Monday, December 21, 2009

Thank you Rainbow Reviews.

TITLE: Sappho Sings
AUTHOR: Peggy Ullman Bell
ISBN: 1438214316
PUBLISHER: CreateSpace
Review by ErinSchmidt

Note from reviewer:

I rarely give a novel five stars, but I was tremendously impressed with the quality of storytelling in Sappho Sings, a fictionalized biography of the ancient Greek poet by Peggy Ullman Bell. Whether or not you are familiar with Sappho's timeless verse, this book brings history to life, and is a rollicking good romance as well!

Here Sappho Sings in her own words. Ancient phrases become the warp and weave of an intricate tapestry so delicately woven it becomes impossible to distinguish the imported threads from the weaver's own. Readers familiar with the myriad translations of the few fragmented lines of Sappho's work left available to us may recognize a word here or a conjunct there but, as one renowned expert in antiquities discovered, the author has herself become the voice of The Poetess to the extent that invented passages read like newly discovered wonders from the past.

Meticulously researched, expertly conceived, and beautifully written, Sappho Sings is a rich, poetic feast of a novel. Following the famous, and famously passionate, lady of Lesbos through her riches-to-rags-to-riches story, the novel chronicles Sappho's bitter disappointments, artistic and personal triumphs and, above all, her burning desire to be loved.

Sappho ~ or Psappha, as she would have been known in her native Aeolian dialect ~ first felt the arrow of Eros as a young woman, looking at the lithe, golden-haired dancer Atthis. Betrothed, she wondered if she could ever feel the same way about her intended, and fellow poet, Alkaios. A storm at sea separates Psappha and Alkaios, though this tragedy leads her to an unexpected marriage, a beloved daughter ... and the love of her life. Although she takes both female and male lovers, Psappha's soul mate is the lovely African warrior-woman Gongyla. When Atthis dances back into her life, Psappha is left with a heart-rending choice to make.

Sappho Sings is an excellent and bittersweet love story. Fans of Margaret Doody's "Aristotle Detective" series will appreciate Ullman Bell's blend of ancient Greek history, thrilling story, and biting wit. Ullman Bell skillfully weaves bits of the surviving fragments of Sappho's poetry into her narrative, too.

One warning, though: reading Sappho Sings will send you scurrying to the bookstore for Sappho's poems.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Castle Age

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time playing the FaceBook game Castle Age and I’ve had the honor of being included in a wonderful exclusive group of dedicated dragon slayers one of whom is a marvelous artist named Mike Tanis. His amazing rendering of my dragon slaying character Psappha [of course] is a mere sampling of his work.


Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Blogger News Net Review of SAPPHO SINGS

Out of a mere handful of facts known about the life of a lyric poet so famous in her lifetime (or shortly after it) that she was known as the 10th Muse and from the bare thousand or so lines left to us out of nine volumes of collected works, Peggy Ullman Bell has distilled an appropriately lyrical novel of the life of the woman known as The Poetess (as Homer was known simply as The Poet). more

Friday, June 19, 2009

Another great review of SAPPHO SINGS

Sappho Sings. And so does Peggy Ullman Bell in her lyrical, painstakingly researched, emotionally involving novel about the Poetess of Lesbos.

Will Durant in his "Life of Greece" is quoted as saying that Sappho "called herself Psappha, in her soft Aeolian accent" and Psappha is the name by which she is known through this wondrous novel. Because the title uses the more familiar name, that is the name I shall use.

Many people have heard the name of Sappho but not many know who she was, what she did, or what she was famous for. There is, however, a sadly amusing idea in certain quarters that Sappho was "the founder of Lesbians," to quote someone of my acquaintance. (I didn't know Lesbians were "founded" but I guess that's a different issue.) At any rate, she is associated in modern thought with Lesbians (in the sexual sense, that is, not as in "citizens of Lesbos") and nothing else. Many people don't even know that the Island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, actually exists and is not some mythic legend like Atlantis. I did actually know it existed, but that's the extent of what I knew until I read Sappho Sings.

Though Sappho was a prolific writer of poetry only a few original fragments of her work remain in existence, and it is with these fragments that Bell weaves the mesmerizing tale of an accomplished, passionate woman as real and flawed as any woman alive today.

Bell's vision of Sappho begins with her as a fatherless, feisty teenage girl, small in stature but a lion in spirit, who defies a tyrant and pays for it by being banished from her beloved island home and the adored little brother whose birth took her mother's life. On the miserable journey from Lesbos to Syracuse, Sappho loses her lifelong friend and betrothed, Alkaios, in a storm. She is rescued and "captured"--at least that's her view of it--by Kerkolos, a sea-going, wealthy merchant, who takes her to his home in Syracuse.
He treats her with utmost respect that eventually calms her fears of becoming a slave or concubine, and his gentle ways, so at odds with his appearance, win her over to friendship. They wed, and Sappho gives birth to his daughter. She feels great fondness for him, if not passion, and is grief-stricken and frightened when she finds herself suddenly widowed and at the mercy of her truly horrible mother-in-law.

Eventually Sappho initiated in the rites of the Sisterhood of Iphis and discovers that, though she is capable of physical passion with men, her heart is taken by women. The cast is large; some of the names are vaguely familiar from Ancient History in High School many years ago. I didn't find them very interesting back then. Now they certainly are!

The characters are unforgettable, especially Praxinoa, the nurse and lifelong friend; Lycos, the elegant and somewhat effeminate man whose loving friendship also lasts throughout the book, and the tall, Nubian queen, Gongyla, the love of Sappho's life, a woman who sold herself into slavery to save her people from a similar fate. I will never forget these people who have been my companions for many days.

Bell's knowledge of society and of place seems encyclopedic and yet not overwhelming. The language is just archaic enough in structure that it keeps you grounded in the ancient world but not enough so that it seems overdone. Names are pronounced in footnotes, which is very helpful. Sappho Sings is also the most sensuous book I have ever read: the lush descriptions of place, the elegantly expressed passion of depicted intimacy are poetic without crossing the line into the ludicrous, as sometimes happens when less gifted authors attempt it.

It is simply a wonderful book. It is not a quick and easy read, and it's certainly not a genre romance although love of many kinds permeates the pages. Part of that is the author's love of her subject.

This book should be winning awards. I can't recommend it highly enough.

--Ruth Sims, author of The Phoenix

Monday, June 15, 2009

New review of SAPPHO SINGS

Meticulously researched, expertly conceived, and beautifully written, Sappho Sings is a rich, poetic feast of a novel. Following the famous, and famously passionate, lady of Lesbos through her riches-to-rags-to-riches story, the novel chronicles Sappho's bitter disappointments, artistic and personal triumphs and, above all, her burning desire to be loved. more

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sappho speaks.

My name is Psappha. [suh-fah] Men of Athens dubbed me “Sappho Masculo”. Perhaps they thought that saying I wrote like a man would flatter me. It didn’t. I am proud of who I am. I am Psappha; The Poetess; The Lesbian and I intend to be remembered.

I am not Lesbian, you say. Is it because I lived so long in Syracuse? Or, is it because in modern usage you think my Lesbian citizenship does not qualify me for the term? Is it because I had a husband? How does that matter? I am who I was born. A Lesbian; a poet.

Have you not heard of my Kerkolos? Dare you think I did not come to love him well? I may have married him because I had no choice but I learned to love him for himself. Had I not done so, I would be less than I am and my name would have died before me.

I am Psappha. I was born at Eresus on the isle of Lesbos. My husband came from Andros. A beautiful man he was. As lovely in his way as any of the delicate girls who flocked to me for lessons in music, dance and words; all that my humble gift could teach them. His was a different beauty than that of tender Gyrinna.  Different but no less wonderful, no less pure. I was devastated when I lost him while our daughter was so young.

No true Lesbian can love a man, you insist. What can you know of another woman’s heart? Will you stand before me and my life’s blood, Gongyla when we meet on Olympus and say to me, “You are no true Lesbian”? Will you dare?

Love and a kind heart toward my spouse lessened not the ardor aroused in me when my glance fell upon electrum-haired Atthis; nor the sadness of our parting. Nor did it tarnish the glory that was my soul-shattering union with  my perfect Amazon.

Often in my life Love, the limb-loosener  enflamed my heart toward a velvet-curved woman. But, my love for them took nothing from my daughter’s father. He understood that I needed something more than ‘broidery to fill the months while he sailed the seas.

The gods are generous with their gift of love. They give us all we need and more. The love of a mother for her child. The love of a child for its mother. The love of a man or the love of a woman for a kindred soul. None are the same yet none is diminished by the existence of the others. Rather, each is magnified. Love transcends all earthly values. Its magic is that the more you give away, the more there is to give.

Remember when you decide what a person is or is not that spirit has no gender and love is a thing of sacred spirit. The married homophile you reject today will be some woman’s lover on the morrow. Why should she not be yours?

                                      Sappho Sings Cover

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I love to watch the morning.

Here in south-west Florida, there’s a small man-made lake right behind our apartment. I love to sit on the balcony and watch the goings on.

At night there are lights in other apartments that make one wonder what’s going on inside. But at 5AM there’s only me, my coffee, my cats and golden spots reflected on the water from the street lights by the gate half an acre away.

This morning, there was rain so fine it barely made dents on the surface of the water. Here and there large circles shimmered as fish rose to capture skimmers. In the distance, soft lightning flashed across the horizon too distant to hear the rumble. An odd, thin necked, long bodied critter swam across the pond in the pre-dawn stillness; seen only in silhouette. I presumed it was a turtle out to rid the world of a few surplus bugs.

The sky brightened and a couple of dozen birds awoke to sing welcome to the sun. Pink clouds floated across the eastern sky. The odd critter turned out to be a pale gray duck trailed by seven ducklings. I had to smile as she herded them into the reeds below our balcony. The morning felt all warm and fuzzy as they played their duckling version of hide-and-seek. Then, with what seemed to be no signal they crowded around their mother and the little family swam away on a single long tight line. Moments later, I saw her lead them from the pond into the hedges at the end of another building.

At 6:55 sharp, the fountain in the pond came on to shoot water 40 feet straight up. A car horn honked elsewhere in the complex and I came inside to make my bed and wash last night’s supper dishes. My day had officially begun.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Review of SAPPHO SINGS by Linda B.

Excerpt from Sappho Sings:
Oh,sweet Melpomymnia gentle-hearted muse of sorrow, why can't I cry? Where are your tears now, dear muse, tears that flowed so freely for a fool? I loved her more than gods allow and now I've driven her away. What bitter gall remains of the horror I bestowed upon her leaving. Such bitter webs deception weaves. My eyes are dry and barren. Grief and guilt have imprisoned my tears. My soul retches, but my eyes cannot spew it forth. Life still flowed warmly in her veins. She was loath to waste a moment of it.”
           Beautifully written, the text of this book could be put to music. Fall back into ancient times and walk with Psappha through the marketplace. You will smell the aroma of the spices, the rotting fish, and sense everything around her.
          Psappha's story starts out as one of a life of many losses and circumstances over which she has no control. Losing her father, mother, home, freedom, forced to leave her homeland, and travel beneath her status, Psapha maintains a strong fortitude. As she grows older and wiser she gains fame and power, but also suffers betrayals. She drifts through her life of friends and lovers and at the end I could only be reminded of the words of Solomon, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"
             Sit outside on a beautiful day with a gentle breeze and read Sappho Sings.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Eight Ways to Conjure Your Writing Genie [author anonymous]

1. Shake off "Impostor Syndrome"

Everyone communicates, and a lot of people write, but few people dare to call themselves "writers". If you feel like an impostor, take a deep breath and remind yourself of your unique purpose and how important it is. Or take on a fictional persona and write through that mask.

2. Conjure Your True Voice

If you're at a loss for words, try meeting a friend for tea and talking your way through the material, or even talking out loud to yourself. Your spoken words might not be publishable, but once you've got 'em down on paper, you can edit to your heart's content.

3. Write it as a Letter

Submitting written work can be scary--especially if it's going to be read by The Powers That Be. But you don't have to think about those Powers when you're writing; in fact, it's probably better not to pay them any mind until the last few editing stages, after you've already squeezed out every last idea and captured it on paper. So when you're still writing, why not imagine you're writing a letter telling your closest confidante about your project? Try starting your work "Dear ____", and you might tap into a fountain of lovely, loose conversational prose.

4. Detach Your Ego

If stage fright derives from fear--the fear that if the work fails, we fail--we need to disconnect ourselves from the work. When I play pool, I don't care if I win or lose, because I'm not A Pool Person--but beat me on the air hockey table and I'll be grumpy, because I'm invested in the game. Realize that people reading your work are just as self-centered and will most likely not draw any permanent conclusions about you from your work.

5. Plunge Into the Scary Parts

What are you afraid of? Spelling poorly? Weak transitions? Well, go ahead and deliberately spell every word incorrectly, write without transitions, don't use any punctuation--do everything you're not supposed to do, and have fun doing it! Draw caricatures of your writing demons, put the dreaded failure behind you, and move on.

6. Lower Your Standards

There's really no reason to worry about editors, teachers, critics, bosses, and what they think until the last stage of revising. Until that time, indulge yourself. Don't correct anything; write in slang; write 3 pages in 15 minutes; leave notes to yourself, like ADD DETAILS HERE or FIX THIS LATER, throughout your work--anything that makes it easier to write.

7. Sidestep What Blocks You

Don't let one part of your writing stump you for long. If it's bugging you, just skip it and move on to an easier, more appealing task. If the introduction isn't coming, jump right to paragraph two, or page 23. If you can't think of anything to say in one section, just skip merrily along to the next part and let your unconscious work on the hard stuff for a while.

8. Stop When You're On a Roll

When writing is a struggle, you'll naturally want to stop. But if you do, you're rewarding yourself for not writing. Try sticking with it--and then quit when you're on a roll, so that next time you'll be eager to return to the work. Or start writing when you know you have to do something else in 45 minutes--as soon as the pressure's off, as soon as you say "well, I know I won't get anything done in this little bit of time" you're free to let your creative juices flow. Waves of inspiration will come and go; the trick is scheduling your work to take full advantage of the tides.

Dream Novel

A subject anyone could find exciting,

written in a voice that matters, &

a plot that keeps you spinning

all the way to the end.

                                Anne Hawkins

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Review: The Gnostic Mystery © 2009 by Randy Davila

Mystery cover 

(Hieraphant Publishing, San Antonio, TX USA)

The Gnostic Mystery is an intriguing tale that challenges the long-held beliefs of millions on all sides of the Middle East conflict.

I thought it unfortunate that the strong first paragraph is followed by some confusion as to whether this was to be a new meeting or reunion between protagonist Jack Stanton, and Professor Chloe Eisenberg. I did not feel that the flashback literary device worked well as an opening for this novel. Nevertheless, the technique caused no discomfort as the story progressed.

Although presented as fiction, The Gnostic Mystery reads as well documented fact complete with an extensive bibliography. Some readers will be shocked and confused by the concepts presented. The profoundly devout, may slam the book down mid-sentence or throw it at a wall. While others will devour every word with enthusiasm and appreciate it for the fine example of the Socratic Method that it is.

I recommend The Gnostic Mystery to those last without reservation, and I look forward to Devila's next.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Sappho (fl. c. 610-c.580 B.C.)

Greek poetess, who lived on the island of Lesbos. Sappho is the most famous female poet of antiquity, but only incomplete poems and fragments remain of her work. Most of Sappho's love poems were addressed to women. The Greek philosopher Plato called her the tenth Muse. more

Friday, May 15, 2009

Q: Do I need an agent to sell my book proposal?

A: It depends.
This is almost like me asking you if I need a realtor to sell my house. Okay, in light of the current housing market, that might not be a very nice parallel. But then again, a quick look at the publishing industry might make that comparison even more apt. But back to the question and topic.
In the "old days" of publishing, let's say prior to 1990, there was a common publishing phrase that referred to an unsolicited manuscript that was sent to a publisher as something that "came in over the transom." (A transom is literally a hinged window over a door. Think of the book return slot at a library.) In other words, a writer sent in his or her manuscript to a mail drop, which then ended up in one of several 4-foot high stacks in a junior editor's office, and which after six or seven months of collecting dust was either rejected with a form letter - or voila, it got discovered and published. One way many publishing companies handled submissions that came over the transom was to hire college interns to sift through hundreds or thousands of manuscripts over summer break and separate the winners from the losers. More

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The one not here

I lost him long ago although it was thirty-three years later that he died.  He was the sweetest of my sons until his baby brother came.  A quiet child with soft blue eyes as gentle as his soul.  Those eyes, his glance could melt any mother's heart no matter what mischief he got into and he got into plenty though nothing beyond naughty.  At least nothing I caught him at.
All that ended when his first mistress entered his life.  Her name was marajuana followed closely by cocaine and my precious boy was gone.  Lost to me forever although he never ventured very far geographically.  A few blocks, a few miles - infinity - unreachable - never mine again although I always knew he loved me in his own peculiar way.
He shook off the worst of the drugs I think, eventually, but my sweet, gentle boy was gone.  Gone from all of us who loved him though we saw him off and on.  And then, nineteen days after he turned fifty he was killed but for me my precious Johnny'd been long gone.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Tipping Point has finally arrived for the publishing industry…

While the internet has savaged the newspaper and recorded industries, it has had much less impact on the book business. But in 2009, one big thing and many little things in new media have conspired to bring traditional publishing to boiling point. Write... Read more at Independent »

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Pros & Cons on Using Voice Recognition Software

As it is with everything else in this world, there are pros and cons - a double-edged sword to everything one uses. Here are some ups and downs in using Voice Recognition Software.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Review: A Dance in Time by Orna Ross

ISBN:978-1-944-88053-9 (Penguin Ireland, 2008)


An epic biography of figures famous and familiar woven into an autobiography of a mother written with "corrective" footnotes added by a disrespectful daughter.  Wonderful in its reality, A Dance in Time is chock full of characters you'll love and some you'll hate but not a single one who is not vibrant and alive.

But [then] Dolores dies.

I found the opening scene astonishing due to real life reflection complete with my [used to be] strawberry hair and my daughter's maddening "talk to the hand" attitude.  The book never read like fiction.  It held me fully in it from start to startling finish.

Monday, April 06, 2009

toward or towards - that is the question

Which is it?  Toward or towards?  Both are considered correct. They are often considered interchangeable, but are they?  According to the pundits, toward is more common in American English whereas towards is preferred in Britain.

Main Entry:
          Listen to the pronunciation of 1toward 
          Listen to the pronunciation of 1toward
\ˈtō-ərd, ˈtȯ(-ə)rd\
Middle English toward, from Old English tōweard facing, imminent, from tō, preposition, to + -weard -ward
before 12th century

1also to·wards 
          Listen to the pronunciation of towards 
          Listen to the pronunciation of towards \ˈtō-ərdz, ˈtȯ(-ə)rdz\ [Middle English towardes, from Old English tōweardes, preposition, toward, from tōweard, adjective] a: coming soon : imminent b: happening at the moment : afoot

Personally, towards makes me cringe.  To me, it seems too weird.  How do y'all feel about it?

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Sometimes the only way to liven your prose is to hit the delete key hard and often.

The first step is to highlight all of your PET phrases and paragraphs.  You know which ones.  The ones that made you pause and thing, "Wow, what a great writer I am.  You may need to delete them.  Not because they are not good, but because they are often beautifully written author intrusion.

How many characters do you have?  How many do you need?  How many wonderful scenes can you give to a single character to eliminate two or three "walk-ons"?  Too many characters, no matter how fascinating and well-defined, can bog down your story.  Save some of them for another book.  You do plan to write more, don't you?

Although an excellent tool for description and dialog, adverbs in exposition are the death of active fiction.  Shakespeare might have said, "Out damned adverb," before rewriting it to "Out damned spot."  Before I cut over 40,000 words from my book in progress, I used the following sentences. #1 In the kitchen, Melissa giggled softly.  Revised, it reads - Melissa giggled.  #2 "Daylight then," Kathin conceded firmly.  "You can finish it after your morning chores are done.  Now, get upstairs."  I think it is obvious from the dialog that she was being firm.  Or, at least I thought so after I forced myself to delete over 4000 adverbs from the manuscript.

Deleting hurts.  I know.  Deleting words and sentences you've slaved over is excruciating, but if I can do it so can you.  Whether I ended up with better novels will be decided by you, the reading public.  Meanwhile, I have concise drafts that interest the dickens out of me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts on Accuracy in Historical Fiction from Guest Author Lynne Connolly

I have found that whenever I try to discuss historical accuracy in historical
fiction, especially in historical romance, the same responses pop up. So
much so that I'm getting bored with them and tempted to wave my hand, sigh
and say "Whatever."

1. "It's only fiction." That response trashes the nature of the novel
and the nature of fiction. It tends to show that the responder is either
parroting the response he or she has heard elsewhere or really doesn't
know what the novel is, or what fiction means. The novel is a highly
artificial construct made of several recognizable features. I think
every author should at least know that, or come to realize it as s/he
writes. But sometimes they don't. Fiction, similarly, doesn't mean you
can make up what the hell you like, it is again a recognizable construct
and bounded by understandings. If a writer has something they want to
bring to that, and the example that springs to mind is Truman Capote's
"In Cold Blood," then they are at liberty to do so, but it's nice if,
like Capote, they know exactly what they're doing and why they want to
do it. Even better if they can explain to a room full of academics, who,
in this case, are the gatekeepers.

2. "The story comes first." Hell, yes, of course it does, but that isn't
a reason to traduce history in the telling of it. Just incorporate the
real stuff or call it fantasy. There are some superb fantasies that take
a medieval world as its base ("Lord of the Rings" anyone?) but also
introduce other ideas. Just don't call it history if it isn't.

Alternative history, like "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" is also an
exciting way to go.

3. "The readers don't care." Demonstrably, they do. You can sell
humongous numbers of historical romance that have very little relation
to the era they claim to be set in and get away with it, but I firmly
believe that was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the
historical romance genre a few years ago. The readers moved away from
the paper-thin walls towards the paranormal romances, many of which take
the same construct (putting made-up characters into a recognizable
world) and make it more real seeming.

4. "You can have a success without fussing too much about the history."
Yes, you can, but that, IMO, is short-changing the readers. Even if they
don't know, many can sense it's not right because the setting isn't
fully depicted, or they sense something about a character. And you're
limiting your readership. Publishers think in the relatively short-term,
they don't care if a writer only has a few years' success and then fades
away because there are plenty more waiting. And if you have respect for
yourself and your integrity as a writer, then you'll take more care.

5. "I want to read a novel, not a text book." As if making lists and
over-description aren't symptomatic of bad writing in any genre. This
one exasperates me, because no good historical fiction writer would
dream of overwhelming the reader with facts and details. When you write
a novel, it's like the tip of the iceberg. You put in what you need to
put in, but you need the confidence and the knowledge to put it in and
not to insert the wrong thing. You need to know all these facts if you
want to create a living, breathing character in a vivid background. Your
reader doesn't. I don't read SF romance for the details of how a
spaceship works, I read it for the story, but if the writer has an
inconsistent world, I won't bother reading further.


*Lynne Connolly, author of Dark and Provocative Romance
A murder... A lord's desire...and her quiet, respectable life is gone
Tantalizing Secrets from Samhain Publishing
<http://samhainpubli romance/tantaliz ing-secrets>
*_*http://www.lynnecon TantalizingSecre ts.html*_

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Top 25 Literary Influences

Today I was challenged by my friend Marvin Wilson, author of I Romanced the Stone to list my top 25 Literary influences as he did this morning on his Free Spirit blog. So, here goes, Y'all. From last to first.

25. Margaret Atwood

24. Sarah Waters

23. Radclyffe Hall

22. Sylvia Plath

21. Patricia Matthews

20. Kathleen Windsor

19. Gustave Flaubert

18. Anya Seton

17. Marion Zimmer Bradley

16. Betty Smith

15. Leon Uris

14. Anita Diamant

13. Maya Angelou

12. Alix Olson

11. Anne McCaffrey

10. Robert Jordon

09. Margaret Walker

08. Rita Mae Brown

07. John Steinbeck

06. Frank G. Slaughter

05. Samuel Schellabarger

04. Lawrence Schoonover

03. Pearl Buck

02. Mary Renault

01. Sappho

Your turn.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Learn something from the Construction Industry by Guest blogger Phoenix Alexander, MFA, PhD

     Writing a publishable manuscript is akin to building a successful commercial building. Both require good, aesthetically pleasing or satisfying design, sound structure, and quality materials that are well crafted to create settings suitable for the people who will use them and attractive to those who visit. Both must be well planned—no rooms without doorways or stairways to nowhere, with utilities conveniently placed. Signage, lighting and transit patterns must be clear enough to help folks get where they are going without stumbling. And both need inspectors to ensure everything is in place before they are ready to present to the market.
Too often writers let the analogy stop there. Writing a manuscript and "hoping for the best"—not knowing the intended readership or a way of getting it to market—is like a real estate developer building a commercial building without having leases signed and tenants ready to move in. Both are costly mistakes. When they finally find agents willing to represent them, they will be at the mercy of some pretty unattractive deals just to move a piece of property that has cost them to create.
You’ve heard the phrase “learn the craft” and assumed it meant learning the mechanics of writing—like the trade work on our commercial building. But successful writers who are more than “one-hit wonders”—the Micheners and the Pattersons—think more like the building’s developers. Before they build, successful developers study the neighborhood, learn which tenants will attract the widest range of visitors and bring in the most revenue, learn who the agents are who specialize in those tenants, keep tabs on the hottest architects, maybe assemble a focus group to review the design, and learn where to get the best tradesmen at the best cost, all ahead of time. They read trade magazines, network, and regularly update voluminous address books, so that by the time they conceive the next project, they know whom to approach for money or talent and what their “hot buttons” are.
     Most importantly, while developers may favor certain projects over others, THEY DO NOT CONFUSE THEM WITH THEIR CHILDREN. If inspections indicate needed changes in the project, they sign the change orders. In short, they deal with it as a business.
     I’m assuming here that you actually want to make money with your writing. If you’re a traditional type and don’t mind waiting a long time—a year or so in many cases—to see yourself in print, camp out in the library and check out the annual Writer’s Market series, which will tell you who is buying and publishing what, what their requirements are, and how much and when they pay—in short, how “the deal” is structured. Understand that payment upon publication is typical for magazines, and since it may take a magazine publisher three or four months to evaluate your work as a first-timer and another six after acceptance before the work hits the news stands, it can be a long time before you see any money from it.
     For books, the situation is worse, especially if you don’t have an agent. Sorry. The Writer’s Market series also includes a Guide to Literary Agents, and read all instructions carefully. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO BANG A SQUARE PEG INTO A ROUND HOLE. IT ONLY "PISSES OFF" THE HOLE.
     If you’re more adventurous, consider exploring alternative routes to publication, especially when you’re starting out—blogging, self-publishing, print-on-demand, graphic novels, even distributing stories by cell phone. Check out online newsletters (such as Your Publishing Poynters Newsletter, a freebie) to keep up with changes in the industry. In short, do your homework, and don’t be taken by surprise. Know that you WILL make mistakes, you WILL fail, and you WILL be taken advantage of at some point by someone. It’s part of the learning process. Just don’t let it shut you down.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

When is it too late to start writing?

That was the question posted recently to a writers' email group.

I think a better question might be "Is it ever too late to stop learning to write?" We learn by writing. We learn by reading. And, lately I've discovered that I learn most by listening. My son downloaded hundreds of audio books, converted them to MP3s and gifted my [so far] with 30 DVDs full.

After listening my way through the entire Narnia series, ALL of the McCaffrey Pern novels and ALL of Robert Jordon's Wheel of Time I feel much more "ready" to work on my third novel and beyond.

My editor/friend has tried for years to get me to re-read Jordon for help with some of my style issues but after half a lifetime doing research and writing I find myself unable to read anything without mental editing. Listening disallows this and makes novel story structure and novel styles much more evident.

To paraphrase Rita Mae Brown, writing is perhaps the only field of endeavor in which a woman cannot be accused of "sleeping her way to the top." We live or die on the page or should I say we live and die FOR the page. Writing is age at its most irrelevant.

Incidentally, for the record I was 33 when I began my first novel and 68 when a truncated version of the umpteenth draft was published. I began my second novel at 46 and published it at age 70. "My" [and my editor's] preferred version of the first novel was published last year around the time of my 76th birthday. Now, as I contemplate my lucky double 7s year I'm anxious to get back to work on my 3 or 4 book historical epic. Age? Hurrumph! Who cares as long as we're living and learning?

Write on!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Re-Versing "Write what you know."

We've all heard "Write what you know."  I would reverse that and say, "Know what you write."

Many fine men and women have devoted their lives and careers to researching and publishing historical reference material. We owe them our respect, and, as writers of historical fiction, we owe it to ourselves, and our readers to make our stories as accurate as possible.  I do not think writers claiming to write historical fiction should ever scramble recorded history to suit a story.

Does this mean that we cannot adjust the facts to suit our plot? Well, yes -- and no. Most historical novelists have toyed with history for the sake of plot movement. However, the best of us do not do it without considerable thought.

One way to avoid problems with historical events and personages is to write 'between' the facts. Say, for instance, that information about the beginning and the outcome of an event is readily available, but your extensive research turns up nothing about the middle. Does that mean you can do whatever you want with the middle? Pretty much. Just don't kill off anyone known to have been around for the end.

Sometimes all you want is the flavor of an historical era. That is, in its way, harder to deal with than events. For example, how do people care for their clothes? How do they cook their food? How do they handle things like sanitation, disease, birth control, and a thousand other minute details of everyday life?  You won't need to put all of this information in your manuscript but you need to know it. You don't want to have a character using something before it was invented.

For FIXIN' THINGS, I needed to know if flat irons existed in the 19th century. My research of the 18th century proved their existence in that era. Therefore, it's a pretty good bet that my female lead will have one around in the 19th. Of course, setting a novel in 19th century America makes for easy research. So much information is available that knowing when to stop researching and start writing becomes difficult.

So, when is it time to do it? That, too, has a bifurcated answer.  NOW is a good time to start writing the novel, whenever now is, and NEVER is the perfect time to stop researching. I find myself doing additional spot research through multiple rewrites. And, everything I change must be checked for accuracy.

What if your story wants to happen in an unreported era? Then, it becomes essential to research previous times. My novel, SAPPHO SINGS, is set during Greece's dark period. While most of us are at least vaguely familiar with Athens and Sparta in the 4th Century B.C.E., and Homer showed us much of the 10th century B.C.E. but little or nothing has come down to us from the time between. What there was has been systematically destroyed by religious interests. Therefore, in order to make my story as accurate as conscience dictates, I studied what went before. Homer was a starting point.  To that I added the Bible, the Quaran and all the histories of Egypt and Mesopotamia I could get my hands on in those pre-Internet years.

I believe it behooves us, as writers of historical fiction, to spend the time and effort necessary to check and recheck any and all material we use from the past.

   -- or --

leave history strictly alone and write our fictions without the help of research and researchers. We cannot, in all fairness, slough it off. We cannot shrug and say, "It is such a small part of the novel, it doesn't matter." History matters, a lot, to your readers, or they wouldn't be reading your historical novel.

If you have good reason to believe that the situation you want to put a character in could not have happened in the time and place you wish it to, it is you and your character who must adjust--history cannot.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I found a new toy

Ever wish you could find software that would help you organize your creative genius without laying out more than your last advance? Check out yWriter from Spacejock.

yWriter works on the scene level so it doesn't overwhelm by expecting too much of you too soon.

Best of all - IT'S FREE! See for yourself at

Monday, February 09, 2009

"I dunno. I disremembered."

As mentioned in a previous blog [see: When Characters Write Your Book 1/21/09], my fictional characters have a habit of writing much of my work for me. This morning I want to talk about such an incident.

Fifty years ago, while working on a short story for the writers' group I attended, one of my characters said something perfectly suited to the situation using a word I'd never heard before. When asked about an unpleasant episode from his past the boy said, "I dunno. I disremembered."

OK, I might have invented it but for me it was one of those perfect bits of language that dropped into my mind from the ether when only that single concept would convey what was needed. It would not have been enough for him to say he forgot. Forgetting happens to everyone and some things, as with what had happened to this boy are impossible to forget. This boy had managed to "disremember."

Guess I sold that story 'cause I just Googled and discovered that "disremembered" has found its way into a dictionary. However, it's presence in at least the Urban Dictionary does not surprise me since my little story was written in LA and we all know how information spreads from there. I remember inventing jokes while bartending in Hollywood and having them told to me as "new" in Arkansas twenty years later. I must have sold the boy's story and forgotten.

BUT! The dictionaries have it wrong when they say "disremember" and "disremembered" mean the same as "forget" and "forgot". Both "forget" and "forgot" are passive verbs meaning something lost at least temporarily. "Disremember" is an active verb that means "to forget": the deliberate act of putting something out of mind.

How many times have you tried to do that only to discover that the more you tried the more deeply rooted the memory became. And, the more it grew!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Historical fiction or fantasy or all three.

This morning, while perusing Historical novel excerpts on Helium I came across an excerpt purported to be about my beloved hometown of Gettysburg. The author called it alternative history and of course I, being me, did not hesitate to let her know I thought alternative history belonged in the "fantasy" section.

Her approach to The Battle of Gettysburg is interesting despite the errors [eg. Chancellorville instead of Chancellorsville] being a bit off putting. I did however find the notion that Lee and Longstreet "planned" a battle @ Gettysburg more than a little disconcerting. Having grown up with the battlefield as my playground I learned early that Lee had no idea Lincoln would yank command of the Army of the Potomac away from McCellan nor that Meade would immediately bring the army north.

I love historical novels and I have a particular fondness for novels centered upon Gettysburg [as witnessed by my own novel FIXIN' THINGS] but I believe that novelists have a duty to their readers to either keep available facts straight or label their novels fantasy not historical. But then again, that's just my never humble opinion.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Wonderful World

Despite whatever troubles you today we all need to be reminded once in a while what a gift this world of ours really is.

It's all in the message, Babe.

This morning, inspired by my friend Marvin Wilson over at Tie Dyed Tirades I bring you a fabulous young never to be Beat poet named " target="_blank">' target=_blank>Alix Olson. Enjoy!

Friday, February 06, 2009


There are as many ways to plot a story as there are stories.  But, as we all know, some are better than others.  This leads me to what I call Pretzel Plotting (putting the cart before the horse and making the horse like it) 

In a basic Confessions type story, the expected plot is sin, suffer and repent.  But, it makes a much better story if the suffering comes after, rather than before repentance, as in sin, repent, and then suffer anyway.

For example: The protagonist does something deplorable and gets away with it.  Later, plagued by a guilty conscience, she attempts to make things right.  However, in the process of making things right, suppose she tells a series of lies that make her appear guilty of a crime.  Now we have a woman, repentant for her intolerable act, innocent of the crime of which she is accused, but helpless to defend herself without telling the truth about the despicable thing she did.  Sound like a soap opera?  It is.  But, it is also an intriguing plot with lots of possibilities.

Pretzel Plotting is taking the standard plots and turning them on their ear much as many current Historical Romance writers are doing.  I have recently read over a three dozen such novels for research.  In each of them, her own actions catch the protagonist, and she and her antagonist end up married early in the book.  By the end of the novel, they are madly in love.  A Pretzel Plot based on the boy meets girl/boy gets girl dichotomy but twisted into a more interesting shape.  A good example of this is in The Thorn Birds, both protagonists have long since repented for their earlier involvement.  Nevertheless, in the sequel, everyone is suffering from it.

"What if" is the stuff of which Pretzel Plots are made?  What if Hitler had not died?  What if Eisenhower had not halted his forward thrust to let the Russians enter Berlin first?  What if Custer had followed orders?  What if Pickett hadn't?  What if Scarlet had been named Gertrude Hoffhausen?  Or, Sherman had taken a different route?  What if Tiny Tim had won the lottery?  What if Rocky had fixed the fight?  What if Luke's father had never gone over to the Dark Side?

     Pretzel Plots.  Find your story.  Get fully acquainted with your characters.  Put them in a situation.  Then, turn the situation inside out.  Wrap it in and over itself.  Put your characters through the wringer, but make them tumble-dry themselves.


Thursday, February 05, 2009



[Originally written while my husband lived but still relevant]

Have you ever wondered why male authors appear to be more prolific than women?  Historically, they do have more published books.  But, I don't believe that men are the better writers simply because they have more books on the market.  I believe they have more books on the market because most of them have/had some woman to sweep their floors, wash their socks and make sure they took time out to eat.  Some men even have the kind of wife who does everything for them except their thinking.  You know.  They're the wives you read about.  The ones who type one-hundred-and-twenty words a minute.  Now, I want one of those.

A wife who cooks and cleans and types and gives good back rubs should be standard equipment for all potential authors.  I need a wife to do all of the stuff my dear husband, who is retired and home all the time, thinks I should do immediately, if not sooner - just because I'm here.  It doesn't matter that I'm deep into structuring my third novel.  The tomatoes are ripe and have to be scalded and peeled - NOW!  "Sure, dear, find me a wife and she'll do it while I figure out this new character's astrological makeup."

Yesterday, I planned to work on the rewrite of my second novel - but yesterday there were peppers to be pickled.  Right now, our kitchen table has more ripe tomatoes on it than my desk has disks - and BOTH need processing.  Oh, boy, do I need a wife.  My house hasn't had a wife since the last kid left home and I retired.  Well, not really.  My husband retired.  I couldn't retire as a housewife because I never married a house in the first place.  I married a man who cooked, and I raised my kids to either clean it or ignore it.

I did both while they were still around.  And, I wrote umpteen drafts of two novels, on a Remington Standard, in the midst of it.  But, since they grew up and left and I've discovered the joys of virtual cut and paste, I've been writing full time and it is beginning to pay off, in spite of wifely interruptions.The earlier [truncated] version of my work on Sappho entitled PSAPPHA was produced from the draft I wrote in 1969, with five kids under twelve fighting in the background, and released in November 2000.  Now out-of-print you can read the restored, revised, augmented version as SAPPHO SINGS.

My Gettysburg novel, FIXIN' THINGS took 30 years from draft to print, It might have come out years earlier - if I'd only had a wife.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A poem that sings to me.


I found this recently and needed to share it.

30 January 2009
From Muse to Id
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.
My tears are shed as she sings blues,
That dark lady I call my muse.
Colours scheming in vibrant hues,
each time I lay there in my bed.
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.
Ideas float with static clues,
That dark lady I call my muse,
She brings them forth in words to use
In pictures tonal views are read.
That dark lady I call my muse,
Angel of art inside my head.

She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.
In thought, imagination’s trip
She holds me tight in vice like grip,
from her chalice I gently sip,
at first it all seems double Dutch
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.
As words and art  meet my pen tip
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
she guides the words that form on lip,
the ink on paper now my crutch
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
yet tender is her sultry touch.

That dark lady I call my muse,
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
Eases the way that I confuse,
That dark lady I call my muse.
Images once lost, now diffuse
and on paper they swiftly slip
That dark lady I call my muse,
She holds me tight in vice-like grip,
no longer words can I excuse,
That dark lady I call my muse,
As I dwell in fantasies views
I see I’m now her fingertip,
The dark lady I called my muse,
I hold me tight in vice-like grip.

© Jem Farmer 2008, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Sometimes a character you intended as a walk-on will walk away with your heart.  That was what happened to me when writing SAPPHO SINGS.  I introduced Gongyla so well she would have taken over the book had I let her.  But the book wasn't about Gongyla.  The book is about Psappha, as the divine Sappho called herself.  Psappha was a real woman, a famous poet, an inventor of language and meter, quoted by Masters of Greek Grammar and Literature centuries after her death for her perfection of style and form.  It was my joy to put her words back into her thoughts and dialog.  She was the focus of my Muse for more than forty years.

Nevertheless, Gongyla refused to leave my imagination and in doing so she stole Psappha's heart as well.  The name was taken from an almost complete poem of Sappho's.  A lovely piece that survived through the ages to grace our modern world.

But, like many times during the book's creation, I didn't start out to talk about Gongyla today.  I wanted to talk about characterization tools.  My favorite and most useful is to discover pictures of my characters in magazines (usually by accident) then frame them so that they look down from my office walls as I write.  First,  the irrepressible Gongyla as portrayed for me by Roanne Nesbit

Gongyla_smallAnd the lovely unknown who served as model for Psappha


(page clipped from New Woman magazine's February 1972) 

Monday, January 19, 2009

To Librarians With Love

Previously, I wrote about the ethics of attempting to write historical fiction using shoddy research and I could almost hear some of you saying, "That's easy for her to say. She probably lives within walking distance of some huge library."  Right?  Wrong.
The bulk of my research was done when I lived 9 miles from the nearest town and 11 miles from the nearest library, when Bill Gates was still in diapers. And I have never had a driver's license.
What I did have was an enthusiastic librarian who taught me about the wonders of Inter-Library Loan. Through ILL, one can get just about any book from nearly anywhere, and sometimes half the fun is seeing where the books come from. I once borrowed a book on Feminist Witchcraft from a library in Yazoo, Mississippi.  Who'd a thunk it?
To use ILL effectively, you must first familiarize yourself with some reference tools. Specifically, a series of volumes titled BOOKS IN PRINT. Admittedly, to find what you need you often have to search the library's storage area for out of print volumes of Books in Print. Take a feather duster with you and do the librarian a favor while you're there. Sometimes, you may have to dig through several decades of dust to find exactly the title you need. However, I believe that, no matter what you want to find out, someone has put it in a book at some time or other. If not, it's time to write your own.
That's where my enthusiastic librarian came in. Although I could get to the library only on weekends when my husband came home from work, she searched the archives all week, and sent queries along with books she was returning. She requested books she thought I might be interested in without my asking and, every time I got to talk with her, she had a list of possible sources ready for me.
Another surprising thing is that I was sometimes able to study precious reference tomes that had to be read in the library because they were not available for public loan. This is an often-overlooked advantage to ILL. Once, when she obtained an extremely old and fragile volume on a limited loan, she personally hand-copied many pages for me because I was unable to stay at the library long enough to do it myself.
Remember, these were the times before copy machines reached small town America. Naturally, not every librarian would have the time to do all of that, no matter how enthusiastic they might be about a project. However, most of those I have worked with have been extremely supportive and generous with their time.
Librarians, with or without a Library Science degree, are an invaluable asset to the serious researcher. In fact, I have found that the smaller the library, the larger the heart of the librarian and the greater their enthusiasm for the written word.

Blessed be librarians one and all.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

So tired my tired's tired

Ever move on almost no notice?  Rough, isn't it?  My daughter got 10 days notice to report to her new job in another state.  Talk about rush!  Sweetlings, if you've never done it you just don't know.

My youngest called last night and asked if I had all the boxes unpacked.  Jeesh! Can you imagine the gall?  I arrived here Saturday after a marathon of packing, shuffling, loading and unloading and he wants to know if everything's unpacked by Tuesday night.  Wow!  And HE complains about HIS back.  Get real, pup, the old beotch may be great but supermom she ain't.

He knows how much got left behind [it was "old"] We had to spend Sunday shopping for beds and all that goes with them. Plus other stuff.  We're grrls ya know. Then there's cable, computers and phones to set up, email to catch up on, friends to call and update. All unpacked indeed!

You never know how much financial minitue you deal with every day until you have to transfer everything.  How did we ever manage before the web and 800 #s?  That stuff alone took me from 5 to 9 this morning. Unpacking can wait. Shoot fire, pup, my bed won't be delivered 'til tomorrow and a camp cot's danged narrow.  Would be poor sleeping even if I wasn't sharing it with a fat calico cat.

I should get off this computer now - oops, it's almost noon. The boxes can wait. My soaps start in 5 minutes.

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