Category Archives: writing

Critique versus Criticism

One of the things that happens as a writer is you are subject to other people’s comments and opinions. Those opinions can either be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

If you want to be a writer, there is no way around the critique process if you want to grow and improve.

However, I’ve discovered there is a significant difference between critique and criticism.

Courtesy of Creative Commons ~ NiKol

The Difference between Critique and Criticism*

  • Criticism finds fault/Critique looks at structure
  • Criticism looks for what’s lacking/Critique finds what’s working
  • Criticism condemns what it doesn’t understand/Critique asks for clarification
  • Criticism is spoken with a cruel wit and sarcastic tongue/Critique’s voice is kind, honest, and objective
  • Criticism is negative/Critique is positive (even about what isn’t working)
  • Criticism is vague and general/Critique is concrete and specific
  • Criticism has no sense of humor/Critique insists on laughter, too
  • Criticism looks for flaws in the writer as well as the writing/Critique addresses only what is on the page

I have experienced both. Thankfully, the critiques I have received thus far have been helpful whereas criticism has had the opposite effect.

Critiquing is positive and constructive while criticizing is negative and counterproductive. We must be thoughtful in our approach in critiquing others. We must be mindful of the spirit behind what we say as well as how we say it.

We all have opinions. We all have our likes and dislikes. However, we must be responsible as writers when we are critiquing people’s work. We must be able to step back and read the work from an objective standpoint.

We also have to keep in mind there are ways to communicate and get our points across without being curt, mean or snarky.

I cringe when I think of novice writers who possess talent and have potential but give up because of receiving a nasty critique. It shouldn’t happen.

The whole purpose of critiquing is to help the writer along in developing their story, not to tear it down or criticize it.

Critiquing is a skill that every writer should be required to learn how to do properly and effectively.

*Taken from Writing Alone, Writing Together; A Guide for Writers and Writing Groups by Judy Reeves

A Slow Death

As I gazed at the landscape that was once plush green, thoughts ricocheted like bullets in my mind.

I wondered how leaves changed from being green to brown, orange, red and yellow.

They change and transform by a slow death.

Courtesy of Creative Commons

The result is from the breakdown of chlorophyll, due to the changes in the length of daylight and temperature. The leaves stop their food-making process. The chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible and give the leaves part of their splendor.

God is the master artist weaving a beautiful tapestry in nature with the ebb and flow of leaves, seasons, tides, births and deaths.

Watching the leaves turn reminds me of God’s power and my fragility, His strength and my weakness, His immortality and my mortality.

In reality, we are all fallen leaves, dying a slow death.

For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” James 4:17

Interview with Jim Woods

In 2012, I had the pleasure of connecting with Jim Woods on Twitter and then meeting him in person at Jon Acuff‘s Quitter Conference held in Nashville. Jim was so kind, encouraging and gracious toward me. I’ve witnessed his growth as a writer and I am honored to be interviewing him.

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1) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I think it was when I wrote a report in the fourth grade. I was really into nature and I wrote about snakes. I realized how much fun it could be to do research and then telling a story about my findings.

2) How did you develop the confidence to find your voice as a writer?

I think it was more through practice and trial and error. That being said, writing how you talk is always a great place to start.

3) Were there any books you read that helped shape and mold you as a writer?

Absolutely! I love Steven Pressfield‘s Do The Work and War of Art. Also, I have a lot of fiction influences: Edgar Allen Poe, Elmore Leonard and J.D. Salinger.

3) What did you do before you transitioned into being a full-time writer?

I was an accountant for over 15 years. That’s hard to believe now!

4) How long did the process take? What steps did you take in making your dream a reality?

About three years. It was a long long three years. Writing as much as possible, networking, going to conferences, meeting as many people for coffee as possible.

5) Now that you have succeeded, what is it like being on the other side of the rainbow? Has it been anything like you had imagined?

It’s like a good struggle, like when you’re tired after working really hard. You’re exhausted, but at the same time very satisfied.

To answer your other question, it’s harder than I thought it would be. It can be hard to unplug from the work.

6) What does your writing process look like?

I like to watch my work as much as possible. I am a momentum-based emotional writer so I like to find some easy wins and then go from there.

7) What is the hardest thing about being a full-time writer?

It’s pretty lonely and rejection comes with the territory.

8) How do you encourage yourself to keep going?

I talk to other writers and learn from them. Whatever the circumstance, it is very likely that someone else can relate.

9) Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

I just want to work with good people and keep telling good stories.

10) Are you working on any new projects?

About a month ago I created an event called the Finish Your Book Summit where I interviewed 16 authors who have written over 100 books. It’s still live, so you can access the interviews by going to finishyourbooksummit.com.

11) What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Don’t be afraid to start out slowly. Build a good writing habit—even if it is just for 5 minutes a day. Over time you’ll build momentum and see serious results!

Thank you for a wonderful interview, Jim.

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Jim Woods is a freelance writer, author, author assistant, and writing coach that loves to help others tell better stories. You can connect with him at jimwoodswrites.com.

Interview with Andi Cumbo-Floyd

Once again, I am excited to be interviewing one of my mentors, Andi Cumbo-Floyd. It’s been five years since I’ve last interviewed her. I first connected with Andi on Twitter in 2012, and have had the pleasure of following her ever since. She is an amazing writer, editor, coach and much more. If you have not read her blog posts or any of her books, I would highly recommend that you do.

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1) What are the things you wished you had known when you were finding your way as a writer?

I wish I had known that the better part of a writer’s life is about discipline and perseverance and much less about talent or inspiration or affirmation. I wish I had known that showing up at the page and doing the work would be reward in and of itself and that avoiding that work would weigh far more heavily than the weight of actually doing it.

2) Could you describe your writing process?

Sure. On the days when mothering and editing allow me time to write, I sit down with a book of poetry and a journal. I read one or two poems, and I watch for the line that most stands out to me for whatever reason. Then, I copy over that line into my journal and start writing with that line. Sometimes I write about what the line brings up, and sometimes, I begin working on my work in progress.  Either way, these few handwritten pages help me drop into the place of creativity and leave the rest of my world behind for a bit.

Then, I transition over to the computer and write 1,000 words on my work in progress.

3) Has becoming a mother changed the way you write?

The most obvious change is that I have far less time to futz around before getting to work. Since I am my son’s primary caregiver and since I also work full-time, I have to get right down to work when I have time to do the writing, which isn’t every day anymore.

But it’s also made me a little less precious with my words, a little less willing to stay on the surface. I go deep and quickly. Sometimes that means my writing is more raw. Sometimes, it means it takes me more time to find what I really need to say.

4) What is “voice” and how do you develop it? How did you find yours?

Voice is, as I see it, just a fancy way of saying the way a writer sounds on the page. It’s a combination of the way a writer says things – sentence structure, vocabulary, dialect – and also what they say about what topics. I found mine – as I think all writers do – through practice. I wrote, read what I wrote (often out loud), and felt what read as most genuine to who I am. Then, I just kept practicing until more of what I wrote sounded like more of me.

5) How does a writer arrive at knowing what they should write (i.e., non-fiction, fiction) and what genre?

I don’t like the word “should” about most things in life, but particularly about writing.  There is no “should” about what a writer writes. It’s all about preference and about what we have to say about things. But there is nothing that any one person should or should not write. There’s only what we want – maybe sometimes need – to write.

6) In your experience, what is the most important aspect in becoming a professional writer?

Discipline and perseverance.  Doing the work.  That’s it.

7) I find most great authors, which includes you, hold Master’s degrees. Do you believe a writer needs a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree to succeed in writing good stories? If not, why do most great authors go through the process of a college education? What do you believe is the key to becoming a successful writer or author when someone doesn’t have a college degree?

Thanks, Pilar. I got a degree in writing because I needed a credential to teach writing, and I got that credential. . . but more, I learned discipline and to write to a deadline. I learned about critique and writing regularly. I learned how to give and receive criticism. I learned some things about craft, too.  But none of those things require a degree. Anyone can learn all of them through writing groups or online communities, through partnerships with other writers, or through a solid, self-imposed discipline toward writing.

And I would say that I don’t know that most authors do get a degree, at least not a degree in writing. Some of us do, but many, many writers I know have no college degree in writing and almost none have graduate degrees in writing. I know a writer who has a chemistry degree and another who works by day as a software developer. A degree isn’t necessary at all. It’s just a construct that helps us learn discipline and some of the tools in a concentrated way.

8) When you mentor and encourage others to write a thousand pages a day, what does that look like? Does journaling count? Or does the writing have to be something specific like working on a short story, novel or memoir?

A 1,000 words a day.  (Not a thousand pages. 🙂 )  Shawn Smucker suggested I try that, and it works well for me. For me, 1,000 words is pretty much all I have time for these days. So sometimes those words go toward a blog post, sometimes toward an interview like this one, sometimes toward my work in progress. Billy Coffey suggested that – the discipline of writing 1,000 words of anything a day is key, not necessarily what you write.

9) Do you consider listening to audiobooks reading? Do you believe there is a difference between reading physical books versus electronic or audiobooks for a writer?

I do think listening to audiobooks is reading, a different form of reading but reading nonetheless. The difference is in how we take in the story, but both are really valid ways of accessing stories. In audio, we listen to the way the sentences move on the page, to the trip of language, and while we do some of that when we read on the page, we are also more focused on the visual layout – paragraph length, the shape of the words visually (or via touch if we read in Braille.)  Neither is better or worse. They are just different ways of spending time with story.

10) You are an author, blogger, vlogger, editor, farmer, mother, etc. You have successfully achieved and attained so much in your life. What’s next? What are your goals now?

I have been given a lot of gifts in life, and one of my main goals is to steward them well. So that means making my family a priority in a new way now that Milo is with us. But it also means figuring out how to do that and still be responsible to my clients and readers . . . and to myself. I would not be a healthy person if I didn’t write, so one of my main goals is to figure out how to mother and still write.

11) I finished reading your latest book, Love Letters To Writersand I am now reading Discover Your Writing SelfBoth books are wonderful and encouraging. Are you working on anything new?

I am, but I’m not talking about it publicly yet. I’ve found that I need to let my books have some silence around them, especially at the beginning, so I’ll be saying more about that around my spaces in the coming months.

12) What do you enjoy writing more fiction or nonfiction and why?

Oh, I enjoy both, but my heartbeat is in creative nonfiction. There’s just something about wrapping words around an experience or bit of history that gives me energy and flexes my mental and creative muscles. I love that.

Thank you for a great interview, Andi.

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Andi is a writer, editor, and farmer who lives at the edge of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and son, four dogs, three cats, six goats, and thirty-two chickens. She writes regularly about the writing life at andilit.com. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Goodreads.

The Prisoner’s Wife by Asha Bandele

Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Price: $15.99
Purchase: Amazon | BN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Description

As a favor for a friend, a bright and talented young woman volunteered to read her poetry to a group of prisoners during a Black History Month program. It was an encounter that would alter her life forever, because it was there, in the prison, that she would meet Rashid, the man who was to become her friend, her confidant, her husband, her lover, her soul mate. At the time, Rashid was serving a sentence of twenty years to life for his part in a murder. The Prisoner’s Wife is a testimony, for wives and mothers, friends and families. It’s a tribute to anyone who has ever chosen, against the odds, to love.

 

***  Vlog Review: https://youtu.be/N4kqoD6gDmw ***

 

Review

I decided to read The Prisoner’s Wife after reviewing Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor. Shaka listed it as one of his favorite books, and I can see why. Asha Bandele is a beautiful writer, who penned a powerful memoir like a poet that she is.

I must admit, it was not an easy read. She touches on topics which gave me pause and had me reflect on my own life. In some ways, she and I share similar pasts which is why I identified and was profoundly moved by her writing.

The Prisoner’s Wife is a love story, but not an ordinary one. It was about her personal journey of falling in love and marrying a man named Rashid, who was serving a life sentence for murder.

One of the things I learned from reading this memoir is when someone is incarcerated, not only are they doing time, but so are their loved ones, which is what happened to Asha. She spent the majority of her time alone, other than the letters, phone calls and occasional visits.

I commend her for writing the truth and not painting an unrealistic picture. She did not romanticize her experience, but was bold, brave and courageous. She exposes the truth, shows the difficulties, and obstacles related to loving someone in prison.

If you were ever curious about what it’s like to be married to someone serving time, I highly recommend The Prisoner’s Wife. 

Asha Bandele is an author and journalist. A former features editor for Essence magazine, Asha is the author of two collections of poems, the award-winning memoir The Prisoner’s Wife, and the novel Daughter. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter.

Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Convergent Books
Price: $14.00
Purchase: Amazon | BN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Description

Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. An honor roll student and a natural leader, he dreamed of becoming a doctor—but at age 11, his parents’ marriage began to unravel, and the beatings from his mother worsened, sending him on a downward spiral that saw him run away from home, turn to drug dealing to survive, and end up in prison for murder at the age of 19, fuming with anger and despair.
Writing My Wrongs is the story of what came next. During his nineteen-year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature, meditation, self-examination, and the kindness of others—tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive the people who hurt him, and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Upon his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In equal turns, Writing My Wrongs is a page-turning portrait of life in the shadow of poverty, violence, and fear; an unforgettable story of redemption, reminding us that our worst deeds don’t define us; and a compelling witness to our country’s need for rethinking its approach to crime, prison, and the men and women sent there.

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Vlog Review: https://youtu.be/ER3t-xnHgE4

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Review

Writing My Wrongs is about the power of hope, change, and redemption. It sheds light on the reality and truth of mass incarceration.

I have read many books about prison, but never as poignant, gritty, and honest as this one. This memoir provoked me in ways I had not expected.

Shaka Senghor is an inspiration and a great writer. He was born with a gift which he was able to develop during his time in solitary confinement. It was through reading and writing that he was able to heal and find himself.

His story taught me that people deserve a second chance, and should not be limited or defined by their past.

Writing My Wrongs is an important and powerful book, which touched, inspired and encouraged me. I hope it gets into the hands of the youth in public schools, detention centers, and prisons across America. I highly recommend it.

In conclusion, I want to thank Convergent for sending me this complimentary book in exchange for an honest review.

Locked up for nearly nineteen years, Shaka Senghor has used his incarceration as a vehicle for change. Through years of study and self-reflection, he has transformed himself from an uncaring “thug” into a principled, progressive man who refuses to allow his circumstances to define who he is or what he’s capable of.

Once a very angry, bitter young man, it was books that saved him from self-destructing and allowed him to see beyond the barbed-wire fences that held him captive. In an environment where hopelessness and despair grow like weeds, writing became his refuge. Eventually, he began writing creatively, tapping into the growing interest in street/hip hop literature. The author of six books and countless articles and short stories, he is inspired by revolutionary prison writers like George Jackson, Malcolm X and Donald Goines.

Whether writing street lit or poetry, Shaka speaks the truth about the oppressive conditions of the ‘hood and the not-so-glamorous side of the streets. He writes in a way that compels his readers to see the hope and humanity of a discarded generation shaped by the crack epidemic, the fall of the auto industry and the rise of the prison industrial complex. He is soon to be released and is eager to begin working with youth through gun and violence prevention programs in his hometown of Detroit.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Anchor
Price: $16.00
Purchase: Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Description

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”

Review

What I got out of Bird by Bird is the love and respect for the craft. Writers shouldn’t get into writing because they want to be the next John Grisham or Jackie Collins, or to make thousands of dollars, or to see their name up in lights. Writers don’t write for fame, fortune or accolades. They write because they love the art and respect the craft.

This was the first book I’ve read by Anne Lamott, and I enjoyed her voice and writing style. She writes from the heart and in truth about the craft and her life. She doesn’t avoid difficult topics, and tackles them with humor.

She doesn’t sell you pipe dreams or pie in the sky fantasies about writing. She encourages you to write, and not stop, even if your work never gets published.

This excerpt spoke volumes to me:

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose or their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on the boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

All in all, Bird by Bird is a wonderful book which I will read again. This is a book you will want to keep in your library. If you write or want to write, I highly recommend this book.

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of Help, Thanks, Wow; Small Victories; Stitches; Some Assembly Required; Grace (Eventually); Plan B; Traveling Mercies; Bird by Bird; Operating Instructions, and the forthcoming Hallelujah Anyway. She is also the author of several novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Scribner; 10 Anv edition
ISBN-10: 1439156816
Price: $17.00
Purchase: Amazon | BN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Description

Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Review

I’ve had this book on my book shelf for awhile. I was intending to read it, but never got to it until a week ago. Now I could kick myself for not reading it sooner.

In my opinion, On Writing is one of the best books on the craft of writing. Novelist Stephen King gives you the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be a writer.

If I were to sum up the book in a few words, it would be… “Read a lot, Write a lot.”

What I found encouraging (since I don’t have a college degree), is that Stephen King says it is not necessary to attend college to be a writer. He doesn’t deter people from attending college, he just says you don’t need a degree to write books. You just need to read a lot and write a lot. Every day. Without fail.

Writing requires work, discipline and perseverance to succeed. There are no short cuts.

On Writing is a goldmine filled with helpful nuggets. It is the kind of book you want to have in your library to refer to. I highly recommend it.

Stephen King is the author of more than fifty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes The Bill Hodges Trilogy, Revival, and Doctor Sleep. His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller as well as the Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. He is the recipient of the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

 

 

 

 

 

Author Interview: Kisha Green

Kisha and I connected on Facebook and then finally met at the Black Pack Party in Harlem last May. I loved her genuine, sweet and kind spirit. I not only am grateful to call her my colleague, but also my friend. I have the utmost respect for her and all that she contributes to the publishing industry. It’s with great pleasure to introduce to you, the multi-talented, Kisha Green.

1) Were you born and raised in New Jersey?

Yes, I was born in New Jersey and at the age of two, I moved to Richmond, VA with my mom only to return at age eleven after my grandmother died and have been in New Jersey since.

2) When did you start being interested in reading and writing?

I have always been an avid reader thanks to my mom. As an adolescent I enjoyed books by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary and then graduated to the Babysitter’s Club series and then once in high school, I started reading books by VC Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark, Jackie Collins and Stephen King.

3) Did anyone in your life influence or encourage you to read or write?

My mom. I remember watching my mom come home from work, change out of her nurse uniform, cook dinner, eat and spend the rest of the evening reading. This was a daily ritual.

4) Do you remember the first book you read? What was it?

Hmmm…It was story about a mouse and a motorcycle but I cannot think of the title.

5) Who are some of your favorite authors and books?

Jackie Collins is my favorite author. Her writing is exciting and outside the box and I get swept away in her words, she was a creative story teller. May she rest in peace.

6) Did you read any books that helped you in writing?

Some creative writing books and techniques about showing versus telling.

7) When was the pivotal moment when you decided to pursue your dreams?

Even though I had self-published my first book in 2007, it was not until 2011 that I decided that I wanted to do promotions and literary consultations as well as assist authors.

8) Were you afraid? If so, how did you overcome your fears?

I was initially afraid but I told myself failure was not an option and took a leap of faith.

9) When did you start your own business and what are all the things you offer in regards to your business?

In 2006 DivaBooksInc was formed but it wasn’t until 2011 that I really took it serious and gave it my all. I wanted to provide quality services to authors and publishers at reasonable rates.

10) When did you decide to write your first book?

In 1999, I read Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree and a year later I said I should write a book and tried to but shelved the idea and then picked it up again only to postpone it after my mom dying. Then going through an emotional rollercoaster of feelings regarding my writing a book to finally saying I was going to do it in 2006.

11) What did you learn from the process?

I learned that hard work and patience pay off but most importantly you must remain consistent.

12) How many books have you written in total?

I have written three full length novels, participated in four anthologies and one poetry book. I am currently working on my fifth anthology that is a collection of erotica stories.

13) Which one was the hardest to write and why?

The hardest one was Dear Mommy which was my third book that tells my story of dealing with the death of my mom to a brain tumor. I self-published it through a print on demand back in 2008 and since then took the book down and have been working on it off and on to release again through my own publishing company.

14) Where do your ideas come from?

Real life experiences of myself, friends and family and IDTV.

15) What is your writing routine or process?

I write notes all the time and then sit down attempt to turn them into stores. I write at the most random times and can be anywhere. I write the best with my laptop and music playing.

16) How did you hone your craft?

Reading books.

17) You where many hats… between writing your own books, publishing other talent, promoting other talent, your talk show and blog… how do you manage and balance it all?

The grace of God. I wear many hats and equally enjoy them all.

18) How long did it take you to build your business?

Lol! I am still building. This is a full time job and I cannot stop especially when I am trying to create a legacy for my children.

19) What’s next for Kisha Green?

This year I am entering the arena of publishing others and have signed two very talented authors that will be making their debut with DivaBooksInc this year and I am very excited about this new chapter in my life as well as helping these writers turn their literary dreams into published realities. I will take everything that I have learned from being a literary consultant, reviewer, radio show hostess, promoter, blogger and virtual assistant, and pour that into my authors while never giving up.

20) Lastly, what advice would you give to a novice writer?

Do not give up! Do not worry about any one telling you no, when you can create your own YES!

Kisha Green is no stranger to the literary world. She is the owner of DivaBooksInc, the author of several titles including the hit novel, And Even If I Did, literary consultant and promoter.

As the host of Writer’s Life Chats, an online radio show, Green interviews aspiring and seasoned authors. Writer’s Life Chats has been nominated multiple times for Best Blog Talk Show, winning the title in 2010 and 2011. Green is also an avid reader and book reviewer whose reviews have appeared on Urban Book Source, Shelfari, Goodreads, Amazon and other notable sites.

As a firm believer in “each one, teach one,” Green launched Literary Jewels in 2011, an online resource for aspiring writers interested in self-publishing. Green has also participated in numerous panel discussions on the topic of publishing. Currently Green resides in New Jersey and is a contributing writer for a number of sites, virtual assistant and promoter for various authors and is the recipient of the 2014 Literary Excellence Award presented by Black Pearls Magazine.

You can follow her on Divabooksinc, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Guest Post: What Makes A Good Story? by Andi Cumbo-Floyd

I met Andi Cumbo-Floyd on Twitter in 2012, and then had the pleasure of rooming with her at the Quitter Conference in Nashville. She is an amazing woman who has achieved her dreams by the help and grace of God. Not only is she a talented writer, editor, teacher, mentor and coach, she’s a farmer too. Her new book, Steele Secrets is releasing on February 9th. Be sure to pre-order your copy on here or her website. I was blessed to interview her back in 2013 (you can read the interview here). Today she visits again and writes about what makes a good story.

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I read a lot of novels. . . . from “literary” fiction to Young Adult fiction to cozy mysteries – I love a good story, and I have no desire to be picky about the labels I choose my reading from. A good story is as good story is a good story.

Admittedly, each of us is going to have our own definition of what makes something a good story. Some of us like setting to be prominent with the streets and trees, time period and geography guiding us to deeper understanding of the storyline. Others prefer characters who are likeable, who take risks, who struggle openly on the page. Book preferences are like shoe preferences – there’s no right and wrong, just taste.

But I do think some characteristics are universal across all the good novels we read.

  1. Not the vampire ones (necessarily) but something that could be lost. . . from a relationship to innocence to treasure to life itself. If the characters can’t be a risk to lose something, then we probably aren’t going to care.
  2. Recognizable Experience. Many of us love to share this quote from Shadowlands, the film about C.S. Lewis – “We read to know we’re not alone.” That’s totally true. We want to see ourselves on the page.
  3. New Experience. The flipside of reading to find ourselves is the fact that we read to learn. We learn about different cultures, different situations, different time periods. A good book can help us relate to the characters even as we gain new perspectives.
  4. Appropriate Pacing. A novel can move really quickly or very slowly, and both are great. But the pacing has to be fitting for the story itself. A story of a lifelong friendship will probably be paced more slowly, but a suspense thriller will probably move quickly. . . the irony is that a long timescape often has a slower pace, and a shorter timeframe moves more quickly.
  5. Consistency and Clarity. The bottom line is that no matter what sort of novel, it should be consistent within itself. We’ve all read novels where the pace or setting or point of view change for no clear reason. . . those are the novels we usually put down.

So if you prefer a legal thriller or a psychological exploration, a supernatural travail or a basic romance, the basics of a good novel are the same. . . it needs to keep you invested, engage your emotions, and insure that you are never lost within the story.

I’m off . . . I have a vampire/werewolf mystery to finish.

What kind of novels do you love? What makes a good novel for you?

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, four dogs, four cats, six goats, and twenty-three chickens.  Her new novel Steele Secrets comes out on February 9. You can connect with Andi at her website –andilit.com, or on Facebook TwitterLinkedIn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author Interview: Kaylie Jones

I had the pleasure of meeting Kaylie Jones at the Brooklyn Book Festival last September. I attended a panel where she, Terry McMillan and Dennis Lehane discussed their latest books. (You can listen to the discussion here.) I immediately connected with her. As you will see for yourself, she is not only a gifted and brilliant writer, but an intelligent, interesting, lovely and beautiful person. I am blessed, privileged and honored to introduce to you, the extraordinary Kaylie Jones.

1) When did you decide you wanted to write?

When I was eight I started to write a novel in a school notebook. It was about a girl who runs away from home with her talking bear. I showed it to my father, who was very encouraging. He didn’t correct anything or give me advice, he just told me to keep going. I soon gave up, of course. He died when I was sixteen, a blow from which I will never fully recover. Soon after, I went off to college, completely directionless. The literary critics were very hard on my father and I felt I needed to understand where he stood in the canon of American letters, so I started to pursue the study of literature. I had a comp 101 professor, the writer Daniel Stern, who pulled me out of the class and told me he would work with me privately because I showed great promise. I was stunned; I didn’t believe him, but I applied myself to improving my writing. Really, all my stories were memoir in the guise of fiction. It wasn’t until my Junior year, when I was studying Tolstoy’s War and Peace, that I had a moment of enlightenment, a spiritual awakening, you might say. I was reading the death of Prince Andrew and realized that if a writer who’d lived more than one hundred years before me, with whom I shared no cultural experience, could write about the process of death and dying in a way that rescued me from my own grief, I thought – okay, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to try to be a writer.

2) Was there anyone in your life who encouraged you?

While my father was very sick and unable to leave the house in the winter of 1976-77, we read books together. That was one of the highlights of my last year with him. We read Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms. We read Bonjour Tristesseby Francoise Sagan, and The Wanderer, by Alain-Fournier, his favorite French novel. He did not go into explaining the authors’ stylistic choices; he liked to discuss the characters’ choices and actions, as if they were real people who were making the decisions for themselves. We also read the poems of Edna Saint Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson, with whom he was a little in love, I think. These writers helped shaped me not just as a writer, but I believe they shaped my moral backbone and helped me to stay on some kind of moral path after my father was gone and no longer there to advise me.

I had fantastic writing teachers along the way. I often think of them as sages holding up lanterns along a dark path. In college, Daniel Stern was my first mentor. Later, I got into a very small and kind of elite writing workshop with a professor named Jack Paton, who was a veteran of WWII. He took issue with my father’s profanity and overuse of adjectives and adverbs. We would fight about it all the time! But I loved Jack, and he taught me to control my style, how to be precise and get my sentences down to their fighting weight. Later, I went to graduate school at Columbia, where I got my MFA. I studied with Richard Price, Edmund White, and Russell Banks. Can you imagine that good fortune? They were tough as nails, and I learned to listen to their criticism and advice.

Richard Price gave me a thirty book reading list one summer, telling me that I was “too immersed in the classics.” He wanted me to read what he called “down and dirty” modern fiction. So on that list were John Reechy’s City of Night, Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, all of Toni Morrison’s works – many of the books that shaped him as one of our most important modern writers.

3) How did The Anger Meridian come about?

The second time my mother was hospitalized for alcoholism my daughter was starting first grade in a new school. We spent every free minute at New York Hospital. My mother would stare me down and yell at me as if I were somehow to blame for her condition. Everyone on the floor, including my daughter, heard her calling me the most awful names. My mother had a small heart attack while she was there, and they moved her to intensive care. I watched the heart monitor go up and down, up and down, and just kept praying for it to flatline. For her to die now, with no more pain. But she survived, and the horror went on for another four years. I often asked myself, “What would it take, what would be the last straw, that would push a daughter to kill her mother?”

I discussed this, philosophically, with my daughter, the way my father used to discuss characters with me. “I want to write a book about a woman who is pushed so far by her mother that she kills her, but it’s in a moment of passion, of rage.” My daughter, who was about seven at this point, offered advice.

That following February, we were standing on the edge of a veranda of a big house overlooking a cliff in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I was teaching a writing workshop with Beverly Donofrio, when my daughter said, “I know what you’re thinking. This is the perfect place for your character to push her mother off the cliff.” That was exactly what I was thinking and it was the beginning of the novel. But as the novel progressed, I became less and less sure that Merryn, my character, would be capable of pushing her mother off the cliff. So that is what the book is really about. What would be so awful that she’d find herself capable of such an act? Did she do it? Could she? Would she?

4) Bibi is an amazing character, how did she come to you?

Bibi, the mother in the novel, is based on several women I knew growing up, including my own mother. Educated women who grew up in luxury and without a want in the world – beautiful, admired, adored by their husbands, friends, and children. Usually they did not have careers, and perhaps that is where their feelings of insecurity, anger, and restlessness came from. They were women to whom no one ever said no. This is a little bit like being a movie star, where a person becomes so famous that no one will contradict her. In a situation like this, where a person is so insulated by her own family and her money, that the real world is only a vague scrim in the distance, her children often become her hostages. That is what I was aiming to describe: a 40 year old daughter who suddenly finds herself in actual fact stuck, held hostage, penniless, and at her mother’s mercy. That is the dynamic that drives the novel. The added dimension is that Merryn, the daughter, has her own 9 year-old daughter, Tenney, whom she adores, and whom she wants to protect and honor. So it’s a constant battle of wills between feeling like she has to honor her cruel and narcissistic mother, or honor her own child.

5) What is your writing or creative process?

Usually an idea for a book comes to me and I will attempt to plant that kernel. Then I water it and give it light and wait to see if it will grow. I’ve had many ideas for novels that never took root. It takes me about a year of thinking before I open a notebook and start to take notes. Then I start thinking about the idea of sitting down and opening a blank document on my desktop. This is the hardest part. My old friend the author Lucy Rosenthal called this “page fright.”

Then, hopefully, I start to write.

6) What are some of your favorite books or authors?

I still return to Tolstoy over and over again for style and form. No one shows characters’ feelings better, especially characters who are unaware of what they are feeling; at least, the reader becomes aware of their feelings before they do themselves. This is very hard to pull off.

One of my favorite novels is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, by Katherine Anne Porter. I wish more people still read her work. I go to her for courage. Often I’ll turn to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories for technique and precision. I especially love O’Connor’s imagery and the way she anthropomorphizes objects in her descriptions. I love that she has such despicable characters that are still fascinating. John Cheever still inspires me and helps me to hone my craft.

I fear our literature has become too obvious – white hat/black hat for the good guy and the bad guy. If only life were so simple!

Recently I took Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with me to China while I was studying Kung Fu with Shaolin monks. I love her writing. She kept me company as I struggled to keep up with the youngsters in the Shaolin school. I think she is a very important American writer.

7) Is a writer born or made?

My friend Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, said something to me once that really stayed with me. She said, “Face it, we’re circus folk.” Meaning, if you’re raised in the circus, you learn to be a circus performer. If your mom rode elephants, you learned to ride elephants. I believe this is true for the children of writers.

I’d say most serious writers were children who felt a great loneliness and isolation, and found solace, friends, in books. The next step is giving back, writing to reach out and communicate with others who may feel the same way. This is probably a romantic notion, but I have always thought of literature as my higher power. The thing that pulled me from my own pit of despair and chaos.

8) What did you personally do to perfect your craft?

I never stop reading, studying sentences, studying writers. In an interview John Irving once said that he was never able to read for pleasure again once he became a writer, because he was constantly trying to figure out how the writer did something in the book, something technically spectacular. This made me laugh because I do the same thing.

One of my former students recently discovered Cormac McCarthy. I get texts and emails from him almost daily, quoting Cormac McCarthy and asking my opinion on how in the hell did McCarthy do this or that? Again, I laugh. This is how real writers think. Someone who tries to take the sentences apart to understand how the author did it. Which, of course, takes the element of magic, of unconscious inspiration, out of the equation. And that’s the part we can’t really account for. What my dad used to call the 10% magic part.

9) What do you like the most and the least about writing a book?

I like when I feel a chapter or a short story or essay is finished. I can look back happily and say, “Well, that is good work.”

I hate a blank page. That feeling of heart palpitations and sweaty palms as I sit down to start. What I hate almost as much as that is my inner censor/critic, who tells me I have no right to write, and that I’m a vain and egotistical person to think I have the right to sit down and express myself. It’s taken me years to silence that voice, and bring it to the fore only in the final editing process.

10) Lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring author?

I think learning when to silence that inner censor is a crucial part of being able to be creative. When to bring that critic out and when to keep him/her locked away. It is very easy to become discouraged as a writer.

One of the most important aspects of becoming a writer is finding a supportive community. Whether this is in an MFA program or among other like-minded writers, I think a writing community is crucial. I don’t mean a wife, husband, brother, sister, or best friend who says, “This is awesome!” I mean a serious reader who will give you honest and intelligent feedback. Also, if we don’t take criticism personally, it really helps.

I love the term “Literary Citizenship.” I believe it was coined by my friend, writer Lori May. Jim Warner, the poet, often uses it to describe a writer’s willingness to share, and to offer advice without assassinating another person’s work. And doing what we can to support each other without competitive jealousy. Many years ago I made the decision to help other writers whenever I could.

When I was in Soviet Georgia as a student in 1987, we Americans could NOT pay for anything! The Georgian cabbies wouldn’t even take our money. When we tried to pay for pirozhkis at street kiosks, the street vendors would not accept our money. I’d never had this happen to me anywhere in the world. I asked one Georgian cab driver why they would not let us pay. He told me a Georgian fable: “When God was making the world, he walked all over his creation, distributing goods from the Horn of Plenty. But he tripped over the Caucasus Mountains, fell and dropped the Horn on Georgia. That is why we have everything here! But the secret is, the Horn of Plenty only stays full if you give everything away.”

I have tried to live by that rule ever since.

KAYLIE JONES has published seven books, including a memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, and her most recent novel, The Anger Meridian. Her novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries was adapted as a Merchant Ivory film in 1998. Jones has been teaching for more than twenty-five years, and is a faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing & Literature program and in Wilkes University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She is the author of Speak Now and the editor of Long Island Noir. Her newest endeavor is her publishing imprint with Akashic Books, Kaylie Jones Books.

You can follow Kaylie Jones on Facebook and Twitter.