Thursday, December 30, 2010

7 New Year Resolutions

Who am I to not make New Year's Resolutions?
1. Stay the course. Yeah, my first resolution is an affirmation of the path I have already blazed in my life. (Let's start with the positive, shall we?) If ever there was a year that I stuck to my plan and stuck to my guns, 2010 was it.
2. Remember the lessons learned. Really. Those plans I stuck with? It wasn't easy and it took more than one false start. Don't be afraid to refer back to the writing journal to see where those pitfalls lay. This life is an open-book test.
3. Go another step out. If I pushed myself in 2010 to write better, more often and with more courage, let me take it a step farther in 2011. Maybe I won't up my word count but I can up my daring. I can take bigger chances with my plots and characters.
4. Work on new story ideas. I love to lose myself in a story. Blessedly I'm not afflicted (yet) with the urge to start a new story when my current story gets tough. The other side of that coin, however, is that when one story is done, I don't immediately start my next one. Maybe it's just how I write. But this year, I'm keeping a story file, with clippings and notes and fragments of story ideas so that when my current WIP is completed, I at least have something to poke through.
5. Try at least one new writing outlet. Currently I write novels and a short column for a quarterly magazine. This year I'm going to write something new – short stories, poetry, longer non-fiction. And submit it. Repeatedly, if necessary.
6. Connect with more writers. I love my writing community on Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook, as well as the WV Writers. This year, I'm heading to Matera, Italy for some new brainstorming ground. More writers mean more ideas, more encouragement, more inspiration. Find ways to be helpful.
7. Dare to suck. I'm polishing my Italian, working on my pathetic chess skills, dusting off my paintbrushes. This is just the beginning. It's a big world out there and I don't have to be the best to have the best time. If we only do what we're good at, we'll never know what we're capable of.

There, seven is a good number. I can live with it. How about you? Anything on here ring a bell with you? What would you add?

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Mental Compost Heap

Okay so you might have noticed a slight gap in my posts. I'll give you the five cent tour of events: started a story, changed the story, changed it again, changed it back, started a new one, was told to go back to old one, banged head against wall and chucked it all. Started an entirely new project that roared to life like it was born in jet fuel and consumed three solid months of my life. A happy ending, yes?

Yes and no.

I'm thrilled with the finished manuscript, a thriller titled FLOWERTOWN. (More on that later.) When I had finished the edits, however, I noticed a distinct absence of words in my head. The writers among us know how unnerving that can be. There was no next story chattering, no characters nagging, no plot threads weaving through my now resting mind. The silence was only compounded by the diagnosis of nodules on my vocal cords that required me to stop talking, and therefore working, for two weeks. Now that, my friends, is silence.

What had happened? I looked back over the past months and saw how I had spent four solid months: working, writing, coughing, working, coughing, coughing, writing, working, writing, writing, coughing. And coughing some more.

Notice anything missing? READING.

Somehow amid all the creating and coughing and mundane work I had let the habit of reading slip away. As impossible as it seems, I had used up all my words.

And so, with two quiet uninterrupted weeks (and I won't lie, that didn't suck) I began to read. I read everything I could get my hands on: Steig Lawson, Robert Charles Wilson, Lawrence Block, Harlan Coben, Barbara Kingsolver, recipes for sour cherry chicken, Paris Review, a can of fried onions, CD liner notes. If it was printed I read it. As the stories, facts and delicious serving suggestions went in, I could feel the words, the styles, the phrases, the images, peeling off and piling up in that part of my mind that I mine for inspiration.

I've come to think of it as mental compost, the natural process of breaking down all the organic compounds of the world around us, especially those in the written word, into a thick, loamy fertile pile of goodness into which the next seed of an idea can burrow, sprout and become a living thing. I can already feel the heat and life returning to that overly tapped part of my brain, can feel it being replenished.

Have you ever run out of words? Or worked the words you have so hard that they become dry, sterile things? I've learned a valuable lesson. This garden I call my mind, as bizarre as it can be sometimes, needs a steady supply of mental compost. Now when I let my mind lay fallow for a month or two, I know all this reading is just replenishing the soil.

Monday, July 5, 2010

3 Ways to Get Unstuck

We've all been at that point where you know, long term, where the story is going but between you and long-term, there is a vast wasteland of white page and you can't get word one written. What to do? Here are three things that might work.

1.Get to the action.
Right to it. Your current chapter ends with the action looming on the horizon and you're dying to get to it but there's all this other "stuff" that has to be explained and set-up and prepared before you get there. You know what? You're probably going to wind up cutting all that stuff anyway, so why not skip it now? Get to the part you're dying to write. Now, I'm not a fan of writing the action scenes and stitching them together because those winding paths between high points can take you in some interesting directions, but if you're itching for action, your reader probably is too.

2.Start a conversation.
When you're stuck in a plot line, your wheels tend to spin. You want forward motion but everywhere you look is nothing but mud and walls and plot-drop cliffs. Your characters are standing around looking nervous and/or bored wondering why you're not letting them do what they want to do. Ask them. Put two characters together and let them start talking. See what's on their mind. I once discovered the reason a scene was stalled out was because a secondary character was seriously pissed that his best friend had blown him off for a woman (and the plot) and was therefore refusing to do his part to continue the story. I set them down over a few beers and let the friend lose his cool and, lo and behold, my main character had the unhappy realization that he could be a self-absorbed prick. It was a nice touch of dimension that I wouldn't have really seen if I hadn't let them talk it out.

3.Write something completely insane.
True story: a friend was stuck deader than dead in the first third of her book. She could think of no logical way to jump start the next phase so she had a monkey fall out of tree onto her main character's head. In the middle of a city street, no previous mentions of monkeys, no apparent reason it happened. The character, understandably, screamed and swore and the monkey peed on her and ran off. After that, the character recovered and the story continued. Needless to say, the monkey scene was cut (after many hysterical readings of said passage) and the story continued. It may not work for you, but throwing in something nonsensical can take the pressure of deathless prose and breathless plotting off of your mortal shoulders.

We've all been there. I'd love any tips you could share.

Friday, June 25, 2010

In Praise of a Writing Journal

I've never been a journal keeper. Maybe it's because, as a leftie, I could never manage to get my hand into those tiny little books with the metal clasps. And even if I could, the lines in those things were so infinitesimally spaced…well, let's just say I'm still a wide-ruled girl. Plus my personal idea of hell is to think that anyone can read my mind and, for me, a journal just seemed a doorway to that netherworld.

During the writing of Storyteller, however, I had so many story ideas and worries and enthusiasms bouncing around at once, I decided to break down and carry a composition notebook around with me. Who knew I would love it? Having all my ideas in one place? What is this "organization" thing you speak of? Unfortunately, many of the pages have lines like "no words today - boo" or cryptic messages like "Don't forget the Cheerios under the seat!" I kept it through Storyteller, its sequel The Reaches, a nonsensical NaNoWriMo project and the ill-fated mystery endeavor. I'm into my third notebook now just as I'm starting my newest project and have discovered the real beauty of the journals.

"I've been here before." You know that feeling at the start of a new, exciting writing project when it feels just like someone drops you in the middle of Kansas and says "Now get to the Grand Canyon! Pronto!" You're psyched! You love the Grand Canyon and you have a pretty good idea where it is from here. You get ready to take that first step… and all you see is wheat. Miles and miles of wheat. And that voice pops up and says "You can't get there from here."

Pull out the old journals. Writing periods I remember as effortless or story arcs that seemed to me now to have grown out organic and smooth are remembered quite differently up close in the notebooks. Days and weeks of anxiety and despair and false starts and weird go-nowhere ideas take up pages and pages of the journal. I see a million tangents that got weeded out after they had helped bridge difficult passages; I see periods of frustration that were just hammered through with brute force. I see moments of elation when things finally picked up steam. Mostly, though, I see that I made it. Again and again, I wrote my way from start to finish, each time convinced this would be my last time.

Like the journals themselves, the stories were messy and flawed and full of missteps. Unlike the journals, however, they have been edited and tweaked and cleaned up so nobody has to know their ugly childhoods. Their beauty comes from their polish. The journals' beauty comes from their rough ugliness, from the crazy and sometimes pathetic desperation scrawled through their pages. "I've been here before" and my journals have the scars to prove it. Consider me converted to the world of the writing journal.

Now if you'll just point me in a west/southwesterly direction, I've got a Grand Canyon to see.

Monday, June 14, 2010


FEAR. There's a word for ya. Good fear, bad fear, deep fear, hidden fear. I am of the belief there are only two real emotions in the human heart – love and fear. Today I'm talking about fear.

It all started because a friend of a friend decided she needed to start a "bucket list." (May I nominate that phrase for most annoying phrase/concept since "cool beans" and "think outside the box?" In my humble opinion, writing out a bucket list gives unnecessary gravitas to ridiculous but fun things, like getting laid in Vegas, while trivializing difficult achievements, like becoming fluent in Hungarian. And, even worse, it gives people an excuse to put off doing the things they'd like to be doing if they would just conquer their own fear and inertia. "I can't do it now, my show's on, but it's on my bucket list!" Sorry, I should save this for another blog.)

Anyway, my friend's bucket list contained white water rafting on the New River in Fayette County, WV. I live in WV and have always felt a sort of secret shame that I had never partaken of one of my state's most famous and exciting activities, but to be honest, the thought of it scared the piss out of me. I don't really know why. I can swim; I'm not scared of water, but there are some serious Class Five rapids and, well, I like breathing. But the opportunity presented itself and I agreed to go, fear be damned. We also decided that, as a reward for bravely facing the lower New River in spring, we would treat ourselves to the newly opened zip line canopy tour that ranged across the gorge. A good plan, right?


I received two excellent pieces of advice before we left to raft. One, your paddle in the water will keep you in the boat. (Thanks, Melanie.) Two, listen to everything your guide tells you. I concentrated so hard on every word out of our guide's mouth I nearly set him on fire with my mind. I don't really know how or why it happened, but on that long, winding bus ride down the gorge to the launch site, my fear grew from anxiety to white-knuckle terror but part of my brain (probably the part that didn't want to be laughed at by the 11 year old kid in the raft with me) told me to stare down that fear, to fight through it. Or rather, paddle through it. We came upon the first real rapid of the day, a Class Three with a Class Five hole at the bottom, aptly named "Surprise" and what do you know? I did exactly what our guide told us, paddled like hell and came out on the other side laughing my head off and immediately in love with white water rafting. In every picture of me on that river, I am grinning like a baboon.

Fear of the unknown conquered by facing it head on. Check.

Skip ahead to the next day. Our adrenaline glands had gotten a well deserved rest. We suited up for the tree-top canopy zip-line. Three hours of gorgeous sailing over the beautiful New River Gorge. I had a few little butterflies but mostly I was pumped. After all, I had jumped out of an airplane the year before and I had just upped my bravery quotient by successfully rafting the Lower New River. I was ready! The fact that thunder clouds were rolling in over the mountains only gave me slight pause. The tour was rain or shine. I was in.

It started with a ground-school. These people take their customers' safety very seriously and they make sure everyone understands exactly how to do what they are going to spend the next three hours doing. We were clamped onto a pair of wires in a rather complicated series of carabineers, given instructions on breaking and steering and self-rescuing should we not complete the zips, one of which would be over 730 feet long. I watched my friends go first, zip lining over the perilous height of four feet. I learned from their mistakes. I felt confident in my ability to follow the directions. And then I felt this sick little worm of fear begin to twist inside of me. I thought maybe it was just a left over from the day before, or perhaps an unfortunate habit of fear that I might have picked up somewhere, like a cold sore. I took my turn on the ground-school line successfully and told that little evil worm of fear to buzz off. I had come to zip line and zip I would!

The first zip was 100 feet long heading right out into the gorge. The landing platform was easily thirty feet up in a sturdy hemlock and if you don't think that's high, well, think again. I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I watched friend after friend zip across the chasm with varying degrees of success, all laughing, all whooping it up. When I stood on the launch stump, harness hooked in, palms sweaty, heart pumping, I told myself I was going to face this new fear, this new shade of unknown, and I was going to zip my ass all the way across that gorge.

And I zipped. I kept my ankles crossed; I braked softly when instructed; I steered as true as an arrow and landed perfectly on the second platform. And do you know what I learned in that one jubilant instant? That I hate zip lining. The guide congratulated me, hooked me to the safety belt to prepare for the next zip and looked genuinely shocked when I said I wanted off the platform. There was one more zip to go before the rescue line and the guide assured me that once I did it again, I'd get over my nerves. After all, she told me, you're doing really well. And so we zipped again. Another 100 feet, another easy, straight, fast dead-on landing. And the transformation of my dislike of zip lining into outright loathing. The storm was blowing in. The hemlocks were swaying and I was fully prepared to scamper down that tree like a squirrel if need be. The guide told me to trust my equipment. I told the guide several words that rhyme with "duck" and the rescue line was prepared.

Did I regret bailing on my adventure after only two short zips, ignoring the guides promises that I would come to love the activity? Not for a heartbeat. The gentle man on the ground who plucked us from the rescue line (I was not alone in this defection) told me that I had made the right decision. He said "Honey, if you don't like it by now, you're gonna hate it in three hours." Truer words were never spoken. And when I saw the face of my best friend, who is perhaps the bravest, boldest, ballsiest woman I have ever known, when she returned from three hours zipping through the gorge in a driving rain storm – well, I congratulated myself on making the right decision.

What's the message here? One, don't invite me zip lining. But two, all fear is not bad fear but all fear must be faced. Some things you fear because they've become big boogey monsters in your head and when you right up to them, they're nothing more than ghosts. Some things you fear because when you get right up on them, they are indeed scarier than hell. But you won't know until you get right up on them and that is usually the scariest step of all. And whether you fight or flee, you can at least know you were brave enough to take that step in the first place.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

When You're Not the Writer You Thought You Were

I knew what kind of writer I was. I don't mean genre vs. literary, fiction vs. journalism. I mean, I thought I knew what KIND of writer I was, what my method was, how my mind worked and my habits held. It turns out, I was all wrong.

When I wrote Storyteller, I was the type of writer who had to work in silence. My day job is nothing short of bedlam and the time I set aside for writing has always been a blessed and sacred oasis of silence. Outer silence, that is, so that inside I could hear the rhythm and songs of the stories that turned me on so very, very much. These were my stories, my characters, my world-made-by-hand and there was no place I felt more at home. I set huge word counts for myself and wrote with crazy abandon.

After the first manuscript was finished and polished, I started the submission process, got an agent I trust and have been waiting patiently for great news on the series' fate. (The patiently part is a tad generous. Okay, extremely generous, but cut me some slack, alright?) I wrote the second in the series because the story had to come out and, again, silence and discipline were the keys to get me to that blissful groove where the story just flowed.

But then what? We all know how slowly the publishing world works. Writers have to write; it's the only part of the publishing process we have any real control over. So I decided to try a new project, a new genre – mystery. I did my market research, read some of my old favorites, read some great resource books and got underway. My agent liked the project; early word from editors was positive. Things were rolling, right? Wrong!

The first mistake I made was ignoring a teeny-tiny voice in my head saying "We don't want to write this! We don't like this hook!" Not a good voice to ignore during the first chapters of what you hope will be a long series. The second mistake I made was ignoring viral bronchitis that was just setting in. Long story short, the first hook was sent back to be reworked; said rework was rejected again with a phrase I used to find flattering: "We like her writing but the project isn't for us." It's become the literary equivalent of "It's not you, it's me." It's very positive feedback to get, but it starts to feel like almost going to the prom. You don't have a lot to show for it.

Then came the period my family and friends tactfully refer to as "The Set-Back." Let's just say it wasn't pretty; it wasn't quiet but it was blessedly brief. I tore down my writing station. I threw out all my previous drafts of the mystery, notes, etc. I used some remarkably colorful language, even for me. And I completely stopped writing. I didn't know how long I would stop, but hell itself could not have gotten my fingers to that keyboard.

It turns out I was a lot sicker than I had originally thought (which I'm using as my excuse for my abominable and petulant behavior) and I used my recovery time to take apart the image I had of myself as a writer. First let me say that recovering full lung capacity is a hugely enlightening experience, especially when you're ramped up on steroids, and I hit some pretty high levels of euphoria. Here's what I learned:

NOT ALL STORIES ARE THE SAME SO THEY CAN'T BE WRITTEN THE SAME WAY. It's so ridiculously basic, you'd think it a no-brainer but for me it was a revelation. My urban fantasies are full of tradition and new language and violence and in many places read like a dream. It makes sense they would be written in a near-dream state. My mysteries are light-hearted and (hopefully) clever. They need noise and chatter and levity. I don't think they can be written in a silent room. They don't necessarily benefit from the grounding austerity of black coffee. A nice cold Stella Artois has gotten me through more than one clunky scene, despite my old insistence on keeping writing and drinking separate. (Some of you who know me well are probably shocked at that old rule, but it's true.) The effortless word counts of one project can't be expected, and would probably suck, for a different project, so there went another old misconception. Pantsing was replaced with plotting; for the first time ever, characters needed notes.

Over and over, old notions of myself, my habits, my identity went tumbling away, leaving only two irrefutable truths:

I AM A WRITER BECAUSE I WRITE. I love writing. I love telling stories and nobody has the final word on how I get those stories onto the page but me. And second:

WHEN WRITING, CARROT STICKS ARE NEVER AN ACCEPTABLE SUBSTITUTE FOR M&MS. Sorry. I've tried. There are some universal laws that cannot be broken.

So how about it? Ever had your own writer self-illusions shattered? Altered? How did you cope?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Chatting with Eric Fritzius of WV Writers

As many of you know, the WV Writers Conference is less than a month away! Today I'm chatting with Eric Fritzius, aka E. Meritus, who is a featured presenter at this years conference. If the name sounds familiar, it's because Eric was gracious enough to invite me to his podcast earlier this year. Now, bwah-ha-ha, the tables have turned!!!

SGR: There aren't many interviews that start with "Hello Master." Well, at least not on this site, but you are well known in the mountain state as the webmaster for the WV Writers. I know you play a huge role in the upcoming conference. Could you give us a quick run down of the conference. Who, what, where, when and what can writers expect to find?

EF: I’m not as heavily involved in the conference planning, beyond my president emeritus advisory role. WVW’s president, Terry McNemar, and the team he’s assembled, are the ones doing the heavy lifting for the conference this year.

I’m astounded at how the conference grows and changes from year to year and it always seems to get bigger and better. This year we have nearly 50 different workshops on hand, not counting the People’s Choice competitions sessions, and none of those workshops repeats. So basically during each of the three days of the conference, there will be around four workshops being taught, and sometimes five during the class hours. To break it down a little better, if you think of the conference as having high school class periods, there will be four class periods per day, except for Sunday, which only has two, with each class period being 75 minutes in length. But within each of those class periods will be four or five workshops to choose from. The periods are also designed so that each will contain workshops on fiction, nonfiction, poetry, business, etc. so that people who are mainly interested in writing poetry or writing prose can have a workshop to attend in that subject.
People can see the full lineup of presenters at our website ( but some of the major ones who are drawing attention include Denise Giardina, Gretchen Moran Laskas, Rick Campbell, Jimmy Carl Harris, Tim Poland, Cheryl Ware, Dana Wildsmith, Sandy Tritt, Rob Merritt and many more. Another of our planned guests, Lee Maynard, is in all likelihood not going to be able to attend after all. This is breaking news for us, but there have been some very serious developments in his immediate family and he regretfully has asked to bow out. He said that there still is a chance he’ll be able to make it and, if so, he’ll be a surprise guest, but the odds aren’t good on that front. We’ll miss him. Lee has been a friend of WVW for several years now and his workshops have always been fantastic. In the meantime Gretchen Moran Laskas has stepped in to fill one of the workshop slots for Mr. Maynard.

Another major aspect of the conference will be the presence of two professional editors and two literary agents. Peter Lynch, who is an editorial manager with Sourcebooks, Inc., is returning again this year. We had a lot of fun with him last year and he’ll once again be on hand to take pitches for potential projects with Sourcebooks. The other editor is Kaylan Adair, who is with Candlewick Press, one of the major children’s book publishers. Kaylan won’t be taking pitches at the conference, but anyone attending any of her workshops will be given a code word allowing them a three month window in which to pitch projects by mail. This is pretty big news, as Candlewick Press is not currently taking any new project pitches. For the literary agents we have Christine Witthohn, from Book Cents Literary Agency. She’s been a friend of our organization for the past few years and has always willing to help us out, particularly when it comes to helping arrange for folks like Peter Lynch to come in for the conference. On occasion, she even picks up a new client or two from our conference, which is always nice. And we have a new face for the conference in the form of agent Kelly Mortimer from Mortimer Literary Agency. Kelly specializes in pre-published authors—those who have not yet had a manuscript published. She has been a more recent addition to the conference and will be filling one of Lee Maynard’s workshop slots with one on the dangers of passive writing.

And for those people who would like to pitch to one of the above folks, we have all the information on that at our website ( And for people who would like more information on the actual pitch process, I’ll be doing a podcast interview with Christine Witthohn sometime in May to give folks a primer on that. And Christine will also be conducting a similar workshop at the conference.

SGR: I see on the schedule that you are MCing the entertainment Friday night. Can you give us a sneak peak behind the curtain?

EF: For the past few years, our Friday night entertainment has been kind of a variety show, though I don’t think we’ve ever called it that before. Usually it’s just thought of as three or four different things happening on Friday, showcasing some of the talent found among our members. This year we’re embracing the variety concept and are putting on a show called A WV Writers Home Companion, loosely in the style of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. Partly we hope for this to be a dry run for a similar show we’re doing as part of this year’s FestivAll in Charleston on June 26. We may not have exactly the same show in both places, particularly the more Keilloresque bits, but they’ll be recognizable as members of the same family. So there will be drama, poetry, prose, humor, song and whatever else we can squeeze in.

And for Saturday night’s entertainment, we have Pops Walker and Kipyn Martin. Pops will be a 3 time return performer for conference entertainment, which is a testament to just how good he is. Kipyn Martin is a young lady who regularly composes more classical style music, but who is an astounding singer/songwriter when she gets a guitar in her hands. In addition to their own music, they’ll be doing some tribute pieces to Keith Pitzer, a friend of both WVW and Pops and Kipyn both, who passed away this past December. Keith and his wife Joan had originally been scheduled as entertainment this year.

SGR: One of the seminars I'm definitely attending this year is your seminar on podcasting. I was lucky enough to participate in your podcast on For many writers, this is new territory, an entirely new forum in which to promote their work and engage in conversations with other writers. Tell us about what you'll be covering.

EF: I started the WV Writers Podcast a year ago not only because I’m such an enormous fan of the medium but because I was already scheduled to do a workshop on blogging and podcasting at the conference and wanted to do it for research on the How To aspect. Very much like the medium of blogging gave every day folks an international forum for writing, podcasts give everybody the chance to host their own radio and TV-style shows. Just like any medium, there’s a lot of noise out there, but the chance to rise to the upper tiers of the heap is not limited to instantly recognizable names. The medium of podcasting has continued to grow tremendously in the past year and is absolutely becoming a daily ritual for millions of people across the country. With smartphones and 3G and 4G data connections making it even more convenient to find and download such content, the field is only going to increase. How to make money at it is still a very iffy proposition, hence the title of my workshop “Podcasting for Fun and (Mostly) Nonprofit.” But there are actually people who do make money at it, or find creative ways to use the medium as a tool toward that end. We’ll talk about all that, help the workshop attendees brainstorm possible passions they might turn into a podcast of their own, and give everyone a crash course in how to start your own for surprisingly little money.

SGR: But you're more than just a good-looking tech! You're also a writer/artist in a number of mediums. I'm going to let you run amok here and dazzle us ( and by that I mean make our heads spin) with your many projects. I know you have a short story in DARK TALES OF TERROR. Is that your favorite genre? I'm guessing not from the wide variety.

EF: I tend to do a lot of different things because I’m interested in them. I do podcasts cause it’s fun and exercises old radio muscles. I write short stories because they’re fun and incredibly satisfying when they turn out right. They can also experiment with form in a way that novels can’t, or at least probably shouldn’t. I write plays because I’ve been a theatre guy for most of my life and enjoy acting and writing for the stage. I’ve had three plays produced in the past couple of years. And I write nonfiction articles because they too are fun and I get paid for them.

As for favorite genres, I used to describe mine as “mostly science fiction,” but I’ve had to reevaluate that in the past few years after I noticed that I tended to buy mostly modern fantasy/horror. It’s a genre that I tend to write in as well, though many of my stories and plays are completely down to earth except for one odd bit in the middle. I rarely write outright horror, though. In fact, when my short story “Nigh” was published in the anthology Dark Tales of Terror, that you mention, I was afraid it didn’t fit. When I first submitted the story to Woodland Press, the anthology they were preparing was entitled something like Spooky Stories from the Mountain State. While “Nigh” is definitely dark—being filled with more than a smattering of death and coffee—I kind of wondered if that particular dark tale was terrifying enough to merit inclusion in a book called Dark Tales of Terror. Woodland Press seemed to think so, though, and I was proud to have it included.

The other major project I’m involved with is a nonfiction book about the Smith Mountain community near Alderson that Belinda Anderson is writing. This was a remote community with around 30 families that had lived on farms around Smith Mountain for decades. However, the place was all but abandoned during World War II after many of the men and children left to fight in the war and those remaining were unable to keep up with the farm work and were forced to move into town. While most of the buildings have either rotted to the foundations, or had their materials salvaged, there are still a few structures to be found. There are a few buildings left. The place is pretty much inaccessible except by four wheeler, horse, or on foot—which is how we made it up the first time—but we’ve photographed a lot of what is there. There are still a few people alive with first-hand memories of living there and even more who had relatives who did, so there are still plenty of stories to be told. Belinda has been tracking them down to record their stories for the past few months. West Virginia has its share of ghost communities and we think the chance to help tell the story of Smith Mountain will be fun. Mainly I’ve been assisting with the technical side, archiving the audio recordings and occasionally serving as photographer and videographer for the project, but my main role will come when we begin compiling Belinda’s manuscript into its final format and I’ll get to do the layout of the book with the accompanying pictures. We’re also talking about including a multi-media component with some of the videos and audio interviews included on a website.

SGR: Some people might be intimidated by such a long list of projects, feeling overwhelmed. You don't seem to be in that group. Do you find yourself drawn to having many irons in the fire? Do you find it more or less challenging to have the number of Works in Progress limited?

EF: I don’t really know any other way to do things. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a lot of irons in the fire. Just to extend the metaphor, this is not to say that all the irons were being actively watched, or were even close enough to the fire to be very warm, but they were at least in the fireplace. Once in a while, one gets hot enough to shape and I can take it out and whack it with hammers until it looks like I want it to. The flip side of this, of course, is that by not concentrating on one project at a time, by the time I get around to finishing the work on one it might not look exactly like it did in my head when I first got the notion to stick that iron in the fire. And having so many in there is admittedly distracting and daunting. It’s probably not the best way to work, but it’s what I do.

SGR: Before we wrap it up, could you give some parting words of encouragement or advice to anyone reading who is considering attending the WV Writers Conference? Besides watching for goose poop when you walk around the lake?

EF: Well, one should never ignore the importance of proper goose poop avoidance technique, but maybe that’s a workshop for another year.
For those who’ve never been before, the WV Writers Summer Conference is one of the most laid back writers conferences you’ll ever go to. We’ve been told this not only from those of us on the board who regularly attend other writers conferences, but also from our members who do as well. And each year, by the end of the weekend, one of the new presenters will pull one of us aside and assure us that we have something special going on and offer to return whenever we’d like. I don’t know if there’s any one thing you can put your finger on as to why the conference works so well, but having an excellent staff of workshop leaders, the beautiful setting at Cedar Lakes, the new friendships made or old friendships reacquainted, the entertainment, the camaraderie, etc., all has to go into the mix. And while lots of people come for the added bonus of seeing friends, new faces are just as welcome and always have a blast. In fact, we have literally had diagnosed agoraphobics come to the conference and have such a great time they swear they’ll be back.

So to new folks, I advise you to bring a short piece of poetry or prose to submit for either the writers’ wall competition, or a piece you can read in under five minutes for either of the People’s Choice sessions. Also, it is vitally important that you bring an umbrella or some sort of rain gear because there WILL be a torrential downpour at some point during the conference. It’s usually not for very long, but it has happened each of the seven years that I’ve attended and probably has stretching back to the first conference in 1978.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Have a spat with your WIP

So you might have noticed I've been a bit quiet lately. The truth is there have been some personal issues. Normally I don't air my dirty laundry in public but for this I'll make an exception. You see, my manuscript and I hit a rough patch. Oh it's the same old story - the two of us just were going along about our daily business, maybe taking each other a bit for granted. When the first rifts appear you say to yourself "It's nothing. It's normal. We're solid." Then you start to notice little things: you don't see eye to eye on fundamental issues. Chilly silence where there used to be easy laughter. And one day I had to be honest with myself. My manuscript and I were on the brink of a divorce. How had it gone so wrong?

I blamed myself. I blamed the manuscript. I blamed my mother (because that's what I like to do.) Finally I had to sit down with my story and ask that question I have never asked anyone before: where do you see us going together?

Stony silence. You have to understand the natural communication gap. I'm a pantser from way back involved in an intricately plotted mystery. We don't always speak the same language. I quickly realized that if I was going to save this relationship, we were going to have to compromise. And as much as I hated to admit it, the first step I had to take toward healing the rift was one I have always avoided: I had to outline. Once that trust bond had been made, the healing could begin. I gave in to chapter length demands; I got to throw in a little extra sarcasm. Cliff hangers emerged when I was allowed to give my bartender an eyepatch tattoo.

Little by little my manuscript and I have been working our way back to that blissful personal space we had taken for granted in the beginning. We're not quite back to that "I can't wait to see you again!" stage, but we've both noticed a willingness to linger just a bit longer and the sounds of whispers and giggles once more fill the air. It will be long road to recovery but I think we've both learned an important lesson about taking each other for granted.

I have to sign off now. If I cut my social networking down I've been promised at least two major plot points by the weekend.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Guest Post - Anita Clenney

Hi All - I'm lucky enough to come into contact with lots of talented, interesting writers and I'm nosy enough to like to pick their brains. That said, let me turn it over to a new friend of mine, Anita Clenney.

My name is Anita Clenney and I want to thank Sheila for letting me guest blog. I’m a writer, I live in Virginia with my husband and two kids, and up until a little over four years ago, I had never thought about writing. It wasn’t even on my radar. I loved reading. I always have. I grew up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and then I discovered Romance and grown up Mysteries. When I finally realized I’d missed the fork in the road that led to my destiny, I backtracked and started sprinting to catch up. I crammed eight years of writing into nearly four, and thanks to my wonderful agent, Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary Agency, my dream has become a reality. I have a three book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc. The first, Awaken the Warrior, will be out in Spring 2011. If you’d like more info on my Modern Day Highland Warrior Series, you can go to

Awaken the Warrior is a Paranormal Romance…wait a minute. Paranormal Romance? It does have romance, lots of it, but it’s about secret warriors battling demons disguised among us and the demons would like to kill us all. There’s a lot more than romance. What about all that suspense and mystery? Where’s that mentioned in the label? Will the reader just think I write ghost love stories or have a haunted Highlander?

Genres confuse me. Sub-genres make me crazy. Cozy Mysteries, Thrillers, Paranormal Romance, Romantic Suspense, Horror, Urban Fantasy…I could go on all day. How do you know what you’re writing, or reading for that matter?
Many people interchange these labels and obviously these genres and sub-genres overlap, especially Paranormal and Romance. When you’re dealing with a subject this vast, I don’t think it’s an exact science. Your Paranormal could be demons or time travelers or vampires or a harmless ghost. Or a time-traveling vampire ghost.
Horror and Paranormal can also be confusing. Horror can include paranormal elements, and Paranormal can include lots of fear, even elements of horror, but I think real Horror relies more upon raw, gut-wrenching terror, sometimes with a good dose of gore thrown in. I don’t like gore. That’s just my taste. In my first story, I have a demon rip off half of someone’s face, but he’s a bad buy and it isn’t terrifying. Creepy yes, but not crap-your-pants terrifying. Maybe that’s the difference. At least to me. Paranormal can have some pretty creepy characters, but there is a sense of hope. Evil will be conquered. The day will be saved. Horror makes me feel like I’m hanging on the last rung of the ladder into Hell by a broken fingernail. Some people eat that stuff up. What is it about humans that want to be scared?
The experts have various theories. For instance, that we aren’t really afraid so much as excited, and being excited is fun. BS. I had to dig my sister-in-law’s fingernails out of my arm when we saw the Grudge. She’s a good example. She loves scary movies, then she has to drive home with the interior lights on in her car. What’s fun about that? And my son begs to watch a spooky movie, but then calls me into his room several times a night because he heard something outside his window? I don’t think he’s having fun.

The other theory about our attraction to fear is that the sense of relief we feel at the end makes it worth the terror. Could be. If you’re dealing with horrific issues in real life, maybe watching someone being tortured takes your mind off your troubles.

When it comes right down to it, I think we all want to be enthralled, taken out of our lives for a few hours. Whether it’s through love, emotion, fear, or even terror. We want to FEEL. It means that we’re alive.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Life Props - the things that ring a bell

I've been off the blog for a while because I've come to that transition period faced in nearly every adult's life: moving my mother out of the family home. For some people this is a much harder and more emotionally fraught situation than I am facing, saints be praised. My mother is ready to move and has found a lovely apartment that is NOT a senior center so she still has her independence and her choices. She has lived in this house for forty five years; she and my father oversaw four kids, two grandkids, and countless animals. There have been happy days, hideous fights, bloodshed, kisses and drama of every human variety. Sadly, my father died three years ago and my mother's health is not all it could be, so it's time for the house to open itself up to a new family to create their own history within its walls.

Okay, enough of the feel good talk. Now it's time to dig out FORTY FIVE YEARS of stuff. My mother is not a terrible hoarder (again, praising those saints) but the task still boggles my mind. Books, awards, flags, maps, boxes, photos, paintings, dishes, glasses, vases, cushions, corkscrews, rakes, shelves...aggghh. Mom wants to take very little with her and she wants each of us to select those things that matter to us before the estate sale company comes in and liquidates the rest.

This is where it gets interesting.

We've all heard (or lived through) horror stories of relatives descending on a house after the family member has passed away and fighting over their "emotional attachment" to Grandma's plasma TV or diamond broach. This is not that sort of interesting. We are cleaning out the knick-knacks of our childhood. There's nothing of any significant financial value and it has been endlessly fascinating to see who picks what and why.

I had obvious choices: the plastic statue of a knight in shining armor I bought for my father when I couldn't have been four years old. He kept it all these years and I'd have fought the devil himself to keep it. I learned my oft-used party throwing skills from my mother, who has always been an accomplished hostess, so it's only natural I would take her white party dishes. There's nothing unique about them. They're white dishes, but they've been set on beautiful tables and covered in delicious food eaten by happy laughing crowds. The choice is obvious and I worried I might have to debate with my sibs over them.

But no. My sisters and brother and nephews have their own touchstones - a tool box, Grandpa's table, candy dishes, Notre Dame memorabilia. The decisions and the connections are intimate and difficult to explain and I would never presume to publicize them. Seeing who choses what and why, the funny stories that each of us connect to the unlikeliest of items has reanimated memories of my childhood, adding shade and texture I might otherwise have lost.

Now I'm thinking about my characters. Set aside broad physical characterizations, deep forays into back story. What are the totems and touchstones they carry with them from their travels, good or bad? Items of no consequence that evoke powerful sensory memories from one person and leave another shaking their head? How much more real will my main character become if I can peek into that dented shoe box she keeps stuffed in the back of her closet, wrapped in an old copy of Mad Magazine and tied with a piece of leather she braided herself at camp? The details will probably never make it onto the page but we humans are funny things. We may turn our backs on love, fame and fortune but then cling forever to a silver dollar our godmother gave us. We become accidentally interesting.

There's a coconut head we bought as a family forty years ago on a vacation in Myrtle Beach. It is unspeakably hideous and not in a quirky, kitschy way. This thing is fugly. It is also the emblem for the two week vacations we took every year without exception. My parents would have seen us without clothes on our backs before they saw us without two uninterrupted, sun-soaked weeks at the beach with no curfews, no shoes, no baths. Just sun, family and junk food. And really ugly coconut heads. Did I mention that this is REALLY ugly? Even as we speak, I'm clearing a spot on a shelf.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Multi Media, baby!

Sometimes life throws rocks at you; sometimes life throws you some lemons and sometimes life throws you a bone! In the busiest, most stressful month to date, Eric Fritzius of WV Writers saves my bacon by doing the heavy lifting and inviting me to talk about this and that on the WV Writers podcast. I hope you'll give it a listen as well as checking out the archives of the podcasts. Eric is a consummate professional and, if the same were true about me, he'd already be on this site!

Stop me if you've heard this before: if the link doesn't work (or doesn't appear because I have link-invisibilitis), let's just get old school and cut and paste.

Thanks, Eric!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Self-Promotion or "That Other Whore" Syndrome

For many writers, the thought of being caught self-promoting is almost as mortifying as being caught self-pleasuring, if not worse. Despite all the industry warnings to writers about shrinking promotional dollars in publishing houses, many writers still gasp and blush at the thought of tooting their own horn, peddling their own brand, advancing their own agenda. They consider themselves artists, not hucksters. Their work should speak for itself. Self-promotion is tacky; that's what publicists are for.

I've been promoting other people's events, brands and products for over a decade and, where I work, we have a translation for that mindset: "I'm too good to do that, but I'll pay some other whore to do it."

Sound harsh? Yep. Does this mean you shouldn't have a publicist? Absolutely not. But let me tell you a few things about publicity you may not have thought of:

Publicizing your book (event/product) is part of my job, but only part of it. I have a dozen other books/products/events to cover, as well as my own paper work, meetings and the pressing need to scrape gum off the station vehicle seat. It's not that I don't care or that your work doesn't matter. It does. I'm a professional, but I have to be professional in all of my tasks. This is why--

Nobody can express the enthusiasm for your book (event/product) that you can. There is just no substitute for the voice of the author when talking about a book. I work in radio where voice is everything and I've had authors who wanted other people to talk for them because they didn't like their voice. Dumb. You know your book better than anyone alive. It's your enthusiasm that will sell the audience. Therefore--

Express that enthusiasm. Practice talking about your book in public. Make up questions an interviewer would ask and practice answering them aloud. This is not the time to play it cool. You were passionate enough to write the book; express that passion when discussing it. Save the mumbling and self-deprecation for the paparazzi chases and glitterati parties.

Be a valuable asset. Remember that when you are on a show or in a magazine or at a bookstore, you are impacting the livelihood of the people that work there. They are gambling on you to add value to their product. Be polite. Be gracious. Be entertaining and patient. Everyone is working for a living. Your book is your baby. Their show/magazine/store is their baby. Make sure everyone plays nice together.

Publicists have the advantage of experience, contacts and connections that you may not have, but any publicist will tell you that a quality product and an enthusiastic client make their jobs so much easier. Rather than sitting back and handing over the PR duties to someone else, consider it an apprenticeship. Learn how the business works. Be a partner in the process.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In Praise of Showing Up

The hard and fast rules of reality are not the only things I don't believe in. I have a great mistrust of many words: mandatory, webinar and heartstrings to name a few.

I'm four chapters in to my new mystery, my first swing at the genre, and for me the writing is going at a glacial pace. I'm keeping my word count pretty steady, if low, but I don't have that great sense of bounding that usually sets in at this point in a story, the feeling that I can't type quickly enough to keep up with the ideas bearing down on me. Please don't think I'm one of those writers (if such a creature exists) who never fears running out of ideas or who never hits a lull, it's just usually, I have an ultimate sense of the story and action that, due to the nature of this story, I don't have. Circular, but it makes sense to me.

So here's the thing: I am tempted, OFTEN, more often than ever before to take a night off here or there, to put the pages down and say "Why don't I let this just stew a bit?" I've reread what I've written and I'm satisfied enough that I don't want to throw myself under a bus. Surely I'm on the right track, right? I can take a little breather.

But I don't. Am I chicken? You bet. Maybe it's because I am so unsure of myself in this new endeavor. Or maybe it's because I do like what I've already written that the thought of NOT showing up to this damned keyboard for another round makes me nervous. What if I lose the teensy bit of momentum I've managed to gather? It's not much but it's more than I had a chapter ago. Even worse, what if what I've already written ossifies into the dreaded "nice try" or "good start" You know how those go, those little false starts and half pages that mock you and scurry around under your desk when you're deep into a self-loathing in which you assure yourself that everyone who has ever doubted you was absolutely correct. Leaving even one little bone fragment of a story ungrown is like putting one more bullet in that gun.

I just don't trust myself.

And so here I go, another day, another pot of coffee, another low-ball word count expectation. I'm just going to keep showing up and chipping away at this little bastard and I will unearth that narrative even if it's more a result of erosion than insight. Basically, I'm going to outwait it. Because what if it turns out this cold I've got isn't a cold at all but an exotic coffee born virus that will pluck me from this earth before I've revealed whodunnit?

Here's hoping I can create some equivalent drama on the page. After all, who's going to vindicate the iguana-habitat builder wrongly accused of hanging the land developer from a banner nail?

How about you? Ever have to grind it out? I'm not talking about legitimate life curve balls that need to be addressed. How do you overcome your ineritia? Self doubt? Any good ideas? I could sure use them.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What is it like?

Nobody ever said being a writer would be easy. There are scads of articles and books and blogs about the difficulties, the loneliness, the anxiety. This is not one of those blogs. It can't be for a number of reasons, the primary one being this ain't what I do for living. Yet. Nope, I'm still hanging on to the dreaded "day job" for now so in my mind, writing is the spoon I'm using to carve out the tunnel in my cell. One tiny scoop at a time and I'm that much closer to breathing fresher air.

But what is it about writing that makes those of us who write constantly hold it out for inspection? Get two writers in a room and invariably they will talk about their process and projects with the same weird rolling eyes as the people in Close Encounters creating huge mashed potato towers. What is it about writing?

My own sister has recently joined the fray and we were trying to answer the question: what's it like to write? Not "Where do you get your ideas?" or "How did you come up with that?" but "What is it like when you are onto the scent of a project, when you're in the clutches of an idea?" Monica said it's like the first time you have sex - you start out thinking you know what it's going to be like and not entirely sure what exactly is involved and afterwards you think "Man, that was so much better than I expected." Clearly, my sister and I had very different first time experiences! (I'm hoping my mom still can't find this blog.)

What is it like for you? How do you describe it? Throw your pile of mashed potatoes on the table and lets build that tower.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does the audience even know the rules?

First I'd like to congratulate myself for escaping that rare but potent phenomenon of having every aspect of my life-- work, family, friends, technology, even pets -- align their needs with such precision that no shred of productivity could possibly escape the swirling vortex. Whew. Gravity readings are once again normal.

Everyone who presents a product to the public knows how important it is to identify your audience. There's no point in selling snow to Eskimos, or to anyone in the lower 48 states right now. Words like demographics and focus groups are wielded like weapons in the war for attention. In radio, there is a push toward pinpoint programming, narrow target decisions that honestly make me nervous. The idea that every 34 year old female with a college degree and two children wants/thinks/needs the exact same thing smacks of a Soylent Green factory in reverse. Grandmas can like rap; teenage boys can want love songs. Sure, listeners, like readers, need to know what to expect in the broad picture. I don't want to turn on an oldies station and hear a heated political diatribe, how hard and fast are those boundaries?

I'm thinking fiction right now. As I mentioned earlier, I'm trying my hand at mystery after romping madly in the world of urban fantasy, and I can almost hear sighs of relief around me. Many folks who have read Storyteller and its sequel enjoyed the story and provided me with priceless feedback. When I told them I'm considered an urban fantasy writer, more than one sort of grimaced and said "Oh, I don't read fantasy." Uh...well...yeah you do. You just didn't know it.

So I'm curious. You genre writers and readers out there, all of us who have to tag our work to keep it out of the sacrosanct waters of "Literature" do you ever feel limited or chafed under your label? Do genre markings help or hurt your cause? Do you wonder if your paranormal romance crosses the line into horror? Is your YA carrying around a thriller? Do you think hard-boiled mystery lovers might groove on your urban western if they could only find it on the right shelf?

When I want a mystery, I like knowing it's a mystery, but I've been happily surprised before to find one that's also a travelogue or a western or a romance. How do you broaden your base appeal if your work does cross a few lines?

Friday, February 12, 2010

DarkWoodsCon is coming!!!

Horror fans rejoice! Horror is coming to Pikeville KY and I don't just mean the weather. DarkWoods Con is happening in Pikeville the first weekend in March and I'm talking with Cherokee, one of the founders of the event.

SGR: First thing, let's get the details: who, what, where and when and how can folks find you?

DWC: DarkWoods Con is a horror and paranormal convention held at the LandMark Inn in Pikeville, KY on March 5th-7th. For a first year convention we have a pretty impressive line up. We have from The Hills Have Eyes, Devils Rejects, and much more Michael Berryman. Former WWE Wrestler Al Snow. Scream Queen Tiffany Shepis. From Halloween 2 Dick Warlock. The writer of Final Destination 1 and 2 Jeffery Reddick (He's originally from Jackson KY actually) From Friday the 13th Ari Lehman. Three Playboy Playmates. An MTV Jackass Mike Holman. And we have some reality TV show people that we haven't put up on the site yet...PLUS a super secret surprise guest on Sunday only. Unfortunately due to a contract he has with a major TV network we are unable to promote him as coming... But he's BIG!

SGR: This is the first year for your horror con. What made you decide to take it on? It's got to be an enormous undertaking. How long did it take to pull this together?

DWC: It's a LOT harder than we thought but there have been a LOT of fun times putting it together as well. You'd be surprised at just how approachable the celebs are. We all LOVE horror films and frequently go to other conventions and we thought "Why not try one in our neck of the woods...the DarkWoods". And the name stuck. We've been working at this for about 7 months now...and we should have started a LOT earlier too.

SGR: Is this solely for horror film buffs? What else are you offering?

It's also for fans of the Paranormal shows. We were so close in booking one of the TAPS Ghosthunters but he couldn't fit it in his schedule. We do plan on trying to get him next year though. There will also be indie films and different seminars going on throughout the Convention. The schedule will be released the week or so before.

SGR: What do you see for the future of DarkWoodsCon? Bigger, better, faster, more?

DWC: Yes, Yes, Yes and YES! We may take it on the road and hit some other smaller places but we'll be back to Pikeville for sure.

SGR: I'm in WV so I'm well aware of some of the reactions you might be getting nationwide and worldwide. "Pikeville KY??? Where???" What do you think the reaction will be for people coming from far away to this part of the country?

Because there's nothing like this going on in that area and we know that our people love the horror films too! We all decided to give a little back to the area as well.

SGR: You mentioned you are also an independent film maker. How important are conventions for indy films? What do they mean for fans of horror film and fiction?

DWC: Indie films and film festivals are the life blood of the indie film maker. That's where we show and sell our work. It's also where we hope that a representative from a distribution company shows up and likes our stuff. It's also all about networking...wanna act? Come out and meet the film makers. Wanna write? Come on out and pitch an idea. Wanna direct? Come on out and see how WE are doing things and also learn from OUR mistakes. It's really a win win situation.
For the horror fans it means a chance to meet some of the people that have either scared the poop out of you OR someone that you cheered on and hoped would make it until morning. It's a surreal moment to meet Jason then sitting right next to him is Michael Meyers.

SGR: Any final words, warnings, suggestions?

DWC: Yes we want to warn you about The Rad Girls. They are a female version of you never know that they are going to do. I'm a little scared of them myself. Haha!

SGR: Thanks so much for taking the time out of what must be a hairy schedule to talk today. Dark Woods Con is March 5-7 in Pikeville KY. I'll be there with big, bloody bells on! Check out the link below for more details! (As always, if this doesn't work, try the link at the very bottom of the page. I think this will pretty much be SOP)

Monday, February 8, 2010

Taking the easy way out...

Someone told me once "Work smart, not hard." To that effect, I'm passing the ball to a very talented author, Mary Martinez, who let me ramble on her blog, Mary's Ramblings.

Please leave a comment if you like what you read and check out Mary's other posts as well as her great titles. Enjoy!

(If the link below doesn't work, just click the link at the bottom of the page to Mary Martinez's page. Check out the other links as well!)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night...

"I'm going to write a mystery."


I've just finished the second installment in my urban fantasy series. The muse is with me, right? I'm in fuego! I'm going to step off the dark and violent path of my current series and try my hand at a genre I have read and loved my whole life - mystery. I even said that to myself: "You love mysteries, Sheila. Let's go!"

Cue utter stillness.

I polled some of my mystery writing friends (see the links below) who gave me pep talks and advice and recommended books that have been informative and inspiring. I've got my characters, my setting, my victim, even some passable motives.

And I got nothing.

I can't call it writer's block. What does that even mean? Why don't I get radio block? Or bill-paying block? Or even laundry block? I want to do this! I love mysteries!

That's when the bell went off. I love mysteries. Reading them, watching them, solving them in jigsaw puzzles, for crying out loud! If there's a riddle to be solved, I'm on it like white on rice, clapping and giggling and peering around the corner. I realized I was like a kid that loves magic and decides to slip through the curtain to see how the tricks are done. Would learning the mechanics of a mystery take away the magic that has thrilled me my entire reading life?

Back to my writer friends. They assure me that the path is riddled (pardon the pun) with surprises galore and that I may not know whodunnit for quite a while. Well, there's only one way to find out...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The "I'm Done" Bummers

We all have this image of writers turning the corner of their almost complete manuscripts, hunched over their computers, humming and wiggling (well, I always see wiggling) as all the threads of their tale twine together in a blissfully tight, balanced and functioning braid. It's a wonderful image that counterbalances the imagined nights of agony and hand-wringing that brought the beast to life. I love that image. Someday I would like to see it.

I have just finished the manuscript that will be the second in my series. It had a complicated set of time lines that required me to keep straight who knew what when as characters learned the truth about the cruel twists of fate that had set each of them on their paths. I'll spare you the details. The upside was that my female lead finally got an explanation for the hardships of her youth and, more importantly, got some serious justice for them, including some gruesome boot-to-face contact. Trust me, she needed it. The entire experience was cathartic and exhilarating. To use the old saw, "I laughed. I cried. It was a triumph."

And now it's over.

The story flowed with an almost obscene ease, leaping from the page in less than six weeks with a plot line so tight you couldn't fart within it. (In no way do I credit this with my brilliant writing. Sometimes life throws you a break.) In many ways I felt like I was just plugging myself into it and letting it run through me. And now, it's over. The source is unplugged. I'm feel like the nerd in disguise at the cool kids party who has been discovered and tossed out on my ass. The story is partying on without me. I'm left sitting here wondering what I used to do.

Sooo, the best solution has to be to start another one. Not the third in the series, despite the coaxing, pleading and outright threats of some of the fans of the line. Instead, I'm wandering off into unmarked territory. I'm trying something I've never tried and, like it or not, you all are going to be witness to it.

I'm trying a mystery. *insert evil laugh here* Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Radio and Writing

Here's something I have learned. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. If you want to be a good, published writer, you have to throw yourself hip deep into a dizzying array of books, blogs, websites, pamphlets, handouts and group loops to clutch madly at the information twister that will hopefully suck you up out of your own personal Kansas and drop you safely onto the best seller list. It's enough to make you rage madly or, in my case, lie helplessly on the kitchen floor staring at that mysterious gravy stain that made it onto the light fixture. It is bewildering to say the least.

One of the question aspiring writers are supposed to be able to answer is "What qualifies you to write the book you want to write?" This always seemed to me a strange question to ask a fiction writer. What's the appropriate answer? "I spend a great deal of time pretending this isn't my life?" Somehow I doubt that would be welcomed. Instead, I started thinking about what there is in my life that has made me a better writer.

As many of you know, I have spent the last fifteen years hosting morning radio at WKEE in Huntington WV. It's a great job with just enough absurdity to keep it interesting. It also prepared me for storytelling in ways I would not have expected. Here are a few things I've learned:

1. Your audience is smarter than you. Make no mistake about it. I am an intelligent woman. I have a strong education, a deep vocabulary and an almost preternatural ability to retain information and I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that the audience is smart. And clever. And they don't miss a thing. I've seen more than one radio host flame out in despair by making the fatal mistake of talking down to his audience. Is this intimidating? It doesn't have to be. It's actually very liberating, if you look at it right. It gives you the freedom to stretch yourself, to make the leaps, to push your limits. Never dumb things down. Never be afraid to challenge your boundaries. Not only will the audience keep up with you, they're probably already way ahead of you.

2 Get to the point. That said, you can assume everyone is on the same page as you if not a few pages ahead. Don't dilly dally. Don't linger over describing the drapes and think your audience won't know you're stalling. Your audience, whether for a radio show, a novel, a short story or a poem, has agreed to give you a slice of their precious time. Don't waste it. Reward their generosity with forward motion. I'm not saying I don't like building a little suspense, but time is a pricey commodity. Respect that.

3. Keep it entertaining. I'm a genre writer on a pop station. It's safe to say that "deep" is not the first word that springs to mind when people describe me. This doesn't mean my work and/or my show doesn't resonate with real emotion. What it means is I appreciate the fact that once you fulfill your requirements for whatever education level you pursue, your days of slogging through dry, stultifying books should be over. As kids, we were forced to finish the books to get the grades that would launch us into our 'real lives.' Now there is no gold star for wading through a deadly book. No matter how important your message, how poignant your tale,how heated your politics, your audience doesn't owe you their attention. You earn it by couching even the most tragic story into a compelling, entertaining narrative. On air, we often have to promote charity events for truly tragic happenings - Haiti relief, cancer survivor fundraisers, flood relief for hundreds of displaced families. Not light stuff. Even though the work we do in those cases is important, we still don't have the right to strip our broadcast of its humanity, of its compelling narrative. We are humans talking to humans. Keep it real or keep it to yourself.

Radio has taught me timing, patience, humor and endurance. Most of all it has taught me that an audience is not some great, seething mass of a collective consciousness, like some well-dressed clot of algae on a pond. It is a collection of individuals, each with his or her own voice and dreams and likes and biases. You can't please them all, but you can respect them. Whether on air or on paper, you can give them your best and maybe, just maybe, they'll repay you in kind.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Two worlds, one body, and a bad elbow

Trying to get this out before my arm rises up in revolt and crawls out the mail slot. I mentioned earlier that I don't believe in reality, but as I sit here, I'm wondering if that's entirely accurate. I think it might be closer to say I have trouble deciding which reality to believe in. (Okay, philosophy majors, relax.)

I just finished a tough chapter in the sequel to my novel and I'm stuck in that weird, throbbing membrane between two worlds. Those of you who are unfortunate enough to be around me after a writing session already know the half-sentence, glassy eyed state I'm in. For those of you who have never seen this Altered States scene, let me walk you through it. Quickly, since my elbow is on fire.

I can't speak for all writers. Hell, I can hardly speak for myself. But there is a sensation that comes from writing that, if I could put it in a lotion or a drink or a sex toy, I would make a bazillion dollars. It is the uncanny sensation of existing in two worlds at the same time. I'm not talking about that all too familiar sensation of having your mind in two places at once. You know, talking on the phone while you answer your email and pretend to listen to one of your coworkers complaining as you scratch your ankle with your big toe. That's not it. That's about as far from it as you can get. That, in my opinion, is not being in ANY world. This is a far different, sublime sensation of touching a live wire in a universe far, far away.

It usually starts like this. I sit down at the computer with all my usual totems in place. I'm not much of a totem person, but even I have a few touchstones. There's a candle lit, mostly to hide the smell of the litter box down the basement stairs. My notepad is beside me to catch any weird little scribbles I need to make and to keep track of my word count. (NaNoWriMo habits die hard! More on that later.) I have a big cup of coffee, now in my Greenbrier mug, courtesy of my sister Monica and bare feet. That last bit I used to think was unimportant, but now I'm not so sure. I have only the barest framework of an idea of where the chapter will go and I start to type.

I would love to tell you I promptly pull an Isasc Asimov and hammer out three hours of solid prose, but that would be a huge lie. I sort of scratch out a sentence. Delete it. Reword it. Swear. Get another line or two down. Bemoan my miserable typing skills. Swear again and then the most amazing thing happens. My fingers take over and I begin to think, not in my head, but from the knuckles down. And then it happens. I am in two worlds at the same time. I can see my kitchen. I can certainly find the M&Ms over and over again and my coffee cups keeps getting refilled. But all the while I'm chewing and pouring and muttering and typing, I'm fully present, fully immersed in a world more real, more colorful, more immediate than any I've ever known.

It doesn't last long. Two, maybe three hours, although the sessions are getting longer the more disciplined I become. Sentences, scenes, emotions, hungers, they run through me like light through glass and even as I'm lost in it, somewhere I'm thinking "Man, this is fabulous!" (Not necessarily the writing, just the sensation. At this point, judging yourself is lethal.) And just as suddenly as it started *pop* I'm on the other side with a sensation I have no choice but to describe to you as squirting out. Believe me, I've searched for another way to describe it but until my French gets much better, there is no other way. I squirt through some sort of membrane and I'm back in my kitchen. Just my kitchen. My feet are on the floor. I have chocolate breath and coffee jitters and, tonight at least, a red-hot elbow from typing.

Save. Print. Reread. Even when the prose is, shall we say iffy?, rereading what happened when I was straddling that chasm is surreal. It's the ultimate leap of faith. It's tunnelling down into the imagination and standing back and watching what splashes up. That sensation, more than any drug or any drama, will make you blissfully suspicious of all the little required toll-booths of everyday reality. Even the reality of needing an icepack for my abused elbow. As I said earlier, if I could bottle it, I'd be a billionaire. But if I had to choose between selling it and feeling it? A billion dollars doesn't seem all that great.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Okay, I'll let THIS MUCH in...

Ah, irony. There is no escape from it. It makes reality look like a child's game. Here's the thing: I really don't believe in reality; at least not the way it was sold to me. I don't believe there is nothing hiding in the closet. I know, as well as I know my own name, that there IS something under the bed and I am almost 100% convinced that my last relationship was doomed because of that mirror I broke. I mean, seven years is seven years, right?

My writing reflects this belief. In my upcoming novel, Storyteller, we stroll directly into a fully formed world of people living secretly among us. Sure they look like us. They go to our schools and date your daughters and sons. They also speak their own language among themselves and live a lot longer than we do. (They have a few other secrets too, but we'll let them tell you about it after publication.) Science fiction? Urban fantasy? Not real? Prove it. How do you prove that something doesn't exist? How do you prove that something you can't see isn't really hidden? How do you stop a dizzying list of rhetorical questions from getting away from you?

Sorry. Back to my point and, yes,I have one. Irony. I don't believe in the hard squared corners of reality as such, but even a dark-corner-surfer like myself has to acknowledge that these days, blogs and websites and Facebook and Tweets are a reality, a blessedly free, mad, public hootenanny of reality and so, here I go! I hope you'll come along with me on my quest to liberate the world from the belief that staff meetings and webinars and legal sized envelopes are no more concrete than time traveling embezzlers and folks living 500 years on chocolate, blood and sex. Hey, if you had to choose your reality, which would YOU pick?