One, two, three…Query!

pidjoeThe first draft took me four years. The second, three months. The third, four weeks. Then I went on vacation.

Now that I’m back, it’s time for the dreaded Agent Search.

Other than marketing ourselves, there’s probably nothing we writers hate more than searching for an agent. Of course, there are up sides. For those of us who enjoy research, there’s plenty of digging. And, of course, there’s lots of writing, revising and rewriting, and that’s second nature to us.

Yet each query letter, is an agonizing exercise in wowing an agent with words. In one short page, we must grab his or her (or their just-out-of-college assistants’) attention; demonstrate our manuscripts have the makings of bestsellers — or at least modestly lucrative books; and convince our would-be agent that ours would be a profitable partnership.

My college essays didn’t cause this much angst. At least then, I never doubted that one (or more) “college of my choice” would give me the nod. With longer odds, query letters have far less certain outcomes. They are the one shot to make a stellar impression without the campus visits to try each other out for fit.

To be fair, agents need thigh-high waders to get through their slush piles. They might slog through the manuscripts after late nights out, in the midst of personal drama or with jaundiced eyes. Agents’ livelihoods depend on their choices as much as ours do. For both of us, finding the connection that clicks can be a crap shoot.

Until that seven or 11 comes up, I’ll keep rolling those dice.

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First draft

woman typingAn American Terrorist is finished, at the least the first draft is. But let me back up a bit.

Carolinas WordFest was a huge success. Participating authors and festival goers alike raved about the quality of the programming that featured poets, novelists, lyricists, YA writers, comics and other writers who took over uptown Charlotte last October. In fact, the WordFest planning committee and Charlotte Writers’ Club were so enthusiastic, they greenlighted a 2017 event.

But there’s a teensy problem. Although coordinating the festival was tremendously fulfilling, it was all-consuming. So, until more volunteers stop up, Carolinas WordFest 2.0 will have to wait. I’ve returned to writing — and it feels great!

Actually, returned is something of an understatement. Since WordFest ended, the computer has become an extension of my fingers. After more than a year when I was totally focused on the festival, all those pent-up words started flowing.

So I wrote: Fr. Francis had a career crisis and Paul remained a cipher.

And wrote: Amy appreciated her husband and Todd got sketchier.

And wrote: The mysterious PJ was revealed and Janelle gained greater self-awareness.

I wrote for eight, nine hours a day, removed from distractions during a writers residency at the Weymouth Center for the Arts. When I emerged bleary eyed and triumphant, I left with the completed first draft of An American Terrorist.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been editing, revising and rewriting. now the draft has been entrusted to fellow writers to critique. After compiling their comments and suggestions, I’ll head back to Weymouth for the second week of my two-week residency and write some more. When I leave, the second draft of An American Terrorist will be complete. Not that any work is ever complete.

Then I’ll begin the hardest part: finding an agent. Wish me luck!

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Let’s put on a show!

logo-final_nodate-blI haven’t written a word in 10 months, but it hasn’t been writer’s block. Rather, I have poured myself into Carolinas WordFest. A baby takes less time to gestate. The celebration of North and South Carolina writers has grown from the germ of an idea to a festival with more than a dozen writers, and I can’t wait for its arrival on October 15th.

Like a young Mickey Rooney urging the neighborhood kids to “put on a show,” this time last year I rallied the usual suspects — the Charlotte Writers’ Club, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, several area universities, a performing arts group and a couple of publishers. Surely, if Mickey could pull off a song and dance extravaganza, a group of writers could just as easily put on a festival.

We all were full of great ideas. Creative ideas. Huge ideas. But whereas Mickey’s neighborhood was populated by actors in a movie fantasy, we were dealing with reality. We were a group of very good writers who were clueless event planners. None of us knew the first thing about the permits required or insurance needed. Or the cost. So, I stopped writing and threw myself into WordFest.

It’s been what they call a learning experience full of teachable moments. Even with most the venues provided by community partners, we would need to pay for a festival permit, insurance, police, medic, theater rental, sound system, decking for a stage, banners and signage, website domain name, materials for children’s activities, printing, food and lodging for participating writers (who we could not pay), and a host of miscellaneous expenses. We had to write grants, talk with vendors, work with the city and contact writers. And follow up. And follow up. And follow up. I’d wake in the middle of the night, mentally running through and adding to my to-list.

Carolinas WordFest is finally coming together. Sure, there are still a few holes to fill, schedules to tweak and details to work out. In other words, the festival needs a little editing. But the bones are strong and are fleshing out well. We have a terrific line-up of writers. Check them out at Carolinas Poets and playwrights, fiction and nonfiction writers, comics and lyricists, storytellers and YA authors. Writing is a big, welcoming tent, and on October 15th in Charlotte, we’ll put on quite a show!

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Why I am not writing

2015-07-11 21.21.02An unseen hand dials back the blue, turning up the fuchsia and coral. Greens fade to black, impressionist trees against dusk sky. The bay basks in reflected glory.

Like a besotted teen, I cannot turn away.

At four, 14 and 24, my summer days rushed from sandcastles to skiing to sailing. I little understood my grandfather in the sunset of his life sitting immobile on the patio he built on the dune overlooking the bay. He was as much a part of the bayscape as the afternoon whitecaps or rainbow-hued spinnakers. As afternoons slipped into evenings, he sat as if atop a totem pole, skin bronzing to a burnished red-brown that made my blue-eyed blond brother tell skeptical teachers his grandfather was an Indian.

More than a quarter century has passed, and I sit in his chair on the patio he built on the dune overlooking the bay. It’s a body I’ve come to know well. Sultry or cold, glittering or dark, she bewitches with her quicksilver moods. My book lies unread in my lap.

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2015-04-27 birdhouseThere’s a lot of building going on in my neighborhood. Just yesterday, I saw a male trying to get construction materials into one of the new homes he was putting together for his mate. He was having a few problems though. An eight-inch piece of wood wouldn’t go through a one-inch diameter hole on the front of the house.  His efforts knocked the wood loose and he dove to retrieve it.  When he came back up, he tried again. And again. And again.

He stood on the roof analyzing the situation. Even he could see it wasn’t going to work. I mentally telegraphed him to turn sideways on his next attempt. This needed a three-dimensional approach.

On his next retrieval mission, he returned with different solution — a smaller. piece of wood He also tried another technique. Instead of holding the wood in the middle, he grabbed it on the end. After a few tries, he slid it through the hole.

While the little guy worked, I reflected. I had become discouraged over the last couple of months. My book isn’t what I want it to be. It’s not bad, but OK isn’t good enough. If as its creator I have lost interest, how can I expect my readers to care.

Like the builder, I analyzed the situation. What is wrong and why? My critique group has suggested improvements. Whereas they are good — and much needed — ideas, they are two-dimensional solutions to a three-dimensional problem. My novel needs more depth. At the group’s urging, I am writing more quickly than well. The first drafts are abysmal; the second are OK. I am a slow writer. I write and revise. And revise. And revise. And revise. Each time, I add more context, substitute words, cut verbiage, more fully draw characters. I’m chapters ahead of my submission to the group, so I will slow down to write the way I need to.

Even the little house wren doesn’t get it right the first time. Although he figured out how to get the twig through the birdhouse opening, the result looks haphazard. I doubt it has the must-haves that the missus requires. It’s why he will build several nests, each having its merits, none with everything. No house or book will be perfect, but with a little work, each becomes better and something to love.

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Did you hear…?

WomanOnPhone“People don’t live in a vacuum. What are your characters talking about when the reporter isn’t around?”

That was my “duh” moment from last week’s critique group.

I should have remembered that St. Mary Mead provides endless resources for Miss Marple to solve Agatha Christie’s mysteries because the village is populated by real, if slightly exaggerated, people who are wrapped up in each other’s business. Miss Marple always solves the crimes because she listens to the gossip and recognizes the quirks and predictability of human nature.

However, I had written my peripheral characters without a presence outside reporter Janelle Martin’s interviews. I was focusing so hard on moving my story along, was working so diligently on make my writing flow and my characters come alive, that I didn’t think to connect the characters with each other when Janelle wasn’t in the vicinity.

Although characters in every book wouldn’t necessarily talk with one another, they would in the small Iowa town where my story takes place. An out-of-town reporter conducting interviews with friends of an accused bioterrorist would be a hot topic of conversation. Maybe people would compare notes about what they had told her or speculate among themselves about what she was after and how her story would characterize their neighbors and hometown. Maybe there’d be a secret – relevant or not – some people wouldn’t want revealed.

I thought I’d covered all the bases, but I’d gotten so entrenched in Janelle’s head, I was beginning to see the world through her eyes. Since she didn’t know what people were telling each other when she was not around, I didn’t consider it. I was missing those unseen conversations that had the potential to build interest and make the reader wonder what really happened.

My “duh” moment reminded me that to make characters – and novels – believable, they have to take place in a world to which the reader can relate.

Sometimes we writers try so hard to be clever, to close every loophole, to fabricate memorable plots or characters that we forget the way people really interact. For that, we can take a page from Jane Marple and become students of human nature. People are unfailingly predictable and surprising. Many of our sticky writing problems will solve themselves, if we just observe.

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It’s not about us

??????????The neat square of sunlight in their front yard was all the sisters needed to enjoy the false spring day. The younger girl sprawled on a blue beach towel, her head bent over the pages of her chapter book, a squishy brown dog by her side. The older, a Princess Elsa wannabe in her diaphanous blue gown, sat primly in a straight back wood chair dragged from the kitchen. Her head was bowed as if in prayer over the open book in her lap.

When I passed again, the sunny square had stretched to a rectangle. The girls lay side-by-side in the lowering sun, each on her own towel, each engrossed in her own book, a bowl of snacks between them. Their feet pointed skyward as their legs windshield wipered from side to side.

Rushing from errand to errand, chore to chore, I thought how long it had been since I’d lain on the grass and basked in the joy of a good book.

Often, we say we write because we must. Of course, that’s true. Even those of us who are journalists, freelancers or corporate communicators don’t do it for the money, such as it is. Writing is part of who we are. The words that flow from our minds through our fingers to our screens provide us with enormous satisfaction (and frustration).

We understand the power of a word and ruminate on our choices as we run. Work out plot point as we walk. Set characters on courses as we shower. We know our characters better than we know some family members. For some of us, our characters are family members. As much time as I spend thinking about my writing, I spend the inverse amount thinking about my readers.

Oh, I think about how to make them want to turn the pages. But I don’t think about how my readers will experience my writing.

Good writing – regardless of genre – transports readers. Our poetry can give voice to feelings they can’t express. Our memoirs can show they are not alone. And our prose can take our readers inside other families, other cultures, other cities, other worlds. Our writing can unleash imaginations, illuminate issues and take readers places they have never before ventured.

Watching those two little girls devouring their books reminded me that although the process might be about the writer, the product is about the reader. With skill and luck, the books those girls one day will read will be ours. In the meantime, grab a towel and a book and find your patch of lawn.

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Hail, queen of psychological thrillers

Ruth RendellTo say that Ruth Rendell writes thrillers is to say that Alfred Hitchcock directed scary movies. It is the most under of understatements.

Like Hitchcock, Ruth Rendell gets inside the skins of her disturbed characters. We, the readers, learn to understand the obsessions that serve as their reasonable (to them) and compulsive motives to kill and kill again. Although each of her more than 60 novels involves murders, they rarely are mysteries to her readers. The “who” of the who-done-its are known, and its these characters, both fascinating and repulsive, that keep us turning page after page.

Rendell, whose body of work spans more than 50 years, has won three Edgars in the U.S., as well as four Gold and a Diamond Dagger from England’s Crime Writers’ Association. Whether chronicling a single deranged person as she does in A Judgment in Stone, following the intelligent and sensitive Inspector Wexford in The Vault and 22 other book, or writing as Barbara Vine in A Dark-Adapted Eye and other novels, the British writer has served as a model for me, as I immerse myself in the minds of my characters.

I admire Ruth Rendell’s writing tremendously. She, the late P.D. James, who died in November, and Elizabeth George are among a handful of contemporary master storytellers that I think have set the modern-day standard for intelligent crime novels, crafting three-dimensional characters and rich stories.

If you haven’t read P.D. James, the crime and dystopian novelist whose books Death Comes to Pemberley and The Children of Men were made into a PBS series and movie, respectively, check her out. Although all her Inspector Adam Dalgliesh novels are listed on Goodreads, she has written other excellent novels. Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley also shows up on PBS. Like James, books outside her detective series are enjoyable reading.

However, for believable psychological thrillers, no one does it better than Ruth Rendell, making you give your quirky neighbor a second glance. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of her books. She holds you in thrall all the way through the final page.


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When cultures collide

worldmapWrite about what you know.

We’ve all heard that piece of advice. Even so, sometimes we slip in a place or person about which we know very little. When it’s something obvious, such as a location, means for murder or prosecutorial procedure, we do research. We don’t wing historical details in period pieces, or defy the laws of physics in futuristic fables.

However, writers often do not take the time we should with getting the details right about minor characters from a culture different from their own. We can’t simply take our own experiences and world views and slap them on someone who most likely would behave and see things differently than we do.

For example, a name cannot always be chosen at random. It must convey, at least to the author, characteristics about the fictional person that bears it. If a character hails from another culture, his or her name might be thought to be auspicious or describe the characteristics the parents hope the child will embody. For my novella set in Afghanistan, I spent hours researching names for the Tajik and Pashtun characters. Arman means ideal, hope and aspiration in Dari, attributes that I wanted the moderate Tajik mujahideen to possess. His friend Farokh, who lost his leg but not his life when an unexploded bomb blew up, lived up to his moniker, which means happy, fortunate. The two friends faced Hanif in a deadly battle. The young talib’s name means true believer in Arabic.


If your work has a character with Chinese heritage, don’t situate him in a fourth-floor apartment or give her four flowers, a four-door car or phone number with the number 4, the numeral for death. Eight, on the other hand, would be a good choice. That number is so auspicious for the Chinese that the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies began at 8 p.m. China Standard Time on 8/8/08.

Characters often learn a lot by watching facial expressions. However, if people from different countries are watching each other, they might not learn much. Facial expressions, too, might have different cross-cultural interpretations, according to Rachael L. Jack, who said that Western Caucasians rely on the eyebrows and mouth to pick up cues, while Chinese focus on the eyes.

There is a host of other differences among cultures from what “on time” means to which hand (if any) to proffer in a greeting. Good international advertising agencies have become finally attuned to those differences. Successful marketers understand they can’t just translate an American ad into another language. Rather, they need an entirely different, culturally appropriate campaign. Electrolux was smart enough not to bring its “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” ads from Great Britain to the U.S. Writers could learn from them, a warning that even in our mother tongue, the words we choose might have unintended meanings.

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I resolve

skyline_wordsThe new year brings a fresh start and a list of personal resolutions designed to make us healthier, happier and better people. Writers are no exception. We vow to write more and more consistently and hone our craft. However, like the gym memberships that boom in January, we can’t allow our resolutions to go bust by mid-March. Not if we are serious writers.

I’ve seen dozens of articles and websites devoted to writers’ resolutions. However, I think the best was the one that poet and The Charlotte Observer columnist Dannye Romine Powell penned: “Advice to writers: Work hard, write to win.”

Dannye, a talented writer, took a contrarian view to some of the advice she was seeing. The bottom line: If you want to be a professional writer, act like one. People who are tops in their fields don’t dabble. They are successful because they work at it. They stand out from the crowd because they aren’t part of the crowd. They find their own paths to go their own way. They work – hard.

In addition to the usual advice of having a time, place and quota for writing, Dannye says to compare the quality of writing and work habits of successful peers with our own and see how we measure up. She advises reading – a lot, especially out-of-the-mainstream works. And, as author James Dickey said, write like a winner. We don’t want to write as well as other authors. We don’t want to be average. We should push ourselves to be the best, to stand out from the pack.

In 2015, I resolve to read, write and revise, meeting my weekly quota without fail. Through practice, I will strengthen my writing and my unique voice. Only then will it become strong and loud and soar sweetly above the din.

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