Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Another stop on Sarah McCoy's virtual book tour

by Joan

I read the advanced buzz on Sarah McCoy's second novel a few months ago and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it (look at that cover!). Then, not only did I finish the book in record time and grab the chance to send some Q&A to Sarah, but I also trekked to the wonderful Dallas Indie bookstore, A Real Bookstore in Fairview, Texas, to meet the lovely Sarah in person. By the time we met face-to-face, we’d been emailing back and forth like old chums, sharing Valentine’s Day stories and east-coast roots. It’s my lucky pleasure to introduce Sarah to our readers.

SARAH McCOY is the author of the novels The Baker's Daughter and The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico. The Baker's Daughter released in 2012 and was praised as a “beautiful heart-breaking gem of a novel” by Tatiana de Rosnay and a “thoughtful reading experience indeed” by Chris Bohjalian. The Baker’s Daughter is a Doubleday/Literary Guild Book Club selection. Sarah has taught writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. The daughter of an army officer, her family was stationed in Germany during her childhood. She currently lives with her husband and dog, Gilbert, in El Paso, Texas, where she is working on her next novel.

Interview: The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy

J: You wrote in a recent interview on the Bermuda Onion blog about your love of research and sequestering yourself in large university libraries. I also draw from the past when writing and get lost while doing so. Also like myself, you have written that you are a Type-A perfectionist. How do you cut yourself off and know when you’ve researched enough to start writing?

Sarah: Such a pleasure to meet a fellow perfectionist! We should form a Type-A tribe that meets around bonfires to burn imperfect pages and dull-tipped pencils. I actually didn’t have too much trouble when it came to reining in the research. Being the organization freak that I am, I outlined the story in my journal first so I had a road map for what elements I needed to inform the characters’ perspectives in specific chapters/scenes. Then I went searching for those historical nuggets. Of course, while pulling up related documents and interviews, I ran into information that blew the lid off my preconceived notions of present-day El Paso and WWII Germany. Like the material on the Lebensborn Program. To make the characters as authentic as possible, the known and unknown facts had to be included in their story. In a way, I, as the author/reader, was on a kind of fictional archeological dig to uncover understanding. Who were these German people beyond the stereotypical image we know? Similarly, who are we, Mexicans and Americans, today? Writing this novel was as much about the examination of history as it was the examination of community—myself included therein. So I guess that’s my roundabout way of saying I didn’t start with the research, as much as I enjoy it. I started with the characters.

J: And such lively characters they are! Part of the charm of The Baker’s Daughter is meeting the secondary characters. Jane and Riki, of course, but to me, the elder Elsie felt a different character altogether and I enjoyed fitting the pieces together to figure out how she got to that place. She is complex, wanting so much to be a good daughter, yet wanting her independence even more. How did she grow and change as you wrote her?

Sarah: Again, I must defer to my creative process. I outlined the “young” Elsie’s story first, so I knew what I was working with in the “old” Elsie. The idea sparked when I met a warm but feisty 80-year-old German entrepreneur selling bread at a bazaar in El Paso. I asked her how she came to be so far from Germany. She said she moved to Fort Bliss with her husband, an American soldier she met at the end of WWII. That ignited a flame in my imagination that wouldn’t die. I began to dream bigger and bigger until I felt I knew that Germany woman intimately. I could hear her voice, young and old, in my mind. So while the novel opens with Elsie in her 80s, I’d sketched out her narrative arc from young to old then wrote the chapters old to young. She became rounder and more substantial as I wrote my way through the book, but I always knew she struggled with what outside forces told her to do and what her heart told her was right. I believe that feeling is shared by woman and men today.

J: The mirror of the border patrol storyline in El Paso and the Garmisch Gestapo is a strong and ironic comparison, yet you don’t hit readers over the head with it. What surprised you most about the similarities?

Sarah: I didn’t start the book intending to make any comparison. I don’t have any political agenda or side. Independent. I wholeheartedly embrace that word/term/description. So I was simply writing a story about a German woman in El Paso. At the time I was freelance writing for a local Arts and Entertainment magazine while teaching a Research & Writing course at the University of Texas at El Paso. So Reba, Riki, Jane, Sergio, and all the present-day characters were born out of working with fellow journalists, interviewees around the city, and my students. You can’t live in El Paso or have a novel set in El Paso without discussing the Customs and Border Protection. It’s as everyday here as sand on the windowsill.

J: Nice analogy! Now there's another character who stole my heart: the singing Tobias. Elsie hides Tobias in a clever and shocking place. How did that scene come to you and did you receive flack from readers for it?

Sarah: I haven’t received any flack. In fact, Robin Kall, who hosts the Reading with Robin radio show, emailed me in the middle of reading The Baker’s Daughter to tell me that her grandfather had been hidden in a similar place when the Nazis invaded Poland. Of course, I wrote the novel never knowing about Robin’s grandfather. The fact that Tobias’s story reflected his… well, I got chills. Kismet at work. Robin loved the novel, and I’ll be on her show in March. I hope What Women Write readers tune in!

J: Looking forward to it! I peeked at your book tour schedule, a combination of virtual and in-person appearances. You blog, you Twitter, you're on FaceBook. How does the all-inclusive marketing landscape challenge you the most? When do you find time to research and write your next novel? Or do you?

Sarah: Good question! It is all-inclusive. Being an author these days takes every ounce of energy you’ve got. For marketing, you’ve got to do the online, the in-person, and the behind the scenes. Lord almighty, I’ve never wanted science to invent cloning so much. Either cloning or the ability to stop time: I’ll take either. I started writing my next novel this past fall so I’ve had a few months to get started. Like all my work, however, the story has been marinating in my journal for over a year. I’ve outlined it different ways, so we shall see which “choose your own adventure” the characters decide to take.

J: Can you tell us about it?

Sarah: The novel I’m currently working on examines parenthood. I’m captivated by the idea of nurturing—what it means to mother and father outside the conventions of physical paternity. Inspiration for this novel came from my own life and from walking closely beside close friends as they struggled with parenthood/fertility issues. It’s a contemporary story, set in a quirky place I hold most dear, and told from the perspectives of a husband and wife in a fractured marriage. My couple is confronted with monumental decisions regarding betrayal and forgiveness, life and death, which ultimately shape their future.

J: What a fascinating topic. Looking forward to that one! We love movies here, so I have to ask, are there plans to make a movie version of The Baker’s Daughter and who would your dream cast be?

Sarah: Mercy, girlfriend, I do love movies too! Nothing better than a Saturday night in fuzzy pjs tucked up on the couch with my husband, my pup, the smell of fresh popcorn, and a good movie! I can’t even begin to come up with a dream cast. I’m enamored by so many actors: Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Norton, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling… good heavens, I need to stop.

J: Eddie Redmayne is wonderful—I loved him in the miniseries version of Pillars of the Earth and was delightfully surprised to see him in My Week with Marilyn! Ooh, and don’t get us started on Ryan Gosling.

I’m looking forward to trying some of Elsie’s German recipes in the epilogue. Do you have a favorite?

Sarah: I so hope you give them a try! They’re stamped with my husband’s “Schmeckt gut!” approval. I couldn’t pick a favorite. They each have their own unique spice and flavor, their own beauty and promise of satisfaction. It all depends on what you, the reader and baker, are craving and what fills your hunger.

Thanks so much for having me over to What Women Write and for asking such great questions, Joan. I hope all of your readers enjoy The Baker’s Daughter!

J: Now, anyone up for a giveaway? There's a hardback on my desk, waiting for a hungry reader. Leave your email address by March 4th and we'll draw a lucky winner.

Monday, February 27, 2012

My four-legged writing partner

By Pamela

This blog is made possible by the writing partnership six of us created several years ago. One only has to read a few back posts to get an idea of what we've meant to each other in terms of support and collaboration.

But years before I met Joan, Susan, Kim, Julie and Elizabeth, I had another writing buddy. Today is the first day--in over 11 years--that I sit at my computer without him by my side. Saturday around noon, my husband and I made the difficult drive to the vet to put to rest our dog, Jett.

Jett on his 11th birthday.
Jett was a small puppy of 17 pounds when we rescued him in July 2000. As he forged his way into our hearts he managed to:
  • eat our deck
  • chew the back door frame off--more than once
  • dig up newly planted trees and drag them across the yard
  • leap our fence like a gazelle (until we installed a higher one)
  • free our yard from a nasty mole or two
  • terrorize a number of squirrels, birds and rabbits
  • snuggle each night with one of the boys in their beds
  • tolerate our girl--as long as she dropped food in his direction

Each day, after I'd kiss the children off to school,  Jett would pad toward my office, stopping to look over his shoulder as if to ask if we were ready to write for the day. Then he'd rest his head on my knee while I checked my morning email, waiting for the last bite of my granola bar.

Waiting for me to share a bite.
If I stayed in one place too long, I'd feel his warm nose under my arm and he'd keep nudging at me until I'd get up and take him outside for our much-needed break.

Perhaps today you write with a furry friend warming your feet or miss the one who warmed your heart.

Today, I'm missing my writing buddy.

Today, I'm missing my Jett.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Things That Don't Matter

By Susan

I spent over five years on the manuscript for my first novel. I did a lot of good things, a lot of bad things, and I stressed about a lot of details that didn't matter at all. We all write differently—and it's important to respect each other's processes. In the end, everyone must do what works for them. Yet as I struggled to learn the art of the novel, I was always hungry for examples of how other writers wrote—how I could improve, streamline my time, and perfect my craft. And since completing the novel was my goal, and my manuscript is finally in my agent's hands, I thought I would share what I've learned.

Now that I am deep into the edits with my agent (more about her in another blog post, I promise!) I see what is most important to her regarding what makes my story attractive to editors and eventually, readers. I've realized some important lessons that I didn't learn on my own.

Here's a quick list of the things that are rising to the top:

1) The story must grab the reader immediately and your plot cannot fall apart.
2) Your characters must be compelling, surprising, likeable, and consistent. Don't make your bad guys into caricatures, your protagonists flat, and your secondary characters more interesting than your top-billers. (I say this speaking directly from experience, trust me. It's not easy.) Your protagonist must carry the story.

3) Your prose must sing. Whenever I am knee-deep in edits, I remember a quote from one of my favorite authors, Silas House: "I always tell my writing students that every good piece of writing begins with both a mystery and a love story. And that every single sentence must be a poem. And that economy is the key to all good writing. And that every character has to have a secret." Is every sentence of your 80,000+ manuscript a poem? That's what second and third (and fourth) drafts are for. You must make it sing.

Here is a list of things that don't matter as much:

1) Word count. Unless your word count is woefully short (less than 60,000 words) or ridiculously long (over 150,000), I wouldn't give it a second thought. What IS important is economy in writing. At my agent's suggestion, I cut the details of an entire sub-plot. I didn't eliminate it, but by trimming everything superfluous that I'd originally thought was critical, I freed up my true story and improved the pacing dramatically.

2) Editing-while-you-go. Be careful. This may feel like a good idea, and I'm not saying to eliminate your natural editor entirely, yet the most important thing is to get the first draft on paper—and recognize it for what it is: a first draft. This doesn't mean your first draft is already perfect—it is far from perfect. You will scrub that draft over and over. Just get the first round on paper so that you can move forward.

3) Perfection. It doesn't exist. I spent days, weeks and months doing everything I could think of except writing while I wrote this manuscript—by convincing myself that it was all garbage, I paralyzed myself and simply didn't write at all. I've realized that you really don't know what it is until you get the first round on paper. Finish it. Don't obsess.

And here is a list of small cautions and advice:

1) Critique Partners—they are useless if they like you too much to tell you the truth. Choose wisely, and only work with those very select few who can help you with their feedback. Close friends sometimes are too nice. Even closer ones might be the opposite—overly-critical, yet unable to give constructive feedback. Be careful who you choose.

2) Support Group— your support group is the same yet different from your critique partners. These people may not have ever read a word you've written. This can be an online community, your spouse or family, or your best friend. They don't have to read your work to encourage you to follow your dream.

3) Write Alone—It is probably best to write the complete first draft alone. (Stephen King told me this in On Writing. I didn't listen to him the first time.) Remember the old adage about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the soup? Don't piece out your novel scene by scene for critique unless you want to possibly derail your manuscript. With that said, plotting and outlining will keep you on track. Toward the end of the manuscript I learned that I sometimes needed to think for two days and write for one. Knowing where my story was going was the key.

Will my next novel take five years? Hopefully, by following my own advice, I can economize my time, my words, and my manuscript. And in doing so, I'm becoming a better writer.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Can't Believe It Took Me This Long...

by Elizabeth

I can be sort of stubborn sometimes. When I've liked something and then it becomes popular, I hate seeming to be part of the trend when my embracing it was once something unique. So I'm not always the first to pick up a copy of whatever is the hottest new book. There are a lot of great reads I know I'm missing (but there is also only so much time, so many other terrific reads I'm enjoying instead) out of sheer obstinacy. Or just not-getting-around-to-it-ness.

I recently, and finally, read The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein's much-lauded novel that came out over three years ago. I know I'd heard critics, blogs, reviews, and friends rave about this book, and it was always sort of floating in the back of my head as a book I should read, I would read, believed would be a good read. Yet did not read.

Total head-slapper. What a terrific book! I can't believe it took me all these years, and yet, at the same time, how lucky that I got to enjoy this literary pleasure just now. So worth the wait, although if I'd known in 2009 how worth it, I don't think I'd have waited. Some other books I put off include Gone with the Wind, The Harry Potter Series (read the first book just before the movie came out, and spent the next 13 days devouring 2, 3, and 4--with a two year old and a baby, no less!), The Poisonwood Bible. Great books all, and I missed the first flush. (Okay, my mother was an infant when Margaret Mitchell published, but it took me until I was 30 to read about Scarlett and Rhett.)

I wondered if any of my cohorts had the same experience with a book they'd meant to read, didn't read, and later adored. Here's what three of them had to say:

Kim: The big one for me was To Kill a Mockingbird. I had heard it was good, but am not generally a fan of American classics, and so I put it off. For years. I don’t remember what finally made me pick it up, but once I did my nose never left it until I finished. I still haven’t read the Harry Potter books.

Julie: It's happened more than I care to admit, because that labels me a rebel … hmm …! But most recently, I finally read The Hunger Games after hearing so many people rave about it. My inclination was to ignore it; I don't read a whole ton of young adult fiction, and I only recently realized I kind of like dystopian fiction, depending on the story. I downloaded a sample of The Hunger Games on my Nook out of curiosity, then couldn't hit purchase fast enough. Since then, I talked my whole family into reading it, mostly with success, and we can't wait to see the movie. In the meantime, I'm putting off reading books two and three of the trilogy. How weird is that?

Pamela: It must be a common character trait among us because I, too, have books that I've resisted--for no apparent reason I can place my finger on. For five years I was in a book club and, on a few occasions, I didn't read the selection of the month. Most notably I remember: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Water for Elephants and The Time Traveler's Wife. All three remain on the bookcase behind me and I'll likely get to them, eventually, but the urgency has passed. I thought I SHOULD read Little Women but I started it and found it annoying. East of Eden is probably the most notable title I read a few years ago that I wished I'd read sooner. My friend Jennifer bought it for me and we read it at the same time. Loved it. I also remember my sister reading Go Ask Alice and my wanting to read it in middle school and being told I couldn't, due to the content. Surprisingly, I finally deemed myself mature enough to read it, I guess, thirty-odd years later and wished I hadn't waited so long. Julie, like you, I'm planning on reading The Hunger Games next. And I still haven't read any of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books. Must. Do. That.   

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quick, easy, and semi-healthy meals for writers on deadline!

By Julie

Having recently completed my first set of editor’s revisions on Calling Me Home, I can now officially say I’ve worked on deadline for this book. (Other than my self-imposed ones in the past, of which there were many!) During the last few weeks of edits, I barricaded in the house for days, working more hours than I care to count getting it all right.

The closer I came to deadline, the more I needed to make meals for my family that were quick, easy, and didn’t require a lot of measuring, shopping, or thinking ahead. I suppose if I were more enthusiastic about cooking, I’d prepare extra meals ahead of time and freeze them. Alas, that just isn’t me. It’s either fast … or it’s fast food, and of course, I don’t want anyone in the house eating fast food for days on end.

I thought it might be fun to share some of the meals we prepared. They’re not the healthiest meals on the planet. (I'm sure they contain preservatives and many other evil chemicals.) Neither are they the worst. We’re always trying to watch our weight and things like fat and cholesterol around here, and these mostly work for that. They’re not as inexpensive as, say, spaghetti with a ground beef sauce, but they also don’t break the bank. And … my kids are teenagers, which means they aren’t as picky as little kids might be.

Maybe you’re another mom or dad writer who needs to feed the family FAST. Would love to hear in the comments about meals you make that meet the qualifications. (Fast, easy, semi-healthy, and fairly inexpensive.) Leave links if want to!

·      Frozen Garlic Chicken
o   Costco sells a huge bag of this stuff, which is full of pasta and veggies, and it takes about 15 minutes to prepare. I add a whole cup of water as opposed to the ½ cup the bag calls for as it never seems to be enough to keep it from sticking to the skillet.
o   Serve with:
§  Open a can of peaches and a can of mandarin oranges (both about half drained), and slice a banana or two and six or seven strawberries into a bowl to make a fruit salad.
§  Optional: Pillsbury Italian or French loaf baked in oven. We often pre-slice the loaf into 10 or 12 individual rolls before baking.

·      Chicken wraps
o   Purchase pre-cooked chicken strips, pre-cut romaine lettuce, fresh tomato, parmesan cheese, Caesar or vinaigrette dressing, large tortillas or sandwich wraps. Serve buffet style. Kids enjoy making their own if they are old enough.
o   Serve with:
§  Store-bought prepared starchy side salad (macaroni or potato salad)
§  And/or kettle or Sun chips.

·      La Madeleine Tomato Basil Soup from Costco
o   Costco (yay, Costco!) sells a refrigerated two-pack of this delicious soup for around eight bucks, and it’s enough to feed at least five hungry mouths. (The package says eight servings, I think.) Dump it in a saucepan and heat it up in about ten minutes. Or microwave it. You can garnish with store-bought croutons and parmesan cheese.
o   Serve with:
§  A loaf of sliced French bread heated in oven, or even grilled cheese sandwiches.
§  Self-serve green salad fixings.

·      Brown sugar ham in crockpot with pineapple
o   Buy a fully cooked sliced ham (1.5 to 2 pounds or so, and I’ve read that a non-smoked one works better and doesn’t dry out as much). Use about 2 cups of brown sugar total, some on bottom of crockpot, some rubbed over top of ham. Dump a can of chunk pineapple with most of the juice drained around the edges. Cook on high for an hour or so, then low for another hour or so. Serve with a little of the juices that have formed from the ham.
o   Serve with:
§  Steam-fresh veggies prepared in the microwave (Green beans? Peas? Broccoli?). Stir in a small amount of butter or margarine after heating for flavor if desired.
§  A package of baked refrigerator biscuits with jam or jelly.

·      Chicken Tortilla Soup from Costco
o   Another Costco soup, also about eight bucks for double pack. We add several cans of extra ingredients as it’s not very hearty:
§  black, kidney, or pinto beans
§  corn
§  diced tomatoes
§  Plus extra seasoning (chili powder, garlic salt, etc.) to taste because we like things spicy.
o   Serve with:
§  Package of self-serve, self-heat tortillas or tortilla chips
§  Self-serve garnishes (cheese, sour cream, etc.)
§  A can of sliced pears or other fruit.

·      Chicken topped salad. (When you resort to chicken nuggets, you know you’re almost there.)
o   Prepare frozen chicken strips or nuggets, breaded or grilled, in whatever number of servings the bag calls for.
o   OR … have your spouse or teenager buy a precooked rotisserie chicken on the way home.
o   Use to top self-serve salad ingredients:
§  Dark leaf lettuce (spinach or spring mix).
§  Sliced strawberries, apples, or canned mandarin oranges.
§  Crumbled feta or other cheese.
§  Candied or honey-roasted pecans.
§  Dried cranberries, or other garnishes.
§  Balsamic vinaigrette or other dressings.

Yes, there’s a lot of chicken here. That means you don’t feel guilty when you order that big, juicy steak on the weekend to celebrate meeting your deadline.

And now you tell me what I can feed my family next time I’m on deadline in the comments, please!

(photo credit: kh1234567890's Flickr photostream, used by Creative Commons license)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Evenfall: A Review and Q &A with Author Liz Michalski

By Kim

About Evenfall (from the book jacket):

Welcome to Hartman, Connecticut – home of the Murphy women, known for their beauty, willfulness, and disastrous luck with men. Fifty years ago, Gert Murphy stood aside and watched her true love, Frank, marry her sister. Now Frank’s dead – dead, but not quite gone – and realizes he’s made a mistake.

Andie Murphy is just returning to settle her uncle Frank’s estate, a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse known as Evenfall. Though Aunt Gert drives her as crazy as she always has, Cort, the wide-eyed farm boy she used to babysit, is all grown up…and has a whole new definition of the word sleepover. And if that’s not enough to distract Andie from her work, the mysterious whispers certainly are. Either she’s losing her mind, or something she can’t see is calling to her…something that insists on mending the past.

Author photo by Elizabeth Sullivan Photography
About the author (from the book jacket):

Liz Michalski graduated from college in Connecticut with a BA in English. She has worked as a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two small children and large brown dog. Evenfall is her first novel.


Nina sees the man first. It’s a warm summer day, the kind where, when I was alive, you’d have found me down by the creek. Fishing, I’d have said if anyone asked, though the only thing worth catching there was a long, cool breeze. 

These are the opening lines of Evenfall, Liz Michalski’s debut novel. Given my fascination with ghosts, I knew from that second sentence that this was a book I could not put down. The prose is beautiful, the love stories bittersweet, the longing and regret palpable. The house, Evenfall, is not just a setting, but a character. The dog, the cat, even the goats and a snapping turtle are integral to the story, not mere props. The Murphy women, Frank, and Cort are all believably flawed and you love them for it. Neil is so flawed I wished I could scratch his eyes out. Men, don’t be frightened off by “love story.” I know of several guys who openly admit to having enjoyed Evenfall, particularly a certain few pages (see below). Word of warning: don’t hand it to a teenager without reading said pages first.


Welcome to What Women Write, Liz! You begin Evenfall from the point-of-view of a ghost, a perspective that drew me in immediately. How did you come up with this idea? 

Honestly, the first line of the book just popped into my head one morning. And then a few days later, I wound up touring the house that Evenfall is based upon. The two events just sparked the novel for me -- a man who loved his life, and his home, so much he just can't leave it.

You have become quite the topic of conversation in the pick-up line at school. Tell us about that. 

Hee. I was lucky enough to have lots of support from the people I met at my children's grammar and preschool. Evenfall is a love story on many levels, and mostly very clean, but there is one particularly steamy scene (starting on page 117 for those who would like to skip ahead). The month after the book came out, I was constantly having people sidle up to me at school when I was waiting to pick up my kids, saying things like "I liked your book. And, um, that scene..." Which is awesome, but also not the kind of thing you want to be discussing around the principal. : )

Nina serves as a sort of bridge between the living and spiritual worlds, yet she can’t exactly translate. Why did you choose an animal for this role? Was she inspired by a real dog? 

Nina was inspired by a real dog -- (you can read more about her on the secret pages -- see below). For me, an animal was a logical bridge between the two worlds. Animals have such keen senses, it's not such a stretch to imagine they can see and hear things that we can't. At the same time, Nina can't speak for Frank -- she can only provide the same type of silent support that our own animals do.

Evenfall was your debut novel. Tell us a little about your road to publication? 

I was very fortunate. I met my agent at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston and connected with him right away. He worked on Evenfall with me for about a year, and then sold it shortly after he sent it out. On the other hand, it took me a really long time to write Evenfall -- like eight years to finish it -- so that part of the process was extremely long.

Your author page is wonderful and you have secret pages on there where readers can learn more about the backstory of the book. (Great idea, by the way.) If a reader wishes to access these pages, what would you like them to do?

I love my secret pages and I'm glad you do too -- it's so much fun to share more about Nina and other parts of the story. I've asked those who read and liked the book to email me (at and I'll send them the links and passwords.

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

An introvert who has learned to hide as an extrovert. It's nice to go out sometimes, but I'm happiest hanging at home with my husband, kids, and big dog. An ideal weekend is one where it snows or rains enough to keep everyone home and in pajamas. Sadly, that only happens about once a year.

You have small children. How do you manage to get any work done? 

At times it can definitely be a struggle. When my two kids were really little, I'd write for a few nights a week after my husband came home, and then for two hours or so on the weekend. Once or twice a year I'd go away for the weekend and just crank out as many words as I could, but I always felt guilty about leaving, which I guess did serve as a great motivator to get my writing done. I spent a lot of days playing on the floor, repeating one line over and over in my head so I wouldn't lose it before I could get to the computer to write it down.

This is the first year both my kids have been in school all day. It was actually tough to adjust to at first, but I've finally developed a good routine where I work on my fiction three mornings a week, and then do freelance work or other writing stuff the other two. Of course, it will be chaos again when summer comes!

Do you prefer composing or editing? Why? 

It depends. When I'm telling a new part of the story that I'm excited about, I love how easily the words flow, and how well they fit together. On the other hand, it is so satisfying to see when a chapter isn't working and be able to fix it. Which one I prefer depends on my mindset of the day -- and is usually the opposite from what I am doing!

What are you reading now? 

I always have a stack of books going. I just finished Julia's Child, by Sarah Pinneo, a novel which captures so honestly the struggle between having a dream and a career and raising a family. I'm one chapter into The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, and really enjoying it. And I'm rereading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle in preparation for sharing it with my daughter's book club.

Are you working on another novel now?

Yes, I'm working on a story about a family in which in each generation, one daughter develops the power to make things disappear. It's a different story entirely, but has the same kind of feel to it as Evenfall, I hope.

Any advice for aspiring writers? 

When I first started trying fiction, a friend pointed me to, an online workshop. It was a great place to learn not only how to write, but how to give and receive criticism. I was so inspired by the stories I read there, by how seriously people took the craft of writing, and by how generous they were with their feedback. I'd read a short story I loved, then try and pinpoint why it worked for me. And then I'd sit down and write. So read. Read, read read. Try and figure out how other authors write action scenes, how they handle dialogue, how they build a plot. What makes a scene work? And then sit down in that chair and write, even if you've only got 15 minutes today. There's no other way to get the words on the page.

Thank you for stopping by today, Liz!

Evenfall is available at bookstores everywhere. If you've read the book, please tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Who are you, really?

By Julie

Recently, my best friend and I were discussing (by text, no less) the merits of a new hair product we both tried, me at her suggestion. At one point in our conversation, I chuckled over her routine of various and sundry products while I sighed at mine: Shampoo. Conditioner. Hairspray.

It also made me remember a scene from a slice-of-life 2006 movie I really liked called Friends with Money. Kind of a spoiler, but at one point near the end, the character Jane, played by Frances McDormand (LOVE! Also of Fargo fame …), admits she stopped washing, combing and styling her hair because none of the products lived up to their hype. None of them made her young and beautiful. So she just decided to be who she was without them. (Hmm. Plain Jane? I just realized that!) The indication, obviously, is that she will come back to the balance of using what works for her to be true to herself—neither going overboard buying a new product every week, or completely giving up on her own plain, unique beauty.

And, of course, this conversation and movie memory brought a metaphor for writing to my mind. Because those metaphors, they’re always jumping me. (Thanks again, David Wilcox, for this line.)

Sometimes we try so hard to find the perfect course to show us how to write. The perfect article to show us how to prettify a passage. The perfect advice to make our writing …


When sometimes what we really need to do is just get out of the way.

Sometimes that “product” we squirt on our fingers and work through a paragraph or chapter or entire novel is the thing that makes it stand out as forced. The “product” we spray on liberally can be the thing that detracts from the natural shininess of words that were quite lovely on their own. Looking for the perfect “product,” we sometimes spend so much time and money, our own unique voice is submerged in the hunt.

Now, I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea to search for and use things that can improve our writing (or our hair!). But ultimately, we have to get out of the way. We have to find what makes us really and truly ourselves on the page.

Uncombed. Uncoated. Uncamouflauged.

That’s when the real story comes out.

photo credit: from simon_redwood's Flickr photo stream, used by Creative Commons license

Monday, February 13, 2012

Good question, Taylor!

By Pamela

Last night while sorta-watching the Grammy awards (they were on; I was doing last-minute weekend chores), I paused when I heard Taylor Swift singing "Mean."

If you're not familiar with the song, the video is here on YouTube:

Part of the lyrics read:

You, with your words like knives and swords and weapons that you use against me
You have knocked me off my feet again got me feeling like I'm nothing
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard, calling me out when I'm wounded
You, pickin' on the weaker man

Her ballad made me think about how mean we seem to have become as a society. You can blame it on the anonymity the Internet provides, but I'm astounded at the meanness that prevails today. It's gotten so bad that you see people disabling comments on blogs or articles, blocking people on Facebook, doing whatever possible to heed off negativity. I could give you a list of examples I've seen, but I have no doubt you've seen them too. In fact, I remarked to my boy the other day that I could post an article about how I'm donating most of my paired organs and someone would question why I wasn't giving more. Or my motives. Or slam my haircut if a photo of me accompanied the story.

Why you gotta be so mean?

It's enough to make you want to crawl in a hole and keep anything and everything about your life private. But writers depend on publicity to help sell books. In fact, most authors I know work tirelessly to self-promote by whatever means possible: Facebook, guest blogging, Twitter as well as hoping people post positive reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, B&N, etc.

I'm not naive enough to think that anyone is immune to negative reviews. Even best-sellers don't resonate with everyone. I do think it's not too much to expect people to play nice. Posting ugly comments about a book--even to go as far as to say that the author has no business being published--is really just mean. If you think your comments might be helpful to other readers, then I think that's fine. Just remember that authors are human beings with feelings and do read their own books' reviews. Even though you're commenting about a BOOK, you're really commenting about the person who wrote it.

If anything, you can try living by the mantra my mother used to repeat to me: If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.

As I step off my soapbox, let me leave you with one last suggestion: If you've recently read a book you enjoyed--or even absolutely loved--make that author's day and leave a positive review on a book site such as the ones mentioned above.

I think Taylor would approve.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Vow prize pack

By Julie

Here at What Women Write, we love movies ALMOST as much as we love books! As you might know, the What Women Write team went to a Girls Night Out screening of The Vow a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which is based on true events. 

Now we get to give away a pack of fun things related to the movie thanks to the local film studio representative. Here's what the pack includes. (We're not entirely sure what a voice-recordable rose is, so be sure to let us know because it sounds like it might be fun. Perhaps you can write your next novel by speaking directly into the rose?!)

·        THE VOW soundtrack
·        Pass for two to see THE VOW at a DFW-area Cinemark theatre
·        THE VOW notecube
·        THE VOW-cher coupon book
·        Voice-recordable rose
·        Red heart-shaped bowl

If you live in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, please sign up for this completely randomized drawing by leaving a comment on the post, and we'll announce a winner late Tuesday, February 14, just in time for Valentine's Day. (Unfortunately, it will have to be the promise of a Valentine's date as opposed to a date on the actual day because I don't think FedEx is quite that fast.) Be sure to check back Tuesday so you can send us your contact info if you are the winner!

UPDATE/WINNER: The winner of the prize pack is HappyHappyJoyJoy! Please be sure to send me your contact information so we can send the prize out immediately! Thanks, everyone, for playing!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

O, Pamela, Where Art Thou?

by Elizabeth

So it's been over a year since we drew names and I did a happy dance realizing I would get to interview Pamela for the blog. And now, finally, readers get their own day of joyful jigging as the interview at last sees light. While we can cast dour looks at my mug shot to the right, another way to look at this belated meet-and-greet is to consider the pleasure of anticipation. Plus, the day this posts (also known as "today") will be Pamela's birthday!* So let's celebrate her big 2-9 (or the anniversary of it, anyway); grab a cup of coffee, a slice of cake, and say hello to Pamela Hammonds.

EL: Pamela, first of all, happy birthday! But enough of that, let's talk about me. Oops, I meant about you. You've mentioned before how you met Joan and Kim and Susan via what some would call butting-in, if it were me doing it. Would you say this is a characteristic trait, or did stepping outside yourself bring about these relationships? And in each case, were you aware that you were acting beyond your normal boundaries?

PH: Thanks for the birthday wish, though I admit I am not 29. I wouldn't even want to be! As far as your question, I'm not a big butter, I don't think, but I do remember times when opportunity passed me by and I found myself regretting not having acted upon an impulse, so I'm more of a seize-ist, perhaps. When I attended the writers' group, where I met Joan and Kim, I had gone a bit out of my way to be there and didn't want to leave not having accomplished something. Susan, I had been sorta stalking all morning, having seen her across the room at the writers' conference we were attending. She looked like someone I should meet and so I did. Worked out pretty well, I'd say! No regrets at all. And, of course, had you and I not met through Joan, I would have found you too, somehow. Same for Julie.

EL: When did you first think of yourself as a writer? How about a novelist?

PH: Oh, you can dig through my boxes in the attic and find a story or two that I did many moons ago, but I don't think I thought of myself as a writer until I got paid to do it. (Tells you a little about my value system, I suppose.) My first paying gig was working as a stringer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. I answered a want-ad for a writer, part-time, work from home and was shocked when they called because I didn't think I was qualified. My beat was reporting on high schools. I had to find my own stories, take my own photos, etc. but I loved it. I was new to the area and it got me out of the house, driving around the town. It was a great two-year stint and really helped me hone my skills along with learning AP style, which looks stellar on a resume. (kidding) I won't consider myself a novelist until I'm published. I guess right now I'm a manuscriptist.

EL: We've talked a lot about our annual retreats here on the blog. What about them do you find personally beneficial?

The camaraderie and the late nights around the table listening to each others' stories make me eternally grateful for what I have here. Plus it holds me accountable for getting words on the page.

EL: When I think about your life so far, I see you in a number of varied roles that changed with various circumstances. For instance, you were very clearly a "mom-of-boys" for something like a dozen years until you got the surprise gift of a baby girl. You've also lived in a number of different places. How have your many hats affected your fiction?

Pamela's children
PH: I think children certainly influence writing but more than boys vs. girls, my children are all very different creatures. I have one whose passion is music; another who announces his presence in a room with the tap-tap-tap of his feet smacking a soccer ball as he walks. My girl is not very girly at all but seems cognizant of all that is girly in that she has dolls and a Caboodle that she'll drag out when friends come to play. But she's feisty and comfortable in her own skin, which I'm hoping she holds close. I think the fact that I grew up in the Midwest, moved to LA, moved to Alabama (lived there for 10 years) moved back to the Midwest and now live in Texas--along with all the friends I've amassed over my lifetime--has made me aware of place as it pertains to story. I have a fondness for Southern fiction and will always feel as though I belong on a front porch swing with a glass of iced tea in my hand. I think of Indiana as a place I'm from but the south is where I feel I belong.

EL: Is there a writer whose career gives you particular inspiration--or hope?

PH: Every debut author gives me hope and my fellow WhatWomenWriters, in particular, inspire me with their dedication to the craft and their generosity.

EL: Have you ever read a new book and been pissed off because you had a similar idea and now it was out there? (Not that this has ever happened to me, no, not at all, grrr...) Is there any book do you wish you had written?

PH: Oh, I don't think I've had an idea that was particularly unique before. I tend to write like a fly on the wall--hanging out and observing the nuances of everyday life. That's most interesting to me: what's going on inside your neighbor's house after they close the blinds. I don't tend to have book-envy although I must say that stories that weave in different cultures and time periods can make me well-aware of how limited my travel has been. But I will say that the story Joan and I wrote (which had two main characters who were writers) was rejected a few times because supposedly books about writers don't sell well and yet, we see it all the time, so that's frustrating.

EL: I'm going to put you on the spot now, so get ready. When I think of our blog group, I sort of classify you as our MamaBear, and really, the leader. I wonder how you see your role? What unique qualities do you think you bring to our group?

PH: My son's phone has me listed as MamaBear, so that makes me laugh. I do think I have a nurturing gene--passed down to me from my mom. I love to bake and cook and feed people. And probably I tend to be a peace-keeper and want everyone to get along. Fortunately, with our group, we're pretty compatible. I have little patience for gossip and pettiness. As far as my role? I don't see myself leading us--mostly just corralling us at times to make sure we don't forget the value of community, whether it's scheduling a lunch or a celebration dinner. It's all important.

EL: And now, just some fun dumb stuff. What is your favorite soup?

PH: Ahh...I have a few: chicken and rice, baked potato, broccoli cheddar. All those creamy soups that are very fattening.

EL: Favorite cereal? Fruit?

PH: Right now it's Kashi GoLean Crunch over yogurt. Fruit: Strawberries. And if they're dipped in chocolate, even better!

EL: And finally, a quiz I love to give people. (I'm endlessly amused by this, others, not so much.) Cake or ice cream?

A cheesecake Pamela recently made
PH: Cake!

EL: Cake or pie?


EL: Cake or cookies?

PH: That's a toss-up because I just baked some killer snickerdoodles. Probably cake which includes cheesecake, too, right?

EL: Okay, you are a cake-girl! Isn't that a terrible dilemma? And finally, a little girl has said "bird poop" at least three times at the next table as we're sitting here. It has to be a sign. Do you have a good bird poop story?

Pete (Pamela's brother), Pamela, Molly, Gretchen and Chip

PH: When I was little--maybe four or five--I remember my sister Gretchen pointing out something across the neighbor's field, and a bird pooped on her arm. Four out of five of us thought it was hilarious! Of course, later I learned that what we call bird poop is really their urine. But it's definitely more fun to say 'bird poop' than 'bird urine,' isn't it? Which is probably why that little girl keeps repeating it.

EH: Now that was worth waiting for, wasn't it? Thanks, Pamela! And again, happy birthday!*

* In honor of her birthday, Pamela will bake a cheesecake for every reader who comments either here or on Facebook. Not! But man, wouldn't that be great? Still, drop by her FB page and wish her a great day. And plenty of cake.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Downton Abbey you say?

by Joan

By now you’ve made your choice—The Super Bowl or Downton Abbey. By now I'm feeling the effects of staying up too late to watch both. Football is fun, but Downton Abbey is an addiction. For you too?

Finding out you share the same literary tastes as others is a real treat. Like discovering a new novel or vacation spot.

Many of my writer friends share my passion for British literature and period dramas, but sometimes you find those who do in unexpected places. I expect similar tastes in writing partners (Sense and Sensibility anyone?), even from the one of my three sisters who first steered me toward that tiny but powerful island of literature. She’s the reason I read Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, and found two of my favorite authors, Rosamund Pilcher and Maeve Binchy.

We both agreed we could watch Love, Actually every night of the year and that any movie with Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Matthew MacFadyen or anyone with the last name Redgrave is okay by us. Many times we’ll spend more time talking about literature than our mom or the state of the world.

If you have yet to imbibe in that addicting show Downton Abbey, go to or Netflix and pour your first of many glasses. Julian Fellowes created a brilliant drama and explains our fascination with British society here.
Here’s a tease of last night’s episode.

A few years ago I learned one of my cousins was also an Anglophile, and she and I often email back and forth about Downton and discuss plot twists. She insightfully said, “I think part of the success of Downton is that no one is perpetually aggravating, even O'Brien has a conscience. And Bates' wife has been silenced. I'll be glad when that arc is finally finished and Bates and Anna are together. These characters grow and change in ways that are very uncommon. Look how far Mary's come, and Maggie Smith is threatening people so that she can take care of the hired help, that is really brilliant.” And, “I hope O'Brien kills off Bates' wife, that's the only resolution I'll settle for.” Ooh, I responded, that would be a delicious twist!

My husband’s aunt likes British drama as well and at Christmastime we oohed and ahhed and huddled together on the couch sharing titles. Even at work, where we primarily discuss real estate investment and financing, I found an unlikely companion in someone I barely knew. She sent me the link to Secrets of the Manor House and I gave her a list of books to take on vacation and she’s making her way through them happily.

Sometimes you never know: the person sitting next to you on the subway or in line at the DMV, might share your passion for Downton Abbey or Love, Actually. Or she might prefer quirky movies like Hot Fuzz, oddball shows like Spaced or Love Monkey, or a basketball or football game. Or she might just like them all. You never know unless you ask.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Underside of Joy

By Julie

Now and then in life, you come across someone and you seem to have an immediate connection. Sometimes it sticks. Shortly after I was offered representation by Elisabeth Weed and sold Calling Me Home, I connected with Seré Prince Halverson, another one of Elisabeth's authors. We haven't met in person, though we will later this month when she comes to Austin, Texas, for a signing at BookPeople, a wonderful independent bookstore, and we've been jumping up and down like little kids, counting the days.

In the meantime, we rattle off Facebook messages like teenagers, as if we've known each other forever, often laughing over the little things we find in common, and dropping our jaws over the big ones.

Seré's debut novel, The Underside of Joy, released in mid-January. I'd been wanting to read it since before we ever met. At the BEA Editors Buzz Forum last year, where Seré's book was featured alongside books like Naomi Benaron's Running the Rift, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, and Erin Morgenstern's, The Night Circus, her editor Denise Roy (Dutton) said, "It gave me goosebumps. On my face." And who wouldn't want to read a book that gives you goosebumps on your face?

The book lived up to my expectations and then some. When I finally got my copy, I stayed up until nearly three a.m. reading, then passed out and finished it the next morning. I handed it to my mother, an avid reader. By the next day, she'd finished, too. She was up until four a.m. reading Seré's powerful story. But let me stop gushing and tell you about the book. Here's the description:

To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family’s market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.

Rather than the fairy tale version of step-motherhood that pits good against evil, The Underside of Joy explores a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the children’s mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars — physical and emotional — to their families’ deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.

I knew I'd want to have Seré as a guest on What Women Write, but I wanted to do something out of the ordinary, not just a standard Q&A. As I read The Underside of Joy, things began to jump out at me. Themes. Metaphors. Whatever you want to call them, they intrigued me. They're kind of my thing. I started jotting a list, then asked Seré if she'd be willing to take this palette of words and paint a word picture for us. A picture of The Underside of Joy. A picture of Seré on an ordinary day. A picture of Seré as a writer.

She's a good sport. She said, "When I spoke at my book launch about how I came to write the book, I described it as a five-car accident in my head … five different things that collided and out of that I wrote the opening to the book. But a painting sounds much nicer than a car accident!"

I had fun matching Seré's words with photos I found on Flickr (all used by Creative Commons License, by the way). I hope you'll enjoy what Seré has done here with her palette of words, and I hope they'll intrigue you so much, you'll read her beautiful story, The Underside of Joy, too. You won't regret it.

I am known among my family and friends as someone who occasionally shouts, “Look at the trees! Look at the trees!” I
have a thing about trees, especially redwoods. I lived in San Diego for 17 years. Gorgeous beaches. Swaying palm trees. Fragrant eucalyptus. But no redwood forests. I understand; you can’t have everything all the time. But when I moved back up to Northern California, I became somewhat of a tree hugger. (In the sense that I literally did hug them. But only occasionally. ) There is nothing quite like walking in a forest. The scents. The quiet. The cool, filtered, speckled air. The patch of blue sky floating way, way up above. And redwoods grow in family circles, feeding off the old mother tree. Once the redwoods planted themselves in my novel, their roots ran deep, and they stayed.

I love the song “And It Stoned Me” by Van Morrison (Apologies to Lydia, a mutual friend of Julie and mine.) “Oh, the water…let it rain all over me.” The story in that song keeps coming back to the water, in all its different forms. Water keeps showing up in The Underside of Joy too. The ocean, the tears, the river, the Tupperware containers full of melted ice, the rain, the bathtub, the puddles, the pool…Oh, the water! There’s the strange way the deep forest almost seems like the bottom of the sea. To me, grief feels like drowning, debt and stress feel like drowning. But there are the cleansing properties of water too. And the nourishment of water that makes Ella’s garden grow, that gives Elbow its towering redwoods.

I am a stepparent and I have stepparents. My kids and stepkids have them too. In the best situations, the shared love of the same children unites and conquers all the jealousies and weirdness and comparisons that us humans carry inside us. But more often, that shared love weaves in and out of those other feelings. There are good moments and bad; the relationships between parents and stepparents can be deeply complex. And I’m a writer. Let me dip my pen into deeply complex any day.

Years ago, I wrote a website and press kit for a vineyard in Oregon. I interviewed the winemaker, Laurent, who had a gorgeous French accent. He explained all the intricacies of terroir—that sense of place that’s present in wine, and how some people argue that terroir is not just the place where the grapes are grown, but also what happens to the grapes, the choices made during the winemaking process. When I wasn’t writing websites and ad copy or driving kids around, I was working on The Underside of Joy. Terroir swirled around and around in my head. Soon the characters were talking about not just the terroir of wine, but the terroir of Annie and Zach.

There are many secrets in The Underside of Joy, but they are not of the same variety. There are the secrets people plan to tell, but haven’t told yet, the Someday secrets. There are the topics that are known within a family but not openly discussed, The Taboo secrets. There are the things remembered since childhood, but stowed away and never spoken aloud. The Don’t Ever Tell secrets. There are the questions never asked, that might never have become secrets had the questions only been posed, the I Don’t Want to Know secrets. Not all secrets are created equal. But all secrets do tend to create havoc in the soul.

What’s not to love about a picnic? There are ants and the threat of rain and occasionally, dog doo stuck in the rubber sole of someone’s tennis shoes making a horrendous stink. But we press on. We figure it out. We spread out our blankets and unpack a feast. Someone throws a Frisbee. We pour lemonade, wine perhaps. The sun peeks out from a cloud and warms our upturned faces, and we think of that someone who can’t be with us. A longing has followed us here after all, as we watch the kids play in the distance, already looking like the memory this day will soon be. We toast anyway. We laugh and love and reach for the chicken salad.


lives in northern California and worked as a freelance copywriter for twenty years while she wrote fiction.

She and her husband have four grown children. She is a mom and a stepmom, and grew up with a mom and a stepmom. This is her debut novel.

Look for The Underside of Joy everywhere books are sold.

Photo credits by Creative Commons License at the following Flickr photostreams: albedo20, Divine in the Daily, Susan NYC, Juliana, Kim.Wood, archeoseby

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