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Introducing Jennifer McMurrain

Quail Crossings

Quail Crossings

I first met Jennifer at the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation, Inc. (OWFI) conference in Oklahoma City. High energy and excitement, she was a boon to my veteran (code for older person) spirit. Her writing is reminiscent of another time and place providing the reader with a journey through time. I asked Jennifer a few questions to help you get to know her and her work.

How would you describe Quail Crossings to someone who has not read your work?

Quail Crossings is a story of an unlikely family coming together during the harsh reality of the Great Depression. Dovie Grant has just lost her husband and only child in a car accident, leaving her alone with her father on their farm, Quail Crossings. Since he’s getting older, he needs some help on the farm and hires an 18-year-old boy who’s caring for his three siblings. This does not make Dovie happy. She’s trying to deal with her grief and doesn’t want these children running around. It doesn’t help that there’s a 14-year-old girl who doesn’t want to be there either, so she gets into all kinds of trouble trying to get her brother fired. During Black Sunday, the worst dust storm this country has ever known, they must come together to find one of their own or risk losing her forever.

How would you describe your writing style?

I would describe my writing style as laid back and character driven. I never sit down expecting to write the next great American novel. I’m never going to string eloquent words together to impress you with my vocabulary and use of meter. I just want to tell you a great story, one that makes you love my characters and keep turning the pages, because you have to know what’s gonna happen next. I want you to laugh with them, cry with them and rejoice with them.

What are you reading now?

Right now I am reading Beauty Queens by Libba Bray which is making me snort laugh and A Matter of Trust by Sherrilyn Polf, who is an excellent author and a good friend of mine.

Who designs your covers?

The fantastic Linda Boulanger from TreasureLine Publishing designed the cover for Quail Crossings. But I am fortunate to have a talented sister, Brandy Walker, from Sister Sparrow Graphic Designs who will be doing my future covers. She’s already designed for three of my short stories, Thesis Revised, Emma’s Walk, and Footprints in the Snow, which you can get for free on www.smashwords.com. Brandy is so talented, I would recommend her even if she weren’t my sister. Her work speaks for itself.

Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.

Good to Know Fact #1 – Every novel has a “muse” song. My stories don’t fully come alive until I find a song that sums it up for me. The minute I hear that song the book becomes a movie preview in my head, which tells me the tone and voice needed to make it a successful piece of work. Every night before I write, I close my eyes and listen to that song. I cannot begin until I know what the muse song is.

 Good to Know Fact #2 – I am a trained snake/alligator wrangler. I’m no Crocodile Hunter, but with the correct tools I can remove a venomous snake and/or alligator from your house. This is not something I do often because as clumsy as I am, I’m pretty sure I’d end up on YouTube getting my hand bit off or taking a snake bite to the nose.

Good to Know Fact #3 – I am fascinated by cryptozoology, the study of and search for animals and especially legendary animals (example, Big Foot) usually in order to evaluate the possibility of their existence. Had I known such a thing existed in college I would’ve majored in it. Instead, I’m about 12 hours short of a Wildlife Biology degree, opting for a Bachelors in Applied Arts and Science in order to finish quickly before a move. As much as I love cryptozoology, I’m pretty sure I’d wet my pants and run screaming from the forest if I ever ran into a creature such as Big Foot.

Advice for other writers?

Get your butt in the chair. It’s as simple as that. You want to write, then you HAVE to write. You can’t talk about it, read about it, think about it… you have to do it. Even if you think it stinks, keep writing. Writing is like every other profession, the more you do, the better you’ll become.

What is your next novel project?

My next novel is a paranormal romance entitled, Winter Song. It actually won 1st place at the Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc. contest in 2011 in contemporary romance. Should be out in the spring (fingers crossed).

One common piece of advice for writer’s is write what you know. Writers are all over the map on it. Where do you stand on this one?

As much as I agree you have to have some knowledge of what you’re writing, you can always research and learn it. I guess what I’m trying to say is you don’t have to have lived it to know it, if that makes sense. I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression. I have never known what it’s like to feel poor or hungry. But I wrote about it after interviewing people who did and hopefully, I did their experiences justice.

That being said, when it comes to emotion, if you’ve lived through that particular emotion, for example, grief, it’s a lot easier to write it. I think it makes for a stronger response from your reader.

So a little of both, I guess. But never let lack of “experience” stop you from getting in the chair and writing. If I only wrote what I “know” they wouldn’t be very interesting books.

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The Sweet Hereafter

A conference brings this storm swell of creative juices, and you’ll return home convinced that you are ready to conquer anything publishing throws your way. That glow will last if you’re lucky, 24 hours. A part of every conference prep should include planning for a return from the wonderful world of nothing but writers and writing to that world of diapers, bottles, teenage drivers and angst, or cranky hubbies. Whatever your daily world encompasses, it’s all waiting for you when you leave that sheltered world of the “conference”.

The first thing you need to do is prepare yourself emotionally for this return to your ‘normal world’ as Christopher Vogler describes it in The Writer’s Journey. My critique group has done this and we’ve learned new things every time. Here are suggestions for returning from the conference:

1. Hit the ground running when you get home by making time to email the contacts you made at the conference. Don’t wait. Don’t give them or yourself time to forget. If you followed advice, you wrote something memorable on the back of the business cards you collected.

2. Share what you learned. If you have a local group of writers you work with, share what you learned with them. If not, use your blog or website as a host for educating others about Oklahoma Writer’s Federation, Inc. (or your conference) and writing. If your entire group attended (as our group does), it is always a good idea to debrief after conferences. Go over what went well, what didn’t, what inspired you, what frustrated you, etc. As a group, we attend different sessions to maximize our attendance, then we share what we learned with each other.

3. When you enjoy a conference and find it worthwhile, spread the word! Let others in on what’s worthwhile about it. Give them publicity. We’re all in this together so help each other out.

4. We have a new goal for this conference. Since this is our third year, we wanted to do something special. Stay tuned to the Novel Clique blog for interviews with writer attendees at OWFI 2012.

5. Final evaluation: upon returning you need to do a final run down of the experience. Was the conference a good one for you? Just as you did when selecting a conference return to those important questions:

a. Location: Was the location good for you? Price certainly feeds into this these days because of the price of gas.

b. Genre: Did you find the things you needed for what you write? Were there agents who represent what you write?

c. Price: Consider the costs of everything from travel to hotel to food to cost of the conference. Was it cost-effective for you?

d. Presenters: Were the presenters good? Were they speaking about things of importance to you as a writer? Did you return with more than you left home with?

Once you’ve answered those questions you’ll know whether you want to attend that conference again or not. For us, after attending OWFI, all those answers were good ones.

What do you want to return from a conference having accomplished?

Be sure to check out Natasha’s post on what to do before the conference and Leatrice’s upcoming post on what to do during.

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Historic Storms, Fantastic First Pages, and Hooked with Les

Thanks to everyone who submitted their first page of a WIP. As the bulk of the country is now hunkered down while white stuff whips around outside the windows, what better time to read some more of what Les has to teach us?  Strong voice is huge for most of us as readers. I know it when I see it, hear it, and yet, ask me to define it? Luckily, Les wrote a book answering the question for us.

Write On asks: When I read a book with a strong voice, I recognize it immediately. Yet in writing it’s not that easy to practice. What do you think is the magical quality called voice?

Les says: Voice is both a simple and a complex concept. When we first learn as children to communicate, we all have a terrific and original voice. We still have it, but many times it’s buried beneath layers and layers of “instruction.” We’ve learned to hide it over the years because of all the naysayers we’ve been exposed to in education and in life. Put simply, your voice is how you think. What happens is we put up a bunch of filters between how we think and what appears on the page, so that we can “please” all those folks who told us what’s acceptable and what’s not. (Including moi!) It’s not that we have to create our writing voice; we simply have to find where we’ve stashed it—we’ve already got it. That’s all my book, Finding Your Voice intends to do. Show the writer how they lost their voice and how to regain it.

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Les Edgerton Interview and First Pages Contest

I’m totally jazzed about my interview with Les Edgerton. He’s answering questions about his books and the writing life.

In conjunction with the interview – and in celebration of Hooked, his book on openings – I’m hosting a FREE contest here at Write On.  Enter your first page of a WIP (any genre) by January 29. The winner will be announced by February 12. See submission guidelines below. The writer of the best first page will win a copy of Hooked from me and a signed copy of Finding Your Voice. A big THANKS to Les for his donation of a signed book. Now polish up those first pages and be ready to submit. See details below.


Les Edgerton is a full-time writer with nine books in print and teaches creative writing on the university level, through private coaching of writers, and on various on-line venues. He graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in General Studies (Honors of Distinction) and obtained an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.

Les Interview Part I

Write On: You said, “The beginning of every story should contain a “hint” of the ending.” (Which sent me scurrying to my work to see if I met this.) It made me wonder, should the writer always know their ending before they begin?

Les: First, let me preface my answer here as well as provide a preface to everything else, including the advice in my books. For starters, there are no absolutes in writing, especially in the craft and art of writing. Also, whatever the standards are today, they’ll be different in a year, in five years, in ten years. I feel I have to provide that disclaimer for folks to put anyone’s (including my own) advice into proper and useful context. John Gardner, author of the intelligent classics On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, among other writer’s texts he wrote, understood that completely, when, during a dinner with his most noted pupil, Raymond Carver, shortly before his motorcycle accident and death, told Carver to “forget everything I told you back in college [about writing]. It’s all changed and it no longer applies.” (Loosely quoted) Gardner knew that fiction standards change. We’re working with living, mutating languages—English, French, German, Japanese, whatever—where the language changes constantly as does the culture. What passed for gospel five years ago in fiction may no longer apply today as tastes change. Which always amazes me as Gardner’s books are even today presented in many (most?) college writing classes as the end-all and be-all of writing instruction when many of the precepts he offered at the time no longer hold true in contemporary story structure. Gardner himself realized this, as evidenced by his statement to Carver, but many writing teachers don’t, or they would present the parts of his advice that still hold true and point out the ones that don’t. But, that doesn’t happen. The average teacher puts Gardner’s books on the reading list and the implication is that everything in them is directly transcribed from God’s mouth to John’s ear. The Gospel According to Gardner. Not so, as Gardner himself wisely realized and revealed in his statement to Carver. His advice, because he’s room temperature, is frozen in time and doesn’t always reflect what is expected in contemporary literature. Same as my own books. Things change. It’s why it’s important to keep up and read new books and seek out the contemporary wisdom.

I’m taking a bit of space here to provide this disclaimer, because it impacts not only everything I might say here, but everything written in my books. Nothing in fiction is carved in granite. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Also, it’s important for a student of creative writing to understand that most writing texts like mine are intended to guide the student toward a better-written finished book or story. The precepts and concepts and advice given are intended to provide a quality final draft. That’s important to realize. It’s not your first or fifth or fifteenth draft that we’re talking about. It’s the final, polished draft—the one you send to agents and/or editors—that we’re concerned with.

Which (finally!) leads to the answer to your question. Thought we’d never get there, didn’t you! To restate it, you asked: “Should the writer always know their ending before they begin?”

The answer is… maybe. If it’s the first draft. For the final draft, the answer is… absolutely.

There will be writers who don’t outline, who prefer to begin with a character or a situation and “set them free” and see where they go. The “free spirits” of writing. They don’t have a clue how their story will end, or so they claim. Or, they know the ending, but they don’t at the onset know how they’re going to get them there. While this can work and there are hundreds of successful writers who do just that, I’d try to convince most writers that this is counterproductive and wastes enormous amounts of time. This is perhaps the main reason many writers end up with bushel baskets full of unfinished stories and novels. They end up on the show “Hoarders” with manuscripts piled up in every direction instead of empty MacDonald wrappers…

Here’s what happens. For those writers who don’t know or care what their ending will be when they begin to write the story without knowing where they’re going, what they’re actually doing is creating very long outlines. Ernest Hemingway is a prime example. Papa claimed he never outlined. But… he did. Instead of a page or two of an outline, he created 100,000 word outlines. Instead of calling it what it was—an outline—he called it his “first draft.” But, in reality, it was an outline. It was important to him to present himself to the world as an “arteest,” a “rebel.” He was a genius and by not outlining, he proved it. Only he didn’t. His final manuscript proved it, not how he got there.

Other writers claim that by not knowing the ending, by not outlining, they can then experience the “thrill of discovery.” Well… perhaps… but I submit the thrill of discovery more profitably lies in the writing of a story you’ve created in your mind. Not wandering about the countryside until you get there. Can you get there by wandering? Sure. But, you can get there a lot quicker using a map and compass.

Here’s an idea. I suspect that when Moses was wandering through the wilderness for forty years trying to get to the Promised Land, he would have been forever grateful if God would have just sat him down and told him to “go north by northeast for two hundred clicks and you’ll be there, dude. Here’s a map. This thing’s called a ‘compass’ and here’s how it works. See ya in a week and we’ll celebrate with some milk and honey.” I’ve got to believe that Moses and his merry band got more than a little tired of waking up every day to face three more meals of manna and no A/C in the tent. Think?

Planning. That’s kind of the secret to being productive. In the case of a novel, outlining. To outline means you know your story. The thrill is going to be in the writing of it. Not “discovering” it during the journey. If you think the reader cares a fig whether you’ve demonstrated you’re a “free spirit” or a rule-breaker or are a person who doesn’t go by any damned rules, you’re probably wrong. They don’t care. All they care is that the book they just plunked down $24.95 or $14.95 (or $9.99 on the Kindle) for, is that it’s entertaining and worth the money they just spent. Get this: Nobody cares how you wrote it.

If that’s true, then why not write it the easy way?

And, the easy way is to figure pretty much what your story’s about and how it ends and all that and simply outline it and then write the thing.

Now. Normally, when the average writer sees the word “outline” he or she groans and curls up into a fetal position. That’s because most of us automatically think of those godawful things they made us write back in h.s. You know, the ones with Roman numerals and things called “topics” and icky, boring stuff like that. Or, they think of page after page of copious notes on plot points and character bios and all that junk. That’s not the kind of outline I’m proposing at all. The outline I propose consists of 15-20 words. That’s it, period. It looks nothing like Missus Grundy’s outline you learned back in P.S. 102. I won’t show how to create one here, because of space, but if interested, you can see how to create one on a post on my blog at:

http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/04/outlining.html

Now, the answer to your question— should the writer always know their ending before they begin?—is yes.

Submission Guidelines:

Send a page (max. 250 words) PDF to novelcliquepress@gmail.com. For a Word to PDF converter click here.

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Check it Out!

 Check out my guest chat this week on Natasha Hanova’s site.

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