loss or absence of the characters' parents plays a vital role in many of their struggles with identity, trust, independence, and unresolved issues (and isn't that ALWAYS the source of those issues for us?!).

WWW: Which character remains closest to your heart, and why?

KM: You had to go and ask which child I love the most, didn't ya?

Honestly, there isn't a major character I really favor over the others, but when it comes to the rest of the cast, I'd have to say that Cora, Christian and Ian's mother, has a special place in my heart. Imagining what it would be like to send my own two sons off into the service really struck a chord. I found so much admiration in the strength she displays while her heart is quietly being broken by the reality that, due to the horrors of war, her family will never be the same.

WWW: Your prose is gorgeous – it’s hard to believe you did not enjoy reading or writing when you were younger. What changed your mind?

KM: Wow, thanks so much for the wonderful compliment! Blissful ignorance—thinking I actually knew what I was doing when I dove headfirst into this novel—was definitely my greatest ally. Once I realized what I'd gotten myself into, it was too late to turn back. So, I started reading like crazy; I had a lot of catching up to do.

I will add, though, that I was a longtime movie buff, which is why I see my books play out like a film in my head. In that way, I suppose there was always a storyteller inside of me waiting to break free.

WWW: The cover of Letters From Home may lead readers to believe the novel will be simply a sweet romance. Boy, are they in for a shock when you bring us into the trenches with Morgan. Are there any special vets who gave you a palette with which to paint such a vivid picture?

KM: Much of my research for the battle scenes came from memoirs and journals by GIs who served in the European Theater, since their descriptions and language were still somewhat fresh from the period when they put their memories on paper.

That said, one of the most rewarding experiences of this journey has been spending time with WWII vets whom I would otherwise never had the chance—or taken the time—to get to know. The first who springs to mind is Lynn "Buck" Compton, one of the famed "Band of Brothers" vets and a humble hero in every aspect of his life. Recently, I received an email from a book club comprised of nieces and daughters of the actual "Band of Brothers," who were reading my novel based on his recommendation, and I can't tell you how much their compliments meant to me!

WWW: Are you working on a new novel now?

KM: I'm happy to report that I've finished my second novel, BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES, which is scheduled for release March 2012. The story features a female Caucasian violinist who secretly elopes with her Japanese-American boyfriend—against societal molds and families' wishes—the night before Pearl Harbor is bombed.

I'm extremely eager to share this one with readers, since it features some shocking aspects of history that most people have never heard about, as well as heroes who are too often passed over. Also, being half Japanese, I was able to infuse a unique perspective of living between worlds.

WWW: Many of our readers are aspiring authors themselves. Do you have any advice for them?

KM: Take it from an author who wrote an entire novel, having no clue that WWII women's fiction wasn't considered "hot" in the marketplace at the time: write from the heart, not to follow a trend. Above all, YOU have to believe in your work and, in particular, your voice. Don't let anyone edit out what is uniquely yours. When it comes to your literary career, be fearless! Strive for hearing "yes," rather than worrying about the "no's." And on days when doubts manage to creep in, drink a glass of vino, eat a few chocolates, then sit back at the computer and write the next chapter. 

Thank you for stopping by today, Kristina! Letters From Home is available in bookstores everywhere. If you would like to see a video of Kristina talking about the story behind the novel, click here.

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarah Stonich's Shelter

by Joan

In an area where “the iron content in the rocks is so high that compasses fail,” Sarah Stonich spent ten long years building a cabin “smaller than Thoreau’s.” Just what was it that pulled her to the land in frigid Minnesota? What motivated her to keep going, to fight bureaucrats about a potential highway abutting her land, to spend days at “home” without water, indoor plumbing, or electricity to run “the holy grail of all appliances: a refrigerator.” Reading her memoir, Shelter, one gets the sense that by living so closely connected to the land, and so far from what we call “civilization,” a different set of values exists. It’s a place where a stranger will extinguish a fire on someone else’s property or share abundant well water with those who live “dry.”

I found the stories about her ancestors poignant and enjoyed learning about her neighbors and her new found love. Many of her sentences mesmerized me, enough to draw me back for a second reading. A passage in which she writes about her first alfresco meal at a newly built picnic table overlooking the lake plays beautifully on the page: “Autumn was full on. The bugs were gone, and the fallen leaves were dry underfoot and loud as Doritos. Those still on the trees were thrumming loose from branches to join the eastward curtain of wind, slowly opening the view to the lake across the wooded slope. On the floor of the roofless cabin, eddies of fallen birch leaves swirled like schools of guppies and sawdust lapped at the walls.”

If you’re like me, weak-hearted and content with outdoors as long as you stay closer to the beach and away from the forest, don’t ask what you do with your recently-deceased cat when the ground is too frozen to bury him. Or what happens when you run headlong into a cougar. But Sarah Stonich can write about sticks and stones (or cats) and I’d read it. Infused with both humor and deep-felt emotion, her memoir is an engaging read. (She retells a hilarious story about two sisters fighting over the bones of their dead paramour that had me cackling.)

In Shelter, Sarah touches on all six senses. Being in a cabin in the woods may be quiet, but we learn it is never silent. Birds call, beavers clap, woodpeckers peck, frogs belch, hummingbirds flitter, breezes sing through screens, snow squeals underfoot. Each season is bursting with its own noises, enough to spur this non-outdoorsy type to consider a week in the woods, albeit a little less rustic.

When she describes how the Stonich name is scarce, “cropping up more often on headstones than in phone books,” I got a real sense of what this pilgrimage has meant to her. Her ancestors long dead, time passes, animals and trees turn to ash. But “whether life is being gently rocked or swamped, the land is just there.”

And now, a few questions with Sarah Stonich and a chance to win a copy of Shelter!

WWW: Congratulations on the release of Shelter. Can you tell our readers a little about what this book means to you?

SS: In some ways this book represents closure for me, the end of a long chapter of uncertainty, after five years of a sort of “will we or won’t we” lose our land. The limbo of not knowing, and not being able to go forward, either to plan or build, has been frustrating and upsetting. But at least I could write about the land, and have something to give my son - if not this place in the woods, at least a book about his family and a place that was “nearly ours.”

WWW: Your experiences were truly rustic, yet you’ve described incredibly gorgeous landscape. No doubt the trade off is worth it?

SS: Mostly. Going without water is a bit of a hardship, but the peace is priceless. There is a lot that we’ve been spared because of our remoteness – no jet-skiis or power boats, no ATVs barreling down our road, no neighbors blasting old ACDC records. I’d say the trade-offs are worth it, but I have realized how easy living with amenities makes our everyday city lives. Go without refrigeration for a week and you will come to appreciate the magic of it.
WWW: Oh, I imagine so. What motivated you to persist in your dream of connecting with your ancestors’ land?

SS: I was and still am motivated by the notion of land being a connection to our past and roots. My son didn’t know his grandfather, and I hoped this physical connection to the same land my father once bonded with might bond them in some way.

WWW: What does your son think of the book?

SS: He’s quite pleased. I ran it by him before publication and he jogged my memory over a few things, so he was helpful in that process (has a much better memory than I do, that’s certain.) Sam’s very well-read, but has only recently begun to read my work – he’s just finished reading my forthcoming book, Vacationland. He has yet to read my earlier novels, even though one features a character based pretty much on him.
WWW: I picture you in an Adirondack chair in the woods, leisurely recording your thoughts in a journal. Were you actually able to write there (long-hand, obviously!) or did you return home for the heavy work?

SS: When I set out, I had a vision that the place would be a retreat, not only in which to write, but to write brilliantly, with lots of inspiration and few interruptions. Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong. And let’s face it, a lot of excuses to not write are born of writers imagining they need everything perfect and in place and all ritual-ready before they can set pen to paper. Fact is that to write you only need the desire – only in mid-career has this sunk in – perfect circumstances do not foster writing, it’s all motivation and work. Tom Waits said it: “You gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow.” It shouldn’t matter where the mule is standing.
WWW: Good advice for all of us. You managed to infuse humor and insight into this very personal book. What did you find most difficult about writing memoir?

SS: I’m a pretty private person, so wasn’t all that comfortable writing about myself, which seems rather narcissistic. I told myself in the beginning that it would be easier if the tone of the book was the tone of a conversation I might have with my son. There has always been a lot of play in our discourse and we like to entertain each other. I was a little more worried about the rest of my family – even when writing about my long-dead grandparents, it needed to be done very delicately. It’s important to portray anyone you write about in an authentic way that honors their character. Memoir, by definition includes speculating over the broader aspects of people’s lives – it needs to be done respectfully. Quite a lot was edited out of this book, but there are still a few passages I feel a little squeamish about including. That’s memoir.
WWW: Well, you succeeded in writing a truly authentic book. The cover is stunning—I imagine you were quite happy with it? (Readers, check out the book trailer, here.)

SS: Yes, as an author who has had a devastating cover in the past that actually hurt book sales and my career, having some say in a cover is most important. My last two book contracts have included a clause that I have input on the book jacket and right of refusal. I think this cover is just right – it nicely sets the tone of the story within.
WWW: My favorite of your books is The Ice Chorus. Do you plan on returning to Ireland for another book? Is another memoir brewing?

SS: Maybe one day I’d go back to Ireland. I really loved the Irish characters in The Ice Chorus and sometimes miss them. That’s the fun of writing – you not only get to choose who you spend time with for the duration of writing a book, but you actually get to build them and set them in places you’d like to spend time in yourself. I cannot imagine doing another memoir, but there’s lots of material I wouldn’t dare write in a memoir that will be much better milled into fiction.

WWW: That's why we love to write fiction! Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

SS: I’ve just finished a new novel, and currently am working on two more (I toggle back and forth, which only works because I’m ADD). I know many of your readers are writers themselves, so, I’d just like to encourage them to keep at it, get behind the mule as often as you can. Also, If you have comments or questions don’t hesitate to email (writers like to hear from readers – it validates our existence)
Cheers, Sarah

Thanks so much for your encouraging words and the lovely invitation to our readers. We'll be waiting anxiously for your next book.

Readers, comment here or on our FB page by Saturday midnight, and you'll be entered to win a copy of Shelter. Be sure to add your email address so I can contact the winner for her/his mailing address.

UPDATE RE BOOK GIVEAWAY: SUSAN VIGILANTE IS THE WINNER! Congrats Susan, and thanks to all who entered!

Reading and giveaway copies of Shelter provided by Borealis Books.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bittersweet Memoirs

By Susan

All That Is Bitter and Sweet, the new memoir by Ashley Judd, was released last week. I'd pre-ordered the hardback online (after a few moments of debate: Did I want it on my iPad, or the real, old-fashioned paper version?) and it arrived on Wednesday, one day after its debut in stores. I began reading it immediately.

I feel a great kinship with her because we are about the same age, with Eastern Kentucky roots, are both UK basketball fans, and both consider relief work in Africa (and for her, around the world) our calling. But the book isn't really about Ashley Judd/Movie Star. And it is not about abuse and neglect, even though her childhood was splattered with both. Her memoir is about the women and children she's met around the world who do not have a voice. Riding tandem to their story, is hers. It's about bridging the decisions others made to shape your childhood across to your adult actions, and shaping your present existence by your choices, and not your circumstances. Ashley Judd has choices as an adult, regardless of her childhood. The women and children she meets around the world do not have that same choice.

The media has taken Ashley Judd's story and made the headlines about abuse. Yet, if you read it, you see that it is about grace and faith. It's about compassion for people whom the world has thrown away. Her own journey shaped what landed her in the brothels of Cambodia and the AIDS-ridden streets of Nairobi. The memoir transcends her childhood and tells the story of a woman she became, and is becoming today.

Ashley Judd's childhood was unconventional at the least, and full of neglect and dysfunction at the most. But the arc of the story is based on the choices she made: to pursue a career in Hollywood, to leave it for a farmhouse in Tennessee, and to grow branches that would reach people in dire situations around the world, hopefully leaving this planet a better place because she was here.

I'm reading a friend's memoir-in-progress right now and urging her to both tell the truth and to clearly show the character arc from wounded child to triumphant warrior. What I mean by that is this: how does the main character expand? How does her empathy, compassion and world-view change as she moves through her own pain to find peace? And why, overall, will the reader care?

If you are writing memoir, the reader must not only connect to the brokenness of who you were, but celebrate who you have become. Perhaps readers won't agree with your choices or methods, but they must understand them and, as they close the pages of the book (or close the application of their e-reader), they need to see the world a little differently because you told your story.

Everyone has a story, and you don't have to be famous to write a great memoir. You just need a lovable lead character, a story to tell and courage to tell it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Crutches, those annoying, annoying crutches

By Pamela

A few weeks ago my daughter stood before me and formulated a lame excuse as to why she couldn't complete a task I had asked her to do. Homework or bathing or picking up her mess--I don't remember what the infraction was, but I do recall my response to her: "Really," I said. And it wasn't a question as much as a snarky, drawn-out quip.

My husband quietly said behind me, "You say that a lot."

I turned and faced him. "What?"

"You say, Really, a lot ... to the kids."

I didn't realize it then but, of course, from then on, I started noticing my response every time they had an excuse for not doing what I expected of them. I'd catch myself: "Reee..." and then stop and think of a better, less smart-alecky reply. Geesh! Good thing I have a husband to politely make note of my faults! Are you as lucky?

Thankfully, I have five other "husbands" who point out my writing crutches--the fallback words, phrases and punctuations that litter a perfectly good story to excess.

I remember when I wrote my first intimate scene in a story and Kim responded with the word HAND highlighted across a few paragraphs. Good grief! Those poor characters had hands all over the place. And in a love scene, sure you'll find a lot of touching, but her pointing it out made me work on better descriptions.

Another crutch I have is the word JUST. She just opened the door ... he just finished his dinner ... in just five minutes ... A simple 'find and replace' exercise helped fix that problem. Same goes for BACK. She went back inside ... he turned back around ... they went back for their dog ...

I've also spotted overused words by performing a Wordle which can show your most-used words bigger and bolder than the others. Great tool and an arty little reminder of excess.

Kim recently pointed out to Julie the presence of quite a few ellipses in her manuscript. In turn (and certainly not in spite), Julie found an overwhelming number of '-ing' words in Kim's.

We all have words we're fond of, phrasing we cling to, comfortable sayings that make our writing unique--or so we'd like to think. But when style or voice gives way to laziness, or when obtuse punctuation causes a reader to pause when she should be moving through the passage, it's time for some serious revisions.


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Query comps, or "Mommy, who do I look like?"

By Julie 

Just in case you missed it, I finished a manuscript and have been intensely studying feedback and making revisions in hopes of sending agent queries soon. Along with making revisions and final touch-ups, I’m beginning to get really serious about my pitch—the title, the logline, the synopsis (eek), and yes, the query letter. The query letter is the short document one sends to agents (or sometimes editors) to grab their attention. The goal is for agents to request your manuscript, then become so excited about it, they offer representation in finding a publisher.

A query letter is similar to the cover letter you might send with a résumé, except you don’t get to/need to send a résumé along with it. The query letter has several critical parts. The blogosphere has MORE than covered the subject, so I won't go into much detail. For me, the novel is an entity kind of like a person. When selling your story to an agent or a publisher, the important things about her need to be clear in your query letter. For fun, let’s break it down by body parts.

Here are the crucial items that make up an individual and how they might relate to a novel manuscript: 

Name = Title (duh)
Stats = Word count, genre
Brain = The author’s voice
Blood = The author’s passion for the subject, including relevant experience or research
Heart = The themes and conflicts that make the story tick  
Guts = The story itself. The plot. The “what happens?”  

Now, are we missing anything obvious? Of course we are. We’re missing, in short, the skin. The outward appearance. The “What or who does she look like?” 

So … for purposes of this blog post:  

Skin = Comps  

And that’s what I’m concerned with for the moment. In your query letter, comps are other books you might compare yours to (or sometimes an author who you believe writes like you). The word is used in short form so widely, I’m not completely sure what the long version is. I’d assume “comparable titles or authors.” But in publishing jargon, it’s simply comps. And comps can be tricky. Very tricky. In fact, when I do an Internet search on “query comps,” not much comes up at all. But while not mandatory, using comps can be a useful tool in your query letter. 

Look at it like this: If you were single and decided to try online dating, first you’d check out the profiles. Profiles are kind of like query letters—a really short opportunity to present oneself to the field of available candidates and hope the right person bites. Imagine this internal conversation I might have while looking at online profiles (though I'm already very happily married ... to a guy I met online!):

Check this dude out. “My ex-girlfriends often compare my looks to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, or Matthew McConaughey.” Uh huh, really? NEXT!

Oh, here’s one. But … “I look just like my neighbor from down the street—Joe Jones. He’s a great guy.” Who the heck is Joe Jones? And why do I care?! Nnnnnext! 

Maybe him? Let’s see what he says. “I’ve been told I look a little like Topher Grace. You know, that guy from In Good Company and That 70s Show? I guess I can see it.” Okay, now we’re cooking. Topher Grace is pretty cute. Not the biggest name in Hollywood, but I like him! This guy sounds confident, but not arrogant. This could work … what else does he have to say about himself?

Coming up with comps is something like that. You don’t want to send the agent into hysterical laughter, or worse, tempt him or her use a trigger finger to delete the query before even reading the rest of it because you came across as arrogant in the comps you chose and how you worded the comparisons. At the same time, you don’t want to use such obscure comps the agent has to look them up on Amazon. (Which she likely won’t do unless she’s having a really boring day, and we know how often those happen in agentland.) 

So how do you find the happy medium? Comps that aren’t so outrageously successful they make you look like a dummy for using them, yet known enough that the agent might nod her head enthusiastically and say, “I gotta get this manuscript. NOW.” Here’s an example of another kind of conversation. Not an actual conversation, mind you, more like a combo of several I’ve had recently with my critique partners, using actual titles I’ve considered as comps for my manuscript.  

Julie: What do you think about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter? Or The History of Love? Maybe Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I mean, I have alternating timelines and points of view, forbidden/lost love, secrets waiting to be uncovered.
Critique Partner: Those are good, but some of those are pretty big. Maybe too big. Runaway bestsellers. You might come across as arrogant. I also kind of think of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt or The Secret Life of Bees.  
Julie: Really? How is it like those? Oh, wait, you mean kind of because of the tone and location? Kind of southern? Oh, and because of the younger voice and the mentor characters?
Critique Partner: Exactly!
Julie: Well, those are big, too. Secret Life was a movie.  
Critique Partner: Speaking of books into movies … I could kind of see The Notebook. In fact, I could really see it, but don’t tell you-know-who how much I loved that movie.  
Julie: Me, toooooo! And don’t worry, your secret is safe. I won’t tell if you won't tell I loved the book, too! But talk about huge. Could I get away with that?  
Critique Partner: It kind of depends on how you word it. *Sigh.* I don’t know. I have no idea.
Julie: I know. If it’s not big, the agent may not have even heard of it. I mean, I thought about (title redacted to protect the innocent author).
Critique Partner: What? Never heard of it! 
Julie: Like you said, exactly. So, what do I do? Do I just have to pick lesser-known works and hope for the best, or is it all about how it’s worded? You know, “My story might appeal to readers who enjoyed The History of Love, or readers who like novels by Kim Edwards might enjoy this story.”
Critique Partner: Even then, you have to be careful.
Julie: UNCLE! I give up. Back to revisions.  

So, as you can see. It’s pretty tricky to manage this part of the process.  

Readers, how do YOU manage it? How did you decide, or how will you decide what to use as comps in your query letters? Do you have any links to great articles about how to pick comps? Please share!

Photo credits: by Creative Commons License/Samantha Steele's and Speshul Ted's Flickr photostreams.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Kay Thomas and Bulletproof Hearts--with a Giveaway!

By Elizabeth

From Bulletproof Hearts back cover: "He guarded her body. She guarded her heart."

If you have lunch with Kay Thomas, be prepared to eat a lot, especially if you go to an all-you-can-chow salad bar place. Because you'll be there a long time--not because she holds you hostage, but because you won't want to leave.

Kay, who is a neighbor as well as a four-time author, met me for soup and muffins and lots o' salad a few weeks ago, ostensibly to talk about her latest novel Bulletproof Hearts, the fourth in her Bulletproof series published by Harlequin, available since Friday on e-book and in paperback tomorrow. But before she said word one about her novel, she asked about my kids, my writing, my life. Anything you've ever heard about published novelists being above the groveling queries (and honestly, the horror stories I've heard are mostly Internet rumor; real life has proven much more generous) is put to shame after two minutes with Kay. This is a writer who is glad for where she is, but remembers what it was like, and is encouraging to those who hope to join her in publication.

And she had some great advice, as well as uber-hopeful information. Maybe the best advice she offered, without taking credit for the idea, was to "write like your mother is dead." Remember, this is a woman whose publisher is Harlequin and, if you have any doubt that some blushing might have occurred as she worked, all you need to do is take a look at the cover. (Or page 67, sorry for the spoiler.) The copy Kay provided for our giveaway has steamed up my office for the past couple of weeks. Write like your mother is dead--in other words, you have to let go, and abandon yourself to what is true. Putting it in those words is somehow freeing, whether the scene you imagine involves salty language or a lack of clothing or simply your character behaving badly. The reader you write for probably isn't your mom (or dad, or kid, or spouse), and in order to be completely true, it might be necessary to abandon any idea that they might one day read it. Even if they will.

(I took a break here for another crock of soup. French onion.)

The informational nugget that brought the most hope to me, a writer with a couple of books stashed under the proverbial bed, is that those books don't always stay tucked in. Kay's first book, agented and shopped, ended up lounging on her bedroom floor as she wrote another and another, both successfully published, and then emerged to become Better Than Bulletproof, the third novel in the series. True, she said, it was a lot of work, a lot of revision--but for those of us with a first baby sleeping quietly in the house, it's heartening to hear he might indeed one day walk. Now, some first novels are learning ones, books the writers know will never see publication. I also know a number of writers with good first efforts that just didn't quite fly for any number of unknown reasons. (The frustrations of querying!) For those folks, it's good to know the manuscript might yet have legs. The lesson to take from Kay, of course, is to keep on writing; if she hadn't, then that first love project would probably still be fodder for dust bunnies. (Not to accuse Kay of dust bunnies.)

(We're still eating? More salad. Chinese chicken, an old favorite.)

Kay, not the glutton I am, sipped her iced tea. I peppered my salad, then peppered her with some rapid fire questions and chowed as she answered.

What's the now-published equivalent of the thrill of querying, I wondered, recalling the zing of my spine when my inbox featured the name of an agent I'd emailed. Kay told me the calls from her agent when a sale had been made offer the same adrenaline rush. And when she gets the first glimpse of her cover, and when good reviews come in. "And fan letters!"

Then, proving that like a good book there's a lot more to her than just what the first impression might suggest, she added that there's always something thrilling--but that there's also always something going on, not always fun and games. "Like always having homework," she said. "So enjoy the process," she added, as she does, because while getting a book published is a lot of fun, it's also a business, and the joy, for her, is in the writing.

"So do you write in your jammies?" I asked, stuffing down a forkful of lettuce and almonds, playing to the cliche. And guess what? Most of the time, she said, she does!

So what is the hardest part for you? I asked, buttering up a blueberry muffin. (Did I mention I'd made a quick return to the buffet while Kay helped herself to more tea?) And what she told me was it's making decisions. If she chooses something for a character, it means un-choosing a hundred other things, and just as with life, it can bog her down. When faced with the different paths her protagonist can take, Kay admits she can get bogged down, and is often tempted by the harder, more involved choice. Which means heavy editing, since she says she tends to write long already, maybe a hundred thousand words that get pared down to 60K for the final product.

Which led me to ask, through a mouthful of (another) muffin, how long does she take to write a draft? (This comes from someone who does not, as of yet, write particularly fast.) It depends, she said, and that makes sense; this is a mother of two, a wife, a daughter. But she did recall she pumped out 88,000 words in just 11 weeks writing Bulletproof Texas, her second book to hit the shelves. Being on deadline didn't hurt, she added. Again, she slimmed the manuscript to about 60,000 words.

(Slim, I thought, then grabbed another bowl of soup, split pea this time.)

So many words! I said. Does it just kill you to get rid of them? No, she said, because she doesn't completely. "Undiscarded brilliance!" she said, explaining she keeps a file labeled as such so she doesn't have to trash the thousands of words that don't make the final version. What do you know, I said. I call mine "Darlings." As in, kill them, thank you, Stephen King.

So what else? I asked, and she finally eased my shame by helping herself to some dessert. I stayed put, worried that after three hours and uncountable trips to the buffet, management would throw me out if I dared serve myself even one more crumb.

Do your kids brag about you? Yes! How do you start a new book? She spends some time getting to know the characters, which accounts for a lot of the words that never make the book, and then one day--her fingers hit the keyboard with the real story. How many drafts does she go through? She writes in layers, she says, so after the first draft is done, she lets it sit a week or so, then adds in more layers, making sure each chapter propels her story forward, adding in details as needed. She says it's probably six or seven drafts by the time she's done, but the subsequent ones aren't as labor intensive as the first draft. Layers. Like her ice cream, which I kept staring at, chocolate and vanilla and were those brownie crumbles on top?

All right. Quit staring at the woman's dessert. I glanced at my watch, gasped at the time, and reached into my purse to grab the notes I'd jotted earlier to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. "What's the weirdest thing in your purse?" I asked, last question, I promise. In addition to the usual suspects, she pulled out a folding fish fan, a cool tissue holder, and headphones in a tin. A clear plastic Container Store-style zippered bag held lip gloss and bottle of nail polish. My purse? Two peppermints and an unpaid traffic ticket.

Win a signed copy of Bulletproof Hearts by commenting here! WWW will do a random drawing on Friday, April 8. Be sure to include a contact email address if you want to be entered.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Fiction Writers Co-op

By Kim

Late last year, New York Times bestselling author Cathy Marie Buchanan formed a Facebook group called the Fiction Writers Co-op, a band of fifty published authors who help promote each others' work and cheer each other on. I have been aware of the FWC since its inception since many of the authors involved are among my Facebook friends, but only recently have they been receiving some real press. As many of our readers are aspiring authors, I thought it was long past time to do a post on FWC. Membership in this particular group is currently capped, but one author pointed out that anyone can create a similar group using social networking sites. With the publishing world being what it is today, I have the feeling this is the first of many author co-ops.

For our readers who simply love books, please click here for an official list of books recommended by the FWC.

I apologize ahead of time for the length of this post, but there are five authors visiting us at What Women Write today, and I want to allow them all to have their say. Without further ado, please welcome Cathy Marie Buchanan, Stephanie Cowell, Therese Fowler, Melanie Benjamin and Judy Merrill Larsen.

I will start with Cathy because she is the founder of the FWC. After that, the remaining four authors will join in. I have only listed my questions in Stephanie’s contribution to save space. (This made it necessary to slightly tweak the beginning of some of Therese’s answers for clarity’s sake.)

Cathy Marie Buchanan (The Day the Falls Stood Still)

The idea of starting the co-op came to me when fellow Harper Collins Canada author Catherine McKenzie asked me if I had any great ideas for supporting the upcoming release of her latest novel, Arranged. I was already making daily book-related posts on my Facebook author page and would of course post about Catherine's release. With shrinking traditional media coverage of books, I expected there were plenty of authors on Facebook, with large followings of readers, who would be more than happy to do the same and, in turn, have their releases similarly supported. It was the premise with which I began approaching authors about joining the co-op. About half of those I approached joined. With the creativity, hard work and generosity of the authors involved, the co-op has morphed into a group where we not only promote each others' works but also share marketing know-how and a sense of community.

Stephanie Cowell (Claude and Camille, Marrying Mozart)

WWW: What drew you to join the Fiction Writers Co-op?

SC: I knew Cathy Buchanan and joined early -- before they filled up! I thought, how great to communicate with a group of wonderful fiction writers.

WWW: Have you seen/been a part of any other groups like this before?

SC: No, nothing like this. I have been on groups that helped you with history, but they weren't sharing experiences of working and surviving in the world of professional writing.

WWW: What have you gained from the experience?

SC: I have a great sense of community and know if I have any publishing questions, ten people can give me good advice.

WWW: Have you made any special contributions to the FWC?

SC: Nothing special...sharing agent advice, promoting each of the books on my website and sometimes buying them myself -- what better support is that?

WWW: What types of things do you see the FWC doing in the future?

SC: I guess forging new paths in PR and maybe finding critique partners but, most of all, I hope we can show other writers the real world of publishing and how to navigate it.

WWW: Anything else you wish to add?

SC: I think sometimes some of us are more involved than others at different times. These days I need to concentrate mostly on my book. And I always have to be aware that though most people may have a fan page, I don't wish to and that is enough. (I deleted mine.)

Therese Fowler (Exposure, Souvenir, Reunion)

When I got the invitation, which explained what the group was intended to be and do, I thought a co-op was an incredibly smart idea. A lot of authors-helping-authors goes on informally, but to organize and cooperate formally made so much sense—it would mean the efforts weren’t left to chance or whim.

I was also impressed by how varied the proposed group would be: seasoned pros and debs, award-winners, best sellers, all from an array of genres—Cathy Buchanan had clearly put a lot of thought into the group’s composition. She also asked for a commitment up front, which told me that anyone who accepted the invitation was likely to be a reliable participant.

I have never been in a group in this kind of specific and structured way. The closest comparison might be group blogs such as Jungle Red Writers, The Lipstick Chronicles, or The Girlfriends Book Club.

The FWC is a nascent group, so it’s too early to say whether any of our books’ sales have or will be increased because of the group’s efforts—though of course we hope so. And a lot of what we’re doing is untried, so there will be some hits and some misses along the way, I’m sure.

The sense of community, however, is tremendous and was unexpected. Every writer in the group brings his or her unique wisdom and insight to the mix. When one of us has a question or problem with any aspect of writing or the writing life, the others are quick to offer ideas, advice and support.

Plus, the community extends beyond the group’s parameters because of the close connections we each have to other writers. When I was first published, the idea of authors networking was almost unheard of. There were a lot of author and writer blogs, but Facebook was “for kids” then, and Twitter didn’t exist. I could count maybe three authors as friends.

Our raison d’etre is to assist one another in outreach to readers. So while I don’t know specifically how that will manifest over time, I do know we’ll keep looking for creative ways to connect with readers that are mutually beneficial.

There has been some misunderstanding in the writing community about what the FWC is, so I’d like to help clarify if I can.

We are a group of published authors who have banded together in order to help bring our books to more readers. As any author will tell you, the biggest challenge after getting a book published is getting readers to know it exists. The group size is limited to fifty, despite there being hundreds and hundreds of fantastic authors whose work all of us would support enthusiastically; this is because each member is committed to trumpeting the other members’ books. The whole endeavor takes more time than you might imagine, even with only fifty of us—and our real business, after all, is to write our next books.

So although the FWC is not a general writers support group, we are also not “elitist,” as a few writers have said. Size limit is a practical necessity. Everyone in the FWC was once a struggling writer who dreamed of being published—I personally am in my tenth year at this gig, with six of those years being pre-publication.

Now, that said, many of us do participate in support groups, we volunteer our time, we teach, and we encourage aspiring writers to get in touch with questions. Our public FWC page will sometimes feature articles, interviews, etc. that aspiring writers may find useful. All writers, published and unpublished alike, are working very, very hard to get to do the thing we love. There’s no place for bitterness in the writing world.

Melanie Benjamin (Alice I Have Been, Mrs. Tom Thumb - to be released in July 2011)

The amazing group of writers is what drew me to FWC. I have been invited to participate in other groups—and have done so in the past—but have decided to limit my involvement in these simply because I don't have enough time. The reason why I chose to stay with this group was because of the caliber of the authors, and the fact that it's all taking place on Facebook, which makes it easier for me as I already have a presence there. It doesn't require contributing to a blog, for instance—which is not something I really have the time to do right now.

What most of us have gained, so far, is the behind-the-scenes support; this is a place where we can complain/worry/brainstorm about the life of the published author in a safe, supportive environment. There has been a lot of solid advice given, freely. My husband helped out with sharing what he's learned regarding online advertising for my books, over the years. And then, I was the one who started the Group's Fan Page.

I hope we continue to support each other publicly and privately. The public sharing of each release is so helpful but truly, I think it's the group brainstorming, the sharing of advice that will be most worthwhile, in the long run.

Judy Merrill Larson (All the Numbers)

One day I received an invite from Cathy Buchanan to join the FWC—it was early—there were maybe only 10 to 15 of us at that point. I was thrilled. As you know, writing can be a very solitary endeavor and having other writers to celebrate/commiserate with makes such a huge difference. Plus, I loved the chance to shout out about others' books. I'd been doing that all along, of course, but this made it easier. I suggested a few of my writer buddies to Cathy, and when they joined it was great.

I've never been in a formal writing group (where we sit around and critique each others' work), but, through the wonders of technology/the Internet, I've been lucky enough to be part of some writing groups—I'm part of a group blog—The Girlfriends Book Club and that is similar in that we all support one another and share our triumphs and woes. Writers, at least the ones I've gotten lucky enough to know, are the most supportive folks around.

It's hard to directly relate an increase in sales to these groups, but I know it hasn't hurt. But the best thing has been the sense of camaraderie. We talk about the craft of writing, the frustrations and joys. The goofiness. It makes me feel so much less alone and makes it all so much more fun. I love walking into a bookstore and seeing one of my writing buddy's books on the table. I love saying, "My friend wrote this. You'll love it."

Our group continues to evolve—and we just started in December. I love our fan page—and I think we see it as a cool place for other writers to join in our discussion and really be a place for writers and readers to share. I know everyone is really excited about how we're reaching out to book clubs—in the five years since my book came out, I've met with over 100 book clubs, in person and on the phone, and it's one of my absolute favorite things about being published. Book clubs rock! (Just ask, by the way, and I'll happily meet with 100 more!)

I think, as a group, FWC has just scratched the surface of what we'll do and I just feel so lucky to have been here from the beginning.

Thank you so much Cathy, Stephanie, Therese, Melanie and Judy for being here today.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...