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EXPOSED

photo by Ellen Tice Willis

I went to the mountains yesterday with my son and his family. We drove up to Linville Caverns and hiked around the falls. We topped the day off with a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. One of the great things about living where I do is I’m about 2+ hours away from the breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smokie Mountains, or about 3+ hours from the beach. The best of both worlds.

But lately, I’m leaning toward the mountains. My novel, The Rising (Pelican Book Group, 2013) is set in the foothills of the North Carolina Mountains. The novel I’m currently working on is set deep in the Appalachians. So when my son asked me if I wanted to ride up to the mountains this past weekend, I was the first one in the van. Notebook, check. Camera, check. Inspiration….just set me in them hills and I’ll find it.

photo by Ellen Tice Willis

Oh the writer in me was so stoked I could hardly sleep the night before. I’d be so filled with inspiration this masterpiece of a novel inside of me was going to practically write itself. Can I take my lunch and dinner costs as a tax deduction?  After all, this was a working day trip.

So we stop at Linville Caverns and pile out of the van. I breath in deeply and slowly exhale, wanting to take it all in. The smells, the sounds, the way of life of these…other sight-seers. I was standing in a paved parking lot with a hundred other people waiting in line to buy a ticket to see a cave. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful and quiet fascinating. And while touring, I thought of a thousand story lines about getting lost in a cave. So, yeah, the writer was still alive and kicking inside of me. I hadn’t completely gone the way of a …tourist.

Besides, I was probably the only one there with a purpose. A real purpose. I was a writer doing research. I asked my photographer (okay, she was my daughter-in-law, Ellen) to take a picture of a leaf, no wait, the whole tree because, well, looking around, it was all over the place and I wanted to make reference in my novel to this strange tree/bush and needed a picture to help me name it. The first blow to my writerly ego came when I casually asked my son if he knew what type bush it was. I think I caught him rolling his eyes. “Mountain laurel,” he said with a smile. Probably the most common bush in the NC mountains. Fine, laugh at me if you will but at least now I know. Research pays off. At least I won’t be calling it a cacti.

So after we leave the caverns, we do the hike and the writer’s stirring again. Deep in the woods, I’m taking it all in and my writer-senses are bursting. I’m probably the only writer hiking these woods at this very minute and I’m living it! I am these woods! They are flowing through me!

Still feeling my uber-writer high, we pile back in the van and head on to the next adventure. There were several calls for a potty break so my son Garey pulls into the first store he finds. It’s a little general merchandise stop complete with RC cola (in a bottle) and moon pies. It had creaky plank floors and some hardware alongside the one package of bologna. My writer-sense was in overdrive. This was what I came for. The people, the way of life.

Paisley Willis. My one-in-a-million.

Well, the thing with this little store was the public bathroom was attached to the store, but it had an outside entrance. And the bathroom faced the road. So when the door was opened, passerbys got a full, head on view of the toilet. And traffic was pretty heavy. Not to mention the two gentlemen standing right outside the door chatting about the leaves. It was a little unnerving, but what the heck. It had a door.

So I take my writer self in the bathroom facing the road and shut and lock the door. It was a little slide lock but sturdy enough. So I’m there, squatted, do my business, like even best-selling authors need to do on occasion and granddaughter Paisley opens the door. Panicked, I stretch my arm as long as it will stretch to slam the door closed before my future readers know me better than I’d like. And I can’t reach. So I leap up (jeans around the ankles) and manage to get it closed before the horns start honking. Finally done, I open the door and sweet little Paisley is standing there with a paper towel ready to be thrown away. Totally oblivious to the fact she nearly showed her grandma to the world, or at least to those on the heavily traveled road leading to the parkway. Or to the fact her grandma was a future Pulitzer winner. She didn’t care. She just wanted to throw her paper towel away.

I smiled and climbed back in the van and put the writer away for awhile. For the rest of the trip, I was just grandma.

     

Second Chances

Ever struggled through a book wondering why you continue to read such garbage? Ever read the first page or maybe two and figure you just can’t stomach to read anymore? That’s how I felt about Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. But It was all the rage. The must read. I silently stared at my writer friends while they rambled on and on and on about the sheer beauty of this book. Had they lost their minds? I managed to get through the first two pages then decided no matter how great this book supposedly was, it just wasn’t for me.

I felt so embarrassed. So ashamed. I called myself a writer, yet couldn’t stomach the first two pages of the National Book Award Winner. I never told my writer friends how I truly felt. I was ashamed I didn’t ‘get it’. Maybe I should revert back to picture books. Certainly I could ‘get’ those.

So Cold Mountain got shoved to the back of the bookshelf. The very back. And then the movie came out and I watched mainly because Jude Law is like oh my gosh good-looking. The scenery was beautiful too. And the story – it wasn’t bad. Yeah, I cried.

Then a funny thing happened. Several years later, I was cleaning off the bookshelves and found the well-hidden copy of Cold Mountain. I held it my hands for a long time, wondering if I should give it another try. I was between books so in need of something to read. So I stuffed it in my purse to take to work with me the next day. I’d try the first page again and if it didn’t click, I’d spend the rest of my lunch hour browsing the newspaper left in the break room.

But it clicked. Oh how it clicked! I finally ‘got it’. And I got it within the first paragraph, not just the page. I absolutely, totally, undeniably fell in love with the language Frazier used. The words worked together like an old married couple completing one another’s sentences. The words, the placement of punctuation, the sparse dialogue. The beauty of the way everything worked together sent chills up my spine.

If I hadn’t given Cold Mountain a second chance, I’d have gone through life appreciating the beauty of Jude Law, not the language used to tell the story.

Have you ever given a book a second chance?

I blame the Writers Police Academy

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I totally missed a new blog post last week because I was recooping from the WPA. A week later, I’m still recooping. It is one more intense conference/workshop/seminar – whatever the heck you want to call it. But I learned a lot. A lot lot. Like Gypsy may need some work.

While at the WPA, I pitched Gypsy and Wink of an Eye to Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency. They really liked it and requested the whole manuscript. They loved Gypsy’s voice. Said it was some ‘good stuff’. Right after she pointed out a few passive verbs — on the first page! In the first paragraph! I don’t use passive verbs. I know better! But sure as I’m sitting here, I used them. I apologized all over the place like a mother begging forgiveness for their over active kid who just spilled grape juice on your white carpet. She smiled (she’s really nice) and said not to worry, sometimes it takes someone else’s eyes to see these things. I still wanted to die.

So now I’m in a pickle. Do I send it as is, knowing it may need a blood-letting edit/revision? Or do I spend some quality time re-writing, again. Let him go? Or hold him back? They really liked the story. Do I go ahead and send it as is while it’s still fresh in their minds — with of course, an apology for the passive verbs on the first page. Or not mention those pesky verbs at all. After all, they were the ones who pointed them out so they kind of already know about ’em. Ahhh!

I heard a story years ago that is fitting to this situation. Many years ago, guards at a famous art museum arrived at work one day to find an elderly man, naked, defacing an original Picasso. They took the old man downstairs to the office and wrapped him in a blanket. Turns out the old man was Picasso. They asked him why he was defacing his painting. He said, “It wasn’t finished.”

How many times do we pull them back before finally letting go?

  

It’s my story so bug off!

Yeah. And let me know when you get that crap published. There’s an art form to giving a good critique and one for receiving a good critique. I’ve been giving and receiving critiques in a formal atmosphere for 18 years. I feel somewhat qualified in offering advice in the give and take process.

Some authors are a little more sensitive than others.
And granddaughter Ivy didn’t think much of  her faerie costume, either. 

Let’s start with the receiving end. If you’ve ever had your work critiqued, good for you! It means you take your work seriously enough to want to make it the best it can be. Remember that first critique? Oh the nerves! Sweaty palms. Racing heart. Will they like it? Will they laugh when they’re supposed to? Cry at the right places? Been there, done that. Even with a few novels under my belt and some short story success, I can tell you the nerves are always there. Whether it’s your first critique or your hundredth. Some things never change. These few pointers can be used for whatever number critique you’re on.

  • Be appreciative. Even if you don’t agree 100% with what they offer. Someone took time away from their own writing, reading, or life, to try and help make your work shine.
  • Consider the source and act accordingly. Is the person giving the critique published? In what genre? Are they trying to turn your YA mystery into a highbrow literary masterpiece? If they haven’t published or have zero critiques to their credit, they may hesitate to give a bone-picking critique. Don’t think they love your work because they didn’t bleed over it. They probably just don’t know what to say yet. 
  • If you belong to a critique group where several people are critiquing your work, majority rules. If five out of six people say you need to change your protagonist’s name, you may need to change his/her name. If only one person suggests it, consider their reasoning then either change it or don’t. It’s your story.
  • Sometimes critiques hurt. Get over it. Yes, we know you’ve spent the last three years of your life struggling over this piece of…work. And we are sorry about that. Bottom line is, it’s your story. If you have faith in it, go for it. But after you stop crying, take another look at the critique. Yeah, we know, It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong.
  • You call it nit-picking when I say a certain flower doesn’t bloom in March in the NC mountains. I call it making your story believable. If that particular flower’s that dang important to your story, make your story a fantasy. Anything’s possible in those.

Now how about giving a critique? Everyone has their own style. I, for instance, over critique. In fiction, we call it beating the reader over the head with information. Not only will I circle a word that doesn’t work, I’ll give you ten reasons why and a list of possible other word choices and a list of why they would work. Blame it on the OCD.

It’s all good in the end. 
  • When giving a critique, consider the level of ability of the author. Is this the first piece they’ve ever written? Or is it the eighteenth novel in a twenty-five book series (in this case the author may be bored with the series!) If they’re newbies, do they even know what POV is? Do they know what author intrusion means? Do they know what RUE means (resist the urge to explain). It doesn’t do any good to point out a POV shift when the newbie doesn’t even know what it is. Yeah, sometimes you have to hold their little hand.
  • Know what the author is hoping to gain from the critique. Are they wanting a line edit (grammar, spelling, etc) or are they looking for a ‘big picture’ critique, or are they looking for the complete package?
  • Even if the story is in a genre you’re not familiar with, you can still critique it. Every story must have the basic elements regardless of genre. Dialogue, pace, characterization, mechanics (grammar, paragraph lengths, scene breaks, etc). These things transcend genres so even if you’ve never read a sci-fi story in your life, you should still be able to critique the basics.
  • Be helpful; not hurtful. There was a time you didn’t know what a POV shift was, either.
  • Never, ever steal an idea. But, critiquing someone else’s work does help you see your own errors. It makes your own writing stronger. 
  • Resist the urge to re-write. It’s their story, not yours. Don’t you have something of your own you need to be working on? 

Yeah, I struggle with that last one. It’s the OCD.

Snap shots: Safe

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. A time when we played outside until well after dark. We didn’t think about being snatched from our front yards by a creepy guy in an ice cream truck. Back then, the ice cream man wasn’t creepy at all. We waited eagerly with our quarters in hand at the first sound of whatever happy tune was playing in the distance.

We were safe.

One of the most vivid memories of childhood I have came rushing back to me the other night. Fall is in the air so I turned off the air conditioner and opened my bedroom windows before I went to bed. I snuggled down under the quilt, and listened. Listened to the sounds of a far away train, a couple cars, a barking dog in the distance. And then like magic, it was no longer nighttime. There was no longer a chill in the air.

My dad, Willie Chandler,
long before I was even thought about.

I was ten years old and batting my eyes against bright sunlight streaming through my bedroom window. It was a Saturday morning, early summer, maybe around nine or ten. My mother had just come into my bedroom and opened the windows, pushing the curtains aside. I pretended to be asleep to prolong the beginning of the routine Saturday chores. Once I heard her bedroom slippers pad across the hardwood floor and out of the room, I lazily opened my eyes. My room was filled with sunshine. A soft breeze flittered through the open window and gently ruffled the curtains. Outside, my father mowed the lawn. The constant hum of the mower could have easily lulled me back to sleep, but I wanted that moment. I wanted to lay there and experience the smell of the fresh cut grass, the sound of the lawn mower. I wanted to bask in the knowledge my father was just beyond the window,  my mother, somewhere in the house with a can of Pledge and a dust rag and tomorrow, Sunday, we would probably pile up in the car and go get ice cream. I felt safe.

Waiting for the movie

My family is super supportive of my chosen career. My kids know I’m a little weird. Their spouses have learned. The grandkids think I’m pretty cool. Sometimes. Sometimes not. But to be honest, I’m surrounded by a bunch of non-readers. They’ll wait for the movie.

Grandkids Ivy (left) and Aiden actually reading a book!
Well, they were looking at the pictures.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s my problem, not theirs. They cheer me on and ask questions about my latest book and beam with pride when I show them the cover. And I have absolutely no doubt they’ll be at the book launch party and maybe at a book signing or two. And they will beam with more pride. But will they actually read my book? Probably not. And that’s okay.

Why? Because I’ve finally accepted writing novels as my career choice. I will take a day job here and there but my main focus will be writing. And to accept that as more than just a time-consuming hobby, I have to accept that my family may not be as mesmerized by the final product as I am. Yes, they are proud. Yes, they are supportive. But do they know what I mean when I say I’m proofing a galley? No. It’s not their job to know no more than it’s my job to know medical coding (my daughter) or plumbing (my son). And I’m as proud of them and their chosen careers as I know they are of me.

Boom Chicka Boom Chicka Boom Boom Boom!

My oldest grandson, Landon, will turn nine years old tomorrow. We celebrated today with a basketball party. Landon’s planning to play basketball this year for the rec center so he’s all into the bouncing orange ball. Yeah, we did food and presents and all the regular stuff but the real fun came on the basketball court. Landon and his friend Tyler shot a game of hoops with Landon’s older cousins, his much older uncles and Tyler’s dad, Landon’s dad, and his grandpa. Yeah, his grandpa. Keep in mind Landon turns nine tomorrow and Tyler is barely ten. They were the only ones on the court under six feet tall. They’re barely five feet. If that.

They were little guys in a big mans game.

We, the cheering section, had to on occasion remind the um, bigger guys, that HELLO, it’s LANDON’S party!! Can you give HIM the ball?? Maybe let him play too??

Made me think of all the indie publishers and the do-it-yourself ebook authors going up against the big guys. Only I don’t think a group of moms and grandmoms and aunts and cousins shouting at Random House or St. Martins to let Johnny play, too, will carry much weight.

That’s why the little guys need a cheering section. Even the little guys with contracts with one of the big guys. Chances are the big guys aren’t going to have the time or devote the money to promoting the crap out of your book. You’re going to have to do that. And enlist your mom, and your grandmom, and your sisters and brothers and cousins and every friend you’ve ever known to help. Make them your cheering section. If they’re loud enough, the big guys may notice.

What the heck is THAT supposed to mean?

I knew I wanted to be a writer at a very young age. When I got to jr. high and high school, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. My favorite class, of course, was English and I loved the creative writing exercises. Give me a writing prompt and I’d give you a ten page masterpiece, even though the teacher said it only had to be five pages.

In the seventh grade I had a teacher that was the hippest teacher ever. He brought his guitar to class and we sang folk songs. He talked about dreams and feeling the music and getting it. Dig it? And oh! How I felt the music! Yes! I understand everything the writer was saying. It touched me. I felt their pain. I embraced their anguish.

And then came tenth grade and America Lit. And delving into the psyche of Faulkner (God help us all!) and Hemingway and Poe. What did they mean? It was then my true ambition surfaced. I wanted to write a novel so complex every tenth grade student would scratch their heads wondering what in the crap I meant. Surely I was suicidal. Or maybe a psycho. The words on the page reflect such a great despair and hopelessness no sane person could ever have penned them. Right? Insert evil laugh.

Note to English teachers – you can stop looking for the hidden meanings in every piece of written work. Sometimes, it is what it is. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  

Sending our babies off to school (or the editor)

It was a big week around here. Four of the nine grandkids started school. One started high school, another started kindergarten. Big life-changing events. And oh yeah, I sent the first round of edits/revisions back to my publisher,.Pelican Book Group.

Sending the first round of revision/edits didn’t cause nearly the nail-biting anxiety as submitting the query, first three chapters, etc.. because, they already liked it. We’re in the polishing stage now. But for all those other submissions we writers make, we’re back to nail biting. Much the same way my daughter Nina was stressing about Ava heading to kindergarten.

Ava is…well, Ava. The world revolves around Ava. Or at least she thinks it does. But she’s so darn happy about it, you can’t help but be happy with her. Nina made her husband Allen go with them the first day of school in case Ava got upset. Allen went into work late so he could be there in case his daughter was scared. In case she was frightened. In case she questioned this big new world she was expected to participate in (like eating together with your class and not just when you’re hungry, and assigned seating, and having to raise your hand to ask to go to the bathroom!) There was just one little hitch in Ava’s expected meltdown. It never happened. She didn’t even wave goodbye to her mom and dad. Just ran head first, arms open wide into her classroom. She threw herself out there, out into the world and said “Like me!”

Ava and big brother Landon ready for that first day of school

And of course like any mother, Nina worries will they like her Ava? Will they understand her quirky sense of humor? Will they embrace her independence? Will they accept her? Do they pay on acceptance or publication? Do they have a kill fee? How many author copies do they offer? Oh…oops. I was talking about my daughter sending her daughter to kindergarten, wasn’t I?

Why writing a novel is like a 2 year old’s birthday party

This past Saturday we celebrated my grandson Aiden’s 2nd birthday. We had a lot of fun and even some surprises. Like balloons that pop just because you looked at them. Big shout out to my son for blowing them up so tight everyone was scared to move out of fear of the BANG! But they were big. Yeah.

Aiden was a very good guest of honor. He smiled for the camera, smiled appreciatively at his cake and presents and, well…that was about it. The little bugger sneaked off to the kitchen and dove into his cake while everyone else was chatting and visiting with one another. In one split-second moment, a few of us looked at one another and realized the others didn’t know where Aiden was, either. That first moment of realization that you don’t know where your two year old is is sheer panic, the moment after that is …”oh noooooo” as we all ran to the kitchen to salvage the cake.

Then there were his presents. He opened his mom and dad’s present first. Mommy and Daddy got him a baseball cap so he could look like daddy and they got him a really cool little boy book bag (Aiden has three older sisters. He knows the Disney princesses and fairies by name.) So he puts his ball cap on and daddy helps him put his book bag on and he’s done. Like finished. What other presents? I’m just going to walk around with my cool red cap and little boy book bag on. Y’all go ahead with whatever. Daddy says, “Aiden, look you’ve got another present. Let’s open it.” If he had more than a twenty word vocabulary Aiden would have said, “Yeah, cool. Go ahead, there dad. I’m just going to check myself out in this mirror.”

Papa Hemingway was quoted as saying: “Begin your story as close to the end as possible.” No other author’s words could ring more true. Start big and build bigger until it’s so big, it explodes on the page. Like overfilled balloons. Save the ball cap and little boy book bag for last so the reader can savor every minute of it.

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