Thursday, April 3, 2014

What, Why, and How I Write...

Marianne Wheelaghan
Scottish writer, teacher, and entrepreneur extraordinaire Marianne Wheelaghan invited me to participate in the blog tour What, Why, and How I write. Marianne runs the online writing school www.writingclasses.co.uk, which offers classes in creative writing to students from all over the world. Besides teaching and running a school, she's also written two books (The Blue Suitcase and Food of Ghosts) and is working on sequels to both!
Here's Marianne's contribution from earlier this week: http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk/

And here are my answers:
 
Me!
What am I working on?
Right now, I'm working on several different projects – a novel for 12+ year-olds that I hope to publish this summer, an ebook about self publishing, and an online course about epublishing for the writing school www.writingclasses.co.uk. My long-term goal is to start a micro-press based in North Carolina, which will focus on educational and children's books.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Well, I have a hard time conforming to “genres”! My middle-grade novel started out as a murder mystery for adults, and I decided that because the main character is 13, it might work better as a book for kids. Changing “genres” really freed me up because I felt less pressure to be “literary”! I think writers tend to be very hard on themselves, and writing for kids (who I believe are more open minded) helped me just focus on the story and characters and not worry so much about literary devices or how “smart” I sounded!

I love writing mysteries, but my stories don't really fit into the “cozy” genre or the “hard boiled.” I think my work falls somewhere in the middle – not cutesy enough to be a cozy mystery, but not dark enough to be noir!

Why do I write?
To be honest, I'm not sure! I just know that I like the way I feel when I write – sort of out of time, not constrained by stereotypes and pressures to be and act a certain way. I'm pretty shy by nature, and writing lets me speak my mind in a “safe” way, through metaphor and characters, who can do whatever they want! I also love reading, and I love stories – so, all these things sort of go together, don't they!

How does my writing process work?
It changes, depending on the circumstances. When I was a kid and young adult, I wrote in notebooks and later retyped things on the computer. It took me a long time to actually get to the point where I typed my stories first. Now, I don't have the patience to write long-hand!

When I was younger, I was much more romantic about the writing process – besides writing on paper (which I thought was “better” than on the computer), I only wrote when I felt inspired, etc... But now that I have two children, I know that I must force the inspiration and write whenever I have the opportunity! Otherwise, chores, walking the dog, laundry, and everything else gets in the way!

My nominee for the next "stop" on the tour is Lisa Logan, who co-authored Publishing and Selling Your Ebook on Kindle with me! And she's also written a great paranormal thriller, House of Mirrors, and an excellent collection of short stories called Of The People.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Don't miss out! NC Literary Fest this weekend!

It's that time again -- the North Carolina Literary Festival has returned to Raleigh, and it's this weekend, free and open to the public of all ages! Every two years, the festival rotates between the libraries of UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and N.C. State. This year, the festival takes place at the new space-age Hunt Library at N.C. State's Centennial Campus. It's worth it, just to see the library, which has a 50-foot "robot" that finds your books for you! Our State magazine recently published an article about the library.

Don't miss out on this free event, which features tons of authors (including Jill McCorkle R.L. Stine, Junot Diaz, and tons more) speakers, and events for the whole family!



Monday, February 17, 2014

"Buy a book and stop a crook!"

What a great idea -- a book festival to promote literacy and cut crime rates! I just discovered the Book 'Em North Carolina Writers Conference and Book Fair, which features authors, publishers, and literary agents:

February 22, 2014
9:30 AM - 4:00 PM
ROBESON COMMUNITY COLLEGE
LUMBERTON, NORTH CAROLINA
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC!
 
The goal of the Book 'Em Foundation is to "raise public awareness of the correlation between high illiteracy rates and high crime rates." There will also be arts and crafts and face painting for the kids, so bring the whole family!


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Do free editing websites actually work?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you know how hard it is to catch those last-minute mistakes! You may have had your best friend, mom, and co-workers read your manuscript for clarity and general ideas, but they can’t catch everything. Maybe you've seen free tools offered online, like Pro Writing Aid -- do they work? And what's the catch?

http://prowritingaid.com/en/Analysis/Editor is a website where you copy and paste your text into a viewer. Click "Analyze," and the tool produces a list of problem areas in your document, such as spelling, cliches, overused words, and grammatical mistakes. With the free tool, you can click on some these problem areas to get more details -- for example, when I analyzed the first two pages of one of my short stories, I found out I had used the word "probably" way too many times!

The tool is definitely not foolproof – you can only submit 4000 characters at a time, and for the complete collection of error reports, you have to pay for Premium membership (at $35 per year, that’s not too steep). But in highlighting one or two areas that need revising, it gives you an idea of what else might need work in your manuscript, such as passive voice or redundancies.

Another tool is http://www.grammarly.com/. This one is a little bit sneaky in that after the software "analyzes" your text, a new page appears with a list of "critical writing issues." But it doesn't give you any specifics -- unless you sign up for the free 7-day trial. The first time I clicked "Check your text," the software said I had 24 errors. The second time I did it (with the same text), the software said I had 7 errors! My theory is that the software is not really checking the text -- it's just for show so that you will sign up for the free trial. Reviews for the paid service are decent, however: http://www.writing-skills.com/grammar/review-grammarly-app/.  If you sign up for a year, you'll be paying $11.66 per month. So, Grammarly is more expensive than Pro Writing Aid, but perhaps you get more for your money.

While online tools may be useful for blatant errors, it’s always a good idea to hire a professional proofreader, if you can afford one. Proofreading is NOT the same as copy editing – proofreaders check documents in their final stages for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. A proofreader will also check for typos and details like formatting and layout, but he/she won’t drastically alter the text or make any stylistic changes to improve the flow of the document or how well it reads. You’ll need a copy editor for those types of revisions. The Editorial Freelancers Association website is a great resource to help you find editors (of all kinds) in your area.

For more handy tips, check out Publishing and Selling Your Ebook on Kindle. I'm co-author, along with writer friend Lisa Logan, and we hope to create a whole series of writing guidebooks in the next two years!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Which books inspire you to write better?

I'm back!! Got sidetracked with freelance work, kids, fevers, sickness, writing the 1000th revision of my novel, and life in general... But part of that time was spent reading a young adult novel I had seen EVERYWHERE and finally picked up -- John Green's The Fault in Our Stars. Yes, I see now why it's, like, ranked #1 in the Kindle Store on Amazon. It's frickin amazing!! I'm not going to go into a huge amount of detail here about why I liked it -- unique and compelling characters, excellent and often hilarious dialogue, tight storyline, full of emotion....

My point is that while reading this novel, I started having all these insights about what my own (attempted) young adult novel was lacking. I found places that needed ... well, just MORE. I hadn't gone deep enough, I realized. I'd just touched the surface of conflicts. Reading John Green showed me what it means to peel back the layers of an idea, one at a time, and keep going and going until you reach the core. And then go further -- tell why that idea is important, relate it to the rest of your story. Later, refer back to that idea. It's called following a thread, I guess. But I'd never seen it done quite so well (at least, as far as I can remember) as in John Green's work. I hope the lesson sticks with me! Anyway, I bough the hardcopy of The Fault in Our Stars so I can re-read it when needed.

That's another thing -- very few books I've read I actually want to read again. Bridget Jones's Diary, yes. Rebecca, yes. Agatha Christie books, yes. But not much else. What books have inspired you to become a better writer? Which authors have taught you valuable writing lessons? And which books do you pick up again and again, learning something new each time you read them?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Camellias, severed legs, and sweet tea!

Hello, Everyone! Summer is coming to an end, but why not prolong the essence of heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and sweet iced tea with some Southern literature? Here are a few reads I've gathered up...

Conveniently, Deep South Magazine has published a list of "End of Summer Reads," including The Last Camellia by Sarah Jio. In this loosely-Southern novel, the characters search for the last surviving specimen of a Charleston camellia, along the way stumbling upon long-hidden crimes!

The excellent book review site Cannonball Read 5 features a review of Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer, a snappy Southern romance-esque novel with a twist -- the main character Queenie is a chef who ends up making the last meals for death row inmates!

North Carolina author Lisa Logan recently released Of The People, a collection of inspiringly eclectic short stories, featuring "nuns, Vietnam War veterans, car thieves, insanely jealous husbands, and a sweet old aunt who keeps her severed leg in the deep freezer." I've read this one, and it's great -- darkly humorous and poignant, reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's gothic style.

And, finally, if you haven't already read Mindy Friddle, you should check out her latest novel Secret Keepers, which won the 2009 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. Her protagonist is 72-year-old Emma, stuck handling the problems of her grown children in her South Carolina hometown. Botanicals and family secrets intertine in this serious-but-comical Southern novel.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

And now for something completely different...

Just had to mention a visit I took last week to the lovely Niche Gardens, outside Chapel Hill, NC. It's a lovely place, tucked away like a hidden forest, with metal sculptures and wandering cats! They specialize in native plants, as opposed to invasive ones, and have extended weekend hours in the fall.
 
Painted mailboxes at Niche Gardens!
 
Means "Pot full of flowers" according to my husband!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New novel explores Scottish--NC connection!!

I've very excited to announce that my new novel Rest and Be Thankful has just been released on Amazon by Pilrig Press!! The new press is based in Edinburgh, my hometown, and is quickly becoming a major player in the U.K. publishing industry!   

I started working on the novel around 2006, after a trip to Scotland with my mother. We'd rented a car with my aunt (nothing like the aunt in the novel, by the way!!) and had driven from Edinburgh to Ullapool, along the way getting a flat tyre and having to detour to Inverness airport where the rental company refused to pay for us to get a new tire, even though we had insurance! But it was still a great trip, especially since I had never been that far north before -- we drove past  Bridge of Orchy, and Loch Ness and all the places mentioned in the novel (except the fictional village where they meet a Norman Bates-type character!). I took notes on some scraps of paper I'd found in my backpack, and when we got back to NC, I kind of just let it all sink in.

My friend Catherine introduced me to the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard, and I got wrapped up in the diary-type style of The Light Years. I began writing a rough draft of a novel set in Scotland, using a similar style -- the diary entries of Katy, an American 13-year-old girl who travels from North Carolina to Scotland to try to reconnect with her estranged Scottish mother. Then I added the point of view of a wacky aunt with man trouble! Over the years, I added the mother's point of view, but eventually I took it all out, except for Katy's voice, and made the story hers alone. After all, that's where it started, with Katy, and her wish to be closer to her mother. Along the way, some very nasty stuff happens... But you'll have to read the novel to find out more!!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Can you afford NOT to self publish?

About two years ago, I decided to get "serious" about writing! Well, I already had my M.F.A. in creative writing, had already been in writing groups, sent out short stories to competitions, and was writing on my own time, while working and looking after my daughter. But "getting serious" meant quitting my freelance job and actually trying to get an agent for my first completed novel. I spent more than a year revising my novel, researching agents and the publishing industry, tweeting to other writers, and sending out queries. And where did it get me? ONE follow-up email from an agent, asking for a copy of my novel. That didn't lead to anything. Not to say that my novel was perfect -- I realized later I needed to change the point of view. I'm not blaming agents or publishers -- my book just wasn't ready.

But my point is, I spent a year and a half NOT working on any other writing projects because I was so busy researching and trying to get an agent. With each batch of new rejections, I would dive back into my novel, trying to figure out what was wrong. I researched genres. Was my book a mystery or a literary novel? Then, I'd send out more queries, trying out different approaches, different "hooks."  Six weeks later (or never), I'd get back more rejections. Back to the drawing board. Yes, I needed to revise my novel, but did I also need to spend countless ours searching out an agent??

Finally, my friend Lisa Logan published a collection of her short stories on Smashwords from her master's thesis. I had a master's thesis sitting on my computer, too. Along with tons of other short stories. I decided to follow her lead and publish a mini collection on Smashwords. Two years later, I've completed a draft of my second novel, published another collection of short stories on Amazon, and have just released a how-to guide with Lisa called Publishing and Selling Your Ebook on Kindle.

If you are a writer who, like me, won't feel satisfied until your books are out there to be read -- whether by 10 people or 10,000 people -- can you afford NOT to self publish? Sure, if you already have contacts in publishing and/or have the time (and money) to travel to writing conferences, networking and meeting literary agents, then traditional publishing might be the best route for you. But many of us can't do that. We have kids or a full-time job, or we can't afford to spend $300+ on a conference or take a weekend trip to New York City to hobnob with literary agents and visit publishing houses. For the typical, every-day person, self publishing might be the only viable option.

Yes, you have to spend tons of time marketing your own books, but from what I've learned, traditionally published writers are having to do that anyway. They tour, they blog, they tweet... If you only have one year to spend "getting serious" about writing -- do you spend that time trying to find an agent, or do you write? For me, now, the answer is clear -- I write.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Writing where you are...

Right now, I'm reading a thriller based in Bulgaria called Valley of Thracians by Ellis Shuman. It's really good, and Shuman does a great job describing the setting. Here's an example:

"The weathered tenements he passed on the road looked just like those he had imagined Eastern Europe would have, with laundry drooping from metal-railed balconies and faded, chipped paint barely concealing the aging cement bricks of the structures. Graffiti sketched in oversized letters and psychedelic hues shouted at him from the concrete walls..."

I admire writers who can describe places in such detail, partly because it's one of the skills I struggle with. No matter how many stories I've written, there comes a point where I think I have the work completed, and then I read a really amazing description by another writer who uses all the senses to describe the smells, the feel of the air, the hue of the grass... And I think, "Oh, man! I haven't described my settings at all!" Then I go back and re-think my work, trying to put myself into each scene, inserting key details, imagining what the characters see. It happens every time!

Perhaps it's because I tend to focus more on the characters and their dialogue, but I always have to remind myself that they are LOCATED somewhere -- and that that place matters to the readers! Plus, the setting is an impotant tool for writers -- we can use it to subtly set the tone of a scene (is the sky overcast, creating an ominous feeling?) and actually push the plot forward (what does the character see? Someone hovering in a darkened doorway? A dusty lace curtain twitching?).

When we talk about Southern literature, we automatically assume the setting is the South, and that in itself creates meaning before the reader has even turned one page! What do I think of when I imagine the South? Mosquitoes, heat, humidity, condensation on iced tea glasses, frigid air conditioning, cars, highways, lush greenery. That's my South. But I have to remember that others have different assumptions -- someone from Bulgaria, for example, may never have tasted syrupy sweet iced tea. As writers, we must constantly think outside ourselves and describe places as though we've never been there. It's a lesson I have to keep reminding myself!! What's your experience writing about setting?