Monday, September 30, 2019

Banned Books & Censored Writing



We just finished Banned Book Week at the public libraries. This is always an interesting event to spotlight the list of brilliant literature banned at some point in the books’ existence. Banned for the language, the description, the characters, the plot, and/or the ideas the authors conveyed. The small-minded and fearful censors fall into history as the bad guys of the Banned Books’ narratives.

But what about the everyday suggestions to ordinary (non-NYT Best Selling) authors to curb what we write? Off-handed comments from those closest to us: “That one scene is too risqué for me to tell my friends to read your book.” “I liked the story, but the language didn’t need to be that harsh.” “Does the character HAVE to be involved in a three-way?”

Image result for censorYes, yes the character HAS to be who he is, and no, it’s not me. Life is harsh, crude, coarse, skinned, and blistering. Not all authors have Hallmark movies dancing in their heads. There is a market for Hallmark movie plots. For that, we’re grateful. But, Truth frees the soul, and needs to find the page, even though exposing it is not profitable.

A couple of years ago, Rita Mae Brown headlined the Williamsburg Book Festival. She is one of the authors who inspired me to write when I was young. At William & Mary that evening, she talked about how telling the truth is not always easy for a writer. She admitted she writes her cozy/cat mysteries for the income they provide. Her classic (and probably banned in many places) Rubyfruit Jungle changed lives because she spoke her truth. Many readers recognized themselves in her characters.
'Rita Mae Brown & me at the 2016 Williamsburg Book Festival. She's smart, welll-read, funny, opinionated, and so much fun. She even kissed me on the cheek!'

In the audience, I heard people behind me say, “She just had to bring up Rubyfruit Jungle. I love her Sneaky Pie Brown series. She should just talk about that.”

Everyday censors.

We all do it if we know it or not. Maybe I’m trying to inhibit comforting stories. I know we need a variety of tones and storytellers. Reading is like diet – steak, hamburger, corndogs, or chicken soup (sorry, vegans) can all be enjoyable options throughout the week. Let writers chew some steak from time to time.

My message to other writers and to myself:
When someone denounces all or part of a work, it has touched a nerve. You have told the truth for story and character and situation. The attempted censor bristled at the authenticity, the candor, and the concrete facts you have exposed. Well done. Get banned.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Shadow Resident at the Martha Washington Inn...


Shadow Resident at the Martha Washington Inn... 

I workout at the Martha's spa/exercise facilities. Usually I arrive before sunrise so I can get it finished before I start work. I like to walk to the Martha in the early morning and then do strength training with the LifeFitness machines. Those are in a small room with glass windows on three sides and the fourth side is ancient brick from one of the original buildings (late 1800s).

Half way through the routine, I noticed a movement against the brick - a shadow.

In an instant it was gone.

Did an eyelash cause that? I brushed at my eyes, but nothing seemed different. I said "hello" and asked her name, "Lennie" is what came into my mind, and I continued my routine.

I'm not a person to discount a haint experience, especially at the Martha with its history of the Martha Girls and Barter Theatre actors and all the guests who have traveled through creaky hallways.

Maybe the shadow was just a loose eyelash or a trick of the rising sun. But, I like to think I have a partner making sure I get the workout done, urging me to show up on a regular basis, keeping me company...or me keeping her company during those lonely pre-dawn hours.

I hope Lennie tells me some stories.

Friday, July 12, 2019

New Book - STRAY


My new novel tells the story of a long-time Washington County, Virginia family and the disappearance of the seventh son thirty years ago. 

The story developed as I thought about my own family and the dynamics between my father and my uncles and grandfather. In the book, Taliesin MacGuire promises his grandmother he will discover why his father left thirty years ago and never returned to his family. Time is the enemy in this tale. Time erases memories and paper trails of daily lives.

I incorporate Scots-Irish legends in the names of the characters, which shadow the characters’ personalities. Along with the old-country lore, I have a trace of very early American history. Subplots emerge from the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island in 1587 and the Virginia witch trials of early the 1700s.

This is the most personal book I’ve written. Our own family legend was the day my father moved out – his first step toward the eventual divorce. He disappeared. That stays with a 13-year-old son. I knew this story would emerge in my writing at some point.

Settings are very important in my writing. This story focuses on Virginia with locations like Bristol and Abingdon, along with Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, and the North Carolina Outer Banks. These are places I love. I have lived in these locations or have attachments there. I set my stories in real places and let the characters reflect the sense of place and time.

The story’s fictional family resides between Bristol and Abingdon with the main characters showing up in locations all around the area. At the Bristol Public Library in April 2011, I held a book signing for a previous novel and moderated a discussion on how to use setting as a character. Those notes sparked the sense of place in STRAY.





Advanced Praise



Greg Lilly’s entertaining tragedy starts with a threesome in Bristol and ends with a dead body in the water off the coast of the Outer Banks. Thankfully, Lilly has taken his own character’s advice who tells a failing Nashville musician to sing about drinking and hurting. I enjoyed this Irish tale part detective story and part thriller. Lilly kept me entertained throughout and had me hurrying to get to the last page.
- William J. Torgerson, author of The Coach’s Wife, Horseshoe, and Love on the Big Screen


You’ll never meet a more intriguing cast of characters: seven sons twice over, a probing, sexually-fluid musician, a persistent grandmother, a seer, an uncommon doctor, a womanizer and the women he leaves behind. Add to that an accused witch, a half-breed and a hero by the name of Thistle.  Stray takes you from the hills of Virginia to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, masterfully back and forth through time—all in search of solving a decades-old mystery with scant clues and no remains to be found.
- Sally Stiles, author of Plunge!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Leave A Little Mystery

"Reality" shows, Twitter, FB posts, and Kanye West rants have taught us every thought that pops into our minds should be verbalized in public -- to as many people as possible.

What happened to keeping some things to ourselves?
Sure, I'm writing a blog entry that expresses my opinion. An opinion that some things should be kept in our own minds. That's what an internal editor is for: to stop the stupid stuff from coming out.

Same with writing. You can write all the things that pop in your head, but it doesn't go directly to the public. I don't hit the POST or SEND button until I take a breath and reread the message. Is it something to be shared? Can it benefit the reader?

Back in the 1980s, e-mail was mainframe-based, and once I pushed the keyboard's F10 button, the message was gone. I learned early to consider exactly what was written, what was shared, what my name was attached to.

Maybe that's why writing a manuscript takes me so long -- well, that and having to make a living writing other things. 

A first, I thought I would love the freedom of blasting off a thought on movies, music, politics, books, or gee, even television. But then I read what others posted and realized my opinion is really only interesting to me. 

So, like writing a book, life can use a little mystery, a bit of suspense, or some subtlety.

Wait, weren't the 50 Shades of Grey books big sellers -- those must have been coy and demure to have captured so many people's imagination.



Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rush to Publish

I'm reading a mystery that is exquisite in its writing, plotting, characterization, and I'm willing to bet that most people have never heard of it. Okay, he was a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist for the book, so that's not a great bet.
I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts as a representative for a small publishing house, the organizer of a book festival, and the presenter of workshops on writing and publishing. I talk to publishers and agents and writers and readers. We agree that the technology boom that introduced the ease of self-publishing has created a segment of books that aren't crafted.
Crafted means the writer learned the mechanics of writing, spent time going through multiple revisions honing the elements of a well-told story, worked with an editor to get a fresh set of eyes on everything from the plot's structure to the placement of each comma.
As I read Lee Martin's The Bright Forever, I'm amazed by his skill and his art of storytelling.
When I read query letters from agents and aspiring writers, I'm less amazed by some of the samples pages submitted. I admit there are gems among the rocks, but just a few.
I guess it has always been that way. I cringe when I think of the things I submitted ten years ago. Then, self publishing was around, but it was very expensive – like $10,000 expensive. Today, a manuscript can be made into a book $300 - $4,999 depending on services the author buys.
These lower costs mean more people jump into self-publishing.

Why self-publish a novel?
You have a story you want to share that may not have a wide appeal, but is worth telling. Yes.
You wrote a manuscript, tried to query agents and publishers without success, and now want – really want – to have a finished product in your hand. Frustration in the process of traditional publishing is not the best reason to self-publish.

Writing is not about the physical book and informing your dry cleaner that you're a published author.
Writing is a verb. It's the process that is important. Results may vary, but an author must love writing.

The rush to publish is a waste of time, energy, and money.

Self-publishing companies decorate their websites with accounts of authors making millions and landing on the New York Times Best-Sellers list. Why? To entice an aspiring writer into the dream of fame and fortune, and to collect as many upfront fees as possible. IT'S A BUSINESS.

Readers become disillusioned by poorly-crafted novels. So, they tend to stick to the name-brands in novels because new authors have burned them in the past. That's a disservice to all serious writers.
Big names and personalities gather crowds. I see this at book festivals and conferences. The authors with cleavage, the 1970s sitcom actors, and the writers with the game show host personality draw crowds. The writer/craftsman sits alone. After the books are written, edited, and published, it's marketing – a completely different skill set than writing – that's important. So, yes, those highlighted CreateSpace authors may sell well.
I realize that not every writer produces a Pulitzer Prize finalist-worthy book – I know I don't. But I'm working on the craft by writing constantly.
For those of us who are not celebrities, not pretty or sexy, or not followed by 80,000 Twitter citizens, we stay in front of our computers, writing and searching out opportunities to improve our skills.
Today, I'm looking at ways to bring serious learning opportunities on the craft and art of writing. I'd love to hear where other authors struggle. Set aside the topics of publishing, marketing, selling books for a while – that's the business side. I want to learn more about the art of writing, because that's why I do this.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Top Five Ways an Editor is Worth the $$

As the publisher for a small independent publishing house and as an editor for a magazine, I see drafts of manuscripts submitted by writers that illustrate the need for an editor.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, but editing is a collaboration – and an essential stage in the publishing process.
Nothing screams "amateur" more than a meandering, error-ridden manuscript.
An editor is important for authors trying to land a literary agent or a publishing contract, but for a self-publishing author, hiring an editor is vital. Agents and publishing houses will edit the incoming manuscript several times including using the in-house editors to make sure the work is the best it can be. A self-published author shouldn't go through the process alone.  A professional editor is a partner in crafting the story for a novel you will be proud to have your name on.

Here are the top five reasons to engage a professional editor:

1 – Developmental editing

No matter how many times you read and edit your book, there will be omissions in the plot structure. You know the characters and their motivations and where they need to be in the next chapter, so if you failed to write it, your mind supplies it for you. All the thinking and dreaming about the story, the advanced planning and the backstory plotting work against you in editing.

While developing the initial drafts, critique groups are great. Once you feel the manuscript is perfect, that's when you need the experience of an editor to bring a fresh look to the development of the storyline and the character arcs.

This is not a job for spouses or friends. You need someone who understands the mechanics of creating strong plots and the characters who move it forward.

2 – Kill your darlings

The phrase "kill your darlings" is usually credited to William Faulkner, but I have heard it from fine art painters, fiction writers, poets and even architects.

As a creator of a work, you will find some parts that are your favorites: a cleaver turn of a phrase, a saucy metaphor, an ingenious character name, or a whiplash plot twist. Writers fall in love with their own creations.
When that happens, you are reluctant to change it (or worse, delete it) when it doesn't contribute to the whole work. An editor will see these elements that may be fabulous on their own, but not pulling their weight in the manuscript.

3 – Revision reassurance

You decide to add a subplot or delete a darling character. Did it work? Did your revisions mess up other parts of the book? It could be one last minute change that cascaded throughout the work.

I saw this many years ago by a New York Times best-selling author who claimed she didn't want editors changing her books.  In the jungles of Brazil, a character was called Jack.  Jack? What happened to Christopher? One hundred pages into the story and suddenly Jack is walking in another character's footsteps. Three pages later, Jack was gone and the character was once again referred to as Christopher.
Revisions need to be checked for their effect on the unchanged sections.

4 – Line editing: grammar/punctuation

You know that you make fun of people on Facebook who post things like: "Between you and I,…" or "Leah and me offer good advice."

Do you know the difference between: there, their, they're or two, to, too? Not every great storyteller is a grammar king/queen.  If you're not, engage an editor who is. Nothing will put off a reader like finding a word usage mistake. After all, you represented yourself as a professional. The reader paid hard-earned money for the book.  You wouldn't tolerate a plumber who left a few leaks behind, just because they're so hard to find.

5 – Education

Doing is learning. Every time I have had one of my own books edited or worked with an editor to edit another writer's manuscript for Cherokee McGhee, I learn. I learned to use a semicolon successfully. I learned that a character cannot laugh a sentence ("You're not serious," Jean laughed). I learned that a mystery novel's sleuth cannot pull clues from thin air – the clue must be mentioned (or planted) before she discovers it. 

The process of revising a manuscript under the guidance of an editor is one of the best writing classes you will ever take.


An editor is an objective person who wants the manuscript to be the best it can be. She will tell you if it is ready for the public or if it still needs some polishing. Authors accepted for publication with a publishing house will have an editor assigned to them. Self-published authors can choose an editor.  Either way, the editor has the same goal as you: developing, revising, and perfecting your work for the enjoyment of the reading public.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Novel structure & pace via Kindle

I'm reading a book I wouldn't ordinarily read. This author is a NYT Best Seller. I wasn't drawn to the story, but I wondered what it was that made him soooo popular -- a bit of story analysis on my part.

Here is the Kindle progress bar:

Since I'm only 13% in, I can't say how I like the story. But the thing I noticed was the chapter lengths of the book, which can be a clue to pacing.

Kindle's progress bar shows a graphical representation of the book's length with a dot at the beginning of each chapter.

For a "big picture" person like me, this is great.

I see that the story has a fairly uniform length of chapters up to middle. [The part of the story where plot and characters are being established.]

Then things get quick. [Building to the main conflict.]

The chapter lengths vary after that until nearing the end when the chapters get shorter (and probably the pace speeds up). [The plot climax and resolution.]

This is a handy tool for writers to analyze plot construction from the masters.


My field guide to the writer's life has more on plot: