Hooked on Bookfests, Part II: Valley
I am a participant in the “Local Authors” panel at the Valley Bookfest on Saturday. Other panelists include two recent Franklin county Book Festival participants, Fred First and Colleen Redman, and my Lake Writer buddy, Sally Roseveare. Those of us on the panel were sent a list of questions that we might answer during our 10 minutes or so. Here are the questions and my answers (subject to change during actual panel):
How did you start writing?
Short answer: With a pencil when I was in first grade. (Actually, I was printing then.) I remember making a little book and reading it to my first grade class. (I wasn’t unique; a few other kids did this, too.)
Longer answer: I wrote a few stories when I was young. (My seventh grade teacher read to the class my “”Enchanted Cat” story —about riding my cat, who had grown to horse-size, around the universe, but then I woke up and realized it was a dream. Only fantasy story I ever wrote, and the only one using the it-was-all-a-dream cliché). I wrote some really bad poetry in college—the usual adolescent angst of time/death/love—that appeared in the college’s lit magazine.
I didn’t write again for years. During the 1980s, while I was teaching junior high, I wrote some parodies of the superintendent’s directives and privately circulated them among my teacher buddies. I was called into the assistant principal’s office and told to stop.
In the early 1990s, I wrote “Forced Blossoms,” which won second place ($50!) in the 1993 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest. I submitted it to a new magazine, Blue Ridge Traditions, which published it—that was enough encouragement to for me to start writing again. I wrote for BRT for over a decade.
I didn’t have time to write a book until I developed chronic Epstein Barre (22 months) and then fibromyalgia. I started writing because I was too sick and tired to do anything else. Plus I had a computer by this time, so typing was effortless. I emerged from my illness with a novel (Patches on the Same Quilt), some first place wins in short story contests, a few some publication credits (Blue Ridge Traditions, Collage, THEMA, etc.) and a nomination for a Pushcart Prize (didn’t win, though).
Was this your first book—or one of several?
Where There’s A Will is number 4. Patches on the Same Quilt was self-published—albeit partially subsidized with a grant from the Smith Mountain Arts Council. The other two were Print-On-Demand: Peevish Advice, a collection of the first couple years of my “Peevish Advice” columns, and The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories (a collections of mostly-winning short stories).
Did you take classes? If so, which ones and did they help you in your writing?
I had a really good English teacher in high school—Charles Arrington—who was a stickler for good grammar and mechanics. He also had us memorize 20 vocabulary words a week and use them in sentences. My BFA is in drama education with a minor in English, and my MAT is in English education, so I read a lot of good lit in college and grad school. I’m still an avid reader. I think people learn how to write by reading good stuff.
I’ve attended a few workshops—an especially good one, taught by Rebecca Woodie at Hollins a decade or so ago, introduced me to the critique process—but I attend several writers’ conferences each year.
Do you belong to any writing groups—do you recommend writers to join?
I’ve been a member of Lake Writers for 6 years; It’s my favorite group because members are committed to good writing/legitimate publishing possibilities/scam-busting. Critiques are often hard-hitting and really helpful. After the meeting, some of us do lunch—and continue the discussion about our writing.
I’ve been a member of the Virginia Writers Club for over a decade, and have served on its Board of Governors for a couple of years. The quarterly meetings are good places to network with writers from other regions of the state.
I’ve currently taken “leave of absence” from another group that I’ve been a member of for over a decade because of philosophical differences with the current leadership. Two other expatriates from that group and I have formed a critique group which will meet as needed to fix problems in each other’s writing.
A writers’ group is only worthwhile if other members will give you honest critiques, suggest ways for you to fix your problems, tell you when you’re doing something stupid, warn you against scams, and suggest routes to possible publication. Groups dedicated to mutual ego-feeding or over-coming writer’s block (whatever the heck that is) aren’t worth attending.
I recommend that writers find (or form) a worthwhile critique group with like-minded individuals and go to conferences where they can network with editors, agents, and commercially published authors. The James River Writers Conference is the best one around. The CNU conference is pretty good, too.
What did you wish you knew before you self-published—any pitfalls to avoid?
I was already aware that self-publishing came with limitations, so I didn’t get any big surprises. Self-pubbing—especially POD—works best if you are writing for a fairly small niche audience and you already have a readership in place. I fit those criteria, so I have a market for my books. I also try to write with the reader in mind. Before I pay a fee to publish, I want to be sure a market exists for my work and that I can make my money back within a few months.
What is your book about?
Where There’s A Will, a collection of eight prize-winning stories set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia from the 1770s through the 1970s, is about talent, teamwork, everyday miracles, and dreams that do indeed come true. In each story, a young person learns an important lesson in life. Accompanying study guides written by Kay McGrath are based on the Virginia Standards of Learning for 6th grade English.
I recycled some of my earlier work for this book. I used “Insult to Injury” and “You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid and You got Enough to Eat” from my earlier short story collection, The Girl Who Raced Mules, and added “Last Wish,” the first chapter of my novel Patches on the Same Quilt. I then added five other stories that had won or placed high in short story contests. Each story features a young main character who is empowered in some way.
While all the protagonists in the stories are young people—and the study guide is geared to 6th graders—the stories can be enjoyed by readers of any age. Where There’s A Will is perfect for grandparents and grandchildren to read and discuss together.
I'll post shortly about my experiences in both bookfests. Stay tuned.