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?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Freebie, today only!!

Just a quick note... You can get my collection of short stories, Up Pops the Devil, for FREE until midnight tonight (Pacific Standard time).

The collection takes place in North Carolina, Vietnam, and on a subway carriage. In "Up Pops the Devil," pregnant Lara awakes in the middle of the night to find a group of men with guns standing in her bedroom. Her husband Nathan owes them money for cockfighting. On impulse, she flees into the mountains, taking the youngest (a teenage boy) with her. In "The Mood Detectives," a couple becomes obsessed with the depression craze that's hitting the country! In "What's for Dinner?" an insensitive husband wonders why he keeps drawing The Devil tarot card. And in "Viet," a teenage girl visits her mother's homeland of Vietnam and makes a surprising discovery. The characters in this collection confront unfortunate choices, bad luck, and plain old destiny, hoping to make it to the next day.

Just go here:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Up Pops the Devil!

Up Pops the Devil, short stories by Louisa DangJust wanted to blow my own horn! I've recently released a new collection of eight short stories on Amazon, entitled Up Pops the Devil. I wrote some of them (the longer ones!) when I was working on my M.F.A. thesis, and the shorter ones I wrote later, while working and then taking care of my kids. I figured, they're just sitting on my computer collecting virtual dust, why not publish them?

My friend, author Lisa Logan, and I are also going to be publishing a user guide for publishing ebooks for Kindle. We'll have tons of marketing tips, too, including how to use Twitter to your best advantage, how to set up a blog tour, and lots of links to helpful web tools! I'll keep you posted on when it's coming out -- hopefully, later this month!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

NC writer wins prestigious Southern award for first time!

Western North Carolina writer Terry Roberts has won the prestigious Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction for his novel A Short Time to Stay Here. According to an article in The Mountain Times, this awared "is fast becoming New York’s most prestigious homage to Southern literature."

First started in 2007, the award is given each year for a novel set in the original states of the Confederacy. This is the first time that a North Carolina writer has won the award, and the book sounds fascinating. It delves into the history of a real-life internment camp set up for German soldiers during World War I in the little town of Hot Springs, NC. I had no idea this camp even existed until I began this blog entry! I will definitely be reading this book!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Writing what you don't know...

Talking about writing out of your comfort zone... An article in The Guardian talks about a U.S. writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who self published her series of books about a black male detective. According to Rusch, publishers wanted her books UNTIL they found out they were written by a white woman.

Here's an excerpt from the article, quoting Rusch:

"Initially, when the publishers read the book, they thought I was a black man who had participated in the Civil Rights movement and walked with Dr King. So they set up a marketing plan based (from what I can guess) on putting this imaginary Civil Rights pioneer on Oprah and talking with her about the new mystery novel. [...] When the publishers realised that I was not black, too young to be in the Civil Rights movement, and had no 'marketability' or 'platform', they withdrew the offers. The book was worth nothing to them if I couldn't tour 'with legitimacy'."

I don't know the whole story, so I don't want to say who's right or wrong here. But, personally, I don't see anything wrong with someone of one race/gender writing from the point of view of a different race/gender -- as long as the writer puts forth the best effort and does appropriate research. I've written from the p.o.v. of an elderly Chinese man before...then again, my father-in-law is Chinese! I know it won't be perfect, but then again, that's why it's fiction!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Writing waaaaay out of your comfort zone!

Just read an excellent blog post by author Hugh Ashton about writing outside of your comfort zone. Ashton was born in the UK and later moved to Japan, where he now lives. He talks in his post about not being sure of where to set his novels -- as an expat, he's no longer familiar with contemporary British life, and he worries that setting all his books in Japan will have limited appeal to international audiences.  His solution? He writes about the past, namely London in the late 19th century, when Sherlock Holmes was "alive."

To me, Ashton replaces one uncertainty with another -- I'm not comfortable writing about the past because it requires so much fact checking! But this obviously works for him. My current dilemma has to do with a murder mystery novel I'm working on. The main character is paraplegic, and I'm struggling with making her believable. I have no experience (thankfully) of spinal cord injuries, and while I know writing is about using your imagination, it's also about putting yourself in the character's shoes. I have been watching videos and reading blogs written by people with disabilities, but that has only made me more aware of how little I know! Nevertheless, I will keep plugging away. I like my main character, and I want her to get out there in the public!

I think it's extremely important for writers to move outside their comfort zones, not just to improve writing skills but to also help broaden their horizons, and their readers' horizons. Hopefully, by writing about what we DON'T know, we can bring a new perspective to the table, a new way of thinking about things. What do you think? Is it better to write what you know and not risk offending anyone with a lack of knowledge?

P.S. For more information about what it's like living with SCI (Spinal Cord Injuries), read the excellent blog

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Smut By the Sea!

Don't you just love the name of this literary festival in Scarborough, England, for erotic literature! Smut By the Sea has nothing to do with Southern lit, unless you count England as being in the Southern section of the British Isles, but I couldn't pass up such a great name!

And what about a similar festival here in the South? Yes, we're in the middle of the Bible Belt (at least, I am in North Carolina), but surely we have erotic fiction writers here, too, under assumed names. How about "Erotic by the Ocean" or similar? Any ideas??

Friday, June 7, 2013

Southern summer reads!

Hi, everyone! I've been collecting emails about new Southern novels being published, and now I have a few to share. I haven't read any of these yet, but they all look interesting!

Reader and blogger Pamela Trawick offers up an excellent review of Into The Free by Julie Cantrell:
"Into the Free conveys Depression-era Mississippi innocence along with the harshness of survival in a time of unemployment and poverty. Life is hard, Millie’s family life is harder, and still she marches on. While not duplicating Harper Lee’s Scout, Millie has enough of a Scout echo to strum heartstrings that adore Alabama’s favorite heroine."
Kansas City writer and blogger Stephen Roth reviews Camp Redemption by Raymond L. Atkins:
"It’s about a brother and sister who own a cash-strapped children’s church camp in north Georgia, and one day receive an unexpected visitor. Like a lot of fine Southern writing, this novel has charmingly eccentric characters, a strong appreciation of history, and asks some rather pointed questions about God’s involvement in everyday life. It’s also beautifully written and funny as heck."
And, if you like cozy Southern fiction, here's an overview from The Word Verve, a writing and editing consulting company, of Front Porch Lemonade by JudiLynn Taylor:
"On the front porch of one Victorian home in the small Southern town of Eubanks, six women gather to indulge themselves in some cutting up, cutting loose, and an unparalleled stream of blowing off steam. While these friends cannot stop the events that at times attempt to knock them off their charted courses, they do find a way to embrace the changes in their lives—through each other’s support, laughter, and a healthy dose of Miss Abby’s lemonade. Hold the vodka?"

Monday, May 6, 2013

You know you're Southern if...'re worried about your mother reading your author's bio!

"Just What Will People Think?" is a cute article by Ronda Rich, the "Dixie Diva," in the Albany Herald. Ms. Rich talks about a brutally honest author's bio she once read...

This got me to thinking, what's the best tone for an author's bio? Scholarly? Self congratulatory? You want to talk about all your accomplishments and how interesting you are, but at the same time you don't want to seem like you're boasting! Any ideas??

Monday, April 1, 2013

"Folk Fiction"

I'm reading The Welsh Healer by Ginger Myrick, a novel set in 15th Century Wales and England during the Hundred Years' War. Myrick delves into Welsh herbal medicine, mystical healing, family customs, and many other aspects of the Welsh culture. In trying to describe the novel on Twitter (yes, I'm addicted!), I thought of the terms "historical fiction" and, perhaps more apt, "folk fiction." Because that's what The Welsh Healer is really about -- the customs, the beliefs and superstitions, the character of 15th-Century Welsh people.

And I got to thinking... Southern fiction is also folk fiction. What is it many of us really value about Southern literature? The fact that it describes the culture of the South, the people, the traditions, the food, the values ... all those things that Myrick also discusses in The Welsh Healer. So, why haven't I heard the term "folk fiction" bantered about in literary circles? Am I just out of the loop? Has anyone else heard of this genre? Should it be a genre? I sure think so! And should we differentiate between "Southern folk fiction" and other types?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Grits Noir"

I've been using Twitter a lot lately, and one term that keeps cropping up is "Tartan Noir," a genre of Scottish murder mysteries set in gritty cityscapes like Glasgow and Edinburgh. I love this new, original genre! Authors include Ian Rankin and, most recently, Marianne Wheelaghan with her Scottish/South Pacific heroine Louisa Townsend (and what a great name!). Her new novel, Food of Ghosts, is set in Tarawa, and so it is an unconventional Tartan Noir!

All this talk about "Noir" got me thinking... Why not have a specifically Southern mystery genre? And what's more Southern than grits? Thus, "Grits Noir" came about. My friend and fellow writer Lisa Logan and I are planning to set up a blog focusing on authors from this new genre -- writers from the South and/or mysteries based in the South. Please stay tuned!

P.S. Harking back to our earlier discussion on book trailers, here's a link to the trailer for Food of Ghosts. I think it works really well!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Back again!

I'm back, after a long break! We have a new addition to our family who is keeping me very busy! I will be posting updates soon, along with information about a new editing venture I'm persuing. Happy writing!