Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The long and completely true story of how Julie found her dream agent!

By Julie

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d been offered representation, but decided to let it settle around me for a while before I talked about it here on the blog. I wanted to be sure my priorities were in order, and my last full post came from that place. It’s still true; so much in life is more important than landing the right agent.

But you know what? It’s still pretty darn cool. So now I’m talking about it. It's a long post—I hope you'll bear with me!

As an unagented writer, I spent hours poring over search results, combing the blogosphere for stories about writers and their agents. On the one hand, it was a great way to research the process—to discover why authors queried certain agents, how long it took to find an agent, how many queries they sent before getting “the call,” what kinds of questions they asked before signing the contract, and so on. On the other hand, these posts were like little pep talks. When I read success stories—especially from authors I know—I got butterflies in my stomach. Realizing dreams, it seemed, wasn’t an impossibility.

I got that feeling when I read Therese Walsh’s post on the fabulous Writer Unboxed blog: “Home Run! Therese Finds her Perfect Agent!” back in the fall of 2008. I’d only just begun compiling a list of agents to query with my last manuscript. (Yes, there were others, may they rest in peace. It was my first to query.) I’d known Teri a while online. We’d both taken classes from the same amazing author (Barbara Samuel O’Neal), were in some of the same online forums, and eventually clicked to become Facebook friends. I admired Teri’s determination and attitude and absolute transparency when it came to her writing journey. Her character alone was a recommendation for her agent, but I also liked what I saw on Elisabeth’s website—who she’d chosen to represent and what kinds of books they were writing. So I added Elisabeth Weed’s name to my query list, dreaming of the day when I’d finally send my first letter out.

In May 2009, I sent my first query to the agent at the top of my list—Elisabeth Weed. I sent two more, just to be on the safe side. (Ha!) Imagine my excitement when I opened my inbox the next day to receive a request for the first fifty pages of my manuscript from Elisabeth. I was beside myself, and after the emails flew among my fellow What Women Write ladies, I jotted a quick note to Teri, telling her I’d received a request and if the time came, would she mind me picking her brain about Elisabeth. “Woot! Julie, that’s awesome! Of course, send any questions along as things progress. Elisabeth is terrific. Good luck!” (Facebook is so sweet to keep all these conversations for so long … and kind of creepy, too.)

Now imagine my dismay when my first rejection also came from Elisabeth Weed—and one of the nicest I received. I knew there would be many more before it was all over. I’d queried other agents in the interim, of course, and kept doing so for several more months while another story began tugging at my heart. I didn’t query a huge number of agents—maybe twenty five in all. I received a decent number of partial requests and one full, but each was followed by another rejection. I was already getting a sense that maybe it wasn’t “the one.” While I loved the story, and the characters lived on in my mind and heart (still do!), I suspected it wasn’t where I was supposed to be as a writer. It was trying too hard to be like another author I loved (waving at Jodi Picoult, as if she’ll ever read this!). It was time to move on. I’d been attempting to write a new story in the same niche while I queried, but after nearly fifty thousand words, I put it aside as well.

That other story, the one that started tugging at my heart early on, just wouldn’t let me go. I’d learned a surprising bit of family lore from my father. One line, basically, with no more hints of what happened: As a teen, my grandmother had fallen deeply in love with a young black man, and their families ripped them apart. It was all he knew, and none of the involved parties were living, so it’s all I’ll ever know. But it wouldn’t let me go. I began to imagine what might have been. I selected a setting and time period, slightly different from when and where my grandmother lived, but perfect for my story, did a lot of research on the area, laws, time periods, and anything else written on the subject. In April 2010, I wrote the first 30 thousand words or so during a Backspace writing marathon. Over the next several months, I added another 45 thousand, and in November, I did my own version of NaNoWriMo (NaNoFiMo: National Novel Finishing Month!), to write the final 30 thousand words.

I mostly ignored the file over the holidays, then pulled it out to begin revising in earnest after the New Year. I began setting my beta readers upon it (I picture them like a school of beta fish going after their dinner) in mid-February. After the critique of my marvelous group, some non-writers, and several more months of fiddling with the thing, I finally decided it was time to query. I ran my query letter by my critique group a few hundred times, and also by my trusty fellow Backspacers, who poked and prodded at it gently and graciously.

I sent a few queries at the end of June, but this time I didn’t query Elisabeth first. I wanted to be sure my query letter was effective. I didn’t want to waste an opportunity. Because she was still at the top of my list. I received a request for a partial from another agent immediately, and was thrilled, but by then, the last few members of What Women Write had read and critiqued CALLING ME HOME and I realized I had a little more work to do. I was relieved I hadn’t sent more queries or partials into the ether.

A couple of weeks and some hard revisions later, I was ready to query again. This time, late Thursday, July 14, I sent my first letter to Elisabeth. I sent a few more a few hours later, just to be on the safe side. (Is this sounding like the movie Groundhog Day? It kind of is. Keep reading!)

Imagine my excitement when I received a request Monday afternoon for a partial from Stephanie Sun, Elisabeth’s delightful assistant (who is now building her own list!), on Elisabeth’s behalf. I hadn’t said anything to my group, wanting to query under the radar for a bit, but of course I couldn’t contain my excitement and the emails started flying. I sent a note to Teri—shocked to find my old note floated back up in Facebook, reminding me exactly when I’d messaged about the last time I’d queried!—and I said something much the same, but perhaps not quite as confident as when I was a brand new querier the first time around. “AWESOME!!” Teri wrote. “I’ll put in a good word for you and cross my fingers!” She suggested a relaxing glass of wine, though within a day or two I said I probably needed to upgrade to Jack Daniels. (If you know me at all, this should make you laugh pretty hard—Julie doesn’t do alcohol very well at all. I stuck with wine and not much of it.)

The next day, I received another email, this time from Elisabeth herself. “I just read the first three chapters of Calling Me Home and think they are terrific! Will you send me the rest? I can't wait to see how this love story unfolds.”

O.M.G. Let me think about that ... OF COURSE I WILL! I sent it off late that night after madly making sure all my i‘s were dotted and t’s were crossed. (I emailed Teri: “What did you tell her? That I can perform miracles?” Teri responded that she had her toes crossed, too, now.)

The next day, Wednesday, I received a note from another published friend who has been an incredible mentor to me over the years. She’d asked if she could read my manuscript a few weeks earlier. Her note said she loved it and wanted to recommend it on to her agent with my permission. WHAT?! I was overwhelmed. I wasn’t sleeping or eating much by then. Her agent agreed to read the full manuscript and I sent it off that day.

I wasn’t sure how to handle this with Elisabeth. I’d heard it was polite to send other agents a note when other agents had your full manuscript. Others said only to nudge if you’d received an offer of representation. I was conflicted. I asked Teri what she thought, and she said it couldn’t hurt to let Elisabeth know.

I think the new request was providence.

I contacted Elisabeth, and it turned out she hadn’t received my full manuscript for some reason. “I'm so glad you emailed. I requested the rest of your ms yesterday and hadn't heard back from you. Clearly you didn't get it. Please send so I can read the rest. I'm loving it!” Then, later: “I am so glad you emailed again as I was seriously refreshing my email, hoping I had this to read tonight!”

Needless to say, I was allowing myself to hope at this point. Just a little. But trying to keep my cool.

To make a short story long … I received another email from Elisabeth the next Tuesday: “Dear Julie, I literally just finished reading this at my desk! Thank you so much for sending Calling Me Home my way. I loved it!” and later, after she commented more on the story and some revisions she anticipated it needed, “I am having Stephanie, my trusted colleague read alongside me and was hoping you and I could find some time to talk. Are you around tomorrow or Thursday?”

Was I around the next two days? Of course I was. And was this … The Call?

I was dying from anticipation. It felt like it was going to be The Call. But I wasn’t going to count my chickens before they hatched.

I emailed Teri, “Note from Elisabeth today saying she loved my manuscript and wants to speak by phone call tomorrow or Thursday! Good sign, yes?!?!”

Teri: “Oh, this makes me soooo happy! Yes, a very good sign.”

Turns out that stinker already knew Elisabeth was going to offer representation, but she was gracious enough to let me hear the words from Elisabeth herself the next day: “In case it’s not clear, I’m calling to offer you representation.”

So on Wednesday, July 29, We spent more than an hour on the phone, discussing my manuscript, how she saw it positioned in the marketplace, how she typically worked with clients, and so on. By the time we finished talking, I’d ticked all the questions off my “things to ask potential agent” list without even having to ask most of them. And though the majority of articles you read about considering offers of representation say to thank the agent and tell her you’ll get back to her after you’d have a chance to consider, and to notify any other agents reading your manuscript, I had a gut feeling. I told her, “I’m just going to go ahead and say now that I feel good about this. You’ve been my top pick from the day I sent my first query two years ago, you’ve answered all my questions, and I can’t see any reason not to say yes today.”

After we disconnected, my daughter, my wonderful, wise girl who got the first post after this experience, said, “You just sounded like you were talking to one of your writer friends.”

It was more confirmation I’d made the right decision. I sent a note to the other agent who had my full, letting her know that while I appreciated her offer to read and admired her for doing such a truly fabulous job for my friend, I believed I was making the right decision in accepting Elisabeth’s offer. She was gracious and full of good wishes.

So here I am, a month or so later, an agented author. August is no-man’s land in the publishing world, so we’ve taken that time to fine tune my manuscript. I’ve completed two sets of revisions and it sounds like we’re on target for Elisabeth to start submitting to editors soon! I can’t wait to see what happens next.

I hope you’ll take this post as I did all those times I read about The Call—as a few words to the wise, and a reason to keep following your dreams.

Most of all, I want to take a moment to thank some dear friends who helped make this the exciting and relatively painless process it was this time around. Therese Walsh, author extraordinaire of The Last Will of Moira Leahy and creator of Writer Unboxed. And my other friend—the fabulous multi-published Diane Chamberlain. (Both of them have been our special guests on What Women Write, here and here.) And of course, my amazing group of women right here at What Women Write. (And my BFF Gail, who is not yet a writer, but is determined I’ll need a personal assistant ASAP.) This kind of feels like an academy awards speech, so I’m stopping there for now.

But this only reinforces what I’ve known for a few years now. The writing community isn’t a tank full of sharks, circling to devour one another (well, maybe there are a few sharks, but I haven’t run across any yet). It’s a community of friends who look out for each other and help each other along the way. I hope I’ll always remember to pay it forward.

P.S. That picture up there--it's my two girls. That picture was taken the evening of the afternoon I got The Call. They were NOT at our house, and I have no idea what they celebrating, but I like how they do it!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interview with Agent Kristin Nelson, part II

By Pamela

Yesterday I posted the first part of my interview with the fabulous agent Kristin Nelson, Nelson Literary Agency, LLC.

Here our talk continues about contracts and what she's looking for in submissions from writers:

You tout yourself as ‘a nice Midwesterner who breaks free of her genteel upbringing and says what's on her mind.’ What part of your job as an agent tests your ‘niceness’ the most?

I would say the digital rights’ grabs that we’re seeing in new boilerplates from the Big Six Publishers definitely tests my ‘niceness.’ Digital publishing transforms rapidly, therefore publishers don’t know what the future is going to bring. Big changes have happened before; it’s not unusual. It usually happens every decade. But when something major is changing, then they start doing a ‘rights grab’ where they want to hold on to everything even if they can’t do anything with it or don’t know how to exploit it. Therefore we’re seeing in the new Macmillan and Harper Collins boilerplates a lot of ‘rights-grabby’ stuff that causes agents to have to negotiate strongly in order to make sure that the contract is fair to the author. 

For example, with Harper Collins’ new boilerplate, I just finished the contract yesterday and we started negotiating on November 28, 2010. That’s why it tests my niceness! 

Speaking of negotiating contracts, what are some things writers need to be aware of when signing an agency agreement?

I don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to see other agents’ contracts, but I think there should be very clear language on what happens if the author wants to terminate the agreement. Recently one of my current clients rang me up and asked if I could help her good friend who found herself in a very sticky situation. In this situation, the author had left her agent and two weeks later an offer came in for her book. And because there was a not clear notation in the contract regarding termination, the agency was claiming that they should still get the deal and the author didn’t want to be with that agent any longer. 

Some authors say, ‘Oh, I’d never sign an agency agreement. Why would you do that?’ And I think, Are you kidding? As an author I’d want to have very clear expectations about what my business relationship is with my agent. I wouldn’t want to just shake hands and then wait for some clause to show up in my publishing contract which might have terms that aren’t advantageous to me that might be difficult to negotiate with that agent. I’m a big believer that straightforward and clear agreements make for very calm and happy business relationships. And if that business relationship goes sour, the agreement should specify a very clean way to break.
Over time, the agent and author relationship grows definitely more personal than business so you do end up becoming friends with your clients. I’ve had some of my clients for nine years. I’ve watched their kids grow up. I’ve met their spouses. I’ve been there through a lot with them. But we have a straightforward agency agreement so that if it does have to end, well then, everything is clear.

Another thing to watch for is granting an agent the rights into perpetuity. It’s not in my contract because I feel it’s inherently unfair to the author even though it’s quite common in a lot of agency contracts. My general philosophy is, if the publishing contract is in full force, then my agency—who negotiated and represented that deal—will receive its commission while that publishing agreement is in force. But after a book goes out of print, I believe the rights should revert back to the author, without any further obligation to me. But a lot of agencies take the viewpoint that if they sell your work once, and even if they don’t do anything in the future, and later you decide to self-publish it or e-publish it, then they’re entitled to more money, even if they’re not involved. As an author, I wouldn’t sign that. And I don’t expect my clients to agree to something that I personally would not agree to.

For someone seeking representation, what do you think is the most important thing to look for in an agent or important questions to ask?

Backspace has a great set of questions and I strongly recommend that people have a list of ten questions to ask an agent. Probably, the two most important are: Is this agent aligned with my editorial vision of the work; and do I think I could have a good working relationship with this agent? Do they have the type of communication style that I am going to feel comfortable with? 

And it’s also good to for an author to ask themselves: Do I want a really business-like relationship—no touchy-feely handholding—or do I feel like I need a more emotional connection? Because there are definitely agents who lean more one way or the other. 

Your 2010 stats show you attended seven conferences last year. How many writers’ conferences are on your calendar this year and what are your goals for attending? 

I tend to do the ones in my own backyard—Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter conferences. I like going to conferences because it provides a way to connect with writers who you’d never get to meet otherwise. It reinvigorates you for the process to see that you’re in the business of people’s dreams, even though you’re very practical and pragmatic as an agent. I have a teaching background and enjoy the education process of publishing. So I’m much more interested in giving seminars, being on a panel, speaking and doing a lot of encouragement than hearing pitches. Pitches are fine and know that’s why a lot of people attend conferences, but it’s not how you’re going to learn the most. 

Have you ever signed someone from a conference?

I have! My author Kimberly Reid who has a young adult trilogy coming out in October—first title is My Own Worst Frenemy—pitched me at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference. I convinced her not to write what she pitched me, but to write this other idea she mentioned which I took on and sold.
I met Janice Hardy of The Shifter series at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference in Canada. She had a ten minute pitch session and after she got up, I texted my assistant and told her we’d have some sample pages coming that I wanted to see right away because it was a great concept for a book. I read it and loved it and took it on. 

Marie Lu is generating a lot of excitement and buzz right now for her November debut called Legend. I met her at the Pike’s Peak Writers’ Conference, and she pitched me and I turned her down. She found another agent who took on her manuscript but couldn’t sell it and they ended up parting ways, which sometimes happens. But she had such a great interaction with me that she wrote something else and came back to me and I took it on and sold it. 

What are some of the biggest surprises of your career as an agent?

I have one author who I took on for a novel that I never actually shopped—an adult literary novel that we worked on for a while and never could get quite right—and now she’s huge: Ally Carter. She decided to drop the first project because she had another idea for a book and that’s the one I sold. Another author whose novel I had trouble selling—all these editors passed on it and I only had one editor offer for it— is now a NYT bestselling series and I almost couldn’t sell the first book Simone Elkeles for Perfect Chemistry.

There are always surprises. I have had some books that have taken me over a year to sell and that’s so wonderful. Granted, I love the ones that sell within a week, but there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in being able to say, ‘Ah … we kept at it! We did it!’

What kind of manuscript would you love to see right now? 

To put it bluntly—and writers hate it when they hear this—we’re looking for good stories well-told. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. There are some genres I won’t take on—picture books, Christian inspirational, certain things out of my realm of expertise. But writers should go to our website for a list.

Can you fill in this sentence? I never thought I’d rep ________, but now just love the genre.
When I first started the agency, I didn’t envision myself representing children’s books—young adult and upper-level middle grade—but now it’s one of my favorite things. It started when I had an author, who was writing for the adult market, write a young adult novel and that’s what motivated me to explore that part of publishing. Now that’s one of my favorite parts.   

Thanks, Kristin, for sharing so much good information with our readers. We wish you and your authors much continued publishing success!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Interview with Agent Kristin Nelson, part I

By Pamela

When I started writing fiction years ago—even before I began networking with other writers—I turned to the Internet as my first resource—for how to write compelling characters, how to create conflict, and ultimately, how to secure an agent. One of the agent’s blogs I faithfully read was Kristin Nelson’s Pub Rants, and later I queried her with my first project. She turned me down (and she should have—I had a lot to learn yet!) but she remains a favorite agent of mine for her commitment to telling it like it is and educating writers about the industry. So, imagine how delighted I was when she said, YES! when I asked her to participate here on our blog.

Here's more information about Kristin:
Being an avid reader practically since birth, Kristin is equally happy reading a Pulitzer prize-winning literary novel for her book club or a sexy romance novel. She established Nelson Literary Agency, LLC in 2002 after the literary agent she was working for expressed dismay that Kristin wanted to represent—gasp!—genre fiction as well as literary novels. Forming NLA was absolutely the right thing to do. She currently specializes in representing commercial fiction (mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult and middle grade) and literary fiction with a commercial bent. In general, she does not handle nonfiction projects with the exception of an occasional memoir. Clients include bestselling authors Jamie Ford, Ally Carter, Gail Carriger, Simone Elkeles, Courtney Milan, and RITA-award winners Sherry Thomas and Linnea Sinclair. When she is not busy selling books, Kristin loves playing Ultimate Frisbee (where she tends to be the oldest person on the team) and taking hikes with her husband and their dog Chutney. Member: AAR, RWA, SFWA, SCBWI. Please visit her website before submitting and also check out Kristin’s popular blog

You’ve been blogging for over five years. How do your posts differ now from those earliest ones?

Initially I spent a lot of time blogging about beginning writers’ mistakes—and still do occasionally if I find a topic that’s helpful for my audience—but today I tend to write from an agent’s viewpoint about how writers can protect themselves and what some of the changes in the industry are. Because, regardless of the changes in the digital publishing industry, mechanics of writing and beginning writers’ mistakes haven’t changed much in the past five years and those were covered in earlier entries.

Publishing is all about relationships. How much do your relationships with editors and publishers play into your deciding to take on a project? Have you passed on a submission that sounded like an amazing story for which you just couldn’t think of a publisher/editor? 

I’ve definitely looked at sample pages or a full manuscript where I don’t have a really good vision of how I could talk about it. But I know I’m going to take on an author when I can’t put down the book and can immediately think of ten editors who would love to see it and I start formalizing in my head how I’m going to talk about the novel. When I’ve read things that were good that really didn’t speak to me and I didn’t have that clear vision in my head, ultimately I passed on it. A lot of those never got representation. Some have gone on to be agented but not sold. And then quite a few have gone on to be agented and sold. And some for really good money. But if I didn’t have the vision for the book, then I was not the right person for it. I know writers hate to hear that, but because they feel like, ‘Oh, if it’s good writing and the person’s telling a good story, wouldn’t you take it on?’ But no, not necessarily.

So, no agent-remorse when something you passed on went on to do really well, if you knew in your heart it wasn’t what you wanted to represent?

I’ve only been remorseful about one project, and while reading it, I kept going back and forth and back and forth. At the time I was thinking, ‘This is kind of like a knock-off of Twilight.’ And what I should have been thinking was, ‘Oh, this is kind of like Twilight.’ The writing and the concept were really good but I decided if I was going back and forth, I should pass. Two weeks later, I was still thinking about the book and I got back in touch with that author but she had already signed with someone else. And then I knew that was going to be the one that I was going to be remorseful about. But all the others that I’ve passed on, that have gone on to sell and do well, I still review them to see if there are a lot of revisions since I’ve seen them, and I still don’t get the feeling that they were for me. Not every book in the world is going to appeal to every reader in the world. There are a lot of people who don’t like JK Rowling and I can’t imagine it, but there are.

Several of your recent blog posts focused on query letters and writers missing the mark as to piquing your interest. Do you feel the biggest problem is good writers who over-think the query or writers who submit work that’s not yet ready?

To me, those are two very separate things. Because there are some writers who nail the query letter and then you look at the sample pages and you realize it’s just not ready for an agent to see. They’ve just not mastered their craft—at least in the draft that I’m seeing. Not to say they won’t ever master the craft. If someone hasn’t written a good query letter, we’re just passing on it regardless of how good the pages might end up being because we’re not even getting to the stage that we’re looking at the pages.
Of about the 36,000 queries we got last year, probably more than 50 percent were so poorly written that they were rejected within seconds, so you’re not really competing with them. If you’ve learned how to write a good query, then you’re competing with the group of writers who may or may not pique our interest.

I watched a
video on your blog that was recorded at a conference you attended. And of all the research I’ve done online about how to write a query letter—that video of you and what you advised: to reread your first 30 pages and find the inciting event and let that form the cornerstone of your query, became a light bulb moment for me. It’s really the best piece of advice I’d seen. 

I don’t disagree. And when I teach that workshop, it’s amazing how hard it is to get some people to think about what their inciting incident is—usually it’s because their inciting incident isn’t happening within the first 30 pages. It ends up being on page 100 and right there you know your manuscript’s in trouble. You have a pacing issue.

A couple of us at What Women Write are Backspace members. For writers who are not familiar with Backspace, how would you sell them on the benefits of belonging to the group? Are there other online support systems you think are worth the investment of time and money?

I know of three:, Backspace and Absolute Write’s watercooler. My question to writers would be: Why aren’t you involved in one of these groups? All have wonderful, professional writers who dispense advice and offer feedback and generally make themselves available. Holy cow! Why wouldn’t you want to be a part of that? For example, on Backspace agents will often chat on the forum boards. Where else can you get that one-on-one opportunity in a virtual situation where people will address questions? Some of the most amazing posts on the forum are by experienced authors who say: These were my mistakes.
I’ll never forget on Backspace when a very popular NYT’s bestselling thriller author talked about how she got into a world of trouble for not paying her taxes on time. Ever since then, I always have a conversation with my authors who have large advances on the importance of keeping up with their taxes. How smart that she was willing to say, ‘Hey, this was a big mistake that I made.’

We’ve followed Jamie Ford’s publishing journey—saw him speak in Dallas, featured him on the blog and will eagerly hear him again as he returns this fall for Richardson Reads One Book’s event. He stated that his query included having a portion of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet place in a short story contest. How important are pre-pubbed credits such as contests when it comes to getting your attention in a query? 

It absolutely never hurts to have prepublication credentials, especially if you’re writing literary fiction and are in the good literary magazines. That’s going to carry a lot of weight—just like graduating from Iowa’s MFA workshop carries a lot of weight. But it’s not the end-all, be-all. I’ve definitely signed authors who didn’t have anything. Nada! And I took them on. As long as the manuscript is wonderful and strong enough, that’s most important. Having non-fiction credits, even if you’re shopping a novel, doesn’t hurt because it communicates a level of professionalism and shows you know how to meet a deadline. In the end, non-fiction pub credits won’t play a factor in promoting fiction unless you’re an NPR correspondent or if you have a pretty high level of media exposure as someone like David Sedaris.

Come back tomorrow for part two of Kristin's interview where she discusses contract negotiations and what she's currently looking for in submissions. 

Friday, August 26, 2011


By Susan
It takes all kinds, I know, when it comes to decorating. I have friends who ooze style: deep, luscious fabrics and layers of pillows, intricate and intimate arrangements of family photos and mementos, and heavily carved furniture weighted in history. I also have friends who are minimalists: retro thrift store chic, clean lines, echos and open spaces. Whiteness and air rest in their freedom, pleased with the sparseness of it all, and each item shines as a focal point in it's own simplistic beauty.

And then I have my house: my 'temporary house' we purchased almost ten years ago. We are still here and it is full of the messy-ness and busy-ness of our life. I realize, of course, as I write this that my temporary house has become my permanent home.

Like the ship of Theseus, we replaced every working part of this vessel, from the plumbing to the hulking units that keep us cool. We ripped out carpet and replaced it with hardwood. We gutted the kitchen and tiled until we developed carpal tunnel syndrome. We have roofed. I have painted. He has cursed, and I have prayed (and vice-versa.) I have yanked off baseboards and nail-gunned bright new two-point-five-inch replacements. In all my renewal and renovating, I have yet to find a style that I can name. I am not lush, yet I am not Spartan. But my house is full of myself. It's everywhere I look. 

As I write this post, I turn to my right and snap a photo with my iPhone: it is a simple chair I purchased at Target. Yet the blanket is one I carried home from Mexico in 1995 from my honeymoon. I snagged the leather ottoman in Ghana. The beads dangling from the lamp's light switch are Greek, carried back from the island of Santorini. The books? My Bible and a book of poetry by Mary Oliver.

I turn to my left. A tired tumbler of iced tea, my printed manuscript, reading glasses. Stacks of books about Kentucky, and bourbon, and the contemplative life of Thomas Merton. One candid photo of me from 2006. Little pieces of self. A new red shade adorns a marble lamp base that is over one hundred and twenty years old (I could tell you many stories about the things this lamp has seen.) More me. I can't escape it.

I think about my friends and your homes. Are you filled with the same wonder at the imprint you are making on your surroundings? Does the book purchased in Hemingway's house in Key West rest on your shelf, full of its self-importance because you bought it and brought it home? What about that shell you pulled from the deep white sand of a North Carolina beach, is it blessed by being in your house? Are you?

Now. Look at your manuscript. Are you able to clear out the clutter and have a yard sale? Or are you holding on to each word, and each scene, because they mean something to you? Look at it again, lest you become a hoarder. There are things that tell the story, and then there are just things. Determine what is the story. Cut what is not.

I'm in full-on edit mode right now with my completed manuscript, and I'm also hosting a yard sale Friday and Saturday to purge my temporary house of temporary things, leaving only what will last. It's as though they are the same exercise with different muscles. I am purging my house of the excess, and I am purging my manuscript of the extraneous bulk. We are thinning down. We are getting cleaner, and stronger, and better.

What is the mark you are leaving with your manuscript? Is it full of the extra details of your mental clutter, or can you slash it-- making it the best possible work it can be? Do you write the way you decorate? Are you frilly and detailed and rich? Or do you keep your words simple and clean? Or worst of all, are you a hoarder?

Or, are you like me: Lots of reds and blacks and browns, with pebbles and shells?
Here is one thing true: your writing, like your home, carries your DNA. Your heart. Yet you must learn to separate what is holding you back from what will propel you forward. My cluttered house? I'm ready to purge. My cluttered manuscript? Let's bring on the knife.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


by Elizabeth

People often ask me where I get my ideas. I really don’t know “where” or “how”—I guess they just come. Most of them get discarded. I used to feel like they were magic or special somehow, but once I got over that, once I realized that my brain is wired for them—I let that go. Which was liberating (ha ha, get it? Let it go? Liberated? Yeah, never mind).

Every now and then I’ll get motivated to start a new notebook labeled “Ideas” (to replace the one I started six months or three years earlier, and lost, I mean misplaced). I’ll jot stuff down, maybe even tape a newspaper article to a page if I’m really motivated and can find tape. When I stumble across these old notebooks, I generally do remember the story ideas from the notes. Sometimes not, though. What the heck did the cryptic words “owl/cherry pie/sisters/the last one ever” possibly mean? That one is lost to the ages. Bummer, that. Surely it would have been a bestseller had I only been able to stretch eight words to eighty thousand.

And sometimes the ideas are rooted in pop culture; good ideas maybe, but perhaps more fan fiction than a fresh idea. I’d love to see a movie called “The Dinner Club,” an update of my generation’s touchstone flick. There’s not an actor from the movie who couldn't use the work, really, so why haven’t they done this yet? I have no Hollywood connections, so I wouldn’t know, and it’s entirely likely multiple scripts have floated around Tinsel-land for years. And maybe rejected when "Before Sunset,” the same concept based on the Ethan Hawke original, failed to bring in zillions. Then again, Ethan Hawke was never any competition for the raw adolescent surge of that kiss Judd Nelson planted on Molly Ringwald.

Speaking of fantastic teenage kisses and the ideas they engender, was there ever anything sexier than Eric Stoltz clutching Mary Stuart Masterson’s hips as he gently touched his lips to hers in "Some Kind of Wonderful"? There’s an idea for a remake for you: "Some Kind of Ho-Hum." Maybe the characters meet again, now in their forties, and their lives are not as magical as seventeen-year-olds are certain they will become. Or maybe they just can’t recognize the magic, and seeing Watts brings back the artist in the architect for Keith, or something. Or something.

But this isn’t about movies from the eighties, much as I could go on all day about John Hughes and John Cusack. This is about ideas, where they come from, and which get chosen.

And the real answer is, I’m not sure. Pop culture, sure, a definite springboard. History, both in the traditional sense and the very personal. (Or both.) Observation (also known as snooping and eavesdropping.) Simple musing, looking at a person I know or a person I don’t, and imagining their life when they leave my presence.

Here’s the thing: the ideas, wherever they come from, always come. I guess I had always assumed, if I’d thought about it, which I never really did, that everyone thought that way. That everyone had these ideas constantly flitting through their brains, stories churned and discarded like so much buttermilk. (And there’s a story right there, from history: six high school girls at a tacky breakfast diner, and one orders buttermilk and peppers it. What sixteen year old orders buttermilk? And off we go…)

I wonder if other writers have ideas nibbling at them all the time the same way. Some writers have huge ideas, giant ideas; is there room for the little ones with those monsters taking up so much space? I have had so many tiny ones, and some pretty big ones (that I have not yet found the, yup, let’s call it courage, to undertake), and I don’t understand any more than the people who ask about it where they come from or how it works. But I do think I have come to realize that this is not normal, or at least not the norm.

The ideas, they come. And maybe more than anything else, other than the proof on the page, the actual words written down, I think the stream of ideas is what makes me a writer. I just can’t help it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's in a pen name?

By Pamela

Writer Henrik Ibsen--would a
pen name have helped?
Authors choose pen names for a plethora of reasons and I thought it might be fun to talk about what’s behind that pseudonym in the bookshop window.

Famous pen names include: Eric Arthur Blair/George Orwell; Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum/Ayn Rand; Samuel Langhorne Clemens/Mark Twain; William Sydney Porter/O. Henry; and Mary Westmacott/Agatha Christie.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King tells of inventing his alter ego Richard Bachman while listening to Bachman Turner Overdrive on the turntable. At the time, King claimed, if an author produced more than one book a year, they were turning them out too quickly. Writing as Bachman allowed King to publish at twice the accepted rate. King kept his identity as Bachman secret for years before an eager bookseller figured it out. In typical King fashion, he faked Bachman’s death in 1985.

Why use a pen name?

Authors site various reasons for penning books with a name other than their own. Some like the anonymity that using a pseudonym provides. With 24-hour Internet access to celebs and stars, authors may wish to keep themselves and their families from eager fans or critics. Others who have a famous last name and would like for their work to be judged autonomously might adopt a pen name—as in Stephen King’s son Joe Hillstrom King aka Joe Hill.  

Writers might use one name to write a particular genre; a second name for a different genre. When a fan finds a particular author’s works appealing, chances are he or she will gobble up the author’s backlist, looking for more of the same. If an author writes romance or women’s fiction in one name (Nora Roberts), she might write a detective series in another (J.D. Robb). You might want readers to enjoy all your titles, but they may only like one side of your writing life. 

Joanne Rowling decided young boys would be more likely to read books about a wizard from someone named J.K. rather than Joanne. Young children are drawn to an author who is himself a character—such as Dr. Seuss over Theodor Geisel or Lemony Snicket over Daniel Handler. 

And would you rather ask advice from Esther Pauline Friedman or Ann Landers? 

Authors who collaborate on projects would either have to flip a coin to determine whose name to use, combine their two names or come up with an original third. (Joan and I pondered this when we co-wrote a manuscript and tossed around names such as Mora Hamm.) The Warriors fantasy novel series is credited to Erin Hunter, but is actually written by Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry and Victoria Holmes. 

Others contribute to an established series and only get mentioned on the title page and not the cover, in a sense adopting as a pseudonym the name of the original author. For example, my daughter and I read The Thoroughbred series together each night, one originally penned by Joanna Campbell and then written by Karen Bentley, Allison Estes, et al. 

Writers have also been known to create a pen name when reinventing themselves and their careers. I’ve met one author who admitted to having mediocre sales in her earlier titles, and then finally hitting her stride in a different genre and resubmitting to publishers with a different name so her previous sales didn’t color their opinion of her new work. It happens. And as writers, perhaps we’re fortunate to have a certain anonymity that allows us to reinvent ourselves. 

In the manuscript Joan and I wrote, our character contemplated a pen name, and her boyfriend suggested using the trick that porn stars are rumored to do: combine the name of your first dog with the street name you grew up on. (Would it work for you?)

If you could choose a pen name, would you? And what might it be?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Glimpsing Ghosts

By Kim

In April of 2009 my beloved aunt Siegie lost her life to cancer. While going through her things, Siegie’s son Chris came upon a box of home movies. Most were filmed in the early 60’s and featured my father and aunts as teenagers and young adults. Chris had watched them several times as a kid. One box appeared different, however, and the only hint as to its origin was the name printed on the outside.

Stephen Jones.

Stephen and Sigrid (Ahrens) Jones
Stephen is a character in my novel, The Oak Lovers. He was a photographer for the Toronto Star back in the 1920s and 30s and husband to my great-aunt, Sigrid Ahrens. Why we had it and not Sigrid and Stephen’s descendants remains a mystery.

Chris decided to hire someone to transfer all the videos to DVD and brought along the mystery box. It was good he hadn’t investigated the contents himself, because the roll of nitrate film inside was highly combustible.

The man doing the conversion called Chris later that day and said the video was very old, professionally done, and it featured a wedding, honeymoon, and young children. The wedding part struck me at once. It would be Sigrid’s 1929 wedding, of course, and her parents, Carl and Madonna Ahrens, are the protagonists of my novel. Surely the film would show the parents of the bride! While I wouldn’t be able to hear them (no sound) I would at least be able to see them move and smile – ghosts would come alive, briefly at least.

In the end, I was disappointed to learn that the parents of the bride were not filmed at the wedding. Carl is, in fact, not in the video at all, but Madonna makes several short appearances. The footage is still incredible because it offers moving glimpses of candid scenes from the past. Stephen and Sigrid strolling the streets of Quebec City (streets I walked myself half a century later as a teenager). A father roughhousing with his children. Doting grandparents. The clothes are different, but the people aren’t that different from today.

I am sharing the video here. It’s eleven minutes long, but quite fascinating. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, but wish to see Madonna (a main character in The Oak Lovers) here are the spots to skip to.

1:37 – Madonna and her daughter buying fruit.
1:43 – train station, Madonna and Sigrid walk by. Madonna is the short one.
7:05 – Madonna holding baby Ingrid’s hand as she tries to walk.
9:45 – Madonna holding baby Stephanie.

Enjoy! I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

One Day prize pack winner!

Katie Saba is our winner for the One Day prize pack! Congrats, Katie! (Check your Facebook mail so we can send your goodies!)

Thank you all for reading What Women Write and sharing your favorite summer reads. Hope you'll stop back by often, and if you get a chance this weekend, check out the movie ONE DAY, which starts Friday (August 19)!

(And ... if you want to, check out my new movie review site at what women watch, where I posted a first review today--for One Day, of course!)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


By Pamela

An email showed up in my inbox today, inviting me to enter the first 2000 words of a manuscript in a contest. Get exposure for your novel--even if it's not yet finished! it promised. I don't even have to finish it? And someone will read it and possibly pass it along to an agent? Well, how tempting is that?

I actually spent about fifteen minutes reviewing the logistics of entering and then had a little talk with myself. I'd already submitted the first 15 pages of my WIP to a contest, mostly wanting feedback about the start of the story. I didn't place in that one but felt the feedback was certainly worth the price of entry.

But since then, I've done little work on it. Blame it on the job, kids home for the summer, sick dog--you name it; I had reasons for not writing.

And today's avoidance took on another name. Validation. I needed it, as I'm pretty sure we all do. But my Fearless Five had already told me the story had legs, that my writing has merit and they eagerly await more pages.

So the validation has been given, by five women I trust with my whole heart. What more do I need?

The courage to finish it. A deadline I can stick with. Motivation to complete it. Determination to write the best damn story I'm capable of.

Validation. I don't need it as much as I think I do.

Monday, August 15, 2011

One Day prize pack giveaway!

By Julie

A few Thursdays ago, I had the pleasure of attending a press screening for One Day, based on David Nicholls' novel (NOT by a woman, but we award a few honorary tiaras around here, ya know). I'm launching a new blog soon where I'll be reviewing what women WATCH, and will likely start off with this delightful film, which opens in theaters Friday.

That's all I'll say about the movie right now. In the meantime, we were lucky enough to score a prize pack to give away to one of our readers. All you have to do is leave a comment here on the blog telling us what your favorite beach read of the summer has been and we'll enter you in a completely random drawing.

We'll announce the winner through a post here again late Thursday. Deadline is noon Central Standard time 8/18/11! Please be sure to leave an email address or sign on in such a way that we can notify you by email or watch for the announcement so you can send us your mailing information ASAP after the announcement. (U.S. mailing addresses able to accept FedEx deliveries only, please!) We'd love if you'd let all your friends know, too! You don't have to be a regular visitor at What Women Write, but we sure hope you'll come back and check out what's on the table again. (Teaser: one very special guest coming up soon! Aspiring writers won't want to miss it!)

The prize pack includes: a beach bag, towel, nail polish, novel, journal, cosmetic bag, and a bookmark. Can you say FUN!? And if you haven't read ONE DAY yet, check it out. I haven't read it, but loved the movie and hope to read it soon!

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Little Help with My Friends

by Elizabeth

I bought that dress probably eighteen years ago at an estate sale in Oak Lawn, a neighborhood of then-crumbling Craftsman cottages in the heart of Dallas. Never had the opportunity to wear it. (No, I have not been invited to any Mad Men parties, thanks for asking.) So when Pamela suggested we dress up to attend a premiere of The Help, there was no doubt in my mind I'd be dolled up. The only question was whether or not I'd be able to find the pillbox hat I'd fashioned to go with the dress. (I know I once made a hat, but like I said: no memory of wearing the outfit. I must have been very bored the summer of 1993.) I combed through the crammed storage space upstairs, re-searched my closet shelves, couldn't find it. So off to Hobby Lobby I went, and the resulting chapeau, I have to say, was superior to the one I crafted almost two decades ago. Put some ice in my glare and I could've been Hilly.

The rest of the group was game, too. I will eventually wheedle the price of Joan's hat out of her, but I know Kim and Pamela trawled thrift shops, as I did for my shoes. Susan borrowed a vintage sweater set that once belonged to my grandmother and, with her spot-on hairdo, showed up as the brunette incarnation of the character Celia. Julie got off a plane and onto the toll road, no time to run home and change, but her daughter Emilie sported Julie's mom's going-away dress from her 1960 wedding. And her hat was adorable.

What the other women in the group might not have known before is that my closet provides not only for 1960, but also, depending on the age of the wearer, stuff for 1536 and 1620 and 1817 and 1874 and 1925, not to mention the leftovers from my teenage years which allowed my daughter to rock her '80s party at school last winter. A quick drive out to my mom's house, and I can garb it up from the 1950s, too. I'm still sick that the 1776 dress I once owned was lost to a faithless borrower.

I love dressing up into history. I have to be honest: I had trouble suppressing the character that was begging to arise, and only the sense of decorum the other Women possess kept me from standing in front of the movie screen, making fake announcements "on behalf of the theater" prior to the show. I had my bad drawl dancing on my tongue's tip, and more than one "y'all" with more Southern sugar than Texas warrants escaped despite my lukewarm efforts to rein it in.

What's better still, is that it was a movie that was a book. A book, by the way, that is unique to our Group of Six in that we universally enjoyed and appreciated and were awed in its reading. I cannot think of another single tome that every one of us read and admired. Joan and I overlap a lot, but there are books she's stuck in my hand with a glow in her eye that met with a yawn, and vice-versa. Same for the others, around and around. But Kathryn Stockett did it for us all. As did Viola Davis, and Emma Stone, and Bryce Dallas Howard, and Octavia Spencer, and Allison Janney, and everyone in the cast. Excellent work by all, and get thee to the theater, not to mention a book store.

I've had the pleasure recently of reading several manuscripts in our group. I'm looking forward to adding a couple more to the checked pile, hopefully by year's end. The ones I've read so far would be terrific on the big screen, and I would love to have to shop for an outfit for the show. (We are all of us fascinated by history, and our work shows it.)

But ladies, are you listening? I want you to include me as an extra when you get the contract. Promise me? I probably already have something to wear.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

To Be Fearless

By Susan

What makes a person skydive, or change careers, or stand up for justice when the world tells us to look the other way? Where does confidence come from, enabling us to be fearless?

Confidence can be infused in us, by parents, by peers. When we receive praise for a job well done, or are paid a high salary, or are loved by those around us, we are confident. Yet true poise comes from within. It is a combination of the head, which tells us we are right, and the heart, which makes sure we feel right. It is more than validation from others. It is a self-belief and assurance we know deep in our core. I am a good writer. I can do this. I am fearless.

In my past life as a sales and marketing executive, I never walked into a meeting thinking that there was anyone in the room who knew their stuff better than I. I carried myself that way, because I believed it- even when I was wrong. After the devastating financial crisis of 2008, when markets crashed and jobs disappeared and I was left unemployed, I admit: I lost some mojo. I stepped into non-profit work, hoping to give back. To serve others. To find myself. I also decided to do what I loved: to write.

Yet I found in the immersion into the world of words that I didn’t know anything about being an author, and my lack of confidence showed. I spewed out sentences and paragraphs and chapters on paper. I threw them away. I panicked if anyone wanted to read them. I cowered, hiding, hoping no one could see my inadequacies. I was not the same woman who walked brazenly into an executive meeting. I was like a child, stumbling into a new world that I knew nothing about. I was full of fear. I lacked confidence in my work, in my research, and in my purpose.

Somehow, I pushed forward, made friends, and put myself in the company of other writers. I gained a little mojo back. A little voice inside my heart told me you’re really not that bad. I could finish a passage and not only feel that it was good, but know that it was. Confidence. It was coming back, and it was coming from within. Then I passed it on to trusted readers and got that external feed that tells me I’m okay. It kept me going. It gave me purpose.
Now that I have completed the manuscript (I use the word ‘completed’ here loosely) I am thrust into another world riddled with fear. Agents and editors. Publishing houses. Contracts and business negotiations (or at least, the hopes for that). The end goal is to have my book sit on a shelf in a public place for others to judge, to buy, to read, and to love. What are you thinking? That familiar internal voice tells me. You can’t do this, it’s too scary. My old friend Fear has returned.

But this time, it’s different. It is a motivator. What is there to lose? Fear is transforming into Courage, and Courage feels good. Moving forward never felt so scary, but I press on. Is there still Fear crouching behind my Courage in the attempt? Of course. But for me-- and for you too—we won’t know the outcome until we try. It's not a matter of if, only when.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hats On!

by Joan

I’ve always wanted to wear a hat. But I have bad hat hair.

In my curly days, wearing a hat would leave me with a flat top and frizzy sides, much like Larry the Stooge. Now that it’s straight, I haven't found one I'd venture out in. Until now…

If any of you follow us on Facebook, you’ll know that we’re planning a special field trip this week. Most of you know our fond affection for a little book called The Help. It all started when Pamela interviewed Amy Einhorn. (Most things start with Pamela and that’s why we love her.)

We all fell in love with the book, which is rare for our group with our unique tastes. We discussed the characters as though we knew them personally or would meet them one day. If I’m not mistaken, we were all sharing ideas about who would play which part in the movie, long before we knew the option had been sold.

When Pamela let us know (see, I told you, it all starts with Pamela) there would be a preview in our area, she sent us an email: “I vote we all go together in period dress. I have pearls!!! And a nearby Goodwill!”

Later, she’d pepper her emails with little tidbits like, “Dressing in period clothing is NOT optional. :) Well, I guess it is, but still....”

And after she'd purchased the tickets for us, “He mentioned they'd be at will-call and I caught something about y'all who dress up in southern '60s style getting preferred seating. Just sayin'.” (Later she admitting to fudging that promise, just a little--okay, a lot.)

Judging by the texts and pictures flying back and forth between us, I’d say the two of us are the most excited about dressing up. I found two options for dresses and waited until this weekend to choose, based on shopping for shoes, hat, purse and jewelry.

My decision was made early when I came upon these spectator pumps. Later when I found my hat (see above!), I texted the price to Pamela and asked if it was worth it (not printing here because Elizabeth and my husband would have a heart attack). With her hearty approval, I paid for my hat, wondering how I was going to keep the thing on my head, and only worrying a little about the unlucky viewer who would sit behind me.

Tomorrow night we’ll be watching the movie together, laughing, crying, and revisiting our old friends on screen. I’m not sure who’s up for Wednesday’s post because we’ve been switching days around a bit, but I imagine there will be pictures involved and a blow-by-blow description of our hats being yanked off by short, unlucky viewers.

If you get a chance to see the movie, stop by and let us know what you thought! And if you were also inspired to dress the part, share your pictures!

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Forest for the Trees

By Kim

I started writing The Oak Lovers (then called Knight of the Brush) around the time of my youngest daughter’s birth. As you can see by this recent picture, that was quite some time ago. This snail’s pace is rather alarming considering that my past two novels were finished and ready to submit within a year. I can be prolific. Really.

Writers’ block isn’t the problem and the delay certainly doesn’t stem from lack of enthusiasm for the story. My biggest obstacle may be just the opposite. I know far more about Carl and Madonna Ahrens than I could fit into 100,000 or even 200,000 words. I floundered for years because I wanted to tell the whole story.

Over the last few years I’ve learned to see the forest for the trees. While still sometimes painful, I can recognize and slaughter my “little darlings” to make room for elements of the story that make my novel about more than a neglected artist and his muse. Many Canadians have never heard of Carl Ahrens, but I would be hard pressed to find one unfamiliar with William Lyon Mackenzie King or the Group of Seven. Carl was a friend of the former and an enemy of the latter. Better to play that up and leave out the time he made maple syrup with his kids, no matter how sweet the story. Most Americans know about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Carl and Madonna saw the damage from it first-hand. That’s surely more exciting than the summer Carl spent as a game warden in the Kawartha Lakes region. (No, I don’t expect you to know where that is.) Arts and Crafts aficionados are a passionate bunch, and will likely be thrilled that Carl and Madonna’s courtship takes place at Roycroft and that Elbert Hubbard makes several appearances. Even there I sacrificed Carl’s friendship with Alex Fournier and W.W. Denslow, fearing that few people would know who they are.

It’s been challenging to take a highly personal story and be objective enough to find the marketable nuggets, to take those nuggets and transform a life story into a believable and compelling plot. Forbidden love, betrayal, tragedy, adventure – these are things that keep people reading. I’m in the homestretch now and I hope by the time I finish, I’ll have delivered all that and more.

I’ve often wondered how other authors who write about real people decide what to put in and what to leave out. (If you’re one of them, please chime in!) If you know of authors who have successfully transformed a life story into a page turner, please show them some love and tell us about it.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What matters most

By Julie

Some of you may already know I received The Call last week—a phone call from my dream agent offering representation. I was, of course, beside myself with excitement.

In the last several years, I've practiced my craft and paid my dues by writing several manuscripts—one full and two halves that never saw the light of day, and one I hoped would garner an agent and book contract but didn't. I've always dreamed of a traditional book contract negotiated by a reputable agent and seeing my name on a book spine alongside the logo of a highly regarded publishing imprint. It seems I may be one step closer to that dream, and I can't wait to see where things go.

But today's post is about what really matters.

I've been winding down the summer with my girls. One already started full-time band camp last week, four weeks ahead of school start, because that's how we do it in Texas. After a month away on various trips, the other ended up with a month to relax before her senior year because she's no longer in band and her job shifts only occur here and there.

Between getting the younger one out the door in the morning, making sure she's sleeping enough, taking enough water, eating enough breakfast, arranging carpools, and so on, my older daughter and I have enjoyed some rare hanging-out time. We enjoy listening to music, talking about books or movies, running occasional errands, and so on. Also walking the dogs.

We wait until 9:30 or 10 p.m., sometimes even 11, before venturing out with our little maniacs—two rescued girls who slumber around the house all day, then burst through the front door as if they've been in straightjackets or something (which they definitely have NOT). If it's 110 degrees during the day, it might have cooled 10 or 20 degrees by then, making the temperature a balmy 90 … or 99, as it was last night when we walked.

We walk for 30 minutes, usually dropping off the older dog halfway (a Shar pei mix who can't handle the heat as well) and taking the adolescent dog for another round.

A byproduct of this hanging out, these late night walks, is my girl and I have refreshed and renewed our relationship, which was good to begin with but is even more delightful now as she enters her season of passing from child to adult. As the dogs pull us like we are sleds, then finally settle into a calmer lope, we talk about colleges and boys and friends and boys and dreams and boys.

The other night, we returned from our walk, worn out and burning up even at 11 p.m. and 90 degrees. We continued our conversation a little while longer, then she drifted upstairs for bed and I settled in at my laptop for a few more computer tasks.

A few minutes later, I received this text, which I share with permission:

Hey. I just want to say thanks for all you do and all you are. We've had our rough times, but where we are now is wonderful. You are one of my best friends (next to Steph, of course! :P) and I love that! I love you. :) So … Yeah. That is all. Good night. :)

And, of course, after I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat, I sent off a response I hope made her feel as good as her note made me feel.

And as I begin the next steps of my writing journey, I am excited, nervous, terrified and dreaming. But more than that, I am thankful. Thankful for this small, but oh, so enormous moment that made me pause and remember what really matters.

Without moments like these, the rest is meaningless.

Photo credit: len.melanson's Flickr photostream / by Creative Commons license

Monday, August 1, 2011


by Elizabeth

Three thousand miles is a long way. Think of travel from Disney World in Florida all the way to Seattle's Space Needle--three thousand miles and a bit of change. Long way to drive.

My kids and I saw neither the Mouse nor the Pacific in the past couple of weeks, but we did haul the minivan the distance it would have taken to view both. From our home here in Dallas, we headed east on I-20 to Birmingham, where we spent the night and the next morning with good friends, and then drove through the mountains, past some of my favorite rivers, to land near Asheville, NC, for several days at my mother's summer home. After tubing and rafting and gem mining and jet boating, we piled back into the van and hauled the long way (oops) to just outside our nation's capital city, a ten hour trek that ended with burgers and quesadillas with more family before hunkering down with more friends for a long weekend. The next Monday, before the sun came up, kids and I were back on the road to North Carolina again, and after two quick nights there we arose again before dawn for a nearly 15 hour trek home, my mom this time accompanying us. Two weeks, two and a half kids (my son's friend joined us as far as DC, then flew home), four different beds, and too many McMeals later, we are back in town. Whew.

This really isn't novel, though I suppose it could be one. If you were reading the blog last year, or the year before that (have we really been blogging that long? Wow!), you might realize I make this trip every summer. It's a tradition my kids count on. Usually my husband accompanies us at least as far as Birmingham, where we settle down with the grown-ups for marathon sessions of cards while the kids eat pizza in the other room with XBox controls clutched in their gleeful fists. This year, work and schedules got in the way, so the Birmingham leg was limited to the one night (though it was capped with a nature preserve visit where we got close to a gorgeous injured owl, and ended with the best shake I've had in years, the remnants of which I'll deal with this fall, thank you Weight Watchers). So it was the kids and me, books and novels on CDs, and the wide open highway unfolding before us. America.

When I got home, I printed up a copy of Julie's manuscript, the last of our group to read her work. I realized as I soaked it up in just two quick nights (ladies and gentlemen, the book is good!) that the characters undertake a car journey much like the one I had just traveled. In fact, though I was headed back west and they went east, her characters shared over 600 miles of I-30 and I-40 with our journey home. Funny how that is.

There are so many reasons I adore this annual trip. Not least among them is the fact that I get to see our country, see many of the places and trees and roads that my hopefully future readers pass themselves in the course of their daily lives or travels. We covered ten states and the District of Columbia (well, just me; my friend and I dumped the kids at a water park and hit DC alone one day). Even a quick stop for gas exposes me to a potential reader, a potential model for a character, and I relish those encounters beyond the route I follow here at home.

So many stories are about journeys, physical treks from here to there. I love reading novels with such tales in them. I'll likely write novels with such tales in them. And it matters a lot to me, to my self-image, to my belief of what I provide for my kids, that the roads I read about are roads I might have traveled myself.
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