Sunday, October 20, 2013

Summer Challenge Results

Été en France- Winning Entry

In keeping with our Five Year Anniversary Issue whose interview subjects took us deep into the past and present of French culture, we did a special book giveaway of Salley Vickers’ latest novel, The Cleaner of Chartres (Viking).

Our summer challenge was this- write no more than 500 words (fiction or non-fiction) about a day you spend in France. You have the freedom to choose what region and time period you prefer. What is essential is that you include detailed descriptions that are transportive to the reader. You must include at least one famed landmark (historical, architectural, etc…) and one French phrase (could be a few words). Think about who you would meet, what you would do and the role you would play in the events of this day that you create. You can have, be, see and obtain anything. Step outside your comfort zone and really ask yourself what you would want during this twenty-four hour period that is entirely in your control. Embrace joie de vivre and share the details.

We had numerous intriguing entries. Honorable mention goes to Dana Facchine and Terin Tashi Miller. Our winner is Cheryl Sommese, as her entry most closely embodied the theme of the challenge (to meet anyone, to have, be, see or obtain anything with the spirit of joie de vivre) with a surreal, unique story.

Beauté au-delà de toute comparaison

by Cheryl Sommese

“I never thought I’d find you here,” Justine stammered as she sat in the enchanting café at the bottom of the cobblestone hill. 

"Who did you expect to find?" the surreal voice echoed. 

The woman was not sure how to respond, so she remained speechless for a bit.

Justine and Dave romanticized about going to France for several years. Actually, Justine’s fantasies were probably somewhat more intense, Dave would have been just as happy traveling back out to Utah.  

Still, the woman felt her heartstrings were woven into Western Europe like threads of gold embroidered onto a large tapestry.  So, when the Eurail screeched noisily into Chartres, she knew she was exactly where she was meant to be.  Besides, could any North American town rival a dreamy locale that beckons writers and artists like mother bears summoning their young?  

“So, what do you think of my house?” the elusive man asked.

“Which one?” Justine diffidently replied.

"The one you just visited," he softly answered.

How might she articulate her feelings? After all, the medieval, gothic construction with its multiple towers, countless choirs, endless stained glass windows, slanted mineral flooring, vast labyrinth, heavenly icons, mysteriously darkened interior, well, it was cryptic and glorious!

“It’s even more captivating than the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris. En fait, il a dépassé toutes mes attentes pour la beauté,” she expressed.

Upon blurting this, countless thoughts swarmed through her head: he looks different than I imagined, shorter, perhaps a little heavier, and his laser blue/green eyes seem able to penetrate even the decorated walls. When her attention returned to the room, the charismatic figure was gone.

Dave appeared out of nowhere. “Here you are, I got a gift for you. There are some great items on the second level, maybe we can buy a few souvenirs?” he enthusiastically proclaimed.   

The attractive woman sat in reflection. 

“Honey, you look troubled, is everything okay?” the handsome gent queried. 

“Um, yeah, I was just talking to this otherworldly kind of guy. I swear I know him; in fact, I know I know him,” she uttered while trembling.  

“That’s odd,” Dave replied, “I met a peculiar woman upstairs; she said Chartres Cathedral was named after her. I nodded to be polite. I don’t know, I guess she’s a little loopy. It’s weird, though, her English was perfect.”

“What did she look like?” Justine hesitantly questioned. 

“She was petite, with wavy brown hair, and piercing, kind eyes. Oh, and she wore a white veil that draped over most of her head, she must be religious or something,” he animatedly rejoined.

Queasiness invaded the woman’s innards. Instead of entering a different continent, she wondered if she had entered a different world. 

“Was she beautiful?” Justine inquired. 

The man’s face became trancelike as he whispered, “Actually, she was, in an unspoiled kind of way.  Why, did you see her?”       

“No,” Justine circumspectly answered, “but I think I might know her, too.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Interview with Denise Powell, founder and editor-in-chief of The Voices Project, a literary venue for women focused on empowerment, self-expression and the promotion of positive social change

Interview with Denise Powell by Carol Smallwood (see Carol's bio following the interview):

Denise Powell is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Voices Project (, a literary venue for women for empowerment and self-expression. She holds dual B.A. degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Iowa and was a student of the university’s Undergraduate Poetry Workshop.  Her writing has been published in literary magazines, books, and blogs including the following: Earthwords (University of Iowa Undergraduate Review), LethologicA (Naropa Press), Scribo (CLC Press), The Pulchitudinous Review, Principles of Water Resources (Wiley Publishers), Nigel Barker's Beauty Equation, and Poetry Pacific (forthcoming). Recent works can be found on her poetry blog,

Denise has 9 years of experience in the publishing industry, particularly in higher education, as Associate Editor for Wiley Publishers and Senior Project Manager for Partner in Publishing. She is a member of the U.S. Board of Directors for OrphanAid Africa (, a non-profit organization based in Ghana, West Africa, that provides support to orphans and vulnerable children and their families to help families stay together. An avid traveler, Denise has visited 42 countries and has a passion for promoting human rights internationally and domestically.

1) Please describe your new magazine~

The Voices Project is an online literary venue for women to express their voices through poetry in order to promote positive social change within their communities and in the world.  I wanted to create a site where women and girls have an opportunity to express their personal story through poetry despite their backgrounds, ages, or education levels. By providing women writers a non-judgmental space to have their work published, the hope is that our contributors will in-turn be motivated to not only express their passions and show their talent, but to positively affect everything within their realms-- encouraging them to see opportunity instead of obstacles. 
2) Tell us about your own work as a writer~

I mainly write poetry, although I have dabbled in journalism. I am inspired by surrealism (art and writing). I use a lot of vivid imagery of what I see around me to begin a poem, painting a picture for the reader but also leaving space for various interpretations of the meaning of the work. I write in mostly free verse and I go back and revise my work many times before I share it with others. I write as much as I can while balancing my career as an editor, and family life. I have a poetry blog, which I do not share with many people. Most importantly, it keeps me writing!

3) What writers have influenced you the most?

John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, Pablo Neruda. Maya Angelou, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickinson, E.B. White, John Irving, David Sedaris, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Frank Conroy…to name a few. Since my current project focuses on women writers, I recently read Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg. The former CEO of Google and current COO of Facebook calls her new book a kind of  “feminist manifesto”, which she was reluctant to call the book in the beginning but later embraced it, about balancing family and career and her personal obstacles and triumphs getting to the top. Although I could not relate to everything she spoke about, I concur with her overarching message that we need more women leaders in the world to stand up and help shape our future for the better.

4) What are the most common writing mistakes you see?

I find that some people do not proofread their work upon submission. This creates more work for me. I am open to editing pieces, but when I see minor (and sometimes major) grammatical errors, it’s very glaring and can distract me from what the author is really trying to convey. And it happens more often than I would expect. Also, occasionally, authors will submit a poem that is more like a stream of consciousness that presents itself more like a complaint or rant, rather than well-crafted poetry with creative word choices.

5) What classes have you taken that have helped you the most?

I took every creative writing class offered at the University of Iowa, including reading poetry, fiction writing, non-fiction writing, writing poetry, and personal writing. Iowa City is one of the greatest literary communities, and I ate it up. The world’s best writers often graced the town’s tiny bookstore, and I was often in the first row for readings.  Just listening to professional writers share their work was eye-opening and served as a wonderful learning tool for me. I was also lucky to be selected into the university’s Undergraduate Poetry Workshop and was humbled by the 9 peers in my class, all seasoned writers.  I learned the most from reading other people’s work, and also having my own work dissected. I am still learning to this day how to be a better writer and I think the key is getting as much feedback as possible and not being afraid of criticism.

6) What advice would you give other writers?

- Write when you’re really inspired at random times…on a napkin, or in a notebook that you carry with you at all times. Those moments are precious and not to be lost because you’re without your laptop.
- Find a poet or writer you like and read a lot of their work. Try to write at least a paragraph after reading something that spurs your creative juices.
- Seek feedback from other writers whose work, and opinion, you respect and learn to take some criticism.
- Keep your writing tight. Eliminate superfluous verbiage whenever possible, as every word counts.
- Revise and proofread your work before submitting or publishing!

Interviewer Bio- Carol Smallwood co-edited Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012) on the list of “Best Books for Writers” by Poets & Writers Magazine; Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) received a Pushcart nomination. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Interview with Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, author of Miriam the Medium (Simon and Schuster) and her latest, Kaylee's Ghost

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is the author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and like her protagonist, is a phone psychic who lives in Great Neck, New York. Articles have been written about her psychic gift in Redbook, The Jerusalem Post, the Dutch Magazine, TV GID, and the Long Island section of The New York Times. She’s chronicled her own psychic experiences in Newsweek (My Turn), and The New York Times (Lives). Miriam the Medium was also published in Belgium, Holland, and the U.K. and was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award. Shapiro is the winner of the The Brandon Memorial Literary Award. Kaylee's Ghost was a finalist in the 2013 Indie Award for excellence in fiction. Her poetry has appeared in The Iowa Review, Moment, Harpur Palate, Inkwell Magazine, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and the Los Angeles Review. Shapiro has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. Besides her psychic practice, Shapiro teaches writing at UCLA Extension and writes for the Huffington Post.

1) During our initial conversation, you had described how poetry was a medium that served as an anchor for you; one that helped you sort through all of the thoughts, emotions and complex intuitive feelings that came as a result of an inherited psychic ability. Describe the transition to storytelling prose and how this further affected you (by being able to spin fictional stories that had a realistic connection to your life and experiences).

It was natural for me to begin my writing life with poetry. It was all around me in childhood. The linoleum floor in my bedroom was printed with nursery rhymes. As soon as I got up in the morning, I would hop from “Mistress Mary” to “Simple Simon”, singing each rhyme as I went. Then there were the rhymes in the songs that I played on my record player. “In the land of France, a little girl named Tina loved to dance, dance, dance, and they called her ballerina.” But when I got to grade school, poetry was flayed from my heart by Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”. I was always the one who managed to have to get up and recite the line, “A tree whose hungry mouth is prest /Against the earth’s sweet, flowing breast.” But in 1985, I was pulled like an iron filing by a magnet to the 811 stacks at the library and found poetry by Mae Swenson, Sharon Olds, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, and I got that prickle on the back of my neck and shoulders that I get when I feel, as a psychic, a destiny moment.

Before long, I began to write and publish poetry and be part of poetry readings when anthologies came out. My son used to answer the phone when people called for readings and ask, “Psychic or poetry?” Poetry allows you to braid images, memories, and impressions and bake them like my Russian grandma, my Bubbie, made her challahs. My poetry was always narrative and both readers and editors would remark, “That could be a story.” And that’s what led me to short story. From there, I went into long, hard labor with my novel.

When I write fiction, I need some things to be true in order to ground me. For example, Miriam Kaminsky, my heroine, is a phone psychic like I am. And she lives in Great Neck, Long Island, as I do. But every incident, every character, is an invention. And thank goodness for that when you read the perilous things that happen in my novels. 

When my agent brought me to Simon & Schuster, I had those same prickles on the back of my neck and shoulders as when I was led to poetry. I knew I was going to sign a contract with them.  

2) In Miriam the Medium (Simon and Shuster, nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award), Miriam recalls an instance where six-year-old Cara asks how her mother can know things about people without them telling her. Miriam uses a Crayola box to symbolize aura colors, suggesting that since she can see the colors around people, she discern a good deal about who they are and what they’re feeling before they speak to her. Writers have always had a particularly honed sense of observation that can pick up clues from gestures, objects and behavioral patterns that other observers might not take notice of. It is in this way, looking for the hidden or unexpected in real life and making a study of people around them, that writers derive inspiration for the formation of their characters. As Miriam is supposed to reflect certain similarities to your own abilities of perception, how does having the added intuitive layer of observing individuals affect how you build your own characters/influence your creative process?

When I do psychic readings, I’m watching and hearing the information that comes to me in the form of images, scents, sounds, words, bodily sensations, and sometimes even tastes. (I get the cold throat burn of a scotch on the rocks, the thick, warm sweetness of a cup of cocoa.) And I get to know small details of my clients’ lives as well as their big secrets. I demonstrated some kind of stylized jumping that I saw one client do when she was a child. “That’s Chinese jump rope!” she exclaimed. “I used to love it.” Another client said to me, “This is the most intimate conversation I’ve ever had, but I’ve barely opened my mouth.”

It’s just like that for me with fictional characters. I get to know all sorts of things about them that aren’t even pertinent to the story, but help me build a strong character, no matter how minor he or she is. I believe in my characters because once I set my mind to them, I get everything I need to feel close to them in the same way that I get to feel about my clients. They even come to me in dreams.

Sometimes I write letters to my characters, asking them to solve a plot point. “Dear Kaylee, What would you do if..?” Then I put on music—Mozart these days because his music is rumored to make you smarter—and I write out the character’s reply. Sure, it’s my own mind writing the answer, but when you treat your character as you would anyone else whom you’re intimate with, you’ve really got something! And I think that intimacy with your characters leads to intimacy with the reader.    

3) At the conclusion of Miriam the Medium, Miriam learns to be sure of herself, trust her inclinations/instincts, have faith in her talents and pursues her passion regardless of the perceptions of others. So often in life, for a number of reasons, we are dissuaded (whether by society in general, a certain teacher/authority figure/person of influence) from following our dreams, cautioned against having our talents encouraged and told not to trust our subjective instincts. Be it a calling, a profession or a life path, talk to us about the balance between pragmaticism and taking the unconventional road where a passion is realized.  

Odd the way parents foist music lessons on disinterested kids, holler at them if they don’t practice, sit through tedious piano recitals, and then, if their children decide to become musicians, the parents are desperate to talk them out of it. Parents want their kids to become lawyers, dentists, accountants, so that someday their kids will be able to afford to foist music lessons on their progeny.

It’s no different with writing. Dare to become an English major and everyone is asking you, with a raised brow, “So, what are you intending to do with it?” Creative writing major? Forget it. Better to say you’re studying micro-economics (code for, I’ll be earning very little, which might be the truth). That means you will have to figure out another job to sustain you. And what’s wrong with that? William Carlos Williams and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were both practicing physicians. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a weigher and a gouger at the Boston Custom House   which housed offices to process the paperwork of imports and exports. Dan Brown, before he struck it rich with The Da Vinci Code, was a high school English teacher.

If there’s a passion inside you, no matter how much you resist it or forces seem to be working against you, it will grab you by the seat of your pants and the back of your collar and carry you to it, kicking and screaming if necessary. After going to college and getting a Master’s degree in fine arts, I didn’t want to become a professional psychic like my Russian grandma, my Bubbie, even though I respected and adored her. I wanted to be modern, to do something that reflected my education. But whatever else I did, I would constantly blurt out things people hadn’t told me, because I heard them in my mind as if they had already told me, which made it uncomfortable  for people to be around me. When I gave in and became a professional psychic, this inclination to tell people what was going on in their lives was channeled into my work, and I was free to go anywhere without embarrassment for the first time in my life!

4) With Kaylee’s Ghost (a finalist for the 2013 Indie Award for excellence in fiction) you were able to revisit the vivid characters of your traditionally published novel yet tell the new story using the trendy e-book format and self-publishing model. Tracing the evolution of family, gifts and boundaries inherited as well as the undeniable bonds between three generations, what were some of your favorite creative aspects of writing this book? What were some of your favorite publishing aspects of this book (utilizing the technology and self-publishing methodologies)?

It was exciting to write a novel in which the characters could grow up along with me. In Kaylee’s Ghost, Miriam Kaminsky, the phone psychic, is now a  grandmother who wants more than anything to mentor her granddaughter, Violet, to be psychic the way her Russian grandma, Bubbie, had done with her. And  Miriam’s daughter, now a modern businesswoman who remembers the downside of life with her psychic mother, digs in her heels. As tensions heat up in the family, Violet, a sensitive and brilliant child, is torn between them until Miriam’s gift backfires, bringing terrible danger to those she loves.

Not only was the plot new, but all the minor characters as well. I found it like a Color Field painting. If you put a red square against a green background, it appears totally different than putting a red square against a blue background.

But what was most exciting was that I missed the characters. They lived in my psyche long after the first book was sent to press. And they dwelt in the lives of my fans as well. I kept getting fan mail that said, “When are we going to hear from  Miriam again?” And here she is in Kaylee’s Ghost.

I published Kaylee’s Ghost on Amazon and Nook for a deeply emotional reason rather that a logical choice. My top New York agent, the wise and savvy Jack Scovil , the owner of his wildly successful agency, who had told me “Everyone will want to read Kaylee’s Ghost.” Then Jack Scovil died and the scramble began of finding a new agent. One prestigious agent was so excited to take my book, but she hung onto it for six months without reading it because she was so busy. And I know how long it can take to sell a book once and agent has accepted it. I turned sixty-five and I said to myself, 'Better get a move on, Girl.'

Truly, if it hadn’t been for my first book having the wide reach of being published with Simon & Schuster, Kaylee’s Ghost would not be on the map. I am a tech dud. You have to be an ingenious techie and marketer to make a self-published book  happen. But with the support of fans and fabulous opportunities such as this one, word is getting out. Maybe Jack Scovil’s spirit is helping me, because such an uncanny thing happened that it had to be supernatural. A famous European psychic, Birkan Tore, who has his own show in Sweden, was watching an old episode of  The Mentalist when he saw my first novel, Miriam the Medium, lying on a table. He looked up the title and read the book. He was so excited that he phoned me. I told him about Kaylee’s Ghost and he’s recommending it to his viewers and his huge number of students. Now really, even if you’re a non-believer, wouldn’t you have to admit that something uncanny was afoot?    

5) Give our writers a brief glimpse of the traditional publishing cycle in terms of your personal experience (from the query to the manuscript being accepted by an agent, the search for a publisher, the post-publishing publicity push that can include both author and publisher effort, the shelf-life of the book and so forth…). 

First step is to write a sock-o query letter. The query letter gives an agent a sense of how you write and also teases them into desperately wanting to read your book, Go to book jackets and read the copy and you’ll see how to do it. Whoever writes them certainly doesn’t give away the plot, but in a few words, gets the reader excited to read the book. Yes, there are loads of lists of agents, but one of the best way to find one is to think about which authors your work has a kinship with. For example, one of my authors is Alice Hoffman, who often writes about the supernatural. Then see go to their books. There’s always an acknowledgement of their agent. Query him or her.

When and if you get an acceptance from an agent, know that you might be required to do extensive rewrites before he will send your book out. Also, publishers may hang onto your book for quite awhile. The whole process requires that you not just sit back and wait, but start on your next project with the self-assurance that something will happen for you.

Listen up. You don’t just get a book published today unless you’re some kind of celebrity, no matter how good it is. One of the first things a publisher will ask you is, “What is your platform?” That means you have to have a blog with tons of followers, a FB page with tons of followers and LIKES, tons of twitter followers, etc. I was lucky enough to have published about my psychic experiences in The New York Times (Lives) and Newsweek and had an article published about me in Redbook.

In other words, you usually need to be “known” in some way before a publisher will take a chance on you. The upside of this is that you can do a blog that attracts attention such as E.L. James did with Fifty Shades of Gray. The publishers are looking for buzz and then they will sign you up and movie deals will happen.  I attended BEA (Book Expo of America) this year and learned that authors were posting their books on free sites to get reader feedback, all the while social-marketing the heck out of their books, reading them on YouTube, etc. That’s what got the authors lucrative book deals. Keep one foot in the waters of the literary world and the other in the widening gyre of social media.

6) What areas do you focus most on in your classes as an instructor of writing through the UCLA extension?

I teach a course called “Emotions into Art” at UCLA Extension. If your characters aren’t driven by desperate emotions, what will keep the reader reading? Think of Gatsby’s desperation to win back Daisy. Think of Hamlet’s desperation to expose the truth of his father’s death. Even comedies have desperate characters. Think of the characters in Yona Zeldis McDonough’s A Wedding in Great Neck where each member of the family is in a desperate clash for his own identity and search for love. Author Maxine Hong Kingston asks her students, “What do you feel?” about what they’ve read or written and she finds that they give analyses instead. She teaches them to work on feeling scene by scene so that the reader can have feelings inside himself.

This is the way I teach as well. I help students find their deepest themes, what eats at them in their lives:  sibling rivalry, betrayal, fear of abandonment, etc. Find your life themes and apply them to fictional characters, even if they are aliens, and you’ve got something worth working on for yourself and certainly something worthy of a reader’s attention.


Friday, July 26, 2013

Summer Book Giveaway

Été en France- No Passport Required

In keeping with our Five Year Anniversary Issue whose interview subjects take us deep into the past and present of French culture, we are doing a special book giveaway of Salley Vickers’ latest novel, The Cleaner of Chartres (Viking).  This unique novel, utilizing the author's in-depth perceptions about emotions and life passages as a Jungian psychotherapist, explores the influence and solidarity of place in relation to the ways we live, how we survive and who we affect in the atmosphere that defines us.   Vickers, the acclaimed UK best-selling author of Miss Garnet’s Angel, brings the ancient cathedral of Notre Dame to new life through the spirit of a mysterious woman turning to its structure for a symbolic sanctuary and reconciliation of her past.  One lucky winner will get a hardcover edition to own. 

Our summer challenge is this- write no more than 500 words (fiction or non-fiction) about a day you spend in France.  You have the freedom to choose what region and time period you prefer.  What is essential is that you include detailed descriptions that are transportive to the reader.  You must include at least one famed landmark (historical, architectural, etc…) and one French phrase (could be a few words).  Think about who you would meet, what you would do and the role you would play in the events of this day that you create.  You can have, be, see and obtain anything.  Step outside your comfort zone and really ask yourself what you would want during this twenty-four hour period that is entirely in your control.  Embrace joie de vivre and share the details.  Your story should be sent to by August 26th.  The winner will receive a hardcover copy of the book and see their story published in the autumn/winter issue.

Learn more about The Cleaner of Chartres-

Read the current Five Year Anniversary Issue-

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Interview with Harry Munns, award-winning author, journalist and boating expert

Harry Munns has been the recipient of the John Southam Award for Journalism, the Writer's Digest Award and the SPAN Award. Drawing upon his boating expertise, Munns produced the Boating World weekly magazine show for ESPN (production included concept, writing and editing). Instructional non-fiction works of the author include two titles for McGraw-Hill. Munns has served as an editor for American Sailing (ASA Journal) and Let's Go Sailing (Hearst Books). His journalism has appeared in numerous publications including Men's Fitness and Sailing Magazine. His work extends to a fiction novel Someday Comes as well as an inspirational title Spectacular Comeback.  For more info, see links below interview.

1) When you used your expertise for some of the elements in your novel Someday Comes as opposed to the mediums of journalism and the instructional non-fiction McGraw-Hill titles, what were some of the freeing qualities and challenges of doing so?

That’s a great question because the processes are very different. When I write instructional material, it’s essential that I get everything right. Factual things like statistics and regulations have to be accurate. I spend a lot of time consulting reference books and double checking data.

When I write fiction, I can create the world in which the facts exist and therefore, create the facts. That doesn’t mean I can alter well-known information such as historical dates or geographic locations. But I can take a lot of liberties with those things. For me, it’s a lot easier inventing a new world than it is trying to keep track of the one that already exists. It flows a lot better and I get a lot more done.

2) Working on the Boating World weekly magazine show for ESPN, what were some of your methods for concept development and writing- how did you seamlessly incorporate your style and experience into the needs of the show?

I had written and co-written a few books on boating by the time I produced Boating World. I had also worked with hundreds of sailing professionals and developing boaters. I was pretty familiar with the elements of boating they cared about and what interested them.

I approached Boating World with a series of questions, the first of which was, what mystifies or confuses people about boating? That may seem like an overly simple starting point but that question led to some more specific questions such as, what would capture the interest of non-boaters and what would help new boaters move more easily into the boating lifestyle. Every decision I made at Boating World was based on the answer to a question about what aspects of boating would appeal to the audience and how to present them in the most entertaining and compelling manner.

3) You won the John Southam award "Honoring Excellence in Sailing Communication" in 1999 for an article that appeared in Men's Fitness.  What are your favorite aspects of journalism and its power to convey important information to the public?

In a journalistic environment where it’s understood the writer has performed his or her due diligence including extensive research, a reader can expect to get educated. I’ve always appreciated that quality in publications like The New York Times. You can begin an article on a subject you know little or nothing about and by the end feel you understand who the players are and what their relationship is to one another. You know about the conflicts and how they may or may not get resolved.

I wouldn’t put myself in that class of journalists but I would say when I write that kind of material I’m very conscious of trying to write within those parameters.

I’m not sure this would work for everyone, but [when I write to inform an audience] I try to recall my state of mind when I knew little or nothing about something like boating. I try to remember my pre-conceived notions about the subject and explain how the factual material differs. I also try to think in sequential terms, whether it’s about the sequence of learning or the sequence of performing some task. I try to remember, stories have a beginning, middle and end because the human brain can follow that sequence.

4) Your website for your motivational non-fiction book Spectacular Comeback features a comment from the Midwest Book Review that calls the book "an inspirational read".  What was your personal inspiration, drawn from your rich array of life experiences, to do this book and come up with the twenty-four day program that you describe as teaching " how to control the things you can control and how to re-order, reclaim and rebuild your life."

Somewhere along the line, I adopted a strong, personal belief that this universe contains all the answers to every question that mankind can ask. Our challenge is to find them.

When life threw me a formidable challenge and landed me in an unintended place, I found a series of answers to the questions I asked about finding my way back from that place. When I reflected on those questions and answers, I realized they could be condensed and compiled into a series of steps that I believed other people could take to make the same journey. Spectacular Comeback is the result of my journey of discovery and my subsequent analysis of it.

[The book] is a series of exercises, some of which build on the ones before them. The first few exercises encourage participants to look solidly and honestly at their current situation. It’s hard to look at yourself objectively. If someone came to the book because of some great loss, he or she may only see their own sadness. No one’s only one thing-- sad, happy, frustrated… We try to get them to see the whole person rather than the part that may be overwhelming.

5) Concerning your expert status in boating that translates into books, articles and programs, how do you maintain your 'brand' as a writer and keep your voice distinctive while molding it to different audiences and projects?

I think there’s only one way a writer develops his or her voice, by writing, reading and re-writing until the process gets smoother and easier. I’ve had the privilege of doing enough writing to get to a point where I feel I’ve developed my voice.

I mold that voice for different projects all the time. I write a newspaper column into which I inject irony and humor. I also do a considerable amount of writing for business. Irony and humor have little or no place in that writing.

I guess it all comes back to the reader. Once I know who will read my material and what it’s intended to accomplish, the style and substance follow.

6) How has the advent of digital publishing changed your career as a writer and what doors has it opened?

I have worked with some big publishers such as Simon & Schuster and McGraw-Hill. I have also self-published. I have worked with talented graphic artists and tried my hand at desktop publishing.

I’d say at this juncture, there’s a place for every one of those entities. But because there are more choices, it’s more challenging matching the project to the methods of getting it out to readers.

The biggest advantage to digital publishing is control. The last time I checked the bigger publishers were on about an 18 month cycle, from buying a manuscript to getting it into book stores. An author can spend a few hundred dollars and get books in a month. The disadvantage [to digital self-publishing] is that you have none of the support you would get from a publisher unless you’re [already a known quantity] such as John Grisham or Nora Roberts; although you shouldn’t expect much in the way of advertising and promotion from a publisher anyway. Another advantage to traditional publishers is that when you hand over your manuscript after all the edits and changes, you can get busy writing your next book. Do-it-yourselfers need to acquire and exercise a lot of skills to get those jobs done a fraction as well as a publisher.

The best news of all for authors is that there have never been more opportunities to get the material we produce into print and into the hands of readers. We live in a very exciting time.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Radiant Knowledge~ A Perspective on Book Clubs

Guest Blogger Bio:  Linda Emma is a college instructor, author, freelance writer and writing coach. Her first novel, Prime Meridian, was published in 2009. Her second work was compiled from her blog ( and is available in digital format: Kids Suck.  Exactly the opposite of what its title implies, Kids Suck is a forthright and humorous look at raising children in the 21st century. Started as a blog (ironically constructed by the author’s son) the musings in Kids Suck offer a real-world look at the rocky roller coaster ride that is the journey of today’s parent. The author relates humorous and heartfelt stories about her own children, the children in her life and the students with whom she works at a small New England college, to bring to light the ups and downs and twists and turns that take place before the surefire collision of parents and children.

Radiant Knowledge (excerpted from a post of the same title on

When book clubs first came into vogue in our area, my kids were little and reading for pleasure had been pushed to a back burner. When I eventually did accept an invite into such a group, though, I was glad for the return to my absent friends: books.

However, in those first groups, we often spent more time talking about our kids than the books. Not everyone completed the reading; books were sometimes chosen with an eye to complexity and length –against both. And there was often an exclusivity to the book groups that shunned some and admitted others with a rationale that I didn’t quite understand.

When the group disbanded, I didn’t try to fill the void.

Until my sister-in-law began regaling me with the content of her new book group, tempting me with literary works I thought I had missed out on; classics that can be attempted as solo project but are appreciated more when fully explored with other minds.

So I joined.

And I have yet to miss a meeting.

It is in part because of the books. But it’s way more because of the women.

They’re brilliant.

I could opt for a less hyperbolic adjective like smart or intelligent or even intellectual; they are all of those. But whenever I try to explain this group to others the word that invariable rises to the top is simply: brilliant.

But its members are not who you might envision. At all.

As fairly homogenous as they outwardly appear, the group intellect is somewhat eclectic –a Picasso painting hung above a Louis XVI cabinet; Old Testament vs. new Constitution. The PhD often acquiesces her train of thought to the postal worker. The English teacher sends kudos to a new view of an old book.

In discussion, the group members all pull from literature they’ve read, but even more so from the lives they’ve led. They have different educational strengths and backgrounds, view the world through a prism of perspectives. They get that not everyone’s path was paved with paper, that learning isn’t just about classrooms and books, that much of an intellectual pursuit comes from a willingness to open one’s mind. And they do just that. They share an eagerness to look anew at classic literature, to amend perceptions, to rethink old thoughts. They also share a common trait: they are all lifelong learners. Will always be.

Karen doesn’t allow us to give thumbs up or down to our books as we begin our discussion (although she knows if she’s late, it’s the first thing we mutineers will do) and although we protest, I think I understand from where she comes. This group isn’t about judgment; it’s about acceptance. We don’t have to like a book to discuss its placement among the classics. We don’t have to agree with an author’s point-of-view to absorb the content of his work. There’s merit in this reading, even when it’s difficult, perhaps particularly when it is.

But even if sometimes, I don’t like the book—sorry Karen—I always love the book group.

Because of the women, yes, but also because these works of literary art are best enjoyed together. Read first in solitude, they may spark an intellectual ember, but shared –they ignite a flame.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Interview with Sam Barry, author, BookPage columnist, guest speaker, contributing editor for Zyzzyva and Marketing Director for Book Passage

Photo credit:  Megan Schultz
Sam Barry is the co-author of Write That Book Already: The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now and writes the Author Enablers column for BookPage. He is the author of How to Play the Harmonica: and Other Life Lessons, a contributing editor to Zyzzyva literary magazine, and Marketing Director at Book Passage. He formally worked for Arion Press and HarperCollins. Sam is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, an all-author rock band that includes Mitch Albom, Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Greg Iles, Ridley Pearson, Matt Groening, Roy Blount Jr., James McBride, and Scott Turow. The Remainders have written a book together called Hard Listening; The Greatest Rock Band Ever (of Authors) Tells All, which is being published by the next-generation digital publisher Coliloquy in May, 2013. Sam’s range of expertise extends to writing, editing, marketing, teaching, publishing and guest speaking. Visit Sam online at
1) In the comprehensive guide Write That Book Already! The Tough Love You Need to Get Published Now, co-authored with Kathi Kamen Goldmark, you have a revolutionary approach that goes more deeply into the life cycle of publishing than most.  From the idea (prior to beginning) through agent, editor, marketing and backlist, you extend an approachable view of 'been there and this is how it goes'.  There is humor interspersed so as not to alarm fledging authors already intimidated by the instructive volumes lining their shelves, saying how it's all nearly impossible.  A refreshing, to-the-point title.  From when you completed that book to now, what have you found are the biggest changes in terms of marketing (ex. the author having to take a more active role even if traditionally published, social media, etc...) and self-publishing?
The biggest changes are the advances in social media as a means to spreading the word about books and authors, and the ongoing changes in the landscape of publishers, agents, and booksellers. In social media, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, GoodReads—all of these make direct access possible between author and reader. However, there’s also a lot of noise out there, and that’s difficult for any author to tackle—no one is good at all things. Meanwhile, the big publishers continue to grow, combine, presumably in response to the challenge posed by Amazon; but at the same time, there is real growth in smaller, innovative publishers, in hybrid ways of self-publishing, and the great independent bookstores such as Book Passage or Books and Books (just to name two) are surprising people by thriving. Meanwhile, the e-book is here to stay, and I am certain there are more new forms of reading coming.

2) Your column in BookPage, "The Author Enablers", gives out advice on a myriad of topics in an engaging tone.  If the particular sage advice of an answer doesn't apply to someone, they will often enjoy the exchange of the q&a itself- particularly on the stranger questions asked (of those I've read, I know only writers could come up with questions quite like these).  For the lighter side, tell us about some of the favorite quirkier questions you've received and how you determined your responses.  For the more serious side, what are some of the most common recurring themes you've seen that are on the minds of modern writers.
I particularly enjoyed a series of comments (more than questions) I recently received about how often writers were having people tuck hair behind their own or other people’s ears. A cliché is born. And then there was the time when a middle-schooler basically asked Kathi and me to do his homework for him. But the question we have gotten most is about finding an agent. People are frustrated to hear that they need to do so much work, but I still believe agents are essential to most writing careers and that the time spent finding a good match is worth it.

3) When you wrote of Paris in your BookPage column, you described the rich literary scene.  How much do you feel place (this includes people/community/location and possibilities for networking and inspiration) plays a role in a writer's career/success?
I think sense of place is an essential part of most writing. Miami has fed my brother Dave’s work, and in turn the South Florida writing community has fed his career; Stephen King’s settings in rural Maine are unforgettable; Scott Turow in Chicago; Greg Iles setting many of his books in Natchez, Mississippi; Amy Tan setting some of her novels in her beloved Bay Area and China; the examples go on and on. We often associate writers and their work with place as much as genre; and places like San Francisco, Miami, New York, Mississippi, and so on, each have distinctive literary communities.

4) Considering all of the different facets of your extensive experience (writing, editing, marketing, teaching, publishing, performance in music), what are your favorite things about each and how do they complement one another (whether in terms of creative inspiration or business-oriented insight)?
Great question. I love the mental freedom of writing a first draft, but I also love the discipline and satisfaction of editing something into shape. I love the spontaneity of live music, but just loving to do something doesn’t mean you can make a career out of it, or even know what you want to do with it. Both editing and music have taught me the need to be gentle but thorough. Being exposed to various aspects of the book business—seeing behind the curtain, so to speak—has helped me to think more clearly—and to keep an open mind—about what I might have to offer the world, and to learn from both my successes and failures. Playing music has taught me to prepare for performance, which includes reading, but to remember to be spontaneous and not to dwell on every little mistake at the expense of the whole event. Playing music and the book business remind me that even the solitary act of writing is really collaborative and a team effort, if your work is ever going to see the light of day.
5) You’ve spoken of your career being a “varied and interesting one” and that you “…have always felt that my professional efforts directly contributed to improving the world.”  Talk to us about your beliefs involving the importance of books and the lives they touch, both in general and in a more personal sense in terms of how they have affected you.
In my various roles I have been deeply impressed by the dedication of booksellers, editors, agents, authors, and most of all, readers of the written word. If you are afraid we are losing the written word as an important form, spend more time in a good bookstore or library; you will see that the written word and the life of the human mind that it reflects are thriving. People are hungry for what books offer: wisdom and escape, solace and the jolt of truth, education and beauty, history and prophecy, humor and terror—but above all, exposure to a world we might not otherwise have ever known.

Further Links:

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Interview with Joan Gelfand, award-winning writer, Women's National Book Association representative and member of the National Book Critics Circle

Interview with Joan Gelfand by Carol Smallwood (see Carol's bio following the interview):

Joan Gelfand is one of the New Chapter Development national representatives for the Women's National Book Association, the Co-Poetry Liaison for the San Francisco Writers Conference, a contributing Poetry Editor to the “J” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She blogs regularly for the Huffington Post and teaches writing for Poetry Inside Out in addition to coaching writers in San Francisco. One of her current roles is serving as Co-Editor of the anthology Women and the Web:  How The Internet Creates Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Women

Joan's work has appeared in over eighty national magazines, anthologies and literary journals around the world.  Her work has been nominated for both Pushcart and Carver Prizes. Publications include Vanity Fair, Poets & Writers, The New York Times Magazine, The Huffington Post, Rattle, The Toronto Quarterly, Kalliope, Eclipse and Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry.  Her poetry collections include A Dreamer's Guide to Cities and Streams and Seeking Center. Her collection of short stories, Here and Abroad, is the Winner of the 2010 Cervená Barva Press Fiction Contest, judged by Dorothy Freudenthal.  Transported is a spoken word CD with original music by Marty Castleberg.   

She served as the President of the Women's National Book Association from 2008 to 2010.

For more information, visit:

1) How has your business background of over 20 years advanced your writing?

I've tried to take a similar approach in my writing as I did in my business career. I use the same persistence in my writing that made me successful in business. I try to be pragmatic and not take rejection, criticism or editorial suggestions personally.

I have also tried to find mentors and coaches and align myself with writers who are 'further down the line.' I am an enthusiastic cheerleader and supporter of other writers.

The truth is, that while writing is solitary, it is still a business. I've gotten involved in the community of writers, volunteered to further literacy and have helped other writers get started. I've also used my experience with goal-setting and planning to plan my writing.

2) You are active in associations. How have they helped your career?

I've learned so much from groups like the Women's National Book Association. I learned about 'the path to publication,' and I've been offered opportunities that I would never have gotten if I hadn't been involved as a volunteer.

For example, I am the Co-Poetry Liaison for the San Francisco Writer's Conference. I met the organizers through WNBA. I also started blogging for the Huffington Post through WNBA. I've been offered readings, interviews, and even publication opportunities through WNBA and PEN Oakland.

3) What is your writing and teaching schedule?

I teach part-time; about 2-3 days per week. As a rule, I write in the mornings. If I have class, then I have to change that around, but in general, I'm writing about 15 hours per week.

4) What are you working on now?

I just finished a novel and am in discussions with an agent. I have just sent out my third full-length poetry manuscript for consideration and I'm working on a few different blog posts. I'm also the Poetry Editor for the "J", a Northern California newspaper with a circulation of approx. 30,000.

5) What writing mistakes do you see students make the most?

They call the work finished too soon. Most writing needs to be drafted, allowed to sit, be reviewed, revised. Repeat. Unless I've worked on something 5-8 times, I won't let it go. I try to encourage my students not to rush, and to educate them that writing is a process.

6) How have you managed to become an accomplished public speaker?

Once I was published, people considered me an authority. I started speaking to writers on my experience of navigating the publishing world- how I got started, what works, what doesn't. I guess people like what I have to say because I've been invited to many panels on writing.

7) How do you make the most of websites, blogs, e-newsletters?

I try to spend some time 'on-line' every day. Through Twitter and Facebook, I learn about different websites of interest to writers. I send my own e-newsletter out about once a month to update my friends, family and colleagues on new developments in my career. I always include a section about 'friends' and also a section on 'opportunities.' That way it isn't all about 'me' but more of a community experience.

Interviewer Bio- Carol Smallwood co-edited Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching (McFarland, 2012) on the list of "Best Books for Writers" by Poets & Writers Magazine; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity, and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) received a Pushcart nomination. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.