Thursday, December 29, 2011

River of Stones Invitation

Hello Writers and Readers,

One of my author friends invited me to join A River of Stones for January, 2012, and I've decided to write all of you who read my blog.  The mother lode of information about it is here and if you want any more information, or to join the mailing list of the two leaders of AROS, please visit the site.  Here are a few clues: a stone is a short, intense observation of the world around you.  If you want to participate in the January, 2012 River of Stones, you commit to writing down one stone every day of January.  The two leaders want to connect us to our world, to catalyze our careful observation and experiencing of the world around us.  I suspect I'll have at least one day when I will not go happily to the stone manufactory, but I still find careful nature-watching so valuable for my writing that I have committed.  I will post my stones on this blog and connect them to the AROS hashtag on twitter.  If you would like to join in, I'd love you to comment about it on this blog as well as signing up to get inspiration on theirs.  This resolution seems much more worthwhile than the usual ones for New Year's.  Join in!  

 Best, Laura

Monday, December 19, 2011

Prose Poetry and Flash Fiction

This past semester, I had a lovely class from poet/novelist Marilyn Chin.  It's the first class in my MFA program from a woman, and she reveled in being a woman!  I really enjoyed the massive reading list, which she told us was partly for our future reference.  It's fine with me that we couldn't really define what's a prose poem, what's a flash fiction.  We even found out that certain pieces are celebrated and have won awards in both categories.

I was more interested in the poetry half, since it was so different from the kind of writing we practice in the fiction workshops.  Intense images, sensory to the max, steeped in layers of meaning, and highly condensed prose with every word carrying a double dip of meaning, those concepts go with prose poems to me. I think of one centering about an image of a small basket of dead bees, covered over with a thin layer of red rose petals.  Or, a bag of dried human ears, dumped out on the dining room table.  Or a full moon noosed on a black cord, hanging over a house. But not all prose poems have an indelible image, an appeal to senses, power-packed verbiage where every word must have resulted from intense debate in the author's mind.  Some capture a scene with minimal poetic devices, with spare prose with simple beauty or starkness.  I might call them flash fiction, but perhaps there is not enough story line to make them count as stories.  The dividing line is assuredly murky and indistinct.  Our collections of each genre only made it less obvious that the two are distinct, while enticing us to write our way into the mystery.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Check Out Poet Ellen Bass

Dear writers and readers,

This semester, I've been an intern at Poetry International literary journal from SDSU.  One of my enjoyable tasks was to interview poet Ellen Bass for our blog.  You can check out my blog post here: and hear how Ellen Bass views the role of courage in a writer's life.  For a long time, I found it puzzling that so many writers talked about courage.  Then I found the vein of powerful writing rooted in personal experience, fiction or nonfiction, and I suddenly understood what they were talking about.  Ellen Bass spoke at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference I attended a few years ago, and her words about courage and writing really resonated with me.  Take a look at the PI blog to see more, some quotations from Ellen, a short video of her reading one of her poems.

best, Laura

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ruth Stone Is a Poet Worth Knowing

Ruth Stone has passed away at age 96, an inspiration to writers like me, who took up the sport after their youth was spent doing other things altogether.  Ruth, according to William Grimes, writing Nov 24, 2011, was relatively obscure until at 87, she won the National Book Award for her colletion, "In the Next Galaxy."  She was living in Vermont, a feat that I admire in its own right.  As I drifted into using a cane regularly and then into needing a disabled hang tag for my car, I gave thanks for good weather regularly.  I know there is good weather in Vermont, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't last all winter.   In my sixties, I might have simply fallen in love with my chair and sat there forever, should I live where the S word accumulates.  Not that I don't agree with those of you who think it is beautiful.  I recall a snowfall at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado, when I was pregnant with my son, when the crystals of snow floating down in the moonlight gave me that "I love you" catch in the back of my throat.  But back to Ruth Stone.  She lived in "rural solitude" near the end of her life; she had raised three daughters as a single parent after her poet husband committed suicide in 1959.  Her poetry was, to quote Mr. Grimes, "fierce and funny, by turns elegaic, scathing, lyric and colloquial."  He quoted a poem, as follows, "Things will be different/ No one will lose their sight,/their hearing, their gallbladder./ It will be all Catskills with brand/new wrap-around verandas."  It was the title poem in her collection entitled "In the Next Galaxy." In an interview in 2001, she said, "I was hanging laundry out and I saw all these ants crawling along the clothes line. Well I just dropped whatever I was hanging and ran upstairs in the house to get a book and write it down. Never keep a poem waiting.  It might be a really good one, and if you don't get it down it's lost."  I love that, because I still dream about certain pieces I never captured on paper. They were really good, I'm sure of that!      best, Laura

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Behind the Scenes View of Rebecca Skloot's Process

Hi readers and writers,
I really found Rebecca Skloot's book on the origin and fate of HeLa cells to be fascinating, and I loved seeing it rise in the best-sellers list.  Now she has given a blog interview that opens up her writing process and her research process for us to see.  In the part at the end, she actually posted copies of pages of her research notebook at the time she first interviewed Deborah Lacks by telephone about Henrietta and found she didn't know her favorite color and longed for more information about her, but then refused to talk more with Rebecca for a year and a half.  She also included a page in which she got advice about how to dig for the information she knew Deborah wanted, using black churches and particularly their pastors, as helpers and sources of information.  I can't think of anything I've read about writing that moved me more than seeing how she had to struggle to get this story.  She wrote and rewrote it until it read seamlessly, weaving together the medical and the personal narratives, but here is the raw material.  If you're interested in how great books are written, I really recommend this blog post:  

Cheers, Laura

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Conflict with Conflict

I’ve been interested lately in “story,”  the underpinning of a lot of creative writing.  And there’s bad news about story for those of us who want to think good thoughts in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas: story arises from conflict.  The worst criticism my fellow MFA students give to each other’s writing is, “No conflict.  Nothing happening,  No tension.”  A relaxed pair of old men, friends, fishing from a small boat, where’s the story in that?  But let one of them challenge the other to a fishing contest?  Let one be in love with the other’s wife?  Let them be competing for the same high mileage vehicle at the car dealer’s?  Conflict!  Drama!  Story!

I submitted a chapter about Holly, a young girl in North Carolina, getting to know her next door neighbor, an older woman of the Cherokee tribe, living alone in a house attached to an old pear orchard.  I loved envisioning the natural environment and describing it, and having the two enjoy each other across the lines of age and ethnicity.  But of course, I got, “Where’s the tension?  Why should we want to read this, and find out more about these people?”  And yes, conflict was coming, in that Galilani’s friend’s grandson, a Native American boy, was going to scandalize Galilani and his mother by going out with Holly.  But I didn’t want to foreshadow that in the beginning.  So my fellow writers suggested ways I could use language to clue the readers in that conflict was off stage but it was just around the corner.  I’m still thinking it over.  I suspect they are right But I am the same writer who is often accused of summarizing the conflict scene that should be developed fully, skipping over the problems.  Hmm.  I do that in movie DVDs sometimes too, although I’m pretty good about not looking ahead in murder mysteries.  Well, there is no fast forward in life, and as I writer, I must face that and even revel in the details of the scenes of conflict.

I deplore this finding, but I can’t deny it.  Without conflict there is really no reason to tell a story.  With conflict, the reader wants to find out what happened to the characters, how the conflict plays out, is resolved, or is passed down to the next generation, or whatever.  You don’t need resolution for the story, but you do need conflict.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sports Comparison per Carlin

Hi readers and writers,
One reason to have children is that they take you into areas of life you might never notice but for them.  In my case, baseball.  I was a Dodgers fan, but not a well-versed, ask-me-anything type.  But my son is a walking sports almanac and now my daughter, the former opera diva, has decided she wants to manage a baseball team some day.  Suddenly the names of those few women in baseball management have become quite familiar to me.  My daughter's boyfriend recently told me about something so entertaining I need to share it with you here.  George Carlin did a great comedy routine comparing baseball and football, largely in terms of their language (see, it IS related to writing after all!).  If you tend to write fast without thinking through the implications of the words you've chosen, this routine will make you resolve to think more about the messages people receive subliminally from your words.  Here is the link.  You may need to copy and paste the URL into your browser.  Enjoy!

Video of Talk on Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling

Hi readers and writers,

Recently I gave a plenary lecture to 600 women from DWP at Women's Leadership Legacy Conference, drawing from my memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, to talk about leadership in education.  You can see and hear a half hour video of my talk, made by the fabulous Rob Daly, on YouTube by going to this URL:   

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, who has just released a new edition of her book on Frugal Book Marketing, recommends that you take off from the topic of your book and think what else you could talk about using it as a basis.  Here, I talked about educational leadership easily, although it's not the main topic on which I wrote.  I think this strategy is a real winner, and once I dig out of my MFA semester writing assignments, I am going to look for more opportunities like this. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What's beauty got to do with it?

Dear friends of reading and writing,

I just read an article on a man who studies birds in an interdisciplinary way, in the Yale Alumni Magazine (The bird-filled world of Richard Prum by Cathy Shufro).  I'm sure I'll be thinking about this article for a long time.  Near the end of the article, Shufro describes how Prum changed the way people think about bird coloration.  Biologists have explained the bright colors we enjoy as evidence of fitness, so they are supposed to help a female choose a mate with good genes since he's so fit.  Kind of like advertisers think about great arm muscles and abs for human males, it seems to me.  But Prum could not really buy the theory, and harked back to the ideas of Ronald A. Fisher that females choose those bright males just because they are attractive.  People resisted his ideas until he realized it's about beauty and moved into the philosophy of aesthetics.  Feather art, like human art, he theorizes, is a form of communication via beauty and it co-evolves with its evaluation. As females enjoy red throats, they get brighter and bigger.  As humans enjoy irony in art, it gets ever more ironical.  He has no trouble connecting flowers, birds, and consciously made art in the category of Art, since he defines it as this communication with co-evolution by evaluators.  Who evaluates flowers, you ask?  Bees, birds, all the pollinators.  But what they receive is the joy of beauty.  So I think this is a message for writers too.  Writers need to write for themselves, but in the end, their work will rise or fall based on how well it communicates and how the readers respond.
Photo credits (Wikipedia Commons): Cardinal by a Fish and Wildlife Service Employee, Peach-faced lovebird by Stephen W. Dengler, 2005, via Gnu.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The dark! The dark!

I wonder what fall was like before daylight savings time.  It would have arrived graduaally. Now, it's a think, black curtain across the night so that one night I come outside after work into the dark.  I think about fires in fireplaces, buckets of coal, heavy cloaks, pea soup fog.  My fingers and toes are cold all the time.  But at the same time, as I said in my last post, I anticipate the long quiet season when I get to read many books.  I'm enjoying the speed with which my Kindle lets some of those books appear in my life, although it's tempting me to read before my time really allows.  Here's a blast from my past: I used to order seed catalogs about now every year.  I spent my time in the dark days dreaming over possible summer flowers, ones with haunting names and strange colors and shapes, ones with evening scents to attract hawk moths, ones with secret flowers but large and flamboyant fruits.  Gourds were always on my lists, but the one time I really grew them, they disappointed.  Unlike their vigorous cousins the squashes, they damped off, died of mosaic, died of mold, just had no real urge to live.  I always imagined that all the plants I planned to order from the seed catalogs would spring into life, pushing aside any other plants to overtake all and bloom extravagantly.  But most of that explosion was in my mind on dark evenings of winter.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Inspiration from where?

Dear friends of reading and writing,

It's often hard to start writing.  Books have been written about writers' block.  I sometimes have a hard time, especially if I am trying to write a new type of genre.  This semester, it's poetry in Marilyn Chin's class at SDSU.  But luckily, the day Word's blank page was looming over me, I had seen the search of Gadhafi's trailer in Libya on TV.  They found this scrapbook of cutout pictures from magazines, all of Condoleezza Rice.  I was off and running.  How did he really feel about her?  What else did he do? I looked on the internet, but mostly I imagined and wrote about this creepy and fascinating obsession with Rice.  So, keep a mind open for strange bits from the news, strange smells or sounds, strange impressions of any kind.  They could give you a blowtorch to melt away writers' block.  And BTW, Rice's biography which has more information about the obsession, was released Nov 1, 2011.  Check it out!

 Cheers, Laura

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Welcome to the Season of Reflection

As the Northeast lies dormant under a Nor'easter storm bringing snow before Hallowe'en, I've started thinking about the quiet season that is beginning, more harshly for some than for others.  It's about to be colder.  The leaves are about to take the wind and pile up in drifts.  The pumpkins are ripe and the butternut squash are full of flavor, but it's hard to find a tomato with that summery taste.  I have started to accumulate books to read over the winter break, and I have some ideas that I want to write about as I extend the bits and pieces of my new novel.  Now that I live in SoCal, it's hard to remember how fierce the wind was in fall in North Carolina, how bitter the cold felt on my neck and how icy the air that I breathed into my lungs on early fall mornings walking to school, how long it took to get ready to go out of the house, with boots, sweater and coat, mittens, scarf, and hat to find and assemble.  I enjoy sipping camomile tea with vanilla and sending my mind back to reflect on those days, so I can use some of that sensory detail in my writing.  And I love having long periods to read and write, instead of snatched, almost stolen bits of time.  So welcome to the time of reflection, or to the anticipation of it.  Fall is here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

My Message from Postdoc Kate Sleeth

Hi friends of reading and writing,

My memoir was written to fill a vacuum of information about the lives of women who have successfully balanced family life and careers in science, and I've been gratified that quite a few schools and other organizations where young women congregate have invited me to speak about it, making that message more accessible.  So I was very pleased when recently a young postdoctoral fellow, Kate Sleeth, blogged about a talk I had given and about my book on the Stanford Medical School blog site, here:

When I wrote the memoir, I knew I couldn't keep harping on the same message or it would become boring immediately.  I was very pleased that Kate saw in the book and my talk those things I hoped women would get, even though I had backed off from hammering people over the head with them.  I feel that my life has been an interesting balancing act between being a serious scientist and professor on one hand and being a wife and mother on the other hand, so simply trying to recreate what it has been like for me is sure to bring the balance issue to the forefront.

I don't mean to address only young women in science; I hope that trying out the life of a female scientist is different enough from most people's experience that the memoir is worth reading for that alone, in the same way people read about a woman fishing boat captain or a woman secretary of state to find out how it is to live that life.  But my special "now hear this" audience has always been young women who might reject a career in science because so many people now say it cannot be combined with family life.  Yes, it can.  I know quite a few women who have put that combination together, and my memoir is a kind of existence theorem (yes, it's possible, see, I exist!) for one's ability to do it and be glad of the effort it requires. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Laura Hoopes on Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling with Libby Grandy

Hi reader and writer friends,
My friend Libby Grandy interviewed me about my new book for this interview series on my blog.  I hope you find it interesting!
Interview with Laura Hoopes by Libby (Elizabeth) Grandy:

Your memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling has received excellent reviews.  How did you become interested in writing after a successful career as a biology professor?

            My first year students in Biographies of Biologists seminar were frustrated because there were no biographies of women who had relationships, who married and had children.  They asked me to write it, half kidding, but I decided someone had to do it.  I wanted to show that it is possible to have a career in science and a family life, and that it can be worthwhile and enjoyable.  I think my life has had its share of setbacks and problems, but I also think the reader can see how much I’ve valued my family life and also my ability to make new discoveries with my students.  I had to struggle to learn how to write something besides scientific papers so it took me six years of writing courses and workshops.

Laura, I'm sure you are an avid reader. What kind of books do you like to read?

            You're right, Libby!  I like novels like White Tiger and the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and The History of Love.  I also like memoirs and biographies.  I just read Harper Lee, a YA biography of the author of To Kill a Mockingbird by my friend Kerry Madden.  What a job she had getting material about this very private but interesting woman.

What is your writing process like? 

            If I am working on something specific, I can’t work in tiny pieces of time.  I need to sit down with a couple of hours before me so I can reflect on what’s gone before and get into the writing state that works best for me.  I do lose touch with reality while I’m writing.  I like quiet over music and bustle, so I write at home rather than in Starbucks as many of my friends do.

Do you write literature other than memoir?

            Yes, I am in an MFA program in creative writing, fiction at San Diego State University and I write short stories and work on novels in that program.  I’ve had a long short story published in The Chaffin  Journal and a couple of short short stories online at Rose City Sisters.

Have you had any inspiring writing teachers?

            Most of my teachers have been inspiring in one way or another, including you when I was in your critique group.  I had several encouraging classes with Mike Foley of UCR Extension early on.  Then I took Writing the World with Verlyn Klinkenborg at Pomona College where I am a professor.  He really focused us on sentences, and I’m grateful, but it was highly intimidating.  Then, I had courses at UCLA Extension leading to a Certificate.  Linda Raymond was an inspiring novel teacher, and Barbara Abercrombie and Gordon Grice inspired me to write nonfiction/memoir in more depth.  Now I have three great writing teachers at SDSU, Stephen-Paul Martin, Hal Jaffe, and David Matlin.  Although they have different styles, they have all had good effects on my writing.

Have you encountered any surprises in becoming a memoir author?

            One surprise is that once I had published a book, I was suddenly an expert according to those who invite you to speak.  I’ve had no trouble doing a book tour in 2011 talking with undergraduate researchers,  young undergraduates, postdocs, community members, and writers. 
            Another surprise is that Pomona College has been so encouraging to me even as I remake myself as a creative writer and become less and less engaged in biology research.
 Do you have an agent? What are your thoughts on agents today?

            I do not have an agent, and I would like to have one someday.  It’s my understanding that agents are very helpful in writing ideas in the way editors used to be.  Without one, it’s not possible to market books to the big companies like Random House and Basic Books.

 How did you publish your book?

            I first submitted it to university presses, and Yale University Press was quite encouraging.  They sent it out for review and got back suggestions for me, which I used for revisions.  The reviewers all thought it should be published.  Yale didn’t give me a contract, but they told me, for three years, that I was “in the queue.”  During that time, I submitted to a new series of publishers and SUNY wanted to see it on an exclusive basis, but when I called Yale they wanted me to stick with them.  I did, and a year later they emailed to say they were no longer interested in publishing my book.  That was that.  So I considered options and decided to use a print on demand site, Lulu.  The Female Science Professor who writes a blog I enjoy had used that for her book, Academeology, and one of my friends from SDSU had published a novel there and liked it.

Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share?

            Going into writing has been a pleasurable journey for me.  I’ve met many interesting people, and I feel glad to give a message to young women considering science careers that family is possible for them.  You can see more about my women-in-science concerns by going to my website, 

Thank you, Laura, and good luck on your new career as a writer. We look forward to reading more of your work.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Interview with Barbara Abercrombie on Cherished

Dear writers and readers,

Here is a fascinating interview with Barbara Abercrombie.  If you ever have a chance to take a writing class with Barbara through UCLA or elsewhere, jump on it!  She has a new anthology of stories about adored animals called Cherished...hope you enjoy her interview!  Cheers, Laura

Hi Barbara!  How would you describe your relationship with writing?  Do you enjoy it, struggle through it, or some of each?

– It’s like a very long  marriage: passionate periods, tough times, and right now kind of mellow.  Writing fiction and pictures books for kids has always been a struggle for me, but now I’m more into essays and non-fiction books and for the first time writing is actually fun.
Your current book, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost is an anthology.  How did you get thie idea for this book?

– I had blogged about losing my horse, how much I had loved him and how hard I was grieving for him, and one of my readers (a vet) said there ought to be a book, a collection of pieces like I wrote/blogged. And it was like Bingo! for me.  That was the kind of book I wanted/needed to read. And of course you always write the book you need to read.
Can you tell us a bit about how an anthology is born?

          – First of all I checked out Amazon and there was no book like the one I had in mind. So then I emailed some of my writer friends who love animals and explained my idea for the book, and asked if they wanted to write an essay for it - and if so to send me a few paragraphs about what their essay would be about. Then I found some published essays about loving and losing an animal by Anne Lamott, Tom McGuane, Jane Smiley, Mark Doty etc. and I wrote to them about reprint rights. Finally I had a proposal put together and sent it to my agent.
What did you like best about putting together this anthology?  What was hardest?

      – I loved practically everything about putting together an anthology. I’m a literary groupie so it was like getting to hang out with the band.  Even marketing – something I usually loathe – was fun cause there was always a group of us when we did readings at bookstores.
Do you work with an agent?  How do you view the role of agents today? 

Agents are important unless you’re self-publishing – They deal with contracts that most writers don’t want to even read.  I sold some of my children’s picture books to publishers and then had my agent handle the contract. I also did that with Courage & Craft – my agent sent it out to everybody in New York and they replied with wonderful rejection letters but basically said, Who needs another writing book? So I did some research on my own and sent it to New World Library in California and they bought it – then my agent handled the contracts and money. NWL has turned out to be the publisher of my dreams – small and very hands on. And they love their writers. The bottom line is that you can sell a book to small publishers on your own (be sure to research what they publish) and then find an agent to handle the deal. The agent’s 15 percent is a bargain.

What kind of publicity help did you get from your publisher?  What are your thoughts about how authors should approach publicity these days?

        – I love New World Library’s publicists – they’re very available and have booked me on radio and pod casts, and do a lot  with magazines – and if I want to do bookstore appearances they set it up for me.  They also expect me to come up with ideas and contacts of my own – as all publishers do now unless you’re on the best seller list. The Internet is hugely important for publicity.  You need Facebook, your own website for the book, and also a blog.  I call myself the Marketing Whore when it comes to publicity because that’s what it feels like.  
What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?  Any current favorites to recommend?

       – I finally read The Help and loved it. Also I just read The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux on a trip to Russia. I loved it so much I got in touch with her via Facebook from Moscow – and was thrilled when she replied. I’m now reading Lacuna by Barbara Kinsolver and a biography of Frida Kahlo. And Thirst – Mary Oliver’s poems. I love reading all kinds of books. You can’t be a writer without reading.
You have facilitated writing groups for women facing cancer.  How did you keep that activity from becoming depressing?

       – There was a moment early on in the workshop when I thought I just can’t do this – a dear woman I loved had  died – but then I realized most people didn’t die. The workshop was filled with people who went on from having cancer to thrive. And I went on to conduct it for another twelve years. It turned out to be much more inspiring than depressing.
You have taught a lot of wonderful classes at UCLA Extension.  What is it like working with such a variety of people, who have self-selected as members of your class?

       –  Joy, pure and simple. I love teaching at UCLA Extension. I love my students and I love the other instructors. I finally found my own community.

You travel a lot; does this feed into your writing or interrupt it?

         – It used interrupt my writing and it would take days, weeks, to get back into it. But there’s nothing like a book deadline to focus you, so for the past year I’ve written every day while traveling.  I love to write in hotel rooms or on boat cruises (as on our last trip to Russia.) or up in Montana where we have a place. My husband and our rather large family are used to me disappearing to write on vacations. 
Can you give us some ideas for creating a wonderful writing life for ourselves?

        This is the subject of my next book! (A Year of Writing Dangerously.) It’s 356 days of anecdotes and encouragement and writer’s quotes. Kind of like a party – you get to hear how all these other writers struggle and have fits over their work. It’s also about thinking like a writer, writing every day, grinding through the tough times, etc. I just sent in the final manuscript to my editor at NWL.  (Message from the Marketing Whore: it’ll be published May 2012 and author is available to come to any and all groups to talk about the book!)
Any other thoughts to share with writers?

       – Just this: when you write you’re part of a community of writers. You’re in the Writers Club – the only condition is that you write every day. Even if it’s just for ten minutes. Even if you think what you’re writing is all crap (all writers feel this way at one time or another) and you keep going because only you can write your story – and somebody out there needs to read it. ( One of the perks: You get to read as much as you want – because that’s the best way to learn to write. )

Laura's note: If you enjoy Barbara's thoughts, you may want to follow her blog at   It is often full of inspiration, not to mention many great book recommendations!  Also check out her website at http://www.barbaraabercrombie. com.  Cherished is available now on and you should keep an eye open for author events featuring her at your local bookstores.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Madeline Sharples Interview on Leaving the Hall Light On

Dear writers and readers,
Madeline Sharples and I crossed paths in a writing course at UCLA a couple of years ago and have stayed in touch.  Her book is a moving account, full of poetry as well as prose, of her son's life and his death of suicide, called Leaving the Hall Light On.  I'm very interested in how people create beauty from painful experiences, and I hope you'll find Madeline's thoughts on this subject as interesting as I do.

Hi Madeline, what got you interested in writing?

It seems that I always wanted to be a writer. Writing came so easy for me – even in grade school. I studied journalism in high school and wrote feature articles for the high school newspaper. Then I took all the course work toward a degree in journalism in college though I ended up with a degree in English because I transferred schools just before my senior year (that’s a story all its own). So, when I got out of college I wanted in the worst way to write for a magazine or newspaper. After a few attempts I turned to the aerospace industry. I got a positive response after one call asking, “Do you ever hire people with a degree in English?” Easy, right? But hard on my dream to become a “real” writer.
And though I never gave up on that dream, for the next several decades I took creative detours and continued with my day job working as a writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and gardened. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: – a little less technical than my work in aerospace. Anything to keep my hand in creativity, until finally I could stand it no longer.
I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. It was there that I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition. Here’s what I wrote: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” Later I learned that was okay. Once I discovered a private instructor in Los Angeles who taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

What kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

            I’m very eclectic about the books I enjoy. I read mostly fiction, non-fiction, memoir, history, and poetry. Right now I’m reading The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon and recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed a noir detective story Swann’s Last Song by Charles Salzman, someone I met on Facebook. I have a huge stack of books to be read, including those my book club chooses.  

You write both poetry and nonfiction.  Is it a challenge to combine the two into one book?

I never even considered leaving my poetry out of my book. They were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from and a poetry manuscript, and I arranged my book’s chapters according the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. However, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea either. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago says he can relate to them better now because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who not only liked the poems I initially had in the book, but asked for more.
One of the first reviewers of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, said, “….The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality of what is being described on the page….” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.
By the way, I have gravitated over to the world of fiction as well. I started a novel last year and though it’s on hold because of all my book marketing work, I’m about half way through and hope to get back to it soon.

Your book is about a very painful subject, the suicide of your son.  Do you have any advice for writers who are dealing with such sensitive personal topics themselves?  Are there ways the writing process helps with the grieving?

I think my first piece of advice would be to take your time. Think about caring for yourself first and foremost, and if that means getting words onto the page, that’s good. Otherwise, don’t pressure yourself.
Writing became my therapy. I just had to write or I’d feel itchy. Even the very act of pounding the keys on the keyboard helped. The page was always ready for my tears, my rants, my sorrow, my complaints, and my thoughts and ideas. The page never told me what to do or how to handle my grief. The page never told me it was time to stop grieving already. The page became my everyday friend – a special place I could go to empty my full heart. And, as a result, writing through my grief totally turned my life around. I made a “real” writer out of me.
How long did it take you to write this book?

            My book took years to write and organize. I never intended my journal entries would turn into a book. I just wrote for myself at first. Only when my writing instructor told me I should get my story out to the public did I begin to think about writing a book – that was about the year 2001. However, it took a lot more years of writing and classes, working with editors and readers, and revising until my book was finally finished and ready.

What is your writing process like?  Do you write in a special place or at a particular time?

            I treat my writing as if it is work – even though it is work I love to do. I get up early everyday, go to the gym, have breakfast, and shower and get dressed. Then I go to my writing room and get down to business. And some days I’m in there for hours.
I created my writing room and office from the room in our house where Paul lived his last two and a half years. Paul had been my muse for so many years; so I decided he could continue to be my muse in my new room.
I write in there alone. I sit at my large black draftsman table opposite a bay picture window. I look out to the garden, at the three palm trees, the small cement pond, and the ginger plants behind it, all designed to create a calming influence on my writing work. I can hear the gurgle of the fountain when the windows are open. Once in a while a bird comes to take a seed from the birdfeeder or a dip in the pond. If I’m not sitting at my table, I sit on the window seat or on the orange futon-like sofa.
At first I worried about how it would feel taking over his space, how it would feel to make it mine. And now I know. It’s a feeling of cleansing, healing, and of being in a safe and comforting space. I feel calm in there, and that calm helps my writing. Maybe the little reminders of Paul in there help too. His candlesticks are on the top shelf of the bookcase, his photo is on the next shelf and a portrait of me when I was pregnant with him hangs on the wall. I also have a photo of a sunset taken on September 22, 1999 – his last night alive – a beautiful reflection of an orange sun in a deep blue ocean – and so peaceful. I also have many of my Buddha statues in my office (Paul was a Buddha-like character) – besides the ones in other parts of the house and garden. They are on my desk and on the end table next to the sofa.

Do you use music in your writing process?

I listen to music while I write very occasionally. I always have my ear buds in when I work out at the gym.

Tell us how you approached point of view in your book. Did you consider first versus third person, straight memoir as opposed to a fictional approach, or was it always clearly as it turned out?

            Once I got down to the business of creating a book from my journal entries and poems I never thought it would be anything other than a memoir in first person. Early on in a creative writing class I wrote a story or two – still in first person – based on some of the facts in the book, but they didn’t work for me as fiction, so I discarded them.

Do you have an agent?  What are your feelings about working with an agent?

I am agent-less. I queried about sixty of them in my quest to get my book published and though a few asked to see my manuscript, none of them even took me as far as negotiations. And most of my queries went unanswered.  So right now, I’m happy I found my traditional small press publisher on my own and don’t have to share any royalties I earn from book sales with an agent. Of course I’ll revisit this when it comes time to shop my next book.

Has your publisher helped with publicity for your new books?  What thoughts do you have about publicity today?

Yes, my publisher has been very generous. She has paid for a publicist and she very frequently posts about my book and her other books in the social media. She works very hard at keeping mentions of our books out there.
I find getting publicity unless I do it myself very difficult. My publisher sent out review copies to newspapers but my book got very few notices. However, I scheduled and arranged my book launch and signing at our local independent book store, and I arranged a blog tour on Women on Writing (WOW). This allowed my book exposure and many reviews on other related blogs. However, being on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn has been most helpful. I also have a part-time publicist who got a book review posted on Shirley Showalter’s wonderful site, 100 Memoirs, and also got me a once-a-month writing gig on a great website, Naturally Savvy, as its over sixty expert. Even though I don’t write about my book’s subject matter there, we feel any way I can get my name out there helps.

Any other thoughts you'd like to share?

If you are in the Los Angeles area, I’ll be signing copies of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, at the West Hollywood Book Fair on October 2 from 10 am to 2:30 pm. This signing was arranged through the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society.

Do you have web sites the readers can visit?

See my book trailer:

Become a fan of Madeline Sharples (for book news and writing tidbits) at

And website:

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Madeline!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Interview with Dorothy McMillan, Author of Many Mysteries

Hi readers and writers,
I'm pleased to bring you an interview with someone who has published several books, and whose inventive mind enables her to create puzzling mysteries.  Enjoy!   Cheers Laura

Dottie, how did you get interested in writing?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write.  When I was in the fourth grade, I wrote dozens of ghastly horror stories and sold them to the kids at school for a dime each.  That was a lot of money way back then.  Finally, irate parents told the principal, and I had to stop writing the stories, and give back all the money.  My first rejection.  But hardly my last.  At least with my professional writing no one has asked me to give back the money. 

What kind of books do you most enjoy reading?

    Just about every kind.  However, my favorite authors are Bradbury, Steven King, Ann Tyler, Mary Stewart, Mary Robert’s Reinhart, and Clive Cussler (who was in the same writing class as I was in college).  An odd mixed bunch, aren’t they?
How many books have you published to date?

To date, I’ve had seven books published.  Two non-fiction: “Creative ways with Polymer clay” and “Artful ways with Polymer clay” under the name Dotty McMillan.  And five novels under Dorothy McMillan.  “Blackbird” “Soul Crossed” “Vile Acts” “Deadly Urges” and “The Devil’s Bell.”  Two of these books were optioned for film, but, as usual in Hollywood, they never were filmed.  But I got to keep the option money!  Deadly Urges is now on the Kindle for a pittance.  Fortunately, it’s getting some great reviews.  I just wish I had more time to do some PR for it.  Besides books, I’ve written five screenplays.  Early on, I sold two of them.  Again, they never got made.  This is the toughest field of writing to try.  I only do it because I enjoy the process and at times need a break from the novel writing. 
Are the books all similar or are there different series of them?

All of the fiction books are in the same genre, that of Suspense Thrillers.  I would love to venture out into other areas such as fantasy and sci-fi, but my agent doesn’t handle these.  In the past he sold “Logan’s Run” but hasn’t handled that type since. Even so, I’m still working on a fantasy book during those days when I need to let the suspense thriller rest for a day or too.

Do you enjoy writing conferences?  Any advice for newbies about going to writing conferences?

 I love going to writing conferences, and I used to attend all kinds of them.  I also taught at some of them.  However, due to a variety of life things, I haven’t been able to do that much during the past few years.  Nevertheless, they were extremely valuable in many ways.  One of the best things about them is that they help to stimulate your creative nature, and can give you that push we all need, to make time to write, and keep at it.  It’s also good to be with people who love the same thing that you do.  Writers work alone so much, that getting out of the house and in contact with other writers is a healthy way to spend some time.
For years, I went to every conference where Ray Bradbury was speaking as he had such a powerful message for writers.  On one occasion, after a conference was over, he was walking in the same direction I was, and he noticed I had some papers in my hand.  He asked if they were something I had written.  I said yes.  He asked if he could read some of it.  In a state of total panic, I handed him the pages.  He read all of them.  Then he looked up at me and said, “Don’t you ever quit.  You are going to make it!”  At that time, I was actually ready to take up basket weaving instead of writing!  We walked together to the corner of the street where Ray was to wait for his ride home.  He has never learned to drive!  I thanked him, hugged him, and as soon as his ride arrived, I made my way home in a daze.  Those words of his stuck to me, as if crazy-glued, for the rest of my life.  When my first book was published, I sent him a copy to say thank you for his encouragement.  He wrote back and said he read it, his wife read it, and so did his daughters. He said it was fantastic!  From that day on, we exchanged Christmas cards, our successes, and our failures.  I’m not sure what I would be doing today, without his kindness and encouragement.  Probably basket weaving.

How do you get the ideas for your books?  Based on real experiences or your own great imagination or both?

     I wish I didn’t have so dang many ideas for my novels.  I have dozens of summaries, starts, and idea pages for future novels.  They just pop into my head and won’t go away until I record the idea.  It would take two lifetimes to write them all.  They are always based on some facts.  Then I go nuts from there and add all kinds of wild and dark things.  In one book, a character in the book is actually a written description of my mother.  Not what she looked like, but what she was like.  A little skewed, a lot off kilter. 
     My non-fiction writing is always about the art of working with Polymer Clay, something I’ve done, and taught for about twenty years.  Each of these books took a full year to write and photograph. Not as much fun as writing fiction and a lot more work.  However, selling non-fiction is usually easier than selling novels.  My agent handles more of that now, than fiction.  It’s especially good if you are able to write about something, in which a lot of people are interested. 

Tell us about your latest book.

The novel I’m working on now is “The Gray-Green Underground.”  Did you know that underneath Tokyo there is a large farm that grows all kinds of food crops?  Did you know that in the U.S. there are old mines where all kinds of things are being grown underground?  Did you know that many of these growing things have been bio-engineered and could be deadly to mankind.  Surely there has to be a book I could write about all this, one filled with murder, mayhem, and madness. 
         A strange little hunchbacked man named Hagan Poole built a strange stone castle as his home over a hundred years ago.  Today it still sits like a stone fortress in a wild little canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California.  Shadowed by dark stands of pines, it gives one a creepy skin prickling sensation on first sight.  This is the setting for the book.  A place like this actually did exist.
Through lonely years after Poole’s death, the hallways of his stone castle collected giant tangles of hoary spider webs.  Slime-green fungus and powdery white mold oozed from the blushing Tutor brick that lined the enormous kitchen.  The entire place reeked of a syrupy dampness and a putrefying mushroom smell.  Abandoned and forlorn, the place languished silently.  Forgotten.
  Forgotten, that is, until twenty-eight year old Isabel Warren received the unexpected phone call from her dead husband. 
There the story begins.  There the terror and fear attack.
Do you have an agent?  How do you feel about agents?  Are they necessary today?

A short time after Ray Bradbury encouraged me, my writing instructor at Orange Coast College gave a hard copy of my novel to Mike Hamilburg, an author’s agent who resides in Beverly Hills.  Mike called me a few days later from the airport and said “I have your novel with me and I’m on the way to New York.  I would like to represent you and try to shop it.  Would that be okay?”
When I was finally able to talk I said, “You bet!”  So, off he went, and about four months later, he had it sold.  That began a long and wonderful relationship, with one of the nicest, most honest, and helpful agents anyone could have.  It was just one of those fantastic lucky things.  
Today, it is possible to sell a novel without an agent.  But it is a lot better and easier if you can find one who will represent you, that is if you want to get a traditional paper book publisher.  They will not represent a self-published writer unless it looks as if their book might take off and make a lot of money. Some of these do.  Most do not.
 There is a huge list of authors agents online.  They usually say what type of writing they represent.  You can send a good query letter to all of them to see if they are interested in working with you. 
Publishing is in such a wild state today.  No one knows how it will all turn out. Before now, I have always been against “self-publishing” because I’ve seen so many problems with doing it.  So many friends ended up by paying for hundreds of their books which ended up in their garage, and no way to distribute or advertise them.  However, this is changing.  You don’t have to pay huge amounts to self-publish now, and can buy one or two of your books at a time.  The major problem however, is getting out there and doing all sorts of things to publicize your book.  All the things that a paper publisher does for its writers. It takes a great deal of time and effort.  

Do you usually publish through the same publisher?  Does that make an agent less necessary?

No, unfortunately, I’ve had different publishers.  You wouldn’t believe the things that have happened with my work through the years.  Way too many things to mention.  But I would just say that if you are lucky you will sell to a publisher who won’t merge with another publisher, won’t go out of business, and who won’t give you an editor who says he doesn’t believe that a woman can write a successful suspense thriller, and the worst, a publisher who decides that Robin Cook’s new book should be the lead novel instead of your novel which was slated for that honor.  All because Cook didn’t meet his deadline for the month before. Despite all this, however, my books have always sold extremely well, no matter what house published them.  If you are lucky, as some of my writer friends have been, and have the same publisher for all your books, an agent is still very important.  Mine not only works to get a book published, but also takes care of the contract to make sure you are not getting stiffed some way.  One publisher demanded the movie rights in my contract.  My agent made sure that didn’t happen.  There are dozens of things that need careful perusing.  An agent takes care of all that, and is well worth his percentage. 

What else would you like to share with the blog readers?

First, I would like to remind them that you will never have time to write, you have to make time.  It means giving up a lot of things you might rather do.  If that makes you unhappy, then stop writing and do the things you’d rather do.  If writing is your life, then realize that you will have to spend a lot of that life putting words together to create stories, articles, whatever it is you like to write.  
          Second, don’t spend hours and hours on the first few chapters of your book, trying to make them perfect before you move on.  Just jump in and write the whole darn book.  My routine is to write like crazy in afternoons and late nights.  Then I clean that writing up some in the morning, and then write new chapters all afternoon and night again.  One you hit that last page of your book, put it away for a week or so.  Then, take it out and read, polish it, and make it the best you can.  Then get it out there and sell it.  Get an agent if possible.  Or start out by putting it on the Kindle, IPod, etc.  Who knows, it might just take off and make you a zillion dollars.  I sure hope so!