Storm Storyteller: A Q&A with New York Times’ Bestselling Author Kim Cross

 

Kim Cross Book Cover

The day I spoke with Alabama author Kim Cross, it was on the one-year anniversary of her first book being published. The Alabama native and contributing editor with Southern Living Magazine wrote What Stands in a Storm, her riveting New York Times’ bestseller published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

The book captures the true story of love and resilience in the worst superstorm in history – a three-day storm  in late April 2011 that unleashed 349 tornadoes in 21 states, destroying entire towns.  Alabama was ground zero for the disaster, where on April 27 alone a total of 62 tornadoes raked the state. The storm also claimed 324 lives, most of them in Alabama, which now leads the nation in tornado deaths.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim Cross, her son in the background, at the Roswell Reads Literary Luncheon held on March 12.

Kim and I spoke by phone as she was driving to Roswell, Georgia, where today she was honored as the featured author for the Eleventh annual Roswell Reads Community Read program.  Having finished her book in two days, I can attest to its power. The story was impossible to put down – it pulsates with tension as I experienced the love of friends and neighbors, parents and children, in  the tension-filled moments leading up to the storm and its aftermath.

Ron Powers, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers said it best: “…the terse dark poetry of this debut book explodes from every page.”

As a Dayton, Ohio, native who remembers as a child hearing the tornado sirens from neighboring Xenia, Ohio, in 1974, I was keen to talk to Kim. I also have been working on my own disaster story – the retelling of a historic flood that destroyed Dayton 100 years ago, I found reading her book and learning her writing process incredibly helpful and inspiring as I edit my own work.

What Stands in a Storm is Kim’s first book, but it doesn’t read like it.  Her narrative was born from a magazine story she wrote with Alabama native son Rick Bragg for Southern Living.  Rick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, was living in Tuscaloosa at the time. He and his family made it through the storm, but their street was hit “really bad.”  Kim asked him to write something from the heart of what it meant to be in this storm and he agreed.  His intro paired with her reporting along with fellow staffer Erin Shaw struck a chord in people. According to Kim, “We got hundreds of messages from readers, who said, ‘That it was the first time I ever cried while reading Southern Living.’ I realized it was touching this emotional place inside of people… I felt like that story needed to be told.”

Isaac's StormThe Perfect Storm“I started to look around and I realized that we have epic bestselling books about hurricanes and floods and Nor’easters (The Perfect Storm), but we didn’t find a book like that about tornadoes that really did it well. I wanted something like Isaac’s Storm and The Perfect Storm. I don’t know if I was aiming too high but that’s what I was hoping to do,” she said.

I think Kim met that standard of excellence and exceeded it with her phenomenal storytelling. Below is our expanded conversation.

 

Q. Where were you on April 27, 2011?

Kim: My husband and I were sitting on our couch [in a suburb of Birmingham] with our son who was 4 at the time, watching weatherman James Spann as the tornado went through Tuscaloosa.

It was awful. We knew the town so well. I had gone to college twice in Tuscaloosa and we had lived there. There is this moment where you watching it and it feels like a movie. It reminded me when we were all watching TV and the Twin Towers fell. I remember feeling, ‘Is this real?’ Then you have this moment when you realize, ‘I’m watching people die right now’ and it’s a horrible feeling.

Then the Tuscaloosa EF4 started making its way toward Birmingham and it actually got a little bit bigger as it came. From what we could tell we were right in its path. At some point the power went off and we lost TV. I watched live Twitter feeds from my phone, watching Jim, who knows the neighborhoods so well. At one point he called our neighborhood and that’s where it got really scary. My husband is an Eagle Scout – he’s Mr. Prepared. He was the one who had us put on bike helmets before it was widely done.  Studies show that a helmet would have saved a lot of lives because of flying debris.

Waiting out a tornado is one of the few times in life where you have time to think about impending death.  Usually you get a lot of time to think about it because you’re sick or there’s no time to think because it happens so fast.   When the tornado passed – we didn’t see much of anything in our neighborhood but seven miles away a neighborhood of Birmingham was just flattened. It came within two or three miles of downtown Birmingham.”’

Q. I always thought that tornadoes mostly struck the central of the country – Kansas.

Kim: People think of Oklahoma and Kansas having a larger volume of tornadoes, but  Alabama and the South – the so-called Dixie Alley — has more of the big ones, more of the EF4s and EF5s, so the numbers are a little deceptive. The other thing is Oklahoma and Kansas are flat, there aren’t a lot of trees and it’s not real humid so you can see the tornadoes and get out of the way. The chasers go there and that’s where they get filmed. Tornado chasers don’t generally chase in the South because we have a lot of hills and a lot of trees, and the roads are windy — they don’t go in a grid. It’s really hard to see the tornado across the landscape.

Q. I was impressed with the degree of research you had in your book. How important was research in writing What Stands in a Storm?

Kim: It was everything. I probably spent 80% of my time on research and 20% of time in an outright panic trying to get words on a page. There was so much research that went into it because it wasn’t this straightforward narrative in the sense that the central characters are all victims… There are so many stories that deserved to be told but you can only tell a few without confusing and losing the reader.

I started by getting the weather reports and the tornado tracks and see what towns were hit and then I went to all the newspapers in those towns to look up who was lost and who they were and who was left behind. I felt pretty strong from the beginning that Tuscaloosa was going to be one of my focused towns — one it’s the one people remember. People outside Alabama know Tuscaloosa because of Crimson Tide. It was well documented and also because it was one of my hometowns – I knew it very well.  But I also wanted to tell the story of a small town and a volunteer fire department — a community that didn’t have the well-funded, well-equipped fire department / rescue squads that a town like Tuscaloosa would have. That represents most of the towns in Alabama and most of the towns in the country. They are saving people just the same as people who are paid a full-time salary.

Q. You did an amazing job introducing readers to some of the Alabamans whose lives were forever changed by the storm. What story resonated most with you on a personal level?

Kim: The story of the three college students — Danielle, Will and Loryn. I could relate to all of them in a different way. They were all working so hard to get through school and they were from a small town and close to their families. I felt a great emotional investment in each of them. When I look at my son I think of Will – Will was a brunette little boy who loves his mom. I think about Danielle and how much she just busted her ass to put herself through college, to work, and to fight for her grades. I liked her feistiness and her pragmatism.  She wasn’t going to let anyone bully her sister. I like Loryn’s spirit and the fact that she was just wide open – she had a great head on her shoulders and was the kind of girl who was comfortable in a dress or cowboy boots.

I wanted you as a reader to not know who lives or dies until it happened  for the reason that if you know who is going to die, you keep them at arm’s length and you don’t allow yourself to care about them too much. I wanted you to paint your own faces on these characters.  That’s why there are no photos in the book so that when you did lose them, you really felt like you lost someone you cared about.  My editor was the one who insisted on no photos.

Q. Your description of the destruction from the storm was almost its own character. How were you able to do that so vividly?

Kim: I got my hands on every video I could –so I could feel like I was there. There were some riveting videos. If you go on my website there is a little playlist I created. I read fictional accounts – including Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. She did a wonderful job of describing a hurricane. I studied the heck out of her verbs. I tried to figure out “how did she do that? What did she do there?” I read and re-read The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm.

Q. How did you get your book published by a major imprint?

Kim: I had an agent, Jim Hornfischer, who I met at a literary non-fiction conference in Dallas. I always wanted to write a book and had gone to grad school and wrote a book about two nuns. It just wasn’t the right first book [I didn’t want to be pigeon holed as a religion writer]. I met Jim and I just knew he was the one — a straight shooter. We started batting ideas around for a book. I said, what about this [a story about the storm]? A lot of magazine stories evolve into books. I feel like the emotional response from readers in Southern Living shows how much people needed this story.  When something horrible happens (like a tornado), you’re in just one little spot. I thought it might be helpful and healing for people to understand the magnitude of what happened but also the beautiful things that came from the brokenness. I think it turned out to be the perfect first book. I love science – taking something really complicated and esoteric and trying to make it come alive and be understandable for a lay reader.

Q. If you were going to advise someone who is writing that first book, what pearl of wisdom would you share that you learned from this experience?

Kim: To study structure in other books. Structure is the hardest thing. I didn’t understand structure when I wrote my earlier [unpublished] book – I’m going to have to go back and rewrite it.  I also didn’t understand how book publishing worked. If you are a fiction writer, you write the book and then you find an agent who likes it and the agent helps you revise it and get it into shape and he or she sends the entire manuscript to publishers.

With non-fiction, you don’t write the book – you write a proposal, which is a 60 to 70-page document that lays out a blueprint of your book, including why this book is different. It has a 35- or 40-page chapter outline and you have to explain who your audience is and what your marketing plan is because it’s not enough to write a good book, you have to sell it. Publishers want to know if you have a platform and social media followers. The harder you work on the front end to get the proposal great, the easier it will be on the tail end to both write the book and sell it. You have to chip at it every day. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Also, you never feel done and you can never fact check it enough. I didn’t realize …magazines come with a staff of fact checkers who go behind you and they call your sources and make sure everything you’ve written about them is correct.  Book publishers don’t have that, so if something is wrong, it’s all on you. I actually sold a beloved a mountain bike so I could pay for a National Geographic-trained fact checker.  I ‘m glad I did it.

Q. How many places did your agent send out your manuscript?

Kim: I think my agent sent it out to 10 to 12 big New York imprints of publishing houses. I had two bid on it, including an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The rejections were so nice – they said we love the writing; we love the idea. The flaw they saw is that they didn’t see the characters [because I hadn’t fleshed them out yet], or they said that the story was going to too many places.

Q. How has the book done?

Kim: So far no one has come forward to come forward with a correction. Regionally it’s done well but I can’t get it on the national radar. The other thing I’ll say – this whole NY Bestseller List is a lot of smoke and mirrors. It did well enough in the first two months that it got on one of these narrow sublists of The New York Times – adventures, disasters and expeditions. The Perfect Storm and Isaac’s Storm are still on that list so I imagine it is not that big of a category. But, when that happens you get to put it on the paperback.

Q. How important is social media if you want to reach readers for your book?

Kim: I feel it’s an evil I have to deal with. Honestly it’s one of the hardest things we as authors have to deal with because most authors are introverts and in order to promote a book, you have to put your extrovert hat on. For social media – so much of it feel not very authentic… I’m torn about it.  I feel like you can’t afford to not be on them unless you are Rick Bragg who has never been on them and people don’t expect you to be on them. I enjoy Instagram – I think that’s my favorite of the social channels.

One positive [aspect of Twitter] is you get to dialogue with readers. It’s an interesting reporting tool. You want to hear how people are interacting with your work.  I put out something on all the social channels – where I’m looking for people who had a certain kind of Schwinn bike when they were a kid.  People are posting pictures of their bike. The other way I use it is to put out some of my process of writing. When I went on a writers’ residency where I had to churn out 1,000 to 2,000 words a day, I shared that with my followers. Some days it came easy other days it didn’t. I think people need to see that writing is a lot of work. This is what the process looks like – it’s messy; it’s hard.

Author Bio

Kim CrossKim Cross is a contributing editor for Southern Living and a feature writer who has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Travel Writers, and the Media Industry Newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Cooking Light, Bicycling, Bike, Runner’s World, Parade magazine, Popular Mechanics, The Tampa Bay Times, The Birmingham News, The Anniston Star, USA TODAY, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and CNN.com. She lives in Alabama.  Connect with her at kimhcross.com

 

 

 

 

Book Launch a Success – 4 Ways Authors can Build a Platform & Engage Readers

Wave of Books

The last seven months spent researching Atlanta’s amazing neighborhoods and the entertainment, economic and environmental drivers of the metro area culminated yesterday as we celebrated my book launch at Atlanta Movie Tours in Castleberry Hill, an up-and-coming artist loft neighborhood and popular filming spot in south downtown. More than 40 people made it to my event, in spite of light rain and the Donald’s appearance at a rally at the Georgia World Congress Center less than a mile from our venue.

The story of this book project and the way I approached both writing and marketing it are probably worth a few words on The Writing Well — at least for the benefit of other writers.  First, a bit about the book.

Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide is the seventh guide book published by Newt Barrett of Voyager Media based in Estero, Fla.  His other books have

My publisher Newt Barrett from Voyager Media was on hand to celebrate the book launch.

My publisher Newt Barrett from Voyager Media was on hand to celebrate the book launch.

spotlighted medium-sized cities such as Charleston, Tampa, Sarasota and Naples.  Atlanta is by far his most ambitious city to tackle based on its sheer size and diversity. It was a big challenge to capture the story of Atlanta in 152 pages.  I felt strongly that I needed to quote actual residents, who knew Atlanta’s diverse neighborhoods the best, and that’s what I did.

  • For the chapter on education, I talked to two Atlanta moms who have navigated Atlanta’s public and private school systems in meeting their children’s learning needs ,and an academic dean of continuing education who briefed me on the many adult continuing education courses available to residents.
  • For the chapter on entertainment, I talked to the editor of Creative Loafing Atlanta, the president of Atlanta’s Lawn and Tennis Association, and the founder of AtlantaTrails.com.
  • For the chapter on choosing where to live, I quoted realtors and residents in 18 intown neighborhoods and six suburban communities.

SpeechcroppedIn remarks to guests at my party yesterday, I thanked all the people who have contributed to my book. I said, “You’ve made Moving to Atlanta something more than a typical guide book …you’ve helped present an authentic picture of what it’s like to be a part of this amazing city. Your input, I’m sure, will help people decide if Atlanta is right for them. They’ll be able to begin to narrow down which neighborhood or community they could call home.”

I hope it will meet the needs of prospective new residents, but I also hope it is an enjoyable narrative for Atlanta natives. That’s why I was so happy to read this comment from an early Amazon reviewer:

“As someone who has lived in this wonderful state and city for almost 35 years… I have to say I’m impressed. ‘Moving to Atlanta…’ is up to date… contemporary with a wide range of information and tidbits about the city… its politics, people and culture. Spending 20 years here as a journalist has given me a unique perspective and access to all of the city and its neighborhoods… both inside and OTP (outside the perimeter, as they say..) The author covers the good and the bad (traffic and rush hour!!). But anyone contemplating moving to our city will soon learn the ebb and flow of the city and its interstate. Recommending the Wayze App is a good start.”

Writing a book as good as it can be is only the start of what we as authors must do. Marketing is when the real work begins! Here are 4 tips that I took to heart when developing my own marketing plan and author platform:

#1 Partner with people, brands and businesses that can help elevate your book.

Carrie_Anne_photobyPam Sabin

With Carrie Burns, founder of Atlanta Movie Tours.

For Moving to Atlanta, I ended up aligning myself with Carrie Burns of Atlanta Movie Tours, the center of Atlanta’s film tourism movement. I interviewed her for the Hollywood of the South chapter and learned that she was president of the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association, so was able to tap into her insights of having lived in that community for 15 years in my “Choosing Where to Live” chapter. Carrie not only offered to host my author party, but also brought in The Smoke Ring, a hip BBQ restaurant nearby, and both of these businesses contributed gifts to raffle at my party, and are now active on social media promoting my book by retweeting highlights of the launch.

#2 Don’t just post or tweet your book, engage people on social media. ScreenShotQuiz                               

  • Share your journey along the way – I posted milestones as I was writing key chapters and shooting photos around the city on Facebook. Photos are a great way to engage followers to envision your book coming to life and feel invested in its success.
  • Do a contest – I asked Facebook followers to weigh in on the top 10 reasons to move to Atlanta for a chance to win a free book.
  • Embrace trivia  surveys – I created a survey to test people’s knowledge of ATL – the answers found in my book. I incorporated humor into the summaries where people are ranked based on how well they answered questions. They could be an “All-knTriviaShot_All-knowingowing Atlanta Insider” or a “Soon-to-be-Undead” in homage to the zombie-hit TV series, “The Walking Dead” filmed here.

#3 Build relationships with journalists, PR influencers and bloggers.

They are powerful allies to get word out on your book because these folks already have a platform and readers! In a sea of so many other books being published, this is one way to be strategic and position your book that can really help boost your profile.

The key here is to target outlets that fall into one of these categories: (a.)  they love your book topic — it ties to what their readers care about (b.) they are looking to feature local residents doing interesting things (especially a publication more local or hyper local focused such as the Patch) or (c.) they want to help you succeed because they know you and your capabilities as a storyteller, interviewer and writer. I find featuring other authors on my blog, The Writing Well, creates a lot of goodwill and willingness to blurb and blog about your book to “pay it forward.” I know at least one 11-time fiction book author who says a major factor in him being able to attract 50,000 Twitter followers is engaging with other writers.

Travis Taylor, founder of the tourist blog, wanderlust Atlanta, getting his signed copy of Moving to Atlanta.

Travis Taylor, founder of the tourist blog, wanderlust Atlanta, getting his signed copy of Moving to Atlanta.

Some of the blogs and news sites that are either covering Moving to Atlanta in editorial, or are promoting it on social media include: ALTA’s Net News magazine; Vinings Lifestyle Magazine; Points North Atlanta magazine; wanderlust Atlanta, a blog exploring some of Atlanta’s most popular tourist destinations; AtlantaTrails.com; and “Mitch’s Media Musings,” an Atlanta Media blog by Mitch Leff, who is interviewed in my book on what the media environment is like in Atlanta.

In late March, I will be featured on BlogTalkRadio’s show, “Write Books that Sell Now,” where I will talk about Moving to Atlanta and other book-writing projects that cross genres. One of the hosts of that program, Anita Henderson, known as the “author’s midwife,” is a respected colleague who has been interviewed on “The Writing Well.”

#4 Get your book reviewed early on Amazon…and don’t forget to secure a few book blurbs.

Advance Reader Praise Advance Reader Praise_Eric Advance Reader Praise_Grant Heath

This is important, and it means thinking strategically  about who would be the best person to blurb your book. In my case real estate agents who know Atlanta and executive recruiters who are focused on attracting talent to Atlanta as well as new residents or people thinking about moving to Atlanta. I was fortunate to secure all three for Moving to Atlanta, with two making it on the book jacket.

One Final Thought

Finally, the hardest thing about marketing is turning it off so you have time to write…I am still working on that as I carve out time to finish my novel this year while continuing to market my current book. There’s no question that being an author today is not just about great writing and research skills. It’s also about being strategic with your time, and finding ways to get your network of connections to work with you to get the word out.

I wish all writers the best in their efforts on both fronts — don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for people to support you. Believe it when I say, it takes a village to be an author.

Let’s Get Social!

Follow Anne’s new book adventure on social media or visit her book website at these links:

Website: www.MovingtoAtlantaGuide.com

Twitter: @MovingtoAtlanta

Facebook:   http://bit.ly/M2AFacebook

Amazon: http://bit.ly/M2AAmazon

Moving to Atlanta Trivia Quiz:     http://bit.ly/MovingtoAtlantaQuiz

 

 

Writing Becomes…Jeffrey Herrington (Eaton)

 

JeffHerrington_MBMiami-cover-500          JeffHerrington_MBManhattan-cover-500

Great storytellers are my favorite people – they have energy and a curiosity for life; they are students of human nature and what drives behavior; and they have a gift for crafting a tale that keeps one transfixed.

That’s probably why Jeff Herrington is one of my favorite storytellers. The first time I met Jeff, I was a twenty-something corporate communicator working for NCR’s Employee Communications team in Dayton.  Jeff had flown in from Dallas to do a writing workshop that was filled with practical examples and best practices on how to reach and keep the attention of our readers. Jeff, even then, was at the top of his game, having done amazing projects for Fortune 500 clients like Whirlpool. His session kept my co-workers and I completely engaged. He knew the way to communicate with impact was through story.

It was no surprise to me that he has applied his considerable writing chops to the realm of novel writing, penning two mystery thrillers, Murder Becomes Manhattan and more recently, Murder Becomes Miami under his pen name Jeffrey Eaton.

The books are branded as “A Dalton Lee Mystery” – in honor of his quirky main character, a highly astute architect with a past. (By the way, Jeff, an architecture buff, has filled his books with wonderful insights on some of New York City’s and Miami’s most famous buildings).   I found his premise and plot compelling – and the characters fun and very real. His details on the setting were so authentic that I was transported into the middle of the Big Apple. (In fact, readers can get acquainted with not only the murder scenes in his book, but also the detectives, victims and suspects on his well-crafted book page, http://www.murdermanhattan.com.)

I reached out to Jeff to find out more about his books, what he’s learned on the path to published author, how to build audience and whether his corporate communications career has helped or hurt him along the way.  His responses, provided lightning fast after I shot the questions over to him, will enlighten the veteran and the virgin writer. Thanks for generously sharing your gifts, Jeff!

Q. What sparked your idea for your mystery thriller series?

Jeff: For some reason, I have always been drawn to stories of intrigue. I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys Mystery Series between ages 7 -12. After that, I got hooked on Agatha Christie’s novels. So writing mysteries has always been lurking in the back of my mind as something I’d like to do.

Then, a few years ago, I was in a bookstore and saw Sue Grafton’s series using the alphabet (A is for Alibi) and I thought, “What a gig!” It got me to thinking about how I might create a similar but different series and the idea of having each novel set in a different global location, but all starting with the letter ‘M’ was born.

Q. What was the most challenging and gratifying aspect to seeing your idea become a published book? What would you like to have done differently the first time (publishing or writing lesson to share with other aspiring authors)?

 

Jeff: The most challenging aspect was (and continues to be) finding the time to market the books. Although I enjoy marketing, I’m not terribly comfortable with guerilla marketing but these days you really have to do that to get noticed in a crowd. It pays off — we spend a week marketing heavily and see sales climb as a result, but then they drop flat again the minute you stop. It’s relentless.

The most gratifying thing is seeing the reviews. Both “Murder Becomes Manhattan” and “Murder Becomes Miami” have average ratings above 4.0 out of 5. And some people are really really hooked on the series. That’s exciting — to know I have created something people really cannot wait to read on the airplane, or once they get to the pool at their hotel in Cancun.

Q. I know you are an accomplished corporate writer and lecturer who has traveled extensively. How has your career as a corporate communicator served you well as you crossed into the realm of book author?

Jeff: Great question. The downside is that, in corporate PR, we mostly write to the AP Stylebook. But in the world of fiction we write to the Chicago Manual of Style. Thank heavens I have an editor grounded in that!  The positive affect is that corporate communication emphasizes a need to get to the point quickly. I have adopted that in both books. You are very much dropped into the action from the get-go. Many readers have told me they find the books exciting in that way. They are ushered into the book pretty quickly and have to hold on from there.

Q. I noticed that you opted to not use your real name for your novels. What made you go in that direction?

Jeff: Three factors:  A) The desire for privacy and the opportunity to write other more serious books later under my real name if I choose B) The name Eaton fits on a book cover much more easily than does Herrington.  C) My father was a dancer in vaudeville and motion pictures back in the 1930s. His stage name was Jerry Eaton, so I chose Eaton as my ‘stage name’ as an homage to him.

Q. Who is your favorite character in each of your books and why?

 

Jeff: There is a team of architects/detectives in my books who work on solving the murders. However, my readers overwhelmingly seem to gravitate toward Dalton Lee, the head of the architecture firm and the main detective in the books. However, he has also become my favorite as well. Poor Dalton is 40ish and already grappling with the early stages of mid-life crisis. He has such a great heart but he is such a social oaf at times. Then there is the fact that statues, department store mannequins, even taxicab ashtrays have conversations with him. I think people find his quirkiness appealing, especially since, despite all of his goofiness, he is the genius who always solves the crime.

Q. Do you think writing a series is the wave of the future for authors? Do you find it’s an effective way to build audience?

 

Jeff: Certainly in the mystery genre it is. Most people are telling me they like the Miami book more than Manhattan, but mostly because it is like reconnecting with old friends and seeing story lines that piqued your interest in the first book evolve in the next, and so on.

From an author’s standpoint, it is a wise thing to do, for the maxim is you always sell more of your first book when the second book comes out, and so on. That has been the case for me, and on those days when we sell just 2 books, invariably it is one copy of one title and one copy of the other, which tells me one person likely bought both. Series build income, a following and back sales in a way individual stories don’t.

Q. What city or cities will you be tackling next for a setting to your thriller series?

 

Jeff: The next book is set in London. “But London doesn’t start with an ‘M’, Jeff” you say. You are right, however the entire book will be set in London’s most posh neighborhood, Mayfair. So there you go. The other cities and their order are a secret (the next location always gets revealed at the end of a current book), but I can say that places/events like Madrid, Milan, Malibu, Myanmar, Monte Carlo, Moscow and Mardi Gras are all in the running.

 

Q. What has been the most surprising reader feedback you’ve received to date?

Jeff: One person who REALLY did not like Manhattan said I had completely lost her when she hit the part that said the identities of certain hostages were made known to their family members when the captors sent those family members small body parts of the person.  “Yeah right,” she said, or something to that effect. And yet, that plot line is straight out of the headlines, has happened in real life many times over the past 10 years. I guess it is good that we don’t want to believe the world can be really that gruesome. But it is reality, and I’ve been surprised by a few people (very few) who haven’t been able to believe some of the very real things that take place in my books.

Q. How important is it to build audience via social media? What tactics and platforms have worked best for the type of readers you are trying to attract?

 

Jeff: Social media is tough. I have a cohort who is a master at it and he knocks things out all over the place all the time. We get lots of likes, followers etc. But getting that to translate into sales is not easy. To be honest, I find personal appearances to be far more helpful than social media right now. I give a talk at a book club or a bookstore and the books fly off the shelves.

That said, all it takes is one key connected person raving about your books to their friends on social media and the next thing you know you are a smash sensation. There are certain days where we sell 3, 5, 8 copies of the books and I know someone on social media somewhere must have said something to prompt those sales because I haven’t made a personal appearance that week.

About Jeff Herrington

JeffHerrington_AuthorPhotoJeff Herrington is the author of two novels, Murder Becomes Manhattan and Murder Becomes Miami under the pen name, Jeffrey Eaton. He is also the founder and president of Jeff Herrington Communications, a Dallas-based writing coaching and consulting company. He offers a wide range of workshops, training communication teams on their writing and their ability to come up with innovative content approaches.

A few of his workshop offerings include:

  • Writing for the Web
  • Effective Feature Articles and Case Studies
  • Effective Organizational Blogs
  • Making Your Writing More Powerful
  • Making Your Writing More Professional
  • Innovative Editorial Techniques

As a writer, Jeff has traveled to more than 45 countries on five continents as a writer for the internal and external publications of IBM, AT&T, Whirlpool, Baxter Healthcare and John Deere, among many other companies. Learn more about Jeff Herrington Communications at www.jeffherrington.com.

To read excerpts from Jeff’s books, visit his author pages:

A Day of Renewal, New Friendships & Writing Connections

 

HeronHouseMainImage

Heron House in Mountain Park.

Counting my blessings today.  My book, Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, went to press today and I should have plenty of copies for my Feb. 21 book launch party.

Writing Group

I also met with a great group of women as we kicked off a new Writer’s Group. Heron House, a nearby venue, in Mountain Park, is  a 501-c3 non-profit center for sacred studies nestled in a wildlife refuge on the dam between Lake Cheerful and Lake Garrett in the City of Mountain Park. Upon walking into the space it immediately feels restful and spiritual, and definitely lives up to its name as a “Sacred Earth Sanctuary.” 

This is just the setting I’ve been hoping for to return to writing and editing my debut historical novel, Torrential.  I’ve missed immersing myself in my characters, including Kieran, a traumatized Irish sailor who must confront his past when a massive flood threatens his life and those he cares about.

My group includes old friends Mari Ann and Carolyn, who I’ve known from our writing group days HeronHouseDoorEngravingwith Jedwin Smith, and three new friends:  Kathleen, June and Marla.  Our group’s philosophy and approach honor writing mentor Rosemary Daniell and her Zona Rosa (meaning the “Pink Zone,” or the “Women’s Zone” in Spanish) workshops. In fact, Rosemary plans to offer a one-day writer’s workshop this spring in the Atlanta area (I will provide more details on my blog once the workshop date is firm).

A writer and a teacher of writing, Rosemary is known for her provocative poems and personal memoirs. Rosemary’s book, The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself: Writing and Living the Zona Rosa Way, grew from her teaching

Rosemary Daniell

Rosemary Daniell

and writing experiences. “Support, stimulation and standards of excellence are the three attitudes that make Zona Rosa work,” Rosemary writes. “Make sure that you receive all three in any writing group in which you participate and in any discussion of your work. Insist that your strengths be supported, your weaknesses, while you are still conquering them, be treated with respect. Remember that what is commonly called criticism can be positive, and experienced as support.”

Each member of our writing group brings  different life experiences and is at a different phase in our writing journey. We all, however, share a common hope — to HeronHouse1connect and grow in our craft while making a genuine connection. The quality of the readings today bode well for our group. I’m going to learn a lot and am thankful to once again have a supportive circle to share my writing with, especially as I tackle the hardest part of my manuscript revisions around voice and pacing.

As we finished our first session, I asked each person to share one word that most describes how she felt about being here. Here’s what each woman said:

  • Marla – Courage
  • Anne – Sacred
  • Carolyn – Inspired
  • Mari Ann – Peaceful
  • Kathleen – Flying
  • June – Leaping

These are powerful sentiments and are indicative of feelings of friendship, acceptance, growth and excitement that can lead to transformative writing! As Kathleen notes, referencing a Walt Whitman quote from the movie, “The Dead Poet’s Society”:  “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?”

I can’t wait to see where we go from here  and the stories we will share.

 

Video as Story

Mountain View Group Shares Best Practices in
Digital & Video Communications 

Mountain View Group Principals

(L to R) Thom Gonyeau and Stephen Pruitt, principals with Atlanta creative agency Mountain View Group.

Mountain View Group, an award-winning Atlanta-based creative communications agency founded in 1981 by a documentary filmmaker, wowed professional communicators on Jan. 26 with their insights on the power of video storytelling.

“Story is ultimately about affecting change – it could be change in what someone knows…it could be change in what someone believes…and it could be change in what one does,” Thom Gonyeau, Mountain View Group’s principal and founder told the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) during the organization’s first meeting of 2016.  “Story is the means, and change is the end.”

Gonyeau, a creative storyteller for over 20 years, was joined by principal Stephen Pruitt, as they shared the keys to engaging people’s hearts and minds in today’s video age.

Noting that “a very high value is placed on video content,” Gonyeau cited a statistic from B2B Marketer that over 80% of B2B marketers now rely on video content in their annual communication plans, posting video via corporate websites, YouTube, video blogs and even six-second Vines.  ChiefMarketer.org, reports an even higher percentage of video usage at around 96%.  “In the B2C space, you are talking about 100%,” he added.

Gonyeau called the “holy grail’ of video storytelling is when companies take a long-term approach to their video strategy rather than doing one-off videos.

“One thing we’ve learned is that no one really needs a video. What you need is a solution to a business problem,” said Pruitt, explaining that is how his firm always starts conversations with new clients. “If you start to think that way about your video content or any creative content, you start to think more strategically about your message and what you need that content to do for you.”

Pruitt explained that video isn’t always the best communication tool if one needs to present a lot of detailed information. But it’s a great medium to excite, engage and emotionally connect with people. “Video can stir the imagination – it’s a great vehicle to showcase people, places…it’s also a great way to motivate people to want to learn more,” he said.

One thing is clear, Mountain View Group knows its stuff.  Pruitt said the team tackles an average of 150 projects a year, from corporate videos, animation and commercials to graphic design, communications strategy planning to social media. Last year at the IABC Atlanta’s annual Golden Flame Awards, the Inman Park creative firm won eight Golden Flames for their work.

Gonyeau said there are three ideal times for a video story:  at the birth of a new company, when a company is going through major change, and when it is facing real challenges. In the case of change, video can “bring some certainty to the chaos.” During times of challenge there’s “an incredible opportunity to use story in an authentic and purposeful way to get your message out there,” he said.

Mountain View’s team of 15 full-time creatives takes a process-driven approach to helping their clients strategically think about their video project. They start with the “Creative Brief” – a consensus-building tool that enables client and agency to jointly define the project deliverables and the purpose and objectives, including audience and key messages.

Gonyeau considers the purpose and objectives “the real meat” of the brief.  It’s where he asks clients, “Why this?” “Why now?” “What’s changed?”  It’s also when the agency helps the clients define the creative challenge of “What do you want the audience to think, feel and do?”

From the Project Brief, Mountain View’s team defines their client’s story. A storytelling worksheet helps the process along – it embraces the classic three-act screenplay structure, including the concept of a hero.

An important detail is distribution of the video, leveraging a company’s internal and external social media, video and PR channels. “Too many people leave this as an afterthought,”   said Pruitt.  “When  you tell stories with video, you are making an investment and you want to make sure you are getting the most out of that investment. Creating a multi-channel distribution plan is the way to do that.”

He advised, “Look at what the core communication channels are to reach the target audience, whether it’s internal, external, corporate marketing, PR, social media. You can figure out which ones to take the most advantage of and which ones you didn’t think of to get this message out. Then, once you have the distribution plan mapped out, promote it.”

Mountain View’s principals then shared examples of their agency’s video work from clients such as Coca-Cola, Raytheon and GE.  Check out videos showcasing:

The two presenters summed up their talk by sharing a quote by Seth Godin: “Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.”

Following the presentation, communication pros shared their impressions:

  • “I loved the talk and the Creative Brief leave-behind in how to construct a story. Very worthwhile!” – Scott Dixon, President, CATMEDIA
  • “The most valuable takeaway from the talk was the necessity of doing a Creative Brief and to know the one key message you’re going to give. In my experience working as freelancer for corporate clients, we sometimes forget to ask, ‘What is your objective?’ ‘Why do you need a video?’”- Elisabeth Holmes, The Writing Studio
  • “The point that no one needs a video; what they need is a solution to a problem, really stood out for me because it brings everything back to the business and keeps us focused, allowing us to drive the business forward. “ –Uzo Amajor, Internal Communications Manager

Finishing Book Projects Top of My New Year’s Resolutions

M2A-050_AuthorPhoto

It’s a new year, and a time to reflect and make resolutions. For me, 2016 will be the year I finish my book on moving to Atlanta and my historical novel. Both of these projects are special for different reasons. I last wrote a book in 2005, after losing my mother to lung cancer.

 From Mother-Daughter Memoir to Moving Guide to Historical Romance

A Breath Away: Daughters Remember Mothers Lost to Smoking, my anti-smoking memoir, was A Breath Away cover (hi-res)written while grieving the loss of my own mother as I was becoming a mom.  I find myself saddened that many of the daughters in my book have been stricken with cancer, including my friend  Jackie Graff, who passed away last month from lung cancer.  At the time my book was independently published, and it it didn’t benefit from today’s social media environment, where you can create an author platform and connect with your readers.

My next book is called Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide, It came about by a chance meeting with Newt Barrett, publisher of Voyager Media in Estero, Fla. We met through a mutual friend right before my family’s move back to Atlanta this past June. I learned that Newt, a fellow Ohio buckeye, was a successful publisher of city moving guides, mostly in Florida and other Southeastern cities. Why not Atlanta?

High Res M2A coverWe agreed that I would be able to tackle this since I was moving back to a city where I’d lived for 16 years — and also the place where I had met my husband, had a family and started my writing company. I’ve enjoyed researching what makes Atlanta such a cool place to call home…and have met and interviewed some amazing Atlantans along the way, including Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline.  

I included a spotlight on key intown and suburban communities, where I interviewed residents on what makes their neighborhood unique. I believe these firsthand accounts set my book apart from other guides. Expect to see Moving to Atlanta: The Un-Tourist Guide on bookshelves this spring.

Author Page Header

I also intend to finish my historical novel, Torrential, set in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, at the time of the 1913 flood. The last year of relocating to one city and coming back made it difficult to do the final editing of this turn-of-the-century love story focused on an Irish seaman who survived the sinking of the RMS Titanic only to find himself facing a catastrophic flood after moving to Dayton to start a new life.

I fell in love with this story, partly because it was loosely inspired by my grandmother’s family, who owned a boarding house in Dayton at the time of the flood. My grandmother met and fell in love with a boarder, a theme that I bring to life in Torrential I wrote this manuscript in 2013 and 2014, received feedback from numerous advance readers and even had it evaluated by a professional editor. Many people think this story is made for the Big Screen, including a screenwriting coach who I’ve consulted with. I will begin the final content edits for Torrential this month.

One thing the last few years has taught me is that I am happiest when I can write stories about people and events that resonate and inspire me. Atlanta is fertile ground for this exercise, and so is my historical novel.  What a great time to be a storyteller!

Author Bio

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Anne Wainscott-Sargent moved to Atlanta in 1998. She is a writer, blogger and strategic storyteller specializing in the tech and education sectors. An avid history buff and movie-goer, she loves following Atlanta’s growing film industry, connecting with other writers in the Atlanta area, and enjoying the natural beauty of the Chattahoochee River’s many bicycle paths.  She and her husband live in Roswell with their two children. She hopes to finish her first novel, a work of historical fiction, in 2016.

Visit Anne’s consulting website at: http://annewainscott.com/writing-consulting-services/ or her blog, The Writing Well, at: http://annewainscott.com/blog/. Connect with her on Twitter: @annewainscott.

The Odds Are In Your Favor with the Final Hunger Games

Hunger-Games

Today, The Writing Well features a movie review of the final Hunger Games’ movie, Mockingjay – Part 2, which opened over the weekend with an estimated $101 million in North America and $146 million internationally.  The post, written by Chicago-based blogger and movie buff Spencer Blohm, is a must-read for anyone who is a fan of Suzanne Collins’ blockbuster books and the film adaptations.  I last wrote about this film after a Dragon*Con YA panel that explored whether the first film delivered the goods given the huge popularity of the books.

Spencer tells Spencer_HeadShotme he is a lifelong movie lover and wishes it were possible to time travel back to the golden era of Hollywood cinema and meet Judy Garland — though Jennifer Lawrence would be “pretty cool, too.” Take it away, Spencer!

 * * * * * * * * *

 

For the past three years, no dystopian film franchise has garnered more audience and critical praise than The Hunger Games series. It blends all the aspects of action, science fiction, political commentary and romance that young audiences crave while giving viewers a grim reminder of what a corrupt society can do to the world. Although the end of this film series is bittersweet, Katniss Everdeen’s saga goes out with a bang in Mockingjay – Part 2.

 

The eponymous first book, written by Suzanne Collins, has flown off shelves since its debut in 2008, and the sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, were both instant bestsellers. The trilogy revolves around teenage Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and the Districts of Panem, which are under the tight rule of the vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and the vicious Hunger Games, which sacrifice innocent children supposedly in the name of unity. While the first two films put Katniss in the arena to fight for her and her sort-of love interest Peeta’s (Josh Hutcherson) lives, the final two installments focus on the downfall of the corrupt society and the ways Katniss must change and fight for a better world. Before you see the newest film, you can catch up on the three previous installments on cable TV and Hulu.

 

The films in the franchise have become progressively more intense with each installment, much like the books. As Katniss grows from an unlucky adolescent to a true revolutionary, she’s burdened with her own morality and grittier ethical decisions. Mockingjay – Part 2 doesn’t hold back from the heartbreaking events of the final novel, edging it away from teen flick to a political and thought-provoking action/adventure film. Although still a teenager in the final installment, Katniss has grown into a powerful symbol of courage and sacrifice — all while remaining flawed and inarguably human.

KatnissDespite Lawrence’s acting capabilities, it is apparent she’s worn Katniss for just about as long as she can. Lawrence has simply outgrown the role, which shows onscreen. She has evolved into an Oscar-winning actress since the first Hunger Games film, and the young adult novel series just isn’t her platform anymore. But just because the role is a bit stale doesn’t mean the movie is a dud. In fact, it’s an explosive send-off to a beloved film series. The emotional climax is performed perfectly, and fan favorite roles (including Elizabeth Banks‘ flamboyant Effie Trinket and Woody Harrelson‘s sardonic Haymitch Abernathy) get their chance to shine before the series ends. This film also showcases the talent of several generations of actresses. Julianne Moore stuns as the icy Alma Coin and Game of ThronesGwendoline Christie appears as one of the only new characters to come into the last film.

 

The influence of the Hunger Games films have reached far past theater screens, and they inhabit a vital place in YA and dystopian film history. The series did not necessarily need to be drawn out for four movies instead of three (a common Hollywood device), and the leading lady can definitely benefit from hanging up her bow and arrows, but luckily, this last film is sure to leave a lasting impact on fans and newcomers alike.

Andrea Boeshaar on Writing Christian Romance Set during the Civil War

ATSF cover

Today, The Writing Well turns from horror and zombie apocalypse writing to the polar opposite genre of Christian romance writing set against the backdrop of the American Civil War.

We examine the latest work of Andrea Beshaar, a veteran romance novelist, writing coach, grandmother of five, and co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers.  Her newest book, A Thousand Shall Fall: A  Civil War Novel, opens in autumn 1864 in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, a 50-mile swath of fertile land situated between the Alleghenies to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east.

The book explains the significance of the Valley, whose rich stores of grain earned it the name the “Breadbasket of the Confederacy.” Of equal importance was the Valley’s role as a crucial transportation network for the South (General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson once said, “If the Valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”)

The book’s heroine, Carrie Ann Bell, shows plenty of pluck as a protective older sister and aspiring journalist eager to follow in her father’s footsteps. She is trying to keep her papa’s newspaper alive after he leaves to chronicle the war for the Confederacy,  She and her two sisters and her mentally unstable stepmother are forced to move into a disreputable inn and to work as servers for their board and keep when they come upon hard times. While there, Carrie Ann meets Colonel Peyton Collier, an injured Union cavalry officer, whose gentlemanly conduct moves Carol Ann to provide medical care in spite of their divided loyalties.

Months later, Carrie Ann learns that her younger sister has run off, so she disguises herself as a Yankee soldier to find her.  The last thing Carol Ann expected was to run into Colonel  Collier, who immediately arrests her for impersonating an officer, but,remembering her kindness to him, shields her from worse punishment. As the two spend more time together, Carrie Ann and Peyton begin to fall in love.  But, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem, as Carrie Ann struggles to reconcile her feelings for the cavalry officer with loyalty to family and her best friend,  Joshua, a major and Confederate spy.

There were times while reading A Thousand Shall Fall that I would have liked more romantic tension and struggle between these two characters, even in the context of this being a Christian love story, but overall it was still a compelling read.

I thought the author’s  secondary characters, particularly the colonel’s spinster aunt (who takes a lot of heat from her neighbors for being an abolitionist with Northern sympathies) and the aunt’s old rival, Mrs. Monteague, a pampered and stalwart defender of Old Virginia, were well crafted and engaging.

I would have liked to have seen a similar amount of depth devoted to the narrative around Carrie Ann’s family– as a reader, I didn’t feel vested in the missing younger sister because I never got the sense that the sisters were close.

ColonelJohnSMosbyPortrait

John S. Mosby, the “Gray Ghost”

What was well developed was the battle scenes (including the horror of war as experienced by civilians) as well as the historical detail. I applaud Andrea for weaving in historic military figures such as  Union General Philip H. Sheridan and the elusive Confederate Calvary commander John S. Mosby, the Gray Ghost.

Below, The Writing Well, asked Andrea about her writing inspiration and what she hopes readers get from her latest work. I for one highly recommend this story, especially for fiction lovers of Civil War history. A Thousand Shall Fall is set for release on Nov. 27.

Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar

Andrea Kuhn Boeshaar

THE WRITING WELL: What draws you to Christian romantic fiction as a writer and to the Civil War time period specifically? Is that your favorite time period to write about?

 

Andrea Boeshaar: I used to love reading secular romances when my sons where young. In the 1980s, I decided to try my hand at writing secular romance. However, after I became a Christian, I felt personally convicted about writing stories that didn’t honor the Lord Jesus Christ. I began reading novels published in the Christian market. At the time, there weren’t many out there. The market has grown by leaps and bounds!

 

As for the Civil War – my father was a CW enthusiast and as a child I remember walking through the Vicksburg Battlefield. I didn’t appreciate that trip until I was older. My father was still alive when my first novel was published in 1994. He read it, although as an associate professor at a local university, Christian romance wasn’t his cup of tea. However, I think my father enjoyed the amount of historical facts I blend into my stories. So many Civil War novels skirt the war, specifically avoiding battles. I decided to tackle the time periods. When I do research, I become engrossed in it and my characters evolve from it. I’ve written novels and novellas in all different time periods, including contemporary fiction, but it’s always here in the United States because my true passion is American history. In the same vein, I read all sorts of Christian fiction – and some secular fiction too.

THE WRITING WELL:  What character do you most identify with in A Thousand Shall Fall? What techniques do you employ to give your characters their unique voice?

 

Andrea Boeshaar: I identify with Aunt Ruth. She’s a little quirky and manipulative, but she does what she does out of a fierce love – and out of spite for her next door neighbor. Personally, I’ve got the quirks, but I’m not manipulative. However, I love my husband and sons fiercely and my daughters-in-law could probably tell you a few interesting tales about tangling with me.

THE WRITING WELL:  The setting and historical references in your novel really put me as a reader into the time period of the Civil War. I especially admired how you exhibited the animosities and loyalty of people who were neighbors, friends etc. before the war but who now were fighting on opposing sides of the war. How important is research to getting the atmosphere and details right to make this kind of novel authentic to history buffs?

 

Andrea Boeshaar:  It’s extremely important! As I mentioned above, I get an idea for a story and immediately begin researching it. My characters evolve from it. I’ve read Mary Chestnut’s diary and Sarah Morgan’s diary and then I got a feel for how people spoke and wrote back in the 1860s. I read Shelby Foot’s books on the Civil War and James McPherson’s book, “What They Fought For.” All the while, the idea of my novel percolated in my brain. The same system works for any time period I choose to write in. But what is essential is to visit the location (if possible) as I’m writing. When I do that, my entire story comes alive to me.

THE WRITING WELL:  I loved Aunt Ruth – do you have plans to write a “prequel” to A Thousand Shall Fall that captures some of her story and that of her loyal servant Tabitha and rival and neighbor, Frances?

 

Andrea Boeshaar:  I’m glad you liked Aunt Ruth. At this point, no, I don’t have plans for a prequel, but that doesn’t mean I won’t eventually write one. I think it would be fun!

THE WRITING WELL:  What do you want your readers to get out of this story – and your other novels?

 

Andrea Boeshaar:  My prayer is that readers see the transforming power of God in my characters’ lives. Jesus wants us to come to Him as we are, in humility and brokenness. We can never be good enough to come to Him. Jesus, Himself, said that He came to save the unrighteous, not the righteous. So that’s what I hope – I hope this story is faith in action.

THE WRITING WELL:  What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?

 

Andrea Boeshaar:  Currently, I’m writing book two in my Shenandoah Valley Saga. It will release, God willing, November 2016; book three in November 2017. I also signed a three book contract with Prism Book Group to write three shorter contemporary romance novels. In addition to my writing, I own a corporation called Pink Ink, Inc. I’m an Avon Representative, which is proving to be so much more than selling lipstick to my neighbors. It’s becoming a ministry! And I operate Steeple View Coaching and Writer’s ER. So…I’m busy and staying out of trouble.

Combating the Darkness: Inside the Writing Process of Multi-Bram Stroker Award Winner Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry

There are few horror writers out there today as prolific as New York Times’ bestselling author  Jonathan Maberry, who won the Bram Stoker Award for his first horror novel, Ghost Road Blues, in 2007, and has gone on to receive horror fiction’s most prized honor three additional times. As I write this post, he is nearing completion of his 25th novel.

A multi-dimensional writing talent, Maberry is known not only for his adult novels such as Dead of Night and Patient Zero, but also for his comic books and his YA books. ROT & RUIN, a SciFi novel set in post-zombie-apocalypse and told through the eyes of 15-year-old Benny Imura, made it on Booklist’s Top 10 Horror fiction for Youth in 2011 and is now in development for film.

Maberry is a busy guy  but not too busy to make time to share his writing journey DragonConLogowith other aspiring authors. At this year’s Dragon*Con convention in Atlanta, I had the privilege to hear him speak on two author panels and included some of his more memorable soundbites on my DragonCon wrap-up blog post.

Dead of Night Book OneA week before Halloween, while in the throes of reading book one of Maberry’s Dead of Night series, I asked him to be featured on The Writing Well. He not only agreed, but he also responded to my questions within a few hours  the day before a major trip.  That says it all.

Here’s our Q&A about his journey as a writer — sit back with your favorite Halloween brew and enjoy!

 

THE WRITING WELL: What drew you as a writer to the dark themes that are prevalent in your novels, especially the zombie-apocalypse?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I know monsters firsthand. I was raised in an intensely abusive household and in a very violent and very poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. My father was a

Beloved and wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

Wacky Harry Potter character, Luna Lovegood.

genuine monster. A couple of things cast a little light into that darkness. My grandmother (imagine Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter movies as an old lady) was very knowledgeable about folklore, myths and legends, mostly from Europe. She gave me many books to read, told me wonderfully creepy stories, and encouraged me to imagine the endings to the folk tales she’d tell. And my middle school librarian encouraged me to read science fiction, fantasy and horror. She knew I wanted to write and my stories tended toward the dark. She was also the secretary for a couple of clubs of professional writers, and so was able to introduce me to some of the members. They included Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and others. Those writers, especially Bradbury and Matheson, took me under their wings, offered advice and critiques of my stories, and they encouraged me to read even deeper.

However one thing to note is that I don’t write about monsters. I write about people who confront monsters. I don’t write about darkness. I write about people who combat darkness. The difference is significant.

THE WRITING WELL: Why do you think that genre is so compelling to people (as evident by the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead”?
walking-dead

JONATHAN MABERRY: We are all afraid of something, even the bravest of us. I’m now a big man and I’ve been studying martial arts for over fifty years. I’m an 8th degree black belt in jujutsu, a member of the international martial arts hall of fame, and a former professional bodyguard. I’m not afraid of, say, a maniac with a knife, but that doesn’t mean I’m free from fear. I fear diseases, mishandled technologies, religious extremism, and so on. Things that are too big (or, in the case of pathogens, too small) for me to fight. Those are things that I can’t defend my family against. We all understand fear.

Horror fiction allows us to explore extreme cases of fear. Zombies are a perfect example of that. We see the zombie outbreak in books, TV, comics and movies and we wonder how we would survive. Could we, in fact, survive? Could we keep our families safe? Could we fight back and win? This same what-if thinking flows over into stories about vampires, werewolves, pernicious spirits, and so on. We walk through the shadows of fictional horror carrying a torch of our own optimism and imagination.

Shows like “The Walking Dead” are not about zombies. They are about people trying to rebuild their lives after catastrophic damage. The title of the show, by the way, does not refer to the zombies. Robert Kirkman has been quite eloquent in explaining that Rick, Daryl and the others are the ‘walking dead’. The lives they once lived have ended and they are searching for a new place to be alive again. Fiction allows us to share that journey and apply much of it to our own lives.

 

THE WRITING WELL: How would you describe your writing process?

JONATHAN MABERRY: I am a methodical writer. I’m deeply passionate about the craft of writing and I love the business aspects as well. It’s both my job and my calling. Since it is my job, I put in the hours. I write every day. I hit my deadlines. I expand my business by developing new stories, I manage my own social media (I do ten minutes of social media every hour of my writing day), and I devote time to cultivating and supporting other writers.

 

On a typical workday I spend two to four hours each morning, usually working at a coffee shop. Then I hit the gym or go for a long walk with the dog. In the afternoon I return home and do another four hours in my office there. I try to write 3-4 thousand words per day. A bit less if I’m traveling, at a convention, or giving a talk. More if I’m closing in on a deadline. This year I’ll have written four and a half novels, twenty-two short stories, a dozen issues of comic books, and appeared at thirty-one events.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Do you write first from a character or a plot premise? 

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: I do both. My stories usually start with characters. They usually wander out of the back of my mind and into a story that’s forming based on something I’ve seen, read, or cooked up. Once I know the character, I think about what the character wants and what he needs. At that point I sit down and hammer out a loose plot. I always allow my stories to change in the telling, of course, because it’s unreasonable to assume that you had all your best ideas the day you outlined your book.

 

Once in a while a plot premise will come first, but as soon as I have that I shift gears to examine the human element of the story. Stories are about people, not events. That’s critical to good storytelling.

 

THE WRITING WELL: At a Dragon*Con panel you said you always run your stories by your wife for feedback. What was the most memorable feedback she ever provided?

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

Authors AJ Huntley and Jonathan Maberry at the 2015 Dragon*Con held in Atlanta.

JONATHAN MABERRY: One of the most important aspects of my creative interactions with my wife, Sara Jo, is that she is all about characters. She will call me on it if a character is ever acting contrary to their presumed nature. She calls it ‘acting out of integrity’. She is invariably correct. She isn’t a writer, but her understanding of people is superb, insightful, and wise.

 

We met walking in a park. Well, I was walking and she was jogging. The person with whom I was walking was a mutual friend, so Sara Jo stopped to talk. She and I had a little moment of shared electricity. But I thought she was married, and she thought I was dating the woman I was strolling with. Neither was the case. When Sara Jo found out I was single, she called me. I have never much believed in the ‘love at first sight’ thing, but you can call me a convert now.

 

THE WRITING WELL: Finally, what aspect of your own craft have you worked on the hardest to master or fine tune  (the thing that perhaps didn’t come as easily)? How can up-and-coming writers  do to get their writing to the next level?

 

JONATHAN MABERRY: Fiction was the real challenge for me. Even though I wrote stories as a kid, I planned to become a newspaper reporter. I went to Temple University to study journalism, and while I was there I began selling magazine feature articles. For twenty-five years I wrote articles, columns, and reviews for magazines of all kinds. While teaching at Temple University I began writing textbooks –not on writing, but on martial arts history, women’s self-defense, and related topics). And I also wrote greeting cards, song lyrics, poetry, plays, how-to manuals, training scripts, and a slew of other materials. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I decided to try fiction. It was an experiment and I had no formal training in creative writing. None.

To teach myself the craft, I read everything I could, and then I began deconstructing my favorite novels in the genre in which I wanted to write. I read those books as a reader, and then I re-read them multiple times as a writer, breaking them down to the three acts, then to outlines, studying the elements of figurative and descriptive language, voice, pace, tension, action, dialogue. All of it. When I felt that I was ready I outlined a novel and began writing. It took me over three years to finish that book, and another six months to revise it.

bramstokerThat’s the point at which I had to go out and find an agent. I got a good one, too. Sara Crowe, currently of the Harvey Klinger Agency. Sara sold my first novel, Ghost Road Blues, and its two sequels to Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint. The book surprised the hell out of me by winning the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. That award seriously validated my decision to try fiction. As I write this I’m three days away from finishing my 25th novel. And I write short stories and comics. Fiction is virtually everything I do in this phase of my writing career, and I have very little interest in looking back at my nonfiction days. Two of those novels are in development for film and another is in development for TV; and I’m adapting Ghost Road Blues into a pilot for a potential series.

However, I’m still learning the craft. It’s fun but not easy, and I believe it is incumbent on every writer to try and better their best. Always.

Paying Tribute to Purdue’s Music Maker: Chuck Coe

Band Members dadbandstandsV2img182

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
— Arthur O’Shaughnessy, British poet (1844-1881)

The Writing Well is delighted to pay tribute today to a special music maker — my husband’s 99-year-old grandfather, Charles (Chuck) Coe.

Last week, he received a lifetime entertainment award from Second Wind Dreams®, a non-profit devoted to granting a dream to those living in eldercare communities or in hospice care. The organization, begun in 1997, has fulfilled more than 10,000 dreams nationwide since its founding.

ChucUniformk, a World War II vet and graduate of Purdue University, earned his way through engineering school as a band leader and musician, playing clarinet, flute and saxophone. His group, “Chuck Coe and the Purduvians” performed at dances and special events, and even made three cruises to Europe and back entertaining passengers. When the war came, Chuck served as an Army captain in the 2nd Armored Division’s Hell on Wheels, where he was part of the D-day invasion + 3. He was head of communication for the battalion, making sure all the radios worked.

I could feel the love and regard for Chuck as residents, staff and family members came to pay their respects at his assisted living home in Roswell. His three children and their spouses were on hand, as well as my husband and our two kids, who are his great-grandchildren.

“Wow, sure appreciate it,” said Chuck, after receiving the award.

Sue Hamilton hugging Chuck -- she coordinated Chuck's musical tribute.

Sue Hamilton hugging Chuck — she coordinated Chuck’s musical tribute.

Sue Hamilton, the healthy lifestyle coordinator for the facility, planned and executed the entire event, serving as liaison with Second Wind Dreams and securing entertainment. She  hugged Chuck and showed everyone a lamp he fashioned from his old clarinet.

A special lamp Chuck made from his reetired clarinet.

A special lamp.

She then introduced Amber, who transported everyone back to the big band music of the 40s, kicking off her tribute singing Billie Holiday’s “What’s New?” before delving into countless Glenn Miller tunes.

Linda Coatsworth, Chuck’s youngest and a hammered dulcimer player, said she was so happy with how the event went. “We weren’t real sure how well he was going to do with a surprise, but I think he’s done quite well for 99 and a half.” Added Linda: “What’s so wonderful about this event is that dad was able to enjoy the tribute, whereas these kinds of tributes usually happen after the one honored has passed.”

Asked what she is most proud of about her dad, Linda said, “His example – to stay calm, don’t get excited. I don’t think I ever heard him raise one loud voice to mom in his 75 years of marriage to her. He’s such a role model.”

Chuck with his kids (L to R) Linda, Larry and Carol.

Chuck with his kids (L to R) Linda, Larry and Carol.

Carol, Chuck’s oldest, who plays the piano as well as the hammered dulcimer, said, “Seeing the good in others and being grateful no matter what,” is the quality of her father that stays with her the most. “It’s cute that the people who work here say he is so special to them. They would like him for a father if I would share him.”
Carol was only two years old when her father went off to war, and was in kindergarten when he returned. Her brother, Larry, was just an infant when he returned home.

“I remember when he came home after the war. We had this little house in Lafayette, Indiana, and he had his uniform on and just stood there. Mother said, ‘This is your father. He’s going to live here,'” recalled Carol. “Chuck_PosterI was somewhat stunned. He was so peaceful. He smiled, he went out in the backyard and saw trees, bushes and grass, and he just looked like he landed in heaven. That was how I remembered really, really knowing him.”

Larry, who bears a strong likeness to his dad, told me that Chuck never spoke much about his experiences during WWII. He followed in his father’s footsteps as an engineer but didn’t take his career advice. “He advised me to not go to work in the steel business, but I did anyway.” Larry said, chuckling. “I remember us working underneath a ’47 Buick, rebuilding the engine. He had a cigarette in his mouth and ash about that long coming off the end of the cigarette until it finally fell on his face.”

Chuck with Amber after her musical performance.

Chuck with Amber after her musical performance.

I caught up with Amber after her music performance concluded, and she shared that this was the first time she ever performed Big Band songs for someone. “This was fun for me because this is the music I sing in my car, the music I love and that I’ve been singing for years and years.”
Amber explained that Chuck told her he played the saxophone and the flute and pretty much any woodwind in his orchestra. She notes that all the Big Band songs have a specific order– first you sing two verses, then a chorus, and then there is a dance break before you come back to do a chorus again.

“During the dance break you’re almost always have a piano solo or more often than not, a woodwind solo. So, I could imagine Chuck standing up during the dance breaks to play his solo saxophone. When I was putting the set together, that was what I was imagining.”
Chuck_Tribute

Doreen Scascitelli, CEO of Second Wind Dreams, seemed visibly moved by Chuck’s response and the outpouring of people at the celebration. “Seeing the community come out and everyone supporting him – that’s the principle   this organization was founded on. It’s not just the dream – it’s actually about unity and everyone being involved in the dream, from the people who provided the champagne to the people who provided the cake, to the person who did the poster. The dreams, whether they are simple or sublime, all have an amazing meaning for the elder and for the community.”