The Last Christmas Card

Sister RaymondMore than 25 years ago, I received a pack of Christmas cards from Sister Mary Raymond McGinty with images of her original paintings. Each year since then, I’ve mailed only a few of the cards to friends and family. It was important to me that they last as long as possible. I couldn’t quite explain why (not even to myself) until today, as I sat down to address the last few cards.

The Sister was in her 80s when I knew her. She was a volunteer in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. I was 17 and thrilled to be working for the hospital in my first gig as a paid freelance writer.

Sister Raymond was tiny and spry. She hustled in and out of the elevator and up and down the halls at the hospital. She always seemed to have an urgent purpose. Yet, she never hesitated to stop and visit, to share her insights. She was a Sister of Mercy and had worked more than 40 years as a nurse before she began her stint as a communications volunteer. Sister Raymond had many gifts. She was a font of knowledge.

Through Sister Raymond’s example, I witnessed the benefit and value of many things – working hard, acting with purpose, taking care of others, sharing your gifts.

Sister Raymond - 1989

During a newsletter photo shoot, Sister Raymond and I look through one of the many hospital scrapbooks she assembled. (1989)

As I place stamps on the last of her Christmas cards (and set one card aside to keep for myself), I feel extremely blessed to have known Sister Raymond and learned from her during such a pivotal time in my life and career.

Following is the message Sister Raymond included in the cards. It is a wish I extend to all, today and in years to come.

May the peace, love and good will of Christmas give us faith to face the New Year with hope and joy.

 

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A Mantra for the New Year

“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.” 

~Christopher Morley (American journalist, novelist, essayist and poet)

IMG_5702

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What Cupcakes Taught Me about Life and Literature

When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several
visits to our class to teach us "life skills." They addressed topics
like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit
they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each
to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids
ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly
derided. That's boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn't even a real flavor.

CupcakeThe next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla
cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate
cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you
got frosting? Trade with me.

No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That's what you get for ordering stupid-old
chocolate. We have frosting, and you don't.

The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet
down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened.
The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked
M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate
bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best
choice after all, or so the complainers said.

That's when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained
how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel
someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life
seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful,
something better than what we thought
we wanted.

Blah, blah, blah.

At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt
manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my
subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It's not always
easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.

As adults, too often, we're not a whole lot more mature than that group
of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices.
I've most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books
and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick
to condemn others' reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That's so boring.
Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time
reading about something that could never really happen?

Why can't we just say, Hey! You're reading a book. Cool. How is it?

With the explosion of e-books and print-on-demand publishing
technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There
are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever
read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary
novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a  delicious, satisfying surprise in the end.
And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just
might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.

Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially
wise to heed this advice.

For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds,
introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes,
about not-so-good writing, but that's also a beneficial thing). A voracious
reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something
wonderful, something better than what we thought
we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.

For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us
to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have
anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women's
fiction. Yet, I've received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male
readers who were moved by the book's multiple perspectives on slavery and
freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.

It's just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place
that serve only cupcakes. You know
the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut
butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.

Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don't
judge others for their choices. And don't be afraid to sample something different
once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try
a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It's all good.

 

p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher
at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and
Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and
cupcakes) with us kids.

 

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Charting a Writing Career Path


little girl on the roadBlogger Karen Randau recently interviewed me about my
professional writing path and my thoughts on publishing with a small press. She
did a wonderful job of distilling our conversation into a helpful article for
aspiring authors. I invite you to visit her blog to read the article, “Get
Your Foot in the Publishing Door Through a Small Press
.”

 

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Winning the What If Game

 

Phoenix Zoo, 1973

Daddy, what if the bridge breaks and the alligators eat me? My dad, brother and me at the Phoenix Zoo alligator exhibit, 1973. (Mom stayed on solid land and snapped the picture.)

All throughout my childhood, my parents had a mantra they’d
say to me when I’d get worked up and worried about the future. “Nothing
happens until it does.” It’s ironic, because they worried about things all
the time and still do. It’s sound wisdom, though, and I make a daily effort to
embrace it. It’s especially salient for fiction writers when it comes to the
“life” portion of “the writing life.”

As writers, we love to play the “what if?” game.
We’re relaxing at the coffee shop or waiting in line at the post office or pulling
into the parking lot at the day job. Then it strikes. What if that guy who just
bought a vanilla latte is secretly in love with the barista? What if the woman
in line ahead of me is about to learn she has an incurable disease? What if the
people sitting in that parked car are plotting to overthrow the government?

It’s how good ideas and compelling fiction are born.

We writers get so practiced at playing this game, that it often
invades our writing pursuits in less-fun ways, too. What if I spend years
writing this novel and nobody reads it? What if I pour my heart into this book
and then somebody else publishes one just like it before mine is complete? What
if my writing sucks?

Sure, all those things could happen. Absolutely. Or not. Nothing happens until it does. Don’t let
the fear of failure paralyze you or even slow you down when it comes to chasing
your dreams. Just write. Write the best damn novel or short story or magazine
article or poem or (insert your dream here) that you can. Study the craft.
Enjoy the process. And see what happens when it does.

Start asking yourself more positive questions. What if I
spend years writing this novel and everybody loves it? What if I work hard on
this novel and people say it’s one of a kind? What if my writing shines?

One of my favorite quotes is from prolific
writer and New York Times bestselling
author Laurence Shames. He said, “Success and failure. We think of them as
opposites, but they’re really not. They’re companions.” He’s spot on. Every
day, I write something. Every day, I fail at it. And, every day, I improve as a
writer. I see my shortcomings. I revise my prose. I succeed.

Here’s a “what if” question for you, one you can
print off and pin on your wall. “What if I work hard on this novel and I learn
something important about writing, about myself and about life?”

What if, indeed. 

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The Sound and the Worry

The Writer cover Oct 12In
an essay for The Writer magazine, I
share my thoughts on the meaning of “voice” and how those thoughts evolved when
my historical novel was made into an audio book. Scroll
down to read the article, or click here to read the PDF.

Check
out the trailer for the audio book release of All Different Kinds of Free on YouTube.

Visit
Audible.com to hear a short audio sample from All Different Kinds of Free.

 

The
Sound and the Worry  

A
novelist struggled with her character’s audio book voice, until it brought the
story to life
 

by
Jessica McCann

Writers
love to talk about voice, don’t we? We’re obsessed with it. It’s a key element of
any written work and, arguably, the most important element of fiction. And
authors seem to speak of it in the most earnest and whimsical ways. “I write
only because there is a voice within me that will not be still,” poet Sylvia Plath
wrote. Science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury once mused, “I wake early and hear
my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of
bed to trap them before they escape.”  

Voice
also refers to writing style. It’s the words an author chooses, the way she
strings those words together, how she says what it is she wants to say, that creates
voice.  

When
a novel is produced as an audio book, this literary term gains a more explicit
meaning—it becomes an actual voice. How does it feel for a novelist the first
time you hear your writing being read aloud by someone else? For me, it was
disorienting and a little weird.  

My
publisher had contracted a professional voice artist to read my debut historical
novel as an audio book and, of course, I was thrilled. Yet, when I listened to
the first sample, it was strange to hear my main character speaking to me in a
voice that was different from the one I had been hearing in my head.  

The
novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was inspired by a true story, and I
had worked hard to create an authentic voice for the main character and
narrator, Margaret Morgan. An educated, free woman of color in the 1830s,
Margaret was kidnapped, along with her children, to be sold into slavery.
Labeled as a runaway slave, she fought against all odds to prove and regain her
freedom. My goal was for her voice to be both strong and vulnerable, equally
wise and naive, sometimes despondent and yet always hopeful.  

I
had read the complete manuscript maybe a dozen times as it went through the
many phases of revision, copyediting and proofreading that led up to
publication. A few times, I even read it out loud. It had a certain cadence in
my mind, a certain timbre and tone.  

It’s
not that the voice artist had done a poor job of reading it. On the contrary, Mia
Bankston’s
portrayal of Margaret was expert—warm and endearing, at times
gripping and heartbreaking. Still, it wasn’t exactly the voice I had come to
know in the roughly 10 years it took to research, write and publish my book.  

The
shock of listening to that first audio sample was similar to the shock of
receiving the first round of serious edits on a manuscript. It’s a punch to the
system. Sure, you’re expecting it. You think you’re ready for it. But when the
blow lands, it still knocks the wind out of you.  

From
what I’ve read, it’s not unlike the feelings experienced when novels are optioned
for film. As a new author, I had read a handful of articles about book-movie deals.
(We all dream of it, don’t we?) They were cautionary tales about how much your
book may change— characters may be added, plot twists removed or entire endings
rewritten. It makes sense. Film is a different medium with different rules.  

With
an audio book, however, the voice artist reads the novel exactly how it is
written. Every contraction stays put, every comma in its place. Nothing changes.
Yet, somehow, it’s still different. My initial email to Bankston was
professional, something like, “Thanks for sending the sample. Can’t wait to
listen to it. I’ll let you know next week if I have any feedback.” Even as I
clicked on the send button, my stomach was in knots. Would I be able to provide
constructive, rational feedback?  

I
let a day or two pass. I tried to occupy my mind with other projects, while I
nursed my literary laryngitis. Then I gave myself the same advice I always do
when I’m feeling the sting of edits or the weight of a tough project. Get
over yourself, Jessica.
I took off my spiffy, new yippee-I’m-a-published-author
hat and put on my weathered professional-freelance-writer-and-editor hat. And I
listened to the audio file again with fresh, objective ears.  

I
paused the recording at times, jotting down general thoughts and noting places
where the pace felt a little fast, where certain phrases or words needed more
or less emphasis, and when I felt the voice artist hit a comfortable stride. Bankston
had an expert way of changing her voice to reflect different characters in
dialogue. There was also a sincerity in her narration, a quality that made
Margaret feel genuine and alive. The more I listened, the more comfortable I
became with Margaret’s new voice and the way Bankston brought her to life.  

Bankston
and I corresponded a handful of times. I shared my feedback, and she listened
to it. She shared her thoughts, and I was impressed by her professionalism.
Several days later, she sent an edited recording of the original sample. It was
perfect. At that point, Bankston set about the task of recording the entire
book, and I plunged back into my own work.  

Still,
the idea of voice nagged at me. Writers aren’t the only ones obsessed with it,
after all. I defy you to find any interviews with editors or agents that don’t
include some sort of quote about their desire to discover an author with a distinctive
voice. What does that really mean, anyway?  

“By
voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a
unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that
enriches an author’s oeuvre,” wrote literary agent Donald Maass in his book Writing
the Breakout Novel
.  

Bestselling
author John Grisham frames it in broader terms: “In life, finding a voice is
speaking and living the truth. Each of you is an original. Each of you has a
distinctive voice. When you find it, your story will be told.”  

Ah,
yes, the story. Voice empowers story. And isn’t that the most critical element in
all writing?  

How
many books have you read in which the writing, the language, the voice all
dazzled you, and yet the story itself somehow fell flat? The books that stay
with me the longest are, in fact, the ones that have both a distinctive voice and
a compelling story.  

“Writing
isn’t just on the page,” asserted Donna Jo Napoli, a prolific children’s and
young-adult author. “It’s voices in the reader’s head.”  

In
the case of audio books, it’s also a voice in the reader’s ears—the voice that tells
the story in its distinctive way.

###

Originally published
in The Writer magazine, October 2012


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Playing with Words and Book Spine Poetry

Book spine poemMake no mistake, I'm not a poet. Yet playing with poetry is a great way to exercise your mind. It's like Sudoku, only with words. It can help you focus your thoughts, work through a personal challenge, express deep emotions,  or look at the world in a new way. I've written a handful of poems in my day, none of which will ever be seen by any other than my own eyes. They're just for me.

Except this one. Photos of book spine poetry have been floating around the internet lately. They looked like a lot of fun, so I decided to give it a shot and share the results. Crafting book spine poems is an easy way to express your creativity and exercise your mind. Anyone can do it.

Here's my poem about writing a novel, using books from my bookshelves (click on the picture to see larger image). If you don't own a lot of books, plan a trip to the library. Give it a try! 


 

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Finding the Line Between Fact and Fiction in Historical Novels

Research book stackI’m so happy to be a guest author this week on Women’s Fiction Writers blog, talking about the line between fact and fiction in historical novels, how women’s fiction can be found in many genres, and more.

Created by author Amy Sue Nathan, WFW is the go-to blog for the craft and business of traditionally published women’s fiction. It features interviews and guest posts by published women’s fiction authors and tips on writing, editing, publishing and the writing life.  Please stop by and share your thoughts.

Author Jessica McCann Says Women’s Fiction Falls Within Many Genres, Including Historical Fiction