Monday, March 24, 2014

Fan Letter to Kim Church for her novel, Byrd

April 1, 2014

Dear Ms. Church,

It is no coincidence that I am writing you a fan letter and your book, Byrd, is number two on my “52 Books in 50 Weeks” list. I like to do things in pairs. I have always loved symmetry. There are many reasons why I love your book, and it has little to do with the fact that we both live in Raleighwood (which I discovered from your book jacket). Is it for the great prose (and the prose is beautiful)? Possibly, but that is not my reason. Is it for the reasons other reviewers have written about. Of course, but that is not the kernel of it. Do you want to know why I really love it, and why I think it will be a huge success? It is because every girl has a Roland and a William and a secret.

            My first Roland’s name was Ran…well, I’ll just call him Mr. X. He was dark-haired with the palest skin, skin on which I wanted to press and leave a fingerprint. When he wore his Levi’s without a shirt, I could see the veins in his chest. He mostly wore t-shirts, though. A black Led Zeppelin IV t-shirt, judging by how often it covered his translucent chest, was his favorite. And he drove a Trans-Am. And he smoke cigarettes, which, to my fourteen year old self, made him James Dean. Alas, I was “just a kid” to his seventeen year-old manliness, and I moved on. Then there was Wil…I’ll call him Mr. Y. He was beautiful and also black-haired, but his skin was tanned by the Ocean Isle summers. He wore a vintage leather jacket in winter that smelled of tobacco and pot and sweat. I met him my sophomore year of college. He didn’t think I was “just a kid” judging by, well, things I can’t mention here. Then there was Chri…we’ll call him Mr. Z. He played Grateful Dead songs on a scratched up acoustic guitar. We sang along with the radio to “If You Can’t Be With the One You Love,” sitting in the front seat of his Honda, me smoking Virginia Slim Lights, him smoking Marlboros, both of us staring out at the rough seas of Cape Cod and thinking of the people we really wanted to be with.

Then I met my William. We’ll call him Blue, because that is the color of his eyes, which are clear, like clean water, and focused. He is an artist-with-a-day-job. I love him to my marrow. He is possibly the best decision I have ever made, if, in fact, our togetherness is something less than fate.

Byrd brought to mind all of these things. Judging from the clues that your novel offers, I think I am close to Addie’s age, and I skipped from East Coast to West and back again and learned a lot about myself in between. Maybe that's why I cried when the book was over. I will always be a fan. Not in a stalkerish kind of way, but in the “buy everything you ever publish from this point forward” kind of way. Oh, what is my secret, you ask? Only Blue knows, and he keeps it close to his heart just as he does me.

Warmest regards,

P.S. I love the names of Sheila's twins...Mavis and Alice, but when I read the sentence the first time, I read it as Avis and Malice! Chalk it up to my dark mind. As my husband says, "I am bubbly on the outside, dark on the inside"!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Rejection or Dejection?

Here is what I received yesterday via email: 
“Thank you for your submission.  Unfortunately, we do not feel it is right for us.”

No beautiful penmanship on linen paper that outlined the issues with my manuscript. Just a short blurb in my Inbox. I suppose in this digital age one should expect a certain lack of personal touch, and I know I shouldn’t take it, well, personally. Nevertheless, it stings when I get one of these. All my self-doubts creep to the front of my brain, and I want to stay in bed and pretend that I never decided to pursue writing.  I think of those oh so happy times when all I had to worry about was raising two kids, managing a house and business, cooking, cleaning, running errands, balancing budgets. I mourn for those simple times!

I have given this a lot of thought, because, as I’m sure you authors out there have experienced, I have to do a fair bit of soul searching every time I get a rejection. I have to decide if all of that heartache is worth it. What are those rejections saying anyway? That I'm a terrible writer? That I should give up? Okay, I am being a bit melodramatic. The fact remains that no matter how many rejections I get, I love writing and whether that writing is published or not doesn't make a difference in how I feel about the process of writing. I guess it takes a certain amount of tenaciousness to be a published author. Try and try again, right?

One final thought. After a semi-decent night of sleep, I am feeling a little more sympathy for all you agents out there. You are most likely plagued by an overload of submissions thanks to that same old technology that plagues my Inbox. All an author has to do these days is simply “cut and paste”. No paper, no postage. They, like me, probably think, “Why not? What do I have to lose?” If we can simply press send, then you should have the right (and of course you do) to simply say “no thanks” by pressing send. At least my rejection email didn’t say, “Thank-you, but the quality of your work is not up to par.” It didn’t say “Thank-you, but your plot is stupid and no one will ever want to read it.” It was simply an email saying, “we do not feel it is right for us.” Okay. Whew! I feel better.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review of upcoming novel The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

I recently read and reviewed The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh for NetGalley ( 

The Weight of Blood is a tale of suspense that is set in the Ozarks. For those of us who live in the South and understand the nature of good southern writing (a sense of one's place in community, land, dialect, colorful characters), this manuscript will not disappoint. The story, told from the perspectives of two women--mother and daughter--twenty years apart, gives the readers enough transition through the writing to keep us entertained while doling out the story little by little. The prose is approachable and the story moves along quickly. Overall, I would recommend this book. It is a solid debut effort.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Snow and Stretches of Time

I have always considered early morning the time of day when I do my best writing. I assume it is because that is when my brain is still fuzzy from sleep. I think this is still true, but there is another element to it. Morning is the only time of day in my "real life" that there are no interruptions. So, I came to the conclusion that all I need to do is to expand that quiet time and I'll get more writing done. I packed a bag and headed for our mountain cabin. I have now been here for two days. Snow is covering the ground, the temperature is hovering at 7 degrees. I have had no interrupting phone calls, etc. It's just me and the dogs. Perfect for writing, right? Well, I'm not sure about that. I have been pacing around the cabin for two days, turning the television on and off, making cup after cup of tea, waiting for inspiration. Last evening, I was very disappointed in my progress. I was feeling frustrated. I keep telling myself to pick up a pen or open my computer and get to it. Instead, I watched Netflix movies. Then it occurred to me that, while I haven't been writing, I have been pondering. This morning, all that pondering sort of came together and I now have something to write about (other than this blog post). A topic. A goal. I'm thrilled. Even more so, because I have the whole day stretching out in front of me. One more day before I have to get back to my "real life". I can allow my thoughts to meander, and when I need a break, I'll just stare out the window at the snow and wait for the next words to come to me as they always do.

Monday, December 23, 2013

First Drafts and Writing Groups

I belong to a writing group that meets once a week. During the two hours we are together, we each share ten pages of something that we are working on. We read the pages aloud and then we (or at least I) refrain from breathing while the others critique the work.

I have had mixed feelings about being part of a writing group and it has nothing to do with my fellow participants. It has to do with those inner voices that keep asking, Why are  you doing this? You are wasting your time. Haven't you seen the plethora of work on Amazon? How dare you think you can compete in this new world of publishing! You get the picture. You hear the voices too, right?

Despite all of this, I have continued to show up each week without fail, and here's what I have learned from participating.

1) My confidence level and my enjoyment of the group process are in direct proportion.

On Writing Group mornings I wake up and read through the draft I am going to read aloud to the group. Some days I think to myself, Damn good work, girl! If I am confident in the quality of the work I am about to share, I look forward to the meeting. On those days, I enjoy the discussion of my work, and, if I take the suggestions to heart, the work reads better. On the days I don't feel so confident, I slink around the house and try to think of a reason to stay home.

2) My fellow writers are competitive.

I see this as a good thing. Who doesn't want to be the teacher's pet? We've all felt that way since kindergarten, haven't we? I believe that this competition forces me to take a good hard look at my own work in a sort of pre-critique proofread. I often find myself making changes and finding weird typos that I swear have been typed in by another hand. It helps, when reading aloud, not to mention to mention the same phrase twice. You take my meaning.

3) My fellow writers are rooting for me.

Did I mention that I just finished a first draft of a novel? Oh, I didn't? Well, I have just finished the first draft of my novel. Anyway, here is the best part of being in the group. It takes a writer and readers to craft a great story. Over the past few months, I read the serial, 10-pages-at-a-time version of my novel to the group members, and they followed along with keen ears. They cared about my characters in the same way that I do. They asked good questions. They helped me through plot weaknesses and logistical issues with setting. They want to see the book become a success as much as I do. I know this, because I want the same for them.

What it all boils down to is that writers are equal partners with readers. You need readers (other than your family members), so go out and find a group of people who are thoughtful, critical readers and who are committed to helping you draft the best possible version of your story or memoir. Cling to them like a lifeline, even the ones you disagree with, and they will get you safely to shore or at least through the first draft.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walking the Dog: A Writing Lesson

I am a terrible dog parent. Maybe not a terrible one, but a lazy one. I admit it. I don't like to walk my dog. I love her. I really do. I love to pet her and talk to her, and I love it when she sits still. But, alas, she is a dog and sometimes she needs to get out of the house, see the world, and pee on things.

Last week she watched with a look of hope on her sweet face as I pulled the leash from its hook. She tried to hide her excitement. After all, she knows I am known for changing my mind on a whim.

A few minutes later we were on the go. She is a bulldog, squat and wide, and when she walks her backside rolls from side to side. She looks like she is swishing her hips. Very feminine. The front of her is all business. She keeps her head lowered to the ground, sniffing at things that I can't see or smell. I am curious. I want to know what messages those invisible scents are sending her.

Like those scents, picked up by my dog and teasing her forward, so goes good writing.

There are things in my mind that others can't see, hear, taste, smell or generally sense in any way. It is my job to write so that the reader is pulled along and teased forward.

My job as a writer is also to make the invisible...well, visible. If I write, "she lived in a house", the reader has to use her own imagination to fill in the details. This is a lot of work, and she may give up on me before she gets too far. If instead I write, "the house, a small, four-room wooden structure, was once white but is now a naked silver, cleansed of its paint by eighty years of wind and rain. It sits at the base of the foothills, which rise behind it and act as its protector from the howling winds of the Appalachian range"....

You take my meaning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keeping a Writer's Journal

"Some things you learn as an adopted child of an alcoholic are to be happy, be cooperative, be helpful, be complicit or be invisible. My name is Francis Rain Buckner. I eventually married to become Francis Buckner Smith. Francis Smith. Such a plain name. I was happy to see the Rain part of my name legally dispensed. Like its homonym, my middle name represented the dark, dreary, cloudy part of my life. At the age of 25 I was able to bury it. At least I thought I had. But the shadow is always there."

This is a paragraph of fiction written on the first page of my first journal. I bought the journal, a green college-ruled composition book, because someone convinced me that real writers keep journals. I want to be a real writer, so there you have it. Writing in a daily journal felt like a chore at first. To make it a habit, I carried it with me everywhere I went. Eventually, it took hold, and I am now nearing completion of this notebook. I already have a fresh one ready to go. So, what have I learned about journaling and its role in my writing life?

1) Just do it. Every day. It doesn't matter what you write. Write what you see. Write what you smell. Write a letter to a person you love or a person you are angry with. Write down your grocery list. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

2) No room for perfectionism. For those Type-A folks out there this will be hard to swallow, but journals can have misspellings, bad grammar, and bad sentence structure. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

3) Allow room for play. Your journal is the place for you to jot down silly things. I remember reading some of Woody Guthrie's handwritten notes that were eventually put to song by Wilco. The words were silly, fun, nonsensical, and never to be found in a dictionary. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

4) Don't think. Just write. Don't plan your journal entries. What fun is that? If you need to get the planning monkey off your back, write a blog or a "Letter to the Editor" or book report, but do NOT plan your journal entry. Use your journal to explore those ideas that are just below the surface. If you are having trouble getting started, give yourself a prompt by picking out a phrase in a book of poetry or looking a postcard in the  neighborhood gas station or eavesdrop on in the grocery store checkout line. Use the prompt to write what immediately comes to mind. Stream of consciousness is what you are after. Remember, no one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

5)  Use what you write. Okay, this might be in direct conflict with the first four "lessons", but mine your journal for things that you eventually write for others to read. For example, the paragraph that I wrote on page one might one be the beginning of a short story or a novel. If I hadn't taken the time to write it, it might still be lost in my subconscious mind.

So, if you are a writer want-to-be like me, buy a cheap notebook and start journaling!