Friday, August 31, 2012

School's In!

Photo by Deborah Downes
By Kim

I don’t know about the rest of you Mama Writers out there, but summer in the Bullock household means an enforced twelve-week vacation from any real productivity. Short of rewriting parts of my opening two chapters for the 327th time, I spent my summer shuttling children back and forth to various camps or living at the dance studio while my aspiring ballerina logged in ten grueling hours of class a week.

I didn’t mind the break because I knew that it would allow me to return to my finished manuscript with fresh eyes and see those places where the polish is a bit thinner, or the transition a bit weaker. There were times I looked longingly at my computer, but consoled myself with the thought that I had no reason to rush through final edits, polishing a query letter, or finishing the dreaded synopsis. Most agents I want to submit to would be on vacation anyway.

After taking a few first-day pictures of my beaming second grader and my startlingly grown-up sixth grader, I dropped them off at school on Monday and rushed home. The house seemed too quiet and as I opened my manuscript I heard a small whine from the day-bed. The dog gazed at me mournfully, lost without a child to cuddle with. So I cuddled with him, and I mourned the thought that this was the very last first-day that my children would attend the same school.

All too soon the baby I held back in 2001 will be in middle school. She’ll make new friends, try new activities, and continue to nurture her passion for dance. I’ll have to let her go, to watch and worry as she transitions that much closer to an independent life, to hope that I have guided her well and armed her with the courage to hold tight to who she is through those harrowing adolescent years.

An entirely different kind of adolescent waits impatiently on the hard drive of my computer. This one demands independence now, and very soon I will have to let it go out into the world. And I’ll check my inbox incessantly, waiting and worrying, hoping for word that I shaped it well enough to stand on its own.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Boo Hoo and Yahoo

by Elizabeth

A couple of days ago, I sent my little girl off for her very last first day of elementary school. Assuming we don't move (we're not) and she's not expelled (she won't be), my kids will have accomplished what I did not, attending the same elementary school all the way from kindergarten to graduation.

I have only two kids, but it still seems like a stretch of time we've spent at this school. Some faces have changed. We're on our second principal, we just lost our beloved counselor, and those K-5 parents are mostly strangers to me. Many folks have remained, though. Most of the teachers my kids have had are still there, the same art and music and PE and technology teachers. The same librarian.

On the first day each year, the PTA hosts a "Boo Hoo and Yahoo" breakfast for parents. My first one, in 2004, was definitely a boo hoo, my baby boy a kindergartner! When did that happen? I met a number of women that day I still count as friends. Some, like me, were releasing their firstborn. Others were more seasoned and yahooing over their new-found freedom to start a new job or just go to the grocery store alone. Every year I've grabbed a cup of coffee, milled about the cafeteria chatting with old friends and new, always taking a moment or several to simply look around, observe and absorb. I was very aware last weekend that this year's breakfast would be my last. Next year will be junior high and high school, and a different kind of boo hooing.

 (Sixth grade girls, ready for the year)

But you know what happened? I forgot to go! The sixth graders have a tradition of meeting up on a local lawn for breakfast the first day, then walking as a class to school. I dutifully dropped off my daughter and her friend, snapped a few quick pictures on my phone, and headed back home to walk my son to school. And totally forgot about the breakfast.

Now, a few days later, I'm wondering what this says about me. Maybe nothing. Or maybe that the transition has already begun. Have I already said goodbye to elementary and resigned myself to the next phase? Honestly, I don't think so. The good news is, I've been able to shrug it off. In the past, that might not have been possible, and my husband would be very happy to tell you how I am more than capable of agonizing over what is missed.

But letting go--letting go of missed opportunity, of traditions, of time--is part of life. It's also a big part of writing. It's hard to let go of words we love, words we've carefully cultivated and arranged, but that perhaps no longer have a place. Hard to let go of a great scene, or a great character, that turns out just doesn't belong. But like letting go of a missed event or letting go of a school, as I will be forced to do in nine short months, is part of life. Letting go of words is part of writing. It's hard.

This year, I would have been ambivalent in my boo hoo or yahoo. Instead, I'm letting it go. I've let characters go completely, and I keep a "darlings" file for scenes I love that have no place in the stories as they proceed, but I can't say I really look at it. It's filed away, the memories and ghosts of what was and what is no more, and that's enough. As it should be.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Keeping the Bubble Between the Lines

By Pamela

Yesterday my husband bravely scaled a dangerously high ladder and installed some curtain rods for me in our living room, aka The Yellow Room, as not much 'living' really goes on in there. As I stood safely on solid ground (Do you sense I'm not a fan of ladders?), he fired away questions: How high do you want them? How far out from the window? Does my butt look good from down there? (Kidding on the last one.)

My second-in-command, aka my nine-year-old wanna-be decorator, put in her two-cents. "I'm thinking you'll need that bubble stick to make sure it's not crooked," she offered.

"I got the bubble stick," her dad responded. To me he said, "Can you hand me the level?"

While writing I keep an arsenal of tools at the ready. Of course I couldn't write as efficiently and effectively without my computers and the software someone so brilliantly created, but I also heavily rely on the Web, not only for research but for making sure I can find the answers to any grammar issues that threaten to trip up my writing.

Because I write and edit for a publication that adheres to Associated Press Guidelines, I use quite frequently. So if I need to know if it's kick-boxing, kickboxing or kick boxing, I can go there for help. I have a paid subscription but if you want a free way to check you can 'like' AP Stylebook on facebook and the editors will answer questions you post. Or you can call me and I'll look it up.

I don't know about you but some grammar situations my pea-sized brain never seems to fully grasp. Who/whom is one. For those occasions I head over to Grammar Girl for her Quick and Dirty Tips. If similar words such as further vs. farther trip you up or you wonder if you should use e.g. or i.e., check out her site.

Joan sent me a link to Writer's Digest the other day that helped explain 'that vs. which' and my guess is we probably all get it wrong from time to time. is a good tool to have in your toolbox for those times when a grammar question stops you in your tracks.

I haven't used it lately, but I've also been known to pick a fight with Googlefight when it comes to a word choice. Googlefight, which has nothing to do with Google, will let your words duke it out to see which is more widely accepted online. I remember trying to decide if a racetrack had 'pit row' or 'pit road.' When I used Googlefight, pit road was the clear winner but I did more research and determined that one is used in NASCAR and the other in Indy Car races. (Don't ask me which one is which--I've already forgotten.)

Of course there's and other helpful tools every writer uses. But what's your off-the-beaten-path site you go to most? What's the bubble stick your writing would get all wonky without?

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Death of a Machine

By Susan

I’ve worked on the same computer, a Dell Precision M90 laptop, since June of 2007.

When it came into my hands (through a job change,) I was thrilled with it. It was large, and sturdy, and had capacity. I liked that idea of capacity—it felt like potential. Energy. Oh! The things I would do with this computer! The work I would produce, the journals I would pen, the novel I would write.

And I did. I wrote miles of words. I created volumes of spreadsheets and P&L’s and wrote innumerable emails. I cleaned it of viruses when she became infected. I once paid a computer tech $100 at a Las Vegas convention when her latches broke and she refused to open. I carried her everywhere… around the country for work, and eventually to Ghana for each of my trips there. 

I defended her Dell-ness against Mac snobs. I kept her close even when her DVD drive mysteriously stopped working. As technology changed, I accepted that my machine was no longer young, no longer fast. I was okay with the fact that I couldn’t Skype on  the Dell without an external mic and camera. I dealt with it when iTunes crashed daily, incapable of meshing with her PC bones.  I kept her close to my heart.

After all—I’d written my first novel on that machine. It housed a decade of photos of my children as they grew. I had a lifetime of music—every CD, download, and song I ever wanted to hear—burned into her systems.

And then, last Monday night, she began to cough and sputter. Not just a cold—I thought. I could tell she was nearing the end. I rebooted. I called a friend for support while she attempted to revive.  I quickly fed her a memory stick, hoping to pull my photos and all my notes from the novel’s creation off her hard drive.  I said a little prayer up to the god of technology, to please spare her life.

By 2am, I was at the end of what I could do for her. I stumbled to bed, bleary-eyed and weary, and waited for morning to come.

I didn’t sleep, knowing it was hopeless. My novel- I kept thinking. My photos. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the computer I grieved, but the contents. The soul of my machine.  I finally closed my eyes and slept—albeit briefly—prayerful that the soul of my machine was intact.

The next day was easier than I could have hoped. A dear computer friend helped me make sure I’d saved the majority of my files, and has even offered to see if he can salvage the remaining files if I agree to pay him in beer (I can do that.) I breathed a little easier when my husband agreed that I needed to buy what I wanted and what I needed—not to merely settle for a low end model that would disappoint me down the road. I needed a machine I could love as much as the M90. Possibly, one I could love even more.

So I bought a MacBook Pro.

It’s a completely new body for the soul of my work, but I’m pleased to say it only took about a day to feel comfortable with the changes.  Beyond the first night, I didn’t mourn the Dell—because the heart and soul of my work was still with me. The soul of my work carried on.

So whether you write in a notebook, on a computer, or on your arm, keep the spirit of your work close to you. Don’t worry about where you house it—because it’s the writing that counts.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zu zweit tut das Herz nur halb so weh -- it's here! Or there!

By Julie Kibler

As of Monday, August 20, 2012, I am a published author of fiction. My book, Calling Me Home, was released by Piper Pendo in German as "Zu zweit tut das Herz nur halb so weh." 

How does it feel? Well, it feels rather exciting and rather odd all at once. 

It's a dream come true, absolutely. 

It's almost impossible to fathom that my book is in the hands of REAL readers—not just the editors, the booksellers, the early opinion makers, who are incredibly important, of course—but everyday readers who go to jobs that have nothing to do with publishing, perhaps reading fiction on their subway commutes or listening to an audio book in their cars, or stay-at-home parents who sneak in a few pages of reading between carpools and sports practices and caring for active children or fussy babies, or retired readers who enjoy the extra free time they have now to read book after book after book, like my mother. And anyone in between. 

It's odd because I am at such a distance. 

This debut book release is happening about 5,000 miles away. There are no friends popping in with cell phone shots of my book on store shelves to prove it really happened. There was no party with those who supported my journey at a local bookstore or restaurant, as will happen when it releases here in the United States. On my Facebook author page, I'm not beating folks over the head with frequent links to reviews or lists or other exciting tidbits of news surrounding the release. Additionally, the German book industry, while rich and deep both in finances and tradition, doesn't seem quite so caught up in the frenzy surrounding social media and networking and everything we've come to believe is so critical to a book's success or failure here. 

My foreign agent shared that I would likely hear little for a month or so. In other words, the book must succeed on the merit of the story and the pre-publication efforts of my publishing company there. Also, in Germany, new books must be sold at the same retail price everywhere for a certain amount of time—allowing small bookstores to compete with large chains or online distributors. For more than a hundred years, Germany laws governing book pricing have been different from laws governing many other products because books are considered cultural capitol. So sales in various venues, instead of being about who has the lowest price, are about customer service and booksellers getting excited about a book and "hand selling" as we call it here in the U.S.  My Amazon numbers may or may not have any bearing on how the book is actually doing over there, so an author's obsessive refreshing of the page that shows the ranking is probably a waste of time. (It's probably a waste of time anywhere, ya know, but we still do it…) 

I am a relational person. I love the part of being an author where I get to communicate with other readers and other authors about books. I love answering the occasional "fan" mail (not many at this point, obviously, as there isn't a U.S. book release yet!). So I've been brainstorming ways to interact with my foreign readers, at least in a limited way, even with the language barrier. I'm currently penning a letter to my German readers—in English, but a German friend has agreed to translate it for me—to post on my website and Facebook author page. I want my readers to know, whether American or from one of the foreign countries where my book will be translated, that I'm excited to learn when they are reading my book, that I appreciate the time they take out of busy lives, that I'm thrilled they've chosen mine out of all the books they could read, that I would be delighted if they want to send a note about what they think of the book, that I will do my best to read it, understand it, and reply. And so on.

For now, I want to say to my German readers who have come across this blog or the book:

DANKE. Vielen danke für das Lesen meines Buches! Ich hoffe es gefällt euch. Bitte sagen Sie mir, was Sie denken.

Monday, August 20, 2012

by Joan

I have a bad case of wanderlust. It’s why I perk up when planning my next getaway and why I love to write stories set in foreign locales. I not only love to travel, I get a kick out of packing, too. I like those multi-sized square zipper packs so everything is compartmentalized. One size for shirts, one for pants, one for socks, and pajamas. I save the plastic packaging from pillowcases to hold shoes and slippers or bathing suits, and sometimes use plastic wrap to keep delicate blouses wrinkle-free.

But sometimes my packing strategy is a bit too clever. I often have to take out four bags to get to the two underneath. And despite the mesh openings that give a hint of what’s inside, I often end up opening every zipped bag to find out where the heck I put my navy tunic. And the whole process is a bust if I forget to pack my navy shoes.

Like packing for a long trip, writing dual timeline narratives is a complicated endeavor. It requires style sheets, storyboards and outlines to keep characters and plot details straight, and family trees to track the generations. Each character has their own separate tab on my excel spreadsheet, as though they have their own separate travel bag.

Like my travel strategy, sometimes I get so caught up in trying to be clever and smart with my writing that I forget I’m trying to tell a story. Yes, the prose must be elegant and tight, yes, the characters must be flawed and compelling, yes, the dialogue must be snappy and authentic. But nothing trumps a good story.

I was reminded of this recently when writing a synopsis for my current manuscript. I had already written the book, revised several times, yet I found myself questioning character motives and goals, and studying each chapter to make sure each scene moved the story forward. Kim suggested I read Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron, and this powerful book pushed me even further. 

I’m in the planning stages of my next manuscript—researching locales and interviewing characters. Before I start packing all my clever ideas, I’m going to write the story. Mostly, I’m looking for a place I’ve never been, someplace where others will want to follow.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tradition and Transition

by Elizabeth

 (The view from my mom's back porch)

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned I was on vacation, a trip I take with my kids every summer. During the planning stages this year, I suggested a few changes to the itinerary and was met with stubborn resistance. "But it's tradition!" they wailed, and so no they would not like to do X instead of the usual Y, and no, we could not skip this part or that, and yes, we must eat at this place and go to that one, and why? Because it's tradition.

They tried to play the tradition card on a few things that we did for the first time last year. "We can go eat at that place in town," my mom suggested the night we pulled weary and a little sick into North Carolina. "You liked it." "And it's tradition!" the kids chimed. "No, I did not like it, I hated it," I said, "and it's not a tradition. We ate there once." We went to Bogart's instead, a place we've gone every time we've darkened the town limits of Waynesville. Even I have to admit, that is a tradition.

As with most years, we tried something new on the water. The very first year, it was the water itself, a hesitant and ultimately jubilant guided rafting trip down the tame Tuckaseegee with its fearsome Class II rapids. We are far too good for the Tuck now, we like to brag, having now braved the faster, fiercer (and often colder) waters of the Natanhala, the Pigeon, and this year, the French Broad River and its Class IVs. This year the biggest new was a foray into the unguided, and in a three-man "ducky" no less. This meant we were about eye-level with the rapids, warned we'd likely be dumped (it did happen once, and only partially, but it included being stuck wrapped around a tree with me on one side of a low-hanging branch, my son on the other, and my daughter clinging to the tree like a woodland animal in a hurricane), and only our paddles to guide us down seven miles of chilly water. It was a hoot as far as I'm concerned, though the kids were less enthusiastic. It will be interesting to see if they consider that a tradition.

While we were eating the same meals and floating down the same rivers, back here in Texas, Pamela and Julie were putting together 21st Century versions of the college trunk for their middle children. This fall, after over 20 years of pretty full houses, both of them will have just one child left at home. I can imagine the bittersweet tang of their Augusts, and of Joan's, who is packing her son off for his sophomore year, even as Susan and Kim and I continue with our two each still at home for a stretch. But I can see it. I'm sure they can see it. The empty nest is coming, and the transition will mean new traditions, those of the road trip to school or maybe the care package of some kind of fudge I have never yet made, or maybe a horde of kids crowding my house for Thanksgiving, kids for whom it is too far or too expensive to go home for four days. Who knows what the future holds? All I can guarantee is that there will be traditions, and there will be change.

It's kind of why I read and re-read, come to think of it. Julie talked about reveling in the familiar, and there is so much comfort in that, just like the summer trip I take with my kids. Whether it's an old favorite now dog-eared and worn (I perused my copy of Emma last night), or a new book by a persistent favorite (Joan and I will forever mourn the lack of new work by Maeve Binchy), books offer comfort and companionship, tradition, if you will.

But they also are a transition, and for the yet-unpublished writer, that is a source of hope and inspiration. Last year, I discovered and devoured Sally Gunning; the year before that, Pamela set me off on my Elizabeth Berg-a-thon; and it has been only a couple years more since I discovered Geraldine Brooks and Elizabeth Strout and John Green and added them to my must-read list. This summer I picked up a book of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and promptly added her two novels to my to-be-read list. She's now a tradition for me; if she writes it, I will read it, as with Brooks and Strout and the others. And here's the hope part: if there's room for them, there's room for me. For all of us. Julie will be the first, of course, and in just a couple days, a reader in Germany will put down her novel with a sigh of satisfaction and regret, and already know that if Julie Kibler writes another book, it will be bought and read. Come February, North American readers will do the same, and it's up to Julie to write the book that satisfies the transition of the list to the tradition of a favorite author. Susan is getting there fast, Joan and Kim are querying, and Pamela and I are working to finish up the novels that will hopefully be "the ones" after coming decently close with earlier works we queried.

This blog itself was a transition, and now, it's a tradition. We started it, the six of us, in pretty much the same place, and now we are watching the baby birds begin to take wing. It's the hope of all of us that we will all fly, that we will all soar, that we will all become a favorite tradition to readers. And that we will come together afterwards, again and again, to revel in the traditions we began with: supporting each other, cheering ourselves on, and talking, always talking, about books and books and books.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sticks and Stones (Reprised)

By Kim

This post originally appeared on December 11th, 2009.

Anyone entering my dining room will not see a table but a family shrine. The walls are covered with paintings, etchings and sketches by my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens. The hutch holds not dishes but century old photographs, books inscribed to ancestors (including one from Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King), an antique sewing box, and even a bracelet Carl had given to his wife Madonna.

Scattered among these items are sticks, stones, a small jar of sand, and a pinecone or two. Yes, my husband laughs, but he humors my habit of littering every shelf in our house with rocks because they are, after all, the cheapest souvenirs I could possibly collect.

There was a time that I bought T-shirts and trinkets from everywhere I went, and I still will if I happen to be in a city with a Hard Rock Café. In the past few years, however, my travels have been research for The Oak Lovers and the places I go aren’t exactly packed with tourists.
This was certainly the case on that rainy September afternoon back in 2004 when my cousin Chris and I visited the old covered bridge in West Montrose, Ontario. It was just one stop my friends Mike and Wendy made on our short driving tour of the Mennonite villages of Waterloo County. I snapped some photos and we were about to go when Chris pointed out that the bridge had been there since our great-grandfather’s time. Carl’s home town of Kitchener (then Berlin) wasn’t far away and Chris wondered if Carl would have been to West Montrose. Remembering a short story Carl wrote about canoeing that very stretch of the Grand River, I told Chris I was certain he had. At the very least he went under the bridge. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I felt a strange compulsion. I ambled down to the river’s edge. The bank was muddy and I saw no stone that would easily be obtained; this only made me want one more. “If anyone sees a small rock on the bank, let me know,” I said.

Had I known Wendy as I do now, I may not have been shocked to see her wade out into muck without bothering to ask why I may want one. With a triumphant cry, she pulled a nondescript round stone out of the murky depths of the river itself.

“This one was certainly here when he was,” she said, plopping it into my hand. From that moment on, I have considered Wendy my best friend. (The stone now sits on my hutch.)

The next day the four of us went to the village of Elora. Using my great-grandmother’s memoir as a guide, we located the place where Carl must have fallen from a cliff into the Elora Gorge as a boy. After climbing down into the gorge itself, I took pictures and slipped a couple of rocks straight from the river into my pocket. Mike found a small piece of driftwood and handed it to me. “You might want this, too. Perhaps he knew the tree it came from. It’s lighter than rocks in any case.”
I could have bought a T-shirt in the village that day had I really looked for one, but I knew it would have been made in Vietnam or Bangladesh. I would have worn and washed it until it became faded and torn. The rocks, on the other hand, had been molded by the power of the Grand River, had been there since long before there was a Canada, let alone a Carl Ahrens. When I hold one, history and memory collide.

While I’m in Dallas now, I can open a jar and touch sand taken from the beach beside where the Ahrens summer cottage once stood. Perhaps as my grandmother skipped from the house down to Georgian Bay for a swim with her father, one of them stepped on those very grains.

Many writers create character sketches before they begin a novel, photographs of how their characters look, lists of likes and dislikes, images of clothing individuals wear or name of the perfume they use. For me, though, the shrine in my dining room is a character sketch on constant display. I can wear Madonna’s bracelet or fit my fingers into the grooves on Carl’s paintbrush or open one of the books to see poems they marked with favorite passages underlined. Now, thanks to all my sticks and stones, I can also touch the places they have been, and a part of me can physically be there, watching the scenes play out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Game of Numbers

By Pamela

Well, the summer Olympics have finally closed in dramatic fashion. I remember watching the games as a kid--on a much smaller screen and without the benefit of DVR--and being inspired to move more, sit less. This year my family and I cheered team USA and other countries' standouts such as Oscar Pistorius, South Africa's double-amputee sprinter.

As my boy enthusiastically reported the medal count and how we won, in terms of medals, I reminded him of the Tweet he shared with me a few days earlier: the medal count per capita. When you consider that China is home to 1.3 BILLION people, their 88 medals become a little less impressive when they amount to one medal per 15.5 million people. Even our stellar medal count loses its luster a bit when you calculate it against our population. We won a medal for every 3 million people in our country. And, if it weren't for Michael Phelps, well, you know that number wouldn't have been even that high.

Then you look at a country like Jamaica. Its land mass is slightly smaller than Connecticut. And while they never fare well in the winter Olympics (bobsledding, anyone?), they turned out a stellar showing this time around on track and field, taking home 12 medals--one for every 225,485 people who live there. Yes, I know Mr. Bolt pulled in three, but still; the numbers are impressive.

It got me thinking about books and how for writers, it all starts with words on a page. But once a book goes into production, it's a game of numbers. Even if you self-publish, you become a slave to how many books you can afford to print (unless you exclusively go the e-route) and how many you must sell to make money. Traditionally-published authors also concern themselves with pre-sales figures, sales numbers, rankings, etc. They have to. Writing books and selling them to readers is about numbers. And until the industry goes exclusively to e-publishing (something I hope never happens!), then numbers matter greatly in terms of printing and sales and remainder copies and earning out and so forth. 

It's no secret that many writers would rather think about almost anything else besides numbers. You rarely find a creative genius who is also a gifted accountant--Joan is our exception, here. 

But what numbers also fail to measure is satisfaction. For example, my nine-year-old girl reread the entire Harry Potter series this summer. I foolishly challenged her to a reading duel and never got my spikes off the starting blocks in the race. In fact, she again picked up The Sorcerer's Stone last week, insisting there was nothing else she wanted to read right now. So while Joanne Rowling (who coincidentally was featured in the Olympics' opening ceremony) only saw one sales number per book we own, four people in our house have read them (and our neighbor's boy) and my girl has read them more than once. 

Book sales also fail to reflect effort. And tenacity. When a 'debut author' suddenly hits it big, you'd be safe betting that she also wrote two or three or ten other books that never saw the inside of a bookstore. 

So while we applaud athletes like Phelps and Pistorius and even cocky Usain Bolt for their achievements, there are also athletes back in their home countries who were hundreths of a second slower than the super stars. Who likely trained just as hard but failed to make it to The Games. And when you read the next NYT's best-seller, keep in mind there's also a writer, diligently pounding on her keyboard, sending out queries, trying to gain the attention of a gatekeeper who can help her fulfill her dreams. Maybe she's you? 
Photo by Digo_Souza, Flickr Creative Common License

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Appalachian Writers' Workshop

By Susan

Say you were going on a trip
knowing you wouldn't ever be coming back
and all you'd ever have of that place you knew,
that place where you'd always lived
was what you could take with you.
You'd want to think what to take along
what would travel well
what you'd really need and wouldn't need.
I'm telling you, every day you're leaving
a place you won't be coming back to ever.
What are you going to leave behind?
What are you taking with you?
Don't run off and leave the best part of yourself. ~ Jim Wayne Miller, from "Brier's Sermon"

Seven days ago, I packed my Texas truck with stacks of books and letters from newfound friends and left the Appalachian Writers' Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky for my long drive back to Texas. I'd been blessed by the mountains, healed somehow, by new friendships and connections, and nurtured by mentors I didn't know I needed. I'd been welcomed like family into an incredible group of like-minded, funny, and educated writers. I discussed the divinity of the center of writing with George Ella Lyon, I spent hours with Michael Curtis as he encouraged my process, and I spun out new words like silken thread under the direction of the irreverent and brilliant George Singleton. I studied in the halls, wrote whenever I could, and worshipped in the chapel under the dark bowl of night.

Last Friday, I left Hindman by driving up the mountain and out of that holler toward Hazard in the rain. My heart was full of poetry and kindness. The night before, we'd read "Brier's Sermon," by Jim Wayne Miller under the night sky, each of our voices adding a stanza to the quiet of evening. Then we sang all four verses of Amazing Grace, which moved me—inexplicably—because I remembered all the words, because that song was my childhood, because that song was my self. I felt happy. I felt like I was home.

Driving in the rain that afternoon, I decided that instead of turning this blog post into my own words about the Appalachian Writers' Workshop, I'd ask several of my newfound kin to share their opinions as well. Here's what they had to say:

First year participant, Catherine Childress, poet:
In the days since Hindman I have been considering, what may be, the which came first, the chicken or the egg question for writers: Do we become writers/artists because we are slightly off-kilter—or two bricks shy of a load as they say here in Roan Mountain, TN—or do we unearth our eccentricities in the writing process? I’m a poet (Jesus, does it get more pretentious than that?) so my job is to squeeze every single, tiny speck of emotion from any given thing and then cram it all back into, say 20 lines. Given this, my personal load of bricks feels a bit light sometimes. My point (yes, I do have one) is that it isn’t very often that I am able to spend time with a group of people who know what’s happening in my head and not only understand it, but also embrace it—a group of people who understand why I write when it would be less complicated and more profitable to find another gig. I found this group at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop—folks who are generous, supportive, accepting, funny as hell, and who—if they just admit it—are a couple bricks short themselves some days (which ain’t a bad thing!)

First year participant, Karen Bell, novelist:
My New Year’s resolution was to push myself beyond what I think I can do. As an older person with health and physical mobility issues that kept me housebound for nearly five years, Hindman challenged me on so many levels. It didn’t take long after arriving at the Appalachian Writers Workshop to wonder why and how I ended up being invited to this group of talented, skilled and prolific writers. I have to admit it; I was intimidated. But a warm spirit of family soon drew me into the fold. Learning wasn’t limited to the classroom. I learned even more by chilling with fellow students and instructors in the dining room or outside on the porch. My life and the focus of my writing changed during this workshop, for the better. Although my physical limitations challenged me in this rustic mountain setting, I survived and thrived in the nurturing environment of fellow writers. Yes, I think I will return next year. Hopefully, my body will be ready.

Returning participant, Donna McClanahan, poet:
A few words about Hindman…this was my seventh year. Each year brings something new and each year I write myself a little essay about it. All have been powerful even if in subtle ways. However, none of them have rivaled the first year I attended. I was lost as a writer and as a woman and trying to find my way toward believing in myself even though my family didn't understand, couldn't help, didn't want to. It was under the direction of Silas House (my first mentor) that I went, not knowing a soul. He said, "You will find what you need there. They're your people." I will never forget arriving on the Settlement School Campus by myself and being welcomed as I got out of the car by George Ella Lyon (authors of about a gazillion children's books and poetry books and YA novels,) my wide eyes taking in every little thing. Lee Maynard (author of Crum, Screaming with the Cannibals) said I looked like my head was about to explode. I couldn't get over the feeling that I had just walked into a reunion of my family I hadn't yet met. We were kin. I'm glad you've joined us.

Instructor, George Singleton, short story writer, novelist:
Normally, because I'm an old curmudgeon, I shy from writers' conferences, workshops, writing groups—even sharing drafts. I don't want to sound all New Age-y mystical about it, but there was something about the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman that made me rethink some things. Normally I think, "Oh, just stay at home and write in a room by yourself, and shut up." But there was a palpable zeitgeist—big word for a South Carolina boy—in Hindman, and I understand why this community attracts writers year after year, whether "student" or "instructor." Hell, I had two "student writers" in my workshop who had been on the faculty in the past. Where else does that ever happen? Now I, of all people, feel reinvigorated.

First year participant, Angie R. Hunt
My application to the Appalachian Writers Workshop was truly fate. I walked into Karen McElmurray’s office just after she’d received the news that Mike Mullins had died suddenly. As an aside, she told me that I should apply to AWW and that it would be perfect for me. I followed her advice and was excited and honored at the news that I was accepted. Just making it to Hindman was a miracle unto itself since my husband had two heart attacks—one massive one—that led to a heart catheterization and six bypasses all within three weeks of my leaving home. He was adamant that I attend so I arranged for friends to take turns helping Henry and set off on my 900+ mile roundtrip adventure. Working in memoir with Joyce Dyer was a remarkable experience. She was such a passionate and insightful instructor. Also, being among this community of writers was truly inspirational.

Returning participant, Gail Chandler, poet:
Thursday at the Appalachian Writers workshop
Cicadas swear in the damp August air
as we rock on the settlement school porch,
celebrate “The Brier Sermon,” and read again
the Brier preaching pride to hillbillies gathered
by the Green Stamp Redemption store in Cincinnati.
The Brier knows we’ve seen our hills raped,
heard our speech mocked,
tried to live in houses not our own.
He also crossed that North Kentucky bridge,
the one our brothers and sisters, classmates
and parents walked until their soles wore out.
Mountains looming about us, we stand in line
to read by flashlight our passage or strophe,
each reader carrying history in his voice:
East Tennessee nasal follows Georgia drawl,
Kentucky vowels change by town or holler,
and then, improbably, a New York chord,
all inflections music in this Appalachian night.

Returning Participant, Carrie Mullins, novelist:
Someone much smarter than me compared it to Brigadoon, a mythical place that rises up on the mountain in Hindman out of the mist every year, just for us. I need to emphasize that was not my own creative thought (I really wish it was), and I can't remember who said it at one of the participant readings a couple years back, but I think it is a very apt description.

First year participant, Cecile Dixon, memoir: I miss Hindman and can't wait until next year. I still haven't given name to what changed inside me, but something surely did.

If you haven't considered a writers workshop, consider it now. Find the right one for you, muster the courage to submit and apply, and scrape together your change. You might find the heart of your work and new friendships that will feel like home. You might learn something. And you might even find yourself, wrapped up in words and the arms of friends.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

When your writer head needs a break

By Julie

Sometimes, you just have to get away. And I'm not talking about beach vacations or weekends holed up in a romantic inn with your significant other, or even a few hours at a coffee shop in conversation with your BFF. Though these getaways are indeed important, too, when you can swing them.

Sometimes, you really, truly need to get away MENTALLY from writing as your craft to be a better writer. And in the process, you may discover some new things about yourself, you may make some new friends, and you might even come across some additional and very unexpected ways your writing "business" can improve.

To be blunt, I'm talking about … getting our writer heads out of our writer butts. Pardon my French.

A few months ago, I attended a local event I'd been eyeing for a while. The woman who runs it is someone I've known online for a few years, and she seemed like someone I'd really enjoy getting to know in real life, too. Her house, built almost entirely from repurposed materials, is AMAZING (not that I'll ever be that woman, so I'll just admire it enthusiastically from the curb … errr … pasture). And she does this cool thing. She calls it Wine 'n Whimsy. She invites about 20-30 women to her house about once a month to make an inexpensive but unique craft you are truly excited to show off. It takes an entire two hours out of my busy writer life.

At first, I resisted. I am not, by nature, a crafty, scrapbooking, card-making kind of person. I used to enjoy crafts back in the 80s and early 90s when it was like, mandatory, but then I got interested in lots of other things and now I prefer my crafts handmade by someone else. As a rule.

But I thought, oh, why not? I will go, I will meet a few new folks who might be interested in hearing about my book, and then … OH MY GOODNESS THIS MONTH'S CRAFT IS SUPER COOL! And I decided I could deal with being crafty once a month for two hours for 20-25 bucks.

So I went late last spring. I took a friend along just in case it was awkward. It wasn't. We had a blast. I made this, which is really supposed to be stuffed with holiday lights and put on your porch or patio, but I am showing it here both unlit and also lit from behind with candles (in my dark laundry room, no less) because I can't get to my holiday lights.

It was a big group, maybe 25 women, and my friend and I mainly stuck to ourselves at our little end of the table, conversing with the few others around us. I loved seeing the amazingness of Mary's Bohemian Homestead in person. I drank a little wine, because apparently, the wine comes along with the whimsy. I had fun.

We went back the next month, or maybe the month after, and we made these pretty paper bead jewelry projects, with a lot of leeway in what we wanted to create. This time, I took two friends (Susan, from here at the blog, was one). And we had triple the fun.
My paper bead bracelet

And we drank a little wine along with our whimsy. And we met two or three more new folks. Folks who love books and like to talk about them.

I met a woman who pointed me to her husband's really strange and bizarre and GOOD short story here.

I met the mother and grandmother of my child's friend from school, who are from Germany and are excited about reading the German edition of Calling Me Home (which releases in less than TWO WEEKS!).

I met a cousin or sister or SOME kind of relative of Kathy Patrick, the Pulpwood Queen.

And once again. I had fun.

I'm going back tonight because we are making these things called pocket books. How could I pass this up?

Sample photo from,
 where you can purchase these nifty items already made,
and they probably look a lot better than mine will!
While I am a little overwhelmed with the details of my life right now, there is no way, indeed, I could pass this up.

And I'm so curious to see who I will meet and who I will talk to tonight, and how making this craft, so intrinsically wrapped up with reading, but so intrinsically using a different part of my brain, will make me a better writer.

Because I have learned that taking my writer head out of my writer butt now and then does that.

I'll post of picture of mine later!

EDIT: Here ya go! My Herman Wouk Designer Bag, with WAR AND  REMEMBRANCE on the spine!

All ready for a BEACH getaway now...

Monday, August 6, 2012

An unsent letter

by Joan

My writing directory includes a What Women Write folder where I store half-written blog posts. Some will be finished one day, others leave me baffled at why I imagined others might be interested. I like running Q&As because we get to peek inside our favorite authors' minds, learn about their motivations and interests. Sometimes my requests come from book signings, like with Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Jamie Ford, or, when I feel brave, email introductions, like with Kate MortonAdriana Trigiani and Dani Shapiro.

A while back I began a note to one of my most beloved authors, first to tell her what her books have meant to me, second to invite her onto the blog. I’m not sure why I was so intimidated or why I hesitated, but the half-written invitation lingered in the someday folder.

I deeply regret not sending my invitation to Maeve Binchy. She died July 30 in Dublin at the young age of 72. But I will share my note here.

Dear Ms. Binchy,

My letter is long overdue—your books have lined my shelves ever since my oldest sister suggested I’d enjoy Light a Penny Candle over twenty-five years ago. She was right. Since that first book, I’ve read (and own) your sixteen novels and two of your short story collections. When I settle down with one of your books, I know I’m in gifted hands.

My letter stopped there, but today I finish it. 

Though I didn’t know you personally, my heart goes out to those who did. I will mourn you, but luckily for the rest of us, your characters will live on.

Through you, Ireland came to life for me on a glass lake, in a working-class pub, a convent school, a tailor shop, an Italian class. Through the characters you managed to draw as both ordinary and extraordinary at once. Thank you for your novels, for your Night of Rain and Stars, your Glass Lake and Circle of Friends, for your Firefly Summer. For your Heart and Soul that you shared with us so generously.

Maeve Binchy's inspirations were the people she saw on the street, the conversations she eavesdropped. She said she got some of her best material from riding the bus or listening on the old party telephone lines.

Over the last few days, I’ve read many touching obituaries, lovely tributes, and interviews and here. For those who’d like to hear her lovely voice and spirit, here’s a lovely 25-minute interview with Gay Byrne about her feelings on spirituality, life and writing.

When I met Elizabeth, she knew we'd hit it off when she learned we shared a favorite author. And Julie is a big fan, also. If there’s a silver lining to Ms. Binchy's untimely death, it’s that she had submitted another manuscript to her editor and they will set a release date for publication. 

What's your favorite Binchy book?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sharing the Spotlight

Photo by Cathy Richie
By Kim

If your household is anything like mine, summer break is a time of barely-controlled chaos. While I am anything but bored, I don't think anyone wants to read about my adventures scrambling to get the kids from one activity to the other, breaking up the inevitable squabbles, preparing for a family road trip or digging out from under a Mt. Everest of laundry.

Rather than attempt to squeeze any creativity from my frazzled brain, today I'm going to be lazy helpful and share the spotlight with other bloggers who have recently written some fantastic posts on the business or craft of writing.

Have you had to step away from your manuscript for awhile? Randy Susan Meyers (Beyond the Margins) shares how to avoid the yada, yada, yada, you may find yourself writing when you finally get back to it.

Lisa Cron (Writer Unboxed) uses her background in brain science to argue that humans are wired for story and scientifically discusses why certain types of stories work and others tend to fall flat. Yes, she wrote a book on the subject. Yes, I bought it immediately after reading this post.

Courtney Koschel (Hugs and Chocolate) wrote one of the best posts I've seen on giving and getting the most out of critique. 

Lara Schiffbauer recently wrote a guest post about rejections on Vaughn Roycroft's Seeking the Inner Ancient blog. Are certain types of rejections preferable to others? Lara thinks so.

Justine Musk discusses the six things we all need to know about our inner genius.

Do you need to advertize your book on a small budget? You might want to take a look at Dee DeTarsio's guest post on Jane Friedman's blog.

If you would like to share any great recent blog posts you've read, feel free to share in the comments section.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


by Elizabeth

I've done it again. Every year, my kids and I throw luggage and books and water shoes in the car and head east then north to visit friends, family, and to get wet on various rivers. Every year, I try to tack a visit to Colonial Williamsburg onto the trip, and every year, I realize I'm biting off too much.

But you can ask Joan: I habitually take really big bites. Then again, I'm pretty good at choking on my food.

This year, I thought I had finally done it. A combination of factors including my sister being out of town, friends headed on a cruise, and that overweening ambition of mine made it possible for us to spend two and a half days exploring colonial history. And then my daughter got sick. So I cancelled the first night at the hotel, figuring we'd just head out early the next morning instead, spend a day and a half, and still be fine.

Then it felt crunched, and I felt tired, and was a day and a half really enough or would I (and oh, yeah, the kids) feel cheated and shortchanged? Ambivalence set in, for the third or fourth year in a row, just when I thought I'd finally dodged it.

Writing can be like that, too. You might think you've found the perfect plot point, the perfect ending, even just the perfect schedule to work out the story's kinks--then bam. Something, or nothing happens, and there you are, questioning everything all over again.

One way or another, though, the next couple of days are going to pass, whether they include peanut soup or not. One way or another, the manuscript will advance or not, but what is certain is the time will go by.

Ambivalence can actually be useful sometimes. It can buy your characters the time they need for you to decide if they live or die, suffer or triumph. But if left to rule, it can eventually cripple your work, or your life.

Make a decision, Elizabeth. Then take that road. I'll let you know in a couple of weeks how it went.
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