Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Heavens and Literary Travels

By Susan

I've been spoiling myself lately with my favorite gift: travel. Along my paths over the past few months I've made the extra effort to visit my favorite independent bookstores. In an America where the indie is becoming a thing of the past, I've paid special attention to these hallowed spaces. Here's a quick list of independent books stores I've visited from west to east in the past four months:

Powell's, Portland, Oregon

As far as independents go, this one may be the big papa. There are six locations in Portland, housing over four million books. According to Wikipedia, Powell's buys over 3,000 used books per day. Annual revenues top forty-five million.

I spent only an hour in Powell's, mainly wandering, attempting to find my bearings. With 68,000 square feet, maybe you can understand why. If I'd had the opportunity, I could have stayed there for days.

What I bought: Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver (for my flight home.)

Book People, Austin, Texas
This store is a dream. In a great location, walkable to notable Austin landmarks (and Amy's Ice Cream) and filled with year-round author events, Book People delivers. It's spacious, clean, and has a great children's department. 

It's also full of Texas titles and local history. Austin, like Portland, is a great city with its own spirit, and Book People reflects that. 

What I bought: The Mark of Athena, Rick Riordan, (for my thirteen-year-old daughter.)

Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, Kentucky
If I had a bookstore home, I would pick this one. With current renovations underway, the store is quickly changing shape. I haven't lived in Lexington since 1991 (and left Kentucky in 2000), yet this former indoor mall-turned kick-ass bookstore will always be my favorite.

What I bought: Head Off and Split, by Nikky Finney (Poetry collection, a gift to self.)

Malaprops, Asheville, North Carolina
I hadn't been to Asheville in years, and this was  the first place I wanted to go. Malaprops, as my nephew once told me, "has good mojo."

We met good friends and wandered for an hour or so. I noted with sadness that we missed Barbara Kingsolver's Asheville event by two days, and Ron Rash's reading by only four.

I love the feel of this store. They have a great selection and love for Southern Literature and North Carolina writers, as well as a funky, irreverent air that feels happy. This one is one of my favorites.

What I bought: Reached, by Ally Conde (for my thirteen year old daughter. We happened to be there on the day of its release. How could I say no?)

On a sidenote: we all give books for Christmas. I couldn't help but note that all four of these wonderful independent bookstores have robust websites and online shopping carts. I included their links above. Why not consider buying online from an independent this holiday season and support local businesses? Better yet, if you live near one of these fabulous stores, take advantage of it, and buy direct. You'll get the added benefit of personalized attention, attentive staff members, and the joy of shopping in a little slice of book heaven. Take advantage of it while you can!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Did You Hear the One About the Dishwasher and the Rotator Cuff?

By Elizabeth

I love NPR. I am hopelessly out of touch with any and all current popular music because I really don’t have a sound system in my home, don’t own an i-Pod, and the car radio is set to KERA at all times. What can I say? I’d rather hear Terry Gross or Krys Boyd talk to an author than listen to Lady Gaga belt out her latest.

Not long ago, I was richly awarded for my preference as one of the regular shows interviewed William J. Broad about his book The Science of Yoga. A few weeks later, I saw a copy at the library and swiftly yanked it off the shelf. And perusing through it, one of the things I learned is that it’s possible to fix a rotator cuff with certain yoga poses, though alas! It came too late for my mom’s husband who’d had surgery for his this summer. Meh, I don’t see him downward-dogging anyway.

As much as I love NPR, that might be how much I hate my dishwasher. We’ve owned this house for 12 years, and this is the third dishwasher to inhabit it along with us. Annoying, to say the least, especially since this latest one—only about three years old!—is a fairly chi-chi brand, and I spent more on it than my normally cheap heart would permit, and yet, and yet—dishes were coming out not only not clean, but actually dirty. Food-crusted. Frustrating!!

So we got on the Internet to research new ones, found one that again challenged my frugality, and headed over to the big box to take a look at the innards. Not bad, but the store couldn’t get the model in the color we preferred, so I called the husband to have him order it online. Talk to me when you get home, he said. Turns out there were some issues in the reviews on the manufacturer’s site. Basically, good machine, but problems about a year or so in. Did I mention this would be the third dishwasher we’d replaced in a dozen years?

Back to the drawing board, but first, I decided to see if the Internet would provide not only info on new machines, but maybe some hints on what might fix the problem on this one. Do this, one site advised, and try that, said another. Well the “this” wasn’t the problem I knew (hard water issues), but “that” turned out to be revealing. And right. And all by my lonesome, with nothing more than water and a pile of toothpicks, I fixed that darn machine while the family watched The Simpsons in the other room. (We are bad parents and let our kids watch inappropriate television. Not so bad now at 12 and 14, but at four and six, Bart probably isn’t an ideal role model.)

Just like the yoga pose and a little investigation fixed the guy’s shoulder, so a little investigation and simple tools and time fixed my dish issue. So I thought about my WIP.

I’ve been flirting with the idea of putting it aside and picking up a new work. Some fresh ideas have been brewing, and although I really am within maybe a score or two thousand words from finishing the first (fairly polished) draft, those words have been elusive to say the least. There’s a knotty problem with the plot I just haven’t been able to figure out, and it’s tempting to just dump the whole thing in favor of a clean start elsewhere.

Except. Rotator cuff surgery is painful and requires extensive physical therapy. The yoga pose can be done in mere minutes every day. A new dishwasher is expensive and I hate waiting for the installation guys to show up, and there’s no guarantee with my luck the replacement would be any better than its three ancestors. Except I’ve already poured hours of work and thought and love into this story, and it’s really so close I can almost see it. And all it takes is a little extra effort, a little trying something that’s maybe obvious but still oblique, a little time to do the thing that makes what’s already there work the way it can and should.

So I’m not dumping my dishwasher and I’m not dumping my WIP. I know now how to fix the machine if it balks again, and the truth is, I know how to fix what is wrong with the manuscript, or at least how to get there. I just need to take the extra effort, turn the corner, and save myself from…well, myself. The work is worth it. Just like the cash, just like a healthy range of motion, just like anything. Fix what you can the best way first. The stores, the hospitals, and indeed the new ideas—they’ll all be there if fixing it at home fails. But chances are? It won’t.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Writers' Center

by Joan

Over fifteen years ago, I began my first novel-length manuscript. As I write this post, my fourth is out in the world, auditioning for a wider audience.

Since that first story lured me into this crazy profession, I have chased words toward the paradise of perfection, always striving to lay down my vision of truth on the page. With each manuscript my writing grows, but still my words fall short and I realize I’m still learning. I will always be learning.

Over the years, I’ve participated in several workshops. Each has filled my writing stores with additional tools and left me inspired to keep going. In my first 8-week novel workshop at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, Maryland, I was fortunate to study under Barbara Esstman, long-time instructor and author of two beautiful novels, The Other Anna and Night Ride Home. Before reading my pages aloud to a group of ten strangers, I suffered from an odd combination of nerves and shy confidence. I think back to that first workshop, at my naïveté. I had much to learn about my craft.

Since then, I moved to Texas, joined a critique group and discovered my amazing What Women Write comrades. Each of my writing partners has boosted me up, both in skill and in spirit. But I’m still chasing paradise, still seeking to improve.

I recently completed an online Advanced Novel Workshop at the Writers' Center with instructor Jenny Moore, a novelist and editor whose deep critique of my first 50 pages prepared me to tackle the rest of my manuscript for new submissions. In Jenny’s workshop, I was fortunate to meet insightful classmates who were generous with their time and detailed in their critiques.

Spending concentrated time in a room with other serious writers is ideal, but online workshops have something to offer, too.
  • To get the most out of your workshop, engage online with the instructor and other participants. Study the instructor’s thoughts on craft, participate in the discussions, apply the exercises to your current project and maybe start something new.
  • As with in-person critique, be polite but honest. Commenting in a virtual forum does not allow for tone or facial expression, so make sure your words reflect your intentions. As Jenny wrote, "Remember to approach each piece of work on its own terms. What do you think is possible for THIS work to be its best self?"  
  • Your unique perspective adds value. Don’t be intimidated because other participants are more insightful or more eloquent than you. You take your writing seriously or you wouldn’t be there—you read widely and recognize a good story when you see it.
  • Show up at your computer and stick to the deadlines. We all want our work critiqued, but others rely on your feedback for theirs. If you’ve committed to eight weeks, participate in every one.
  • Accept critique with humility, patience and appreciation. In an online workshop, you benefit from the privacy to process comments and suggestions. Don't sulk or become defensive--look for the gold in their advice.
  • Appreciate various perspectives and advice from those writing in other genres.
  • Study not only the critique of your own work, but also that of your classmates. 

If you’re looking to take your writing to the next level, I highly recommend taking a workshop, whether with the brilliant instructors and participants at The Writers’ Center or with another venue. For those of you in Maryland, Jenny Moore is teaching a 15-week intensive Master Novel Workshop, beginning in January. If I still lived on the east coast, I would apply. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Here in Texas, the women of WhatWomenWrite are busy finishing up work, preparing tomorrow's meal, traveling to visit family and even shuttling children to Nutcracker rehearsals. Probably the same as many of our American readers.

Turkey crossing the road by TomSwift46
Even if you live outside of our country, we hope this week--and every week--you find much for which you are thankful. We'll resume our regular MWF posting schedule next Monday. In the meantime, please be safe and enjoy your time spent with friends and family!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Your Writer Inbox

By Pamela

I've been pretty diligent lately at unsubscribing to some email lists. You know how it goes. You buy something online; you end up on their list. But some mailing lists I make sure I stay on and those are writing-related organizations I feel are helpful, informative and relevant.

Flickr image by JellyWatson
Before I share those, a quick word about email accounts. You might want to set up a separate email account  strictly for writing correspondence. That's a particularly a good idea if you're querying and your current email account features a quirky made-for-you name such as or, of course, you're querying a book about cats. I'd suggest some version of your name as the prefix. And if your name is particularly tricky to spell, you might even consider an abbreviated version of it. The last thing you want is an agent or editor trying to reach you and misspelling your name.

Here are some writer-based organizations from which I receive regular emails:

  • Writer's Digest--With Writer's Digest you can discover a wealth of information in one click. Get a weekly writing prompt; sign up for a class, webinar or tutorial; enter a writing contest and so much more. No membership required.
  • The Writer's Center--Even without becoming a member of this organization, you can sign up to receive email alerts about upcoming classes being offered. I've not taken a class yet, but Joan did and found it extremely helpful, so I think I can recommend this source without hesitation.
  • Publishers Marketplace--Every day I get PublishersLunch (and then on Wednesday LunchWeekly) in my inbox. Publishers Marketplace will send you these to keep you informed about the latest book deals and business changes in the ever-evolving publishing world at no charge. Pony up $20 a month to receive the deluxe version for even more insight. 
  • The Writer--This is the online version of the magazine (and the only one I subscribe to) but you don't have to have a subscription to read a sampling of the content offered online. I always learn something useful here.
  • Good Reads--While not a 'writer-based' site, GoodReads does keep me in tuned to what books are trending, what people are reading and what writers' blog posts I might be missing. And you can't be a good writer if you're not reading, so GoodReads can be considered a writer's tool, nonetheless. 
  • WriterUnboxed--Writer Unboxed is an online community of writers, agents and others who write about the craft and business of fiction. On their home page, you'll find a bright green tab on the far left that reads: WU Extras. Click on it and a pull-down menu will appear. Then select the WU Monthly Newsletter to get signed up. Take a moment to check out their most-helpful blog while you're there. 

That's a quick roundup of my inbox. What do you find helpful in yours?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Choose Your Lens

By Susan

            Last week, I left my Texas home and flew to the Pacific Northwest to spend a week with a friend.
            We’re both writers with big hopes of where our words might go one day. We’d planned a writers’ retreat on the cusp of winter and set out together with her 150 lb. Bernese Mountain dog, Obi, heading toward the coast.
           We drove from Seattle to Cannon Beach, Oregon, and stayed a week on the beach. I woke each morning to foggy views of Haystack Rock and the Needles, and each day, between writing sessions, Tia, Obi and I would walk the beach, hike a cove, or walk the expanse of the nearby state park. Every day, the view was different. As the week progressed and my words piled up on the pages, I got to see the town under the cover of fog, a hard rain, and blanketed by beautiful, warm sunshine. On our last day, driving up the coast, we even went through two inches of accumulated snow in the town of Seaside.
            My friend has spent many years on this beach, with this ever-changing view. We marveled each night at the variations of wide, expansive sunsets. When we walked, we got close to starfish clinging to rocks, sand dollars scattered like manna, and tiny, transparent creatures known as gooseberries rolling in the surf.
            This summer, when Tia and I met, we also met Nikky Finney, a Southern Poet who won the National Book Award for poetry this year. (For a little more on her, see her acceptance speech for the award here. If you haven't already seen it, please watch. And yes, she is incredible.) She said something about writing that we both remembered vividly. To paraphrase, here is her advice.
            When you choose to write, you must choose your lens, just like a photographer does when choosing the right shot. Do you need a wide-angle? Step back from your work and make sure your big picture encompasses your themes, theories, and goals. Go panoramic, and see the story from all angles. Then get up close. Observe the pores of the skin. Get tight with your characters and your plot. Then? When you think you know what you are writing? Take it underwater.
            Both of us made headway into our writing last week. As Tia perfected a short story for a contest entry, she also tackled her “fun book,” a memoir, and a few chapters on her “hard book,” a dark coming-of-age novel. I sat by an open window, listened to the surf, wrapped myself in a blanket, and got 25% through my rewrites and edits in five days time.
            And somehow, by changing the lenses on my writing, my story began shaping itself into a different form, as well. 
           By writing with the ocean in my ear, the fog in my lungs, the rain on my skin and the rocks under my feet, I found my story again. It wasn't easy. Every morning I woke up afraid of it. Take it underwater, I'd repeat to myself. 
           And then I'd dive in.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


By Julie

Mid-month check-in on NaNoWriMo here.

Two weeks ago, I reported on my retreat and also that I was making a goal of writing 30 thousand words on my new novel. Well, November turned into the month of NaNOT about a week ago, so I've revised my goals.

On election eve, I found myself feeling extremely irritable, annoyed by folks who don't normally annoy me, disgusted with the constant bickering and refusal to engage in civil conversation about the direction of our country, and last, but not least for me, anyway, completely bored and frustrated with The Novel That Would Not Be Written.

So I made some changes.

First, I quit Facebook for the rest of November. 

Well, that's not entirely true. 

I quit the Newsfeed. I quit responding. I quit posting statuses several times a day. Mostly, I temporarily just QUIT engaging my brain in any activity there that was making it want to explode unnecessarily. 

I did NOT quit private messaging. I turned off most of my notifications, but did NOT turn off things where I am tagged, so I can respond privately to folks who take the time to personally mention me or speak to me. 

I would be lying if I said I'd been 100% successful at all my quitting. I have peeked in now and then to see if the general mood of things is changing (sometimes yes, sometimes no—it's not time for me to return just yet, and December 1 is probably still a good target, because when my toes still curl 1.2 seconds after I hit the newsfeed, it's a good sign I'm not quite ready ). I glance in now and then on my private groups because I miss my friends and the conversations there, but it has been very healthy for me to stay quiet for now—to simply think about the various questions and statements posted in those groups instead of feeling as though I must immediately and without hesitation voice my (one-hundred-percent-accurate-and-you-must-hear-this-immediately-from-me ... OR-NOT!) opinions. 

A few positives have come out of this experiment:  

  • I am engaging more in "real" conversations through email and private messaging than I have in ages. Conversations where my friends or family and I can speak to each other freely, without worrying what the rest of the world will think. Sure, Facebook threads are real, but think of how loaded they are, too. 
  • Even though I originally thought I would stay away from ALL social media for the rest of the month, I decided to make an intentional and more regular attempt to understand Twitter. As a result, I'm finally enjoying the quick dips I can take there—where I have to be very succinct (140 characters or less!) and completely aware that just about anyone in the world can see what I'm writing, not just "friends" I've given access to. All 800 of them. Yep, 800 of my closest friends, who may or may not be folks I actually remember granting access to my somewhat private life. I think this is a good process for me, three months out from publication of Calling Me Home. It's making me consider who and what I really want to be online.
  • I have been a calmer person than I have been in a long time. I am remembering that I am the one with control over what I read or view or listen to or react to--not the rest of the world. It's good to feel in control of that part of me again.
So there's all that.

The second big change I made is this: I quit writing The Novel That Would Not Be Written.

I learned a few things in the process. Okay, I REMEMBERED a few things in the process:
  • For me (and not necessarily for YOU), if I talk about the story I'm working on too much, it loses its magic. This story lost its magic completely. I had spoken about it not only to my agent, but to friends and family, and sometimes to perfect strangers. And when I'd sit down to work on it, there was no mystery. No special sense of working on something that only I knew about, that only I could write about at this particular moment in time. It was becoming a community project, for lack of a better way to describe it. And this was completely my fault. I have always held my previous stories close to my heart—refusing to talk about them much, if at all, to anyone until I felt an irrevocable connection to them, until I knew that chatting about them with others would only make me MORE excited about them, and not make me completely confused and uncertain about where I was going or WHY. Sometimes until I'd written a complete first draft.
  • It's okay to quit sometimes. If the thing you are trying to do is making you nuts, if it's making you bored and listless and unproductive, it's probably time to really sit down and figure out why. Often (MAYBE more often than NOT) it's just you being human, and you need to buckle up and power through. But sometimes it's not, and you need to quit. I think it's that way with any activity we pursue. Writing isn't special that way. Jobs, hobbies, relationships—they each need to be weighed and considered in this way on occasion. If the activity is making you constantly question yourself, your ability to do valuable things, your identity and your self worth, it might be time to quit.
  • Often, something better is waiting to be discovered in the aftermath. Is it crazy to admit that almost as soon as I quit The Novel That Would Not Be Written, a new idea came to me? Like, within about two hours? Like, it was just waiting there patiently for me to give up on the other? (The bath helped. Showers and baths are proven to be beneficial to writers again and again and again, so why we put them off so long is anyone's guess.) This is an idea that has had me scrambling all week to research certain aspects, eager to record the thoughts fighting for attention in my mind, excited about the voices of characters and situations and themes. And, sometimes better doesn't necessarily mean "the most unique idea ever to strike a writer." I know beyond a doubt that my new idea isn't the most unique idea ever. But I'm excited about it, and I know that nobody else can tell this story in exactly the way I will tell it. So I'm shrugging and moving forward. And I won't be telling you or much of anyone else about it for a while. 
Posted this picture last time. And I'm posting it again.
That's me, being by myself for a while, seeing a little patch of blue sky
through the imperfection. And I kind of like it. :)
I have a book coming out in less than three months—I need to be engaged in a new story before that happens, or a new book may never happen. That's reality for me. I've revised my NaNo goal to ten thousand new words on this shiny new idea instead of thirty thousand words on the The Novel That Would Not Be Written. I am being patient with myself, allowing myself the time I need to research and explore the new things, but also setting myself a manageable goal so I have a solid project going before the book drops.

And I feel good about it. I feel good about both of these changes. 

What's up with you? 

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Unexplainable

by Joan

When my maternal grandmother, Jenny, moved to the United States, she left behind her mother and several siblings in Odessa. She formed a life in Richmond, Virginia, married my grandfather and had two children, Phillip and Sylvia. Years later, as a storm gathered, a flash of lightning streaked the night sky over Jenny. Suddenly she felt uneasy, believing it was a premonition of her mother’s death back in Odessa. The next day she received news that her mother had in fact died the night before.

Chihuly at the Dallas Arboretum, by Rick Mora

My eighty-eight year-old mother is physically healthy, but lives in assisted living because her memory is not what it used to be. She remembers stories from her earlier life, like running away with her brother and her mother’s premonition, but she doesn’t remember if she took her pills or if she saw me last month or last June. Some of you might remember my post about taking my mom to her quiet brother’s ninetieth birthday party in Providence last year. These two siblings laughed and reminisced and smiled as though it hadn’t been more than ten years since they’d last seen each other. 

A week ago Saturday night, my mother woke from a nightmare, distraught. Her brother was there, in a chair next to her, and he was yelling at her. The nurses calmed my mother down and, in the morning, one of my sisters went to see her to reassure her she must have had a dream; her brother and his wife of over sixty years were now living in Chicago near one of his daughters.

When I heard this the next day, I tucked the information away, not voicing what I feared. A few hours later, my husband and I strolled through the Chihuly exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum. The glass sculptures seemed otherworldly, peaceful, unexplainable. 

Chihuly sculpture at the Dallas Arboretum, by Rick Mora

We were still taking in the fall wonder as my cell phone rang. When I saw my cousin’s name on the caller ID, my fears were confirmed. My dear, sweet uncle, veteran of WWII, had passed away during the night, at the young age of 91.

Later on the phone with my mom, I told her what I truly believed. That my uncle found a way to visit her on the way out of this life. He must have been yelling to wake her from a deep sleep, to let her know he was joining their mother and the night sky full of ancestors.

Many have asked me why ghosts find their way into every book I write. Finally, I have an answer.

Phillip and Sylvia
Phillip and Evelyn, 1941

Friday, November 9, 2012

That's Grand!

By Kim

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called “I Don’t Need the Notoriety – My Protagonist Does.”  Even then I understood that my greatest challenge in selling The Oak Lovers may be that it revolves around a real painter, but not one named Van Gogh or Degas.  It’s tempting not to mention the book is based on a true story in queries. I can imagine an agent sitting there, perhaps intrigued by the story, but wondering how terrible it would be to suggest edits to its author, who is, after all, a descendant.

(For the record, Carl and Madonna Ahrens were both known to exaggerate or even outright lie for the sake of a compelling story. Trust me, they won’t mind!)

My great-grandfather has been rather inconveniently neglected by history, so I realize it falls to me to promote him as well as my novel. I’ve done this for years - through my website, speeches at art exhibitions, articles I’ve written, and through providing information on Carl to art historians for their own books. The effort is beginning to pay off.

Carl’s photo appeared in a recent PBS video on Elbert Hubbard and the Roycroft art colony. Ross King, a revered and widely published art historian, discussed Carl’s battle with the Group of Seven in the award winning documentary  The West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson. I also have two more speaking invitations.

This month Carl is being celebrated, along with one other painter, in a feature article in Grand Magazine. The author, Nancy Silcox, told me the editor gave her an unprecedented eight pages, and there are many color photographs throughout. One of Carl’s most stunning paintings (shown here) graces an entire page. Since this is a Canadian publication, and the magazine is unavailable to many of our readers, I am including a link to the article in case anyone is curious.
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