Thursday, March 31, 2011

Launch Day for Jessica McCann

Hold On for the Ride (or How to Write a Novel)

by Jessica McCann

Writing your first novel is like a walk in the park. Really, you say, it’s that easy? Before you rush to judgment, allow me to share a story about one particular walk in the park with my dogs.

My rescue pup, a super-loveable German Sheppard mix, has some “issues” around other dogs when she’s on leash. Maybe she's protective of me. Maybe it's a doggy dominance thing. But a few years ago, during a hike in one of our many Phoenix desert preserves, we happened to cross paths with a rambunctious golden retriever and its owner. Both dogs pulled at their leashes, lunging toward one another with noisy growls and flying saliva. It was unclear if they wanted to play or fight, but we weren’t about to risk finding out.

As I struggled to gain control of my unruly pup, I stumbled over a large rock in the trail and went sprawling into the dirt. She continued to pull at her leash, and I continued to hold on. She dragged me about four or five feet, my legs flailing behind me, through the rocks and desert grit. The retriever finally passed us, its owner shouting horrified apologies back over his shoulder, and my dog finally eased up. I took a deep breath and pulled myself to my feet. My knees were shaking. My shins were bloodied. My husband came rushing to me, apologizing that he had been unable to assist, since he had our other large dog on a leash and needed to stay out of the fray.

“Well, that was embarrassing,” I finally managed to say, looking around for witnesses, my voice breaking, tears welling in my eyes.

“No,” my husband said with a huge grin. “That was awesome! I’m so proud of you. You held on.”

Had I let go, we might have had a dog fight on our hands. Had I let go, our girl might have run away into the desert. Rattle snakes, dehydration and the busy highway were just a few of the dangers she would have faced. I had no choice but to hold on.

Writing a novel is like THAT walk in the park. Or, at least, it was for me. I had to risk a little embarrassment, risk getting a little bloodied, to get the job done. I had a story I desperately wanted to share, and so I had to hold on.

We’ve been through a lot of dog training classes since that fateful day on the desert trail. But my girl can still be unruly at times. Sure, we could have taken her to back to the rescue shelter, given up on her in favor of an “easier” dog, one more manageable. But she’s part of the family. When she drops her tattered sock-toy in my lap and patiently waits for me to throw it -- her helicopter tail whirling, her big brown eyes dancing -- I can’t imagine the heartache I’d feel if we had given up on her.

I’ve been through a lot "training" myself since I started writing my first novel, despite my previous experience and success writing nonfiction. Multiples drafts, critiques, revisions, queries and rejections were part of the long process leading to a polished manuscript and a publishing contract.

My debut novel, ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE, was inspired by actual events. It tells the story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s America whose perfect life was shattered when she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. It was a challenging, emotional, sometimes painful story to research and write. Sure, I could have put it in a drawer, given it up in favor of something easier to write. But the gratification of telling Margaret's story in a way that might touch or inspire those who read the book has made all the hard work worthwhile. When the UPS truck pulls up to my house with a box full of books -- fresh from the printer, with crisp pages and ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE emblazoned on the glossy cover -- I can’t imagine the heartache I’d feel if I had given up my quest to tell Margaret’s story.

Whether you dream of writing a novel or of some other goal, my advice is to go for a walk in the park and hold on for the ride. Life is only half-lived if you haven’t bloodied your knees at least a couple times.

Happy Launch Day, Jessica! 

If you're interested in purchasing Jessica's beautiful novel here are some helpful links: 


Barnes & Noble 


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Never Ending Re-Write by Beth Winegarner

When I was in my late teens, I would proofread my dad's market-research reports for extra pocket money. They needed it; my dad had a habit of inserting a comma every time he paused to look at his notes, take a phone call, or leave the room for a snack.

So, among other things, I would remove all those extraneous commas.
Unfortunately, he had another proofreader – a professional one. 

One time he told me, “When you proofread, you take all my commas out. And when she proofreads, she puts them all back.”

That summarizes how I feel about the revision process: you could spend your whole life taking commas out and then putting them back in again. I love drafting, because there is a clear beginning, middle, and end. You know you're finished because everything you meant to put into the book is in the book, in more or less the order you intended.

But then, one day, you sit down to begin rewriting. That's when you
realize – with horror, embarrassment, or even a sense of mistaken
identity – that the book you thought you wrote in no way
resembles this book at all. As you read your long, rambling,
semi-coherent sentences, you wonder, “Who wrote this? It's awful!” And then it sinks in: you wrote it. And you're going to have to fix it. And it's going to take forever.

Oh, I get it. Rewriting is important – probably more important than
the writing itself. After all, once you get a look at your draft, you
think, “Thank God I didn't let you out of the house looking like

But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

I have friends who adore revision. My friend Katie, who works at the
newspaper I left two years ago to have a baby, said she really enjoys
going back over her text, again and again, to make it sparkle. My
author friend Jon blogs pretty often about his revision process, with
the kind of enthusiasm most people reserve for high-intensity sports
or really great meals. To my mind, he might as well be raving about
scrubbing the toilet. But his books get published and favorably
reviewed, so I try to evoke him when I sit down to do the deed myself.

Of course, I also keep Anne Lamott in the back of my mind, and her
advice about “shitty first drafts,” as she put it in Bird By
: “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not
rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is
to write really, really shitty first drafts. … All good writers write
them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific
third drafts.”

Right now I am revising my most recent book, a nonfiction guide for
parents to the most controversial teen influences: violent video
games, the occult, heavy metal, and so on. Everything you've been told
will make your kid homicidal or suicidal. I wrote it during the second
year of my daughter's life, through sleep deprivation and tantrums and
shifting nap schedules, stealing time when I could.

At first, I was impressed that someone as tired as I was could string
coherent sentences together, let alone compose 90,000 words of mostly
intelligent prose. In fact, my first impression of the finished draft
was that it read like it was written by someone with many more
functioning brains cells than I have. I allowed myself be impressed
for a little while.

But then I sat down to revise it, and I wanted to put my head in the
compost bin. This was after I let several editor friends read
sections of it and provide feedback. I thought I was composing
readable, approachable prose. Instead, I was writing sentences such,
“If you're worried or even frightened about the music you hear blaring
out of your teenager's bedroom – or the names and symbols you see on album covers, posters, and t-shirts – then the last thing you probably want to do is pay more attention to them.”

Oh, there's nothing technically wrong with it. It's grammatically
correct. It makes a point. It's just that it goes on. And on. And on.
Other sections of the book have sentences like this one, only they're
weighed down with long, academic words that made even my editor
friends chafe. If they couldn't sit through it, I can't expect
heartland parents to pick up the book.

I've already taken one pass through most of the book, doing what I
thought was a good cleanup job. But now I'm taking another pass and
realizing just how much more rewriting it needs. It's like each draft
clears the way so I can see everything else that's wrong. Sure, it's
an important process, and the book will only benefit from it. But it's
such a slog – one that doesn't have a clear ending point. I don't do
well without clear ending points. And I know that when I find a
publisher for it, the editor will want yet another rewrite. I'm game,
but I can't say I'm looking forward to it.

When I was working as a reporter for daily newspapers, I could tell
when I was done writing and revising, because it was time to send the
story to my editor. I'm accustomed to that kind of deadline, one that
comes at you like the tunnel-cleaner in Labyrinth. This time, I
don't have a deadline. Theoretically, the revisions could go on

When I offered to write this guest blog, I thought I was going to
offer some tips on rewriting, but I find that I don't really have any.
I mean, when I sit down for a revision session, I pretend I'm not
doing it. I distract myself with Facebook or blogs. I write something
else (like this piece – nevermind that it needs revising, too).
Anything but rewriting. And then, when I can finally focus on
the task, it's only for an hour or so at a time – more than that, and
I feel like I'm crawling out of my skin.

But then, I read back through the hour's work and realize how much
better my book is. How many fewer snags and hiccups there are in the
sentences. How much clearer the meaning.

At least, until the next time I open the document and see how much
more needs to be done.

Bio: Beth Winegarner is a journalist, author, and poet currently
splitting her time between toddler-raising and writing a new
nonfiction book on controversial teen subcultures. She also blogs
about these subcultures at, and
has had pieces published recently in Mother Jones and
Radical Parenting. She lives in San Francisco with her partner
and daughter. For more, visit


Friday, March 18, 2011

Getting Back to Business by Nancy Hinchliff

Nancy Hinchliff owns and operates a bed and breakfast in Louisville, Kentucky where she also blogs and writes on line at, Eye on Life Magazine, Pink magazine and Hub pages. You can find her blogging at Business and Creative Women’s Forum, Inn NotesInn business  A Memorable Time of My Life, and Louisville Bed and Breakfast Association  In 2008, she co-authored Room at the Table, for The Bed and Breakfast Association of Kentucky for which she won their president’s award for outstanding work. She is currently working on a memoir titled Operatic Divas and Naked Irishmen: An Innkeeper’s Tale, a humorous and poignant account of how an admittedly asocial retired school teacher reinvents herself as an Innkeeper. This intimate tale recounts 16 challenging years of self-discovery.

Getting Back To Business

...the business of writing, that is. For the past two or three months, my memoir has been sitting on an obscure corner of my desk upstairs in my office...out of sight...out of reach...out of mind. I haven't gone near it. What I have been doing is trying to figure out what in the world is wrong with it. Why do I only like Chapter 8 and Chapter 12?

I have three fourths of the book complete. And now I see that I have to do a major re-write on it. Why? Well, I finally figured it out. I can't hear my least I can't hear it all the time. It comes through in different places, like in Chapter 8 and Chapter 12, but it does not infuse the entire book. And that really bothers me.

So, what to do about it? Well, I finally retrieved my manuscript from my desk on the third floor...that's a start. Then I divided it into four sections. Each section has around four chapters. Now, what I am doing is re-writing every day for a set amount of time. I am going chapter by chapter, sticking with it until I have it the way I want it...looking for my authentic voice and planting it on the pages one sentence at a time.

Just what is writer's voice anyhow and how do you find your own? According to Wikipedia,“Writer’s voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice is a combination of a writer’s use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can also be referred to as the specific fingerprint of an author, as every author has a different writing style.In creative writing, students are often encouraged to experiment with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their “voice.” Voice varies with the individual author, but, particularly in American culture, having a strong voice is considered positive and beneficial to both the writer and his or her audience.”

Finding your writer’s voice may be compared to expressing your personality in real life. It's that authentic way of thinking, speaking and telling that each one of us has. “Confident writers have the courage to speak plainly; to let their thoughts shine rather than their vocabulary.” says Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear I strongly believe that one way one can find their true voice is through blogging on a regular basis. When I first started blogging a few years ago, I focused mainly on the content of what I was writing and was not too concerned about the way in which it was presented, as long as the grammar and punctuation was correct. I was not really writing to connect with my readers.

In the Elements of Style, Strunk tells us that "style is an expression of self, and [writers] should turn resolutely away from all devices that are popularly believed to indicate style – all mannerisms, tricks, and adornments." I believe that if one continues to blog, their voice will eventually be freed. “As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge,” writes Strunk “because you yourself will emerge…” so the more comfortable you are with the rules for good writing, the more your writer’s voice will shine.

I have found this to be so true. And, it wasn't until I felt my true voice starting to come out that I even entertained the idea of writing a memoir. I wanted that memoir to be an expression of "me". But somewhere along the line, in trying to complete my work, I lapsed into my old ways of focusing on the content, not on my reader. And that's what I'm trying to get back.

Now, I am working that out, chapter by chapter. I am reading my writing aloud to see if it really sounds like me. This is very helpful, by the way. I had already stopped comparing my writing to other writers. Comparing how you write or your writer’s voice to other writers is destructive and suffocating. So, my motto is: admire other writers’ styles but nurture your own. And focus on ways to improve your confidence as a writer.

*A final tip: try picturing one specific reader — one that you're not trying to impress – and just communicate with her.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Literary Citizenship By Cathy Day

 Cathy Day is the author of two books: Comeback Season, a non-fiction novel (Free Press 2008) and The Circus in Winter, a short-story cycle (Harcourt 2004). Her stories and essays have appeared most recently in The Millions, Fiction Writer’s Review, and Ninth Letter. She lives in Indiana and teaches at Ball State University. She blogs about novel writing and teaching novel writing at The Big Thing.

Literary Citizenship

I’ve been teaching creative writing for almost twenty years now, and here’s something I’ve observed: what brings most people to the creative writing classroom or the writing conference isn’t simply the desire to “be a writer,” but rather (or also) the desire to be a part of a literary community.

Deep down, we know that not everyone who signs up for the class or the conference will become a traditionally published writer. Well, so what? What if they become agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, book club members, teachers, librarians, readers, or parents of all of the above?

My students attend MFA programs, yes, and they publish, yes, but they aren’t my only “success stories.” Some are literary agents; in fact, Rebecca’s agent, Michelle Brower, is a former student of mine. They subscribe to lots of literary magazines. They have founded and edit magazines, too. They’re editors. They write for newspapers and work in arts administration. They maintain blogs. They review books. They volunteer at literary festivals. They participate in community theatre. They become teachers who teach creative writing. Most importantly, they are lifelong readers.

How do I know all this? Well, there’s this thing called Facebook…

Lately, I’ve started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn’t just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call “literary citizenship.” I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.

Here are a few of my working principles of Literary Citizenship:

1.)   Write “charming notes” to writers. (I got this phrase from Carolyn See.) Anytime you read something you like, tell the author. Send them an email. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Not all writers are reachable, so you might have to write an old fashioned letter and send it to the publisher or, if they teach somewhere, to their university address. You don’t have to gush or say something super smart. Just tell them you read something, you liked it. They may not respond, but believe me, they will read it.

2.)   Interview writers. Take charming notes a step farther and ask the writer if you can do an interview. These days, they’re usually done via email. Approach this professionally, even if you are a fan. Write up questions (I prefer getting one question at a time, but some prefer getting them all at once). Let the writer talk. Writers love to talk. Submit the interview to an appropriate print or online magazine. Spread the word. There are many, many outlets, some paying. I really like the interviews published by Fiction Writer’s Review, like this one.

3.)   Talk up (informally) or review (formally) books you like. Start with your personal network. Then say something on Goodreads. Then or B&N. Then try starting a book review blog. Or a book review radio show, like a former student of mine, Sarah Blake. Submit your reviews to newspapers and magazines, print or online. God knows, the world needs more book reviewers. Robin Becker at Penn State and Irina Reyn at Pitt are just two writer/teacher/reviewers I know of who actively teach their students how to write and publish book reviews. Remember: no matter what happens to traditional publishing, readers will always need trusted filters to help them know what is worth paying attention to and what’s not. Become that trusted filter.

4.)   If you want to be published in journals, you must read and support them. Period. If it’s a print journal, subscribe. If it’s an online journal, talk them up, maybe even volunteer to read. One of my favorite writers, Dan Chaon, had this to say about journals: The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don’t read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can’t get anyone to accept their stories. You can read his incredibly practical advice here.     

5.)   If you want to publish books, buy books. I don’t want to fight about big-box stores (evil!) vs. indie bookstores (good!) or about libraries (great!) or how truly broke you are (I know! I’ve been there, too!) or which e-reader is “better” for the writer or the independent book seller (argh!). I just want you to buy books. Period. It makes me angry to see the lengths relatively well-off people will go to avoid buying a book. Especially considering how much they are willing to spend on entertainment, education, or business-related expenses. If you’re a writer, you can file a Schedule C: Profit or Loss from a Business, and books and magazine subscriptions are tax deductible.

6.)   Be passionate about books and writing, because passion is infectious. When I moved back home again to Indiana this past summer, my husband and I set out to buy bookshelves. The first furniture store we entered didn’t even carry bookshelves, the second carried only a single type, and the third (which we bought, because they were on sale) were really intended to be decorative shelves, not book shelves. Mind you, I wasn’t really surprised by this. I grew up here, after all. If you find yourself in a literary desert, rather than fuss and complain about it, create an oasis. Maintain a library in your home. Share books with your friends, co-workers, children, and community. Start a book club. Start a writing group. Volunteer to run a reading series at your local library. Take a picture of your bookshelves and put them on Facebook. Commit to buying 20 books a year for the rest of your life.

Question: What is the secret to getting published?

Answer: Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued. 

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."

"These are the days when Birds come back/a very few/a Bird or two/to take a backward look."