Friday, March 11, 2011

Used To Could

A friend who recently read my novel, Under The Mercy Trees, laughed at the part where I have my character Bertie describe the place she got married: “in front of this porch, by the steps where a butterfly bush used to be.” My friend, who is from the north (bless his heart) said that only in the south would people describe things in terms of what is no longer there, as in, “turn left at the house that used to be orange.”
I wonder if it really is just a southern thing, this need to reference things lost. Or if it’s a trait shared by cultures who have experienced a military occupation. Or if all humans do it, just because our supposedly advanced brains let us remember and yearn for things.
If all parties involved remember the same thing, references to what used to be make perfect sense. When I give directions to my law office the first question I ask is, “do you know where Max’s Deli used to be?” Max’s Deli closed years ago but no other restaurant that has rented that space since has lasted more than a few months, so Max’s it is to most people. When my siblings and I visit the Pamlico river where our grandparents lived when we were young, we collectively remember the huge magnolia my mother planted in the yard when she was a girl, and we avert our eyes when we pass the McMansion that now towers where house and tree used to be. Last month I visited my parents in Raleigh and took a walk around the neighborhood where I grew up. As I passed our old house two little boys and their mother were returning home, the youngest one running ahead to be the first to the front door. I said hello to the woman as I passed and almost told her, “this is the house where I used to be.”
I think the only danger in referring to things that no longer exist is that they may never have been real at all. In one of Bertie’s chapters in my novel I write: “As she stepped up to the door she heard them start Are You Lonesome Tonight, a Carter Family song that always called up in her a false memory, sad but sweet, of somebody she had lost, but when she stopped to think who it might have been she realized there never was anybody and she was looking back at nothing.”
Those advanced brains of ours can trick us, making us nostalgic for what never was, keeping our eyes turned backward instead of on the road ahead.

Heather Newton is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011). Visit her website at

Monday, November 15, 2010

What to Wear, What to Read, What to Say

My novel, Under The Mercy Trees, comes out in two months, so it’s time for me to start thinking about upcoming book events.
There is, of course, the question of whether anyone will come to my readings. Remember that line in Spinal Tap? (I’m paraphrasing) “If I told them once I told them a thousand times–it’s Spinal Tap first, then Puppet Show.” Fortunately, the appearances my publisher and I have set up so far are all in cities where I have family and friends, so I don’t have to worry too much about no one showing up.
Then there’s the decision about what to wear. My dad does have a black beret and matching turtleneck I could borrow, but then I’d have to find someone with a bongo drum to accompany me. My mother, who is also a writer, likes to poke gentle fun at lady writers who wear “author clothes”–usually flowy, flouncy skirts and scarves, and the largest dangly earrings their lobes will support. I don’t really own anything suitable and wouldn’t know how to accessorize properly if I did. My wardrobe includes two types of clothing. I wear business suits when I have to look like a lawyer. At all other times I wear ripped jeans and comfortable 100% cotton shirts that don’t touch my body at any point. And fleece. I like fleece. Maybe Santa Claus will bring me an outfit for Christmas that strikes a happy balance between my Boston Legal look and my dug-it-out-of-a-trash-can look. I am grateful for one indispensable item of apparel I recently acquired–my bifocals, without which I wouldn’t be able to read at all.
Then we get to the reading itself. Some people have wonderful reading voices. My Flatiron Writer friend Maggie is one of them. She was an actress before she began writing, and her voice is mesmerizing. In comparison, my own native North Carolinian speech is somewhat nasal and flat. I thought about hiring Maggie to come with me on the book tour. I could take along a screen for her to hide behind, like the Wizard of Oz, and let her read while I move my lips. But I doubt I could afford to pay her what she’s worth. So any of you who come to see me will just have to put up with my lack of dramatic ability. I promise not to go on too long.
The choice of what passages to read will be interesting. Sex scenes are out, I suppose, as are scenes that give away the ending. When I read at a church there’s a handy Baptism chapter I can use. When I go to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (January 27th at 7 p.m.) I can read an excerpt that takes place on the very street the bookstore is on. The rest I’ll have to wing.
The final, and perhaps most challenging, part of the author events will be the audience questions. I have been to many readings in my time, and inevitably someone in the audience asks, “who are your favorite authors” or “what are your favorite books?” Given the zillions of authors and books I love, how will I choose which ones to list? I’ll feel guilty if I leave one out!
Someone asked me this week whether I was nervous about the book events. I’m really not. Are you kidding? Put me in a room with lots of people who love books and let me talk to someone other than my husband about my novel? I can’t wait.

Flatiron Writers member Heather Newton is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (Harper Paperbacks, Jan. 18, 2011). You can find a list of her upcoming book signings and other events on her website at

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Card Carrying Member

I got to do something recently that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I became a real member of The Authors Guild. I had been an “at large” member for a while, because I represent writers as part of my law practice. But I wasn’t eligible to join as a writer member, because the publications that had accepted my stories were all too teeny weeny or not literary enough.
At-large members enjoy plenty of benefits, including access to the Guild’s Model Trade Book which alone is worth the annual dues. So why did I care what kind of member I was?
I’m a plaintiff’s employment lawyer. I have a soft spot in my heart for those who work to produce goods and services. I think it’s a good thing when such folk join together to get what they deserve for the work they do. In my life as an attorney, I’m part of the legal team that represents the state’s largest teachers’ association. I know all the words to “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” and can tell you more than you would ever want to know about the history of May Day and the modern labor movement. You get the picture.
Now that a publisher has accepted my novel, I am an associate member of the Guild. When the book comes out, I will be a “regular” member. I’m proud to carry the card in my wallet, and to have this fine organization advocate for me.
For more information about The Authors Guild, go to
Copyright 2010 by Heather Newton

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest Now Closed

The Flatiron Writers short fiction contest is now closed. Thanks to all who entered! Follow our blog for contest updates. We'll announce winners on our website by April 1, 2010.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Update on the Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest

As of this morning, the Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest has not yet reached its cap of fifty entries and is still open for submissions (see contest rules on the home page). Once we receive fifty entries that meet all eligibility requirements (word count, genre, file type etc.), or reach the December 31, 2009 contest closure date, we will notify the people who are entered in the contest. Thanks to everyone who has sent in a submission to date. We will post any necesseary contest updates on our blog--become a follower!

Friday, November 20, 2009

What’s In A Title? Everything.

When I was pregnant, my husband and I negotiated about what to name our child. He was flexible about boys’ names, but would not budge on the girl’s name. He wanted a little red-haired daughter named Madeleine. He had even had some kind of mystical vision about her, and he would not consider any other name. Our discussions went something like this:
Me: How about Colleen?
Him: Madeleine.
Me: How about Rose?
Him: Madeleine.
Me: How about Kathleen?
Him: Madeleine.
You get the picture. And then when our daughter was born, and she did have red hair despite all the genetic odds, the name Madeleine settled on her as soon as I held her in my arms and I could not imagine her being anyone else.
The right name brings a person to life and allows you to see who they truly are and all the potential stretching out in front of them. The right title does the same for a novel.
For most of the many years it took me to write my novel, its working title was “Looking for Lenny.” I got points for alliteration, but in addition to being uninspiring, the title didn’t accurately tell what the novel was about. Yes, brother Lenny in the story had disappeared, but in truth the novel wasn’t so much about what had happened to him as it was about his family members’ struggle to come to terms with regrets of their own. The title set readers up to expect a mystery, and some were disappointed when instead they got a family drama.
The next title I tried was “Solace Fork.” I wanted to combine the family’s surname with some term that evoked place. All the good titles with “[Fill-in-the-blank] Falls” were already taken, so I chose Fork, which referred to a central place in the story where water branched, and also to a choice my main character had to make. I assigned “Solace” as the family surname to hint at the peace I hoped my characters achieved by the end of the novel. The title really didn’t work at all. The fact that the “Quantum of Solace” James Bond movie came out around the same time didn’t help, and I had to do all kinds of contorted revisions to try to get the title to fit the novel, which should have been a clue that I hadn’t chosen the right one.
When I found an agent, she sent me back to the drawing board to come up with a title that would reflect the novel’s central theme of redemption and second chances. I brainstormed a list of several dozen, but nothing on my list satisfied my agent or me. It had occurred to me that old-time hymns might be a good source of title phrases, since the novel is set in the rural south, but I hadn’t been able to find much on my own. Fortunately my mother, a devoted shape-note singer, was coming to town for my sister’s birthday party. I told my agent I would get my mom to bring all of her Sacred Harp hymnals with her and we’d spend the weekend on one last marathon quest for the perfect name for my book.
My mom arrived, laden down with hymnals. My idea was that she and I would read the lyrics silently to ourselves. My mom, however, loves a good sing, and proceeded to sing each hymn she turned to, until finally I had to tell her gently that we just did not have time to do it that way. We hunted for phrases about grace and redemption and rebirth and being washed clean. At one point she suggested “Sufficient Grace” and my ears perked up, until I remembered that writer Darnell Arnoult had just published a novel by that title. Finally, we came to a hymn called “From Every Stormy Wind That Blows” by Hugh Stowell. It spoke of “a calm, a sure retreat” to be found “beneath the Mercy Seat.” The words “mercy seat” grabbed us, and I put “Mercy Seat” and “The Mercy Seat” at the top of my new list of titles. That night, the rest of my family came over, and the womenfolk sang Mr. Stowell’s hymn. We sounded pretty darn good if I do say so myself.
In the morning, frowsy with sleep, my mom wandered into the kitchen and said, “I’ve been thinking. How about ‘The Mercy Tree’ instead of ‘The Mercy Seat’?” I loved it. That Monday I emailed a list of possible new titles to my agent, including “The Mercy Tree” and “The Mercy Trees.” My agent added the finishing touch when she emailed back, “How about ‘Under The Mercy Trees’?” For the first time ever, with this title, I could envision the cover of the book. And when I went back through the novel to see what revisions I might need to make for the title to fit, I hardly had to make any–the mercy trees were already in place, waiting for me.
My novel, UNDER THE MERCY TREES, has been accepted for publication. In the spring of 2011 I will hold the finished book in my hands, and I will not be able to imagine it ever being called anything else.

Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest

Followers of the Flatiron Writers Blog (and others): The Flatiron Writers Short Fiction Contest begins December 1, 2009. Check out the complete contest rules on our website home page at

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Legal Issues for Fiction Writers: Defamation 101

Admit it, you know you’ve done it, created a “fictional” character who is so much like your Aunt Betty you’ve been afraid to show the story to anyone in your family. Few of us go as far as Thomas Wolfe, who didn’t bother changing the names of the real people on whom he based his characters, but we do steal mannerisms, bits of dialog, exciting incidents, and unusual physical characteristics from the real life people we know. Sometimes we distort and change things around so much we no longer even remember which parts are based on fact and which parts we made up.
Fiction writers are not as likely to be sued for defamation as writers of non-fiction, but we aren’t immune, either. I’m going to give you some general rules about what is and is not considered defamatory in fiction. Any first year law student will tell you that for every rule there are exceptions, so as you read, insert the words “in general” before every sentence, and remember not to consider this blog piece as legal advice–consult your own attorney if you have specific questions. (How’s that for a disclaimer?)
One nice rule to remember is that you cannot defame a dead person. Claims for defamation die when the person dies. So if you want to write a novel that features George Washington in a compromising situation, go right ahead. One caveat: if the estate of a famous dead person is still commercially exploiting the celebrity’s image, other laws may prevent you from using the celebrity’s likeness.
Defamation is a written (libel) or spoken (slander) statement about someone which 1) is false; 2) subjects the person or organization to hatred, contempt, ridicule or loss of reputation; and 3) is published to a third party. In addition to these elements, famous people have to show “malice”-- that the person making the statement knew it was false or had reckless disregard for whether it was true or not.
For fiction, the question is whether readers can identify a real person from your description: if the reader knows Billy Bob, will the reader be convinced that the defamatory parts of your fictional work (the parts which are false and would subject someone to hatred, etc.) describe Billy Bob.
In general, the more preposterous your plot, the less likely it is that readers will believe you are describing a real person. So if your novel has aliens abducting your Billy-Bob-like character, or you have him murder his wife when in fact Billy Bob’s wife is alive and well, you’re probably in good shape. Other good guidelines to follow are to give your character a different name, different occupation and different physical appearance than the real person. The less like the real person your character is, the better, and really, if you are a fiction writer, it shouldn’t be that hard to make things up.
Some things that will not save you if you have defamed someone: putting the words “in my opinion” before a defamatory statement (“in my opinion Billy Bob stole money from his employer”) will not work, because you are really asserting fact, not opinion. And that little disclaimer you see at the front of every book (“any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental . . .”) also isn’t much of a defense.
One parting thought. Revenge is not a good motive for writing fiction, and probably doesn’t result in the best-written fiction. If you’re mad at your ex, or your mother, or your boss, toilet paper their houses instead of portraying them in your fiction. Your writing is yours, an escape from the people who have done you wrong. Don’t give them a place in it.

Heather Newton practices law and writes fiction in Asheville.
Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Consolation Theory

When I was senior in high school, I confidently told the selection committee for the John Motley Morehead scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill that I was going to be a southern novelist. I was going to join that club of writers, who at the time included Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, Reynolds Price, Doris Betts, Fred Chappell, Guy Owen, and a little later admitted Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons and all those others I wanted to be like. The Morehead selection committee was apparently not impressed, and didn’t give me a scholarship. Since then, a fair number of editors, agents and others in the publishing industry also have not been impressed, and at age forty-something, I am still not a published novelist. Although I’ve now found an agent to help me out, there is no guarantee that she’ll be able to sell my novel, given the current economic climate and the oh-so-not-commercial nature of the novel I’ve written. So I’ve been wrestling with how I’m going to handle it if I never accomplish this goal that I was silly enough to set for myself at age seventeen.

As a practicing Christian, my first thought was to look for a spiritual solution. Failure is nothing new to Christians. The Bible is full of characters who failed magnificently, and repeatedly. Characters who, like Peter in Luke 5:5 have said, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” So I embarked on a quest to learn how God wants us to respond to failure. The consensus seems to be that God wants us to redefine success and failure in Godly terms, and to measure success by our service to others, not by our list of publications in literary magazines with a circulation greater than five thousand.

And here is where I fail as a Christian. The spiritual solution just doesn’t comfort me. I’m all for service to others, but I still need a way to live contentedly in the gap between what I had hoped to achieve with my life, and what I am actually likely to accomplish. Somehow I have to come to terms with it.

Having failed to be a good follower of Christ, the next place I looked for consolation was in the theory of multiple, or parallel, universes. Yes, you heard me right.

As I understand it, based on one ninth grade physics class and a lifetime of watching too much Star Trek, the theory goes something like this: that whenever a situation occurs where there is more than one possible outcome, there is one outcome in this universe, and all the other outcomes flutter out in a fan of alternate realities in other universes. The depressing aspect is that if you have ever had a brush with death in this universe, you’re bound to be dead in some other universe. The upside is, all those times some editor or contest judge chose someone else’s manuscript instead of mine, in another universe they picked mine. In universe # 54382, the three novels I have written are on the shelves at Barnes & Noble instead of under my bed, I am happily typing away on a fourth one, and will take a break this afternoon to go teach creative writing to budding writers who, in universe # 54382, have not yet been published but are diligently working to improve their craft. I am a far better writer in universe # 54382 than I am in this one. I am also ten pounds lighter and have had Botox injections. So, if I go with the theory of parallel universes, then when I’m old and in the nursing home and my children are packing up boxes of my unpublished work to take out to the curb, I’ll find comfort in knowing that somewhere in another dimension I am sitting on a veranda discussing point-of-view with members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

If a steadfast, if slightly batty, belief in alternate realities doesn’t console me, there is one other approach that might. A couple of years ago I went to a reading by three women affiliated with, an online parenting magazine for progressive (anarchist, even) parents. The authors, all far younger and hipper and more tattooed than me, were great (though they made me think I should start my own online magazine, called “Oldmama” or “Tiredmama” or “Mama-that-grew-up-in-the Reagan-years-and-didn’”). One of the authors said something about writing that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but she said that it’s easier to keep on working toward your dream than it is to convince yourself that you never wanted it in the first place.
I think that’s a workable theory. I think I believe it to be true.
Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Writing a Novel

When I first began writing fiction, I wrote short stories. I never considered the possibility of a novel. I reasoned if I could learn to write a decent short story I would at least have the technical writing skills for a novel. While that reasoning was valid, it was a little naïve.

Writing a short story is like building a bookcase or a simple piece of furniture. You can build the basic framework in a weekend’s worth of work. Subsequently, what you do to finish the work can be as simple as sanding and finishing or as intricate as carving inlays, adding handmade knobs, making drawers with handcut dovetails, or applying multiple layers of color and finish.

To stay with the building analogy, writing a novel is more like building a house. Not only does it require multiple kinds of skill: masonry, framing, roofing, finish carpentry. It also requires perseverance: day after day, week after week of unending work. Years ago, I built a house and when the foundation and framing were complete, the shingles and siding were on, the doors and windows in, my wife said to me, “Oh good. It’s almost done. In reality, it was only half finished even though it looked complete from the outside. A novel can be like that. You get the basic framework in place, you know your characters. If you have single or multiple plot lines, you know how they fit together. Yet, there are scenes upon scenes of detail to be fleshed out with detail. It is, like the house, a project which can have no end.

With a house, once you start it, you know it has to be finished. Unless you have unlimited funds, there are simply too many financial considerations and consequences to leaving it unfinished. The completion of the novel for a beginning writer with no contract or deadline has no similar consequences. You can put it away for long stretches of time; move on to other projects.

I’m not quite there yet. Not quite willing to make the time commitment it takes. But I’m working on it. Somehow, I know that discipline of writing every day, of getting to the end of something big will be a stepping stone.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Loose in the World

It’s Mother’s Day as I’m writing this. Mothers, among other things, are nurturers and caregivers – women who give life to their children, shepherd them through childhood, then send them out into the world

Our stories are a little like that. We create them, work and rework their language and content, then send them out into the world, hoping they will have an impact, that readers will find them. But when do we let them go? When is it time?

The Jan/Feb 2009 issue of Poets & Writers had a wonderful article about a writer named Beverly Jensen who wrote stories for sixteen years, working them over and over during that period but never submitting them to any publication. She contracted pancreatic cancer and died at a relatively young age. Her husband, Jay Silverman, got many of them published following her death. They were good stories.

There’s something pure about writing only for yourself. To spend years working at your craft with little or no acknowledgement. And yet, the good mother knows when it’s time, when she has done all she can do and her children have to make their own way in the world.

There have been many artists throughout history who have been unrecognized during their lifetimes. And undoubtedly many more, who were never known outside of a small circle and never celebrated for their genius. How many times have we heard a song from an unknown singer, picked up an old paperback from a stack in a used bookstore, seen a canvas in a rack at an art store and understood intuitively that here was undiscovered talent, here was creativity that should have had a wider audience.

I’m glad Beverly Jensen’s husband loved and believed in her stories enough to do what she herself could no longer do. But it makes me wonder how many stories, how many songs, how many poems are feathered away in obscurity because their mothers didn’t have quite enough confidence or push to set them loose in the world. It’s the first step, even if the journey may be short.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Pros & Cons of Writing Contests, With Apologies to Stuart Smalley

It’s tax time, time to give my accountant a list of expenses incurred in connection with my so-far-not-profitable business as a writer. One category of deductions is entry fees for writing contests, and I’ve been pondering the deep question of whether writing contests are worth the money and aggravation they entail. If I look just at the money, dollars spent entering (several) and dollars won (a few), contests probably aren’t worth it. But if I consider the money I spend entering contests to be similar to the money I might budget for a trip to Vegas or Atlantic City, it makes sense to keep entering–I know I’m going to lose the money itself, but what I’m purchasing is the hours of entertainment I’ll get from playing the slot machines and black jack tables.
Here are some of the things writing contests have done for me, besides every decade or so earning me some money. I’ve had four short stories published as a result of contests. I’ve made the finals or semi-finals in some novel contests that I could brag about in the query letter I send to agents. I’ve gotten my name in the paper, which marketing experts say is a good thing for budding writers to try to do. Perhaps most importantly, placing in a contest, even if I don’t win the grand prize, is validation that I’m producing good work, and that I shouldn’t give up–that I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.
Recently, my novel, Solace Fork, made the quarter-finals (top 500) of the Breakthrough Novel contest. I’ve heard people criticize this contest for being too much like American Idol and for trying to channel wannabe authors toward Amazon’s print-on-demand division, but I think it’s a good contest. For one thing, it was free to enter. Also, quarterfinalists got two "editorial reviews" of their work from people who review lots of books for Amazon, and mine were generally positive, so that was a nice perk. And whether I proceed any further, I get a review by Publisher’s Weekly, which I assume I can put on the back of my book cover if I end up self-publishing, with ellipses replacing any unflattering parts. So I’m happy. And if I do proceed to the semi-finals (top 100), it will be one more thing I can put in my agent query letter.
I’m talking to the members of the Flatiron Writers about our group sponsoring a short fiction contest, with an actual monetary prize. We have to work out the particulars, like, how many stories can we realistically read, what kind of prize can we afford to offer, what "celebrity" writer can we convince to be the final judge, and things like that, but I think it would be great. Keep watching our website for details. You may be our winner.
Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Finding, No, Making Time to Write

My mother (Suzanne Newton) is a writer, author of nine novels for young adults published by Westminster Press and Viking. Her first book came out in 1970 when I was six. My mother was thirty-four and had four children under the age of eleven, yet somehow she succeeded in doing something I still haven’t mastered. She knew how to claim her writing time.
My mom wrote in my parents’ bedroom, the only room with a window-unit air conditioner. She went in there every morning and stayed until lunch time, banging out prose on a manual Hermes typewriter that kept her fingers strong for piano-playing and opening pickle jars. From her room she could hear us playing outside, and come out if necessary, say, to wash our mouths out with soap for saying bad words like "pee pee head." She rarely came out. This was the 1970s, before hover-craft parenting was the norm, and mothers could get away with raising children by means of benign neglect. My siblings and I pretty much ran wild. While we were roaming as far as we could pedal on our bikes, eating all the candy our allowance would purchase at the local mini-mart, bathing every other night and only occasionally washing our hair, my mom was writing.
I have been far less successful than my mom at claiming my writing time. I try to carve out Fridays from 8:30 to 2 to write, but far too often it doesn’t happen. For me, the issue isn’t "time thieves" like television, video games, Facebook (or writing blog pieces for the Flatiron writers!). If these were the problems I could drop them cold turkey. The three things that most often shove writing off my agenda are 1) my child, 2) my law practice, and 3) church work. These are all good things that are important and that sometimes legitimately demand that I give them priority. Sometimes, though, I let them claim more of me than I should.
I love my kid to distraction, and perhaps because my parents were so hands-off, I’ve made a conscious decision to parent differently, to show up at every game and performance, to notice what she’s up to, to make sure she bathes and brushes her hair! But my child wouldn’t suffer if I chauffeured her fewer places or supervised fewer play dates. Heck, she might like me to leave her alone a bit more.
And then there’s work. When I was young I had my palm read twice. One psychic told me I was going to be a lawyer, the other said I would be a cosmetologist. (They both told me I would have five children, but that’s another story). I sometimes think it would have been better if I had gone to beauty school. Cosmetology is a career that you can leave at the salon when you go home. Clients come in to get their hair cut and then leave–their cases don’t drag on for months and years, with crises on Fridays. In many ways my legal career has been very rewarding, but someone told me recently you have to devote 10,000 hours to something to become really good at it. The career I’ve chosen has definitely stood in the way of my accruing 10,000 hours as a writer.
Finally, church work. It’s one thing to say "no" to my child or to work obligations. It’s another to say "no" to God! I’m involved in my church because I love it, but in the last few years church work has become almost another part time job. I don’t mind the meetings (I’m Baptist, we do everything by committee and you would not believe the number of meetings) because they happen at night when I wouldn’t be writing anyway. What bumps my writing time is preparing to teach adult Sunday School every week. I can never seem to get it done before Friday, so on Fridays when I’m supposed to be writing fiction, quite often instead I’m preparing Sunday’s lesson. Right now I’m finishing up an eight-week teaching commitment, and I think I’m just going to have to say "no" to any more teaching for the rest of this year so I can make some headway on the short stories I’m supposed to be writing. Sorry, God!
I don’t blame anyone but myself when a week (or more) passes with no time spent writing. I believe fundamentally that people make time for the things they really care about. In addition to writing during the day while her urchin children roamed the neighborhood, I remember my mother standing over her ironing board late at night after she had put us to bed, with an iron in one hand and her pen and writing notebook in the other. Real writers don’t moan about lack of writing time. Real writers write.
Copyright 2009 Heather Newton

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Literary Fiction – What is it?

Last week I was having coffee with a friend and the subject of literary fiction came up. What exactly is it? And what makes it different from mainstream fiction? We verbally explored the possibility that it might be related to the quality of the writing or that the stories were character-driven rather than plot oriented. But nothing we could come up with firmly established the genre if that’s what it is.

One of the definitions for literature is “writing of value.” Another, “writing that lasts.” Time tested in other words. But who is it that defines “value?” Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were the popular novelists of their day. Are we supposed to wait 50 or 100 years to see which of the best selling writers of today are still being read?

What if we ask a different question. Why are mainstream novels widely read (substitute best sellers) and literary novels regulated to the intelligentsia, so to speak? I think to some extent, the answer lies in story. The most popular writers, the ones who show up over and over on the best seller lists, are great storytellers. And readers love stories.

The craft of writing, for me, breaks down into three major areas of focus (and there is plenty of room for debate here). The first is just basic English, the stuff you learned in high school: nouns, verbs, punctuation, syntax etc… Every writer has to know these language forms and there are a zillion textbooks that teach it. When I was programming, there was a simple adage we used sometimes: form frees, which basically meant that you could break the rules if you knew the form because that implicit form was still there. Frank Lloyd Wright could never have designed Fallingwater without knowing the rules of cantilevered structures. Cormac McCarthy writes without a lot of punctuation. But he’s consistent with his misuse. Read a few chapters, and you’re on board.

The second area of writing I consider is imagination. To me this includes whatever it is in written expression and thought that make a writer unique. It’s something that can’t be taught though every writer has influences that push them in a certain direction. When I read someone like Ursula K. LeGuin, I’m struck (like a lightning bolt) by the ideas and imagination behind the writing. The world looks different though her eyes. I think you can still be a fine writer if you lack this quality. Writers are, above all else, observers and someone who can define a character with detail can go a long way. Outside of fiction and advertising, this is what most writing is about. Just getting it down.

The third is what I think of as “tricks of the trade.” These include techniques like ending chapters with an unanswered question or an unresolved situation. I would define these techniques as anything that creates tension in the reader. Put a gun on the mantle in the first chapter and the reader waits and waits for it to be used. Again, plenty of books documenting these techniques though I find reading the best way to discover them. I recently read Echoes from the Dead by the Swedish author Johan Theorin. In the prolog a small boy slips over the stone wall surrounding his cottage and out into the Swedish moor where, in the fog, he encounters a man who we discover is a serial killer. The boy disappears. Theorin writes the story in two threads: in one the boy’s mother and grandfather search for answers surrounding the disappearance, and in the other, Theorin shows us the life of the serial killer. As a reader you spend the entire novel waiting for these two threads to connect. A marvelous device.

So let’s get back to literary fiction. My supposition is that mainstream writers concentrate their efforts on basic writing and tricks of the trade to tell their stories, while literary writers focus on imagination and language. As a reader I ask myself, what is it I’d rather read (if I’m forced to choose): a good story or fine writing? I can’t tell you how many books I’ve put down after reading the first chapter because the writing just isn’t good enough to continue. On the other hand, I’m tremendously disappointed when I read a piece of fine writing where the author has made no effort to consider story structure or keep the reader guessing, depending solely on the quality of the prose to hold the reader. If some of these literary writers paid more attention to the techniques that raise storytelling to another level, I think they would find far more of their work on the best seller lists.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How to Get There: Thoughts on Writing Stories

Before I became a writer, I was a computer programmer. In many ways the two professions are remarkably similar: long hours of isolation, attention to detail, and the ability to process and consider multiple threads of information at the same time. Computer programming might seem like an almost mathematical kind of profession – you’re essentially writing instructions to be executed by a machine, a computer. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. A generic computer program has, on one side, the inputs: the data from a source (e.g. keyboard input); and on the other, the outputs: reports, data feeds to another program, or calculated results. Everything in between, the code, is a black box, a cipher to the outside environment. Inside that black box there are a thousand ways to get from the inputs to the outputs, from the beginning to the end.

I write stories in the same way I wrote computer code. With stories, the inputs include characters, setting, and plot. The outputs could be what happens, the events of the story, or a transformation of some kind. I want to discover that transformation when I’m thinking about the story, not when I’m writing. Writing is too hard, too much work to end up somewhere I don’t want to be. It would be like coding a computer program without knowing the outputs. I want to write towards something, some goal I know about. I believe in the axiom: Begin with the end in mind.

Maybe this kind of approach makes the writing more calculated. I don’t know. There are plenty of writers who write to discover the characters and their story; who end up with something wonderful. But the consequences of failure for that technique are dire. I abhor stories that leave me in the desert without water, or abandoned at the side of the road, or even recumbent in some palatial estate – all with the word “so?” on my lips. Asking the storyteller “Why did you bring me here? It’s one thing to do this with a twenty-page short story, quite another to write 300 pages of a novel. Writing the novel is a long and arduous process. What happens when you get to a place where you can’t quite figure out the ending and your creative energy is gone? Read Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird if you want an insight from the writer’s side.

That said, there are as many ways to write a story, to discover a story, as there are writers. In some of the writing workshops I’ve been in, the instructor will create three grab bags: one for place, one for names, and a third for verbs. You reach your hand in and pull out: TRAIN STATION, MARY, and DANCE. Thus, your writing assignment is to create a story about someone named Mary, dancing in a train station. Give this assignment to a hundred writers and, of course, you get a hundred different stories. Yet, for each story, the inputs are identical. Discovering the outputs, now there’s the key, the creative separation that imagination can bring; and the difference between writing and computer programming. With stories, the writer creates the ending.

I’m not a big fan of outlines, though I understand their value. I like the free flow association diagrams whose purpose is to encourage your subconscious. Books about writing are full of ideas on how best to create a finished story and each writer has to find a technique that works for them. Terry Brooks, the fantasy writer, generates an outline, then checks each new idea for the story against the outline to make sure everything works out. Though I don’t use outlines, I do need to know the ending for a story. Then everything in the story leads there. I’ve never discovered those endings when I’m writing. For me the breakthroughs have come when I’m walking or running, or those few minutes before sleep when logical mind is diffused. Something, perhaps, about endorphins.

In the final analysis, we, as writers, aren’t saving the world, except maybe in some indirect way. What I reach for in my own stories and hope for in the stories of others is that when I come to the last page, the last paragraph, the last word, I went through something: a rainstorm, an earthquake, a car wash. And that the world looks a little different on the other side.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Importance of Story

If you’re a writer, the end-of-the-year holiday season can be a kind of wakeup call – stories coming at you from every direction. Stories so ingrained in our culture, we take them for granted: the birth of the Christ child, Santa Claus, A Christmas Carol, and on and on. Some of the stories are religious, some folklore, some movies, some in song. During the year, it’s easy to forget how important stories are to every human culture that has ever existed.

We know each other through story. To say a man is 6 foot 2 inches, 200 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes is to describe a million men. When you add a limp from an accident with a bear trap when he was thirteen and a broken nose from a bar-fight in Sidney, Australia, you begin to construct a story. If you have any imagination at all, you can’t help yourself. When your eight year-old daughter comes home from school and you ask her how her day was, you’re asking for the story of her life for that short period. Television news media understand the importance of story implicitly. The news anchor reads the headline: SEVEN PEOPLE DIE IN FREEWAY ACCIDENT. Then, they switch to a reporter at the scene, interviewing an onlooker or a passenger in one of the cars, for the personal story that makes it all too real.

In the first line of her essay, the White Album, Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The “we” she references is the societal “we,” the cultural collective. We are long past the stories of the caveman, the wall drawings known only to a singular group; or the stories of a tribe, passed from generation to generation through oral narrative. The stories we tell and hear now come from every nook and cranny of the earth we live on. They cross every boundary, even the ones we, as writers, sometimes seek to impose upon ourselves. A number of years ago I had a conversation with a classical violinist who lamented the decreasing number of new classical compositions. Then, I heard recordings of the London Philharmonic with Pink Floyd, and the Siegal-Schwall Blues Band with Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony. The composers were still out there. They had simply switch mediums. Likewise, many of our storytellers have moved into graphic novels and video games. It’s no accident that the best porn movies have story lines to go along with the sex.

As writers we can see the consolidation of the publishing industry, the demise of our independent small bookstores. Yet, the world still craves stories. Maybe they won’t come in the ways we have done them in the past. Maybe it’s a YouTube skit you write and get a friend with a video camera to record; or a one-act play for your child’s third grade class.
As writers, we have the same advantage as the one-eyed man in a world of blind people. We know stories. We just need to tell them in any way we can.

Copyright 2009 by Toby Heaton

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Celebrate Saint Lucy--Patron Saint of Writers

For many years, the Flatiron Writers have had a tradition of celebrating St. Lucy’s Day, December 13th. St. Lucy is (one of several) patron saints of writers, perhaps because of the connection between writing and eyesight–poor Lucy had her eyes gouged out. None of us are practicing Catholics, so we have to kind of wing it. We celebrate by getting together at a nice restaurant for food and drink, and doing a gift exchange of paperback books. We thank Lucy for any writing successes we’ve experienced during the year, and toast her in the hopes that she’ll be even more generous in the coming year.
I’m pretty happy with Lucy’s delivery in 2008. Toby, Geneve and I saw our short story anthology published, Jen got accepted to the Hollins MFA program, Maggie was accepted to a prestigious residency, Toby and I attended Sewanee and Tin House, my short story "Tupelo Rose" was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe prize, Toby had a story published in WNC Woman, and we recently welcomed a new member, Marjorie Klein, author of the novel, Test Pattern. We all continued to write, some of us more prolifically than others, and at the meetings when no one had brought anything to critique, we still had the privilege of each other’s company, to talk about books, politics and other fun things.
Although Baptists like me believe we have a direct line to God and Jesus and don’t need the intervention of a Saint, I’ve been thinking about what I would like Lucy to work on for me in 2009 if she’s so inclined. I’ve decided that what I really want is an ending (a happy one) to the story of my search for a literary agent and publisher for my novel. The search makes for a pretty exciting story, with lots of ups and downs and intrigue, spanning (so far) a two year period, during which I have amassed an impressive collection of rejection slips, revised the novel a bizillion times, and imposed on every friend and acquaintance I have who might know-someone-who-knows-someone who can help me get published. When I finally tell the story, it will be the longest blog post ever, but I can’t tell it until it has an ending.
If Lucy can’t finagle a happy ending for me, then I want my consolation prize to be this: I want to become a process person, one of those intriguing folks for whom the goal isn’t everything. I want to learn to appreciate the journey, the friendships I’ve made from my writing, the mental health benefits, the pure fun of creating, so that at the end of my life, even if I never publish anything significant, I can feel like a success. And I’d like to accomplish this without a lobotomy.
So, St. Lucy, virgin and martyr, hear my prayers and do your thing.
Happy writing for 2009, everybody!
Copyright 2008 by Heather Newton

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stereotype or Verisimilitude?

When is something a stereotype, and when is it simply landscape?
Since returning from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference I’ve been digesting the feedback my work received there. In an early chapter of my novel, the reader learns (among other things) that my character, Bertie, lives in a single-wide trailer with azalea bushes growing in front of it, and reads Reader’s Digest to increase her word power. In the Sewanee workshop, one workshop leader commented that trailers, azaleas and Reader’s Digest were all southern stereotypes and that having all three was just too much. I’ve been pondering that comment, and here are some of my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.
I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea Reader’s Digest was a stereotype, and a negative one at that. I actually made Bertie read Reader’s Digest to show that she was someone who tried to better herself, though without much success. I had fond childhood memories of reading the back issues of Reader’s Digest that filled the basket next to my grandfather’s recliner in Little Washington, North Carolina, not to mention the condensed books that lined the shelves. Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground was my favorite condensed book, and sometimes still I go to the library and check out the uncondensed version to re-read. Thanks to the Sewanee workshop, I now know that Reader’s Digest falls in the category of publications for which smart people should have contempt. I took the reference to Reader’s Digest out of my novel, both because it invoked a stereotype, and because of an astute point a Sewanee friend made.
Here’s how I had used Reader’s Digest in my novel (it’s Bertie speaking): "There was a word in last month’s Reader’s Digest that I had no trouble adding to my word power: ‘reproof.’ Eugenia’s sharp tongue pinned it to my memory, her always reproofing me about the size of my trailer, me and James missing a week of church, or some past mistake I’ve said I’m sorry for a million times." (Yes, I do know that the real word is "reproving" but Bertie didn’t know that).
My friend pointed out that even though I as a writer was very interested in language and vocabulary, normal people (like my character) were not likely to be so interested. I thought that was a valid observation, so I took the reference out.
Next, trailers. The workshop comment made me think that maybe I had gotten it wrong. Maybe mobile homes weren’t really part of the landscape of western North Carolina and I had put Bertie in a trailer out of pure unoriginality, after watching too many Dukes of Hazzard reruns. To check, I took a day trip to the part of western North Carolina where my novel is set, and counted trailers. According to my unscientific census, about every tenth residence was a single-wide mobile home. So, on the one hand, trailers (and red mud and azalea bushes and screen doors that do in fact bang when you enter and exit) are simply part of the landscape of the American south. On the other, just because something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t also a stereotype. I suppose the tilt toward stereotype begins when you use the fact that a character lives in a trailer as short-hand to describe who he or she is. Joe Bob lives in a trailer, so he’s a beer-drinking, shiftless, ignorant redneck, and there’s nothing more to him than that.
Of course there is more to southern folk than that. On this same day trip, I visited relatives who live in a single-wide mobile home. The trailer sits on family property with a view any Yankee developer would kill for. On a hot August day we sat comfortably up on the ridge, with a breeze blowing through woods behind us and cool air rising from a creek (a "branch") below. Our aunt and uncle have two young granddaughters, aged five and seven, who immediately took my nine-year-old daughter to the creek to hunt "pennywinkles" (a freshwater snail). It was the seven-year-old’s birthday, and this little cousin was so generous she offered my daughter (whom she had never met before) one of her new Littlest Pet Shop bobble-heads to keep. If you have a daughter in elementary school you know what a sacrifice this represented. I checked my aunt’s plants. Not an azalea bush in sight, but she and my husband, another green-thumb, compared notes about an exotic tropical plant she had acquired that was thriving on the back deck. The entire porch rail of the trailer was lined with perfect heirloom tomatoes my uncle had managed to grow even in a severe drought, and of course he insisted we take some when we left. So, beyond the corrugated metal siding of this particular single-wide I found the deep connection to place, and the abiding generosity, that is the South.
I decided to keep the trailer in my novel, because it isn’t in there gratuitously. It represents Bertie’s disappointment at how things have gone for her in life, because when she moved into the trailer thirty years ago she thought it would be temporary. For various reasons it has turned out to be permanent.
And the azaleas? Azaleas are flora. I suppose some plants (magnolias, gardenias, kudzu perhaps) could be deemed stereotypical, but if you are writing about a place, and a particular plant predominates, it seems to me it’s appropriate to include it in the description of the landscape. There are cacti in the desert, cypress trees hung with Spanish moss near the coast, rhododendron (laurel) in the mountains. I decided to keep the azaleas.
By now you’re thinking "this gal just can’t take criticism" and you’re probably right. My hope, though, is that with a few more revisions, I will have written the novel well enough to flesh out my mobile-home-living, azalea-growing character so that my readers will know there’s oh so much more to her than that.
Copyright 2008 by Heather Newton

What I Did For My Summer Vacation: The Sewanee Writers’ Conference

This July I spent twelve days at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Sewanee, Tennessee. It was fabulous. I got out of it everything I had hoped, and more.
Some people go to Sewanee every year and treat the conference as their summer vacation. Others, like me, approach it as a one-time experience. I had finished a novel. The things I wanted from the conference were 1) to get feedback from my faculty reader and others that would help me make the novel good, and 2) to meet agents.
Sewanee allows you to list your first, second and third choices of faculty reader, and tells you who your reader will be when you arrive. My first choice was Jill McCorkle (Ferris Beach, The Cheerleader, Carolina Moon), because she was one of my all-time favorite southern writers, and because she had used multiple points of view in her novels, which was something I was wrestling with. I was lucky enough to get her. As a bonus, my other workshop leader was Tony Earley (Here We Are in Paradise, Jim the Boy), another southern writer whose work I had admired for years. I and the other participants in the Earley-McCorkle workshop agreed that our workshop was the best. Jill and Tony’s styles complemented each other. Jill had a gift for seeing the big picture, while Tony honed in on specific craft issues. They were kind with their criticism and made sure the fifteen members of our workshop kept it constructive. The workshop was particularly helpful to me because I don’t have an MFA and sometimes feel a bit like a primitive artist.
I met with Jill for my individual critique at the campus coffee house. She was positive and encouraging, and the clarity she offered about what I needed to fix was invaluable. For the hour-plus that we talked, I got the benefit of her thinking out loud about how I should deal with multiple narrators, distinguishing characters from one another at the beginning of the novel, and making one weak-sister character more interesting. Most of the participants I talked to at Sewanee were as delighted as I was with their faculty one-on-one. I do think it’s important to be deliberate in choosing your faculty reader. You should read their books to determine who would be a good fit for you. If you write chick lit, it might not be wise to have a male faculty member who writes for a male audience. If you are a poet, you might do well to choose a poet who belongs to the same school of thought as you do (I don’t claim to understand how those crazy poets categorize themselves).
Sewanee invites literary agents to come and meet with participants. The system for getting a meeting with one of them is what we in the law call arbitrary and capricious, and what others might call a free-for-all. You have to be in the right place at the right time, and you have to be aggressive. The day the sign-up sheet for the first visiting agent went up, I wasn’t around and the list was full by the time I saw it. But as I was standing there staring at the full list, a woman who had signed up came and marked her name off, so I got to take her spot. I met with the agent, she told me I could send her my complete manuscript, and I was also able to pick her brain about ways to market the Flatiron short story anthology my writing group had published.
The day the sign up sheet for the second agent went up, I was in the right place but the list had been posted early and was full by the time I got there. I felt like the wolf in the little pig story who makes a date to pick apples with the pig, only to have the pig show up early and pick all the apples. A nice thing about Sewanee, though, is that agents and other guests make themselves available at social events. I approached agent number two at the reception that evening, and told her that I was stalking her (I really said that) because I hadn’t been able to get a meeting with her. She was extremely nice, gave me her email address and told me to contact her.
When agent number three arrived, by God, I was determined to get on the list. I asked the programs manager when she planned to post it, and camped out in the auditorium two feet away from the bulletin board all morning, waiting (I got to hear several good presentations while I was camping, so it wasn’t too painful!). Ten minutes before the list was to go up, all these people began to file into the room and line the wall where the list would be posted, some even leaning against the bulletin board itself. The programs manager posted the list. I rose from my seat, wove my arms over and under all the other arms jostling for a spot, and signed my name on the damn list. As far as I know I didn’t elbow anyone in the eye in the process. I had a good meeting with agent number three, who told me to send her the full manuscript.
Changing the agent sign-up process was the only suggestion I had for improvement when I completed my Sewanee exit survey.
The social life at Sewanee was great, even for an introvert like me (what?! An introverted writer?!). My suite-mate ("bathroom mate" as we called it) became a good friend, and we had a fun crowd in our dorm (St. Luke’s). I met dozens of friendly and talented people in my workshop, at meals and social events. The presence of the playwrights, who were not introverts, added to the entertainment. It was lovely to talk incessantly about writing to people whose eyes didn’t glaze over. A warning to anyone fresh out of rehab, the flow of alcohol at Sewanee was quite heavy and it might not be the best place for someone in early recovery.
The only downside to the conference for me was its length. Twelve days was a long time to be away from my husband and nine-year-old daughter. Cell phones didn’t work inside the stone buildings on campus, and it was hard to have intimate conversations with my spouse standing out on the grass in front of the dorm yelling into my phone. I missed my daughter terribly. One couple brought their nine-year-old daughter to Sewanee (with a babysitter). By the last few days, watching her give her mother a hug at breakfast nearly broke my heart.
In addition to the great contacts I made at Sewanee, I experienced one other benefit I hadn’t expected. My husband is a fine man but he doesn’t read fiction and has never been willing to read my work. He missed me a lot while I was gone, looked Sewanee up on the internet, and realized how serious I am about this writing thing. For the first time in our fourteen-year marriage, he is reading my work.
I would recommend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference to any serious writer. I do think I got more out of it by going with a completed manuscript than I would have if I had gone while my novel was in an early stage. If you have the credentials to attend as a scholar or a fellow (I didn’t), all the better. While Sewanee is not hierarchical the way some conferences are, being distinguished as a scholar or fellow would give you that much more access to faculty, editors and agents.
Here are the web addresses for some people I met at Sewanee who blogged about their experiences:;; The website for the Sewanee Writer’s Conference is

Copyright 2008 by Heather Newton