Sometimes you throw your hat into the ring for an interesting opportunity. You figure it’s a long shot. Then you get an email saying you’ve been selected, and you suddenly question whether you have the chops to actually do it. You might even panic a little. That happened to me a few months ago when I submitted an application to be a judge in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. I was selected, and I felt humbled. Then the UPS guy dropped a box of 50 novels at my doorstep, and I may have panicked a little (or a lot).
I threw my hat into the ring because competitions are an important part of a writer’s journey. I’ve lost count of how many I have entered over the years. I can count on one hand how many I have won. Regardless of the outcome, you learn something from every competition. It’s a brutal exercise that is necessary to one’s growth and improvement. I believe that.
So, I opened the box and opened the first book….
Earlier this week, I completed what I initially thought would be impossible. I read and wrote critiques for 50 books in less than three months. *wipes sweat from brow; celebrates with glass (or two) of wine* It was a big commitment and a good deal of work. It also was worth the effort.
Only three of those 50 novels advanced to the second round of judging. Many of the others featured well-written prose and entertaining stories; they were worthy reads, if not award-winning. There were also a fair number that had potential and missed the mark. I endeavored to be straightforward in my critiques – highlighting areas of strength and offering concrete ways to improve flaws. My hope is that the authors of those diamonds-in-the-rough will tackle revisions with enthusiasm, an open mind and a sense of curiosity. (After all, isn’t that what authors ask of their readers?)
I learn a lot about myself and my own writing by reading/critiquing others’ writing. It can be both educational and humbling. When I’m really lucky, it’s inspirational and pushes me to raise the bar for my own work.
Do you write reviews of the books you read? What has it taught you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
In the early 1990s, I was editor of Arizona Business Magazine. One of my favorite and most memorable assignments from that time was a profile of Senator Barry Goldwater. When I called his assistant to request an interview, she politely informed me the Senator was retired and no longer spoke with the media. I hung up disappointed, but undeterred. We couldn’t publish an issue dedicated to Arizona politics without including the person who epitomized Arizona politics.
So I penned a brief, sincere letter to Goldwater thanking him for his service to our nation. I told him how much I valued his insights and perspective on business, politics and the changes our great state and nation have seen. I confessed I was only 24 years old and had a lot to learn. It was my hope that I, and my readers, could learn from him. I asked for an interview. Then I wrote a note to his assistant, thanking her for taking the time to speak to me and asking her forgiveness for my second, direct appeal to the Senator. Both letters went into an envelope addressed to the assistant, posted with a $0.29 stamp I had to lick.
After a long, nail-biting week, his assistant called to congratulate me.
“You got your interview, Ms. McCann,” she chuckled.
Another week later, she escorted my photographer and me into the 85-year-old Senator’s living room. He settled himself in the darkest, drabbest corner of the room and refused to relocate to a more photo-friendly spot. It was a hilarious move. You see, Goldwater was an expert photographer. He knew darn well this particular corner was the worst possible location for a photo. So I did what any good editor would do. I got on with the interview before the grumpy old guy decided to give me a hard time. (Photographer Dan Coogan rose to the challenge and did an amazing job, though I don’t know if he ever forgave me for hanging him out to dry.)
The interview began with a few rookie questions and a fair amount of stammering. It was the hardest interview I had conducted in my short career, and it still ranks among the top 10. Goldwater was rough around the edges and used to dealing hardcore Washington journalists. I was intimidated as hell. Fortunately, he recognized my enthusiastic inexperience pretty quickly. He must have seen I wouldn’t be asking any “gotcha” questions. We both relaxed, and he opened up – about a life in politics, his thoughts on family, how it felt to have outlived most of his friends. He even smiled a few times. I still wish I could have stayed and chatted with him longer.
I’m not sure what prompted me to dig through my old clips recently and read the Goldwater profile I wrote 25 years ago (yikes). Seeing his thoughts on health care reform, education, abortion and economic development, it’s striking how little our national dialogue has changed. I’ll refrain from sharing my own political views and opinions and will simply share my article, for your amusement or edification, as I did back then.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is the genre often takes tired, forgotten history and gives it new life. My latest, non-writing project has done the same.
We recently moved my father-in-law out of his home and into a memory care facility. My in-laws had a great deal of lovely antique furniture – the real deal, hand-crafted pieces, made of solid wood. Many of the items had specific memories linked to them by different members of the family. Each of us seemed to want different pieces, and moving the tables, beds, dressers and cabinets into their new homes went smoothly. The items that held no sentimental value were donated. We all seemed to take some comfort in knowing the furniture would be put to practical use and given new life by other families.
As my husband and I walked through the empty house for one of the final times, all that remained was the grandfather clock. My in-laws brought it with them from Illinois when they moved to Phoenix roughly 46 years ago. Dad had owned a pharmacy in Rockford, where he also sold grandfather clocks (why he sold clocks in a pharmacy will probably always remain a mystery to us).
As they prepared to move the family, one clock remained. So, it became a focal point in the new McCann household. Then history repeated itself, one clock remained. So, it became a new focal point in our home – beside the desk where I write every day.
Unfortunately, the clock was broken. My father-in-law had tried many times to get it fixed. But the grand old timepiece was just too tired. Its steady tick-tock and quarter-hour chimes had been silent for years. Both my husband and I love the clock. We always have. Still, it felt strange having the old man standing dormant in our home.
Then inspiration struck as I was perusing internet photos of bookshelves and libraries (yes, that’s a thing). I ran the idea past my husband, and he approved. My mother-in-law and I had shared a love of books and reading. Both she and my father-in-law were immensely proud and supportive of my writing career. As such, we believe they would have approved, too.
I carefully removed and packed away the clock, weights and chimes. I measured and installed shelves. Then I filled the grand old gentleman with books by some of my favorite authors. I also shelved copies of my own novels. If inanimate objects can hold memories and feelings, I hope this new life has made Grandfather happy. The transformation has definitely had that effect on me.
Authors are often asked for book donations – for charity raffles, libraries, blog giveaways and even random people offering a “free review” in return. Most authors would love to say yes to everyone, but it just isn’t possible. The cost of shipping alone is typically more than an author makes when selling a book. I know this, because I am an author.
Authors also are some of the most generous people around. I know this, because I recently asked a bunch of them to send me signed books for a fundraiser. For free. They responded by filling my mailbox.
Each year my church’s youth group has a dinner and silent auction to raise money for their summer mission trip. I love to read. So, naturally, a giant box of books seemed to me the perfect item to auction off. I did this about five years ago, and the response was overwhelming (both from authors who donated and from those bidding at the fundraiser).
Hoping to replicate that success, I sat down one morning and fired off about a dozen emails. A few were to authors I’ve met in person at various events. Some were to people I had only “met” through social media. Others were to authors who didn’t know me from any other chump asking for a freebie. Once again, the response was overwhelming.
It’s difficult to fully express my gratitude to these folks. Below is an alphabetical list of the authors who contributed (both fiction and nonfiction books). Please help me in thanking them for their generosity by visiting their websites, buying their books, posting reviews online, or perhaps sending a note or two letting them know what their writing and their generous spirits mean to you.
Photo: Item to be auctioned at the PVUMC youth mission dinner March 2019 – includes 13 signed books, a blank journal, one-of-a-kind pen (handcrafted at SeedsforAutism.org), and original book-themed art.
Writers compose many sentences, scenes and chapters that their readers never see. It may be lovely prose. Yet, for one reason or another, it simply doesn’t fit in the final work. Each writer handles this differently. Some click delete, and never look back. Others hold on to those snippets in the hope that someday, somehow, they might find them a home. I fall in the latter category.
The following unedited scenes are from an early draft of my second novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty. They offer a glimpse into the lives of the characters during Christmas in the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era, of people finding small joys during even the most challenging of times.
The novel went through many rounds of edits. At some point, these pieces were cut. In the big picture and flow of action, they just didn’t quite move the story forward in the way all scenes must. I held on to them, because they still speak to me.
Now that the novel has been published, I’m giving these scenes a new home – for my readers who fell in love RJ, Woody, Ethel and the whole quirky town of Vanham, and for myself, who did the same.
Happy reading, and happy holidays!
December 24, 1935
Late Autumn brought a few more rain showers. Just enough to tease a little bit of life from the earth and a little bit of hope from the people of Vanham. Tiny green shoots of red winter wheat and buffle grass began to peek up in some of the pale fields and sand dunes. As the temperature continued to drop and the winter holidays approached, some folks even entertained the fantastical idea of a white Christmas.
At the Tugwell home, bowls of bright red cranberries and plump white popcorn sat on the kitchen table. Minnie narrowed her eyes and stuck out her tongue to thread a needle. Alternating berries and popcorn, she poked the needle carefully through each, creating a festive garland. There would be no Christmas tree this year. No gifts. But there was no reason why she couldn’t brighten up the place with a bit of holiday color.
Ernie shuffled out of the bedroom, rubbing his lower back with the palms of his hands.
“Have a good nap, Pa?” Minnie asked without looking up from her work.
He rolled his shoulders, working out the stiffness in his joints that always came with the cold weather. Then he walked over to the table and inspected Minnie’s project.
“Making garland, huh?”
She said yes, waited for the rebuke she knew was coming next.
“Ain’t that a bit much, times being what they are?”
Ernie grunted, scratched at the stubble on his neck.
“Besides,” she added, “I can feed it to the chickens after. It’ll be a nice treat for ‘em. Won’t go to waste.”
Ernie watched as his wife of forty-odd years picked up another cranberry, gently pushed the needle through its shiny skin and slid the berry down the thread. He gave her shoulder a quick pat.
“We can hang it above the door,” he said.
Minnie smiled. “Yap.”
He watched her work a moment more. Then shuffled to the front door, took his coat and goggles off the hook.
“Gonna go check on the north field,” he said.
“Get the chickens in the coop on your way back,” she said without looking up.
The dust drifted in from the south, an auburn fog, thick and unhurried. Red earth from Oklahoma seemed a fitting shade for Christmas Eve, and the storm had not deterred Ethel as she dressed for a late supper and Midnight Mass with friends. She’d used twice the usual pins to secure her hat and extra towels to wrap up her dessert dish. She would not let the wind and dust get the better of her. Not tonight.
“Ethel, dear, come in. Come in,” Marjorie embraced her friend and pulled her into the house. “I’m so glad the storm didn’t keep you away.”
“I’d have crawled here on my hands and knees if I had to,” Ethel said, hugging her friend a heartbeat longer than usual. She and Marjorie had been friends for more than thirty years.
“And tear your hose?” Marjorie said, punctuating her question with a snort.
Ethel handed over her dish – bread pudding with walnuts and cranberries, a Christmas Eve tradition. She removed her coat and hung it on a hook by the door.
Marjorie’s two granddaughters bolted into the room and threw their arms around Ethel’s legs.
“Mrs. Ethel’s here! Merry Christmas! Did you bring us treats?”
Ethel planted kisses on their heads, inhaled the bouquet of their freshly washed and curled hair. Her mind tumbled back to the days when the girls’ parents had greeted her the same way, some twenty years ago. She reached into her coat pocket and retrieved two peppermint sticks wrapped in wax paper. The girls shrieked and clapped. They hugged Ethel again and ran into the other room with their candy.
“Don’t spoil your supper now,” Marjorie’s husband, Walter, shouted after them. He gave Ethel a wink. She already knew he wasn’t at all worried about his granddaughters’ appetites.
The grandsons were less interested in Ethel, though she had brought candies for them as well. They were more interested in the presents under the tree, in shaking the boxes and wagering on the contents. Ethel watched them, as she did every Christmas, taking in their youthful glee and feeling a bit younger herself as a result. Walter stood beside her.
“Been a tough year for the kids,” he said. “For us, too, but Marjorie and me just couldn’t let Christmas morning come without anything under the tree for them.”
Marjorie had been knitting like a fiend the past few months to make cozy hats for each of her six grandchildren. She’d been saving all her extra pennies for Christmas dinner, so she’d unraveled one of her Afghans for the yarn. And Walter had been carving and painting toy cars and tiny zoo animals from wood scraps that would otherwise have gone in the potbelly stove to warm their aching bones.
“They’ll be over the moon tomorrow, Walt.”
Walter picked at some invisible lint on his shirt sleeve. “Shoot. They’re good kids. I’m just glad they’ll get to open a little something.”
Ethel snapped her fingers and turned to rummage inside the deep pockets of her coat.
“I almost forgot about this,” she said and pulled out a bottle of red wine. “Who says we grown-ups can’t open up a little something of our own.”
Walt’s eyes got big. Where on God’s green earth did you swipe that, they seemed to ask.
“I had Mrs. Wallace at the Five & Dime order a bottle from those Gallo brothers in California. She insisted I only pay wholesale, too, since it’s Christmas.”
“She’s got a big heart,” Walt said, admiring the bottle.
Ethel agreed and assured him she’d made the woman an extra large dish of bread pudding as thanks. He said Ethel’s bread pudding is worth a whole case of wine. Then he extended his elbow and escorted his old friend into the kitchen to fetch a corkscrew.
RJ woke to the familiar sound of Woody’s scratching at the windows. Stormy lay on the bed beside her, curled in a tight ball, pressed into the curve at the back of RJ’s knees. As a child, RJ had begged her Uncle Lou to let their English shepherd sleep in her bedroom, and he had looked at her as though she’d sprouted a second head. Uncle Lou wouldn’t even let the animal in the house, much less on the furniture. RJ smiled and snuggled beneath her quilt, not quite ready to break the Christmas morning magic and face the morning chill.
When she heard Woody get to work on the kitchen window, RJ threw back the quilt and put her feet on the dusty floor. Stormy jumped off the bed and trotted into the other room. RJ followed behind, throwing open the curtains one by one to reveal Woody’s dust paintings.
A table bearing a holiday feast, laden with stuffing, potatoes, gravy, pies, ham and turkey. A tree decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, surrounded by boxes with big bows. A snowy forest scene with a lone noble buck looking to the horizon.
The sun was still low on the horizon and cast an orange glow through the window paintings, reminiscent of the warm blaze of a wood fire in the hearth.
RJ slipped on her boots and coat and stepped outside. The frigid air nearly knocked her over.
“Good heavens! Woody, aren’t you freezing out here?”
“Yes,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”
RJ laughed. His straightforward responses never failed to delight her.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said.
She watched him work for a moment, shifting her weight from foot to foot to get her blood moving and get some warmth to her body.
Woody finished his final painting, a baby in the manger complete with Joseph and Mary, the three wise men, a cadre of animals, and a single star shining brightly above. He took a step back. “Do you like them?”
“I love them,” RJ said. “I only wish I could figure out a way to preserve them somehow. It always makes me sad when the next wind comes and sweeps them away.”
“That’s OK,” Woody said. “Then I can just paint more.”
RJ smiled. She invited him in to warm his bones, but he said no.
“Ma’ll skin me alive if I’m late for Christmas breakfast,” he said. “She’s making pancakes with brown sugar apples!”
Woody rubbed his stomach and rolled his eyes toward heaven.
RJ laughed again.
“Sounds like you better run then,” she said. “Wish Alice and your folks a Merry Christmas for me.”
“I will,” Woody said. He patted her shoulder two times, real quick. “Merry Christmas, RJ.”
“Merry Christmas, Woody.” She smiled at him warmly, holding herself back from giving him the bear hug she knew would delight her and torture him.
Then Woody turned and bolted across the yard toward the fields for home and his ma’s Christmas pancakes.
Jessica McCann’s second historical novel, Peculiar Savage Beauty, was named 2018 Arizona Book of the Year in the Arizona Authors Association annual literary contest. The novel also placed first in the published fiction category.
Peculiar Savage Beauty is the story of a headstrong and fiercely independent young woman who charges into the heart of the wind- and drought-ravaged Great Plains in the 1930s, intent on battling the dust and healing the land. As a geologist working for the U.S. government, Rosa Jean “RJ” Evans must find her place in a small farming town that welcomes neither a woman in authority nor changes to their way of life. She befriends Woody, an autistic savant born in an era long before any medical diagnosis would explain his peculiar ways and unique talents. The locals label the young man an idiot and RJ an armchair farmer. Yet, in each other, they see so much more.
Inspired by historical events during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl environmental disaster, Peculiar Savage Beauty is a parable about man’s quest to dominate the land and nature’s refusal to be conquered, about unlikely alliances and unexpected love.
Publishers Weekly calls McCann’s novel “gripping” and “atmospheric” with a “suspenseful plot and insightfully etched characters.”
What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? These are questions that have taunted mankind since the beginning of time. The Power of Meaning provides a straightforward and inspiring answer, based on extensive research and analysis. Simply put, the meaning of life is to find meaning in life. And it’s actually easier to find than we are often led to believe.
“The search for meaning is not a solitary philosophical quest, as it’s often depicted,” writes the author. “… and meaning is not something we create within ourselves and for ourselves. Rather, meaning largely lies in others. If we want to find meaning in our own lives, we have to begin by reaching out.”
There is so much to this book, it’s hard to boil it down in a review. (I found myself rereading and marking lines on page after page, and I handwrote six pages of notes upon completing it.) By summarizing dozens of psychological studies, presenting scores of anecdotes and stories about real people, and sharing many of her own thoughts and insights on the differences between happiness and meaning, Smith ultimately brings the reader to the simplest of revelations.
Belonging, purpose, storytelling and transcendence: these are the four pillars of meaning, and they are accessible to everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds or economic status. As someone who has made a living as a professional writer and author, I was particularly struck by the storytelling section. Though it was not surprising to me that story plays a critical role in finding fulfillment in life, it was fascinating to learn the many reasons why (both for the storytellers themselves, as well as for listeners or imbibers of those stories). The author turned to several novels to help illustrate her points – from Middlemarch and The Little Prince to Life of Pi and The Death of Ivan Ilych – as well as numerous memoirs.
I especially liked this point:
“We are all the authors of our own stories and can choose to change the way we are telling them. One of the greatest contributions of psychology and psychotherapy research is the idea that we can edit, revise and interpret the stories we tell about our lives even as we are constrained by the facts.”
And, how we perceive our lives and stories is directly related to whether we ultimately find fulfillment in them.
The sections on belonging, purpose and transcendence are equally fascinating. They are packed with examples of how seeking and finding fulfillment leads to better physical and mental health, helps us overcome traumatic events, and guides us to lasting contentment rather than fleeting happiness.
I highly recommend this book to all who want to expand how they view the world and the people with whom they share it.
* If you decide to purchase Emily Esfahani Smith’s book, check out Bookshop.org at the link below. A portion of sales at the site supports indie bookstores and authors, including me.
Shortly after I was married, my husband's grandmother gave me her original Crock-Pot, which she'd had since the 1970s. I think of her every time I make a meal in it. I only hope my novels will have the same longevity as this beloved Crock-Pot, passed down for generations.
Slow-cookers have always amazed me. A hodge-podge of meat, vegetables and whatnot gets tossed in the Crock-Pot in the morning. The ingredients simmer together all day. Their flavors blend. Their aromas comingle and fill the house with the tang of possibility. Come dinner time, the medley has been transformed into a savory meal that brings the whole family to the table with anticipation. I love cooking this way.
My novel writing is also slow-cooked. A hodge-podge of ideas, research, themes and characters get thrown into the pot in the beginning. Then they simmer together, for a very long time, before they are transformed into the rich, savory story I want them to become. Slow-cooking a novel isn't nearly as easy as slow-cooking chili, stew or gumbo. Yet, if the mix of ingredients is right, the result can be just as fulfilling.
Not all my writing lends itself to this slow-cooking technique. In fact, most everything else I write comes together far more quickly. As a full-time freelance writer, I've written everything from annual reports, white papers and magazine articles to creative nonfiction, personal essays and short stories. Each is challenging in its own right. Each takes time and thought and effort. None seem to require the slow simmer that my novels do to reach their full potential.
Different types of writing require different processes. Even the type of novel you are writing can have an impact on how you approach the work.
In his book of essays Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, author Bruce Holland Rogers addresses the differences between writing commercial novels and literary novels (and he has written both, so he holds no biases for one or the other). In a nutshell, the more a book is action-adventure or plot-driven, the better it lends itself to what he calls the pressure-cooker approach to writing — that is the nose to the grindstone, get the draft down on paper, write fast approach. The more literary or character-driven the book, the slower it must be cooked up. He describes his own "slow-cooking technique" for writing a literary first draft as somewhat nebulous.
"Not everything I'm doing at this stage looks even remotely like work. I'm walking and thinking about my novel, listening to music while I daydream about the novel," he writes. "The trick lies in knowing when to shift gears and produce scenes, when to stop and noodle some more."
I believe the trick also lies in gaining an appreciation for and acceptance of the process that works best for you, no matter what you write.
Some days I truly lament my agonizingly-slow process of novel writing. Part of me enjoys, even thrives on, the pressure-cooker process I utilize to write most of my freelance writing assignments. If only I could write my novels that quickly and efficiently.
Other days, I relish the slow-cooker pace of my novel writing. I'm grateful for the time it takes for the ideas to gel and for the unexpected revelations to come. It's generally worth the wait.
Certain things in life cannot be rushed. If I were to offer up my Crock-Pot meal for lunch instead of dinner, the meat might be tough, the vegetables crunchy, the broth bland. And if I were to offer up my novel-in-progress too quickly, the characters might be flat, the plot predictable, the imagery dull. Far better to let it all simmer, to ensure a rich gumbo of well-blended words and ideas that will bring the reader to the page with anticipation.
This post originally appeared on the Arizona State University Piper Writers Studio blog in 2014.