Guest posts

Monday, September 26, 2011

Today's guest blogger is Stephen Brayton

 Distractions:  by Stephen Brayton

I’ve been a member of several writers’ critique groups over the years and I’ve come to realize a major factor in each group’s downfall has been the lack of writers. This may seem quite logical, but it’s true for any group. Knitters, martial artists, foreign language studies, puzzlers…if you are a part of a group and aren’t involved in the activity, the group suffers. Add in a few more people and the group collapses, becomes less fun, or has less worth for those who are serious.

When I first started attending a critique group, there were about 15-20 or more who showed every week. I had heard many more used to attend. Why the dropout rate? Probably it started with something like this. “Sally, do you have anything to read tonight?” “No, I’ve been too busy this last week to write.” “Okay, but we really want you to read.” “I’ll try to have something next week.”

Well, as Yoda once said, “Do or do not do. There is no try.” You’re either writing or you’re not. So, the attendance dropped. By the time I stopped attending my first critique group, we were down to a core of about four or five with maybe two of us reading per week. It was a waste of my time to read for others who weren’t writing. I worked hard to have something every week, either a short story or another chapter from the ongoing book. I ceased going to the meetings not because I stopped writing, but because others did. I wasn’t going to go to a meeting where two or three people read and the rest of the time we just chatted. Plus, I didn’t feel those who weren’t writing, who weren’t keeping up with improving their craft, had justification to critique my material.

So, is it lack of interest or distractions that keep people from writing? Television, radio, Internet, phone, mail, email, kids, pets, spouse, something interesting out the window…all are part of a large group of distractions. I’m not perfect; my attention wanders at times. Much of my writing is done at a facility where people could come in at any moment. They’re distracting. I understand distractions and I’m willing to let a few excuses go by. When they become consistent, however, then I know the person really isn’t serious about writing.

In a recent interview I mentioned my ideal place to write. I likened it to a deserted island with no phone, no TV, no radio, no Internet, no people, with enough food and water to sustain me until I felt like rejoining society. Serious writers will make time to write, or will set aside a portion of the day or week and tell the rest of the world to leave them alone until a certain period has ended. Behind a closed door, with the TV, internet, and cell phone turned off. If the radio is on when I’m writing, it’s tuned to a classical music station.

Don’t let your writing be a distraction to your writing. What I mean is, don’t stop after every sentence or chapter to go back and edit or change things. So many times in those critique groups I heard chapter one from a few people over and over. They took home our comments, did a rewrite, then came back, took home more comments and did another rewrite. The cycle continued. We never heard chapter two. Soon, they either gave up or decided the particular story wasn’t working out, so they switched to a new story and brought in a new chapter one.

Another example of a writing distraction is too much preparation. I realize every person has his or her individual writing style. Outlines that may take eight months to picking up a pen and starting in on something without a direction. Whatever works for you, do it. However, if you are a type who sets up character profiles and setting profiles, don’t get bogged down in the minutiae. There must be a time when you start writing the first sentence.

One more example. Finish a story. Recently I have found myself falling into the trap of starting one story, getting partially completed, then jumping to another story, then a third, and I discovered I wasn’t completing a project. When I realized my problem, I stopped jumping around and set myself a goal to finish a particular story by the end of the year with at least one or two rewrites.

I’m not sure how long I took to complete “Beta.” I do know I did a few rewrites, character tinkering, scene additions, etc. Meanwhile, I was writing other stories. However, I never forgot I still had a completed story to ‘finish’ in the sense of polishing it up even more with each submission rejection. I’ve worked long hard on this book and even when correcting edits, still found it emotionally stimulating. I’m glad I persevered, and didn’t allow distractions to keep me from my goal.

Let your writing be your distraction from everything else, not the other way around.

Excerpt from Stephen's new book - The weather was warm for November and Mom said
they both needed a day of play. After a Happy Meal at McDonald's, they drove to the park where she wandered around the new wooden playground. She bounced from one swing to another, plunged down the slides, ran through the obstacle course, and teetered back and forth on the colorful
animals mounted on giant springs. Mom sat on a bench reading a book. Half way up a wall of tires, she realized Mom had disappeared. At first, she didn't notice the big man. He wore a zippered black jacket, black jeans, and his arms and legs bulged huge. His mean face was covered with a lot of
bumps and scars. Before she could scream, the man grabbed her and held a cloth over her mouth. When she breathed, she smelled something sweet and sickly. She tried to cough, but instead fell asleep.When she awoke, she found herself in a spacious room,with bright lights, a camera, a pile of clothing on a chair, and a box filled with toys and other strange looking items.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Moving...instead of writing...

I've been figuratively pounding away at the neurons that house my writing capacity because they just aren't working very well lately - too focused on my real life at the moment. This weekend I'm doing the last of the packing up of my household of 6 kids + spouse + two dogs for our move back into town and a suburban lifestyle next week. It's going to be an adjustment as we learn to live on less than 5 acres, and we learn to keep our noise level down.  The kids won't be able to run off their energy and their angst and use their imaginations to build forts in the forest, nor will I be able to go hang out with my chickens when I'm too crabby to be decent company for humans. I'll miss sitting at my desk and looking at the eagles swoop around the tree tops of my *backyard*, and I'll miss the privilege of not being able to see any other houses when I look out of my window.

There are many benefits to this move - including more time for writing (once I get those non-compliant writing neurons working again) and on occasion I'll have a few moments for sitting on the patio and staring at the sky which is something I consider to be a highly important activity. I won't miss the constant work on the property, or the constant driving to get kids here and there, or trying to dig ourselves out of the property during our one or two snowfalls of the year.

It's always the same, isn't it. You gain a bit and you lose a bit. Well friends,  have your best day possible.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Interview with Mary A Berger author of A Trip to the Water's Edge

A Trip to the Water's Edge


Book synopsis:
Take a couple of fun-loving gals who witness a murder, add to that a food poisoning problem, throw in some fun with an aerobics class and a laughable attempt to "cook from a real recipe," and you have the makings for another hilarious adventure with Mattie Mitchell in A Trip to the Water's Edge, the sequel to the equally comical novel, The Trouble with Mattie, the first in the Mattie Mitchell Mystery Series.

About the author:
A native of Michigan, where she earned her arts degree, Mary A. Berger is an author whose writing has appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Lady's Circle, and Today's Family, as well as in various small press publications and her local newspaper, the Times News.

She currently occupies her time with the Friends of Henderson County Public Library, The Michigan Club, her homeowners association, her pottery, and her church. Married 52 years, Mary has two daughters, four grandchildren, and two "greats."

Book available for purchase through

Interview Q & A:

When did you first feel the urge to write?

I probably knew writing would be a part of my future, when I’d dash off six- or seven-page letters to my cousins.  The problem was, I rarely heard back from them.  They may have thought that if they didn’t respond, I might stop sending such long-winded letters.  In grade school, I once “wrote” a book for a class assignment.  My teacher praised my efforts.  She might have influenced me greatly, when she told me—in front of the whole class—that I should become a writer.  That’s pretty heady stuff for a fourth-grader to hear.

What finally got you started in actually writing a book?

The gift (to myself) of a laptop computer was a stepping stone on my road to writing, or I should say rewriting, a book.  Actually, I had composed The Trouble with Mattie some time ago but was unable to find a publisher.  So my Mattie book sat in a box in my closet for years.  After retyping and updating the entire book manuscript on my new computer, I felt in my heart that I had something important to say, not earthshaking, but important to me.  So I entered the world of electronic self-publishing, and here I am.
 What do you bring from your life that adds to your writing? 
Being a “people watcher” has always been a habit of mine, and it’s possible that’s had some influence in describing my characters.  Years ago, my husband and I would visit the airport, the mall, or other places where folks gathered.  We’d pick up ice cream cones and sit back watching people come and go, while we’d work on our ice cream.  Little did I realize how much of that experience got tucked into my memory bank. 
On another note, my family consisted of twenty aunts and uncles, plus 26 cousins, and an English grandfather.  “Grampy” would prop my sister and me on his lap and astound us with his stories of working in Australia and Africa, and of the people and their songs.  Again, watching and observing my own family members became a learning experience in itself.  It’s amazing—and fortunate, in my case—how much of our childhood gets locked into our brain, especially on the creative side.

Do you use external supports in writing? such as a writing program or an ongoing editor? 

For my books, I have ongoing editors who help make “repairs” on some of the things I’ve botched up.  Not only are they supportive, they’re encouraging as well. Editing newsletters has helped my writing experience, too.  In addition, I have participated in creative writing groups in Ohio, Michigan, and here in North Carolina.  Currently, I’m a member of The Read on Western North Carolina and the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

Is there a theme that runs through your writing?

Humor appears in nearly everything I write.  My one attempt at writing serious fiction turned out sounding like the world’s worst soap opera.  So I decided to stick to humorous writing.  I try to use a humorous approach to “doing the right thing.”  In my Mattie’s Mysteries books, I try to put my main character, Mattie, in places where she gets into all kinds of comical situations, and trouble, in her effort to do the right thing.
One of the offshoots of writing funny is that we can sometimes make ourselves laugh at our own humor.  And that’s a positive.

What writers have influenced you?

Garrison Keillor is one of my favorite writers of humor.  I can pick up Lake Wobegon Days and be in stitches in two minutes.  Janet Evanovich’s books are another favorite, not so much for content but for style.  I also admire subtle humor, such as that found in John Grisham’s The Testament.

How has your writing evolved over time?

I’d like to think my writing has gotten funnier.  But I would imagine that’s what most humor writers (and probably comedians) hope for themselves.  I do feel that my writing has gotten more crisp, more tight.  When people tell me they laughed out loud while reading my books, well, that says a lot.    `

How do you promote your books?

My blog site,, is my main contact with the writing world.  I also make myself available for readings/discussions at our library and its branches, book clubs, private organizations, etc.  This year, I participated in our area’s BookFest, where I sold books and made a couple of contacts not only with editors but with other authors, as well.  Of course, my business cards and bookmarks are always with me to distribute wherever I can.  Word of mouth is another important way to spread the word about my books.  It also helps to have 26 cousins who are willing to help!
How do you promote your web site?
I use a blog site, which is promoted by my editors through other book blogs and internet book search sites.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

I'm off to Atlanta on business for a week but that means flying for hours and eating alone in hotels = reading time for me!!! I have two books to take care of my reading needs and I'll be reviewing them later. I chose books that are out of my comfort zone for reading. I wanted to activate my neurons but also I need some literary pushes right now. I find that I have to drag out each word to fill the  pages in the book I'm currently writing (which is the sequel to the first Lost Fury Chronicles). That particular book wrote so easily - I felt like I was channeling it. The sequel is coming out word by word by word, and each comes out so unwillingly it feels like it has to ripped out of my brain.

I've never had this happen with my writing before. It doesn't feel like writer's block, at least not in the way that I experience it. For me, writer's block is about not knowing where the plot is going next and that's not the case here. I like the book and I like where it's going. I know how it ends and how it gets to that end so it's not like I've gotten lost in the plot. I know the characters very well and they have live an active life in my head, but ooohhhhh it's not nice working with them right now.

Anyway, I hope that reading something different from my norm will promote some change in this problem area. If not, it's back to dragging each word out ... no one said writing was easy.. did they?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Little Stranger

I was already a fan of the author and so I eagerly anticipated this book. I found it had many of the same elements I already loved about Waters' writing - she creates interesting and evocative scenarios, and she is highly skilled at presenting complicated relationships. In this book, the main characters are struggling with the immense socio/economic changes that occurred in England after the Second World War and they try to isolate themselves from the externally forced transitions by becoming emotionally alienated from each other and from society in general. They manage to create an isolated little world in which each of them has a defined place and space, and it's a world which the first person narrator is desperate to join. Still, trauma, mental illness, death, and the paranormal all meld to create a tension that can't last, and their world begins to crumble. 

The story gripped me and I was fully engaged with the characters, however, I wasn't happy with the ending of this book. I found it to be a real disappointment, but in thinking about it, I realized that I also couldn't see how it could have ended any differently. I think my unhappiness came from how well Waters had engaged me in her characters lives, rather than from anything to do with the story. I wanted them to have a happy, or even mediocre, outcome to this time in their lives, but that just couldn't be. 

I highly recommend this book, but don't read it at a time when you need cheering up

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reviewing from the shallow end...

I've been honing my review skills by posting reviews on I thought that if I reviewed books or movies that already have 1500 reviews then my lack of experience wouldn't be noticed and I don't have to worry about having a negative impact on something that deserves better. I also thought I had some skills in this area, because, you see, a  few years ago I taught a university course on critical thinking. I had loved those courses when I was in graduate and post graduate schools so I expected to be in my element teaching it. Of course, it didn't turn out like that - the students were all first year and they were still struggling with the academic structure required and the content of the course was the least of their worries. Oh well, as they say, if you want to learn something, teach it - especially teach it to people who don't want to learn it.

So, I felt I had a more than adequate base to apply critical thinking to literature and movies, but as I do more of this, I find it's not helping me at all. Why, because I have been reviewing books that I'm reading for pleasure, not to broaden my knowledge base (although historical lit provides that) and I don't really want to apply a critical analysis thought process to methods of light entertainment.

I also wonder, when I'm doing a review, what the review reader wants to know. Does she want to know if I liked the plot? Does he want to know if the characters were realistic? Does she care more about the  genre than the storyline? Does he rely on the synopsis to know if he's interested?

I was especially struck with this when I was reviewing The Book Thief. That's my favorite book in the universe. I read and re-read many lines simply to enjoy the wording, and to re-experience the feelings they evoked in me. Well, do review readers care that I can be enraptured by words?

Arrrgh... am I thinking this to death? That isn't my way - I'm a light thinker (embarrassing but true)...and I like to tread in the shallow end of life. Yet, with reviewing, I'm getting myself all twisted into knots. I guess I'll just keep doing Amazon reviews for a while - maybe even start reviewing products like pencil sharpeners ( do they even make those anymore?) till I feel some confidence.

Well friends, have your best day possible.