Interview with Bill Shunn

Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

Bill Shunn is a Nebula Award-nominated science fiction writer and stage/film reviewer. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Science Fiction Age, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Science Fiction Weekly, among others. 

Listen to Shunncast, his biweekly podcast at at iTunes. Visit Shunn.net for more.

You’ve got an active career aside from your writing. Do you have a hard time balancing working full time with writing?

Yes, working full time gets in the way sometimes, definitely. The way I try to arrange my schedule is that I get up at five in the morning and do an hour of writing before I go to work, although depending on what’s going on at work, that doesn’t always happen.

And it’s pretty easy sometimes to let the writing slide, so it’s a real feat of discipline. I have a hard time writing after the work day. I need to do it before I’ve really exhausted my brain at the office. I just can’t do it after work. I like to give my best to my writing.

What’s the appeal of writing short stories? Do you know when you’re sitting down to start a new piece if it will be a short story or a novella?

I definitely know when I’m writing a short story or a novel, and it’s planned out that way. I’ve written a couple of novels and I’m actually still working on publishing those, and a book-length memoir also. I find it easier to focus for the duration of a short story. In a lot of ways, I just like short fiction better as a form, maybe because I haven’t mastered the novel form yet, but I think I enjoy reading the form more than I enjoy novels. I appreciate more the compactness that goes into a work of short fiction and the way that it’s so contained, every word has to contribute to the overall effect. I find myself a little bit more at sea when working on a novel. Not that I don’t want to write a lot more novels . . .

Do you usually write with a particular market in mind or do you write a short story first and then research a possible market for it? Or both?

I do both, but for the most part, when I’m writing a short story I don’t have a market for it in mind. There have been the odd cases where I’ve been asked to contribute a short story to a particular anthology and then I’m writing to a theme, but for the most part, I just write the story and hope that I can find an appropriate market for it. And it seems to work a lot of the time.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of revisions that way? Like if you write the story and then find a market and then have to go back and make a short story longer or shorter?

I don’t usually find that I have to do a lot of revisions to fit a particular market. I do end up doing several revisions on every piece of work but usually by the time I’m sending something out I [will have done] four or five drafts of the story

And then, the editor will very often ask for some changes, but those are usually minor. For instance, with my recent novella Inclination, I had been working on that story—and working on other things also—for three years, from the first draft through the draft I finally thought was good enough to start submitting. And then I sent it to Asimov’s and it was accepted right off the bat and Sheila Williams asked me to make maybe three very minor changes, and that was that.

And I was very comfortable with that story when I sent it out, I had a very good feeling that it had finally achieved what— well, maybe not what I’d had in mind when I first started it, but certainly by the time I was done, I had written the best story I knew how to do at that point.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Sometimes it just comes from what’s going on around me but more and more I find myself taking the inspiration for my stories from my religious upbringing and all the thoughts and new opinions I have about it, that I’m still developing. It seems like in a lot of cases I’m exploring what it means to have had the Mormon upbringing and background that I did, and I’m doing that in my fiction, whether it’s explicitly or just exploring some of the themes that that’s brought up.

With Inclination, the thing that inspired me from my own childhood was this idea that children in a repressive society don’t necessarily know that it’s okay to have other opinions or that other people can be right. And so there’s this idea of informed consent for the philosophies that you’’re brought up with . . . that story came directly out of me looking back on my upbringing now, and that happens a lot lately.

One of your novelettes, Dance of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites was a Nebula Award nominee. How did you feel when you got the news?

It’s indescribable. I was just ecstatic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the field since the time I sold my first short story. It was just an indescribably exciting idea . . . it’s a cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The idea of winning paled beside the idea of even being nominated in the first place. I was in such good company, I felt just very honored and excited to be part of all that.

Did you feel like you’d finally “arrived”?

In a way I did, in a way, but I’d also been around enough in the science fiction field to know that getting nominated for an award doesn’t necessarily suddenly catapult your career into the stratosphere. So I felt like finally I was starting to get some recognition and people were starting to know who I was and that was a really nice feeling but I didn’t really feel like I necessarily “arrived.” I hope I never do feel like that because I think that—maybe for me anyway—when I start feeling like that’s the case, maybe that’s the time I will stop growing and I just want to keep improving and keep honing my craft.

Watch for part two of Absolute Write’s interview with Bill Shunn in January!

The 2006 Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference

By Kathy Ide

The Mount Hermon Christian writers’ conference is always an amazing experience —  professionally, personally, and spiritually. This was my fifth year there, and my first year on staff with the manuscript critique team. What an awesome conference this is! And what a privilege it was to be part of the faculty for an event that has been so special to me for so many years.

To begin with, Mount Hermon always attracts an amazing faculty. This year was no exception. In attendance were multi-published authors like Karen Ball, James Scott Bell, Brandilyn Collins, Cecil Murphey, Kay Marshall Strom, and renowned children’s book writer Christine Tangvald.

Acquisitions editors were there from all the major Christian book publishing houses: Baker, Barbour, Beacon Hill, Bethany, Harvest House, Howard, Legacy, Meredith Books, Moody, Multnomah, NavPress, Tyndale, Warner-Faith, WaterBrook, Wesleyan Publishing House, and WinePress (a subsidy publisher).

And agents attended too, including Janet Benrey from Hartline, Janet Kobobel Grant and Wendy Lawton from Books n’ Such, Steve Laube, and Bucky Rosenbaum.

Magazine editors, like Grace Fox from Power for Living, Hal Hostetler from Guideposts, Ginger Kolbaba from Marriage Partnership, Doug Newton from Light & Life, Tonya Stoneman from In Touch, and Connie Willems from Discipleship Journal were present as well.

Bonnie Jensen from DaySpring Cards was also there. DaySpring does not take freelance submissions for their line of greeting cards; however, Bonnie accepted submissions from attendees who spoke with her at the conference.

This year’s keynote speaker was Phil Callaway. This hysterically funny man regaled attendees with uproarious tales, most gleaned from his own childhood or his parenting experiences. Then without warning, he’d throw in a zinger of a life truth. Like “Find out who’s going to cry at your funeral, and hang out with them.” And “Someday your books will go out of print. But your children will still be in circulation.”

The friendly, down-to-earth atmosphere at Mount Hermon makes faculty members approachable. At each lunch and dinner of the four-day conference, every faculty member has an assigned table for eight. Attendees can sit at their table of choice on a first-come, first-served basis. That means numerous opportunities to give a sixty-second pitch of your writing project directly to agents and editors. If any of them are interested, you can ask if they’d like to see a proposal. If they say yes, you can mail in your proposal after the conference, with “Requested Material — Mount Hermon” on the envelope. That gives your manuscript special treatment when it arrives at the publisher’s or agent’s desk — on top of all the envelopes that go into the “slush pile.”

Major Morning Sessions included continuing workshops on fiction and nonfiction writing, article writing, writing for children and teens, speaking, and media marketing. There was also a Career Track for published authors. In addition, 70 elective workshops were offered. A wealth of information and instruction for aspiring writers and established authors, all presented in a lively, fun, and easy-to-understand way.

And if that’s not enough, attendees can send in advance submissions — up to 20 pages of two book manuscripts or articles (or two children’s books or five poems or devotionals), either for critique by a professional author or for an editorial review. At the conference, attendees pick up their manuscripts, read the comments, and meet one on one with the faculty member who did the critique/review. In addition, attendees can visit the Critique Station at any time during the conference to discuss their projects with professional authors and freelance editors.

Dave Talbott, director of the Mount Hermon conference center, is unsurpassed at organizing the event, opening all the sessions with a wonderful blend of humor and inspiration, giving away lots of free books, and leading attendees in worship sessions with his own heart-stirring musical renditions.

All this in the most incredible setting imaginable: Mount Hermon is nestled in the Redwood Forest near Santa Cruz, California. When you’re not taking in a workshop or hobnobbing with authors or singing hymns and praise songs in the auditorium, you can find emotional and spiritual refreshment strolling along the many quiet tree-lined paths alongside gently flowing streams. (All the workshops and general sessions are made available on CD after the conference, so you can skip one or two classes and still get the instruction later.)

Housing options range from rustic cabins to dorms to hotel rooms. Depending on your accommodation of choice, the conference cost ranges from about $600 to about $1,000, including tuition, 13 meals, all workshops and sessions, two manuscript critiques, and a thick three-ring notebook packed with workshop notes and other useful information. If that’s a bit steep for your budget, partial scholarships are available.

An abundance of professional training. A proliferation of opportunities to meet industry professionals face to face. Networking opportunities galore. A bookstore with just about every writing resource you could ask for, along with plenty of fiction and nonfiction books written by staff members and attendees. An autograph party, where you can get your books signed by the authors. Inspiration, encouragement, instruction, and a whole lot of good, clean fun. That’s the Mount Hermon experience.

Many successful authors will tell you that they would not be published today if not for the Mount Hermon Christian writers’ conference. This is where they learned how to write. Where they met their agents and publishers. Where they discovered things about the inner workings of the publishing industry that helped them get beyond the slush pile and the standard form rejection letters and achieve their goal of a flourishing writing career.

Mount Hermon’s writers’ conference is held on Palm Sunday weekend every year (one week before Easter), from midday Friday through midday Tuesday. For details, check out the Mount Hermon Conference website. If you’re serious about getting published in the Christian industry (or if you just need to get away for a few days of refreshment and encouragement), there’s no better place on earth than this.

The only thing that’s more exciting than attending this conference is having the honor and privilege of serving on the staff for it. I had a terrific time, worked with a lot of wonderful people, exchanged warm hugs with all my friends from previous conferences, and got to meet some extremely talented new writers. Maybe I’ll meet you there next year!

Kathy Ide is a published author, professional freelance editor, and writers’ conference speaker. She is the author of Polishing the PUGS: Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling. Check out Kathy Ide’s website.

The “Do It Yourself” Book Tour

By Aliza Sherman

Everything I know about booking a book tour, I learned while in the music business. Sometimes, I joke that as an author I’m like a small rock band. I’ve been signed by a major label, given some money in advance to make my album, fed a lot of exciting promises about marketing and promotions, and then I’m on my own. It is entirely up to me whether my record succeeds or fails. If I work really hard and there is a blip in record sales somewhere, maybe, just maybe, my record label will put a little money toward promotions or do a little public relations for me.

Does this scenario sound familiar? As a currently non-best-selling author, I’ve learned that my publisher is the ideal distributor for a product — my book — but that I’m really the marketing and PR machine. Once I accepted my role, I took advantage of an extended road trip I was taking across the country to promote my second book, Cybergrrl @ Work. I ended up stopping in more than 50 cities in 2001 to support my book.

How did I do it? Based on what I learned while working in the music business — at booking agencies and music managements companies in the early 90s — I mapped out several months of tour dates. I also enlisted a friend — Alison Berke of bworks.com – to help me book the dates, something she was happy to do on the side while running a home-based Internet marketing business. Then I hit the road.

Here are some basic concepts of booking tours that work well whether you are an aspiring rock band or up-and-coming author.

Routing the Tour

The act of “routing a tour” simply means to map out the entire trip, specifying the cities you’ll cover, noting the mileage and drive time, then using it as a framework for actually booking the tour.

Your publisher will tell you that there are only a handful of major markets that they really care about. My publisher mentioned New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and maybe Seattle since my book was Internet related and at the time, Seattle was an Internet mecca along with Silicon Valley. Traveling between those cities can be unrealistic if you cannot afford the airfare. If you can take the time off, try routing a driving tour to hit as many major markets as possible or stick to a regional area around a single major market.

You can even book a tour within a driveable radius around your own hometown or fly to a major market, rent a car and create a tour in that region. The best market, of course, would be New York City and the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) plus Pennsylvania and Washington DC and even as far north as Massachusetts. Amtrak has good deals between these cities if you don’t like to drive.

To route my tour, I used these essential tools:

A Rand McNally road atlas to help me visualize the driving routes.

Mapquest.com’s Driving Directions section so I could check approximate mileage and driving times.

A good map of the entire United States to get a perspective of the overall territory. I found that the Rand McNally road atlas only had a small map of the country without much detail.

Maps of each state where I would be traveling. My local AAA office furnished me with every map I needed.

For the first leg of my tour, I began in South Florida with a plan to end a month later in New York City. I knew that I wanted to hit Atlanta, GA, and Charlotte, NC, so I couldn’t stick to driving north on I-95. I had to consider the drive time to each city and keep in mind that most bookstores preferred evening appearances on the weekdays and afternoons on weekends.

The first few weeks of my skeletal routing looked like this:

JAN
Jan 8 Mon Miami
Jan 9 Tue Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 10 Wed Pompano Beach
Jan 11 Thu Speaking engagement (already booked) – Ft. Lauderdale
Jan 12 Fri West Palm or Melbourne?
Jan 13 Sat OFF
Jan 14 Sun OFF
Jan 15 Mon Tampa
Jan 16 Tue Orlando
Jan 17 Wed OFF
Jan 18 Thu Jacksonville
Jan 19 Fri OFF
Jan 20 Sat OFF
Jan 21 Sun OFF
Jan 22 Mon Atlanta
Jan 23 Tue OFF
Jan 24 Wed Charlotte

I emailed the above routing to Alison. We received suggestions of bookstores in each city either by emailing friends and acquaintances in the area or by researching on the Internet.

Here is what the actual tour for those weeks ended up looking like:

Tue, Jan 9 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – 8:00 pm – Archives Bookcafe
Wed, Jan 10 Miami Beach, FL – 8:00 pm – Books & Books
Thu, Jan 11 Ft. Lauderdale, FL – Speaking engagement
Fri, Jan 12 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 13 Tampa, FL – OFF
Sun, Jan 14 Clearwater, FL – 1:00 pm – Barnes and Noble
Mon, Jan 15 Orlando, FL – 3:00 pm – Books A Million
7:30pm – Borders Books Music & Cafe
Tue, Jan 16 DRIVE
Wed, Jan 17 Atlanta, GA – 7:00 pm – Chapter 11
Thu, Jan 18 Atlanta, GA – OFF
Fri, Jan 19 DRIVE
Sat, Jan 20 Charlotte, NC – OFF
Sun, Jan 21 Charlotte, NC – 7:00 pm – Borders bookstore

The changes from my tentative routing to the final schedule happened mostly because of the available dates and times at each bookstore. I skipped certain cities because they didn’t fit into the schedule as it developed, and they weren’t big enough markets to warrant rearranging the schedule.

Submitting a Rider

Every rock band has a rider — an addendum to their contract that states what the band would like in the dressing room to make their appearances more comfortable. Whether it was M&Ms without the green ones for Van Halen or an enormous bowl of boiled shrimp for Def Leppard, I witnessed rockers getting almost anything their hearts desired at each concert.

As an author, you only get what you ask for. I created a rider that Alison sent in advance to all of the bookstores that requested things such as:

  1. How to obtain copies of my book and who to contact if there is any delay. I wanted to make sure they had my books at each signing. This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many authors show up for signings only to find their books aren’t there.
  2. Request for the exact store location, contact information and driving directions to be emailed to Alison. I wanted everything in advance so I didn’t get lost.
  3. Request for specific event details. Would I be doing a signing only or did they want me to speak as well? Or were they going to set me up behind a table with my books at the front of their store?
  4. Request for Audio/Visual inventory. If they want me to speak, what would be the setup? Microphone? Podium and lectern? If they wanted me to speak, I did request a microphone and amplifier because I found that it attracted more attention storewide.
  5. Request for several bottles of spring water without ice. This was my luxury request.
  6. Request for local media contacts. If they provided Alison with these contacts in advance, she could help pursue media coverage of the event.

The rider worked out well for everyone, and I always had my bottles of water when I needed them!

Advancing the Dates

In the music business, to “advance a date” means to call a few days ahead of time to make sure everything is in order. Alison contacted each store within a week before my appearance to make sure everything was set, to go over the rider point by point, and to get answers to any last minute questions.

Advancing dates is not foolproof, but it is helpful. After over 50 tour dates, I had only had one mix up when we got a date wrong, and no one realized it until I missed my appearance. The store generously let me set up the following evening, although I didn’t have the benefit of promotions.

Promotional Tools

After many appearances at bookstores, I’ve learned that as an author, you can’t have enough promotional tools. Here are a few tools that have come in handy:

  1. Promotional Blurbs. Prepare a few, very short promotional blurbs about the book and about you that the bookstore can have in advance to include in their newsletter or give to the media. You can only imagine the erroneous and irrelevant blurbs I’ve seen about my book. Getting a consistent message out there is key to marketing your book.
  2. Pre-Prepared In-Store Announcements. Write out and give bookstores several options for storewide intercom announcements to avoid them reading blandly from your book jacket. Make sure you clearly specify how to pronounce your name. I can’t tell you how many times I’m announced as “Eliza” or “Aleesha” instead of the proper way — Uh-LEE-zuh. If you can, get permission to do the announcements right before your appearance if you are comfortable on a microphone.
  3. Book Blowups. Get several blowups of your book mounted on foam core. When you arrive in a town, go directly to the bookstore even if a few days in advance. Check the signage about your signing, and offer the blowups to put in their window or near their checkout counter with the date and time of your appearance taped to it. I was lucky enough to be given 3 blowups of my book by a New York City bookstore who had them made for my local appearance. The posters were so eye-catching that the store sold over 40 books the week before my appearance.
  4. Flyers. I made fliers at Kinkos with my photo, a graphic of my bookcover and the text: “Meet the Author — Tonite!” and “Aliza Sherman — “Cybergrrl @ Work.” I left blanks for Date, Time and Location. I made several copies of the master flyer and used a Sharpie pen to insert the appropriate information. I made copies on bright yellow paper to attract attention, and then canvassed neighboring businesses near the bookstore and asked permission to hang up the flyer in their windows. They almost always said “yes.”

Booking your own book tour can be time consuming and being on the road can be grueling, but as you begin to see book sales increasing in the markets you’ve visited, you’ll realize how effective a grassroots tour can be. Happy trails!

Aliza Sherman is an international keynote speaker, author of 11 books including Social Media Engagement for Dummies and The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, and a digital strategist since 1992. Aliza Sherman has a Website.

Tips for Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist

By Kris Saknussemm

The problem with “should” advice is that it’s either something you already know, i.e., your diet should include more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis—or it’s something really difficult (like consuming more fruit and vegetables than cheeseburgers and martinis). Based on my own stumbling, fumbling experience, I offer the following list of things I would strongly advise aspiring and despairing writers not to do. I doubt that simply by avoiding these pitfalls you will be guaranteed international fame and fortune, but I’m confident that you will at least escape many unnecessary frustrations and defeats, so that you can be fresh for the really poignant failures and setbacks that will either make or break you—and with any luck will do a bit of both.

Tip #1. Do not spend years gathering interesting material—odd quotations, overheard remarks, colorful phrases, bits of trivia, weird statistics, and obscure facts in the hope that you will one day find a story to contain them. I ended up with a figurative warehouse of such stuff and I can tell you now with considerable confidence that the larvae of the human botfly bore into the skin and gorge themselves, emerging as centimeter-long maggots, while a Joshua Hendy nine-thousand horsepower steam turbine delivers a cruising speed of 16 knots at 78 rpm. There is nothing wrong in knowing that if left underwater for years brass gives off a bright verdigris stain or that the first birds of paradise shipped back to Europe had their legs chopped off to facilitate packing, but the collection of details is like any acquisitive habit—potentially obsessive. You can end up with a novel that reads like the Gospel according to St. Matthew translated into the Duke of York Island language and a response from the publishing industry reminiscent of a deserted poolroom on the shore of Sheepshead Bay. Put bluntly, burn your notebooks and clear your head.

Tip #2. Do not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies such as cut-ups and verbal collages, intricate multiple person narratives, dream stories, recipe books, anatomies, imaginary academic theses, and the like. Yes, it’s true that some of the world’s most interesting literature has elements of these forms—but that was then and this is different. If you are serious about getting a work of fiction published today you need quick, sharp answers to the following questions: In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? What’s your novel about in three sentences or less?

Tip #3. The Puritans believed in covering the body for modesty’s sake. Yet they developed a sexualized fascination for the ears of women and the noses of men. My point? (See Tip #1) In apparent restriction there is unexpected release. Dickens created over 800 individual characters and laid down some of the most intense cultural satire in English—but his writing really came into focus when Wilkie Collins hipped him to the detective story. I struggled for years trying to find a form for my writing, flitting around like a Ulysses butterfly. The moment I gave myself permission to write an action/adventure story, things started falling into place. Modern art has provided artists with unparalleled and some might argue paralyzing freedom. Don’t waste time trying to create a new form. It’s given to very few people in any medium to do that—and many of their achievements end up looking like legless birds of paradise later. A seemingly simple repetitive musical style like the blues has proven capable of expressing the full spectrum of human experience and has inspired countless variations and mutations. Give yourself over to an established structure and follow its guidelines, and suddenly interesting points will emerge to surprise you.

Tip #4. Read your work aloud, ideally to some willing victim, but at least to yourself. Storytelling began as an oral form and the ear (however erotically appealing) has a trueness to it that will reveal what’s working and what’s not in a more immediate and decisive way than simply scanning the page. This discipline will also slow you down psychologically and bring you into more intimate contact with your story. In the end, it will take no more time than reading back a page silently.

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more important, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston, I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ’em.”

Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself—unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around)—unless you are willing to get lost, confused, and even terrified—then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

Cover of Kris Saknussemm's novel Private MidnightKris Saknussemm grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but has for a long time lived abroad, in the Pacific Islands and Australia.  A painter and sculptor as well as a writer, his fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as The Hudson Review, The Boston Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters and ZYZZYA. You can find  Kris Saknussemm on the Web at krissaknussemm.comKris Saknussem has  an Amazon author page

Keeping a Journal in Tumultuous Times

By Barbara Stahura

Memory is a tricky thing even in the best of times. But in times of great stress and chaos, you might as well kiss it goodbye, for all the good it will do you in accurately recalling events. When your world explodes, memory, too, falls into fragments around your feet — disjointed pieces that later shape-shift, ooze into old recollections or couple with imagination to create new patterns, or disappear altogether. So when I entered the most agonizing, confusing time of my life, I took my journal along and wrote pages in it nearly every day. As a wife and an individual in the midst of turmoil, and also as a writer, I’m grateful that I did.

At the end of 2003, my husband, Ken, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as the result of a hit-and-run. For a short time, the accident shattered my life into chaos. Later, I settled into a weird rhythm so disconnected from my familiar life that it often left me breathless (and once sent me to the ER with chest pains). I had to maintain any stability I could for Ken’s sake, and for mine. Beginning the morning after the accident, I wrote in my journal nearly every day. At the time my reasons for journaling weren’t necessarily defined. I simply felt a driving need to record my thoughts. Now, though, I’ve had time to sort out and reflect on those reasons.

First, in the exhausting, agonizing weeks that followed the accident, I felt as if I had been cast into the deepest ocean without a life jacket. Visible land — the life to which I hoped to return with my recovered husband — was only a hazy strip in the far distance. Journaling provided a way to ground myself, at least for little snatches of time. It was a safe, private haven where I poured out my confusion, anger, and sorrow.

This had a positive result since I was less likely to express these emotions in the wrong place, as in the ICU, for instance, when Ken’s neurologist saw no need to speak with me. Furthermore, though any medical emergency is confusing, the addition of a TBI complicates the situation even more. The brain controls everything we do, directing not only our mental functions like memory and cognition, but also our personality, emotions, and all the other functions that blend together to create a self. And when the self of someone you love more than your own heart is diminished and damaged the way Ken’s was, you clutch whatever you can to keep yourself afloat. I clutched my journal as if our lives depended on it.

Second, Ken’s memory was damaged by the TBI (fortunately, it has returned, with only slight deficits). He remembers nothing of the earliest weeks after the accident and not much of his time in the rehab facility and the second acute care hospital where he was taken after developing a pulmonary embolism. Early on, I figured he might one day like to know what happened to him, to me, and to us during this lost time. I wrote in my journal for him, too. After he came home and was well enough to comprehend it (and, I’ll admit, decipher my handwriting), he read the entire journal and was grateful I had written so extensively.

Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries.

And, finally, I kept the journal because I am a writer. I knew I would eventually want to write my truth about this watershed event in our lives, and how could I do that without a record? To be enveloped by crisis and wanting to record it so I could later write about it, and even profit from it, can sound self-serving. Perhaps it is. But other writers understand. Writers have long teased personal essays, memoirs, poems, and even fiction from true-life journal entries. In the past eight months, I’ve read half a dozen memoirs from TBI survivors and their families, all of which used journal entries as memory aids and even as direct sources of narrative. And all of them have given me a clearer understanding of the devastation, struggle, and hope that surround this injury that is unlike any other a human being can sustain.

Like prehistoric pollen captured in cores of ancient ice, little nuggets of information glisten in a journal long after an event. Just as scientists use that pollen to infer a great deal about climate and plant life in centuries past, we writers can use our journal nuggets to illuminate much larger portions of our stories. Until I re-read my journal after Ken came home, I’d forgotten a bizarre, significant dream from two weeks after the accident. Now incorporated into the memoir I’m writing, this dream reminds me that I occasionally felt hopeful during the days when my husband sometimes couldn’t remember my name and when exhaustion and despair whitewashed my other emotions. I’ve also referred to my journal when writing several personal essays about Ken and brain injury. Each time, I’ve unearthed something vanished from my conscious memory that allowed me to present a clearer picture.

It can be wrenching to read my journal entries and relive those horrible, frantic weeks after Ken’s accident. But my journal now provides me something precious that was not available then: the luxury of remembering, at a distance and in great detail. Instead of feeling frustrated because that time has evaporated from my memory, I can turn to my journal. I didn’t record everything, of course, but I preserved enough to allow me to reconstruct events, feelings, and situations that otherwise would have been lost forever. As Ken’s wife, I’m gratified he also found value in my journal. And as a writer, I hope that what I scribbled all those months ago may someday have value to others who love TBI survivors.

Barbara Stahura is a freelance writer in Tucson, Arizona, who has written for a number of print and online publications, including Science & SpiritThe ProgressiveSpirituality & Health, and MSNBC.com. Barbara Stahura has a website.

Critical Critiques: Feedback from Friends and Family

By Natalie Lorenzi

You’ve heard the same advice over and over — nix the pink paper for submissions and don’t ever ask your loved ones  to critique your writing (unless they are writers themselves — and even then, it’s questionable). Why are so many writers negative about feedback from friends and family?

Feedback from Friends and Family

I’ll concede that writers should avoid pink (and otherwise colored) paper, but as for shunning feedback from friends and family —  I’m not so sure. Certainly there are writers who caution against familial feedback. Why? Because the people who love you will undoubtedly claim that they adore your work, since a) they don’t know any better, or b) they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I have to ask — is that really so bad? The answer: it depends on why you’re asking for their opinion.

You’ve already heard the major reasons to avoid soliciting feedback from familiar folks. Don’t do it…

. . .  to improve your writing skills.

Great Uncle Percy probably won’t offer any tips on subplot, nor will your best friend from high school shed insight on how to revamp your dialogue. And even if your neighbor really is a writer/publisher/editor/agent and hates your work, she can’t just send you a form rejection letter and pray that she never hears from you again. At the very least, she’ll still have to greet you when you take out the trash and pick up your mail.

. . . to impress an editor.

“My kids just adore this particular story . . . ” I can already see the harried editor cringing as he tosses your query over his shoulder. And it won’t matter if your kid’s entire fourth grade class voted your story as the best one in the annals of children’s literature — you might as well open your query with, “Hi, I’m new at this . . . ”

. . . for advice on submitting your work.

When you send in that article on the FDA’s new food pyramid, don’t follow your niece’s suggestion to put scratch-and-sniff food stickers on the envelope. And when your colleague suggests: “Random House publishes a lot of books — why don’t you send your story to them?” remember that you’ll still need to research markets to find the perfect fit for your piece.

Ok, so we know what our loved ones can’t deliver.

Now let’s take a look at why we should seek out their opinions anyway:

To give your ego a boost.

When I e-mailed my first children’s story manuscript to my best friend, she responded the same day: “I’ll be the first in line at your book signing when you hit the New York Times best-seller list!” How can you read something like that and not smile? And from my mom, the avid reader — “Oh, honey, it’s the best story I’ve ever read.” The gushing was palpable. Do I really think it’s the best story she’s ever read? Probably (ok, definitely) not. But even if it’s a story that only a mother can love, her comment still gave my writing ego a boost.

To ease the sting of rejection.

When an editor of a major women’s magazine passed on one of my queries, my sister’s response was: “That woman’ll be sorry one day when your story shows up in one of their competitor’s magazines!” I can just see her raising her eyebrows and nodding sagely. My dad confirmed: “What does that editor know? I don’t think that particular magazine is all that popular anymore, anyway. Why don’t you try one of the bigger magazines?” He had no way of knowing that “that magazine” boasts more than 13 million readers — he just knew that none of those 13 million would be reading his daughter’s article — their loss, apparently. Sure, I was disappointed about the rejection, but picturing my dad admonishing this big-time editor did elicit a smug smile from my lips.

For improvements

What? Didn’t I just explain that someone who loves you can’t help you improve your writing? Well, this may be true most of the time. But you just might discover a few nuggets of literary lucidity buried amongst all the “Oh, it’s wonderful!” comments. After my husband read my middle grade children’s manuscript, I sat back, ready to bask in the glow of his compliments. And he did say some nice things. But what sticks with me are the words: “Honey, all of your characters are boys. Girls tend to be more avid readers, anyway. Won’t you be alienating a good portion of your market by not having any female characters?” Huh? I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that. He was right, of course, so George became Susan, and thank goodness for the “Find/Change” feature that took care of all the instances of “she” and “her.”

Do you want the truth about your writing? Constructive feedback, maybe? Join a critique group, or take a class. Do you want a boost after finding your twenty-seventh consecutive rejection lurking in the mailbox? Then ask your loved ones to read your writing. Don’t use their feedback to hone your craft; use it to fill your heart. If you want to remind yourself that you’re worth more than the sum of your rejections minus those scant acceptances — go ahead and send a copy of your latest piece to your grandmother. I’ll bet she says it’s the best thing she’s ever read.

Cover of Natalie LorenziNatalie Dias Lorenzi is a full-time school librarian in Fairfax, Virginia, where a majority of her students are immigrants. She has previously taught in the US, Japan, and Italy, specializing in English as a Second Language. Natalie also writes curriculum guides for writers and publishers. She is the author of Flying the Dragon, which was a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Children’s Book of the Year. She’s a great writer — just ask her friends and family. Natalie Lorenzi has a Website

Living Creatively: Word Play

By Dawn Allcot

As a child, I spent hours playing Scrabble, Word Yahtzee, and Boggle with my mother. Thinking back, all this child’s play was merely a precursor to my adult life as a professional writer. I still love playing with word play; playing with letters and words, rearranging them to change their meanings, create a better flow, and entertain and inform my readers.

Not all of my word play is work, either. I still sit in front of the computer for hours, manipulating words on the screen at www.magneticpoetry.com or challenging people across the country at Yahoo’s online version of Scrabble, Literati.

It’s rare that I finish a game and don’t feel like writing. Often, the odd combinations of words crossing each other on the Literati board will spark a story idea or a poetic line.

“Magnetic poems,” short, haiku-ish things, beg expansion, giving birth to full-fledged poetry. Wackysentences created in Word Yahtzee demand explanations, entire stories created around one silly idea.

Writing’s a Game

Playing games with other writers is particularly fun and challenging. If you’re in the mood for a creative writing exercise, challenge another literary-minded friend to a game of Scrabble. When you’re done, jot down the words you’ve created and write your own story.

You can do the same thing after a game of Boggle, perhaps using the myriad of rhyming, monosyllabic words to write a silly children’s book. Upwords, a board game quite similar to Scrabble, lends itself to shorter words that may be conducive to limericks or short poems.

Remember Mad Libs? Everyone’s favorite party word game has been around more than half a century! And there is still nothing’s better to evoke uncommon verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Try to incorporate some of the unusual phrasing in the Mad Libs story into your own work. Or take your Mad Libs creation and turn it into a bizarre fantasy world for a story of your own. It doesn’t have to be good — it’s Mad Libs. Anything goes!

A glimpse down the game aisle at Toys R Us, or even through a game store such as Wizards of the Coast, indicates that there are more word games on the market now than ever before. Choices are no longer limited to Password and Scrabble.

Scattergories requires you to think of several different words in various categories, all beginning with the same letter — great for practicing your alliteration abilities!

Apples to Apples makes players match up adjectives with appropriate names. Some hilarious combinations may provoke creative descriptions, titles or even short story themes.

In Balderdash, players make up definitions for unusual words; the best bluffer wins! This game stretches your creativity and language skills, as you can employ an understanding of English words and word play to invent a fake, yet logical, definition for a word and bluff your way to a win.

Online Diversions

Word Whomp is a highly-addictive, harder-than-it-looks, word game available free online at Pogo.com. The goal is to make as many three to six letter words as you can from the words on the screen. While I doubt this game’s ability to stir your creative thinking, it’s a great diversion that exercises your brain a bit better than, say, Elf bowling or anything on Jib Jab.

Pogo offers many other unique and challenging word games, too, such as Book Worm, played like an old-fashioned word search with a few twists and Tumble Bees, a Tetris-like game that requires you to spell words. The site also offers standards such as Hangman and Scrabble.

To find some truly creative writing and word games, you need look no further than the Absolute Write Water Cooler’s Writing Exercises, Prompts & Whimsical Pursuits. Regular AW visitors write limericks together, play the Double Letter game, and even participate in a creative thread where you have to make up an outrageous lie about the person who posted before you.

Play these games in moderation, as they can be addictive. But when you need a break from your WIP yet want to keep your brain working, this type of creative stimulation via word play can be just what the writer ordered!

Going It Alone

Of course, don’t forget those games you can play alone: from the crossword puzzle in your daily paper to jumbles and word searches, these puzzles all get the part of your brain that deals with words primed for a day of writing.

Any writer who’s ever struggled over plot developments or characterization longs to go back to that time of childlike innocence, when he or she wrote with unleashed imagination and uninhibited creativity.

Word play and  games can help.

Dawn Allcot is a full-time freelance writer who employs her creativity as a regular contributor to magazines. You can find Dawn Allcot at Allcot Media & Marketing.

Self-Publish Your Own Book — A Timeline

By Patricia Fry

The thought of self-publishing can be daunting. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the processes of setting up a publishing company, writing a book, taking care of the business aspects of preparing that book, and then there’s promotion.

But many professionals recommend self-publishing as an alternative to trade publishing. Why? You maintain control of your project from start to finish. You make all of the decisions — decisions that affect the future of your book. You will develop a greater sense of intimacy with your project, and thus be better prepared for the task of promotion. And you get all of the profit.

The process of self-publishing takes time, effort, and money. But isn’t your book worth your full attention? Here’s a calendar to guide you in the steps necessary to self-publishing your book.

BEFORE WRITING YOUR BOOK

  1. Write a book proposal. While a book proposal is generally thought of as your foot-in-the-door to a publisher, there’s even a greater purpose: a book proposal will tell you if you even have a book. So before sinking your life savings and a year or more of your life into this project, make sure you actually have something worth publishing.
  2. Determine if self-publishing is for you. Talk to others who have self-published to find out what it entails. Read about self-publishing. I recommend The Self-Publishing Manual by Dan Poynter. Study how a book is marketed. Preparing the book for market is a huge job, but marketing your book is ongoing. The amount of time you put into marketing will relate directly to how successful your book will become.

WHILE WRITING YOUR BOOK

  1. Name your publishing company. Be careful about using a name that reflects the nature of your book. You may decide to publish books in different genres in the years ahead. While Lace and Linen Press would be appropriate for a company producing books on sewing or crafts, it doesn’t work very well for historical or travel books.
  2. Apply for a fictitious business name. This is available through your county clerk. Have two or three names in mind in case your first choice is taken.
  3. Establish a business address. If you’re working out of your home, you might consider signing up for a post office box or a box at a mailbox store to use for business correspondence.
  4. Order business stationery.
  5. Open a business checking account.
  6. Request a block of International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN). Assign one number to each book you publish. This number identifies your publishing company and the book and is necessary for books sold in the retail market. R.R. Bowker is the U.S. agency for distributing ISBNs. You cannot purchase just one number. You will probably want to start with a block of ten numbers, however you can also order blocks of one hundred or one thousand. The cost as of this date is $225 for ten. For more information and to purchase your ISBN printout, visit www.isbn.org. Contact the agency by phone at 877-310-7333 or by e-mail at isbn-san@bowker.com.
  7. Request an Advanced Book Information (ABI) form. About six months before your book is finished, fill out the form and send it to R.R. Bowker (POB 2068, Oldsmar, FL 34677-0037). This insures that your book will be listed in Books in Print– one of the industry’s most important directories. There is no charge for the form or for the listing. Books in Print is the directory that bookstores use to locate ordering information about your book when customers request it by name.
  8. Request Copyright forms. Contact the U.S. Copyright Office at 202-707-3000 or online at www.loc.gov/copyright. Wait to file this form until after you’ve completed your work on the book. The cost as of this date is $30.
  9. Contact your State Board of Equalization and request a resale permit.

 

WHEN YOU’RE ALMOST FINISHED WRITING THE BOOK

  1. (About six months before completion)
  2. Assign an ISBN to your book.
  3. Fill out an ABI form and send it in.
  4. Order your Publisher’s Cataloguing in Publication information (P-CIP). This information, which is printed on your copyright page, is important for library use. Contact Quality Books at 800-323-4241 or visit their website at http://www.quality-books.com/qb_pcip.html. The cost depends on how quickly you need the P-CIP information. Expect to pay $40 for a 60-day turnaround.

WHILE EDITING YOUR BOOK

(About three months before the book is completed)

  1. Search for a printer. If you’re going the traditional printing route, send a request for a price quote to eight or ten printers and ask to see samples of their work. The printer will want to know quantity of books, number of pages, type of binding, paper stock, size, number and type of illustrations, text color, and cover ink (4-color, 2-color?). Find printers listed in your local Yellow Pages and Literary Market Place (in the reference section at your library) and ask for recommendations from other small publishers. If you want to work with a POD company or produce an e-book, research these avenues.
  2. Send pre-publication review copies. While some experts are now suggesting that the small publisher doesn’t have a chance for a review by one of the important pre-publication reviewers, others recommend submitting your manuscript. If you get a review, this could jump start your book sales in a big way. I know self-published authors who have had marvelous reviews in these major review publications. Pre-publication reviews appear in magazines that are read by the book industry: bookstore and library buyers, for example. And these reviewers want to see the book before it’s published, so don’t wait to send a finished book. While you can send your manuscript, you’ll make a better presentation if you have it bound, even with a plain cover. Give your publication date as anywhere from three to six months in advance. Enclose a cover letter with your galley that includes the title, author’s name, publication date, ISBN, name of publishing company, price, and contact information. If you have a distributor or wholesaler lined up, list their contact information as well. Generally, however, you don’t approach distributors and wholesalers until you have a book to show them.
  3. Commission someone to design your cover. Contact authors and small publishers to find out who designed their covers. Locate graphic artists and illustrators through an organization such as SPAWN, the Yellow Pages or a local arts directory.
  4. Set your price. There are a couple of ways to figure your price. Some experts suggest pricing your book at an amount eight times the cost per book. This means if the total cost of producing your book is $5.00 each, you should charge $40 for the book. If you produce an 80-page book for around $1.50, you must charge $12. This doesn’t seem logical to me. I recommend comparing the price of books similar to yours to help determine your price.
  5. Order a bar code. Contact Bar Code Graphics, Inc. at sales@barcode-us.com. You will need an ISBN and the price of the book in order for the company to create your bar code. I generally pay around $30 for my barcodes.

WHEN THE BOOK IS FINISHED

  1. Choose a printing method and a printer. Find out how they want you to deliver the book and cover design.
  2. Deliver the book to the printer.

WHILE THE BOOK IS AT THE PRINTER

(approximately two to six weeks prior to publication)

  1. Solicit pre-publication orders. Send announcements to your mailing list which should include everyone who has expressed any interest in your book: friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances. State to those whom you plan to give complimentary copies that they have one coming and if they’d like to order additional copies they may do so. Also mail notices to local libraries, bookstores, and anyone interested in the topic. Make it easy for people to order books. When you start receiving orders, don’t cash checks until the books have been put in the mail to the customer. Sometimes I offer a discount for those folks who order by a certain date.
  2. Fill out and send the copyright form. There’s a $30 filing fee.
  3. Create a list of post-publication reviewers. This might include book reviewers for magazines, newsletters, and websites on the topic of your book and general book reviewers, as well.
  4. List those to whom you wish to send complimentary copies. This might include those involved in helping to create the book: cover designer, typesetter, and so forth. Prepare promotional packets for key book reviewers and address mailers in preparation for your first shipment.
  5. Start planning your promotion program.

AFTER PUBLICATION

  1. Ship and deliver review copies, complimentary copies, and pre-publication orders.
  2. Send two copies of the book to Copyright Office (address on Copyright form).
  3. Send three copies of the book to the Library of Congress (address on Copyright form).
  4. Send one copy of the book to Quality Books. Ask them to consider your book as a distributor to the library market (1003 W. Pines Road, Oregon, IL 61061-9680).
  5. Fill out paperwork for the State Board of Equalization.
  6. Apply for a business license. Check into your city/county requirements for a business license. I have to have a county business license and one for the city since I live (work) in the county and sell books in bookstores in the city.
  7. Contact book distributors and wholesalers. Find listings in Literary Market Place.
  8. Put your promotional plan into action.

Patricia Fry is a full-time freelance writer and the author of numerous books, including fiction and non-fiction titles. 

12 Ways to Keep Your Nonfiction Book in the News

By Sandra Beckwith
Publishers are willing to publicize nonfiction books when they’re released, but they rarely do much after the launch to keep books in the news, even though most deserve ongoing media exposure. Here are some easy things you can do to generate continuing publicity for your title. Use a mix of these ideas to develop a 12-month publicity plan that will provide the support your book needs.

Turn the advice in your chapters into a series of monthly tip sheets. A tip sheet is a press release that offers tips or advice in a bulleted or numbered format. Start your tip sheet with an introductory paragraph that explains why the tips you’re offering are important, list your bulleted advice, then tie it all together at the end with a concluding paragraph. Send it to appropriate media outlets; the distribution list will depend on your topic.

Contact the press immediately when your topic is making headlines to offer your expert perspective. This is a sure thing with most local media outlets when it’s a national news story because you’re giving them a local angle. Fax or e-mail (no attachments) your bio and a cover letter explaining your position on the breaking news to the appropriate media contact. If you’ve done enough interviews to prepare for the big time, pitch the national news outlets, too.

Add the media to your newsletter distribution list. The same useful advice or information you offer subscribers in your print or electronic newsletter could be of interest to reporters covering that topic, too. I got a book contract several years ago from the publicity that resulted from adding the media to the distribution list of a newsletter I publish.

Repackage your book content into bylined trade magazine articles. Depending on the terms of your publishing contract, you might need to do some rewriting so it’s “new” material. Make sure the author credit at the end of the article includes your book title.

Capitalize on holidays and special months, weeks, and days by distributing a press release with useful, newsworthy information related to the topic, or by contacting the press to offer yourself as an expert information source. For example, many daily newspapers run articles in December about how the holidays are especially difficult for people who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one or facing the anniversary of a loss. This presents many coast-to-coast interview opportunities fosr the author of a book on grief and loss— but only if the author reaches out to the press. And November 15 is “National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day”—surely there’s an ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) member who can capitalize on that occasion!

Contact the public relations department of your industry’s trade association to offer yourself for media interviews. Association public relations people are often contacted by writers like us looking for members with a particular expertise to interview. Make sure your association knows about your qualifications and the topics you can comment on, and you’ll get referral calls.

Conduct a newsworthy and relevant survey on your topic and announce the interesting results in a press release. The author of a cookbook designed to make cooking simple and easy can survey people about why they don’t cook more, and release the findings in a press release sent to newspaper food editors and cooking magazines. The release should include information about your book’s connection to the survey topic.

Sponsor an attention-getting contest and announce the results in a press release. To promote my humor book about men, I conducted a “Worst Gift from a Man Contest.” The resulting press release led to nationwide media attention, including a holiday appearance on a national cable TV talk show.

Push your publisher’s publicist to monitor ProfNet for reporter queries related to your topic all year. Alternatively, subscribe to ProfNet via its PR Leads reseller and respond to appropriate queries. A $99 per month subscription via www.prleads.com is more affordable than a ProfNet subscription.

Monitor ASJA forums for source requests . ASJA members frequently post requests on the magazines and newspapers forum for interview sources.

Tell the media when you’re visiting their market. Reporters love to interview experts who aren’t local, so if you’re in another city for any reason, contact the appropriate media people two weeks before your trip to offer ideas for articles they can write based on an in-person interview with you. If you’re in town to speak, send an announcement press release several weeks in advance and offer to do a pre-event telephone interview.

Repurpose your best tips into a free booklet. Write and distribute a press release that describes the booklet and how people can get a free copy; make sure both the booklet and the release include information about your book, too.

Generating ongoing publicity is work, but it’s not rocket science. Invest the time so you boost sales while contributing to your author platform. You’ll see the rewards at the end of the year.

Sandra Beckwith, the author of Streetwise Complete Publicity Plans: How to Create Publicity That Will Spark Media Exposure and Excitement, teaches the online “Book Buzz” class for Freelance Success. Learn more at www.sandrabeckwith.com.

Anatomy of a Newspaper Feature

By Ben Baker

As a newspaper editor for longer than I really want to think about, I’ve written, read, edited, and cursed more newspaper feature articles than anyone except another newspaper editor.

The cursing part comes in because most newspaper feature articles I read are one-person interviews which are almost monologues of the person being interviewed. Nothing exciting, some potentially interesting anecdotes, but it’s not the kind of writing that reaches out and grabs a reader by the eyeballs and drags him into a story.

The fault for this is twofold: most newspaper reporters are under serious deadline pressure to get something written and get it on a page. This leaves little time for getting seriously creative in the storytelling process and storytelling is what a solid feature should do. The second problem is newspaper reporters are taught to keep a professional distance from the story, which prevents them from getting inside the story and looking out.

I recently had the chance to write a feature story, which is rare for me. As the story involved the father of one of my friends, I got into deeper than I normally would have. The story turned out to be a killer piece. I have included it below with some story-construction notes embedded in parentheses to show the process of how I generated this award-winning story.

By Ben Baker Editor (Byline. Duh.)

His arm reaches as high as it can as the tall man waves vigorously at the Cessna plane taking off at the Turner County airport. (This lede is intentionally ambiguous because I had awesome art to go with the story—a hunched over man covered in gauze between two very tall men next to a small single-engine plane. The 80 pt kicker headline read “A Dying Wish.” I knew I had the reader hooked with these two visual elements, but I wanted to make some suspense. It was important to show this big man waving at the plane for reasons that will become more obvious later in the story.)

You can’t see the big man’s eyes tearing up because he’s got sunglasses on as he watches the plane soar off. It’s not a wave good-bye. Well, then again it sort of is a way good-bye. (Key #1—why the wave was important. Here we have a big man. Men, as the adage goes, are not supposed to cry. Yet, here a very large man, as evidenced by the artwork, is crying. There’s also another suspense set-up in the double-entendre wave goodbye. Again, this will make sense later into the story. )

(These two ‘graphs are also a key place where most newspaper features fall down. I have not given the reader any information in the story that is useful so far as a plot line goes. But I have taken a line from fiction writers and I have built major character into this man in four short sentences. Character development is the number one area where newspaper feature stories fall down. A good feature writer doesn’t just interview. A good feature writer observes and reports on what is seen. Show the reader some details. )

The tall man in sunglasses is watching a lifelong dream happen as the plane disappears from sight. The airplane trip, piloted by Jay Leatherwood, is a ride sponsored by the Ashburn Pilot’s Association. Seated next to Mr. Leatherwood is a special passenger. A passenger who is stooped over, and has a head covered with gauze, a passenger who is getting a dream 80+ years in the making come true. (This paragraph sets the hook, to borrow a fishing term. I have grabbed the reader with a few key words: “Lifelong dream” speaks to everyone who has an unmet personal goal of any kind. We all have dreams. “Special passenger” lets the reader know this is not an ordinary event. The next sentence partially explains this, but builds more suspense. The “80+ years” is just more suspense and tightens the grip on the reader. These minor details are one of the instances where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Also, note my use of these descriptive details scattered throughout the story. Observe absolutely, but take your observations and shotgun them through the story. Keep feeding your reader bits and bites of information. Don’t lump all your observations into one sentence or one paragraph. It’s like butter and sour cream on a baked potato. Mix the condiments through the entire tater and it will taste good from the first bite to the last. )

The special passenger is James. J. Zabriskie. The gauze protects the skin-cancer ravaged skin on his skull from being damaged. (Now you know the man’s name. Critical information, but I delayed announcing it intentionally. I linked it to the cancer. Being in South Georgia, skin cancer here is extremely common. Everyone I know has had family members touched by cancer and every extended family down here has lost someone to cancer. Cancer, as with any dread disease, generates sympathy in a reader, especially when the disease is caused by external forces the victim had no control over. )

The internal cancer, well, it’s terminal. (Death. It’s the great equalizer. I wrote this sentence exactly like I would speak it to someone. In fact, before I wrote it, I spoke it aloud. The word “well” separated by commas generates a dramatic pause which lets the reader know something of major importance is coming up. Two simple words “it’s terminal” deliver an emotional blow like nothing else. )

James is Craig Zabriskie’s (call him Craig Z) dad. Craig Z is the tall man in sunglasses who watched the plane take off on the ride of a lifetime for his dad. (A simple wrap-up sentence to tie everything above together. Now the light goes off in the reader’s head. The suspense in ended, but a new suspense has been created. The old man went flying, which was his wish. So what was it like? This is where the interview with the feature subject is very important. I use Craig Z to ID the son because that is how Craig Z is known in our community. As he explains, no one can pronounce his last name. )

“I would have given my life to fly,” the elder Mr. Z says standing outside the plane. (Just me being a bit difficult and teasing the reader by dragging out the suspense. It’s very important that this kind of tease be short. Take it too long and you frustrate the average reader who will move on to a less annoying story, unless the reader likes mysteries in which case more teasing is a good thing. I also differentiate the two men by calling the father Mr. Z. )

After 83 years, Mr. Z got his wish to soar above the earth, shaking off the fetters of gravity that have kept him bound to the surface. (An almost hyperbolic statement. Pure and simple, it’s a case of me as a writer injecting imagery into a story. Instead of saying, “He got to fly.” I jazzed it up with extensive descriptive language. This too is another failing of many newspaper features. Instead of telling the reader Mr. Z flew, I give, as I count, nine separate images: Age, soar, earth, shaking off, fetters, gravity, kept, bound and surface. Again, a case of the whole is greater than sum of the parts. Egad, this is so hackneyed, but so true—show, don’t tell. )

As Mr. Leatherwood and Craig Z helped the elder Mr. Z into the front seat of the plane, Craig Z joked “This is the Turner County Make a Wish Foundation for old farts.” (Straight quote. No way I could improve on it. Sometimes you get a gem of an interview, sometimes you don’t. I got lucky with this one. )

The Zabriskies are carnival people. Craig Z runs a bigtop tent manufacturing and repair facility on Stanford Road. He moved up here from Florida and resumed operations in the old Industrial Park before moving to the Standford Road facility. He got into the business because of his Dad. (More background info. I could have dressed this up some, but the story is really about Mr. Z, so I left this pretty plain. But, it’s important information as the next ’graph illustrates. )

“I could write you a serious story just about his life,” Craig Z said. “He grew up with his mother. His father left them. He went into the carnivals to try and impress his dad. He was a WWII prison camp guard.” (Luck of the draw, pure and simple. A great interview and a man with an interesting past. )

After that, Mr. Z went to a trade school and learned about the big diesel engines that power so many carnival rides. (More background, but as most people have been to a carnival, they probably never gave a thought to what goes on behind the scenes. Still, running away with the circus is often a childhood dream and still something adults joke about. Here’s one man who did it. This creates another emotional link between the reader and Mr. Z. More luck of the draw sort of. I say sort of, because everyone has a story—sometimes you just have to look harder to find it. I didn’t have to look long to find this one. )

Even through all this, he never let go of the dream of flight. (A setup line. Pure and simple. Short. Sweet. Alludes to hard times and still holding on to a dream—this is clearer in the next paragraph. Another emotional link forged in the chain connect the reader and Mr. Z. As a writer, you should look for ways to connect the feature subject to the reader. )

“When he was a little kid, he used to build model airplanes. That was his passion, to learn to fly,” Craig Z said of his dad. “He was born with one bad eye and never could go for his pilot’s license.” (More background, but presented in a killer quote. I got lucky again. )

The plane meanwhile, has warmed up and is taxiing out to the runway. (I draw the reader back to the story at hand. I wrote this story in present tense first, changed it to past tense and went back to present tense because in my mind present tense for the flight is more real and immediate to the reader. It brings the reader into the story with me. The sentence also announces the flight, mentioned in the lede, is about to begin.)

“I’ve got to get over here,” Craig Z said by way of excusing himself to the other side of his pickup. ‘I’m all busted up over this.” (More luck of the draw quotes, but also ones that show Craig Z has made his own emotional investment in the story. Parents will clearly identify with this as will people who’ve had to care for ailing parents. )

After a few minutes to recover his composure, he comes back around to the front of the truck. The plane is at the far end of the runway. Mr. Leatherwood is preparing for takeoff. (Straight observation. Keeps the reader involved in the here and now in the story. I could have expanded this to discuss the plane zipping down to the far end of the runway while Craig leaned on his truck, but I chose to leave this part unspoken and merely hint at it. This is a case of forbidden fruit is always sweeter. By leaving it to the reader’s imagination, they can create in their own mind what happened and thereby move even deeper into this feature. )

“It’s been his lifelong dream. Jay is fulfilling it for him,” Craig Z said. “He’s terminal with cancer. He came home here with me to spend his last days. I thank God for all the people here in Turner County. Y’all have been so great to all of us.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality. It’s what we do. It’s also luck of the draw on quotes. )

The plane is now rolling up the runway. Tina Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s granddaughter is filming the ride from the ground. Nicholas Zabriskie, Mr. Z’s grandson is riding in the plane’s back seat. The plane leaves the runway and Mr. Leatherwood pulls back on the yoke. The plane rises. Craig Z waves as hard as he can. (This wraps the plane ride, but not the story. )

THE NEXT MORNING (subhead break—announces a second part of the story. )

The next morning at the Zabriskie house, walking in the house from the shop out back, Craig Z said his dad had a wonderful time Thursday afternoon. (More setup. We know Craig Z has a giant tent shop. This is just stage dressing and fill-in material to build on later.)

“He was grinning from ear to ear,” he said. (So it’s trite. Believe me, the average newspaper reader doesn’t have a problem with trite quotes in a story like this. )

Inside, Mr. Z is laying back in a recliner at the Zabriskie home. His nurses are leaving the house, having prepared him for another day. (I remind the readers Mr. Z is terminal with cancer. At this point in the story, that detail is a bit fuzzy for some readers. The recliner is also one of those condiment issues. I could have said he was sitting, or just said Mr. Z was in the home. By mentioning recliner, I have made Mr. Z even more real as a person to the reader because the reader can identify with laying back in a recliner. Give the reader something to hang onto and identify with in your feature article. )

“It was good. He took me for a nice ride. We got a good view of what Ashburn, Ga., looks like from the air,” he said. (Not much of a quote, but it needs to be a quote. Mr. Z has to put it in his own words. He continues shortly. )

The first destination in the air was the Z family house and the shop. From there, they flew around the County. Mr. Z said he saw big drainage ponds—somewhere. (I chose to paraphrase this because Mr. Z’s quotes were not very good. Besides which, the county I live in is dotted with irrigation ponds. So, the reader could imagine Mr. Z flew over their house. This makes another connection. )

The afternoon ride was rescheduled from Thursday morning. Late Thursday morning the winds picked up. Mr. Leatherwood was concerned it would be too rough in the air for Mr. Z so the flight was rescheduled with hopes for calmer winds. (Creates tension. This is important in any good story. But, we already know what happened, so why is this important? “Mr. Leatherwood was concerned” is the central element of this paragraph. It puts a link between the pilot and Mr. Z and the reader. Also, this graph will become important with the next graph. )

“He was afraid of shaking me. He could have shaken me like a salt shaker and I would have gone,” Mr. Z said. (WHAM! Now you see why the turbulence graph was so important where it was place. Again, luck of the draw on quotes. )

He said the flight was more and better than he expected. (segue .)

“I got to get up and see everything. It looked real good,” he said. As for what was best, “Everything. I can’t put my finger on it,” he said. (His own words. Very important because this is an emotional statement, not a factual observation like what he saw from the air. )

There were no surprises either. (In interviews with someone achieving a goal or doing something new I find one of the most revealing questions I can ask is “Did anything surprise you?” Sometimes it’s a bust, sometimes not. This appears to be a bust, but isn’t as you’ll see. )

“I was well pleased with everything. It was a good takeoff and landing, not that I’m an authority,”” he said. (This shows why no surprises is not a bust. Also, an emotional statement so it needs to be in his words ).

“I told him just don’t go kamikaze on us with a smile on your face,” Craig Z said. “We want you around a while longer.” (Luck of the quote draw. )

Mr. Z said he wouldn’t do that. He also wasn’t worried about the landing; he knew the plane was going to land. The important part was getting airborne. (Reinforces the dream realized. Also links kamikaze crash landing to walk away from it landing. )

Mr. Z retired from a lifetime of working the carnival routes. He plans to be cremated and wants his remains poured on Interstate 90 North and South. He wants that because he spent so much of his life on that road with the carnivals. (Segue. Background information with ZING! We know what Mr. Z did and cremation is a rarity down here. To have his ashes poured out of a plane, what an image. Again, I got lucky with this interview. )

“I said, will it be OK if we dust you out the airplane? He said ‘Hell yeah, that will be even better,’” Craig Z said. (Even more luck. Craig Z is just a great interview. Use of the word “fart” and “hell” did give me pause since my paper serves a VERY conservative Bible belt readership. But I made the decision to use the words for two reasons: It was a direct quote. It made a major emotional impact. )

But now, he’s somewhat changed his mind. He said he’d be happy to have his remains spread over Turner County, but do it from the air. (Errrr, WHAT?! is what the reader is now thinking. A sudden unexpected shift of direction which was the luck of the draw. )

“What the hell. It’s better than being shot from a cannon. That’s a one shot thing,” he said. “They sprinkle me everywhere. They’ll know Jim Zabriskie was there.” (Now some readers are horrified, which is good because I know this story has connected on a gut level. As much as I hate to admit it, again luck of the draw on quotes. )

Craig Z jokes that this year’s cotton crop should be a bumper one, growing off his Dad’s ashes. (More Z family humor. May be disturbing to some, but it is who they are. As a writer I have an obligation to present them as real as I can. )

Mr. Z will celebrate his birthday in April. If he’s able to, he’ll fly again on his birthday. (A promise to repeat the dream. Readers are now cheering Mr. Z on. )

Again, if he’s able, Mr. Leatherwood has promised to let Mr. Z take over the controls for a little while. As far as Mr. Z is concerned, that’s a promise Mr. Leatherwood will have to keep. (And the crowd goes wild! They storm the field! They tear down the goal post! They throw Mr. Z from one end zone to another! Sorry. Got a little carried away myself .)

“I’m going to make it,” he said. (More cheering!)

A SURPISING ATTITUDE (Another subhead break to announce a change in the story. This was also included at the request of the Z family. This being a feature about Mr Z, I felt it was important to put it in because it adds even more substance to the flesh of the man I have built to this point.)

The one thing about South Georgia which has surprised him is the reception he and the family have received.

“I didn’t realize we had so many good friends here,” Mr. Z said. “They didn’t do that when we went to Okechobee. We had to pay for everything. (Here) everyone cares.” (It’s called Southern Hospitality baybee! We like it when someone compliments us on it, which, combined with the next two comments, is the cement that binds the reader to the Z family in a very personal way. )

“Here, everybody took us in just like family,” Craig Z said.

“We thank you for the love and support in this community,” Mr. Z said.

Post-story note since I don’t wanna leave readers of Absolute Write hanging—Mr. Z died 11 days before his birthday. Pilot Jay Leatherwood said Mr. Z is going to get his plane ride anyway ride. Mr. Z did on Sunday, May 13. Mr. and Mrs. Z’s ashes were combined into one bag. The combined ashes were dumped over Craig Z tent plant and the surrounding fields. Working on this story now.

Ben Baker is a South Georgia newspaper editor, author and evangelist. He’s a member of the Southern Humorists .

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