Friday, December 31, 2010

Wheels on the Bus

About fifteen years ago, I met Ken Bilderback. He worked at a newspaper in Portland, OR, and I was selling newspaper archiving software with my friend, Glenn Cruickshank. I immediately liked Ken. He was funny, dark, witty, shy, a bit awkward, very accomplished as a newspaper man. I knew there was more to the man than being the managing editor of a mid-sized paper.

Over the years, I left the newspaper archiving business, moved to Virginia and became a consultant. I lost track of Ken. And then, along came Facebook.

And along came Ken. It was nice to reconnect. Over the course of many posts, I learned Ken had written and self-published a book called Wheels on the Bus. It's a fictionalized memoir of a trip Ken took when he was 18 in 1974. It sounded interesting and before I knew it, Ken had sent me a copy. Signed, of course.

I read it over the holiday. He warned me it was "raw." Yes, what Ken talks about is hard to read, but I choose "honest" over raw. Raw for him, to be sure, but he probes the dark places with honest emotion.

The premise is simple: Teenaged boy wants to escape an abusive father and passive-aggressive mother, so he buys an Ameripass and takes off for a month on Greyhound in a trip around the States. Oh, you say, been there, read that. Probably, but I found the read to be a carthartic experience. It wasn't On the Road; it was much more personal than that.

I kept seeing the lines on an EKG chart, the ones that blip up and down with every heartbeat. Ken's account is like an EKG chart: he dips into the dark places before retreating to the brighter places. On the bus, he met a variety of people, many he thinks about thirty years later. He learned lessons that would also stay with him, too.

Ken is ten years younger than I am. If I overlay my EKG with his, slide it forward a decade, it could be my EKG. Maybe that's why I related to book. I went through many of the same things. My bus was a beat-up VW, and four of us drove or pushed it to Arizona to spend some time on a reservation. One of the four is Apache, so we decided to see what peyote, among other drugs, were all about.

Touch points with Ken include abusive stepfather, passive-aggressive mother, dreams of escape, knowledge that I would not stay in my stepfather's house after high school graduation. That was my ticket out. I've seen UFOs. My car was a Mustang, not a Camaro. One non-touch point: I always knew I was going to UCLA and that eventually I would earn my doctorate.

Ken provides vignettes about the people he met: The disfigured veteran with "rickets of the eye," the hippie chick with the tiny tits, thugs and a dead man with flesh-colored shoes, whores and kindly old ladies, a Muslim who trusted his young child to Ken's care to deliver to her grandmother in another city. And there was the lesbian stripper in New Orleans twenty years later who wrote on her website that Ken was a good guy. He didn't suck.

When I met Ken, I knew he didn't suck. Now I know why.

If you want to read Wheels on the Bus, you can buy it from Ken's website or buy the Kindle version at Amazon.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Disappointing Holiday Reading

I decided to take a holiday from research on a future Mad Max novel. Somehow, digging into gene splicing didn't strike me as a holiday activity.

I roamed through my bookself and pulled out three novels written by brand novelists. All three are early works. As a disclaimer, I grab each new book from these writers and consume the stories in guilty delight. So, I couldn't miss, could I?

Not only could I miss, but I did. Badly. Three for three earned a big :P~~~~~~~~~~~. If you don't recognize the unsmiley, it is a raspberry. Each book screamed "New York Times Bestseller" above the title. Each was by a brand writer today. Each book was either fourth or fifth published in long careers.

Each book must have been part of a multi-book deal. Had these been debut novels, they wouldn't have seen the light of day. All were suspense or thrillers, but I found myself laughing at the plots and groaning over the obvious lack of editing. I don't know why I finished the books. It was like a train wreck. I couldn't stop reading, even though I was dreadfully disappointed.

As a yet-to-be-published writer, this was a huge lesson learned: Never, ever take short cuts with your writing. If a book gets published because you have attracted a readership, and if the book, um, how do I say this, oh, yes, stinks, all the work you've done to gain a fan base can be wiped out in a single page. I vowed to pay attention to every detail, check every fact, research topics outside of my normal range of interests, get the grammar right.

Back to research.

Gene splicing.

Steam engines.

And don't bother asking. I won't reveal the authors' names. The guilty know who they are. The innocent readers should continue with latest releases. 'Nuff said.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars

I finished Obama's Wars over the weekend. Before I talk about the book, I need to make a couple of disclaimers.

First, I love Bob Woodward's reporting. I've read several of his books from Veil, to All the President's Men, to the Bush trilogy and finally to Obama's Wars. I find his reporting to be factual and understandable. He makes the complex subject matter easy to follow.

My timing for this book worked out better than I imagined. The book focuses on the decisions that went into Obama's sending 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. After months of discussion, and the President receiving approval from all the principals responsible for the decision, several of the principals immediately tried to find ways around their decision. When you have people who say one thing and then do something else, the program overall could be doomed to failure.

The main thrust of adding new military personnel in Afghanistan was a program called "clear-hold-build-transfer." This means NATO troops, mostly from the U.S., would clear a city/region/town of Taliban and other insurgents, hold the position, build support from the populace and transfer the region to the Afghani army or police.

After a year, this program is barely out of clear and hold. Few territories have been transferred to the Afghanis. Why? Think about a corrupt government at all levels. Think about Afghanis entering the army and refusing to fight. Think about our warfighters on the front line fighting the insurgents and then also having to train local police and army, who don't want to take over. Why should they do any work when we are there to do it for them?

And then there is Karzai. Unstable. Off his meds too frequently. Contradictory. Supports a corrupt half-brother. And "duly elected." Even though the election was corrupt, NATO embraced Karzai. He's "our guy," and we are stuck with him.

How I wish Woodward could have reported that the Bush team looked for an end game before committing to an endless war in a region that no outsider has ever conquered.

I now know how badly we need Richard Holbrooke. His work is done, but the job goes on. I hope that the person who steps into his shoes is half as good.

Oh my, I started to write about Woodward's book and ended up talking about the mess we are in. Maybe that's the point of the book: Get people thinking about what went into decisions, what that means to the U.S. long term, why the end-game is murky. It worked.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Naked Writers, A Critique Group

Most of you know that I'm a member of Valley Writers in Roanoke. We have between 15 and 20 active members. By active, I mean they regularly attend our semimonthly meetings and read poetry, essays, or parts of novels.

Those of us who write long-form works, e.g., novels or memoirs, found it difficult to get enough input on our work without dominating every meeting. That would have led to righteous indignation or a rebellion from the group. To encourage the long-form folks and help them improve their craft, we formed a separate critique group.

Called The Naked Writers, the group meets on a semi-monthly basis, is made up of five people, and travel from house to house for the meetings. Why Naked Writers? It's not because we write in the nude (although that's an idea for spring/summer), but that we bare our souls in our work. And we are silly enough to ask for constructive criticism.

This worked well -- until the bad weather began. We faced a dilemma: give up meeting until spring or use technology. We chose to try technology. We set ourselves on Skype, audio only, no video, hard or soft copy in front of each writer.

With five members, we learned at our first meeting that only two could be critiqued in a single evening. With around 10-12 pages, that's a lot of creativity to explore.

Last night, Skype worked for four of the five members. The fifth had his satellite Internet access die during the afternoon. We thought of him fondly as we ate cheese and crackers and sipped wine.

I was on the hot seat first. I write fiction and asked the group to workshop my second Mad Max novel. Input included grammos and typos (No, a secondary character is not named Sucks. It's Ducks, but it was a funny typo), sloppy transitions, a discussion on why a Brit would say "brilliant" instead of "terrific." Also had a discussion about doormen buildings in NYC. I don't think I'm going to explain why they are so good (you need money to live in one; they are safe for widows, etc.) Our Buck Nekkid Redneck Writer pointed out problems with voice that I hadn't seen.

The second writer is working on an allegory with strong Vietnamese overtones. Part of the problem we all had with his draft was forced use of an Irish dialect. He hates me, because every time the dialect became too strong, I kept calling for Barry Fitzgerald in Bells of St. Mary's. He didn't find it funny, but the only writer I can tolerate who writes in a sustained Irish dialect is Frank McCourt. Alas, my allegorist isn't yet a Frank McCourt.

Next time, the Buck Nekkid Redneck Writer, who writes "redneck" fiction (what else?!), the memoirist, and the YA fantasy writer are up. I know, that's three, but BNRW said his chapter would be short. We'll see. If we are virtual, I don't mind because I don't have an hour drive home after the meeting.

We still need to work out the kinks in using Skype, while at the same time working out how to provide positive criticism without putting everyone in the hot seat. Starting a meeting with a negative image so turns me off.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

When a book is overhyped, I tend to avoid it. Particularly if it is hyped as filled with spiritual insight. I become a late reader, or a not-at-all reader. I finally caved in to pressure and picked up Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Friends in book clubs told me about discussions they had about the book. Comments were: "I loved it!" "I didn't get it." "Where's the spiritual insight?" "It may have been a search for something, but I didn't see Gilbert find whatever it was she was seeking."

Well, with that kind of confusion, I had to read it.

For those of you who haven't read the book, it is divided into three parts: Eat is in Italy, Pray is in India, and Love is in Indonesia.

I get the "eat" part. If I were seeking something, though, I doubt I'd write over a hundred pages about pasta. I didn't see much spiritual growth. Waistline growth, yes, but not spiritual. I wasn't sure I could continue reading, but I stuck it out.

The book came together in "pray" set at an ashram in India. This is the part most of my friends hated. I didn't, because it brought back memories of being in a Zen nunnery in grad school in Japan. I still meditate nearly 40 years later. I could relate to the teachings, the discipline of meditation, the scrubbing of floors.

I didn't get anything from "love." Didn't like it. Thought it was weak. Okay, Gilbert goes to Bali to study with a medicine man and ends up in bed with a Brazilian. Okay, she finds love. I don't think this added to her spiritual journey, though. Not enough of the teachings of her ancient medicine man. And the ending: right out of a romance novel.

Review is mixed. I liked the center part because I returned to my own meditation discipline. The rest? Weaker than I thought it should be.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sarah's Key

Lest my readers think I hate everything I read, I don't. If I hated everything, I could work for an agent and be a robo-rejector. Only kidding.

Instead, I may be late to the party, but I loved Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. It had been sitting in my slush pile for a long time, but my mood was right this past week. I lost myself in the story.

For those of you who don't know the story, it's a pair of tales about a current era journalist who becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a French Jewish girl swept up during the Holocaust. Set against the horrors of a round up of Jews in Paris in July 1942, the story jumps between the journalist seeking the truth of what happened, and a child who left her younger brother behind in an apartment in Paris.

The juxtaposition of the twin stories works. In too many books, this technique feels forced. de Rosnay draws a fine line between the two stories, leading to the inevitable merging at the end. de Rosnay writes with a clear and lucid prose and avoids the pathos a lesser writer might have used.

I have the reading club version and was so proud to see two friends' names in the acknowledgment section. Both Marilyn Amerson, librarian of our local Westlake Library, and Marion Higgins, member of the Lake Writers, went out of their way to spread the word about the novel.

It was a worthy read and most thought-provoking. I can't wait to read de Rosnay's sequel, A Secret Kept.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Diamonds for the Dead by Alan Orloff

Early in November, I met Alan Orloff at the Virginia Writers Club annual meeting at Mount Vernon. Alan had a table in the local writers' area. We fell into a conversation about how he came to write this book, what he was writing next, and what I was writing. I try and help Virginia writers, so I bought Diamonds for the Dead. I read it this weekend.

I won't tell you about the plot or who-dun-it, because you need to read the book for yourselves. What I will do is focus on what makes the book work for me: plot, strong and clearly delineated characters, and great zingers when they are least expected.

At first I was afraid this would turn into another book about Russian Jews, stolen Holocaust diamonds, and perhaps the Russian Mafia. Instead, I was very pleased to read a tightly written plot about Josh Handleman, the son of "Honest Abe," from whom he has been estranged for years. When Abe dies, Josh has to deal with his guilt, loss, an odd old Russian Jew living in his father's basement, hints of murder, and lost diamonds.

No cliches of Russian Mafia or Holocaust diamonds. Just a tight story that could happen to any of us.

There are plenty of Russian Jews, both good and evil, both immigrants and born in the USA. One has to be evil, but Orloff keeps us guessing until close to the end. (I figured out who was the baddie, but not until about 40 pages from the end.) Well drawn characters help the plot work. Josh Handleman isn't whiney but is lost and in over his head. Lev Yurishenko is big enough and menacing enough to keep the reader off guard. Kassian, the man living in the basement, is just odd enough to be the villian. Add a couple of women and some great one-liners ("When you're hot, you're hot. And when you're not, you're Josh Handleman, stud to dud in sixty seconds.") and the book is a satisfying read.

Orloff's second book comes out in April 2011. It's called Killer Routine and promises to be a good read. Moreover, it's the start of a new series, the Last Laff Mystery series. Interesting name. I hope I get an advanced copy to review.

All images are courtesy of Alan's web site.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Themes and Metaphors

I've been playing with themes of redemption and rebirth in my second Mad Max novel. With a working title of Shades of Pale, it takes place in a devastated landscape, devoid of color. And because Earth has a wonderful way of healing itself, I found one picture of flowers I took at Cook's Inlet in Alaska to be the perfect metaphor. I loved the bravery of the poppy, all alone in a field of white and purple.

I also saw the poppy as a manifestation of differentness. Another theme in Max 2 is racism. How hard would it be for the purple and white flowers to gang up and drive the poppy away? It stood its ground and survived. As do some of the minority characters in Max 2.

Yup, I find inspiration everywhere I look.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Writing and Editing

The old maxim is true: you never begin writing until you begin rewriting and editing. In my case, I received edits and suggestions back from my agent, Dawn Dowdle. I worked through them and sent them over for her second review after Thanksgiving.

There truly is nothing like having an agent review every page, every comma (many misplaced) and every line of your book. I'm lucky, because not all agents put in the amount of effort to make a manuscript squeaky-clean. (And from many of the books I've read lately, the fine art of copy editing is dying.)

So, when I finished reviewing every change, answering every comment, adding a few comments of my own, I realized my manuscript is in much better shape than it was.

My eternal gratitude for Dawn's close review. After three critique groups had a go at the work, and two professional editors had their say...

And now we will see what additional changes Dawn suggests to make the manuscript marketable.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Tale of Ole Green Eyes

You never know what will happen when you are on Facebook. Sometimes it's good; sometimes it's not. About two weeks ago, a good thing happened to me on Facebook.

There I was, reading away, responding to several posts, liking some, happily wasting a few minutes before returning to writing. One of my friends, a new friend and fellow writer, Cathy Kennedy, popped up on chat. She was so excited. Copies of her first children's book, The Tale of Ole Green Eyes, arrived in the mail. She wanted to share her thrill at being able to hold her book in her hands. (I don't know that feeling yet. I can only hold my manuscript.)

One question led to another and I asked Cathy what her book was about. A children's story set in Appalachia. Hmm. I'm getting more interested in Appalachian literature, so naturally I was intrigued. I asked where I could read about the book. Next thing I know, Cathy had emailed me the complete manuscript. Wow! I could now enjoy her joy.

Remember, my youngest daughter is in her thirties and her little pink peanut won't be born until March 2011. So I don't have much current knowledge of children's literature.

What I do know is this tale is charming. Great-Grandma Sarah tells Brittany and Nicole a scary story about a black panther named Ole Green Eyes that lived near her house in East Tennessee when Sarah was a child. Naturally, any story about a panther has to inspire goosebumps and thrill-chills in young listeners. Midnight, the family cat, lies next to the girls and listening to the story too.

One fall day, the girls and their grandparents go out to the orchard to pick apples. The girls wander off, picking and eating apples. They laugh at their grandfather's warning about wild animals in the woods. The wind rises when the sun began going down, rustling leaves and stirring the imagination. The girls run for the safety of the old farmhouse when Nicole screams that Old Green Eyes is after them. "Mew" says Midnight the cat.

As I said, it is adorable. The watercolor illustrations, like the cover above, enhance the story.

Good job, Cathy. For those of my readers who have children, you can buy The Tale of Ole Green Eyes at Amazon or on Cathy's site, which is linked above. It is published by Mirror Publishing.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fred First on Earthcare

Yesterday, the Friends of the Franklin County Library and Smith Mountain Arts Council worked together to bring Fred First to speak on his love of our planet earth. Fred lives in Floyd County and has been blogging about his exploits there since 2002. I've been reading his blog since 2008 and love it.

Fred drove down and back in dense fog (see his latest blog entry) on a barely two-lane highway unfit for cars or trucks. Even the deer avoid it. The enthusiastic audience loved his presentation, though, so I trust the hair-raising trip was worth it.

Fred read a couple of essays, talked about his passion for the earth, showed us a wonderful multimedia show of photos and music, and even let us complete our Christmas shopping. Yes, he thoughtfully brought copies of his two books, Slow Road Home and What We Hold in Our Hands. I saw many of the guests walk out with copies of each. Wonder how many will find their way into Christmas stockings. Mine belong to ME.

BTW, I filtched Fred's picture from his blog.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Virginia Writers Club Annual Meeting

Virginia Writers Club (VWC) held its annual meeting last Saturday, November 13, at the The Mount Vernon Inn. Hosted by the Northern Virginia chapter, more than ninety members gathered to approve a new board of directors, present the Golden Nib winners, and raise money for our scholarship fund.

The keynote speaker was John Gilstrap who gave a rousing speech on how he got his first novel into print, writing screenplays for Hollywood, and his latest release, Hostage Zero. The title of his talk was "The Secret to Overnight Success (After a 38-Year Day)." Funny, poignant, serious, Gilstrap's singular word of advice was "Never, ever give up." He recounted an anecdote about taking a writing course, wherein his teacher told him he had no talent. Gilstrap said he regrets the teacher died before his first book was published. "I told you so" doesn't work if the recipient isn't around to hear the taunt.

VWC's new slate of officers will be meeting soon to begin planning the 2011 meeting schedule. I urge all writers in Virginia to join. We need you as much as you need us. Maybe we need you more. My goal is to get every published Virginia writer, and serious yet-to-be-published writers, to join. This is a fine organization and does good work in promoting the literary arts to writers of all age groups. If you are a part of a writer or critique group, go out to the web site, read what we do, and join. Please.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Riding Lessons

I've had a run of bad luck with audio books in the past four weeks. I wanted to listen to Sara Gruen's Riding Lessons, because I loved Water for Elephants. Gruen took me inside the world of the circus, but she didn't take me into the world of horses.

Instead of being swept away by the story, I was put off by two things: the reader and the story itself.

The reader, Maggi-Meg Reed, overemoted to the point that I wanted to scream. Not only did two of the main characters whine and kvetch their way through 9 CDs, but the way Reed read the story was way over the top.

The protagonist Annemarie has a terrible run of bad luck. It's enough to make anyone cranky. Sure, she had to deal with a sudden divorce, job loss, a rebellious teenaged daughter, her father's illness, and moving back to the family home. She becomes obsessed with a horse. When her daughter disappears, her mind is still on the horse, not on the missing girl. Alas, it wasn't until the final CD that Annemarie began to come out of her self pity. To add to my dislike, the ending was forced and rushed. I didn't see enough growth in Annemarie or her daughter to lead to the "everyone lived happily ever after" ending. Bunk.

By the end of the last disk, I was ready to shout "enough already." I'm not sure I'll pick up another of her books.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Disappointing Novel

My husband Terry and I go to Annapolis for every Navy home game. For years, we've sat with the same group of fans, all season ticket holders, so we have formed a transient yet compassionate community. Because the drive is five hours each way, we pick up audio books at the local library. It gives me a chance to try writers I've never read before. Most are good experiences. This week's entry wasn't.

I chose Ted Dekker's Bone Man's Daughter. I had never read any of his twenty books before. Billed as a thriller, it had a decent plot, good characters and enough action to keep us listening. It also had too many phrases repeated until they lost all meaning. I mean, how many times does the protagonist have to feel like throwing up until he does, Answer: not until halfway through the last disk.

The plot had enough red herrings to keep us guessing as to who the Bone Man was. And why he killed the way he did. But, the trauma inflicted on the protagonist to set the events in motion was belabored and told too many times. I just want to get on with the action.

I talked with Terry about my disappointment when we finished it. He said, "Now I know what you mean. Even a New York Times best-selling writer needs a good editor."

This book could have used a good editor. I'm not sure I'll ever pick up one of Ted Dekker's books again.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Another Opening of Another Book

Yes, I am working on two projects concurrently. The following three short paragraphs are the opening for Mad Max 2.

Who would have thought Queen Elizabeth and I would have anything in common? I mean, we both survived totally sucky years. True, her annus horribilis involved the divorces of her two sons and public humiliation of the Royal family, plus a fire in Windsor Castle destroyed priceless artifacts. In my last twelve months, my only daughter suffered a severe brain injury. Then, she was murdered. Then, her husband Whip was arrested and charged with murder. I want not as eloquent as the Queen, I merely survived a shit-eating year.

I still woke up every morning missing the hell out of Merry. My poor murdered daughter. My extended family—one son-in-law and two grandchildren—and I pulled together to move forward without daughter, wife and mother.

Was it any wonder I fled to my apartment in New York City for a few days to heal? And to spend as much time as I could with my closest friends, the Great Dames.

Whaddya think, huh?

Monday, October 18, 2010

First Paragraph

I decided to blow the cyberdust off a manuscript I wrote a few years ago. Like many consultants, I was laid off after 9/11. I gave myself permission to write a book while I was looking for a job. I also gave myself six months to find a job. I did both in the allotted time.

I was afraid the manuscript would be so dreadful that the Delete key would be my friend. I printed the whole thing out and was shocked to see it ran 1200 pages, 335,000 words. Seems like it should be three books -- or whacked by two-thirds to make it marketable. It's the story of a group of women spanning 40 years. Nothing like Ya Ya Sisterhood.

So what do you think of the newly written opening paragraph?

For nearly as long as she could remember, Patricia had thought of herself as a "Patricia." Unfortunately, no one else did. Her friends called her either Trisha or Trish, be everyone in her family called her "Sissy." The second born and eldest girl, Patricia was "sister of," not an individual. She could just have easily been called maid or babysitter or house cleaner.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Writing Analysis Challenge

The challenge several panelists at James River Writers Conference threw down is to take a favorite writer or book and deconstruct the first three chapters. Read the novel as if you are editing it for publication. What do you like about the writing once you begin to look at the elements of the story? What don't you like? What would you change?

Select a contemporary work, not a classic since the rules of writing have changed since Charles Dickens. You might look at the following:

  • Pacing: how fast does the writer get into the story, into each chapter?
  • Setting: does the writer give hints about the setting or an indepth description over every detail?
  • Characterization: does the writer show you enough about the protagonist that you have a vested interest in that person?
  • Circle or underline the number of adverbs and adjectives your writer uses. Are there too many adjectives strung together? Does s/he rely on adverbs to drive the action?

  • I'm taking the challenge. I'll report back on the name of the writer, the novel, and what I found by going through this exercise. Anyone else up to this exercise?

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    James River Writers Conference, final post

    Okay, the last series of sessions at JRWC this year focused on the future of publishing and on use of social media. Or not, depends on my mood.

    On the future of publishing, the panelists were mixed on how long the traditional commercial publishers would continue to print books for distribution in book stores. While this isn't likely to go away tomorrow, the trend toward e-publishing (thank you very much, Kindle, iPad, Nook) and publish on demand (not to be confused with print on demand, or self publishing). Publish on demand fulfills orders from bookstores without having to house warehouses of hard copy. You order it, they print and ship. Or, you can download and read immediately.

    The importance of social media underscored what I've been hearing for several years. Writing the book is just the first step. Building a platform and getting people to know you exist is more important, particularly when traditional commercial publishers are scaling w-a-a-y back on publicity. Authors are required to be involved in marketing their books and in establishing a reputation in social cyberspace. Panelists focused on blogs (and gimmicks to drive people to blogs), Facebook and Twitter. Yes, most people Tweet.

    Case in point. One author, whose book was being released soon, posted a Tweet that casually mentioned a person who inspired her book. Person sees name in his Tweet search and retweets. To 2.8 million followers. This author jumped from relative obscurity to having 2.8 million people knowing she exists. No, not all will buy the book, but enough might ...

    How do you use social media?

    So, many things to think about. Many things to make part of my writing life. So many things, so little time.

    James River Writers Conference, Post #2

    One of the great things about going to a writers conference is the networking we do in the halls and bathroom lines. We talk about our works, find people who have similar interests, exchange contact information. In short, everything everyone else does, particularly when they share a passion for something.

    For us, it is the passion for the written word. This year, the conference had several 101 sessions: setting, character. Even though I have been writing seriously for more than a decade (all right, two decades), I learn something every time I go to a session.

    Pacing: sometimes the strength of pacing is what you don't write. It's letting readers fill in the blanks and become an active part of the experience. Avoid all versions of "to be" -- unless you are Shakespeare. News flash: it's been done. Use strong verbs. Build strong imagery. Avoid unnecessarily redundant words -- like this sentence.

    Character: write down everything you know about your character, even things you will NEVER use. Get to know the major and minor characters as if they are part of your family. You will be able to add verisimilitude by knowing your characters inside and out.

    Setting: setting is what you use to create atmosphere, which is the feeling you get from the setting. This does NOT mean hundreds of words of description. No room in today's readers' minds for the Henry James type of descriptive pages. Set down the basics, temporal, physical and situational details. Avoid the National Geographic introduction of setting. And, the agents and writers coached, avoid vague adjectives like "beautiful." Doesn't convey squat to the reader.

    How do you build character?

    James River Writers Conference, 1st Post

    This is the first of a couple of blog entries about this annual contest. Over the weekend, I attended my third JRW conference in Richmond, VA. This was the best conference yet. The caliber of writers, editors, agents and panelists exceeded even last year's great show.

    I attended my first workshop put on by JRW. I wanted to learn more about short story writing, so I signed up for a two-hour workshop on structuring a short story. Even through I write novels, I think of each chapter as a short story. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end. It has to have character(s), setting, atmosphere, pacing, dialog, conflict.

    Clifford Garstang taught the course. Turns out we share several things in common: a love of the Far East and Japanese literature, membership in the Virginia Writers Club, and head up writers groups affiliated with VWC. I picked up a copy of his linked short story collection. Excellent material and something that has caused loss of sleep -- reading it is compelling.

    Cliff edits a magazine for flash fiction and short stories. Follow Prime Number Magazine on Facebook. I may have a story worth submitting. Hey, nothing ventured, nothing sprained.

    More on the conference in the next post.

    Friday, October 1, 2010

    Life's Lessons: Don't Believe Your Press Releases

    When Terry and I went to Alaska, we went for a vacation. What we came away with were several new life lessons. So, in an attempt to share them (and perhaps bore you all to death), here's the first.

    My cousin's boyfriend loaned me Going Rouge: An American Nightmare. This collection of editorials and opinion columns offered new input into the life and times of Sarah Palin. Perhaps what prompted Duane to loan me the book was our drive through Wassila, one of the ugliest examples of urban and suburban sprawl in Alaska. I expected it to be beautiful, with small lakes, float planes and lots of cute homes fronting those lakes. NOT. It's one strip mall after the other. Even the lake where Ms. Palin lives is ordinary, as is her house. Only the large fence between her and a writer she termed snoopy stood out in the middle-class neighborhood. What do you want to be the Palins move into a mansion, just like other nouveau riche do. The town is "wasilly." Couldn't even find a book store there.

    I admit I read sections of Going Rogue, too. I found it full of misrepresentations and myths. People who believe their own press releases bother me. This book bothered me.

    While I was reading Going Rouge in the great room, my bedside reading was The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. What could be more of a contrast to the first book than this one? Pausch lived the last years of his life full of joy, full of honesty about what was happening to him, full of life and love for his wife and children. He could have passed a lie detector test. Yes, he was afraid of dying but not afraid to die. I found his honesty uplifting.

    Stray thought: I bet Ms. Palin could also pass a lie dectector test. She obviously believes the lies she tells and the press releases her "people" submit. Sigh.

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Vacation Reading

    When we were getting ready for vacation last month, I spent as much time selecting my reading matter as I did clothes. Clothes -- everything layered, rain gear, boots, jacket. It was 95+ in VA when we left but only 60 in Alaska.

    Books and magazines were another challenge. I usually take magazines for airplanes to jettison along the way. I packed an inch of magazines and came home with none. Books. Well, I love to indulge in guilty pleasures of really trashing novels. This time I didn't, thereby breaking a long-standing rule: Take nothing that will make you think. That means no literary novels, no non-fiction, etc. So, what did I take?

    Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House and Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Finished them both.

    Gladwell's was a good read with many ideas to contemplate. I left it with my cousin in Anchorage.

    I raced through Kathy's book, flipping pages as fast as I could. The plot and character development are outstanding. It's hard to realize that this is her debut novel. As I neared the end, I realized I had deprived myself of the best part of the book -- the language. This literary novel is rich with description, strong on dialogue. I was missing out on that.

    Thus, I broke another rule: I reread the book. Yes, this from the woman who has 100+ books in her analog slush pile. I set The Kitchen House aside for a week, then sat and reread it. S-l-o-w-l-y. It was a true treat. This time I nibbled on the language, her word choice, and let my mind linger on particularly savory bits.

    Rules are made for breaking. I'm glad I broke both. I encourage everyone who loves literary novels to pick up The Kitchen House. It's the most delicious dessert.

    Sunday, July 4, 2010

    A cool evening with Sheri Wright's poetry

    Friday last was a perfect day. Cooler than the scorching mid 90s of the previous two weeks. Little humidity. Light breezes. After dinner out, Terry and I decided to take in the early evening on our deck, watching the birds head for roosts and nests. Even the squirrels were quieting down for the evening.

    I picked up a book from the coffee table and took it outside. I started reading a poem or two when I looked up and saw the sky was nearly dark. I had finished the book. I got lost in the lovely images Sheri Wright used in The Courtship of Reason. I found myself returning to poems about dignity in aging and death. "Visitors" reminds us that we all grow old, no matter how young we may be today. And with that growing old comes wisdom, loss, and changes. I liked "Room 237" where a patient in a hospital lies dying, waiting for her mother to call her in for one last glass of lemonade.

    None of these poems are sad, but they remind us to honor the elderly and treat them with respect. One day, God willing and the creeks don't rise, we too will be elderly and in need of respect.

    Thank you, Sheri, for another wonderful collection of verse.

    Friday, July 2, 2010

    Wytheville and Fred First

    Last Friday, I drove down to Wytheville with a writer friend of mine. It was the 26th annual Wytheville Chautauqua and writing contest. Both my friend and I placed in the essay contest. I was a little concerned about the title of the essay I submitted, "Balls," because I know the sensibilities of some of the people who coordinate the contest. But, since this had nothing to do with testicles and everything to do with juggling the various balls of life, I said, "what the hell" and sent it in. Took honorable mention.

    The highlight of the day, of course, was getting to hear Fred First talk about eight years and 1,000,000 (yes, that is one million) words of blogging. Fred started with stray thoughts and images about the place he lives in Floyd County, VA. Very rural, gorgeous, and Fred's own special place. He read an essay from his first book, Slow Road Home, about how he hated canned, embalmed asparagus when he was a child. -- Hate to admit it. I still like canned asparagus, cold with wasabi mayo on a boat-nic. (That's a picnic on a boat.)

    Fred's book is a direct result of his blog. He dumped his blog, formatted it for print, and self-published a few years ago. It's a hit and he's a wonderful speaker.

    And I scored a promise to come to Roanoke and speak to the Valley Writers in 2011. Maybe I can get him on the same program with Jim Minick, who was also at the Wytheville event. What a day.

    Saturday, June 19, 2010

    Silly short story

    So, there I was last weekend, badly needing a break from querying and revising and editing, when a silly idea for a short story popped into my mind. Now, I rarely read short stories and I even more rarely write them. But this idea was so stupid that I had to capture it.

    The premise: what if a single woman living in a major urban environment chucked everything and went of to live in the country. Seeking peace and silence, this unnamed woman buys a farm, only to find that nature isn't silent. Neither are the toys in her house. I didn't go much further than this and took it to my Valley Writers critique group.

    I have tons of comments about the start of the story. I think it needs to be much more sarcastic, very snarky, very contradictory. Very all the things not in the first draft. I thank everyone for scribbling red ink over the draft.

    But one comment left me cold. "It sounds like you are rewriting Green Acres." Green Acres? Took me all the way home to figure out the reference. I never watch sitcoms and had only one gray cell that recalled the name of this old TV show.

    So, no, I have no conscious reason to rewrite Green Acres. This will just be me being my snarky best.

    Monday, June 14, 2010

    Cow in the lake

    On Saturday evening, just as Terry and I were heading out to dinner, a neighbor called to report a dead cow in the lake just off the end of his dock. He wanted to know what to do with it.

    I suggested he drag it ashore, butcher it, and stock his freezer. He was not amused. He seemed to think that because Terry and I are on the homeowner's association board, we should remove said dead cow. We thought not, gave the neighbor several numbers to call (Coast Guard Axilliary, Marine Fire and Rescue, Applachian Power (who owns the license for the lake), Virginia departments with varying degrees of responisibility for health, water safety, etc.). The Coast Guard and Marine Fire and Rescue eventually showed up and circled the dead cow. My neighbor went out as well. Everyone agreed that the cow was indeed thoroughly dead. And then they left. Cow remained in the water.

    Cow was in the water on Sunday. Today, it's moved on or down, who knows which.

    So, what is the story about the dead cow? Becky Mushko wants to know if it committed suicide. Looked like a young cow, so I don't think suicide is likely. Of course, it could be pregnant and not happy about it. . . .

    Was it murdered? Did a jealous cow lure it into the water just as lightning was striking all around? Was this an act of a jealous god who decided that the cow was a bad influence on her herd and should be destroyed?

    Without roping the cow and dragging it to a dock, we'll probably never know what happened. CSI wasn't called. The police were not interested, even if the cow was a murder victim. Alas, this inquiring mind is not likely to know what happened. Bet Sally Roseveare can do something with the cow in the lake in her next Smith Mountain Lake Mystery.

    And no, I didn't take any pictures of the bloated corpse.

    Wednesday, June 9, 2010

    Series, series, series

    I am querying for my first Mad Max novel and find myself facing a dilemma. Do I work on the second Mad Max book, which is in draft? Or, do I return to another draft I wrote a few years back and begin a serious rewrite of Patricia?

    I read copious blogs that say pitching a series is not a good idea. I'm not, but if I am fortunate enough to attract an agent, which do I work on next? I can hear many of you saying "work on Patricia" because you don't know if Mad Max will catch on enough to become a publishable series.

    Only one problem with that: Patricia is a 350,000 word trilogy. And yes, it's in draft and yes it can/will be broken into three sections. I just don't know if I can condense Patricia into a single work. Maybe it will rain this weekend and I can read the whole thing cover to cover.

    Either way, I need to work on a series bible of characters, phrases, events, etc. so that I have the backstory straight and know what tag phrases each character uses.


    Wednesday, June 2, 2010

    Muses and Musings

    I never know when an image will strike me, or when I will smell something that sends me down long-forgotten mental highways, or where the smallest item dropped on the ground might be the next clue or trigger for a scene.

    To wit, last weekend Terry and I slipped away from Smith Mountain Lake and drove through the Blue Ridge Mountains to Blowing Rock, NC. Terry had been through there with his wild hog biker buddies and thought I would love it. I did. Sitting on benches with a terrific cup of coffee watching people walk by. Drifting in an out of shops, doing some early Christmas shopping, more looking than buying. Finding wonderful restaurants with good wine lists. Dropping in on a British pub for a late afternoon pint.

    And then there was the little white baby sock lying near the sidewalk. I wonder who owned it. I wonder who dropped it. I wonder if there is a half-barefoot baby in a stroller some place, kicking its bare toes in the sun. I wonder when I will use this wee bit of ephemera in a story.

    Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    Valley Writers

    On May 20, Valley Writers in Roanoke celebrated our 28th birthday as a critique group. With cake and excellent readings, and with continuing participation by Rodney Franklin, one of the founding fathers, we followed our tradition of reading members' material and providing feedback on it.

    From left to right, Betsy Ashton, Cherie Reich, Becky Mushko, Joan Petrus, Dick Raymond, Melanie Huber, Keith Martin, Millie Willis, Ken Thornsbury, Leslie Hall, Rodney Franklin, Jim Morrison, Wayne White, and Beverly Telfer.

    Wednesday, May 19, 2010

    Jim Minick's The Blueberry Years

    I saw this comment on Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog in an interview with Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Agency. Since we claim Jim as a friend, I wanted to give out a shout out to all my friends. Buy his book, buy his book, buy his book.

    "The Blueberry Years by Jim Minick is coming out in hardcover from Thomas Dunne Books in September, and it's just an amazing story. I tend to be drawn to wish-fulfillment projects, and this beautifully captures what I mean by that term. This memoir is based on Jim’s trials and tribulations as an organic blueberry farmer over the course of eight years. Ultimately, though, this book tells the story of a place shaped by a young couple's dream, how that dream failed, and how that dream and place shaped these people.

    Through Jim’s writing, this memoir explores larger issues facing agriculture in the United States, issues like the rise of organic farming, the plight of small farmers, the fragile nature of our global food system and our nation’s ambivalence about what we eat and where it comes from. A story of one couple and one farm, this book shows how our country’s appetite for cheap food affects how that food is grown, who does or does not grow it, and what happens to the land."

    I love Jim's Her Secret Song and have turned to it several times for inspiration.

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    Virginia Writers Club Board Meeting

    I was fortunate to attend the VWC quarterly board of directors meeting hosted by the Hanover chapter on Saturday, May 15th. I carpooled with Jim Morrison, Becky Mushko and Dick Raymond, all of whom are members of both Valley Writers and Lake Writers. For over ten hours, we were stimulated by the meeting, the afternoon presentation by a variety of writers, all of whom chose self-publishing, and nearly 400 miles of car time. Thanks to Jim for driving.

    What was interesting were the reasons various writers had for chosing self-publishing or publishing through Publish America. They included, among others:

  • Maintaining creative control
  • Weary of getting more agent rejections
  • "I'm not getting any younger"

  • I really related to that last point!!!! So, lots of things to ponder until the next meeting in September.

    Sunday, May 9, 2010

    Shout Out to Valley Writers

    In the past month, three of my fellow writer-friends have had success.

    Keith Martin joined Valley Writers less than two years ago. He had never written anything except an invoice before, but he brought a wonderfully original voice to the stories and essays he began reading. And now, less than two years after he began, Keith sold his first story to the online version of Traditional Bowhunter Magazine.

    John Koelsch, our resident Vietman vet-poet-novelist-haunted writer, sold electronic rights to his Vietnam novel, Mickey 6. More when it is available.

    Dick Raymond won several prizes for poetry in the annual Poetry Society of Virginia contest. He picked up his prizes in Richmond a couple of weeks ago.

    Not too bad for a group of writers about 15 active writers, is it? I expect more to win contests, get agents, publish, publish, publish. This year is going to be a strong one.

    Monday, May 3, 2010

    Tweets, Blogs and Videos

    I've been reading a lot lately about using social media to create brand awareness. As writers, we are the brand. And so are our books.

    Blogs and web sites are good starting points, but you cannot stop there. Yes, you have to have a web site when you have a book. Yes, you have to have a blog when you are getting ready to have a book. Once you have the book, you need to look at different ways of getting the message out.

  • Facebook: It's no longer enough for you to have a presence on Facebook; your book also needs its own fan page. Amazing how many there are out there.

  • YouTube: Book trailers are growing in popularity -- and in inanity. (But that's another posting, perhaps). Book trailers need to be everywhere: a link on your blog, another link on your web site, a Facebook link, etc. They need to go viral to be effective.

  • Twitter: Not the Twitter of "I got so drunk last night I puked. Oh, here's a photo of me and the toilet." The Twitter of sharing waaaay too much information is also a brand management tool. Attract a group of followers by being a follower. Post a tweet about something you are doing -- like speaking or book signing. Ask your followers to re-tweet. Doesn't take long for tweets to go viral too.

    Ah, I hear the cries of "This is way too much work." It is a lot of work, but if you want to be successful as a writer, you need to consider every possible angle. More and more of the big publishing houses are limiting the amount of marketing they will do for a new writer. Maybe 6 weeks of hype, then you are on your own.

    Might as well practice now while there is still time.
  • Thursday, April 29, 2010

    Emyl Jenkins

    When a writer dies, so do her memories and all her experience. We lost Emyl Jenkins on April 27 at the young age of 68. If you never met Emyl, you missed a woman who was more active than her age, tireless in her mentoring of beginning writers, a story teller who loved antiques, and a member of the James River Writers. Missing as last year's conference because she was on a book tour, she will physically missed at this year's conference, but will be honored through our memories of this dymanic woman who loved to laugh -- and to make us laugh.

    Wednesday, April 28, 2010

    Jason Wright

    Tomorrow, two libraries at Smith Mountain Lake will host a discussion by Jason Wright, a faith-based writer, who is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USAToday best seller. I wrote about his visit in Laker Weekly last Friday. Jason was very helpful in giving me information to write this story, as were the ladies from the Waterfront Book Club. I hope our turnout is good. I hold ticket #134, so I hope we turn out more than 200 people. Time will tell. I'll be back tomorrow with a follow up.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    Virginia Press Women Conference

    I had the pleasure of meeting a dynamic group of women at last Friday's VA Press Women Conference at the Taubman Museum. From the national president to local writers to novelists such as Sharyn McCrumb and Sally Honenberger, it was a day of stimulating panels and great sidebar discussions. The Twitter panel was probably the best, because the panelists focused on using Twitter to establish yourself and your works as a brand. (They were not interested in what we had for breakfast, but were interested in retweeting messages to broaden brand marketing reach.)

    Sharyn spoke about how difficult it is to change stereotypical perceptions. She asked four questions and asked the audience to write down the state in which each act took place. Then she asked if any of us had chosen WV, VA, KY, or TN for any answers. When the majority raised hands saying yes, we had, she told us we were the problem. Not one of her questions, not even "what was the last state to convict a man on cannibalism?" took place in an Appalachian state. (For your curiosity, it was Colorado.)

    That reminded me of a panel I was on in the early 1990s. I was speaking to about 250 newspaper publishers and editors, most of whom were lamenting that they had difficulty reaching a youth market, a women's market, various ethnic markets, yet none had a teen, women or Latinos, for example, on their staff. I mentioned that in looking at the audience, I could see the problem. They were mostly older, mostly male and mostly pale -- and they didn't get it. They had no idea how to reach what they said were target demographics. How could a balding white guy know what a 14-year-old Hispanic girl want to read??

    Lesson learned from Sharyn. Fewer lessons learned by the newspaper moguls (mongrels??).

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    Sedalia Conference Wrap Up

    Once again, Darrell Laurent pulled off a terrific conference at the Sedalia Center tucked into the Blue Ridge mountains. A small group gathered on Friday for refreshments and "grip and grins." We chatted over wine and cheese and got to know each other.

    The "keynote" speaker, Kathy Grissom, has recently published her first book. She talked about how long it took her to write her novel, her trials with getting an agent, and finally getting picked up by Simon and Schuster. She read some selections and set the mood for the next day's meeting.

    And what was the mood? Almost otherworldly. It was clear that Kathy channelled a spirit who told her to tell her story. And what a story it is. When Kathy read the next day, she had many of us in tears from the beauty of her language and the seriousness of some of the passages she shared. I do not like historical fiction, but I bought two of her books: one for me, one for my daughter. I want to try and schedule Kathy to come and speak to my critique groups. She is willing.

    The group here is Karen Wrigley from Lake Writers, Kathy Grissom, moi from Lake Writers and Sally Roseveare from Lake Writers. Aren't we a clever group?

    So, at the end of the conference, it was like saying farewell to old friends I just met. Awesome.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    Sedalia Writers Conference

    The 4th Annual Sedalia Writers Conference is this weekend and I can't wait. The reception is Friday night -- perfect for networking with other writers. I'm looking forward to catching up with new-old friends and making new-new friends. The conference itself is all day Saturday. In Big Island, VA, it features three local writers: novelist Kathy Grissom, eco-travel writer Paula Jean West and author and public relations professional Amy Allen. Thanks to Darrell Laurant for putting this together. Again.

    Several members of my Lake Writers critique group are going. The most raucous carload will be mine with Sally Roseveare and Karen Wrigley.

    Monday, April 5, 2010


    Have I mentioned before how much I despise proofreading? It's that necessary evil, the last step before I think "I'd done." I can only proof for about an hour at a time, so I have to break up a manuscript into easier-to-swallow bites. (Or should it be easier-to-proof pages??)

    Still, it has to be done, so I pulled out my red pens and my reading mask. No, not one that goes over my eyes (although . . .) but one that only exposes a single line of text. I read from bottom to top, right to left, word by word. It's tedious but any wrong word, any grammo, any typo pop out.

    At any rate, this weekend was warm and sunny, so proofing on the deck with water lapping on the dock was relaxing. Too relaxing, because I kept dozing off. Maybe it was the sun on my face. Maybe it was the droning of the carpenter bees looking for a spot to drill. Maybe it was the pfssst from the wasp spray on any bee with the audacity to land on our log home. Maybe it was the incredibly dull writing style. Whatever.

    I can never tell my friend that her work put me to sleep. I think I go back and finish proofing my manuscript. I don't fall asleep in it.

    Would that the last two best sellers I read had editors who took the time to read thoroughly and make all the necessary changes. Sigh.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010


    The first signs of spring are here:

    peepers singing at dusk and dawn
    earthworms on the sidewalk
    sun higher in the sky
    warmth in the sun, chill in the shade
    annoyed skunks letting the world know they are waking up
    writers re-emerging from their dark caves of creativity

    I set out to finish editing my manuscript, edits based on comments from my critique groups and from agents who were kind enough to tell me what was wrong with the opening movement while rejecting the book.

    I hit the goal on Sunday. One final read for the remaining typos and then it's off to agents for their reaction.

    I'm glad spring is here. I even missed the stinky skunks. Most of all, I am so glad my saint of a husband lived with the slug all winter while I muttered incantations over words, sentences, phrases and chapters. Thank you, Terry, for being here and being my sounding board. You are truly a saint.

    Monday, March 8, 2010

    A literary week and then some

    Last week was dominated -- happily (yes, I know it's a adverb!) -- by things literary.

    The first event of the week was a fantastic presentation by Sharyn McCrumb and Adam Edwards, authors of Faster Pastor, Sharyn's third NASCAR book and the first one written with a co-author. I had the pleasure and honor of reading an advanced reader copy of the book and reviewed it for Valley Business Front earlier this year. If you want to laugh out loud, this is a good book to read.

    Sharyn and Adam were very generous with their time, talking to a crowd of around 75 who braved sloppy, snowy roads, answering questions and signing books. The event was a fund-raiser for the Westlake Library, the newest community center at Smith Mountain Lake.

    The second event was private. A few friends gathered over lunch to talk about marketing for writers, both self-published and commercially published. We have been working on a marketing plan for new writers. We challenged each other, asked questions, brought in outside ideas, and I captured everything in an organic document. We want to test this with some of our friends who have books in print. We also think this would be a good resource for writers who have yet to publish, but who are getting close. We all determined it was never too early to think about how to promote your works. We also decided that it was hard work, but worth the effort in the end.

    And finally, the weekend concluded with me finishing My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. This literary novel is worth the investment in time. It is beautiful. I wish I could read the original Turkish, but if the English translation is faithful, I don't need to. The novel breaks all the "rules" for what agents say they want. It has so many different narrators that you have to refer to the bottom of the page to see who is speaking. The narrators do not have different voices. There are descriptive passages, adverbs, and other contemporary taboos. Perhaps because it is historical fiction, set in sixteenth-century Istanbul, that Pamuk broke all the rules and still found an agent. I'm glad he did.

    And now back to removing words ending in "ly" from my manuscript. (This caused no small amount of concern when I searched for "ly" and found over 1,000 of the bad critters. Then I remembered that a main character is "Emily." Solved that problem. For now, she is "Emilie." Can always change it back. . . .)

    Have a productive week and to all my writer friends, keep cranking out pages.

    Monday, March 1, 2010

    February Wrap Up

    Now that it is March 1st, I can safely say farewell to the Winter Olympics. Not that I watched all that much of the broadcasts. Nor did I care about which country won the most medals. I don't get curling and don't want to. I understand the origins of the biathalon, but after five minutes it was like watching paint peel. And what's with the twizzle? I hope I forget what it is in four years.

    I did go to a "meet the authors" event at a local eatery on Saturday. I wanted to see how the venue works (it doesn't; it's right next to the kitchen). I wanted to see if the room was too small for a crowd (it was way too small). I wanted to see who turned out to talk with and listen to three local writers: Sally Roseveare, Karen Wrigley, and Becky Mushko. I learned that when the audience is 80% friends and family, you don't sell many books. Such events, while nice and provide a bit of local publicity, will not make or break anyone's writing success. Back to the drawing board to study how to expand beyond local venues and all the familiar faces.

    And last, but not least, I am putting the finishing polish on my latest edit of what I call Mad Max 1. After receiving three rejections to query letters last year, in which three different agents made the same comments, I took their feedback to heart and rewrote about 70% of the opening section. Now with loose ends nearly knotted, I should be ready to resubmit and see what happens.

    At any rate, one of my resolutions was to make Mad Max 1 the best book I can. A second resolution was to submit it to agents and see what happens. One nearly complete, one ready to begin.

    Monday, February 22, 2010

    The Well and the Mine

    Disclaimer: I do not seek out Southern fiction, but sometimes it finds me.

    A few weeks ago I read a glowing review in Publishers Weekly about a debut Southern writer. Gin Phillips chose to write about a coal mining town in Alabama in 1931. Pre-teen Tess watches a woman throw a baby into her family's well. In her child's mind, this becomes a mystery that plays out against rural America during the Depression, against racism, potential mine disasters, company towns, and poverty. Yet the family is strong and supportive, and the climax is subtle and profound. From her opening sentence, "After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time." Now, THAT'S a hook.

    Phillips has a fine ear for idiom, but doesn't bog down dialogue with regionalisms. Enough for the reader to get the point, but no more. Her characters are as down to earth as the coal dust in work-hardened hands. Her language soars and dips, spare and lush, and always drives the story forward.

    I loved the experience of reading this book. I didn't put it on a Kindle. This demands the reader enjoy it in analog format -- a page-turning book.

    Monday, February 1, 2010

    Formal Book Launch

    Last week, Becky Mushko, author of Ferradiddledumday, and her illustrator, Bruce Rae, launched the publication of their new book with a pair of a dramatic readings of said work. The global premier was on Tuesday, January 26th, at the Franklin County Library in Rocky Mount. On Thursday, January 28th, the pair gave another spirited performance at the Westlake Library.

    The crowd got into the reading, er, performance, and laughed in all the right places.

    The Lake Writers at Smith Mountain Lake and the Valley Writers of Roanoke (a chapter of the Virginia Writers Club) are rightfully proud on this publication. We all thank Cedar Creek Publishing for seeing the worth of this retelling of the Grimm Brothers tale of Rumplestiltzkin and bringing the work to light.

    And now for the last shameless plug for a while: buy the book, buy the book, buy the book. I bought two and will buy more for presents.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Character Development

    I've been reading John Truby's The Anatomy of Story and find it very informative. I finished reading his chapter on character development when I needed a break. My husband and I hied off to a movie, Up in the Air. The way the George Clooney character developed could have been directly out of Truby's work. I was spellbound, expecting and seeing the next stage of the character's transformation.

    So, I recommend reading this chapter and then seeing the movie. Clooney transforms his character from detached to someone who begins to feel emotion. The character is not complete by the end credits, which makes the movie all the more intriguing to those of us who like to develop strong characters. They don't all have to begin as positive human beings, but they do have to face conflict, moral and psychological needs, and grow in the process. In fact, Truby wrote a brief analysis of this very point on his site.

    All in all, an interesting juxtaposition of reading and cinema.

    Monday, January 18, 2010

    Animal Communication

    On Saturday, I went to a public session on animal communicating led by Karen Wrigley. She worked with a golden retriever that stole the crowd's heart. She talked to several people directly, passing along messages from the pets, living and past over. I found her session uplifting.

    Karen has a new book coming out in a few weeks. Called Beyond Woofs and Whinnies, it's full of stories from animals to their humans. Even if you are a sceptic about communicating with animals, I encourage you to get the book. I read the manuscript and found it both entertaining and encouraging. As we say, buy the book, buy the book, buy the book.

    Saturday, January 16, 2010

    Proud of Member of My Critique Groups

    Becky Mushko was interviewed on Blue Ridge Library's Cover to Cover show recently as part of her promotion for her upcoming book, Ferradiddledumday. Her retelling of the Rumplestiltzkin tale is due out by the end of January. If you have second or third graders in the family, or if you are the grandparent of a second or third grader, or if you are a second or third grader, I highly recommend this book. It's available for pre-order through Amazon.

    Monday, January 11, 2010

    Critique Groups

    I've been participating in a lively discussion on a public blog on critique or writer groups for the past couple of weeks. Those who added comments about why someone would go to a writer group, both pro and con. Seems like a lot of people had negative experiences with their first group, just like I did. My first group was a disaster -- former teacher wanted to give out assignments to members rather than allow writers to bring in their own work and present it for comments.

    I stayed away from such groups until I moved to Smith Mountain Lake. Within a year, I joined the Lake Writers and found a lively but varied group of people passionate about the written word. We have poets, essayists, novelists, playwrites, and non-fiction writers.

    Then I joined the Valley Writers in Roanoke. That's not as convenient, since it's about 25 miles each way; however, I carpool with two fellow writers. There is some overlap in membership.

    Here's what I like being a member of both groups:

  • Former English teachers who do line edits for grammar, cliches, and the dreadful adverb.
  • Critical listeners who help with voice.
  • Critical readers who comment on story plot, character, and whether or not s/he feels what is important.
  • Poets who by nature labor over each word to help trim unnecessary words, stamp out poor word choice, and offer suggestions for different phrases.

  • Put these folks together and you have a terrific critique group that works with you to help you become a better writer. I have found my critique group home.

    Friday, January 8, 2010

    Valley Writers Chapter of Virginia Writers Club

    I must brag on myself and congratulate the new 2010 officers for the Valley Writers in Roanoke. Last night was our annual election. I was flattered to be elected president. Donna Knox, a wonderful memoirist, is now vice president. Richard "Dick" Raymond agreed to continue as treasurer. And Ken Thornsbury, who writes science fiction, is the secretary.

    We all thank the outgoing president, Jim Morrison, and vice president, Becky Mushko for their leadership, referring, and inspired mentoring. Those of us who have yet to publish have learned a great deal from these two published writers. And the critiques the rest of the group provide make us all better writers. Nothing like having a poet go word by word through a fictional chapter and suggest better ways of stating the obvious.

    The energy in this group is high and I hope to be able to continue leading us forward.

    My wish for the group: at least one of us is able to hold a published book or agent contract in our hands this year.

    Onward to happy scribbling and cranking out pages in 2010.

    Monday, January 4, 2010

    Bye Bye to Writer's Block

    At last, this attack of writer's block has ended in a burst of near-normal productivity. It started with a small essay for NPR, a brief letter to the editor that was published in the Roanoke Times, two articles as a freelance writer, the start of a short story I am writing with Edna Whittier, a fellow Valley Writer, and a multi-day exchange with another Valley Writer, Keith Martin, on what was wrong with the second chapter of Max 1.

    I think I finally figured out what was wrong with that chapter. Three agents commented on the same problem. I'm planning to read the chapter at Valley Writers on Thursday, rather than watch the NCAA National Championship game. Frankly, my dear writers, getting this chapter right is more important than either Texas or Alabama winning the football game.

    Friday, January 1, 2010

    'Possoms and 'Coons and Bears, Oh My

    With all due apologies for modifying this famous phrase, I ask, what do the three critters in the title in common with writers?

    Give up?

    We all hibernate in the winter. I love this time of the year. The lake is cold and quiet. Snow birds have driven south. Year-rounders are hunkering down and recovering from the holiday season. The family has left and my husband and I are alone with the calico-with-an-attitude.

    Nikki has the right idea. She's tucked in, not to be disturbed until the tree comes down on Twelfth Night. She'll survive, as long as we encourage her sleeping all day. Not a problem.

    And what do I have on my plate as a writer?

  • Finishing a revamp of Max 1 and getting it to be the best book I can write.
  • Sending the revamped book out to agents.
  • Seeing the book in print (or under an agent's guidance) before the end of the year.

    That's enough for now.