Friday, August 30, 2013

My Writing Bookshelf

By Susan

I am, and always will be, a student of the written word.

In the past year, I've attended more writing workshops and conferences than ever, and have taken time for myself on personal retreats both alone and with other writers. I've brainstormed with poets and novelists about craft. I'd like to say that by now, I know a little bit about the basics of fiction: character, craft, plot, theme, and creating suspense in the shape of beautiful language.

Yet this past week, pulled by a strong desire to know more, read more, and to write more, I found myself in the 800 section of my local library, skimming the spines of writers and critics who once again attempt to answer the questions Why do we write? And How can we write even better?

Now: I will tell you that the best advice to writers is simply to write, not to read about writing. (My second piece of advice is that in order to write good fiction you must also read good fiction.) Yet as I've continued my path down the student's road, I've found that all of the genius voices in literature were not born of genius alone: they were shaped and molded and wrought onto their pages with style, art, and a deep commitment to the process.

So for today's Friday round-up, I thought I'd share both my own collection of books on writing and the three I just picked up at the library. Enjoy!

Eudora Welty, On Writing, edited by Richard Bausch, (Modern Library Edition, 2002)
Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings, (Harvard University Press, 2004)
Ralph L. Walhstrom, The Tao of Writing, (Adam's Media, 2006)
The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, (The Associated Press, 1987)
Earnest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips, (Scribner, 1984)
The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, (Writer's Digest Books, 2002)
Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, (Random House, 2004)
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, (Harcourt, 2004)
Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, (Riverhead Books, 2000)
James Wood, How Fiction Works, (Picador, 2008)
Danell Jones, The Virginia Woolf Writer's Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing, (Bantam Dell, 2007)
The Secret Miracle, The Novelist's Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon, (Holt, 2010)
Eric Maisel, A Writer's Paris, (Writer's Digest Books, 2007)
Frederick Busch, Letters to a Fiction Writer, (Norton, 1999)
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, Notes on Craft for Young Writers, (Vintage, 1991)
2001 Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, (Writer's Digest Books, 2001)
Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer's Workshop, (Story Press, 1998)
Rick DeMarinis, The Art and Craft of the Short Story, (Story Press, 2000)
Arthur Plotnik, Honk if You're a Writer: Unabashed Advice, Undiluted Experience, and Unadulterated Inspiration for Writers and Writers-To-Be, (Fireside, 1992)
Julie Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, (Putnum, 2004)
Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, (Touchstone, 2000)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guest and Giveaway: Renee Swindle on Shake Down the Stars

By Julie

I was first charmed by Renee Swindle's smile in a photo with Jacqueline Luckett, a wonderful writer I interviewed for What Women Write last year. Renee is part of Jackie's critique group, The Finish Party. Recently, her name came up again in a conversation with author Amy Sue Nathan, another author I interviewed for What Women Write. Are you starting to see some interesting connections here? Amy told me she'd read an advance reader's edition of Shake Down the Stars and loved it. I made a mental note of the book, not even remembering the connection to Jackie Luckett. 

Well, about two weeks ago, the night before Renee's book release, I got an email from her out of the blue saying she'd enjoyed Calling Me Home and wondered if she could interview me for her website. That was an easy answer! It seemed written in the stars ... appropriate, don't you think? I was so happy to be reminded about her book again, I downloaded it immediately. And Amy was right. This delightfully poignant and funny story sucked me right in. I loved it!

I asked Renee if we could do something fun--post interviews with each other on the same day. And I knew right away I'd enjoy doing what I did with Amy and Sere Prince Halverson before that. I made a list of things and themes that stood out for me when I read Shake Down the Stars and asked Renee to riff on them. I hope you'll enjoy her thoughts. I did!

But first, about Shake Down the Stars
Piper Nelson is stuck. She can’t quite stay away from the husband she divorced. She isn’t always attentive to the high school students she teaches. And even she admits that she’s been drinking too much and seeking out unsuitable men. Piper’s mother, married to a celebrity evangelist, and her sister, immersed in plans to wed a professional football player and star in a reality TV show, are both too self-absorbed to sympathize with Piper’s angst. They tell her to get a grip. But how can Piper ever really recover from the blow she suffered five years ago, when a car accident took the life of her young daughter?

When Piper’s ex-husband announces his new girlfriend is pregnant, Piper is forced to take stock. Realizing that it’s time for a change is one step, but actually making it happen is quite another. And despite what she thinks, Piper can’t do it alone. Lucky for her, a couple of crazy, funny new friends are ready to step in when she needs them most…and show her how to live and laugh again.

And now, Renee, take us into your world and the world of Shake Down the Stars!

credit: airefresco's flickr photostream
I love that you picked up on outsider as a theme!  I felt like an outsider growing up and tended to hang out with other outsiders in school and college. I’m also an only child, and it wasn’t until I grew older and started hearing more stories about sibling rivalry that I learned siblings could feel distant from each other or sometimes not get along at all well into adulthood. It seems silly now—of course you can feel like an outsider in your own family! But for the longest time, I assumed families with more than one kid were like the Brady Bunch.  At any rate, Piper, the narrator of my novel, is a classic family outsider.  Her mom and sister get along fabulously but she can’t seem to relate to either of them.  

credit: Will Montague's flickr photostream
I never grew up wishing I had a sister or brother, so I’m not sure what happened once I started writing novels, but it’s like I’m suddenly obsessed with family dynamics, especially between siblings. Piper and her half-sister Margot couldn’t be more different. I was interested in the idea that everyone in the novel would gravitate toward Margot because of her beauty, and basically treat Piper as though she were lesser than. What's it like to pick up on subtle cues that people treat you differently from your sister? What happens if you have no one to tell you you’re just as special? These questions play a big part in Piper’s journey.  

Night Sky
I absolutely love staring up at the night sky. I don’t own a telescope (yet!), but I’ve always been curious about astronomy, and I thought it would be interesting to turn Piper into an amateur astronomer. Piper’s knowledge about the stars gave me the excuse to buy books on astronomy and study some of the basics. While I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as most, I do share the feeling of amazement when I stare up at the sky or when I see images of space that the Hubble sends back. It’s mindboggling that we’re on this teeny tiny planet, floating in a huge galaxy that’s part of this astoundingly vast universe. Whoa. 

The Andromeda Galaxy (M31), not ours, but you can see it from here!
I'm an astronomy fan, too, and loved all of the references in Renee's book.

credit: Adam Evan's flickr photostream

credit: Cletus Awreetus' flickr photostream
Piper’s mother didn’t have many scenes in the initial draft of Shake Down The Stars.  Over time, though, her mother became more and more integral to the story. Once I began working on Piper’s sobriety, for instance, I knew her drinking was about the longing she had for her mother’s love as much as the loss she experienced.  Piper’s mother can be selfish and wasn’t very attentive when Piper was growing up. Piper watches her sister Margot replicate this same relationship with her twin daughters.  It’s hard for Piper to see the pattern continue with her nieces, but unless we have some kind of ah-ha moment, I think we often repeat the patterns we know.  Piper does hope to break the cycle at least.

credit: Mike Shaffner's flickr photostream
The theme of grief runs throughout the novel.  We all do grieve at a certain point in life, or will, and we all do it in our own particular way. Piper lost her child five years before the start of the novel, but survives her loss with the help of several friends who truly become like family.  When I started the book, I had no idea how she’d become happy again--or if she’d become happy again--but the more I wrote, the more I fell in love with certain characters and how they helped each other.  I think it’s like this in life, too.  Life can be tough and difficult, but it’s also filled with joy and laughter.  As a writer, I’ve also learned I do funny well, so I made sure to offer zany, fun characters and funny situations.  My goal was to write a moving story that wasn’t a downer. I also wanted to surprise the reader (and myself) and keep the story at a nice, brisk pace.  Hopefully I succeeded.

credit: michaeljzealot's flickr photostream
It’s true: Piper tries to overcome her loss in all the wrong ways!  What’s funny is that I didn’t realize she was an alcoholic until an early reader pointed it out.  She said rather gently, I think you should have Piper go to AA.  I reacted like an alcoholic might and tried to defend Piper: She’s not an alcoholic! What are you talking about?  But when I thought about it, it hit me that Piper did drink a lot.  And this meant making sure she owned up to her drinking and writing a draft where she grapples with her drinking. I’m actually happy I was able to explore the issue of addiction.  I haven’t read about it much in women’s fiction and thought her drinking added an important layer to her journey. 
credit: DeGust's flickr photostream
A thoughtful reader (ahem—Julie Kibler!) pointed out that the novel begins and ends with Piper standing by herself. I never realized this! D’uh! Big D’uh! But this theme helps me share what I’d always hoped to do with Shake Down The Stars. I started the novel with a question: How will Piper ever find happiness? That was the through-line that kept me going. And while she’s alone at the beginning and at the end, there’s a huge difference between being alone and lonely and being able to stand on your own in contented solitude.

About Renee Swindle 

Renee Swindle is the author of Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin), available now.

Her first novel, Please Please Please, was published by the Dial Press/Dell. Please Please Please was also published in Germany as Mehr Mehr Mehr and published in Japan. Please Please Please was an Essence Magazine bestseller.

Renee Swindle earned her BA from UC Irvine and MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. She lives in Oakland, California with her two dogs and three cats–meow!

Comment on the post to be entered in a chance to win a copy of Shake Down the Stars. Winner will be chosen at random and notified on or about Wednesday, September 4! Domestic U.S. addresses only, please!

UPDATE 9/5/13: The winner of the giveaway for a copy of Renee's book is Michelle James! Michelle, we'll get in touch with you! Thanks to everyone who commented!

Then follow this link to read Renee's interview with Julie and win a copy of Calling Me Home!

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ten:Five Questions

By Pamela

When you first meet me you might notice my eyes but probably not--they're not particularly big or an unusual color. Hazel, really. Unless I'm wearing a particular shade of blue and then you'd say they are blueish-hazel. My hair? Shoulder-length, auburn-ish--depending on the box I've used to color out the grey. Average height. Average weight. (OK, this is getting a little depressing.) An accent? Midwest speed-talk, a bit nasaly with a hint of southern twang from spending nearly 20 years way-way south of the Mason Dixon Line.

Does this seem normal to you? Does to me!
But if you started to dig, really ask me questions, some weird stuff might come out. Not crazy-weird but different-than-you-weird. I'm boringly domestic in that I love to bake and cook. I sew my own drapes and pillows. I feel empty if I skip church. I got divorced at 25 but have been remarried for 22 years. My little toes are hideous and I feed my dog the last two bites of my yogurt every morning. I like to iron. I was 15 before I ever stayed in a hotel room; 20 before I ever rode in an airplane. I have a particular fondness for flea markets, antique malls and thrift stores. I'm adept with a bow and arrow and could survive in the wilderness for days if I had a fishing pole and some matches. And some water. And a knife would be good.

So, if I were a character in your novel, what would make me different than the other characters in your story? At first glance, I'm average. Dull, even. But ask me some questions and suddenly I'm a little different than the other moms who drop their girls off at the neighborhood elementary school. How well do you know your characters?

Here is a list of ten categories with five questions in each that might help you learn a bit more about your characters. Maybe start with your main character and then go from there. Will you need or even use all this in your novel? Not likely. But knowing it will help if your character ends up in a situation you didn't see coming. Who we are and where we've been factor into how we react to events that happen in our lives.

1. Childhood 
Where did she grow up?
Who was her best friend?
Did she have siblings?
Did her parents stay married?
What kind of student was she?

2. Family and Friends
Does she have children?
Is she married?
Does she stay in touch with distant relatives?
Does she have a best friend?
How much would she tell someone she just met?

3. Health and wellness
What does she eat?
Does she drink or smoke?
Does she exercise?
Does she regularly visit a dentist/doctor/therapist?
Has she ever had a major health episode?

4. Appearance
What does she look like--height/weight/age?
What type of clothing does she wear?
Is she aging gracefully or getting Botox?
What does she sleep in?
Heels or flats; sandals or tennies?

5. Lifestyle 
What kind of car does she drive?
What type of house does she live in?
Where does she shop?
What part of the country does she live in?
What does she do for fun?

6. Humanitarianism
Does she volunteer?
What is she most passionate about?
Does she own a pet?
Does she give money to any causes?
Is she aware of events beyond her social circle?

7. Quirks
Does she have any annoying habits?
Is there a particular word or phrase she often uses?
Does she whistle/sing/hum when she walks/showers/cleans?
Does she talk with her hands or frowns when she's deep in thought?
Does she have an unusual talent?

8. Pleasures
Does she like to read or watch movies or both?
If she had an entire day to herself, what would she do?
What's her one indulgence?
What food would be her "last meal" choice?
How does she view sex?

9. World view and Technology
Is she political?
Does she watch/listen to the news?
Does she believe in God?
Does she own the latest gadgets/phone?
Could she change a flat tire?

10. Traumatic events
What is the worst thing that has happened to her?
What does she fear most?
What would she do if confronted by a killer/rapist/robber?
What keeps her awake at night?
If she had one do-over, what would it be?

There are many more questions you should be prepared to answer about your main character as they apply to your story. Celebrity crush? Favorite song? One regret? The list is endless! But maybe this will give you a place to start. What will you learn about your character today that you didn't know?

Friday, August 23, 2013


by Elizabeth

Sweetness. Juiciness. Texture.

One of the saddest parts of saying goodbye to summer is the end of watermelon. Pretty much every week all summer long I haul a fat green ball home from the store, chill it in the fridge, and then crack it open with my biggest knife, breath held. Is this a good one?

I even put off buying that first watermelon of the summer, eyeing the date, wondering: is it too soon? I'd hate for that first juicy experience to disappoint, setting the stage badly for a season of less than perfect fruity bliss.

Right now in Texas, we are at the height of the season, evidenced by the great prices stores' circulars boast for those delicious orbs of summer. The one in my fridge today was a penny under three bucks, and at approximately zero calories per serving, or so I tell myself, I can let as much pink juice drip down my chin as my stomach will accommodate. Bliss.

This is what I look for in that first melon, and every one afterward: Sweetness. Juiciness. Texture. They all matter, and the failure in even one of those can ruin the whole melon experience. A weakness in one is acceptable, depending on the level of inferiority, but you gotta have two of the three be right or the melon is getting returned. A sweet, juicy melon that is just a little too chewy? We'll finish it off. A sweet, juicy melon with a bite like rubber? Back to the store, and may I please have another.

In reading, and writing, it's kind of the same. You get all the elements in there, and the book is perfect. Story. Characters. Writing. They all have to be there, and they have to be enough. I can think of books I adore with really adequate writing, but with characters so vivid, so beloved, so real, and storytelling so outstanding, that the mere competence of the writing is fine. Books with a story that might not quite shine, but memorable characters and beautiful, elegant writing that are wonderful nonetheless. You get the picture.

But a book with no real story, boring characters? I don't care how gorgeously the writer can string together words, I'm not going to read the whole thing. Or if I do, I'll finish disappointed, wishing I hadn't wasted my time when there are so many books I'll never find time to read.

This is something that, as writers, aspiring or successful, we should all keep our minds on as we advance from our first drafts in which anything is fine, even the driest, most rubbery, sour watermelon a month too early into our real works. Is it juicy? Is it sweet? Is the texture just right, that hint of graininess in the crisp first bite making it the best watermelon of the summer?

Two out of three ain't bad. But get it all right? That's magic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Inspiration From My Daughter

By Kim

As I write this, my older daughter stretches at the barre in preparation for her first class as a trainee in the pre-professional ballet company associated with her dance studio. Being chosen was a validation of talent, the first step toward being able to audition for the coveted role of Dew Drop or the Snow Queen in the Nutcracker. She had a day to celebrate, and now the real work is about to begin.

Today every first-year trainee will realize that they are no longer top of their class. Much tougher teachers will now manhandle them into position if their bellies and rears aren’t sufficiently tucked in, and may yell if corrections aren't heeded. Woe to those who may still sickle their feet or bend their leg at inappropriate times. Weekends are no longer a time of homework followed by relaxation. Instead there is more class, or company meetings, or rehearsals for productions where “newbies” like my daughter will be tucked into the background waving a rose while dancers further up the ranks take center stage.

Photo by Deborah Downes
Every trainee will happily wave that rose. They will show up to class even if injured. If the injury can be worked around, they will adapt their routine and participate. If not, they will sit in a corner and observe. They will be there if they have the sniffles, if they have a mountain of homework waiting to be done before bed, or if they just broke up with a boyfriend. 

Wait, who am I kidding? There will be no time for boys.

My daughter will do all this with a smile because she lives to dance.

Writers could learn a lot from dancers. Being chosen as a trainee is about the equivalent of finishing a manuscript. It’s a leap toward a goal, a reason to yell “squee” and treat yourself to some chocolate. It is no guarantee that you will find an agent, much less earn a publishing contract. Now comes rewriting, submitting, rejections, more rewriting, networking, deadlines, more submitting, more rejection, more rewriting.

There are days it is hard to keep smiling when “the call” has not yet come or, worse, yet another agent has passed or simply not responded to a query at all. On those days I remind myself that rejection is inevitable and out of my control, but how I react to them is up to me. Giving up would not only set a terrible example for my children, but leave me wondering who I am. I choose to do as my daughter did last year when several of her friends were chosen to join a more advanced group while she was left in her old class. She learned what she needed to improve on, showed up for rehearsal every day, and gripped the barre with new determination.

I choose the latter approach. Monday morning, after I send the children off for their first day of school, I will send out a new batch of queries while I wait to hear back on the partials and fulls that are still out there. I will also start researching for a new book, one that has been germinating in my mind for a few weeks now. It’s time, and my sanity may just depend on it.

I’m a writer. I must write again.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Karen Harrington's favorite rejection

by Joan

I met Karen Harrington several years ago when she spoke about her book Janeology at the Writers' Guild of Texas. She's been a good friend of our blog and we were lucky to have her guest post a while back. I'm so pleased she's back for another guest post, and this time on the eve of the launch of her new novel, Sure Signs of Crazy

From her website:

You've never met anyone exactly like twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson. While most of her classmates geek out over Harry Potter, she writes letters to Atticus Finch. Her best friend is a plant. And she's never known her mother, who has lived in a mental institution since Sarah was two.

Sarah and her dad have spent the last decade moving from one Texas town to another, and she's never felt truly at home...until now. This is the story of on extraordinary summer in which Sarah gets her first real crush, new friends, and the answers she's always been looking for. 

Early buzz:

"Don't think this will be a hard sell to readers...for Harrington has created a protagonist who is, in her own way, as clear-eyed, tough-minded, and inspiring as any dystopian hero." (Booklist, starred review)

"Readers intrigued by the premise of this moving story will sympathize with the plucky protagonist and rejoice in the way her summer works out." (Kirkus, starred review)

"Sure signs of crazy is knowing, hilarious, and tender. Karen Harrington's character portrait of Sarah Nelson is one for the ages." (Pat Conroy, bestselling author of The Prince of Tides and My Reading Life.)

Years ago when my children were ages one and two, I received a life changing phone call. I was mopping the floor at the time and Sesame Street played on the TV. “We’d like to publish your novel!” said the voice on the phone. Those are the words every aspiring writer longs to hear. I’d been waiting to hear them all my life.

I dropped my mop.

One year later, I was ecstatic at the release of my first adult novel, Janeology, published by Kunati Books. And one year after that, Kunati Books closed. My novel went out of print almost as fast as it came out.

Chalking this up to experience, I got busy writing a new novel. Around the time I finished the new work, I got a nice letter from a reader of Janeology. “After the mother is sent to a mental institution, what happened to the little girl?” the letter asked.

Interesting question, I thought, and then pushed the idea aside. After all, I still had to polish my other novel. And get an agent. Who had time for interesting questions?

After sending out scores of queries and collecting scores of rejections, I got what I now refer to as My Favorite Rejection. The agent loved the writing, but said, “I don’t know who would buy this.” It was that agonizing rite of passage every writer I know has crossed. It happens when an agent says “this is close, but not quite there.” And then she added a sentence to her rejection that made it unforgettable: “The solution for you is easy. Just write another novel.”


I said a lot of mean things to my computer screen.

This happened close to November, which is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’d participated in this month-long challenge before and decided to write that “easy” novel and get the agent’s voice out of my head. I cast about for an idea and decided that, like the reader who emailed me months back, I, too, was curious about what happened to the little girl in Janeology.

Fueled by caffeine and indignance, I wrote about a spunky, word-loving, twelve-year-old girl finding hope and courage despite living in the dark shadows of an infamous, mentally ill mother. Like all first drafts, it was a fine mess. But I loved the character and wanted to work on it.

That novel turned into what is now SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, which will be released tomorrow by Little, Brown Books. Many writers cite the one story that is their “heart” book. SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY is my heart book.

Of course, I have a different perspective about that agent and her irritating rejection. Her advice turned out to be one of the great gifts of my life, which is why it will always be my favorite rejection. Ultimately, she gave me confidence by suggesting I should keep writing and not give up.  

Now, because I owe a lot to writer friends who’ve supported and inspired me (including the writers here at What Women Write) I share my rejection anecdote in the spirit of encouragement. Just in case you are thinking of giving up, don’t.

Don’t give up until you’ve found the right story. DO NOT GIVE UP. You might be at the point where the advice “just write another novel” is frustratingly necessary. You might be on the verge of writing your heart book.

And I, for one, want to read it.

Joan here. Thanks, Karen, for sharing that wonderful story! Inspiring! 

Readers, you can find her book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indie Bound.

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