Hey—I’m Usually the One Asking the Questions

As a freelance writer, I’m usually the one asking the questions and scribbling down the answers in a form of shorthand only I can decipher.

But every now and then, someone asks to interview me about writing, publishing, marketing books, or putting together a magazine. I hold a firm belief that we writers have a duty and obligation to help young and emerging writers, so I agree to the interview, if time allows.

That’s how it happened late last year. I was contacted by Deyse Bravo, a librarian at McKee Library on the campus of Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. She asked me to answer just four questions related to my writing journey, and I obliged. I came across our correspondence this morning, and after reading over my answers, I thought, perhaps, her questions paired with my answers may be of some benefit to my blog readers. I’ve pasted the text of the interview below. Enjoy!

Deyse: What are you working on now?

Amber: As a freelance writer, I have piles of works in progress on my desk throughout the year. Even though it is the end of summer, I am working on articles for the fall and winter issues of magazines. For example, I just completed “The Great Pumpkin,” for Sea Island Life Magazine’s fall issue. I’m almost finished with “Oh Christmas Tree,” an article GEORGIA Magazine will publish in December about the experience of going to a Christmas tree farm to find and cut a tree. And I’m trying to find a magazine editor interested in an article I wrote about growing pecan trees, harvesting pecans, and creating Southern pecan-based delicacies like pecan pie and pecan divinity (Note: I sold the pecan article to GRIT Magazine shortly after the interview. It will appear in their November/December 2016 issue). I pitch ideas to editors several times a month, so that type of work (idea development and sending out query letters) is always ongoing.

At the computer...

At the computer…

I still promote Project Keepsake (www.ProjectKeepsake.com), and because I sincerely believe everyone has a keepsake and every keepsake has a story to tell, I continue my quest to help people write and share stories about keepsakes. I haven’t decided whether I will publish a second volume of keepsake stories yet, however, I still continue sharing these magical stories on my blog and through social media.

I facilitate workshops on freelance writing, writing family stories, writing about keepsakes, and other topics. I’m in the process of making my workshops available via podcasts and through interactive web conferencing. Writing is a business, and you have to constantly strive to be relevant and reach readers and paying clients. It’s the only way to make money in the business, unless you are a Rick Bragg, Stephen King, or Anne Lamont, who I am not.

I am also working on a novel with the working title, Daylily. I’ve reached into my background as an engineer for inspiration. My story begins with a horrific industrial accident that takes a man’s life. My main character, a female engineer working in the facility, is blamed for the accident. My story drifts through its arc as the main character runs away to a daylily farm to regain her sanity and figure out how to clear her name. I’ve always been a nonfiction writer, and writing fiction has been somewhat of a challenge for me. I’ve joined a critique group to help me progress through the writing process and get feedback. I hope to have a first draft of Daylily completed by spring next year (Note: I didn’t make my deadline. I’m still working on the novel).

Deyse: How have libraries been a part of your life?

Amber: I credit the public library in Warner Robins, Georgia with planting the “book fever” seed in my soul. Growing-up, I was drawn to books, especially picture books with their whimsical words and illustrations. I loved the way books felt in my little-girl hands and the way the pages smelled. I loved my hometown’s public library, which was connected to our local gym and recreation department. A trip to basketball practice was always followed by a quick visit to the adjoining library. I remember browsing the shelves, collapsing onto the floor to flip through the first pages of books, the mechanical stamping sound the librarian’s machine made that transferred the due dates to the the library card, the hush-hush silence of the library that contrasted with the loudness of the basketball gym and the recreation department’s pool room, and most of all, I remember the euphoria of skipping to the car with an armful of books.

I wanted to share the joy of the reading experience with others, so as a little girl, I often crawled under my family’s dining room table with my stash of library books and read them to a captive audience of disheveled dolls and thread bare stuffed animals.

As a teenager, I spent after-school hours at the library with friends. I grew up in a time before personal computers and the Internet, so the library was my lifeline for research. I also enjoyed plucking novels from the shelves and reading great works such as A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Catcher in the Rye. I feasted on the quirky tales of Flannery O’Connor and felt a special bond with her.

At some point during my childhood and teen years, my attraction to stories and my appetite for reading evolved into the desire to write, but I did not pursue a career in writing—not then. I was a child who possessed strong math skills and an insatiable love of science, so I was herded toward a career in engineering. I tucked my dreams of writing away for several years. But again, it all started at the library.

After my book, Project Keepsake was released in 2014, several libraries around Georgia and Alabama invited me to speak at their “Friends of the Library” meetings and events about the book, storytelling, writing, and keepsakes. I’ve really enjoyed discovering new libraries tucked away on the backroads of Georgia. I was in Hazlehurst, Georgia last week for a book signing, and when I stepped into the Jeff Davis Public Library, the familiar aroma of books greeted me like an old friend.

Deyse: What is your favorite book and why?

Amber: My favorite book is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” As a child of the South, so much of Lee’s novel resonates with me—the sultry summer days of the South, the curiosity and mischief of children, the dialogue, the lovable, charismatic members of the community, the unfathomable cruelty of racial injustice, etc. I had never seen myself and my life portrayed in literature until I read Ms. Lee’s masterpiece as a young adult, and it shook me to my core. She so eloquently defined my dilemma—my struggle of loving and admiring my homeland and my beloved family, even though the ugliness of racism whirls around me every day. Just as Scout tries to make sense of it all, I’ve spent an entire lifetime trying to reconcile the differences in my head. Strong writing. Strong story. Strong message. I still cry when I read it, and yes, I read it every few years and savor it like a glass of fine muscadine wine.

Deyse: Any advice for today’s college students?

Amber: I have lots of advice for aspiring writers. I’ve written lots of motivational and informational posts for writers on my blog at www.ambernagle.com. For beginning writers, I recommend “The Reality of Writing” and “Hook, Line, and Sinker”.

Here are a few of my general tips:

  1. Read. Read volumes. Read all sorts of material. Reading will make you a better writer.
  2. Write. Write a lot. Put pen to paper (or fingertips to keys) and write fearlessly. Make time to write and write!
  3. Find a tribe of writers and contribute—ask for help from those with experience and offer assistance to those you can help.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by rejection or failure. Just smile and know that it is part of the journey and all writers go through it. I often tell students in my workshops that they will never hit a home run if they don’t step up to the plate and swing.
  5. If you fail at something (and you will), learn the lessons from the experience, put the experience behind you, and move forward.

Great Hooks from Books

Having trouble composing a killer hook? Sometimes when I’m stuck, I study how other authors started their stories. Here are a few very notable hooks from my book cases and the virtual shelves of my iBooks and Kindle.

  • “First I had to get his body into the boat…I had lain awake all night, trying to imagine how I would get him off the bed and down the stairs and into the row boat, since he weighed at least a hundred and fifty pounds and might have gone stiff.”  —Rhian Ellis from the first page of After Life
  • Curious2“I was on fire.”  —Jeannette Walls from the opener on page nine of The Glass Castle
  • “It was seven minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shear’s house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as though it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.”  —Mark Haddon’s hook from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”  —Alice Sebold’s opener from The Lovely Bones
  •  “Three weeks after Granny Blakeslee died, Grandpa came to our house for his early morning snort of whiskey, as usual, and said to me, “Will Tweedy? Go find yore mama, then run up to yore Aunt Loma’s and tell her I said git on down here. I got something to say. And I ain’t a-go’n say it but once’t.”  —Olive Ann Burns from the first words of Cold Sassy Tree
  •  “All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was late June 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward.”  —Laura Hillenbrand from Unbroken: a WWII Story of Survival
  •  “She was old all my life. Even when I was sitting in the red dirt, fascinated with my own toes, Ava’s face had a line in it for every hot mile she ever walked, for every fit she ever threw.”  —Rick Bragg from the prologue of Ava’s Man
  •  “When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour…”  —Donna Tartt from The Goldfinch
  •  “…Out of a six-year-and-two-month sentence to the state prison at Milledgeville, I served it all—August 1954 to October 1960. I was crazy a while, and then I wasn’t, and then I was. That’s how it went. One second I’d be a free man—with Susan beside me and the boy on my lap—and the next I’s be awake on my back and looking up into the dirty light coming through my cell window.”  —Judson Mitcham from The Sweet Everlasting
  •  “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.”  —Jonathan Franzen from The Corrections

Take a look at a few of your favorite books and add to my list of interesting hooks by leaving a comment. Tell me why you like the hook so much. And please don’t forget to give credit to the author and title of the book. And if you enjoyed this post, pop over to my other website (www.ProjectKeepsake.com) and read a strong hook from a Project Keepsake story.

Finding Time to Write

It’s a common occurrence. I listen to someone’s story—some tragedy, an interesting recollection, an inspiring story, a story about some miracle, or a tale about some bizarre coincidence—and then I say, “Wow, you have to write that story down.”

My non-writer friends and family members usually roll their eyes at my suggestion then say, “Oh, I can’t write.”hand holding stopwatch

And then I roll my eyes and shoot their statement down. “Yes, you can! I’ve never met another living soul who couldn’t write. It’s a skill that anyone can develop with a little time, a little practice, and a little help.”

And then the storyteller delivers a second excuse: “I just don’t have time to write.”

I reply, “Sure you do.” And then I explain how to find time to write.

I think that a lot of aspiring writers feel that they must find large chunks of time to develop their writing, but in reality, most writers write in short bursts—thirty minutes here, forty-five minutes there, etc. These short writing sessions can add up to big projects.

Think you don’t have time to write? Here are a few suggestions that really work:

  •  GET UP EARLIER—Get up fifteen minutes earlier than usual three times each week, make a cup of coffee, isolate yourself in a quiet room in your house, and write for fifteen minutes. I always encourage aspiring writers to write in the beginning of the day when their thoughts are fresh and before they get bogged down in the daily grind of life. If you postpone your writing to the end of the day, you are more likely to cancel your writing session because you feel too tired or you have to fold one more load of laundry before you can go to bed.
  •  THINK ABOUT YOUR IDLE TIME—Write while you get your car serviced. Write on the bus on the way to and from work or school. Write in the waiting room at the doctor’s office or while waiting to see your dentist. Write at the airport waiting for your flight, then write some more on the airplane. Write at the DMV. Write on the sidelines of your son’s soccer practice. Write during your lunch break. Write while your kids are getting ready for school. Write while your kids are getting ready for bed. Write while your pasta boils. Write when you are a passenger on a long car ride. Write while you wait on your food to be prepared at the restaurant. Can’t get to sleep one night? Pick up your pen and write until you get sleepy.
  •  REDUCE THE ACTIVITIES THAT SUCK AWAY YOUR TIME—Turn off your cell phone for twenty minutes during the day. Don’t read your Facebook newsfeed five times each day. Skip watching one 30-minute sitcom each week. If you are a gaming fanatic, pick one day during the week and don’t play that day. Write instead.
  •  WRITE DURING COMMERCIAL BREAKS—For those of us who occasionally watch real time television, mute the TV during the commercial breaks and write in three minute bursts. There are over twenty minutes of commercials and marketing content per each hour of television programming, so use that time to write.
  •  SCHEDULE A WRITING SESSION—Find a fifteen or twenty minute opening on your calendar and pencil in a writing date with yourself. Don’t blow it off. Keep the appointment.
  •  USE YOUR DVR—Again, for people who watch television, use a DVR to record the news and your favorite programs. When you sit down to watch your programs, you will save a lot of time zooming through the commercials—again, over twenty minutes saved per hour of television. Use that extra time to write.
  •  DON’T MAKE DINNER ONE NIGHT DURING THE WEEK—It takes a lot of time to go to the grocery store to buy food, prepare a meal, and then wash all of the pots, pans, and dishes associated with dinner. So consider this: One night each week, order a pizza or Chinese food and have it delivered to your door. Use the time saved to write.
  •  MAKE A DATE WITH A WRITING BUDDY—One of the best ways to force yourself to write is to make a date with a writing buddy. Combine your social life with your writing. Meet at a library or on a front porch some where, talk for about fifteen minutes, then write together for thirty minutes. And if you are feeling really brave, ask your friend to read what you’ve written and give you some feedback.

Yes, you do have time to write! There are no excuses. And as always, I invite all of you writers and aspiring writers to consider writing a story about one of your keepsakes. To learn more about Project Keepsake, visit my other website at www.ProjectKeepsake.com.

Golden Rule of Writing

I recently read Chuck Sambuchino’s post (Writers in the Storm Blog) titled, “How to Support an Author’s New Book: Eleven Ideas for You.” I found myself jumping out of my chair with arms lifted high, shouting “Amen, Brother!”

I think about this topic a lot these days. I call it, “The Golden Rule of Writing,” which is, “Do unto other writers as you would have them do unto you.” It’s about reciprocity—please help me get the word out about my book, and when your next book is released, I’ll do the same for you.

Don’t get me wrong—most of my friends and fellow writers have been extremely caring and helpful as I‘ve worked tirelessly to promote Project Keepsake. But a few of my friends and writing buddies have not helped at all. In fact, a few of my writer friends have vanished from the face of the earth, and I’ve been wondering why.

But as I read Sambuchino’s post, I had some revelatory thoughts—maybe a few of my friends think I’m upset that they haven’t bought a book, and maybe they just don’t know how they can help me, aside from making a purchase. I’ve tried very hard not to push any of my friends into purchasing my book, because I know the content of Project Keepsake doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’m fine with friends not buying a book. Really.

But there’re are many other ways to help a writer/author/friend promote his or her projects other than buying the product. I’ve listed Sambuchino’s suggestions below, and I’ve added a few more to his list.

  • HAND OUT YOUR FRIEND’S PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL—Give her business cards, her book marks, her sell sheets, her postcards to your other friends, family members, and coworkers who may be interested in her book or scheduling her for a presentation at club or church meetings.
  • SHARE CONTACTS—Hook your friend up with your other friends in the media business (newspaper editors, feature writers, radio personalities, television hosts, etc). Introduce them. It’s very hard to cold call a media contact and get noticed, so your introduction could make the difference. I also share names of contacts at bookstores and libraries with my other writing buddies. It saves them time.

    Wayne Minshew at B&N in Rome. He kept me company.

    Wayne Minshew kept me company for two hours at a book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Rome, Georgia.

  • SHARE INFORMATION—Clubs are always looking for interesting speakers. If you hear that Rotary, Kiwanis, or a book club is looking for an interesting speaker or guest, share that information with your friend. If you learn of an upcoming writers conference that fits your friend’s project, send her the link or remember to tell her about it.
  • ATTEND AN EVENT—Whether it is a book launch party or a reading at the public library, attend at least one of your friend’s events and bring someone along. I recently had a poorly-attended book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Rome, Georgia, along with ten other local authors. I was pleasantly surprised when two of my writing friends (my buddy, Wayne Minshew, and new friend, Karli Land) showed up to hang out with me. It would have been a lonely two hours without them.
  • CRAFT AN EFFECTIVE ELEVATOR PITCH FOR YOUR FRIEND’S BOOK—Don’t just tell your other friends, “My friend has a new book out.”  Give them a little more meat. Say, “My friend, Amber, just published a collection of stories about keepsakes—a quilt, a pocket knife, a cake pan, a ring. It’s a really interesting book. She was recently on a magazine cover. The article talked about the whole project. The name of the book is Project Keepsake.”
  • BUG A BOOKSTORE EMPLOYEE—Don’t look for your friend’s book. Go to the bookstore clerk and ask him about the book. They will find it in their system and lead you to the book. Your action will cause the bookstore employees to take notice of your friend’s title, and who knows? One of the employees may select it for their “Pick of the Month.”
  • FACE THE BOOK OUT AT BOOKSTORES—When you are at the bookstore, rearrange the books on the  shelf so that your friend’s book faces out. This will help your friend’s book get noticed by passersby.
  • WRITE ONLINE REVIEWS—So many times, if a reader is on the fence about a book, a well-written, positive review will seal the deal. So take five minutes and post great reviews for your friend’s book on online sites at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.
  • BE SEEN WITH YOUR FRIEND’S BOOK—If you have a copy of your friend’s book, carry it around with you sometimes and mention it to friends. Read it at the doctor’s office. Read it at the DMV. Read it at your kid’s soccer practice. Read it on the plane. Make sure that others see your friend’s book.
  • “LIKE” YOUR FRIEND’S FACEBOOK PAGES—The more “likes,” the better because strangers navigating to the Facebook walls will think, “Wow, I need to know more about this author and her book.”
  • SHARE ON SOCIAL MEDIA SITES—Merely “liking” a post is not enough sometimes. When the author mentions the book or an event on Facebook, share the news with your social circles and include a small note about what the book is and why they should buy it. Sharing is an act of endorsing. My friend, Ruth Demeter, shared my post about the book event in Rome with her friends who live in the Rome area. I am appreciative. It’s all about exposure.
  • RESERVE A COPY AT THE LIBRARY—Again, the library employees will take notice of your friend’s book and may order additional copies or suggest it to readers.
  • CONSIDER SHARING EVENTS—If you are also a writer, consider sharing an event with another writer. I have shared my events with other writers/authors, when applicable. And I recently shared a fifteen-minute radio spot with another writer. I still had plenty of time to promote my book, and quite frankly, I think that including her made the radio spot more interesting. Two of my writer friends, Janie Dempsey Watts and Renea Winchester, have recently asked me to partner with them at upcoming events. I’m thrilled. It doubles the event’s exposure, splits the costs, and it’s fun to enjoy the ride with people I adore.
  • BE ENCOURAGING—Being kind and encouraging is just what friends do. Ask your friend about her events. Ask how book sales are going. Ask if there is anything you can do to help promote your friend’s book. And then, just listen. Sometimes, new authors just need to know that their friends care.

Common Grammatical Mistakes

Back in the day of middle school and high school, I was one of those English class weirdos who loved to diagram sentences.  I enjoyed the challenge of placing the words in their correct positions of fishbone diagrams.

But I wasn’t as interested in verb conjugation, advanced grammar, word meaning, or placement, and so today, as a writer, I have to pay close attention to certain elements during the editing process.  I often look-up the rules on Google or in my Holt Grammar and Punctuation Handbook just to make sure I am using a word correctly.  Below, I’ve posted five usages I always check or think about.

Lay or Lie
The word, lay, is a transitive verb and requires a direct subject and an object. Its present tense is lay (e.g., I lay my manuscript on the coffee table) and its past tense is laid (e.g., Yesterday, I laid my manuscript on the coffee table). In these examples, manuscript is the object of lay.  But the word, lie, is an intransitive verb, meaning that it doesn’t need an object. Its present tense is lie (e.g., The Etowah River lies between Cartersville and Atlanta) and its past tense is lay (e.g., The little boy lay on a blanket on the floor).  See?  No object.  That’s how you can keep this rule straight in your mind.

Peak, Peek, or Pique
Peak is a noun meaning summit (e.g., We hiked to the peak of the mountain), peek is a verb meaning to take a look at something (e.g., I peeked over the edge of the cliff), and pique is a transitive verb meaning to provoke or arouse (e.g., The Kilimanjaro brochure piqued my interest).

Farther or Further
The word, farther, implies physical distance (e.g., I ran one mile farther today than I did yesterday). Further refers to abstract lengths you can’t always measure. (e.g., The fuzzy region of the mammogram image caused further concern for the doctor.)  So how do I remember his one?  Just think of the words far (referring to distance) and furthermore (which has nothing to do with physical distance).

Affect or Effect
The word, affect, is usually used as a verb in a sentence (e.g., The medicine affects his appetite), and effect is usually used as a noun (e.g., The medicine’s effect caused him to lose his appetite). There are some rare exceptions.

Who or Whom
Using who or whom depends on whether you’re referring to the sentence’s subject or object. Who is used when it refers to a subject (e.g., Audrey, who had two children in college, helped students apply for scholarships). Audrey is the subject of the sentence and so who is the obvious word to refer to AudreyWhom is used when it references the object (e.g., Audrey helped whom?)  An easy way to remember this rule is to simply replace who with he, she, or they (or replace whom with him, her, or them) and see if the sentence still makes sense.