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Tag: literature

What They’re Saying

“I started with Lucky Critters and your reading reminded me for all the world of the cadence of Larry Brown reading from his works years ago, one of his first, at a Jackson literary festival. It was when Larry was getting to be noticed.”
Lynn Watkins, journalist, lawyer, Mississippi reader

 LISTEN: “Lucky Critters” :

Terra firma info:

Launch date: Thursday June 27th
Time: 6:00 pm
Location: The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Memphis, TN
What it is: collection of award-winning short stories written and read by the author (me) and made available on CD

Ether info:
Launch date: earlier than June 27th
Time: anytime I choose
Location: on the ethernet
What it is: a collection of award-winning short stories written and read by the author (me) made available on iTunes, YouTube, my blog, email links, podcaster sites, my website – wherever sound is found.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

I am refilling a manuscript with a contest I entered last year at this time. To do so, I must justify the refilling, describing how the manuscript has changed. Thus, I’ve had occasion to review what last year I thought was a nearly complete version of The Bone Trench, this novel I can’t seem to give up on. This earlier version of the manuscript is terrible. This, as my husband would say, makes me happy as a squid.

So much of the time, writing to me seems like slogging through quicksand: lots of hard work with no discernible progress. in this light, encountering something I thought was nearly finished, only to read how thoroughly unfinished it was, could have been very depressing.

Instead, I read the chunks of exposition, the dearth of scene detail, the unnecessary switchbacks in narration, and I rejoiced: I’m making progress!

This euphoria was immediately squelched when I began a simple, final review. How could the character know this person’s name? What was the tiny professor really trying to say? Why on earth did a reference to the Renaissance Project pop up 41 pages in?

Three days later, I (again) felt the manuscript much improved.

Now, here’s the bad news: last year, the terrible version of The Bone Trench was named a short-list finalist in the contest. While this might lead one to conclude I’ve got a really good shot at going higher with a better manuscript, therein lies the problem. I’m secretly a “chicken-counter.” As in, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. I do. I count my biddies before the mama hen has settled her butt on the nest.

So I’m hoping to file the manuscript and forget about it. Just put it out of my mind. Ignore those little peeps. Go work on something else—wasn’t I supposed to be recording my short stories for podcasting?

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Next Big Thing Blog Roll

Thank you to Susan Cushman for including me in this The Next Big Thing Blog Roll project. Susan has been an inspiration to my writing career in many ways, the primary one being her graciousness in inviting me into the writing community. To me—who is so focused on community—her immediate welcome has meant a lot.

Like so many participating in this blog roll, I have multiple projects to choose from: the novel an agent is waiting to re-review once I complete some editing work; the short story collection I’m preparing to podcast; the memoir whose excerpt will be workshopped at the Creative Nonfiction Conference in May in Oxford, Mississippi; the Katrina novel I’m currently writing; the Door of Hope book forthcoming from our weekly writing group of men and women with a personal experience of homelessness; or, the novel that made it to the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Because it’s my blog roll, I’m gonna talk about the Amazon novel. So, even though I feel a bit like Jimmy in The Commitments interviewing himself in the mirror (“Tell us about the early days, Jimmy. How did it all begin?”) here we go:

What is the working title of your book?

The Bone Trench

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Two sources. My first published short story, which appeared in The Pinch, featured Mother Mary (as in the Mother of God) and her guardian angel, Little c. I wanted to return to these two characters, and one day I saw an image of Mother Mary standing beside a trench, peering in. At the bottom of the trench lay eleven skeletons, neatly arranged. This forms the central image of the novel.

What genre does your book come under?

Christian fantasy? This was a hard conclusion to come to (hence the continuing question mark), because the plot line is not going to appeal to those with a more traditional take on Christianity, yet it features Mother Mary and her son, Jesus. Based on the recommendation of Phyllis Tickle, I’m owning it as fantasy.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? ’

I am not much of a moviegoer (see above, quoting a 1991 movie) but Johnny Depp is the acerbic guardian angel, Little c. (When my husband reads this, he’ll say, “Of course he is. You’d say Johnny Depp even if the novel was about nothing but hedgehogs.”)

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Mother Mary and her son, Jesus, return to modern-day Memphis where they bring together the Black and white descendants of an exploitive plantation owner to foil a controversial private prison project and save the world, again.

Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

None of the above. I’m focusing on contests for this book. I started with the granddaddy of them all, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel  Award. The manuscript made it into the second round, based on the following pitch:

The Second Coming isn’t turning out like anyone expected. Jesus, arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, can’t remember why he returned to earth. His Mother Mary, instead of cooperating with God, flies from heaven to save her son. There she learns that the fate of the world depends on an old Delta family with its finger in every economic atrocity from slavery to sharecropping. Oh—and Jesus’s lone disciple is an Elvis fan.

Jesus and Mary arrive to a city split down the middle by a private prison, made worse when bones from the South’s exploitive past are discovered at prison construction sites. The controversy sucks in Jesus and Mother Mary. Of course, Jesus gets arrested. Unexpectedly, he’s pregnant. The Black and white branches of the Delta family—descendants of an exploited sharecropper and the crooked plantation owner—must somehow unite to thwart the prison project. When an earthquake rumbles and lightning flashes, Mother Mary must trust that her son is birthing a new way for us to stay connected in love.

The Bone Trench is a novel that features Jesus, but is hardly religious. The main character is a fantastical Mother of God, but her desire to be a better mother is universal. The circumstances are imagined; the historical truths are all too real. My desire to explore in The Bone Trench America’s repeated willingness to use prisoners for profit was triggered by my own family’s involvement in prison management.

Using a colorful host of characters—living, dead, and everything in between—The Bone Trench offers a message of our redeeming connection to one another. With the irreverent humor of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, the spirituality of Mitch Albom, and the historical accuracy of Roots, The Bone Trench is a wild ride of humor, wisdom, and heart-breaking sadness.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I wrote the first draft of The Bone Trench sitting on the veranda of the Gibson Inn in Apalachicola, Florida. We were there for two weeks. Each afternoon, I’d write, then read my husband what I’d written. When we packed our bags, I was about two-thirds finished with the first draft.

While this is a lovely anecdote (and true) it fails to reflect the unrelenting revisions the manuscript has endured, most of them generated by the comments of amazingly generous volunteer readers who have guided the book from a rough, too-told story (I was reading it out loud! It sounded terrific!) to a fully-realized, socially-conscious novel. I hasten to add that I hold none of these readers responsible for the final product—I have written a controversial book.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

That’s the problem, right? It’s too funny to be C.S. Lewis (she says modestly), too political to be J.R. R. Tolkien. I’m open to, and welcome, suggestions.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I alluded to it in the pitch: my ancestors were on both sides of prison labor issue. One held the management contract for the Arkansas State Prison. In a later generation, my great-grandfather, who served as President Pro Tem of the Mississippi State Senate for 20 years, introduced and championed the legislation outlawing convict leasing in Mississippi. What caused that generational change? I don’t know, but I’ve written a novel in which such a conflicted family holds the key to the future of the world.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The Memphis Pyramid turned into a private prison, Mother Mary hovering over the city of the Blues, Jesus pregnant—what else do they need?

Now What?

Check out the next participants in this very interesting project, The Next Big Thing Blog Roll:

(1) Emma Connolly

I met Emma in Richard Bausch‘s Moss Workshop at the University of Memphis.  We’ve stayed in touch, in part because we share a passion for taking writing to those whose lives don’t have the luxury of waiting for writing to come to them. I can’t wait to read about her Next Big Thing!

(2) Elaine Blanchard

Elaine and I met at a Trinity Institute Conference. Since then, she has three times (!) led workshops at the Door of Hope Annual Community Writers Retreat. I have been a guest in her Prison Stories project wherein I’ve had the pleasure of talking with a prison-based writing group of women, facilitated by Elaine. Elaine is a professional story-teller; I want to hear what she has to say.

(3) Marisa Baker

Marisa and I met through her work with those who have a personal experience of homelessness. She is a wonderful, creative, funny writer. She also makes beautiful handmade books. I have so enjoyed reading her blog; I want to hear which of her many projects she will choose to share with us.

(4) Rick DeStefanis

Rick is one of my long-time gracious readers. He’s guided me through the “I know she’s trying to say something, but dang if I know what it is” phase. He is multi-talented: a wonderful writer and skilled photographer. I’m sending you to his FaceBook page where he’ll talk about his soon-to-be-released Vietnam sniper novel.

These four writers will be sharing with you next Wednesday their upcoming projects, so stay tuned.

peace in creativity, Ellen

It’s only a $9.95 check . . .

At one point, I was on fire to be a published author. I transitioned out of practicing law and began learning how to write. I went to writers conferences (Sewanne for fiction, Kenyon Review for nonfiction). I read goo-gobs of books. I submitted my work to literary journals, keeping a methodical record of what I sent where, who requested more work, what they had liked. I entered contests. All of this led to much publication – essays, short stories, memoirs, magazine articles, radio commentaries – and awards and contests won. But then I stalled.

I couldn’t get anyone interested in publishing my full-length literary works. Not the memoir – yes, we want chapters; no, we don’t want the full memoir. Same thing for the short stories and essays: pieces published all over the place; not the collections. And—no matter how high they’d placed in contests—certainly no one wanted any of my five novels.  

Over the last two years, I’ve quit. I quit submitting, saying it was because I was spending so much time on my novel-writing/revision. I quit attending conferences, telling myself it was because I’d done that; the next thing needed to be something more.

The truth is, I did what my favorite quote says not to do: Never, never, never give up (Winston Churchill). I didn’t give up on writing; I gave up on the writing community. I gave up on them wanting my work and, in a “I can take a hint” reaction, I walked away.

Time for a change. I’ve signed up to go to the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference , put on by my writing friend, Susan Cushman. Even more telling, I’m writing a check to renew my Poets and Writers magazine subscription. The magazine was the first thing published authors told me I needed to do: join the community by taking this magazine. Who knows – so much time has passed, maybe this advice is no longer viable. It doesn’t matter. The check is mostly symbolic. It’s my way of saying, yes, I do want to be part of your community. I intend to get back in the game.

here’s to creative synthesis  . . .

The Uncertainty of Being Southern

As my husband ate a haystack, munching away, I thought about my earlier conversation with the man at the fireplace shop. “Why are they called dog irons?” I asked. I only asked the man this question after walking through his entire 50,000 square foot store and not seeing one dog on the fireplace equipment. He said, “They’re not. They’re andirons.”

Southern corruption, I mused, and kept on trucking. Until I ran into haystacks.

Are they really called haystacks, those little clumps of chocolate and chow mein noodles, or is that another “regional” word . . . like “running buddies” that don’t jog, “church keys” that don’t belong in church, “dopp kits” that a California editor wanted me to remove from my story because he didn’t believe there was any such of a thing as a dopp kit?

Who knows.

Such is my life as a Southerner: tooling along, living with the uncertainty that you may be ignorantly using a word that actually isn’t a word at all. My heritage, immune to four years of college, three years of law school, and untold years of Cheever, Malamud, Tolstoy, Celine, Fuentes, and all the other greats of literature who I’m sure only ever used regionalisms when they fully knew what they were doing.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

A Novel I Love More than Christmas

At Beth’s Bookstore, I slipped a paperback from the shelf. I read the first line. That’s how I chose a book: the first line, then the first paragraph. Sometimes if I’m unsure, I continue further down the page. Then I either buy the book or I put it back.

I’ve been burned using this method—occasionally, a book doesn’t live up to the opening—but not often. This time, “The Revolution of Little Girls,” by Blanche Mccrary Boyd, proved to be a very funny, poignant read.

After I finished reading, I went on-line to learn more about the author and the book. Because the book was published in 1991—pre-on-line dominance—the Amazon reviews were sparse. Of the 9, 3 were negative. On Goodreads, the majority were 3 or below. The novel received enthusiastic reviews when it was released; it won awards. Many on-line commenters, however, did not like its “Southernism,” its structure (“jumps around too much”), its resolution. To me, the major flaw of the novel occurred about 2/3s of the way through, when it actually became too linear, after the author had taught us to expect discreet, non-linear chapters. Still, I thought it wonderful, as so many did not.

I am so glad I had this experience. As a woman on the verge of hiring an editor to get my Southern novel into the marketplace, I needed to see the negative reviews of a novel I thought was hilarious. Earlier, in the course of evaluating potential editors, I’d looked at Amazon reviews on work they’d edited. One author in particular had screechingly negative reviews. I thought that relevant. Now I’m not so sure.

More importantly, this experience has made me comfortable with something I knew intellectually but now embrace: some will like my novel, many will not.

The main thing, therefore, is for ME to like it.

So, in choosing an editor, the determinative question is, which one will help me create a novel I love more than Christmas? Which editor can take this work—which many will not care for—and make it the best the work can be? If I accomplish that, wedging my work into the cadre of writers whom I love, appealing to the readers who like what I like, then I will have been successful.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

At Beth’s Bookstore, I slipped a paperback from the shelf. I read the first line. That’s how I chose a book: the first line, then the first paragraph. Sometimes if I’m unsure, I continue further down the page. Then I either buy the book or I put it back.

I’ve been burned using this method—occasionally, a book doesn’t live up to the opening—but not often. This time, “The Revolution of Little Girls,” proved to be a very funny, poignant read.

After I finished reading, I went on-line to learn more about the author and the book. Because the book was published in 1991—pre-on-line dominance—the Amazon reviews were sparse. Of the 9, 3 were negative. On Goodreads, the majority were 3 or below. The novel received enthusiastic reviews when it was released; it won awards. Many on-line commentors, however, did not like its “Southernism,” its structure (“jumps around too much”), its resolution. To me, the major flaw of the novel occurred about 2/3s of the way through when it actually became too linear, after the author had taught us to expect discreet, non-linear chapters. Still, I thought it wonderful, as so many did not.

I am so glad I had this experience. As a woman considering hiring an editor to get my novel into the marketplace, I needed to see the negative reviews of a novel I thought was hilarious. Earlier, in the course of evaluating potential editors, I’d looked at Amazon reviews on work they’d edited. One author in particular had screechingly negative reviews. I thought that relevant. Now I’m not so sure.

More importantly, this experience has made me comfortable with something I knew intellectually but now embrace: some will like my novel, many will not.

The main thing, therefore, is for ME to like it.

So, in choosing an editor, the question is not, which one will be most likely to get me published? The determinative question is, which one will help me create a novel I love more than Christmas? Which editor can take this work—which many will not care for—and make it the best the work can be? If I accomplish that, wedging my work into the cadre of writers whom I love, appealing to the readers who like what I like, then I will have been successful.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Story Tittle Matters

The title does so much of the initial work of the story. Not only does it establish the tone, it provides the reader with subliminal clues, such as the setting, the plot’s main conundrum, etc. I’ve always known my titles encapsulate the meaning of the story—if you didn’t get the title, I haven’t written the story well enough. But these other things I have only just seen as I read aloud.

Extraneous Characters Need to Go

Occasionally, readers complain about the number of characters in my work—I like a well-populated world. But, when a story is read aloud, you are really forcing the reader to follow a line of thought. The reader has to tuck away information to be retrieved later. If a character they’d had to remember isn’t vital to the story, then you’ve asked them to do a lot of work for nothing, which I don’t think they will appreciate.

My Stories Do NOT All have the Same Voice

Sometimes when I’m considering the stories I’ve chosen to include in this collection, I lump them all together: the funny Southern stories. But when one reads aloud stories written in first person, you assume your character’s personna. The narrators in these stories have different voices. I know this because I can hear it: I read them differently.

Five Years of Reading Radio Commentaries Wasn’t for Naught

I wrote and read commentaries on WKNO for a long time. I learned a “read” story is different from a written story and different from a told story. For some reason, these short stories are good “read” stories. I was smart to decide to podcast them, read aloud.

I Know How to Write a Short Story with a Plot

Reading aloud, you can hear the ping! of the plot points that pique the reader’s interest, that which hooks them in, keeps them going, ear cocked, waiting to find out what happens next. Plot is so not my strong suit. So it’s nice, reading these stories, to hear the hook setting deeper.

The Power of the Delete Button

Often, the first sentence of one of my paragraphs should actually be the last sentence of the prior paragraph. Something in the need to KEEP PEOPLE LISTENING (Don’t hit that delete button just yet!) shows me this. I think it’s the awareness that the last sentence of a paragraph shouldn’t be a hard stop. Rather, as with the end of a chapter, it should lead the reader into the next paragraph. I never saw that until reading aloud.

So, all these hours and hours of reading these stories aloud in order to record a ten minute story, a twenty-one minute story—it’s more valuable than it feels.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

 

I’d been working on the short story for years. An early version was workshopped in Richard Bausch’s Moss Group. Later, the story received an Honorable Mention in the Memphis Magazine Short Fiction Contest. But I’d never successfully placed the story for publication anywhere. That’s because it wasn’t right.

“Ain’t No Commies ‘Round Here,” is included in The Vagrant Nature of Love collection. I’m currently reading all the stories aloud and timing them, in my pie-in-the-sky idea that I will podcast the readings, making the stories available to folks who don’t usually read short stories. Ten of the stories have been published in literary journals but, for those that haven’t been, I’m revising as I read aloud.

This brought me back to “Ain’t No Commies.”

The story involves an uncle, a nephew and a living wage ordinance. It begins with a bang—the child is saved from dying—then settles into a good story of a reunion when the nephew is a young man. The problem with its drafting arose in the last two pages of the story, inside the lesson the uncle learns from their encounter.

A while back I realized the dilemma. Some of the stories in the collection masquerade as relationship stories, when their true point is justice-oriented—a young grocery clerk starving in the land of plenty. I thought “Ain’t No Commies” was such a story. It isn’t. The meat of this story is the relationship; the living wage is the vehicle. My mentor, Rebecca McClannahan, called this phenomenon, “The thing and the other thing.” The thing being what is happening on the surface; the other thing being the emotional movement beneath the story. I had the two switched.

So, today, when I read, I went to work again. Hours later, I clicked my timer and began reading aloud. When I arrived at the last two pages, my voice cracked. “Buck up, you fool!” I told myself. But it just got worse. That’s how I knew I’d finally nailed it: when you’ve worked on something for years and know full well what is going to happen next, yet you’ve drafted it in such a way that the words make still you cry, you’ve hit the sweet spot of the story.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

As irrefutable proof of my ingrained belief that the problem must be mine, I retained the title, description, and target audience given to me by a former agent whom an editor said was not marketing my novel correctly. That period is over.

Old Title: Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium

New title: Don Chickote: Or the Strange Adventures of Lucinda Mae Watkins on the Train 

Old Description: a Southern “train trip” novel

New description: The daughter of a fast food chicken magnate hits the rails in a wild ride across America to restore her dead daddy’s rightful place in fried chicken lore.

Old Audience: Fannie Flagg lovers

New audience: Those who mourn the demise of “The Flight of the Conchords.” Who think Darnell was the funniest character on “My Name is Earl.” Who follow Bubbles on “Trailer Park Boys,” who sing along to Beck’s “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”  Anyone who thinks the funniest movie ever made was the one where Johnny Depp wore the fake arm. Readers whose favorite hardback is, “All My Friends are Dead,” who can quote Douglas Adams by heart. Those who don’t understand when you call it “quirky”—it’s just funny.

New secondary audience: devotees of all things chicken

OK. I”m still working on it. The point is, it will be mine this time. Rise or fall, sink or swim, give or take—it will be my sensibilities. Such as they are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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