Monday, May 30, 2011

Ciao, neurotic narrator

by Joan

Yesterday’s Parade Magazine featured an essay by Connie Shultz: “What, Me Worry? Oh Yes.” I swear Ms. Schultz lives in my head (just like the writer of the comic strip Zits lives in our house). She wrote: “I’ve yet to meet a situation I couldn’t fret about.” Like her, if someone is twenty minutes late for a lunch date, I assume the worst. I might think my friend crashed on the Tollway or, worse, perhaps I’ll begin writing her eulogy.

It’s no surprise some of my characters are a bit irrational or apprehensive, but I tried, really tried, to leave “Joan” out of my current manuscript. Writing voice is tricky and The Italian Architect at Highgate is told from numerous characters’ points of view, none whom are meant to be neurotic.

When beta reader Julie mentioned she needed to stop seeing “Joan” as she read, I thought the worst. Am I—(gasp!)—an intrusive narrator? Am I not letting my characters speak for themselves?

“What I mean is that it’s hard to separate my feeling of ‘This is Joan I’m reading’ from the story itself. I tend to have that experience any time I start reading a book by an author I know, even if I just know them online. Sometimes I just feel and hear authors SO much in those first few chapters, I have trouble suspending disbelief and plunging in to the character’s voice instead of the writer’s, but then it usually clicks. If it doesn’t, I don’t care for the book.”

Julie wrote that she has been able to separate me from my manuscript, so that’s a very good sign. (She did suggest I give my two main present-day architects more distinct voices and one of her ideas is downright hilarious—I just might steal it.) Imagine my thrill then when I received this comment from her:

“Loving this story a lot. I want to understand it better because I care about the characters and these interesting parallels and injustices. Loving all the little mysteries and how they are coming together in the separate threads! You’re doing it so well.”

Instead of letting my neurotic narrator begin the eulogy next time a friend is late for lunch, I’ll let some other voices into my head. Maybe lonely Aidan Bryce-Healy, who lives in a white-walled flat with a dog named Mack, or maybe pony-tailed Luca Tucci, who dreams of Italy and lives surrounded by his great-great grandfather’s Old-world knick knacks.

Ciao for now…

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wow, that's a cool phrase!

By Julie

How many times have you done it? Stopped in your tracks (while reading) to roll a new word or unusual phrase around in your mouth and brain because it's just SO cool and … different.

Then jotted it down on a scrap of paper so you'd remember to use it IMMEDIATELY—during your next writing session.


(Uh oh. I'm talking to myself again.)

A few years ago, a neighbor and friend sat in the driver's seat of her minivan. I stood at her window, chatting with her while we waited for our kids to pry themselves out of the community pool. (Yep, we had plenty of time to talk.) Sandra and I frequently talk books. We discuss what we loved or hated recently. She knows I'm a writer and checks in on the status of my latest manuscript.

This day she exacted a promise from me:

"Please. Do. Not. Ever. use the word 'padded' in your book. The next time I read that word, I'm throwing the book across the room."

I laughed and crossed my heart.

Apparently, the authors she'd been reading had latched onto this verb that somehow portrays a different kind of walking—barefoot? Sock footed? Trying to walk without noise? Contented, but tired?

It's a perfectly fine word—and more common than you'd think... Obviously, it's been a little overused. It's the kind of verb that jumps out at you more than "walked," so it draws attention to itself.

I've kept that promise. Not a single case of padding in my stories so far. (And Sandra has permission to flay me if I slip up.)

But it's not just padding, is it?

Last night, I finished reading an AMAZING novel. An author recommended it to me while I was searching for great examples of a certain point of view. Man, it delivered, and though it took me a while to read because of life's timing, I raced through the last 50 pages or so last night, my heart hurting along with the characters at the sad, but hopeful resolution.

Even so, my racing slowed at one point as I read one phrase: "… into the middle distance."

I really do love that phrase. So much, that I was awed when I first noticed it in a book by Anne Lamott. I don't remember which book, now, but I remember the phrase clearly … hmm. I thought, "Wow, that's an excellent way to put staring into space. Sounds so much more sophisticated and … literary."

I hurried to jot it down, and yep, worked it into my manuscript in progress. I was a little paranoid, because I was sure Annie had coined that phrase, so I played with it until it was new, until I thought it was me.

I have no idea whether she was the first to use it or not, but I'll always give her credit. My suspicions tell me it's been around a long time, though. And I can't tell you the exact percentage of novels I've read that have used it—perhaps changing it up a bit as I tried to do (and probably failed)—but I'd bet it's somewhere around 25 to 75 percent. That's a broad figure, but when you consider I read about 80 books last year, it's quite a few—even on the low end.

I saw a conversation somewhere online about the term "mind's eye." (Maybe in a forum, maybe on Facebook, I can't remember. Would love to give credit, but sorry!) The person said something like, "What the heck is a mind's eye anyway, and why does everyone use it?!"

I remember seeing the phrase myself, thinking it was cool, though I didn't jot that one down or try to use it. But it obviously hit a hot button with the writer. Another phrase people had latched onto.

I came across the word susurrance a few years ago. This is such an unusual word, it's not even recognized by Word. In fact, the root word (or wow, maybe correct spelling?) appears to be susurrus … "a soft, whispering, or rustling sound." I fell into deep and immediate enchantment with it, a lovely example of onomatopoeia—a word that sounds like what it is or means.

And yes, I jumped on it, using susurrant to describe something about summer in my manuscript. My beta readers left comments—"What is this word? I've never seen it … interesting!" And I felt a little smug and proud of myself.

Also a little counterfeit.

If you're on the phone with your mom and use the word padding to describe the way you walked up the stairs to bed last night, use it to your heart's content. If you tell your friend about what you saw in your mind's eye the other day, I won't question it in your book. If your kids know you so well, they ask if you're staring into the middle distance, you're good.

Now, I'm not trying to be pompous here. I'm just trying to issue a challenge to writers—and to ME!

Don't use a phrase you saw somewhere else just because you thought it was super cool. Don't fall for the trap of incorporating it into your writing immediately.

If you're listening carefully, an observer of the world, new vocabulary will make its way naturally into your own speech and become comfortably yours until it flows organically as you write. It won't have to be forced there. If it feels like "writing," then leave it to the writer who used it before you.

I promise. If you're working diligently at your craft, unique turns of phrase will come to you on their own—and they will be yours.

Just wait patiently, and they will pad into your mind's eye as you gaze into the middle distance.

(By the way, click here for an excellent post on a similar topic by Keith Cronin, whose debut novel, Me, Again, comes out later this year!)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Conversation With Judy Merrill Larsen

By Kim

I first met Judy Merrill Larsen when I interviewed her about her association with the Fiction Writers Co-op, and now we both belong to the Facebook group for Writer Unboxed. Her novel, All the Numbers, sat unread on my Nook for over a month because I had been warned about how many boxes of tissues I would need. One night, after a particularly frustrating day with my youngest daughter (age five), a day when I knew I had blown many things out of proportion, I decided the one who needed the attitude adjustment was me. After the kiddos and my husband were in bed, I stockpiled tissues by the couch and dug in.

By page sixty-seven I forgot how argumentative and sassy my child was, and how anxious I had been to have her asleep and out of my hair until morning. I left a great white mountain of wadded up Kleenex on the coffee table and slipped into my daughter’s room. As I stroked her hair, she smiled in her sleep and murmured that she loved me. This opened the floodgates again, of course, and I spent half the night with her sleeping in my arms.

All the Numbers is not an easy read. It will take any mother, or anyone who has ever dreamed of being a mother, to a horrible place. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it is. Save this book for a frustrating night like I had. Stop reading where you must and go hug your kids. Make sure to open the book again the next day and let Ellen’s nightmare slowly morph into a story of hope and forgiveness.

About All the Numbers (from the book jacket):

“How much do you love me?” Daniel asked his mother.

“I love you all the numbers.”

What begins as a sunny August afternoon on a bucolic lake turns into a tragedy when a Jet Ski swerves fatally close to shore. It’s a day Ellen Banks could never have prepared for, a day no mother should ever have to live through.

The moment her son James is killed, Ellen must face the unimaginable while trying to remain strong for her older son, Daniel, who witnessed the fateful accident and blames himself. Ellen’s shock and grief soon give way to defiance as lawyers and policemen who once vowed to support Ellen’s desire for justice succumb to political pressure and back away. Still, Ellen is determined to see the reckless young man pay for his crime and to heal her family’s deep wounds. But first heal herself.

An unforgettable journey of power and emotion, All the Numbers poignantly depicts a woman’s reckoning with her own vulnerability and finding in the wisdom of motherhood the redemptive grace to begin again.

About Judy (from the author’s website):

Judy Merrill Larsen was born in Whittier, California in 1960, and grew up in Northbrook, IL, Upper Saddle River, NJ, and Dunwoody, GA. She attended University of Tennessee (Knoxville) for two years before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she graduated in 1982 with a degree in English and Secondary Education. She taught high school English in Madison for three years before staying home with her two sons. In 1991 she moved to Kirkwood, MO, outside of St. Louis where she received a Master’s Degree from Washington University and taught for twelve more years, first at McCluer North High School and then at Kirkwood High School.

She taught high school English in Wisconsin and Missouri for fifteen years. Her debut novel All the Numbers was published in 2006; she is currently at work on her second novel. She currently lives in Kirkwood, MO with her husband and their five children."


WWW: Welcome to What Women Write, Judy! I have to say, I don’t cry often while reading books, but I absolutely sobbed during certain sections of yours. How did you survive writing that hospital scene?

JML: Oh, man, that hospital scene was a killer for me. But, I knew I had to get Ellen to the end. I couldn’t leave her there, so I made myself get through it so that she could ultimately get to the dock. But, I won’t lie. I cried when I was writing it and I cry anytime I read it.

WWW: You captured Ellen’s pain so believably that I quickly searched for interviews to find out if you had personally lost a child. Thankfully, you have not. Did you interview mothers who had or research the topic in other ways?

JML: You know, I think as moms, we always live with that fear of something happening to one of our kids. And we’ve almost all had those moments of utter terror—when they get lost or are sick or whatever. I pulled a lot from when my younger son was hit by a car when he was in first grade. The ambulance ride, the nurses and doctors rushing in. He was fine, thank God, but for a few moments I wasn’t at all sure he would be. So, I forced myself to explore the what-ifs. And go all the way to those depths. That was my research.

WWW: What is your opinion on organ donation? Jet skis?

JML: I’m a huge supporter of organ donation. I now have friends whose lives have been saved because someone was generous enough to donate during the worst moments of their lives. So I urge everyone to donate. But I also think that for me, in the moment, it wouldn’t bring me any solace. I’d do it, but I’d hate that I was in that position. Jet skis are another matter. They terrify me. I’m sure they are a blast, but I won’t ride or drive one. My sons? That’s another story. I know they’ve ridden on them, but never in my presence and never with my blessing.

WWW: I absolutely love the title. Can you tell us how you came up with that?

JML: Oh, thanks. I love it too and was so glad the publisher didn’t change it. It stems from my own life with my boys. When they were little, I said it to them in much the same way Ellen says it to James and Daniel. But, I didn’t know I was going to use it in the story until Ellen said it in the ER.

WWW: Do you think you could have done what Ellen did in the end?

JML: I hope I could have. I tried to be as honest as I could with how Ellen handled all of this—which is why I didn’t want her to be all noble. I wanted her to be angry and vindictive and sad. I wanted her to drink too much and start to slip away from her older son because that seemed honest to me. But, I also wanted her to ultimately look outward from her grief and find a way to move forward with her life if for no other reason than to honor James. I like to think that’s how I would be. But I don’t ever want to have to know for sure.

WWW: You were an English teacher for quite some time. Do you feel that teaching made you a better writer?

JML: I do think it did. I love teaching English (and before that being an English major!). Spending 15 years teaching students how to analyze literature and write clearly was invaluable. Being able to immerse myself in great literature day after day was wonderful.

WWW: I have a horrible time trying to balance my writing and family life with two kids. You have five! How did you do it?

JML: It is a challenge, isn’t it? And before you give me too much credit, when I wrote this I just had my two sons—we’re all now a Brady Bunch family (but without Alice, darn it!)—and now they’re all out of the house. I do think one of the biggest hurdles, though, is convincing anyone in my family that I’m working. They see me in my jammies, drinking coffee, with my laptop open and figure they can ask me something or I can whip them up a fried-egg sandwich or drive them somewhere. When I finally turned a little room on the 3rd floor into my office, that really helped. I could say I was “going to work” and shuffle on up.

WWW: What are your writing habits/quirks?

JML: No computer games when I’m in my office. Seriously. That, and good coffee (I even have a specific “writing” mug). I set word count goals for myself—usually I shoot for 1500 words per day. I never stop when I’m stuck. And, at the end of the day, I like to jot out a few notes for where I think my characters will take me the next day.

WWW: What are you working on now?

JML: Well, I’m waiting to hear from my agent about a MS that’s out on submission (and I’ve pretty much got everything crossed). I’ve got three ideas and I’m trying to decide which one to latch on to. So, that’s frustrating. I need to pick one and run with it, but I can’t seem to focus. Maybe I just need to pull one out of a hat or draw straws or something.

WWW: Any advice for aspiring writers?

JML: Don’t stop. Don’t give up. Keep revising. With ALL THE NUMBERS, it took 7 years from when I wrote the first word of the first draft to when it was in the stores. Over 300 agents rejected me. But it just takes one “yes.” Read. I firmly believe that reading other novels is part of my job (what a great perk, huh?). And keep writing.

WWW: Thank you for chatting with me today, Judy, and for your inspiring words. Over 300 agents – WOW! That really proves the power of persistence…

If you (our readers) have further questions or follow up comments for Judy, she has graciously offered to read and respond to any comments left for her on this post.

All the Numbers is available at bookstores everywhere, and also on the Kindle and Nook.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bonding through Books

By Pamela

The common bond between the six of us at What Women Write is obviously our writing. But I’m pretty sure, had our paths crossed by other means, our love of reading would have cemented our friendship as well.

I feel extremely blessed to have so many amazing friends. Some I’ve met through my children’s activities. Others I’ve known since grade school and we keep in touch through Facebook. But one core, significant group of my friends bonded over books.

When I moved to the St. Louis area while my boys were starting grade school, I met a great mom named Wila while volunteering. She moved on, as many people did in that area with it being home to an air force base, and then, coincidentally, I met the woman who bought Wila’s house the first day of the next new school year. Sonya and I connected immediately. A vivacious redhead, she chatted easily with me, and soon we found we both attended the same university in Indiana. She had a boy named Ben; so did I. She had an older son in my other son’s class. Like me, she liked to sew…and bake…and read.

Soon afterward, we formed a book club with her neighbors and some friends of mine. Here’s a list of what we read—some classics, others best-sellers, still more that members suggested--a collection as unique as the women who attended.

  • September, Patty Jane’s House of Curl by Lorna Landvik
  • October, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • November, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells
  • One of our early meetings--at Sonya's house.
  • December, The Giver by Lois Lowry

  • January, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • February, She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
  • March, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty White
  • April, Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
  • May, Bald in the Land of Big Hair by Joni Rodgers
  • June, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • July, Sea Glass by Anita Shreve
  • August, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • September, White Oleander by Janet Fitch
  • October, Durable Goods by Elizabeth Berg
  • November, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • December, The Christmas Train by David Baldachi

Racing for the Cure together in St. Louis.
  • January, The Nanny Diaries by McLaughlin & Kraus
  • February, The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • March, At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon
  • April, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • May, Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Lorna Landvik
  • June, Talk Before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg
  • July, The Elegant Gathering of White Snows by Kris Radish
  • August, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • September, Sins of the Seventh Sister by Huston Curtiss
  • October, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • November, Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • December, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

  • January, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • February, The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
  • March, The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson
  • April, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  • May, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
  • June, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • July, Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found by Jennifer Lauck
  • August, A Widow for One Year by John Irving
  • September, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • October, Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
  • November, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
  • Getting together in St. Louis again in 2009.
  • December, Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

  • January, Myth of the Welfare Queen by David Zucchino
  • February, Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward
  • March, Light on Snow by Anita Shreve
  • April, The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • May, The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd
  • June, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
  • July, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosselini
  • August, The Midwife’s Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas

Taking a cooking class in Savannah this past April.
Forty-eight meetings later, I said my good-byes and moved to Texas. But before I left, I'd forged a bond with these women that time and distance has not broken. Today, they still hold a very dear place in my heart. And even though it’s now been nearly six years since I tearfully sat through my last discussion, nearly everyone of us still stay in touch—via Facebook and in person on our annual excursions, some pictured here.

Just this spring five of us met in Savannah, home to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Not a book we read as a club, but a book we’d all read prior to meeting each other. We ate, we shopped, we talked into the wee hours of the night about many things, but still about books. Always about books. It’s part of what binds us still.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Conversation With Mingmei Yip

By Kim

Having spent quite a bit of time in Asia, I’m intrigued by Eastern cultures and landscapes. Song of the Silk Road immersed me in both. On the surface, the concept of a young girl receiving a lucrative offer from an unknown aunt seems contrived, and while Lily was still in New York (the initial 20 pages) I worried I wouldn’t be able to see past that. In hindsight, I believe what bothered me was that my Western mind could not think in Eastern ways until I was taken out of a world I understood and plunked into one that couldn’t be more foreign. Once in China, even monumental coincidences, such as Lily finding Alex, come across as preordained destiny. The prose is sensual and mesmerizing, Lily is courageous, secondary characters such as Lop Nor are fascinating, and the desert landscape provides the reader with a wonderful escape.

Synopsis (from the book jacket):

As a girl growing up in Hong Kong, Lily Lin was captivated by photographs of the desert – its long, lonely vistas and shifting sand dunes. Now living in New York, Lily is struggling to finish her graduate degree when she receives an astonishing offer. An aunt she never knew existed will pay Lily a huge sum to travel across China’s desolate Taklamakan Desert – and carry out a series of tasks along the way.

Intrigued, Lily accepts. Her assignments range from the dangerous to the bizarre. Lily must seduce a monk. She must scrape a piece of clay from the famous Terracotta Warriors, and climb the Mountains of Heaven to gather a rare herb. At Xian, her first stop, Lily meets Alex, a young American with whom she forms a powerful connection. And soon, she faces revelations that will redefine her past, her destiny, and the shocking truth behind her aunt’s motivations…

Powerful and eloquent, Song of the Silk Road is a captivating story of self-discovery, resonant with the mysteries of its haunting, exotic landscapes.

About the author (from the book jacket):

Mingmei Yip was born in China, received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and held faculty appointments at the Chinese University and Baptist University in Hong King. She has published five books in Chinese, written several columns for seven major Hong Kong newspapers, and has appeared on over forty TV and radio programs in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and the U.S. She immigrated to the United States in 1992, where she lives in New York City.


WWW: There’s a vivid sense of place throughout much of Song of the Silk Road. Have you traveled to some of these places?

MY: Yes, I traveled there a few years ago with my husband. Although the routes are no longer deadly, traveling there is still arduous, with vast deserts, steep cliffs, and rushing rivers. But it’s worth it to be able to see the exquisite Buddhist frescoes and statues from a thousand year ago, still looking fresh today.

WWW: Qi is an important concept in the novel, and one many Westerners may be unfamiliar with. Can you explain what it is and its importance in Chinese culture?

MY: The concept of qi existed in China as early as 2,500 years ago. The word means vital energy, the cosmic breath that keeps the universe thriving. Chinese believe if we practice to activate this life breath, which is basically the interaction and balance of the yin and the yang, we can attain longevity, even immortality. 

WWW: At first Alex seemed like an appealing stalker, and then I found myself infatuated. At the end of the novel I realized that I still knew little about him and he remained a bit of a mystery, yet I didn’t mind. Was this intentional?

MY: I like to make my main characters a bit mysterious, especially when there’s love involved. Because romance only thrives with a challenge.

WWW: Who was your favorite character and why?

MY: My favorite character is Alex. I tried to show his innocence, stubborn persistence, youthful naiveté, and raw energy – traits unlikely to be found in mature people who have been contaminated by the “wind and dust” of the world.

WWW: Novels aren’t the only thing you’ve written. Can you tell us about your children’s book?

MY: My first book for children is Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories. I retold 13 traditional stories and illustrated them with paintings that used a mixture of Western and Chinese colors. Now I’m working on a second children’s book that Tuttle will publish in 2012.

WWW: I understand that you aren’t only a writer, but an artist and musician as well. Can you tell us about that?

MY: I am a professional musician of the qin – ancient Chinese stringed instrument. Recently I was invited by Carnegie Hall to play. I do eight to ten concerts a year and also teach calligraphy workshops at museums, universities, high schools, cultural organizations and libraries.

WWW: Are you working on another novel now?

MY: Yes, my next novel is Skeleton Women, the story of a woman spy set in 1930s Shanghai, also to be published in 2012.

Thank you for joining us today, Mingmei!

Song of the Silk Road is available in bookstores everywhere.

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, May 18, 2011


by Elizabeth

The other evening as I settled in for a class at the gym, a hand went up when the teacher asked if anyone was brand new to yoga. Young woman, looked like someone you'd hope your kid would have for a teacher, and one of the club's short foam mats under her first-timer knees. In case you've never taken yoga, I'll let you in on a secret: those short, thick gym mats, while great for cushioning your back and heiny for certain poses, are otherwise absolute crap for yoga. The woman needed a proper mat.

I've taken yoga for nearly seven years now (don't be too impressed; my reverse triangle is still one of the ugliest things you've ever seen), and I've seen newbies come and stay, come and go, and I much prefer the kind who come and stay. Decent chance this woman wasn't going to have a very good experience on a mat ideal for sit-ups, less so for downward facing dog. So I offered her mine. "I'll do it on the floor," I said. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Yup," I called over my shoulder, already on my way to join the rest of the class in child's pose to get started.

Class was hard that night. It's been a while since I took a class with no mat, and only ever when I forgot mine. My arms worked harder, my poses were tougher, and the day after I'd learn that my body was more sore than usual.

These are good things.

One of the members of this blog was recently gifted with a full manuscript read by a successful published author, and got a glowing response along with some excellent suggestions for improvement. The offer came nearly out of the blue and, as you can imagine, my fellow blogger was both stunned and grateful for the unexpected boon. The author certainly didn't have to do this, and we other five were equally impressed and awed by the generosity of this woman. And I believe every one of us took it as a lesson for when we, too, are published.

Be generous. Give to other writers. Remember what it was like when you were starting out and extend yourself. Everyone is new at this at some point, and nearly everyone who achieves success did so with help from other writers. When our turn comes, remember that. Remember that.

I offered my mat. A new yogi might continue to practice as a result of a better first class than she would otherwise have had. One day, that yoga practice might nurture her through sadness or illness or some other detour on her life's desired journey. I got a better workout, a warm feeling, and a yoga practice that had me thinking differently than usual, which is a great gift as far as I'm concerned.

Generosity rewards the giver. I believe that. I don't think it's the reason to be generous, but it sure makes it that much more fun.

A writer offered a read. The aspiring writer took away hope and joy and a freshened sense of purpose to perfect a manuscript and send it into the world with her hopes for it justified a little bit more. I hope the published author who took the time to read and savor the manuscript, too, got something out of this. I suspect that, at the very least, she was simply emulating justified kindnesses that had been paid her when she was in my friend's shoes. The reading and the critique weren't charity, and if I told you who had done the read, you would understand that she has no time to waste on chaff; this writer took the time because the manuscript was worth it. Nonetheless, it was generous and gracious and simply kind of her to take the time to not only read, but comment, and I hope karma kisses her back.

Monday, May 16, 2011


by Joan

A few years ago I read Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s interview with legendary agent Molly Friedrich. Ms. Friedrich said, “If I cry at three different points in a manuscript—even if it is lumpy, and overlong, and deeply flawed—then I am going to go to bat for it.”

Agents (and all readers for that matter) want to feel the emotion in your story, not just read about it. When I spend hours glued to a book, I’ve noticed the scenes that make me cry or sigh aloud with joy, incorporate small, intimate moments which connect me to characters, let me feel their pain, such as when CeeCee Honeycutt was faced with wearing a look-a-like of her mother’s pageant dress, when Little Bee wished she were a gold coin (actually almost any page in Chris Cleave's book), and the ending scene of Julie’s manuscript (no spoilers!).

I’m afraid over the next several months my posts might take an emotional turn as well. My only son graduates from high school this week and, in a few short months, he’ll be headed to college. When I look back on the manuscript of his life, I’ve cried more than three times—mostly tears of joy, but also tears of pain. Like most parents, over the years we’ve taken plenty of photos, but this last school year I snapped one each morning, roughly 180 photos.

The pictures that make me laugh and cry are the close-focus pics he took of himself when I overslept, the out-of-focus scenes where he’s running out the door, and the scene where he fell flat on the floor after receiving a run of college acceptances.

At my other blog, I’ll be running a series of posts about what the experience meant to me, and to him. Maybe I’ll even get him to run a few posts.

I’m doing a last run through of my manuscript, The Architect at Highgate, before sending it to my beta readers and I’m looking for places to up the emotion. I’ve created complicated, intersecting plot lines and sprinkled in themes and significant artifacts that appear in both centuries. My job as a writer is to make sure those added details not only create a sense of time and place, but hold true meaning to both the characters and the plot. I need to make sure I haven’t missed any opportunities to make my reader laugh and cry.

It’s lucky I’m working on the picture-a-day project while I’m putting the finishing touches on Highgate. In remembering these moments, I’ll likely be surprised at what makes me cry. The out-of-focus scenes not only show him in a hurry, but they remind me of the interminable spirit he'll leave behind--a spirit we'll miss every day.

As I go through my manuscript, I’ll add a few twists to the lumpy and deeply-flawed passages, and find ways to weave in the surprising and human moments that connect a reader emotionally to the story.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bourbon, Monks, and Guns

By Susan

I always love it when writers talk about the research, or lack of research, that they do for a novel.
I’m what I will call-- for the sake of this blog post--an “In-Betweener.” I don’t write historical fiction that requires immersion into a time period. Nor do I write contemporary dramas with little to no background.
My current manuscript, The Angels’ Share, covers three generations and is a mesh of backdrops that require facts and accurate timelines but also leave room for the story. The interesting thing is that my characters have minds of their own. One owns a bourbon distillery. One is a monk. One is a negro girl in 1950 in Kentucky. And one is a modern-day civil rights professor who investigates the mysteries of the past. Whether I wanted to or not, this manuscript required some research.

Where is the sweet spot in research? For me, it’s a combination of reading, going and doing. Here’s my process for keeping it fun.

Step One: Find Some Bourbon

I started with the bourbon because frankly, it was the simplest. The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is a breathtaking drive, full of horse farms and tobacco fields and the rolling hills that are home to me--a home I left twelve years ago. When I returned as a researcher, I saw the entire painting with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
The Bourbon Trail is a marketing creation to drive tourism for Kentucky--and as a marketing gal myself, I see this clearly. Yet having grown up in the Bluegrass State, I know the good stuff when I see it. With nice brochures, beautiful photos, and a promise of booze, Kentucky cleanly packaged the desire in me (and thousands of others) to visit bourbon distilleries. And so I started in 2006 visiting them all: Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. By 2009 I’d been to all of them except Jim Beam, the granddaddy. I’m saving that one for my July 2011 trip—and will make the long drive from Texas, my current home, to Kentucky, with a smile on my face.

Step Two: Visit Some Monks

In July 2009, a long-time friend agreed to join me at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a monastery in the middle of Kentucky (and the middle of the Bourbon Trail) that houses Trappist monks. We’d considered a writing retreat and staying for a few days. Yet after 15 minutes of silence, we realized that the strict requirements of the monastery were not for us--we had too much talking to do!

Yet we were both struck (and struck is the only word I can use here) by the simplistic austerity of the monastery. It was magnificent, yet stripped. It was silent, yet spoke volumes. The monks were pleasant, yet detached. (What use did they have for mere mortals, when they had a direct line to God?) By visiting Gethsemani, I saw what it truly meant to be a monk. And I couldn’t have written about that without seeing it.

Step Three: Shoot Something

I’m a pacifist. I like peace and love and hippies. Yet when a character in The Angels’ Share reached for a pistol, I knew that I had to know more than “she reached for the gun. She shot it.”

I called on my good friend Mr. Martin, one of my Texas buddies who just so happened to be traveling from Houston to Dallas with a 9mm, a 45, and a revolver on his person. (I know, right? Only in Texas.) Could he meet me at the gun range at 5:30 p.m., I asked, in Dallas? Of course, he answered. He’s leaving for a South African safari in ten days, he said, and he needs the practice too.

And so tonight, I shot a gun. I shot the 9mm and the 45--the revolver, he told me, was "a little out of my league." And now I know what it feels like to see sparks flying off your 45. I know that a 9mm shoots straighter if you don’t close your eyes when you squeeze the trigger. And I know that even though I am stronger than I thought I was, a gun is by far louder and more powerful than it ever looked on television.

Fiction, no matter what anyone says, is a little nugget of truth wrapped up in narrative, a trigger that begins as something very real and then transforms into something else—something completely created. When you need to back up your literature with solid facts, you’ve got to find your starting point, retrace your steps, and base your fiction in fact.

For me, I’ve gotta go there, feel that, or do this. That’s my research, in a nutshell. But it’s also my life. I’m not a writer who sits at home and thinks. That’s why I shot guns tonight. Not because I want to kill something, not because I’m a right-leaning conservative (because I’m not). But because I live my life and I love my life. Don’t you?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Top ten reasons why being a writer may be harmful for your health

By Julie

Everything in your life presents as a possible metaphor. You start assigning potty training, house training, crate training, and paper training far more importance in the world than they probably deserve.

You spend a lot more on books than you used to—you need to support your fellow writers, after all.

You beat yourself up for not spending enough time writing—only to tally up the time you spent agonizing over a plot point in your head and realize how much overtime you earned today. In retrospect, you can afford those extra books! On credit …

Getting dressed for work means putting a bra on under your pajamas in case the doorbell rings.

People are always thinking you're cute and wondering when you're going to get a real job. (I bet Sara Gruen's friends and family are no longer wondering when she's going to get a real job, though they probably still think she's cute.)

People still worry when you talk about the voices inside your head—only you're no longer just paranoid. Now you're delusional as well.

People assume you're free to do lunch or volunteer at the drop of a hat. The best solution for this is to say, "Hang on, let me check with my boss." Then you move the phone away from your mouth and check with yourself. (Refer to number five.)

You start referring to Facebook friends as coworkers—sometimes you gripe at one of them for hanging around the water cooler too long or talking politics too much at work.

You spend more time naming your book, your characters, and the name of the town where your story is set than you did naming your first child. Certainly more than your second or third. (But suspiciously, the process is much the same—you take votes from your inner circle.)

You realize that after long years of wishin' and hopin' and thinkin' and prayin', you finally found your tribe. In and of itself, this is wonderful! Unless you start wearing war paint to the grocery store and sending up smoke signals about your word count.

And now ...

Top Ten Reasons Why Being a Writer Rocks!

Start at number one and read up!

Photo credit: klepas Flickr photostream/by Creative Commons License

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lessons on Writing from Kathryn Stockett

By Pamela

One of the perks of living near a big city is taking advantage of the cultural offerings. I always reach for the entertainment section the Sunday Dallas Morning News first. Book reviews, movie listings, plays, musicals—all sorts of goodies to read about. Three weeks ago, I happened to see a tiny blip on the calendar featuring The Help's author Kathryn Stockett’s stop in Dallas, sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Art | Arts & Letters program.

I quickly emailed my co-bloggers and only Susan had the night free. On Friday, she recapped our adventure. But I wanted to share today, some of the writing advice Kathryn shared during her talk.

While I own a shelf full of writing books—some by agents, others by authors, a few by editors—and each book shares a unique angle on writing, for some reason, hearing nuggets straight from the mouth of an author who once obsessed over her query letter the same way we do, just makes the end goal seem that much more obtainable.

Here’s what we learned from Kathryn Stockett…

on writing: One of the first things Kathryn said from the lectern, as she began her talk, was that she wanted to address the writers in the room. And several times, throughout the 90 minutes she talked and answered questions, she made specific references to the task of writing. “Reading a lot makes for a good writer,” she said. “You learn the turn of a phrase and, if you read it enough, you can rip it off.” She good-naturedly continued to downplay her success, assuring us that everyone can learn the craft as she has. “There are those who are truly gifted—Hemingway, Steinbeck—but really, I’m just makin’ shit up.”

on editing: “When you write you spend a lot of time editing; a lot of time revising; a lot of time rockin’ in the corner; a lot of time on Prozac.”

on persistence: When she started sending out The Help to agents, she said her first rejection letter was pretty exciting. “It showed me someone had read it.” With the second one, she still felt it was pretty cool to think someone out there was responding. “After number 15, I started to get a little depressed. After 35, I thought about sticking my head in the oven. Number 60 just about put me under the bed. But all along, I kept writing and refining.” (Minny started out in third person.) “And at number 61, Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up after 60? You just never know.”

In response to a question from an audience member as to whether or not she’s had any contact with the agents who rejected her, to give a little nanner-nanner, Kathryn said, “You know, if I did meet one, I’d need to thank her. Every ‘no’ made me go back to the story and make it better.” (To give you an idea how much I think those rejections affected her, though, she brought some of the letters with her and read some excerpts.)

on choosing cover art: The first cover option for The Help was a B&W photo of a black woman’s hand holding the hand of a white child. She loved it, thought it was perfect but the editor was concerned that “people might think it’s about race.” Three months and 50 covers later, Kathryn said, “I don’t care a rat’s ass what you put on the cover, as long as it’s not purple and yellow. I went to the University of Alabama and we don’t care much for LSU. Of course, it’s a perfect cover because it has absolutely nothing to do with the book.”
Since The Help’s United States printing, its foreign rights have been sold 39 times. First version was the UK. The UK publisher sent Kathryn a photo of the cover they were going to use, featuring a photo of a white child with two black maids. (The publisher had found it in the US Library of Congress and it had a city and state on it—small town in Mississippi.) Kathryn sent a copy of it to a woman she knew there and that woman identified the little girl as a child whose family owned the local newspaper. “They had so much money, they had two maids,” the woman told Kathryn. To that, Kathryn added, laughing, “This just perpetuates the notion that the South is just one small town where everyone knows everybody.”

on the evolution of book-into-movie: “When I found out I was going on my first book tour, I asked my good friend Octavia Spencer to come along with me,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable reading in front of people in a black voice.” Octavia then read for the audio book (“She told me she’d never do that again!”) and was later cast in the movie as Minny.

Tate Taylor, screenwriter and director, went to kindergarten with Kathryn. When they were 14, they stole his daddy’s car and drove it to New Orleans, ate at Brennan's, drank champagne, and slept it off before driving it back. “I knew when we got home, we’d be in trouble but we didn’t care. It was worth it.” Later they moved to New York together and were roommates before he left for LA. Tate was one of her first readers. He asked for the movie rights and at first she said, No. Then she worried who might end up buying them … “possibly even someone from Canada!” So, she gave Tate the movie rights and he spent about a year writing the screenplay. Then he shopped it around and got nowhere until, one day, Steven Spielberg called him and said he wanted to make the movie.

Along with Octavia, the movie features Emma Stone as Skeeter and Viola Davis as Aibileen. Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) plays Hilly. “She’s never wanted for anything,” Kathryn said, and Kathryn’s daughter plays young Skeeter in a scene with Cicely Tyson as Constantine. “My daughter has no lines but, as soon as we got on set, she asked me, ‘Where’s my trailer?’”) Kathryn has a cameo and even dons a beehive hairdo. From the stills, I noticed she’s wearing purple!

on writing her second book: She didn’t say when we can expect it to hit shelves but shared that it takes place in the 1920s and ‘30s in Oxford, Mississippi. “Y’all, I’m so bummed I missed the depression,” she said. “It was such a defining moment for women.” In the story, the women “really didn’t have a skill set, but they come up with a unique idea to make money.”

She shared that the problem with writing the second book is: “Y’all are all the room with me. It takes me a while to clear everyone out of the way so I can write.”

on writing every day: Kathryn used the analogy of her granddaddy having a leather strap with all these keys on it. “When one would fill up, he’d just add another strap.” And, even though he knew what they opened, she never did. If she doesn’t write every day, it’s like “standing at a door with that strap of keys in my hand, trying to figure out which one to use.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

An Evening with Kathryn Stockett

By Susan

On January 2, 2010, I wrote here about a great debut novel by an unknown Southern writer, Kathryn Stockett. On Tuesday night, in the middle of a week full of work, kids, and general busy-ness, I attended her book signing in Dallas with my good friend and co-blogger Pamela and her delightful mom. It was a full circle, of sorts, for me and my journey as a writer.

By now, everyone knows Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help. It's been translated into 39 languages, has been on bestseller lists for something close to 100 weeks, and sent a shock wave through the South in its dissection of race, class and women. It broke rules. It shed light on our own failures as a society in 1960s America. And it kept me committed to my own work-in-progress when I truly had no idea what I was doing.

The First Presbyterian Church of Dallas was packed on Tuesday night, women in groups huddled together with Coach purses and perfectly coiffed hair. I swear an aging Miss Hilly--one of the characters in The Help--was sitting two rows behind us. I shifted in my seat before the author began speaking. I was here as a writer, not just as a fan. What would she have to say to this group, who in many ways looked like the characters she had created?

She did not disappoint. She told us of her own journey as a writer. She talked about rejection (60 agents declined The Help before the 61st said 'yes'.) She talked about that crazy tenacity that a writer must have to continue working on a novel just because you love it--because it speaks to you, because it made you homesick for the voices of your childhood.

And she was irreverent, poking fun at her home state of Mississippi, her characters, and herself as a writer. ("Me?" she said at one point. "I'm no expert. I'm just makin' shit up.") She talked about her childhood dreams to become a writer, about the love she had for Demetrie, her grandmother's black maid, and her time in New York during the September 11, 2001, attacks.

She took questions from the audience. A blind women articulately implored us all to listen to the audio version. A fellow-Mississippian extolled the virtues of their state, and at least one African-American woman praised her for telling the story. She answered all of the questions with humor, truthfulness, and an endearing transparency that felt like friendship. By the end of the evening, Pamela and I just knew that she would love to hang out with us, of course, if just given the chance. She made you feel like a friend.

Once we were in line for the book signing itself, they let us know she would not be personalizing the copies due to time constraints. Pamela's mother, who had just flown in from Indiana that day, found a chair while Pamela and I entertained ourselves in line, declaring this the best book signing ever. Once we got face to face with her ("Dang, she's tiny!" I said to Pamela. "Tee-tiny," Pamela answered.) Pamela's mother joined us with her copy of The Help, and we all said our thank yous as the author lifted her Sharpie, ready to sign the next one.

As we walked away, we were quickly called back. "Ms. Stockett wants you to come back," the rep from the Dallas Museum of Art said. And we returned, as giddy as though we had an audience with The Queen. "I'd like to personalize your copy," Kathryn said, not to me or Pamela, mind you, but to Marianne Tooley, Pamela's mother.

We three left in giggles. I was too excited to even get a photograph of Marianne beaming at the author as she asked her name and personalized her copy.

On my drive home, I turned the radio off and drove in silence, thinking about The Help. I thought about my own novel, which I just completed last week--all 99,910 words of it. When I read Stockett's novel, I was consumed with perfection and lost in my own plot line. I wanted it to be right. I wanted it to follow a pattern, I wanted it to have order. After falling in love with The Help, I decided to stop listening to the voices around me that were 'showing me the ropes.' Sure, I didn't know what I was doing. I was writing for the love of it, for the story itself. It was then that I decided not to worry about things that I could not predict or even foresee--things like agents and query letters and the scary and dejecting world of publishing. I decided then and there that I was just going to continue writing.

"Keep writing," she'd said at the beginning of her speech--not to the Miss Hilly's in the audience, I think, but to me. "Keep perfecting it. Make yourself better. Don't give up." I left the First Presbyterian Church inspired--not just by Kathryn Stockett's novel, but by her journey, her tenacity, her humor, and her kindness.

On August 12, 2011, The Help will be released by Dreamworks, and I'll be there, watching it unfold on the big screen. Where will my own manuscript be by then? Will I be brave enough to submit it to agents? Because beyond there be dragons.

I have a feeling I will. What have I got to lose?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


by Elizabeth

I spent the evening baking cookies, chocolate chip both traditional and gluten-free, for Teacher Appreciation Week. I'm not sure my kids appreciate the fact that they are being deprived of all but a bit of the batch, but I hope the teachers bite down on my gratitude as they nibble their sweets.

I visit schools every week for my regular job, spending a few minutes in each classroom, then on to the next. This week schools all over town are showing their teachers love. Today's school was no exception; the teachers sported fancy hats so they could enjoy the tea prepared for them in style. It's interesting to see how different schools mark the week, as my experience with it is limited to the school my son has attended since kindergarten. I have to say, we do it well, and hats off to the women who organize it all. Me, I just bake.

Well, bake, and appreciate. I sincerely do value everything done for my kids in their school, the hours of effort put forth on their behalf, the care and concern and humor that shroud them every day when they leave my roof for the shelter of school. I count myself, and my kids, lucky to be members of our school community, and I remind them of this probably a lot more often than they care to hear. (The kids, not the teachers; they likely don't hear it enough.)

The whole week, the gala and the cookies and, yes, even the hats have me remembering my own teachers. Not that it's a stretch. I have a pretty detailed memory; I can even give you my schedule from seventh grade, A period Performing Arts through G Period Geography. Teachers, too--those would be Mrs. Johnson and Mr. Madden, respectively. But they are far from the only teachers I remember, and I have to wonder if the sharp impression left on me from my teachers grades two through high school and college too--how much did they shape the hopes and plans that bring me to blog here tonight?

I love to tell third and fourth graders that my own third and fourth grade teachers came to my wedding. I decline to tell the second graders about my own seven-year-old self, snickering at recess over my oh-so-elegant teacher that year digging in her nose with her pinkie nail. I remember my only male teacher in elementary school, a man I ran into at a gas station at age nineteen, and how he challenged me to work harder than was my inclination. Forced me, really. My sixth grade teacher became my junior high counselor, and I was just vain enough to wonder if part of the reason was to keep up with me. (It wasn't, but she did, and she made a difference.) I met my favorite teacher from high school the very first day, almost got thrown out of her class, and then was invited to stay when she read a bit of my writing, thus charting the entire course of my high school life. She didn't make it to my wedding, as her closest colleague had a retirement luncheon the same day, but she did take me and my then-fiance to a dainty tea room a week before and he managed to be gracious and not break the cups. In college, the first week I met two teachers who would shape my college years, and I still get cards from them both every December. I remember them all, and I appreciate what all of them did for me.

I always felt like teachers took just a little more interest in me, spent a little more time. Maybe they did, but I think what is more likely is that I was blessed with excellent teachers who really cared. I hope all their students felt as I did: set apart; valued for their minds; special. I believe both my kids are receiving this same gift from their teachers now, and so as I cream butter and spoon out dough, I am grateful.

Because without some of those teachers along the way, I don't know that I ever would have had the guts to finally write down the stories I always wanted to write, and say to the world, I am a writer.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Dual Timelines

by Joan

I love stories with dual timelines. I love the richness of discovering how the past shapes a person, how a sheltered upbringing might hinder intellectual growth or a childhood trauma might strengthen character.

This weekend I witnessed my own family’s layers of history unfold. It was a complicated weekend, planned in two days by my ever-efficient meeting planner sister.

After an unfortunate mix-up, we learned with only four days notice that my mother’s only brother was having a 90th birthday party. When my mom first called to tell me about it, she knew what the rest of us did not—that she would find a way to be at that party. Never mind that her memory isn’t what it used to be, that she’s been in assisted living for the past several years, that all four of her daughters work full-time and then some. I reasoned with her to explain, as much as we wanted to take her, we didn’t think it was feasible at this late date. Eventually she gave in, somewhat defeated, and I went to sleep feeling like a heel.

Why not? I thought the next morning. My calendar was relatively free, despite my niece’s first communion, and in a few minutes, I emailed my sisters of my intentions. Before I could say direct flight, the efficient sister had booked a roundtrip to BWI, two roundtrips to Providence, Rhode Island, with a Saturday night hotel near the party, and bookend hotel rooms for my Friday and Sunday nights at BWI.

Walking toward baggage claim I saw my uncle standing near a tile pillar, a tiny but striking man even at 90, his shoulders lifting slightly as he saw my mother. I followed behind her as she approached him, the years they hadn’t seen each other floating away like bad dreams. Seeing the two of them together filled me with joy, but hearing their stories as they reminisced, sealed the treasure in my heart forever.

My mom tells of their running away together at 10 and 12, leaving Washington, D.C., en route to Richmond, Virginia where their father lived. They got as far as Alexandria and were picked up by the police, who were more interested in ensuring their safety than scolding, and promptly gave them ice cream cones to wait for their anxious mother. I pictured the two of them, roaming the streets together, big brother protecting little sister, each likely too afraid of disappointing the other to turn around and go home.

Later I learned of his marrying my aunt on the eve of shipping out for the war in 1941 and that my mother and her cousin accompanied a lonely wife on her honeymoon. I also pressed my uncle for information on the long-suspected family bootlegging operation, convinced he must have picked up details as a child living in close proximity to his father and four uncles.

We thumbed through pictures I’d spread in front of us, pictures I’d culled from my mother’s house when we moved her out. There was my mother at sixteen, flashing a smile I’ve never seen. Another layer showed my uncle in his navy uniform, still another, a grandmother surrounded by her two children's families. Best of all, the most recent layer of history, a sister and brother at 88 and 90.
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