Writers’ Family Reunion

photo of welcome table at Writers' Family ReunionI had the opportunity yesterday to participate as a faculty member at Writespace’s   Writers’ Family Reunion. Writers of all stripes from all over Houston (and beyond) gathered at Silver Street Studios to meet, greet, and learn about the writing process — from how to get started, through how to keep going and included the multiple paths now available for publication.

Favorite things?

Meeting a writer new to Writespace, who was warm and wonderful. So glad to know you Hilda Davis!

Writerly foods!

Speed Dating for Writers: I am sorry I did not climb up on something to get an arial view of this activity. Michael put down a masking tape map of Houston on the floor of the warehouse, handed out a survey for everyone to fill out that would help them network. He first grouped writers by their home location to say “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Then he moved them to about five different groupings, including genre, experience level, and several other fun options, leaving them enough time to say again, “Howdy, what do you write? Wanna meet up sometime? Here’s my contact info.” Brilliantly done — and fun to boot.

Then on to browse the sponsor tables and play writerly games.

The neverending story was hilarious. Pull a slip out of a hat and write a sentence  inspired by your slip that builds on the previous line in the story. Try working “fern” into an intergallactic story that includes a squished alien caterpillar.

Poetry building included meg-size magnet words on a sliding metal door. Pretty soon we were scavenging each others’ haiku for enough words to complete our own verse.

First page critiques were a lot of fun. The energy of a new writer is something that fuels my fire for writing. Pam and Richard at our table both had so much going on that I really wanted to read more!  (There was one other woman whose name I didn’t catch who wrote a wonderfully evocative scene!)  K.J. Russell and I combined forces to provide critiques for these three aspiring writers.

Then on to breakout sessions. Over the next two hours, panels of local published writers discussed:

  • My Journey as a Writer: What I Wish I Knew When I Started
  • Writing Your First Novel
  • How to Create (Or Join!) a Great Critique Group
  • Publishing 101: An Overview of Options for New Writers
  • Reading Like a Writer
  • The Benefits of Promiscuous Art-Making: How Exploring New Creative Mediums Can Vitalize Your Writing

Now I can’t wait for Writefest the first weekend in May when I get to gather more fuel for my writing engine.

 

Five Long Years

Image of clock face
Time

It took me a long five years to write BURNED, the Pony Club-based middle grade equestrian mystery now available from ShopPonyClub.org and Amazon.com (Be sure to use the SMILE program and designate Pony Club as the recipient!) Even during the first draft of the book, I knew that capturing Sophie’s voice was going to take a lot of effort.

I have been a twelve-year-old girl, but that was a long time ago. Fortunately, there are a lot of Pony Club members I could use as example of how that age thinks and speaks. Many people think that writing a children’s book is easier than writing for adults. I’ve done both. I can say definitively that writing a child’s point of view is much harder to capture once you’ve gotten to full adulthood. It was discouraging, to write that first draft and find that I had to toss the entire thing. Despite my best effort at the time, Sophie sounded too old for the audience, and not at all like someone I would have liked as a friend. Then there was the story itself.

The original problem I set for Sophie was one that I thought all horse kids would relate to: the possibility of losing her horse, Cricket. She was supposed to figure out how to raise the money for her partial lease, something I know in my heart a Pony Club kid could do. (For one thing, Pony Club families support one another, and I suspect her Club or Center would help her through that financial spot in her life.) But when I pitched that story to editors, many of them said they didn’t believe a 12 year old could raise that kind of cash. Little did they know the support of the horse community, or the resourcefulness of a horse-crazy young woman.

After a Big House editor told me that the problem needed to be world-changing, I faced a choice: toss yet another draft of the book and quit, or try a third time.

Sketch of two children flanking a horse bursting out of a burning barn/
Fire!

I went home and burned down the barn. Not literally of course. I’m rather attached to my barn. But one of the barns in the book caught fire. As much as it hurts me to admit it, that pesky editor was right. It made my pulse race to write that scene. Hard work to write the book from the beginning again, but worth it. BURNED is a much more exciting read with that kind of danger added.

Once I made that change in the plot, instead of raising money being the sole problem, Sophie must also grapple with the question of adults behaving badly. When her mother is accused of wrongdoing, the very real threat to Sophie’s relationship with Cricket becomes secondary to her anxiety about her mom. Fortunately, Sophie has great friends, and the full support of her Uncle Charlie, and her father, even though he lives all the way across the country from Sophie’s home in Maryland.

Sophie is smart, and strong, both outside and in, just like the Pony Club members I work with as a Chief Horse Management Judge. Horsemanship teaches all kinds of mad skills, and I gave Sophie many of the ones I see most: ability to put together facts and come out with a logical answer, resourcefulness, and I also added the loyalty to friends that serves so many of our barn families so very well.

As part of the story, I had to test Sophie. I did that by leaving enough clues about several possible bad guys so that she had to work for the solution to her mom’s problem. When I got to the end of the book, it was a relief to find that she was up for the job.

Young riders reading BURNED.At my recent signing at Championships in Kentucky, several young riders came up to tell me how much they enjoyed the book. They liked Sophie’s resilience and her ability to pick herself up and get back on the horse no matter what happened to her. Just like writing this book three times before I got it right, Pony Club kids try, try, and try again until they succeed.

Julie Herman
MysteryGarden.com

This Blog post originally ran on the Pony Club Pizza, where Pony Club piles on the knowledge.

Save the Date – June 10, 2017

Child in Bee costume, dancing
Happy Dancing!

I am so pleased to be sharing a signing with Kay Finch at Murder by the Book on June 10, 2017, 4:30 pm. Kay and I are in a critique group together, one that has been in existence for 25 years. Kay has been more constant than I, since my -trying-to-quit-writing stage took me away from the group. (Quitting didn’t stick for me — too many ideas!) Trying to find a good theme to tie together her lovely adult mystery, The Black Cat Sees His Shadow, and my middle grade mystery, BURNED, was giving us fits, we hit on the critique group as the constant between us. I have belonged to several critique groups over the years, and each and every one of them has had something good to offer me.

 

Other published authors in our critique group are:

Dean James writing as Miranda James, author of the Cat in Stacks mysteries

Kay Kendall, author of the Austin Starr mysteries

Laura Elveback, whose latest, A matter of Revenge, just came out

Anne Sloan, author of several historical mysteries set in Houston Heights

There have been a good many more over the years (I am not the only one who came and went, either graduating from the group for one reason or another)  And there are two actives who write a mean book who have not yet made a sale. (But they will. I know it’s just a matter of time.)

 

Hope you can join us!

Murder by the Book

Saturday, June 10, 2017

4:30 pm

Process

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Chopping off the Fish Head

Fish Heads

I have been waiting for several months for the latest revision to perk a bit on the back burner before jumping back in.

Just before I turned in my manuscript for the SCBWI conference critiques, it hit me. I had it all wrong.

When my husband goes fishing, he has the presence of mind to gut the fish and chop off the head before he tosses the fish into the cooler. He knows how I feel about fish. I like them fried, broiled, sautéed, but never ever with the head on.

Readers like their books the same way. Appetizing, without a stinky dried up piece of inedible flesh hanging about on their plate.

Writers often have to know so much more than readers need  or want to know about what is going on in the background. Writers need that background noise to give us insight into characters motivations and history. When I write my initial drafts, there is so much extra information on the page that the book is often twice as long as it needs to be. (Still trying to figure out a more efficient way of figuring it all out!) Thus, writers often need to prune their manuscripts before it goes to agent, editor, and reader.

I was fortunate enough to get into a novel revision workshop a month before the deadline for my seven minutes of fame with a hot agent. I took my recently completed middle grade novel featuring a young girl who lives for horses. (Sound like anyone you know?) The workshop went like this. We were teamed up with three other writers. We sent out manucripts to each of the other three writers and they did a detailed critique. My results? All three people who read my manuscript picked the eighth chapter as the first strong chapter. That meant the opening of the book contained seven weak chapters in a row. Ouch!

Not all that many readers are going to stick it through to the eighth chapter just on the off chance that the book will get interesting . . . eventually. So I started reading the book at the first strong chapter, Chapter Eight. The story still made sense and moved quickly…yes there were some key things missing, but it was clear what had to be done.

Fish Head. Whack. First six chapters hit the NotUsedMaterial.doc file. Voila.

I reworked the first page of the Chapter Seven, aka new Chapter One, smoothed the rest of it a bit, then sent it in and began to work on another project. After all it would be another two months before I got to sit down and listen to the notes the agent had for me on the piece.

Of course I spent some of that time worrying. Had I cut it too close to the action? Six chapter off the front of a manuscript is an awful lot of material to cut. Would the characters and their relationships still be understandable?

Evidently yes, because when I sat down with my critiquer, she said it read well. Not well enough that she wanted to rep it, but she did give me loads of great notes to work from, but all in all a much more positive outlook from this than I got last year.

So now all I have to do is rewrite the rest of the story so that it 1) fills enough pages to actually be a book and 2) keep it exciting and satisfying enough that someone will want to read it all the way through.

 

When one door closes…

Not that I’m shutting the door on anything just yet, mind you.

But the magazine article writing is going well.

My first article in Texas Gardener comes out in the April/May issue. Look for it at stores near you.

Fiction requires a pretty darn long stretch with no other commitments in it for me to accomplish anything much. I need to clear a few things off my desk first before I can really tidy up the WiP and send it out. I expect to get back to writing my stuff – as opposed to other people’s stuff – within the month. I’ll be back to blogging regularly then.

 

Until then, I’ll leave you with a quote for thought:

“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

A great exercise to figure out where you don’t want to go is to write, “I am afraid….” over and over again until the sentence rises up off the page and punches you in the gut. Then you’ll know a compelling subject on which to set your sights.

 

Sprouting Dirt

Large Roma Tomato

I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.

This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.

I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.

Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in.   What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden.   But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.

Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.

Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?

 

Sorry — gotta go watch my dirt grow.

Almost planting time!

 

Julie

Pay Dirt

Picture of CheckI did an interview today. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve done loads of interviews, but this time, I’m getting paid.

Reminds me of when royalty statements came with a check.

It feels good to have income coming in. It is amazing how many writers I know who write for pennies per grueling hour upon hour creating and then revising their prose just so someone can come up to them at a conference and say, “Gee, I downloaded your book from ElRippoffSite.com and loved it.” Notice they did not say they paid for it. Many readers think that writers write simply for the satisfaction of having someone they don’t know read their work. Don’t get me wrong, that’s kinda cool, but the whole work for getting paid thing works for me too. Especially when I get my electric bill.

So how do you go about paying for someone’s work? You can do it the old fashioned way and go into a bookstore and look for the books that leap off the shelf into your hands and beg you to read them. Or you could ask for my books specifically, and, when they don’t carry them, you could – gasp – order them. I know. Delayed gratification doesn’t play well in my house either. The truth is that most authors’ hard work is not carried in all bookstores. Even when the author works hard, play by the industry’s rules and rewrite until their eyeballs bleed, submit to agent after agent and collect enough rejection slips to paper their garret – learning a little about what works on the page and what doesn’t over a period of years – and then, finally, get that contract promising a tiny check upon submission of the completely revised novel. You get paid more if and only if you earn our your advance. Which is what the pittance is called. Don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pay my electric bill for the year with $2000. (Notice I didn’t even mention rent or water or gas or…you get the idea.)

Back to how to pay for a writer’s work. You can order the book online from any number of places, my favorite being Murder by the Book in Houston. Yeah, you’ll have to pay shipping, but if you order it from your local bookstore, then you don’t. (Plus, then the bookseller in your town will have heard of my books and might, just might, order more than one.)

Then there’s the e-version. Mine are not quite out in that format yet, but machinations have begun to make it so. Once it is accomplished, here’s what you do: Go to Indiebound.com , search for Murder by the Book in Houston, then look me up. (Again, not yet, cause hey, I’m not quite there.) But once I am, then you’d download the book through Indiebound.com and read it on your e-reader. (Yes, even KindleFire can read books from Indiebound.org and you can even set this device to order from stores other than Amazon.

So pick an author, say Miranda James, whose excellent new book just came out. Click on over to Indiebound.org and take a gander through Murder by the Book’s stock. Chances are you’ll find James’ latest book there – plus a whole lot more.

Happy Reading.

Rolling in the Beets

 

I planted the oddest little seeds I’ve ever seen last fall. They looked like tiny little asteroids. When dropped from my hand into the dirt, they disappeared as if into thin air (or outer space.)

Lo and behold, bright green tips arose where the asteroids had collided with my planting beds and voila! instant root vegetables.

Well, not instant. It took another couple of months, during which time I enjoyed baby beet greens – but then I had them. Creamy sweetness coming out of my oven.

 

My favorite new start this year was Chioggia Beets.They come out of the ground looking quite normal and then, once you cut them open, you get a beet that has white and red rings like it ran away to the circus and came home as the tent. Of course once they are truly cooked the difference between the rings is not as noticeable, but boy are they tasty.

 

 

 

Beet Salad

I first had this salad at a trendy little place in New York. (Okay, so I define trendy as on the nearest corner, but still…)

Ingredients:

Beets, both root and greens
Garlic, 2 – 3 cloves
Olive oil
S&P to taste (I use sea salt because it’s just better.)
Blue Cheese
Lightly roasted Walnuts

Clean your beets, reserving the beet greens.

Put the beets in a 325 degree oven to roast

  • drizzle with olive oil, salt lightly
  • wrap in foil
  • bake 30 minutes for a beet fist size or smaller, longer for those larger.
  • Don’t eat them if they’re old. Tough. Tough. Tough. MUCH better when you get them from your farmer’s market.

T-Minus 15 minutes ’til the beets are done: Roast walnuts in your skillet by turning up the flame and pushing them around, or, if you prefer, use your toaster oven.

When the beets have about ten minutes left to cook, chop your garlic to the desired choppiness and put in a skillet with some olive oil. Turn up the heat and sauté.

Once they’re tender (=not totally brown) dump your cleaned beet greens in and sauté until tender. Don’t overcook them, a little crunch is good. Remove from stovetop.

Pull beets out of the oven. Pull the skins off. (I tend to just cut in as if quartering. The skin peels easily.) Cut into smallish pieces.

Arrange greens on the plate. 
Sprinkle with walnuts.
Arrange cut beets on top.
Add about a Tablespoon or two of blue cheese.

Enjoy!