Practice Balls

About five years ago I was at the Yoknapatawpha Summer Writer’s Workshop, and one of the speakers was Tom Franklin. As part of his craft talk, “The Sucker, the Situation, and the Shit,” Tom talked about the importance of doing research on your characters before writing the book. Yes. On your fictional characters. He even handed out a list of 100 questions to answer about your main characters. I lost the list, but I just Googled it and found it several places online. Like here.

Proust-Questionnaire

 

When I was writing my novel Cherry Bomb, I did lots of research. I researched Elaine de Kooning (a major character who is a real historical person) and the world of abstract expressionism. I researched graffiti. I researched the locations where different parts of the novel would be set. I researched the famous photographer on whom I would base one of the supporting characters. And I had already done personal “research” by living it—by participating in icon workshops at monasteries, and having lived through a different version of some of the main character’s traumatic childhood. What I didn’t do was research the fictional characters.

This morning I had coffee with a friend who has become a mentor and informal writing “coach” of sorts. I had shared with her the idea for my new novel and the first few pages I had penned. I wasn’t happy with the opening and had a number of questions for her, which I thought would help me revise the opening pages and keep moving forward with the first draft of the novel. She agreed with me that the opening wasn’t working, and we discussed some other options for ways to open the story. But then she told me about a workshop she attended awhile back, and how the instructor had everyone answer 100 questions about the main characters. She encouraged me to take time to do this with my protagonist and several other characters before I begin writing their stories.

Set-of-Golf-Balls-with-Golf-Club-WallpaperI temporarily forgot that I had heard about this exercise from Tom Franklin five years ago, and didn’t think to mention that to her. Maybe I had blocked it out, back when I tossed the list. It felt too much like “work” and not much fun. I would rather see a few thousand words of my new novel on the page than spend days on character questionnaires. It’s my tendency to want instant gratification. It’s like expecting to be able to play a good game of golf without ever putting in the work of hitting rounds of practice balls.

And so I agreed to this “assignment” and will begin on it today. Right after I finish sending in the ad copy and art work for the back cover of Southern Writing magazine’s September issue. And right after I finish some paperwork. Maybe I’ll even work out on the elliptical machine. Anything to keep from doing my homework, right? Seriously, I do plan to do this, in order to get to know these people whose lives will fill the pages of this next book. Or maybe I’ll do a shorter version, “Marcel Proust’s 35 Insightful Questions To Ask Your Characaters.” Maybe I can think of it as an interview with each of them. Maybe they’d like a martini or a glass of wine while we talk….

Book Tour Continues: Nashville, Charleston, Beaufort, Memphis, and Oxford

My book tour in May is turning out to be as busy as April, and I’m loving it. Ater a signing for Tangles and Plaques at Barnes and Noble in Collierville last weekend, I just got home from two events in Nashville (actually Thompson’s Square and Brentwood) on Saturday (one for Tangles and Plaques and one for A Second Blooming) and this week I’m off to Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina for two more readings:

ASB NeverMore flierFriday night (May 19) I’ll be at Buxton Books in Charleston, for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. I can’t wait to meet Polly and Julien Buxton, the newest independent booksellers in the area. (My husband is speaking at the Medical University of South Carolina while we’re there, so it’s a two-fer! Also looking forward to dinner with friends from his high school days in Marietta, Georgia, a close friend who used to live in Memphis, and lunch with another author friend. I love Charleston!)

On Saturday (May 20) I’ll be at Nevermore Books in Beaufort, South Carolina with local author Cassandra King, and Mississippi contributors NancyKay Wessman and Susan Marquez for a reading/signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be.  Cassandra arranged this event, and I’m looking forward to meeting her friends, the booksellers at Nevermore, Lorrie and David Anderson.

ASB Square Bks flierNext Wednesday (May 24) I’ve been invited to be the monthly author-speaker at Trezevant Manor (senior living) in Memphis for Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.

And my final event for May will be on Thursday, May 25, at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, where I’ll join local authors/contributors Beth Ann Fennelly and Julie Cantrell for a reading and signing for A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be.

TidesOn a different note, it’s always fun to see other work by the contributors to A Second Blooming. This week I found a fun piece by Cassandra King in Coastal Living magazine’s June issue: “The Tides That Bind.” A perfect article for Father’s Day, Cassandra “returns to the waters of her childhood, where harvesting oysters made delicious memories for a father and his girls.”

So when does a busy author get to read? I make time to read every day. Not only because I love it, but because the words of other authors feed my soul and my craft. Yesterday I spent a leisurely Mother’s Day afternoon finishing my latest read, Kristin Hannah’s wonderful historic fiction novel from 2015, The Nightingale. Powerful images of World War II in German-occupied France, with characters so real you are tempted to Google them! I especially loved how Hannah brought to life some of the women who fought so bravely for the resistance, and to save children orphaned by the war.

Next up? I’m trying to decide whether to dive into Lewis Nordan’s novel, Wolf Whistle (highly recommended by a couple of friends with excellent literary tastes) or Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout’s followup to her book, My Name is Lucy Barton, which I read recently and loved. Which one will I take on my trip to South Carolina this week? Stay tuned….

Advance Praise for Cherry Bomb!

I’m pinching myself so I’ll know this is real. These six AMAZING literary rock stars have written blurbs for my novel, Cherry Bomb, which releases in August. This has been a six year (plus) project, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. Or more pleased with Joe Lee at Dogwood Press for being such a great publisher. Thanks so much to these very busy, successful authors whom I’m honored to call my friends. I can’t believe they said things like, “deft narrative control,” “rising star in southern literary circles,” “beautifully written, thoughtfully conceived,” and “rendered with passion, acumen and concision.” Cherry Bomb launches on August 8 (just three months away!) at Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi (my home town). Here they are!!!

Cassandra King

Cassandra King

“In CHERRY BOMB, a troubled young artist finds a way to heal a horrific past in the intriguing world of street art, graffiti, iconography, and abstract expressionism. With deft narrative control, Susan Cushman weaves an unforgettable story of triumph and redemption that will linger long after the final page is turned. An impressive debut by a rising star in southern literary circles!”

Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife

Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson

Using the life of real abstract expressionist artist Elaine de Kooning as a jumping off point, CHERRY BOMB fearlessly explores the intersection between art and spirituality, creating it as a palpable place where healing can occur. This is a bold, frank book, and Susan Cushman is a brave and talented writer.

             —Joshilyn Jackson, New York Times bestselling author of gods in Alabama and The Almost Sisters

Harrison Scott Key

Harrison Scott Key

“Any book that opens with a young woman painting graffiti across the steeple-ridden town of Macon, Georgia, is my kind of story. Cushman depicts the South as it is, not the sentimental claptrap some people want it to be. No cliches to be found here, just God and art and beauty and pain—just like sitting in church.”

Harrison Scott Key, author of The World’s Largest Man

Beth Ann Fennelly

Beth Ann Fennelly

“How does Susan Cushman do it?  Out of the most unlikely materials—a teenage graffiti artist, an abstract expressionist painting teacher running from her past, and a reclusive nun who paints icons—she weaves an intricate tale that teases us with surprising connections.  This generous first novel is a tale of family and resilience and the healing power of art.  Beautifully written, thoughtfully conceived, CHERRY BOMB surprises and redeems.”

Beth Ann Fennelly, Poet Laureate of Mississippi

Julie Cantrell

Julie Cantrell

“By mixing the work of historical creatives with the risqué endeavors of a modern graffiti artist, Cushman takes a unique approach to examining the experiences of a young girl who turns to art while finding her way in life.”

Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

 

Corey Mesler

Corey Mesler

“Susan Cushman, in her marvelous first novel, tells the touching, parallel stories of two female artists, one famous, one not. The intersection of their lives, rendered with passion, acumen and concision, will entertain and enlighten you. The story moves as quickly as running paint, and, in the accumulation of detail, becomes a canny meditation on art and individuality, on spirituality and hope. Its indelible characters, especially its young graffiti artist, will take up residence inside you alongside Scout Finch and Frankie Addams.”

            —Corey Mesler, author of Memphis Movie and Robert Walker

Southern Writers On Writing: Peer Review

peer-reviewIt’s so much fun editing an anthology. I had a great time last year editing A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (Mercer University Press). And now I’m in the throes of editing Southern Writers On Writing (University Press of Mississippi, 2018) and the fun never ends! Especially when working with another wonderful university press. So here’s where we are:

A few months ago I invited the contributors and received 26 wonderful essays and a foreword. I worked with each author on edits, grouped the essays into sections by themes, found quotes to head up each section, wrote an introduction, acknowledgements, and table of contents, and sent the manuscript off to the press in March.

Next the press sent the manuscript to “outside readers” for “peer review.” The readers they selected for this work were given specific questions to answer as they reviewed the manuscript. Here are some examples (with excerpts from the readers’ responses):

Does the manuscript make a significant contribution to this field of study and/or the general market for this type of book?

Yes, I believe the manuscript does make a significant contribution to the field of southern literature…. I think this book will appeal to academics, particularly those teaching creative writing, southern and contemporary literature, and it will also appeal to up-and-coming writers who are looking for experienced direction, inspiration, support, and a reason to believe in themselves and keep putting their own words and stories on paper!

Yes! Just what I was hoping for! Here’s another one:

Please evaluate the author’s style of writing and organization of material:

All the essays in this collection are strong and well-written and I enjoyed reading every one of them…. The styles vary, but I consider this variety a huge plus offering would-be writers an opportunity to experience different writing styles and voices, and hopefully find a voice, story, and approach to writing that speaks a little louder to the reader and his/her own unique experience.

Again, I am so happy with these readers’ responses! One reader made very specific suggestions as to the organization of the essays, and even did line editing throughout the entire manuscript, which I’m using now as I make revisions and corrections before returning the manuscript to the press for their editorial work to begin. Here’s another one:

To your knowledge, is the information in this proposal available in published form elsewhere?

I’m not aware of any such book. Some individual southern (and non-southern) authors have published books that talk about their own writing, but there’s not to my knowledge a collection of essays such as this. I find that pretty amazing!

I found it amazing, too, when I researched the topic before starting work on this book.  Another reader said,

… young writers are most interested in learning from writers who aren’t necessarily big names, but who are successful in publishing now… as opposed to writers like Faulkner, Welty, Tennessee Williams, etc. This book is a solid response to that need.

MS Logo 300There are a total of ten questions on the readers’ questionnaires, and I found most of their observations and suggestions extremely helpful. I’m even strongly considering changing the title from So Y’all Think You Can Write: Southern Writers on Writing, to simply Southern Writers on Writing. The original (longer) title was inspired by the TV show, “So You Think You Can Dance,” but not everyone will get that, and as one reader pointed out, some people might think it’s the writers in the book thumbing their noses at the readers, which isn’t the case at all! If you’re reading this and have a different idea for a title, please let me know!

Of course the proof of the pudding was that all readers strongly recommend that the book be published. I did a peer review for another university press a year or so ago, and was sad to have to say “no” to this question in response to the manuscript I reviewed, knowing that the author would be disappointed to be turned down by the press. But that’s what peer review is for.

So now you know more about what goes on “behind the scenes” when a university press publishes a book. The peer review process is an important step in protecting the integrity of the press, and in helping make the books they publish excellent. I’m so thankful to be on this journey! Stay tuned….

Q&A with Jackie Warren Tatum, author of Unspeakable Things, a Novel

Unspeakable Things coverI never read crime thrillers, although I do watch Law & Order SVU regularly. But when I met Jackie Warren Tatum at one of my book signings in Jackson, Mississippi, recently, I told her I had bought her debut novel Unspeakable Things, and it was next up in my reading queue. Although this isn’t a regular genre for me, I found it compelling. Dark. Graphic. Page-turning. Good character development. All the elements of a really good read. There are several good reviews (just Google it) online, so I decided to do a short Q&A with Jackie instead of posting another review. My questions—and Jackie’s answers—are aimed at information that both readers and writers will appreciate. I just turned 66, in the year my first novel (and two nonfiction books) are being published, so I am greatly impressed with Jackie’s first novel at age 74. Kudos to a fellow Mississippian, Jackie! And thanks for the interview.

P&P: I read that you did some writing for Jackson Free Press prior to writing Unspeakable Things, your debut novel. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Photo by James Patterson Photography

Photo by James Patterson Photography

Jackie: I have always had an interest in expressing myself on paper. I remember writing poems in high school. Years ago, as a high school English and radio and television journalism teacher, words were a part of my life. Then, as a lawyer, I continued my relationship with words, both written and spoken. After I retired as a Special Assistant Attorney General, I took a writing course with the editor of the Jackson Free Press. That led to my freelancing and consciously considering myself a writer.

I don’t know that I have ALWAYS wanted to write a novel, but over the years, prior to Unspeakable Things, I had begun several that never grew legs.

P&P: Did you draw from your experiences as an attorney in writing the story for the novel, and in developing the characters? If not, where did your ideas come from?

Jackie: Unspeakable Things is pure fiction. I am 74 years old and I have had a variety of life experiences, including widowhood and divorce and being the first female member of the Tippah County MS Bar in1980 and conducting a rural law practice there. Once I began Unspeakable Things, the characters found me. They often decided in which direction we would go and they dragged me along behind them, at times, kicking and screaming.

P&P: Why did you choose to self publish? Did you try traditional publishing first–i.e. querying agents and/or independent presses? Were you pleased with the process? What was good or bad about it?

Jackie: I researched for a year before selecting how to publish. There are really three ways to publish, as I understand it: 1. self publish by literally doing all the work yourself or contracting out the respective tasks, e.g., the art work/graphics/cover design/layout/etc. or 2. traditional publishing or 3. using some form of a self publishing service company. I was too inexperienced for 1., too old for 2. I chose 3. and shopped, in part, based on my research, and, in part, based on my scrutinizing the contract terms and conditions with the publishers.

P&P: I know that you lost your husband when you were only 25 years old. How much did that loss inform the relationship between Renee and Samone in the book? Was writing the book cathartic in any way?

Jackie: Unspeakable Things is pure fiction, but I could write with complete integrity about loss, having experienced the death of my high school sweetheart husband, suddenly, at such a young age. I dipped into the deep reservoir of experience and emotions inside me. Writing Unspeakable Things was a healing experience. 

P&P: Any plans for writing another novel?

Jackie: I have begun another novel. I am also getting encouragement to write a sequel to Unspeakable Things. The Lord willing, I will keep writing.

DeSoto Magazine and Southern Writers: Two Upcoming Articles

In the midst of a busy and wonderful book tour, I’ve been invited to contribute articles to two wonderful magazines.

April17FC-4small-460x610“Tangles and Plaques” will appear in the May issue of DeSoto Magazine. Just in time for Mother’s Day, my short piece will be part Polaroid, part cautionary tale, about the changing relationship between my mother and me during the last eight years of her life. She died on May 22, 2016 of Alzheimer’s Disease. I’m so thankful to my friend Karen Ott Mayer, DeSoto’s editor, for this opportunity. You can subscribe to the magazine, read it online, or pick up a copy at many places in Mississippi and surrounding areas, like Memphis.

A second article, “Four Book Deals in One Year: A Journey in Independent Publishing” will appear in the September issue of Southern Writers: The Author’s Magazine. I discovered the magazine when my friend (and fellow Dogwood Press author) John Floyd was featured in an interview in their January/February 2017 issue.

six-covers-w-shadow-jan-2017_1_origAnother short piece (750 words), this one details my journey through writing and finding publishers for four books within one year. (Three are being published in 2017 and one in 2018.) I share my struggles querying literary agents and finally working with one for many months before parting ways due to our different visions for the book. There’s lots of “how to” in this short piece, including researching and querying academic and independent presses, working with editors on revisions, marketing, and more. Again, many thanks to Susan Reichert, editor-in-chief of Southern Writers, for this opportunity. A great magazine for writers and readers alike, you can subscribe to the print, online, and digital formats here.

So, it’s Holy Friday and I’ve already been to three services during Holy Week at St. John Orthodox Church here in Memphis. I’ll be at two more today, two tomorrow, and one on Sunday. It’s a beautiful marathon, where we walk through Christ’s passion, and celebrate His resurrection. Thanks, always, for reading. Have a beautiful Pascha/Easter weekend (I’m so glad the East and West are celebrating on the same date this year) and I’ll be back on Monday.

Learning From the Masters

A few weeks ago I started a new novel. It’s off to a slow start, for several reasons. For one thing, I’m still trying to decide whether to write it in “reflective present tense” or past tense—I’m leaning towards past tense now. And although I’ve got the complete story in my head, including the ending, I’ve still got some things to work out about the structure. Having revised my first novel MANY times, I’m hoping to get a better start on this one, even if takes a while to get out of the gate.

 3 books

 

One thing that helps me when I’m writing is reading books by authors I admire, or who write to what I believe to be a similar audience. I’ve just finished two (quick reads) that fit the bill—Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel (1976) and The Girls of August (2014). Although both are character-driven in many ways (which I try to do with my fiction) they are also both page-turners. The relationships between the women in The Girls of August remind me very much of two other favorite books, Cassandra King’s The Same Sweet Girls and Lee Smith’s The Last Girls. Fun to read, and written straight to the heart, The Girls of August is inspiring my new novel, which will also focus primarily on women’s friendships, and is set in a coastal town.

 

But now I’m reading Elizabeth Berg’s historical novel, The Dream Lover (2015). I’m blown away by her prose, as well as the authority with which she uses historic details and settings. I’m sure she spent many hours on research, as much of the book is set in 19th century Paris, and involves the life of the writer, Aurore Dupin, who writes mostly under the pen name of George Sand. Her friends and lovers include Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval and more.

 

Berg wrote the book because she wanted to read a novel about George Sand and found that none existed. As I read I find myself thinking, over and over, “I want to write a book like this.” And I’m still thinking about it, although I haven’t found my heroine yet. And I’m not sure I’m ready to dive into that level of research right now. Maybe later. For now, I think I’ll follow the lives of those southern women on the Gulf coast, remaining in familiar territory, writing about “what I know.” But I could always change my mind. Stay tuned.

Two Kinds of Happiness

meaning happinessIn Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, there’s an interesting question and answer in Dan Ariely’s column, “Ask Ariely.” The column title is “The Two Types of Happiness.”

(Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight and also the co-founder of BEworks.)

The person who wrote in asked Dan why things that make him immediately happy—like watching basketball or going out drinking—don’t give him a lasting feeling of contentment, while the things that feel more deeply meaningful to him—like his career or writing a book—don’t give him much daily happiness.

I loved this question. It’s a dilemma I face daily if not hourly or minute-by-minute. I’ve been so busy the past few weeks with my book tour that I haven’t had many unscheduled days in which to be able to make these choices, but yesterday afternoon was one of them. My husband was out of town and I had caught up on paperwork and domestic chores. My foot is healing (I fell and tore a ligament in my ankle a couple of weeks ago) so I couldn’t use it as an excuse to watch TV all day and night, but that’s still what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to sit at my computer and work on my new novel.

Ariely addresses my quandary in his column:

Happiness comes in two varieties. The first is the simple type, when we get immediate pleasure from activities such as playing a sport, eating a good meal and so on…. The second type of happiness is more complex and elusive. It comes from a feeling of fulfillment that might not be connected with daily happiness but is more lastingly gratifying.

I thought about his words as I reflected on how “happy” I have been these past few weeks on a book tour for my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s. Each event—whether in a book store or a private home—has brought much immediate satisfaction. Reading and signing my book and discussing it with an audience makes me happy. But that book didn’t write itself. It didn’t just happen while I was watching TV or out drinking or doing other “fun” things.

So as I sat down to work on my new novel yesterday afternoon, I thought more about something Ariel shard in his column:

The social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues distinguish between happiness and meaning. They see the first as satisfying our needs and wishes in the hear-and-now, the latter as thinking beyond the present to express our deepest values and sense of self. They found, unsurprisingly, that pursing meaning is often associated with increased stress and anxiety.

No wonder I don’t want to sit down and write my next book. What if I can’t do it? What if it isn’t any good? What if….

I often seem to come back to seeking balance in various areas of my life, and maybe this is another one of those situations. Maybe I need to balance the times of “fun” with the times of hard work (as I write this I feel like you are thinking, “Duh, of course!”) in order to experience both happiness and meaning in my life. But Ariely’s advice isn’t about balance; he leans towards the more difficult path:

Simply pursuing the first type of happiness isn’t the way to live; we should aim to bring more of the second type of happiness into our lives, even if it won’t be as much fun every day.

Again, this isn’t rocket science, and it might sound obvious, but I needed this reminder right now.

Rolling a Joint on the Square in Oxford, Mississippi

rolling a jointSomeone sent me this hilarious sign they saw on Facebook. He sent it because this past Friday night I rolled a joint on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, following my reading of Tangles and Plaques at Square Books. The joint was my left ankle.  I had gone to dinner with a group of folks following the reading (with over 80 in attendance at Square Books!) and was walking back to my car when I missed the edge of a curb and fell. Thankfully I didn’t break a hip or hurt my neck or back or something more serious than my ankle.

And also thankfully it’s not broken. This morning’s x-ray shows some torn ligaments that should heal in a few weeks. Back in 2013 when I broke my other ankle and leg in a car wreck, I had two surgeries, wore a cast, then a walking boot. The walking boot was uncomfortable because Even Upsit made my stride uneven, I didn’t have any safe, flat shoes that were high enough. Now they ‘ve got this cool new thing called an “Even Up” that you put on the bottom of your shoe to make your feet at even heights. What a difference that makes!

I posted lots of pictures on Facebook from the event at Square Books Friday night, and also at Lemuria in Jackson on Saturday, so I’ll only repost one here. It was so much fun seeing several of my Tri Delt sorority sisters in Oxford (including my “big sister” whom I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 1970!) and several high school classmates and other friends and family in Jackson. Great reception at both Mississippi events. Thanks to everyone who helped organize them, and to everyone who came to the readings and bought books! Next event for Tangles and Plaques is a salon in a private home here in Memphis, then on to WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, Arkansas on the 18th. What a ride!

 

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

Ole Miss Tri Delt sisters at Square Books in Oxford: Julia Thornton, Gayle Gresham Henry, Susan Cushman, Jan Champion

The Reflective Present Tense

confusedwriter1I’ve just started writing a new novel. Without meaning to, I drafted the first few pages in present tense—the same thing I did initially with Cherry Bomb, my novel that’s coming out in October. But at some point I changed the entire novel to past tense, and it read more smoothly. So why is it I automatically revert to present tense when I begin a new one?

This article gives a fairly good argument for using past tense for novels, although it also says, “Of course, there are plenty of novels out there written in the present tense (more so in literary and mainstream fiction than genre fiction)….”

Since I tend to write for literary and mainstream rather than genre fiction, maybe I’m not on the wrong track.

This Writer’s Digest article, “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” offers some food for thought.

I like what Matt Bell calls the “reflective present tense” in this article, “In Defense of the Present Tense,” which quotes several authors who teach or have taught writing:

I also use the present tense as a way of talking about the past, even though the speaker is really telling the story from the present. I think that’s a pretty common tactic, actually. I’m actually doing a similar thing in something I’m working on right now—the reflective present tense, which is the way both memory and trauma often work.

The “reflective present tense”… I think that’s what I’m after. Guess I’ll keep writing and see if I run into problems when I use flashbacks. It’s a process.

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