Writer Mentorship Opportunity in Atlanta- The Wren’s Nest Scribe’s Mentor Program

Creative Writing Mentorship to Support Young Authors: The Wren’s Nestnest

I’ve been blessed with amazing writing mentors, writers who went beyond my expectations to support and help me become a better writer. Mentorship has been one of the most rewarding experiences during my journey and I will never forget their sound advice–whether it was editorial, creative, of about the industry in general. Mentorship has made me realize that to give is as satisfying and beneficial to my writing as to receive. It truly is give and take. I am reaching out to my fellow writers because an opportunity to mentor young writers (5th- 8th grade) through the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta has come my way and the program needs more mentors. The Wren’s Nest was the former home of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Brer Rabbit Tales, and is now a cultural center used to promote the art of story telling, African American folklore, and to preserve the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris.

The Wren’s Nest Scribes is a middle school writing program in partnership with KIPP STRIVE Academy. The students participate in one-on-one mentoring with writing professionals to learn how to write creative fiction. Each year the students are given a new theme to write about and the stories are published in a book which debuts at the Decatur Book Festival during Labor Day weekend. Orientation is January 25th at 2:00 at the Wren’s Nest. Currently, they need about eight more mentors. The mentoring takes place at KIPP STRIVE Academy, a charter school off I-20 in the westside, and lasts for twelve weeks between January 30th through April 23rd (with a week off for spring break). Sessions last one hour.

Don’t let Atlanta traffic or the time commitment stop you from helping out here, because much of the work can be done remotely via Google classroom. They only ask that you be present for the initial couple of weeks in order to get to know your student(s) and choose a subject, and then the last couple of weeks for the final edits.

For emerging writers and grad students this would be a wonderful addition to your CV. Plus, it’s fun and you are helping sculpt and support young writers. Last year I participated on a guest judge panel for a writing contest for young writers and I got to meet so many talented kids. They were so excited and grateful. I wish I had had these types of mentorships when I started writing awful poetry! These are bright kids who want to be writers. You would be helping them achieve this goal. Imagine the joy you will feel watching them sign the anthology at the Decatur Book Festival. This year the Scribes program celebrates its 10th anniversary: 117 students and 100 mentors have participated to produce ten volumes of stories. The 2020 anthology theme is fantasy and imagination. How can you resist that?

To sign up or for additional information please contact Jim Auchmutey at jimauch@gmail.com.

Happy Writing!

Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

criticial thesis images

Five Points, A Journal for Literature and Art: Thinking Beyond Your Critical Thesis?

When I started working on my critical thesis, my thesis advisor wisely suggested that I choose an author to research and write about who was less prominent in the literary world.  What he meant by this was that if I selected an author everyone had written about (Hemingway, for example), the probability of finding something new or something unsaid about the author was unlikely. When you’re in the middle of it, you just want to see the end. A critical thesis is daunting, a lot of hard work. However, I took his advice and chose William Gay. I had already been reading and writing small essays about Gay’s work, so it was a natural fit. I went fully down the rabbit hole with Gay. Halfway through my critical thesis I realized that when I was finished with my thesis I would never be finished with Gay, and moreover, as a writer I felt compelled to make others aware of Gay’s writing and artwork. I was able to take sections from one of my chapters on his paintings and write an essay about Gay. In addition, I asked Gay’s archivist and biographer, Michael White, whom I met while working on my critical thesis, at the request of the editor to provide an unpublished interview. The archive houses Gay’s paintings, but here again, the contact through my critical thesis was already there. Your essay, review, or article may not have as many moving parts as mine did. That just makes it all the easier.

Gay passed away in 2012, and if it wasn’t for the endeavors of those preserving his memory, as well as his diehard fans, I could see him fading away in obscurity—not overnight, but eventually. So, for those MFA students who are contemplating writing their critical thesis, or have proudly wiped the sweat of your brow because it’s finally done, think about your options and don’t let it sit too long before going back and visiting a chapter or two. This is what I did with Five Points, and while I had to tweak quite a bit in tone and add more details regarding Gay’s paintings, it paid off. Literally, I got paid for something I loved doing and had completed most of the research anyway.

I’m very proud of the Five Points publication and wanted to share this achievement with everyone. I hope you consider purchasing it (only $15). Obviously, it supports literary journals and writers, but it may also give you an idea of  how to make your critical thesis pay back some of your invested time. The cover is one of Gay’s paintings. There is also an unpublished interview between Gay and Michael White, eight internal images of more paintings, plus a map of Gay’s fictional town. If you are a teacher and are wanting to introduce your students to Gay’s works, this would be a great educational tool, because it showcases a little bit of everything related to William Gay.

To purchase and support the Five Points, A Journal of Literature and Art, visit: http://fivepoints.gsu.edu/

Happy Writing!

Haylow, A Novel by Gray Stewart

AtlHAYLOW, A Novel by Gray Stewart

Gray Stewart’s novel, Haylow, tackles the issue of race in America in a modern satirical manner. It is no accident that the main character, history professor, Travis Hemperly has landed a position at Morehouse College, an African American institution in the heart of Atlanta. Stewart taught for over a decade at Morehouse College, and his familiarity with the school and the city of Atlanta is genuine. More recently, some authors have given voice and history to those who have been otherwise muted by discussing the taboos around the Jim Crow South and the barbarous act of lynching. Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, tells a young Travis about a lynching he witnessed in Haylow, Georgia. While the narrative centers around discovering the truth and how Travis’s family history fits within the past of the Old South, Haylow is also a powerful and contemporary story that examines the present-day South.

Haylow is set after the Atlanta Olympics in 1996; there’s disparity, homelessness, and gentrification are pushing African Americans out of their home to “sanitize” the city. Travis must reconcile with being the minority for first time in his life. At his job, travelling on MARTA, in his neighborhood, and even going grocery shopping he is acutely aware of his whiteness. The African Americans he encounters on a day to day basis are described in varying hues of black and the sheer number of times Travis considers color and his own lack thereof begins to make the reader uncomfortable. This was cleverly done—an intentional act imposed upon the reader to make him or her aware of his or her own race, something we are undeniably aware of regardless of whether prejudice is a factor. Although Travis wants to reconcile his family’s part in the alleged lynching, he discovers the truth is blurry and not so black and white. One of the best lines in the novel was: “He’d hoped to settle the lynching question at lunch, get it out of the way and focus on more important things like the night ahead…(139).” This line encapsulates the absurdity, in a humorous way, of not only the lynching but how Travis contemplates its resolution.

Haylow challenges the reader to consider multiple points-of-view, giving a chapter to a character when needed rather than adhering to any pure rule of structure. The novel is written in present tense and dips into stream of consciousness in a progressive way that isn’t over the top or too heavy. It also leans into the magical realism genre, but the reader could discount these incidents as madness from a delusional character until the very end.

The characters are more like vehicles that represent various extremes of the race card. Three of the most compelling characters are: Travis’s father, Henry Hemperly, a Confederate hate radio host; Travis’s co-worker, Dr. Kalamari, an African American Morehouse College professor on a mission to educate his people about the injustices facing blacks (present and past) as well as their rich world history; and “Uncle Remus” who appears in the book in the form of a homeless black man. The irony is that the voice of hate, via Henry, has the power of speech through a captive audience and following. Dr. Kalamari, a highly educated man, keeps finding himself unable to articulate himself. The very people he wants to reach tend to ignore him. Of course, Uncle Remus is dismissed as a drunken vagrant.

It would be advantageous to have read the tales of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit prior to reading this novel, but it is not necessary. At one time, the consensus on the Uncle Remus character was that he was a nostalgic throwback who perpetuated the Antebellum South and stereotypes of African Americans. The tales, themselves, were derived from African American folklore and as such are historically relevant. The Wren’s Nest is attempting to rehabilitate Uncle Remus and the discussion on their website it worth reading. One argument is that Uncle Remus addressed racism in the only way it could be received culturally and Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the tales, intended them to alleviate racial tensions and address the injustices facing African Americans at the time. That has not been always been the predominate view of the Uncle Remus, however, and Haylow certainly continues the dialogue around this controversial character.

In addition to the Wren’s Nest, there are some other iconic Atlanta landmarks in the novel. Travis, who lives near Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, searches for his family plot, looking for more answers on his quest. When Travis enters the gift shop at Oakland, he is struck by “the rarified air of the Old South and” he notices…Confederate soldiers, sabers raised…[and] Black Americana sitting on the shelf enjoying watermelon (187).” It is doubtful the author intended to disparage the Oakland Cemetery, a place that at least by today’s standards is definitely cognizant of race and the impact it had on the cemetery and the South’s history, much like The Wren’s Nest is. These are iconic historical locations in Atlanta. Perhaps, these trinkets landed at the Oakland Cemetery because it was convenient for the plot, but then again, the novel was set in 1996. Certainly, these reminders are sold in antique shops around the South to this day. Why is there still a sensitivity around protecting the heritage of the South’s icons while simultaneously disrespecting those afflicted by it? That is a question explored in Haylow. Joyce Carol Oates said, “the forbidden truth, the unspeakable taboo – that evil is not always repellent but frequently attractive; that it has the power to make of us not simply victims, as nature and accident do, but active accomplices.” Stewart asks the reader to question why we are so protective of items that celebrate a history that was largely revised as a means of avoidance and why we don’t confront the negative head on.

The ending is ambiguous; there were a couple of loose ends that could have been resolved. For example, what happened during the panel discussion at Morehouse? Maybe, it would have been too predictable to give the reader this showdown. Also, vague endings allow the reader to create his or her own ending. Travis doesn’t find the answers he is looking for, no blood on a tree where the black man was executed, or the Klan to explain the atrocity. In a surprise twist, Travis experiences a hallucination—Uncle Remus’s furry friends visit him at Haylow. Why the disconnect from reality? The answer is there are no answers when it comes to race. The hallucination is simply an explanation of the absurdity. Much as we shake our heads and ponder gun violence at schools or at entertainment venues today, Travis cannot get his head around the horror of a lynching his family was privy to. In this way, the ending was quite fitting. Haylow is a novel that should be read by all, but also read more than once. It pushes the dialogue that we all should be having regarding race…whether we want that conversation or not.

For more on Haylow and the author, Gray Stewart, visit: https://www.graystewart.com/

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price?

The Pros & Cons of Query Letter CritiquesQuery Letter Pic:

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.

First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.

Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:

Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.

Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.

I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.

Dear ———–,

I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.

The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.

THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.

I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.

Regards,

Dawn Major

Address

Email

http://www.dawnmajor.com

So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

The Witching Hour on melodically challenged

Need to get in the mood for Halloween? For spooky poems & music listen to The Witching Hour on melodically challenged:

second mc post

The Witching Hour airs on melodically challenged this Sunday, October 27th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via TuneIn. Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

Boo!

The Witching Hour on melodically challenged

Need to get in the mood for Halloween? For spooky poems & music listen to The Witching Hour on melodically challenged:Haunted house photo

The Witching Hour airs on melodically challenged this Sunday, October 27th from 8:00-9:00 PM Eastern Standard time on WRAS-ATL (88.5 FM). To listen online go to Album 88 and select listen. You may also listen via TuneIn. Select LOCAL RADIO and choose WRAS-Album 88.

Boo!

The Benefits of Reading Poetry

Do Fiction Writers Benefit from Poetry?

Absolutely. I would argue it works both ways and that all writers benefit from reading poetry. Let me explain how poetry specifically helped me, though. I got an opportunity to write a radio script for a poetry-themed show called melodically challenged. Those who know me know I am a fiction writer, so it may surprise you that I would take up this challenge. Yet, if you know me well, then you also know that I rarely decline an opportunity to get involved in the writing world even if it is outside of what I consider my scope. If you are a writer, you need to read and listen to poetry. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of writers say they don’t like poetry, and that always makes me cringe a little because, well, sometimes this was said in front of a fellow poet/friend and also because while I do not really write poetry (or at least no one would want to read my poetry), I believe poetry can and does enrich my work. When I read or listen to poetry, I realize what is lacking in my work and it usually has to do with not delving into all the senses. I tend to be a visual writer first. The next sense I go to is auditory. Then touch. Then smell. I rarely use our sense of taste. And, I don’t always go beyond the first two senses I listed. Read or listen to a great poem and see how the poet engages all five senses and more. Then, reread a story or paragraph you wrote and see if you are doing the same.

This brings me to radio script I wrote, The Witching Hour. I spent quite a bit of time putting together the script and recording the vocals, but the majority of the time I spent researching material. That is, researching that requires doing something I love anyway— discovering contemporary writers/poets and musicians. Tough job, huh? Right. I chose a spooky theme that incorporated poems about monsters, ghosts, cemeteries, and the undead along with creepy music to accompany the show, because I dig monsters, ghosts, cemeteries, and the undead, but hey, it’s almost Halloween.

After listening to hours of bone-chilling poems and music, I revisited some of my darker fiction. Could I go even darker, I wondered. I could and I can thank the poets and musicians that inspired my show. I hope you will also listen to my show. At the very least, it will get you in the mood for Halloween. 

The program, melodically challenged, is currently seeking writers to write radio scripts. Obviously, you do not need to be a poet to write a script…only an appreciation for the written word and the desire to share that with others. It’s great exposure, another item to add to your CV, and also just a ton of fun. If you are interested in learning more about this opportunity, please reach out to K.B. Kincer at kbk1@kincers.net or myself at dwnmjr@comcast.net.

Happy Writing!

The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly on Rejection Letters

Positive Rejection Letters: Is there such a thing?

The answer is Yes! Writers are masochists. Well, we’re sadists, too. Lord knows, we love to torture our characters and sometimes even murder them, but that is for another blog post.

Masochist? Why else would you submit to journals and magazines who inevitably and assuredly reject you? I can’t even fathom how many times I submitted to Glimmer Train before they called it quits and left the depot forever, quite possibly because I never relented. I had it my head that if you can make it there, then you’ll make it…You can fill in the rest, and yes, it should accompany Frank Sinatra. Never mind if Glimmer Train was right for me! For fifteen years I received one to two rejection letters annually from GT.  If you are expecting a happy ending to this story, there isn’t one, unless your definition of fun is moving rejection letters to your rejection folder. Ow.

I can’t say that I have ever received an ugly rejection letter, but I hear they were common back in the day. Redefine ugly. I think I’d be happy to receive a rejection letter from The New Yorker, but with the amount of submissions they receive you must assume no news means no thank you. So, what is a bad rejection letter? One that does not encourage you to resubmit.

I always assumed that the editor and/or staff were being kind by encouraging me to submit again, but recently I attended a lecture by the editor of Five Points Review, and she stated that if the you get those “kind” words then the journal actually means it. Now, I am revisiting all the journals I poo-pooed because they failed to publish me the first time around, and in doing so have received what I consider to be positive rejection letters. Below is a sampling of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Here is what I would classify as a “bad” rejection letter:

Dear Dawn Major,

Thank you for sending us “Saint Damien of Molokai.” We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the piece is not for us.

Thanks again. Best of luck with this.
Sincerely,
Five Points

Notice there are NO comments encouraging me to submit again? Listen up. I’m not implying the editor was mean when I use the term “bad.” I will submit to Five Points again, but I will use this information to understand what appeals to them.  You should also read the journals to see what they are into.

Here is a standard rejection letter to compare:

Dear Dawn Major,

Thank you for allowing The Greensboro Review to consider your fiction submission. We have read your work carefully but must decline to publish. We regret that the volume of submissions we receive and the small size of our staff prevent us from giving a more personal response, but we hope that you will submit to us again.

We wish you the best in placing your work elsewhere, and we thank you for your support of The Greensboro Review.

Sincerely,

The Greensboro Review

This one was not good, but also not that bad. I would categorize it as a basic rejection letter. They did, after all, encourage me to submit again.

Here are two examples of positive rejection letters. The first one is from The Missouri Review. See if you can spot the differences between positive verses bad or just so-so: 

Dear D. Major,

Sincere thanks for sending us “White Trash” for consideration. Our staff especially admired the clear, direct narrative voice in this essay. Though we’ve decided not to publish this piece, we are quite interested in seeing more of your writing and hope you’ll send other work in the near future.

Sincerely,

The Editors

—————————-

Dear Dawn,

We really like reading Nov/Dec 2017 Family Matters contest submissions because of the many views they offer about the intimacy and challenges and importance of family. “Nativity” did not place this time, but it was a good story, and we’re glad to have read it—thank you!

Warm regards,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

If it isn’t clear (and some of you will think I am reading between the lines), the difference is the editorial comment and the encouragement to submit again. I received another rejection from The Missouri Review that was equally encouraging, but with editorial advice which was that they thought the story was funny but lacked a theme or purpose. I agree with that statement. I thought the same thing, but the story was a classic Christmas tale and the theme was rather superficial. I’m okay with that. Those sorts of comments are helpful and also require someone actually typing in individual notes other than a simple form rejection.

The moral of the story? PERSEVERE WRITERS. PERSEVERE!

Depression and Writers

Too Depressed to Write?

sad blog

Let’s be honest. Some of the best authors have taken themselves out of the picture. I’ve often wondered: Is depression a prerequisite for writing or is writing a prerequisite for depression? My Brit husband would say, “You creative types just need to get over yourselves.” There’s some truth to my pondering as well as his statement, yet, I find myself in a funk and it has affected my writing or lack thereof over the past month.

Anxiety is part of my life. I cannot imagine my life without it. I can’t ever recall existing anxiety free. Even as a child I was anxious. I have also always been a creative and with creativity there comes a certain amount of sensitivity and for me it’s wrapped up in anxiety, especially if I do not think I am producing at the level I know I am capable of I feel totally unbalanced.

For the first time in about five years, I have struggled with writing. I’m near maniac when it comes to writing. I can put it out. I never understood those types that hemmed and hawed, contemplating just being in front of the page. It always came freely, until almost a month ago when I was dealt a whammy regarding my sister’s health. I clammed up. I had absolutely no desire to peck out even a few words or edit a single page (can’t blame me for the lack of editing motivation). I felt my physical body seeping into depression, quite literally burying myself under thick layers of covers for days. “Oh, well,” I said. You deserve a break. “You’ve received bad news and you haven’t stopped writing even one week in over, what, five years? Go on. Just sink in.”

So, I did what most depressed folks do…I binge-watched one series after another. By the way, I do really like Castle Rock, but the second season with the Misery character addition (Annie Wilkes) is better than the first. I ate too much. I didn’t eat. I didn’t exercise. The mattress seemed to contain magnetic properties, always beckoning for me to enter and refusing to let go. I kept thinking: I need to write another post for my blog; I never submit my work; Hulu and Netflix are my best friends. Uh-oh; I haven’t edited the last piece I got back from my writer’s group; I need to write, I need to write, I need to write.

As an attempt to escape my wallowing, I signed up for The Art of the Short Story through MasterClass taught by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s worth it if you aren’t depressed and actually listen to the lessons and complete the assignments. My plan was to force myself out of my blues. It worked for about 48 hours. After that, I started guilting myself for not treating the course like a 9-5 job, and then the guilt made me even more depressed. In lesson three JCO mentioned the importance of journaling, something I never do because it’s always utter crap. She said to not worry about that, to just purge. That got me writing a little. I purged some of my bad mood onto the pages. It’s nothing I will use, but it was cathartic releasing emotions.

What rose me from the dead and got me to at least write this post was Audible. I’ve been listening to this great novel by Stephen Chbosky called Imaginary Friend (buried beneath the covers, of course). His pacing is something else and he writes some of the best similes I’ve ever read. Go ahead and buy it or listen to it on Audible. The narration is very good. I digress. I finally rose from the dead because every time I’d heard yet another amazing simile or the author added a plot twist I didn’t see coming, I felt jealous. I can do that too, I thought. I could write something good if I got off my ass and started writing again. Then the wicked mattress said, “Oh, but you’re feeling glum, Dawn.” The covers convinced me it was better hanging out with them. “Maybe just listen some more,” they reasoned. “Or, there’s the Rosanne Cash memoir, Composed that’s been sitting on your nightstand forever, and you won’t have to go far from the bed. Just reach over and turn the light on.” The light! I’ve been existing in a near vampiric state for weeks. It could cause serious damage if I absorb too much light too quickly. Okay, this is getting silly. The point is I read and listened and read and listened until I became envious that someone else out there was writing and I wasn’t. There are people at this very moment outlining a novel, composing a metaphor, and what am I doing? Nothing. So, yes. Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but it got me writing something. Even if it is about how I’ve been low lately and fell into a writing slump, it’s more than nothing.

That’s all I’ve got folks. If you don’t hear back from me in two weeks, it’s because I grew into the mattress, but let’s hope this small post is the beginning of the end (not in a jump off the balcony way, but in a positive back to writing way).

Happy Writing!

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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As a writer when you begin a new project you have to deal with the fact that you are going down a rabbit hole and you may very well be down in the self-prescribed trenches for several years. I’ve hemmed and hawed about what I should spend my creative time on after I finished my first novel. I love writing short stories because the form gives me the freedom to dabble with various characters and plots without committing the time required for a novel. And, then you read something like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and realize that there are no rulebooks for novels and their construction. Mitchell cleverly and artfully dabbled and spun multiple stories set in drastically different settings with characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar from each other and in doing so expanded the canon and certainly my relationship as a writer to alternative structural forms. Oh, but what a rabbit hole Cloud Atlas is for reader and writer alike!

Cloud Atlas is what I consider to be a writer’s novel. I say this because it isn’t the easiest read and at times, I got bogged down and I wished the section I was reading was over. This was true of the chapter or part titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After.” As you can see by the title the dialect is thick. I had to read this section slowly to ensure that I was understanding what I was reading and sometimes I had to reread a sentence to comprehend it at all. That got tiresome. I found myself flipping to the next section and counting the pages until this part was over. That said, this is worth reading and Mitchell has given the writing world something new and original. So, plod through. The collective aspect of this novel is worth stumbling through vernacular extravagances. Plus, the fact that Mitchell can write dialect effectively shows how brilliant a writer he truly is.

I loved not only the shifting points-of-view, but also the manner in which the stories were told. For instance, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” is told as if the reader is sitting around a campfire listening to old tales. “An Orison of Somni-451” is told via an interview, or questions and answers prior to Somni’s execution. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is in diary form. Mitchell uses the epistolary format in “Letters From Zedelghem.” What I loved was how Mitchell weaved each story into the main story. Robert Frobisher in “Letters From Zedelghem” writes letter to his lover, Sixsmith. Frobisher, a young composer apprenticing under the musical maestro, Arys, discovers part of Adam Ewing’s journal in the maestro’s library. He writes to Sixsmith asking him to obtain the missing part. It’s extraordinary how Mitchell ultimately connects these stories, how the characters intersect. View the image I provided above to better understand how the characters overlapped. I didn’t create this. Good Lord! I’d go nuts attempting to map out Cloud Atlas. You could slip into insanity just looking at this illustration, but feel free to enlarge and dissect. it’s your mental well-being. Another connective element was the shared comet birthmark which suggests, in my opinion, that these characters are reincarnated and there are certainly Buddhist themes throughout the novel. I think it is remarkable how Mitchell not only linked the stories together but that the stories were told in completely different voices, times, settings and at times in different dialects or using invented “futuristic” language or terminology. For more on Mitchell’s wordplay read “The Orison of Somni-451,” an earth ruled by corpocracy where Mitchell pokes fun at Ford and Starbucks. Writing in different point-of-view, tones, settings, and working that into one novel is no small feat.

It’s natural that the reader gravitates to what he or she prefers to read. I mentioned above that I found “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” to be a tad tedious, but that does mean it wasn’t well-crafted. Towards the end of that section, I was getting used to the dialect and this narrative is essential to the book’s plot. They all are. When reading colloquial language established by an author, it’s best to relax into it and not skim over and rush through. I imagine other readers thoroughly enjoyed this section and would disagree with me, but not mentioning my struggle would be disingenuous. I simply preferred the voice and storyline of some of the other characters or narrators.

There have been so many reviews—some resembling a thesis—that I really wondered if I had anything new to add here, but there is something that Mitchell did that I’ve only seen one other author do I’d like to address. In “Letters From Zedelghem,” Frobisher is composing his “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” what would become his masterpiece. Mitchell’s uses Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” as a pseudo sustained metaphor for his own masterpiece, his actual Cloud Atlas. Like a sextet, where six parts are combined, there are separate parts for each musician as there are separate parts for each character or narrator in the novel. It is the combination of these parts that form the whole. In this way, Cloud Atlas is a musical score and when the sound imagery, chiefly in the “Letters From Zedelghem,” is added in you can hear literally the music. When Arys is dictating to Frobisher he tells him the following: “Now Frobisher, the clarinet is the concubine, the violas are yew trees in the cemetery, the clavichord is the moon, so….let that east wind blow that A minor chord sixteenth bar onwards” (60). Simply gorgeous imagery. Go to page 442 for another taste of this. What I am trying to say is that not many writers can pull this off. While I was reading the words, I was also hearing the music. Mitchell speaks through his character, Frobisher, to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Here, Frobisher writes Sixsmith to discuss the structure of his composition: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” (445). Mitchell is asking the reader to respond about his decision to write his narrative in this manner. I’d have to go with revolutionary and imaginative, imaginative on a scale I do not often experience in modern literature. Well-done, Mitchell! Cloud Atlas is a cleverly woven masterpiece, an undertaking that only the very best at their craft could achieve.

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price?

The Pros & Cons of Query Letter CritiquesQuery Letter Pic:

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.

First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.

Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:

Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.

Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.

I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.

Dear ———–,

I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.

The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.

THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.

I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.

Regards,

Dawn Major

Address

Email

http://www.dawnmajor.com

So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.

Happy Writing!