Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting There One Kick in the Butt at a Time

This evening, I'm working on my application for Hedgebrook, a women's writing residency on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Thought I'd share my answer to one of the questions on the application. Now you have some insight to how I became a fiction writer!

Who or what has influenced or inspired you and your writing?

I wasn’t one of those girls who knew at age six that she wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up – except a thousand miles from the town of 1,200 where I lived. Then, several teachers throughout my junior and high school years suggested I try writing as a profession. They were adults. They knew more than I did about life. So after graduation, I decided to pursue a journalism degree… only to have a well-respected writer from Texas Monthly magazine (who happened to live in my tiny hometown of 1,200 people) tell me I didn’t need a ‘goddamn j-school degree.’ He said to study political science or philosophy or go see the world instead. Alas, I ignored his advice, finished up j-school and became a reporter. For the next two decades of my career I continued as a nonfiction writer and editor, working for national nonprofits and the United Nations.

Up until 2009, fiction was something I read. I didn’t want to write fiction. No way. No how. Well, until the Universe smacked me on the head one day with an idea and told me to sit my butt down at the computer and write.

I protested: “I have a day job. I didn’t have time for this foolishness. I don’t know anyone else who writes fiction!” To stop my whining, the Universe introduced me to AROHO, or A Room of Her Own Foundation. It said, “Go to the desert and make nice with other writers. It’ll be good for you.” So, I showed up at Ghost Ranch in August 2009 for my first AROHO women’s writer retreat. I met 80 women with niggly voices in their heads calling them to write poetry, plays, short stories, novels. Together, we took classes from women who’d been published, who’d made it as “real” writers. We told them our fears and they wrapped their collective arms around us and told us to be brave, to listen closely to the voices, and of course, to sit our butts down and write.

At that retreat, I met two women who went on to shape the next two years of my writing life more than anyone or anything else:

  • Flash fiction writer Pamela Painter introduced me to the “short form” and I fell in love with telling stories using a brevity of words. I had two pieces published that next fall in literary journals and then had proof that yes, indeed, I write fiction.

  • A literary agent (who shall remain anonymous) critiqued the first chapter of my novel in progress. She said it was trite with clich├ęd characters, and too dark to be marketable. That evening, I sat alone in the desert, watching a brilliant lightning storm and crying my eyes out. I’d tasted rejection for the first time and I survived. Little did I know how much rejection awaited me…the fiction writer.

As my nephew told me recently. "Mandy, you can't not write. It's who you are. Trying to imagine a different kind of life is giving up."
Please tell me about that person, place or thing that influenced you are today...or who you want to be in the future!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Spying, Eavesdropping and Other Techniques for Location Research

Last year, I met an interesting writer named Jeff Posey. At the time, he was the chief organizer of the Dallas Fort Worth Writers' Conference. I soon found out he's familiar with Southwest Colorado, and even plans to move to Pagosa Springs one day, a community just 45 minutes from where I live in Durango.

Because we both recently conducted location research for our novels in progress, we thought we'd have an online 'chat' and then share our insights with other writers (and anyone else interested in our writing journeys). Below is an excerpt and then a link to the full 'chat.' Please forward to any writers you think would be interested!


Don’t you wonder sometimes whether we’re truly the writers — or whether there’s a secret galactic box somewhere that just uses us to tell stories?

I know what you mean by stories latching on to us. I’d doggedly hiked nearly every trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southern Colorado (near you in Durango), but I’d avoided all the ancient Anasazi ruins in that part of the world because I thought they’d be boring.

Then on a trip with my son to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area between Durango and Pagosa Springs, this boy ran across our path. I put my hand out to keep my son from running into him. The boy was a figment of my imagination, of course. A figment I couldn’t shake. Hence my surrender to the grip of the galactic box that wanted me to write Anasazi historical fiction.

I just returned from Pagosa Springs on a book research trip. I took a class in making authentic Anasazi pottery (see more here: Ancient Arts Chimney Rock Workshop). I find myself looking mostly for experiences, sensual input I guess. Do you do that as well? Do you intentionally seek out a place, perhaps at a certain time or date, just to see what it feels like?

I absolutely believe in something like that secret galactic box 'choosing' us to be the vessel for the story that needs to be told. I had titles for all three books come to me in a very out-of-body woo-woo way, and I just had to say, "Okay. I'll get started..."

I love the idea of 'sensual input' in regards to research. That's exactly how it felt in Opelika. The story takes place in July and I visited in July so I experienced first-hand how very uncomfortable the heat and humidity are -- for me and my characters. I ate the food -- Southern, deep-fried, comforting, artery-clogging, digestion-challenging. I drank sweet tea and sat in neighborhoods, looking at houses where I thought my characters might live. I made sure I noted when the sun set, when the mosquitoes and crickets came out, how hot it was at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m., the driving distance between different places. I listened to that lilting, captivating accent of the region.

By the end I was exhausted from being so hyper-vigilant. I might have tried to absorb too much in a three-day trip. But the book will be different, better because of this trip.

I'm wondering if anything surprising came from your research? Something that stopped you short, something you knew had to be part of your book.

Oh, yeah. Slapped me into a dead stop for a few seconds: Shining White Greathouse at Chimney Rock. I’ve been on the tours maybe a dozen times, but somehow the mental image escaped me until this trip. You know that beautiful stonework we associate with the Anasazi? Those stones the sizes of loaves of bread with smaller stones shoved between them in courses? The Anasazi covered that up with white plaster. Imagine walking from Chaco Canyon (90 miles as a crow flies) to Chimney Rock and seeing that shining white building high on the tilted mesa.

I know exactly what you mean by the exhaustion of hyper-vigilance in doing site reconnaissance. I climbed Pagosa Peak’s southwestern face to see if a bunch of boys in my novel could build and light a bonfire there that could be seen from Chimney Rock. It’s a rugged place. Building a bonfire wouldn’t be easy, but could definitely be done. Imagining my characters there wore me out as much as the hike and climb.

I love the details you describe and that you captured. I tried taking notes, but that seemed to fail me. I took lots of snapshots. Otherwise, I just rely on memory to tell me the things I need to remember.

READ THE FULL CONVERSATION, including the Top Three Pieces of Advice for Location Research!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Virtually Impossible to Feel Alone

Recently, a friend asked if I feel isolated as a writer. I do at times, because I’m one of those “in your head” people in the first place. I feel most isolated when I struggle to explain to non-writer friends why I put up with rejection, self doubt and a rapidly changing, and often times, subjective industry. Or, when I try to describe the exhilaration of a great writing day or an agent request for chapters.
That’s why it’s so important for me to connect with other writers, even if that’s virtually. My connections to the following folks have been organic. The Universe must be hard at work because I didn’t go looking for these awesome supports. While I have lots of local support, this is my “Around the World” list of people who have shaped my writing life.

  • Tracy – a writer in North Carolina introduced to me via our common friend, Deb (my former Goodwill colleague). Tracy has been an invaluable beta reader and all-around cheerleader.

  • Jeff – the 2011 director of the Dallas Fort Worth Writers Conference who happened to notice my email is DurangoWriter. That sparked his interest because he owns land in Pagosa Springs, just a short 45-minute drive from here. We recently collaborated on a virtual “chat” about what it’s like to do research for our novels on location. And he wears cool fedoras.

  • Kat B. – an American writer living in Japan who sponsored a critique contest as a clean water fundraiser. I entered the contest and we began to exchange emails. I learned we share a love of baking as well as writing. Even, halfway around the world, she has offered support in so many ways.

  • Christi – my college roommate living in the UK who reconnected with me via Facebook after almost 25 years. Besides giving me the most awesome feedback on my first novel, she inspires me with her writing. Her debut novel, Night School, comes out in early January. I wish I could be there for LAUNCH DAY. And her husband is pretty darn fun to follow on Twitter.

  • The four authors who started a free online writers’ conference called WriteOnCon – These ladies do this on their own time without compensation! They put thousands of writers around the world in touch with each other and with industry pros. Just this week, at the second annual WriteOnCon, I got a request from an agent to see three chapters and a synopsis after I participated in a virtual pitch session.

  • AuthoressAnon – This amazing woman remains anonymous but she’s single-handedly created a unique pitch contest that links writers with agents EVERY MONTH. She also coordinates something called the Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction, where writers can submit the first 250 words of their novels for 13 agents to peruse. My entry this month has received some positive reviews from fellow writers and from the agent reviewing the snippets. Thank you, Authoress!

  • The writers whose blogs inspire me to push forward – Tawna Fenske, Anne Riley, Kiersten White, Mandy Hubbard, Rebecca E., and many others too numerous to mention.

So, yes, I do feel isolated at times. But I don’t have to, as long as I have an Internet connection…and make an effort to get out of my own head.
What kinds of virtual connections have YOU made?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A World That's Touch and Go?

I love when three seemingly random occurrences suddenly gel as an aha! moment. The theme today is tangibility, as in “that which can be discerned by touch.”

Here are the occurrences that started me on the tangibility tangent.

  • My musician friend Tim just self-released a CD and my copy arrived in the mail last week. I held it in my hand and thought, “Wow. This is for friggin’ real.” I put it in my car CD player and whoa, there’s Tim playing guitar and singing his heart out.
  • A work colleague sent me some black and white photos of spectacular scenery at Dinosaur National Park in Colorado. They were Ansel Adams quality works. I found out that he lugs around tons of camera equipment and still uses FILM. That’s right – no digital camera for Mark. He even has his own darkroom.
  • I bought my nephew Hunter a Kindle for helping me with some home improvement projects this summer. We had an interesting talk on printed books versus e-books – particularly what will it be like for him to teach comparative literature one day at the university level. Will his students even use printed books?

My next thought was “I sure hope my first book gets published before print books go the way of the dinosaurs and become museum oddities.”

That gut-level reaction spoke to the need (desire?) to hold something solid in hands so I could shout, “Here’s my book! Lookie! I’m published!” Wouldn’t I still be published if the book was only available electronically?

Most of the books I read now are e-books. I rarely buy CDs because I download most of my music to an iPod nano. I use a digital camera for all my photography and “store” photographs on the computer instead of in albums or boxes in the closet.

I have no doubt that Tim’s music would have been just as amazing as a download, or that Mark could use a fancy digital camera to take the same breath-taking photos.

We live in the digital age and most of us are pretty comfortable with that notion on a day to day basis. And my “aha” moment is that I’m okay with e-publishing if that’s what’s meant to be. I’m curious what you think. Is our world becoming less tangible bit by bit, or will our notion of tangibility just need to morph?