Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Blank Page as a Playground

I recently finished a solid draft of a novel. I loved my characters. I hated to say good-bye, but I knew in my heart I was finished with the story. It "simmered" for a month or so, and now I am in the process of editing it. For me, this is the real work. The fun part is over. By "fun" I mean the joy of discovering new characters and following along with them as they take me on a journey. I need fun. That means it's time for a new project. Novel? Short story? I'm not sure yet.

I began playing around with both a couple of weeks ago. Every morning I went to the computer and saw the blank screen staring back. When I coupled this with the knowledge of how much work and time it takes to write long form fiction, well, I wanted to close my laptop and quit writing forever. Let's face it. A blank page (or screen) is overwhelming.

I found a million other things to do besides write, including binge watching Real Housewives of New York, downloading four new novels that got interesting reviews in the New York Times Book Review, updating this blog (which has been silent for two years), cleaning out half of my closet (the whole thing was too much), trying to understand Scrivener (which was frustrating me to the point of tears) and eating lots of snacks. I did other things too. Just think of the things you do to avoid writing and I probably did it.

I had a breakthrough a few days ago as I listened to a podcast (regrettably I can't remember which one), and the guest on the podcast said, think of the blank page as a playground. I love the idea. I like picturing words on swings or slipping down slides. I see the little (but important) words--a, and, the--sitting in strollers and being tended by big word nannies with names like preprandial and quidnunc. It gives me great comfort to think of the blank page this way. It gives me hope and joy to think of all the words that will find a home on my blank page. To that end, I starting writing words--nonsense at first, no complete sentences or punctuation. I wrote the words that came to me. I wrote for twenty minutes, and then I went back and picked three or four phrases and used them as prompts to write a paragraph. There was nothing complicated or particularly exciting about the end result, but I felt the gears of my writing brain turning. Of course one needs characters, scenes, plot, etc. to make a story or a novel. I'll get to all of that eventually, but for now I'm going to stay on the playground and wait for the word kids to pick me for a game of kickball.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review of Karin Slaughter's 'Cop Town'

I grew up in a small Southern town. The town was widely known for its crime, and it made for some historical moments from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. Reading Karin Slauther’s Cop Town (2014, Random House) brought me right back there. Police dramas are not usually my top pick for a fiction read, but there are many reasons to love Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town. The book is filled with colorful characters and women rule the pages in this novel. The main characters, Kate Murphy and Maggie Lawson, two female cops, are on the hunt for a cop killer. They each bring their own issues to their jobs, but they are both determined to hang in there despite the chauvinism, the racism, and the corruption that spreads through the hallways, briefing rooms, cop cars and streets like a plague. There is plenty of action to keep a reader entertained. If you like gritty novels with a mystery at its center, you will love Cop Town.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The ubiquitous question among writers--How long have you been writing?

How long have you been writing? I hear this question often during the chit chat at writers' conferences and writing groups. I was talking recently with a friend who mentioned that she had been writing for as long as she could remember. I'm not one of those writers, I said, I came to it late. Or did I? I thought about it after our conversation. When had I begun to write? I have a file folder full of snippets of writing. Sure, I have kept journals sporadically over the years. Nothing, however, that seems to point to an early calling to the craft. I forced my mind into the past. I traced my way back in time--two graduate programs, college, high school--until I landed in my junior year high school English class, fresh from summer break, the room so hot that my bare legs, dressed in shorts, stuck to the fiberglass chair.

It was the first day of school, and my classmates and I sat in our assigned seats and lied to each other about the cool things we had accomplished over the summer, even though we all knew that most of us worked summer jobs, watched television, and, for those lucky enough to belong to a pool (not me), we lounged in the sun. The classroom was abuzz with whispers and the occasional guffaw until our teacher, Mr. Sellers, tall, sickly pale and thin, with a large Ichabod Crane nose and greasy black hair, stepped into the room. He wrote the first book assignment on the chalkboard. We groaned at the title, Ethan Frome, and begged for something that would hold our otherwise preoccupied minds.

Over the next month, Mr. Sellers quickly moved us through diagramming sentences. Most of the class moaned and groaned through these exercises as well, but I was fond of sentence diagrams. I enjoyed breaking out the noun and the verb, the base clause, and adding to the skeleton the important adverbs and adjectives, prepositional and participial phrases. I particularly liked the longer sentences, because when diagrammed properly they looked like the outline of a fish, something that had movement, quiet but fluid. Beautiful.

All of that was fine, but it was the day that Mr. Sellers entered the classroom and turned off the lights that my understanding of the power of language was fully realized. I watched Mr. Sellers carefully select a book from the shelf behind his desk. Incredibly and to our amazement, the teacher who had been a quiet shadow in the classroom until that moment, stepped first onto his chair and then onto his desk. He stood tall and seemed regal in a way that I had never noticed when he was on the ground. The natural light from the windows illuminated his face. He held the book high above his head, as a Baptist preacher might do while in the pulpit, and began reciting a poem by James Henry Leigh Hunt,

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night in a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,

I can't remember the rest of the poem, but those first few lines are etched in my memory. It was as if Mr. Sellers was telling my fortune that day. It was as if he said to me, You will have a lifetime of words--reading them, writing them, speaking them--and always with an eye and an ear for the weight of them. I suppose that was when my writing began. It happened in my heart before it happened on paper, quietly and without ceremony, but life-changing nonetheless.

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.