We’re fortunate to have Amanda McTigue joining us on Oct. 11 to conduct a workshop on the subject of “voice” in our writing. Visit our “Next Program” page to learn more about it. This month, as a new feature, you will also be able to register online via PayPal in advance of the workshop.
- In one paragraph, summarize your book Going to Solace.
My debut novel, Going to Solace, offers stories to live by—literally. It’s Thanksgiving week, 1989. We’re in the Pineys, two hollows just outside Garnet in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Life may be going along for some, but for others, somebody’s sick, real sick, dying sick. Through interwoven narratives, we track a handful of characters whose paths cross at a local hospice called Solace. Some are country people. Some are far-flung, fancy people. All are helpers—resourceful family members, improvising professionals—each one determined to beat back death, or hurry him on about his business. In the end, they must find a way to stand up from the bedside and walk back into life after the dying is done. Neither grim nor roseate, it’s a book whose tone is bracing: often funny, sometimes wrenching, ultimately comforting.
- What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
What matters to me is that we all keep at it with gusto, with more joy than pain. I’m all for prying those two words apart, “aspiring” and “writer.” By saying, “I aspire to write,” I’m already telling the story of someone who’s not writing when, in fact, we can always choose to write. Hey, I’m someone who squeezed her writing in over decades of paying the rent and taking care of loved ones. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it’s simple. I don’t aspire to write, I write. It’s on my calendar. Fifteen minutes a week or fifteen hours a day. Two words on the page or two thousand or none, zero. Those days count too. I chalk that silence up to the percolating we need before words appear. Bottom line, writing is a Just-Do-It opportunity we all share. The great news? The astonishing news? Guaranteed, if we keep at it, the work accrues. It takes shape. Eventually, we get good at it.
And then there’s aspiration, but it’s usually not writing to which we aspire (even when—especially when—we’re avoiding it!). For most of us, aspiration has to do with other things. Publication or adoring readers. The imprimatur of a hot agent or a mega-bucks movie deal. Or maybe we dream of creating a classic that lives on for centuries. We need our aspirations. They provide jet-fuel to our daily practice of writing. But we mustn’t confuse putting gas in the tank with the adventure of travel itself. The writing is the point. For me, that’s both an accurate and sustaining truth. To keep going, I have to love keeping going, even through the wanderings-in-the-wilderness of hollow drafts and demoralized edits. I aspire on walks, in the shower, as I drift off to sleep. But when it’s time to write, I just write.
- What authors have most influenced your writing?
Oh, my goodness, the flood your question triggers. There are some writers whose work so slays me that I’ve found myself closing a book or finishing a story or poem with a deep conviction that there’s no reason for me to write another word. I’m a Southern gal. The deities to whom return are Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. I bow to Mark Twain and Anton Chekhov. And then there’s my man, Shakespeare. As Woody Allen says (in Annie Hall? Manhattan?), “Well, I’ve got to model myself on someone…” More recently, I’m knocked out by the work of all kinds of contemporary writers: Elizabeth McCracken, Frederick Busch, George Saunders, Michael Ondaatje, Karen Russell, to name way too few. I’m a slow reader. I like tale tellers. I also like writerly writers whose stories sing through exquisite language.
- What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?
The only important challenge has been and continues to be writing work that is so damn good it makes your teeth hurt. The rest of it is dogged determination. I’m a thin-skinned person who taught herself to go for the long haul, to submit and submit, weathering the endless No’s for that eventual Yes. It’s also been hard for me to find my editor(s), that is to say, professional readers who both resonate to what I’m up to and have an ability to send me farther, faster. That’s an ongoing search.
- What is your writing routine?
Writing is my favorite thing to do, even on bad days. It took me years to realize this, to drop my fear of inadequacy enough to feel that pull toward the page. I write pretty much daily. I’m a morning person. My husband and I get up early and read the papers—you know, real newspapers that smell of ink and ink your hands—big photos, gorgeous, large type. Old-school stuff. Then he’s off to work and I’m upstairs “in harness.” These days I have to set a timer reminding me get out of the chair and onto the treadmill. That’s not to say it’s all one happy flow; it’s not. But here’s a tip: before I abandon the desk each night, I leave myself a task, written on a Post It. I set it right here on my keyboard for the morning, so I won’t have any blank-page paralysis. If I’m in the middle of drafting, I leave myself a prompt. If I’m editing, I leave a next step or focus for the coming session. That helps enormously.
- Your range of writing is amazing – playwright, short stories, novels, and children books. What is your favorite form?
At the moment, prose fiction, long or short, feels wonderful in comparison to writing for performance. On stage, the rich world I’m imagining can only be hinted at through dialogue. What a pleasure to be free to capture any and everything running through me more fully. It’s daunting but liberating.
- If you were to describe yourself as a children’s book character who would that be?
Aspirationally? Wilbur. I’d love for someone to weave over my head “SOME PIG.” More seriously—well, Scout lives in my mind. That’s an adult book about a girl, but her relationship with Atticus—I love the way she loves her daddy. Oh, and one more. This one for little kids. I really love Little Bear in A Kiss for Little Bear, a book that serves as my model for the perfect picaresque story.
- What is your greatest writing weakness?
No question, it’s the weakness I can’t see yet. It’s the flaw in the writing I can’t recognize because I don’t know enough. I hate that moment (and it happens all the time) when I’m reading stuff back and I see a blunder, a hole, a stretch of boring or confusing or just plain unreadable junk. It’s suddenly so obvious. It’s been there all along. Why didn’t I see it before? Those are not good moments. But, of course, that’s the literal experience of learning.
- Tell us about your DreamTime series.
I haven’t thought about that in a while. Thanks for asking. The material for DreamTime grew out of a musical project. I had written the text for a children’s cantata with a composer I often work with, Jeff Langley. At the same time, I was considering migrating from the stage to the page. Going to Solace was in draft. So it occurred to me to adapt the cantata into a children’s book and self publish it in order to learn about publishing from the ground up. That’s so me. I come from DIY stock. It was one of the great decisions of my life. I taught myself book design. I studied the publishing business. I partnered with my niece; her childhood drawings became the illustrations (after much adjusting through Photoshop). Then I registered as a publisher with Lightning Source and learned the whole distribution and marketing routine. Phew.
I learned a lot in ways that have stood me in good stead with traditional publishers. Meanwhile, those books live in my heart. They present bedtime as an adventure—great for boys, for rambunctious kids and for children who are afraid of the dark. I published different read-out-loud versions customized for different kinds of caretakers, all with a sensitivity to the needs of same-sex parents, and an awareness that families come in all shapes and sizes.
10. How do you balance writing with life?
You know what? I don’t. At this age, with my stepson all grown up and a husband who loves to work as much as I do, I get to go overboard. What a privilege. As long as I have a little brain power left and the sheer good fortune of relative health, it’s all about go-go-go on the page. I find that very happy-making.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Amanda McTigue. To learn more, visit her website at www.amandamctigue.com. Ask your local bookstore to order Going to Solace for you or order it online at Amazon. It’s available in hardcover, paperback and all e-book formats.
Blogger’s Note: Amanda presented a workshop on what voice can do for your writing at the Mount Diablo California Writer’s Club on October 11th 2014. The response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Here’s what one member had to say:
Amanda exceeded our greatest expectations – she was fabulous – vivacious, engaging, interesting, versatile, authentic and prepared. She used lots of visuals to engage us in writing different voices. Lyn Roberts
1. In one paragraph, summarize your book, A Dance with the Devil, A True Story of Marriage to a Psychopath.
The book traces my journey from victim to victor and educates the reader on the devious methods of psychopaths. I met retired Rear Admiral Perry at a friend’s home and was intrigued when he said he was the son of Admiral Perry from WWII Seabees fame. A fairy tale romance led to marriage and then, nine years later, to divorce after he tried to murder me by ether asphyxiation. I was shocked to find that my admiral was a con-man with an FBI record and then saddened to learn he was, in fact, the son of Admiral Perry. When I discovered that the California divorce law still allowed him, a convicted prisoner, to collect alimony and to get half of my retirement fund, I became enraged and vowed to change the sacrosanct law. I found a distinct voice, applied it to my vision to make a difference for others, and against all odds, I did it.
2. Give us the elevator version of your path to publication.
This is the pitch on a slow elevator going up to the top of the tallest building in the world. I had a passion to share my story to help others understand the crazymaking world of the psychopath and came up with the plan to write and publish a book. First, I learned to write by reading books, joining the International Women’s Writing Guild, and attending writing conferences. Second, I used patience and persistence as I balanced writing time with other significant life events. Fourteen years later I presented my manuscript to a professional editor. Third, I read more books to learn about the publishing business. With a polished manuscript in hand, I populated a list of agents, created a full proposal package, and submitted query letters. Through a contact I had made at a writing conference, I learned of a New York agent who was looking for a memoir and I also queried her. I made the ultimate mistake of a novice author…I forgot to include my telephone and email address! Fortunately the agent liked the query and had put it on her “follow-up” pile. Four months later I received my query letter back in the post with a handwritten note on the back asking for my manuscript…and my contact information. Three months later the agent sent me an email and asked to represent me. After some minor editing, she shopped the manuscript and it sold within three days to Berkley Books, an imprint of then Penguin USA.
3. Who are your favorite authors?
Maeve Binchy, John Grisham, Ken Follet
4. If you had to do anything over again when writing this book, what would it be?
I truly believe everything happens for a reason and in its own time. I wouldn’t change anything.
5. I imagine sharing your life in print took great courage, have negative reviews harmed your healing process?
Many people conclude that writing my book was cathartic, but my healing process took place way before I ever started putting pen to paper…or in the case of the modern world…text on a monitor. Writing the book was like putting together a gazillion puzzle pieces to come up with the complete picture. I felt like Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately I didn’t try smoking a pipe or wearing a funny hat. As far as negative reviews, I tend to ignore them. I will admit that the first couple that appeared on Amazon smarted, but then I realized that ignorant people were making judgments about me without having met me. There are a lot of sick people n the world who will find any venue to rant and rave and pontificate. I made a decision to ignore them and not allow them to suck up my energy. But I do chuckle and wonder how many may be psychopaths. Did I hit too close to home for their comfort level? And one thing an author must know….never engage with a negative reviewer. You’re not going to change their mind and you allow them to continue their platform at your emotional expense.
6. Getting a bill passed into law must have been tough, how did you figure out how to get it done?
Without realizing it, I used my four P’s….passion, planning, patience and persistence. When writing the book, I discovered that I have used these four P’s to accomplish many things in my life. The legal process started with writing letters to local state senators and assemblymen. One-and-a-half years later I sat in the office of Assemblyman Rainey and he agreed to carry my bill. Each step of the way from there on was a learning experience by experiment, taking advantage of situations as they arose. This time I did not read books. Now I hear from women who want to change a law and I provide a general template on my website.
7. If you could say one thing to a woman stuck in a dysfunctional marriage, what would it be?
Talk with someone you trust about your feelings. Do not keep things to yourself. If you have no one to trust, contact your local domestic violence shelter. By all means do not confront your abuser. Also know that the most dangerous time for a victim is when she decides to leave the relationship. It is imperative to create a safety plan before exiting. Do not tell your abuser what you are planning.
8. What are your writing strengths?
For how I like to write, my writing strength is organization. This came in handy when writing my first book and now with the research for my new novel.
9. Tell us about your television experiences.
My story has been part of four television series. In 2003 I appeared on the Erin Brockovich show “Final Justice” but did not meet her. In 2008 a producer from Dateline NBC contacted me and my story aired in June 2009. It shows repeatedly to this day on several stations in the U.S. and around the world. Several years later a Canadian production company filmed my story for their series “The Devil You Know.” The latest show I did was “Who the Bleep Did I Marry.”
10. What writing project are you working on now?
I self-published my second book “The Little Book of Success: Turn Your Dreams into Reality with Four Simple Tools.” It traces how I used the four P’s on four different quests in my life. It is a little book and did not fit into my publisher’s formats.
I currently am writing a novel based on the life of another strong woman…an aristocratic Anglo-Irish woman who exchanges silk ball gowns for rough wool uniforms, forsakes family and friends, becomes a leader in the Irish revolution and is the only woman sentenced to death for her part of the Easter Rising of 1916.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Barbara Bentley. To learn more visit her website http://www.adancewiththedevil.com where you can find links to her book’s Facebook page, and her Twitter page. You can also find links to purchase her books at Barnes and Noble, independent book stores, and at Amazon.com.
A muse (or mood) board is a visual aid designed to create mood, inform plot or inspire descriptive prose. Typically, the advertising industry, interior designers, wedding organizers, or more recently, web designers have used this technique. In writing, a muse board is less formal and structured than a storyboard, but can loosely serve the same function. I recently presented this concept to a group of writers at the Mount Diablo Branch of the California Writers Club and the concept received a great deal of interest.
If you decide to try this writing aid, the first two decisions you will have to make is what format you want and what media you’d like to use. The format can be collage, sequential images that outline plot, character-specific, or abstract and mood driven. There are many options, adding corkboard next to your computer, tri-fold cardboard (think child’s science project), or digital. One advantage of the trifold is that it can be displayed at author readings and book signings. The digital world offers many types of platforms, including Pinterest, Photoshop, Imagespark (shows other mood boards, but this site is possibly closing), Sampleboard and Evernote. Pinterest has an added bonus that your followers can monitor your progress and it can create buzz and it is free.
While digital media is convenient, content is limited to Internet images and digital photos (can photograph other media), while using traditional media gives more options for material and can include:
• Post its
• Scented cloth
• Photographs of your own text
• Your introductory story paragraph
• Internet images
• Inspirational quotes
• Isolated words
• Sound bites (like a movie trailer)
Here are some of the many possible advantages:
1). Correct weaknesses in your writing style.
2). Identify key themes and help set tone or mood.
3). Focus plots and overcome writer’s block.
4). Craft detailed descriptive text.
5). Prevent time-consuming rewrites.
6). Keep text true to your time period or era and timelines straight.
7). Create a cohesive balance in the arc of the story.
8). Helps ensure consistency of descriptions of characters and setting.
9). Assist in foreshadowing.
10). Prevent meandering and assist in finding your beginning and/or ending.
While you might be concerned that creating a muse board will take away from precious writing time, but the truth is that the planning and energy can actually save time. Creating a muse board can exercise your creative brain and take your work to a whole new level. It can also be a fun visual to take to author signings after publication.
- In one paragraph, summarize your new book, The Practical County Drama Queen.
In The Practical County Drama Queen, eleven-year-old Frannie has ten weeks to stop her older brother Ronnie from making the biggest mistake of his life. As the youngest of Practical County’s Ryan family, Frannie has grown up watching everything. Watching her older brother and sister show steers, watching her Granddad work with the cows and calves, and watching the Darling sisters manipulate, lie, and cheat at the Practical County Fair. Frannie has also grown up knowing that, if she’s persistent enough, she can usually accomplish whatever she set out to do. But in this summer tale of growing up and letting go, Frannie begins to realize that some things in life just might be beyond her control.
- What was the inspiration behind your main character?
Frannie was a fan-favorite character in my debut novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County. Then, she was a precocious preschooler with a huge vocabulary and an even bigger imagination. Readers begged me to give Frannie her own story. So, Frannie grew up a little, and what a story she has to tell!
- Who are your favorite authors?
I have always had great respect for Katherine Paterson. And, anything written by Cynthia Rylant is golden in my eyes!
- What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?
Patience. It goes against my nature to be patient. But authors know that the publishing world moves at a turtle’s pace. If you can’t be patient, you’ll give up before you get to the best part!
- Were you a drama queen as a teen?
Me? (Laughs hysterically) Oh, pul-eeze! Why you even ask me that? For crying out loud! A drama queen? Ha! Really. (Rolls eyes). Well, maybe.
6. If you were to describe yourself as a type of livestock, what would you be?
I’m probably a mother hen. I could curl up on a nest and brood all day.
7. What are your writing strengths?
I’m an instinctive writer. I don’t follow an outline. I break a lot of “rules.” I like working on character and setting. Planning out the plot gives me fits, so I usually just write and see what happens. Is that a strength? Or chaos in action? I’m not sure, exactly.
8. Was it easier to find a publisher for this book, than your debut novel, The Beef Princess of Practical County?
One would think! But life is tricky sometimes, isn’t it? I entered The Beef Princess of Practical County in the Delacorte Dell Middle Grade Fiction Contest in 2008. I didn’t win. No one did, actually. It was one of the years they didn’t choose a winner. But shortly after, I got a call saying I was a finalist. And, would I be willing to do some work on the novel and resubmit it? Uh, sure? Of course! So, Beef Princess was sold to a Random House imprint without an agent on a second try. Not your typical “how I got published” story, I’ll admit.
Beef Princess fans asked for more. (But my editor didn’t.) Young readers said, “You should write another Practical County story!” (Hmm, my editor didn’t.) School teachers said, “Frannie surely has her own tale to tell!” (But my editor wasn’t asking for Frannie’s tale.) So, I wrote it. And much to my shock and chagrin, guess who wasn’t all that interested? I know, I know. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed sometimes.
After Beef Princess, I landed a fantastic agent, who sold my middle-grade novel about Danish gnomes at Christmastime (a bit of a leap from cattle farming, I know) to Candlewick Press. That is Winterfrost – due to release 9/9/14. My wonderful agent was determined to sell The Practical County Drama Queen. But we were met time and time again with this: It just doesn’t make sense for us to publish a sequel to something we didn’t publish in the first place.
Enter SCBWI. Their member’s magazine had a story last year on E-First Publishers. These publishers put books out in electronic format first. Then, they may or may not offer a print edition. My agent submitted, and MuseItUp offered an electronic AND print contract right away. Frannie’s tale would be told!
9. How do you balance writing with raising a family?
Seasons. I give myself permission NOT to write during certain seasons. When my farmer husband is planting or harvesting and I’m doing all the household chores, feeding extra farmhands, and running for parts to fix broken equipment, I give myself permission NOT to write. When I’m hosting the extended family Christmas and working parttime and caring for aging in-laws, I give myself permission NOT to write. It sure beats beating myself up for NOT writing. But when I have a deadline or a blizzard hits or I’m just inspired, I declare a season of writing. And that’s when I give myself permission NOT to fold laundry. It sure beats beating myself up over it.
10. Can you tell us about your writing space?
Right now I write just about anywhere I can find a quiet corner. But, I’m working on restoring a one-room schoolhouse built in 1894. It has been used as a barn for more than 50 years, so it needs a lot of work! When it’s done, I want to use it as my writing studio. And, I dream of having a cat there. I’d name her Miss Beadle.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Michelle Houts. To learn more visit her website www.michellehouts.com
You’d think that I would have a lot of time to write, considering I have been “retired” since 2008. I spend most of my days indoors either in sweats (winter) or jammy pants (spring-fall). When summertime settles in, I am comfortable in whatever the spirit decrees.
Maybe that is what blocks my creative juices – I am just too damn comfortable. I should rise at 4 AM, work out for two hours, dress in too-tight, starchy jeans, then get to work writing the next personal tragedy to top the charts. Are you angst-ridden? Perhaps you can share some of it with me?
I have news for you, fellow writer. As this is the New Year, my resolution is to write more! If you are a writer yourself, you may be familiar yourself with this proclamation. But this time, for me as I cannot speak for you, this is real. I absolutely, positively will write more. And, I hope write better. I’ll just throw out the garbage, and through attrition will succeed in preserving more quality sentences. It’s simple if you follow the formula.
The problem is that I do not write mysteries, suspense thrillers, pot boilers, or bodice rippers. There is no easy-to-follow formula to follow for what I write. And there is probably no easy formula for you either. Your writing is creative and unique, as is mine – I pray. Formulaic romances or memoirs or mysteries is just not my thing. Never enjoyed reading them and I can’t imaging why I would enjoy writing them.
Which brings me back to wearing my comfortable sweats and enjoying every moment as it comes along as if it were my last. I suppose I am in good company with other celebrated writers who enjoyed every moment – does Oscar Wilde come to mind? Like him, I can overcome this hardship of comfort and excess to write enduring works. I will strap my belt too tight, sit in my straight-back chair, and plunk away on my IBM Selectric (well, it’s really a MacBook Air) for eight straight hours each day until my great American novel is complete.
Uh, good luck to you with that. I just don’t have time…
1. In one paragraph, summarize your new book.
Set in the Bible Belt of Deep East Texas, Visiting the Sins is the story of three generations of women whose lofty social aspirations are exceeded only by their unfortunate taste in men and a seemingly boundless capacity for holding grudges. A legacy of feuding and scandal lurches from one generation to the next with tragic consequences that threaten to destroy everything these feisty but perennially dissatisfied women have sacrificed their souls to build.
2. Tell us about the signature drink that was developed for your book.
The “Pokeyteeny” is a drink named in honor of one of my main characters Pokey, the love-starved, pistol-packing matriarch of the Wheeler clan. Like its namesake character, the “Pokeyteeny” is nicely aged, a little dirty, and packing heat! It’s made with tequila and will liven up a book club discussion, for sure.
3. Who are your favorite authors?
William Faulkner, Larry McMurtry, Leon Uris, Paul Bowles, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I like Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories. All of Mary Karr’s memoirs. And mysteries by James Lee Burke.
4. What has been the biggest challenge on your path to publication?
Learning to appreciate criticism.
5. Where did you come up with the idea about your devil painting?
I grew up with a big painting of the devil hanging on the wall in our living room.
6. If you were to describe yourself as a type of southern food, what would you be?
My favorite southern food is Mexican food, so maybe I would be an enchilada with mole sauce.
7. What did you think the major advantages to doing a professional program like the Stanford Writing Program as compared to being involved in a critique group?
Actually the writing program and my critique group were both instrumental in the development of my book, just in different ways. In the Stanford novel program, we dissected a lot of novels and worked on improving specific aspects of our own novels, such as character development, dialogue, point of view, setting, and plot arc. It sort of forces you through a process that refines all aspects of your novel. Within a critique group, the writer chooses what to submit for critique, so you can really drill down and work on whatever aspect of your novel you think needs the most work.
8. How did growing up in east Texas influence your writing?
It probably infused me with the joy of storytelling. Humor, suspense, cadence, irony, the element of surprise.
9. Since you are writing about an East Texas family, do you fear any repercussions? Will anyone write you out of their will? Will you ever be able to go “home” for Thanksgiving after your book is released without someone trying to poison your turkey?
No, all my characters are fictional. But I think all my female family and friends harbor a secret wish that I will write a book about them that gets turned into a movie so they can play themselves and have a kissing scene with George Clooney.
10. What have you done (will you do) to broaden the appeal of your book since it reflects a specific area in Texas? Are there common themes or threads with which people in other States can identify?
In my experience, people enjoy reading about settings and cultures different from their own. Most people can relate to personal struggles with ambition, forgiveness, and self-destruction. And some things about human nature are universal, such as the ability of mothers and daughters to make each other homicidal.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Melanie Denman. Learn more about the book and purchase Visiting the Sins at http://www.melaniedenman.com.