Blog Archives

Grammatically Correct: The Secret Life of Pronouns

by Dodici Azpadu

061957-firey-orange-jelly-icon-people-things-people-singing200The problem with pronouns is them turn up where him least expect those, which case they is confused by who. Any questions?

No errors show up when Microsoft Word’s grammar checker is used on the opening sentence of this article. It’s possible the sentence received a pass because the errors in it crashed the correction function. Enough said about relying on a grammar checker for pronoun errors.

Consider the types of pronouns writers need to use correctly: personal, demonstrative, indefinite, interrogative, possessive, reciprocal, reflexive, and relative. I tell my English 101 students that I don’t care if they know the names of parts of speech, so long as they use words correctly. For writers, however, knowing the parts of speech and how they function is essential to craft. After all, if writers were painters they would know how and when to mix cadmium white and cerulean blue.

In my previous article, “Grammatically Correct: Pronoun Consistency,” I concentrated on pronoun agreement using personal and indefinite pronouns. In this column, I will note a few rules that help writers avoid the vague use of they, it, and you. A frequent error comes in the form of they say or it says constructions.

They predict that Federer will not be in the Australian Open finals this year.

The pronoun they must refer to a specific antecedent, and there is none.

Bloggers predict that Federer will not be in the Australian Open finals this year.

Bloggers is almost as vague as they, but it is a noun.

Writers who use the pronoun it carelessly can also go astray. The clause above—but it is a nounuses it correctly because it refers back to bloggers. Students frequently use the following faulty construction.

In the essay, it says Romeo was a teenager.

The construction is not simply wordy and vague. The pronoun it has no specific antecedent. A corrected version can be written as:

The essay describes Romeo as a teenager.

The pronoun you should not be used in a general sense to refer to a group. It should be used when the writer directly addresses the reader.

The rule book says you cannot bat out of turn.

Many people speak this way informally, but writers can maintain an informal tone and still write correctly. The tone is not appreciably changed by the correct form:

The rule book says players cannot bat out of turn.

Notice how correct grammar helps writers achieve clarity.


Dodici Azpadu, MFA, PhD is a novelist, short story writer, and poet. Her fiction publications include: Saturday Night in the Prime of Life and Goat Song (Aunt Lute/Spinsters Ink) and subsequently Onlywoman (London, England). Living Room (2010) and Traces of a Woman (2014), both by Neuma Books, are available as ebooks. She’s currently at work on a novel, tentatively titled Living Lies.

WearingThePhantomOut100Her poetry publications include Wearing the Phantom Out (2013) and Rumi’s Falcon from Neuma Books. Individual poems have appeared in Malpais Review, Adobe Walls, ContraACultura (online), Parnassus, Sinister Wisdom, Latuca, The Rag, and The Burning Bush. Her work has also been anthologized in Centos: A Collage of Poems and Hey Pasean!
Dodici teaches “The Joy of Poetry” and “Craft of Creating Writing” classes through University of New Mexico’s Osher Lifelong Learning.

This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Joy of Interviewing

by Sherri Burr

SherriBurrIn my article “5 Steps to Master the Art of Interviewing” I discussed how to set up, prepare, and conduct interviews. I also urged writers to write up the results immediately and share them with the subject. For today’s article, I focus on the joy of interviewing.

To maintain a writing life for the long haul, writers need to receive pleasure from the process. The more gratification we obtain from our work, the easier it is to overcome the pain of rejection and keep writing daily, monthly, and yearly. The writers I admire the most are still putting fingertips to keyboards into their eighties.

When I interviewed legendary author Max Evans in 2012, he was still writing at 87. Evans was working on a book about director Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch and The Getaway) and interviewing folks who worked with Peckinpah to gain information for his biopic. The day we had lunch, he was trying to reach Ali McGraw to set up an interview to discuss her collaboration with Peckinpah on The Getaway. Evans’ face was filled with delight as he discussed his planned attack for interviewing McGraw.

I have felt such bliss numerous times while preparing for or actually interviewing someone. In November 2011, I flew to Los Angeles to question actor Giancarlo Esposito who is known most recently for playing Gus on Breaking Bad. As sometimes happens, several attempts to interview Esposito had fallen through. For several years, I tried to obtain him for my television show ARTS TALK that I film during the semester so that my Entertainment Law students can interact with the talent they may someday represent. I finally obtained a date from him in early November 2011, only for my students to be disappointed when he had to cancel to film an episode of the hit television series Once Upon a Time.

At the end of November 2011, Esposito and I agreed to meet at his yoga studio during a block of time after he had completed a workout and before his meeting on a forthcoming film project. We drove around searching for a Starbucks and stumbled upon a gluten-free pastry shop where we were the only two customers. One of my students, Justine Hines (who was an Esposito fan), had prepared 20 questions, several of which dealt with the role of Gus. Since this was an extremely bad character that killed people, I asked Esposito about preparing for, playing, and ending a role like Gus.

Esposito said he agreed to play Gus because he “shows the devastation of meth in the West. I let roles speak to me and draw on their organic nature. Gus was unpredictable. Gus was graceful, caring, and polite. He cared about people. He ran a business, an illegal business. He took care to choose people with integrity. That went to the success of Gus.”

The director called in Esposito to inform him that he was killing off Gus at the end of Season Four. The six writers said they were sorry to see Gus go. They told Esposito, “We love to write for you.” Esposito said that is one of the highest compliments that a writer can give an actor.

Esposito found leaving Gus to be hard. He had to take time to shake off Gus. Sometimes he would catch himself walking like Gus and speaking like Gus. Indeed, he wanted to tell Gus to leave him alone. He finally accepted that excising Gus was like a journey and that he needed to compartmentalize the character from his soul.

As I listened to Esposito discuss this character, I was enthralled to be in his presence. To be a writer conducting an interview is to be a witness to the creative processes of others. Most writers craft work in an environment populated by one. When we interview, it allows the extroverted part of our nature, however small or large it may be, to surface and interact with others.

Take time to conduct interviews. It enhances and brings joy to your work and life.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the June 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Author Patricia Smith Wood

Patricia Smith Wood began writing in earnest after retiring from a successful business career—and only after giving herself permission to call herself a writer. Her mystery novels are a weaving of creativity, research, and the knowledge she gained as the daughter of a police officer/FBI agent, as well as her own experience working for the FBI. Patricia’s first mystery, The Easter Egg Murder (Aakenbaaken & Kent, 2013), was a 2013 NM/AZ Book Awards Finalist in two categories: Best Mystery and Best First Book. Murder on Sagebrush Lane (Aakenbaaken & Kent), her second novel in the series, was published in March 2015. The third, Murder on Frequency, is in the works. Visit her at her website:

MurderOnSagebrushLane200What is your elevator pitch for Murder on Sagebrush Lane?
“Harrie McKinsey finds a small child sitting in a flower bed, pajamas smeared with blood. The search for the child’s parents involves Harrie in a grisly murder investigation, a second murder, an attempted kidnapping, stolen top-secret data, and a killer who intends to make her his final victim.”

How is this book different from the first book in the series, The Easter Egg Murder?
The Easter Egg Murder was loosely based on a real, half-century-old unsolved murder in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I wanted to fictionalize it so I could solve it without getting myself in trouble. Murder on Sagebrush Lane started with one tiny thing I’d read about years ago, and from that I created a story to go with it. Along the way, I incorporated another tidbit I accidentally came across while researching, but there was no attempt to tell a fictionalized version of a true story in the second book.

What makes your Harrie McKinsey Mystery series unique from other cozy mysteries?
I don’t think there is another cozy series whose protagonist is an editor. That simply started as a device—a way to get her involved in solving a mystery. As it turns out, it also gives her free time in other stories to pursue her new hobby of solving crimes.

Which character in the series have you enjoyed writing the most?
I have the most fun with non-recurring characters. It’s satisfying to create someone who is obnoxious yet vulnerable (as I did with Winnie Devlin in Murder on Sagebrush Lane) or a deeply private and complex character like Senator Philip Lawrence (from The Easter Egg Murder.)

What are the challenges of writing a novel series?
When I finished the draft of the first one, I had no intention of making it a series. During my first successful meeting with an agent (and I use that term somewhat loosely because the “success” was only that she asked to see the first 50 pages!), I was caught by surprise when she asked if it was a series. My mind did a double flip, and I found myself saying, “Oh, yes. It definitely is!” So that became the challenge. How do I carry on with some of these people I’d just created, when I hadn’t planned to do so?

What are your strengths as a writer, and what do you do to overcome your weaknesses?
That’s a hard question. I’ll tell you what my critique group says. They like the way I portray my male characters. They claim it sounds like guys actually talking and how they would act. As for weaknesses, I have many, but keeping a rein on overusing some words comes to mind as a biggie. I do a lot of “find” and “replace” when I discover 386 occurrences of a word like “sometimes” or “someplace.”

Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I started out giving Harrie McKinsey the characteristic of slightly prophetic dreams. In the second book, that comes out briefly in the beginning, but doesn’t run through the rest of the story. I don’t know if that will be a factor in the third one or not. I’m sure Harrie will tell me if it is!

TheEasterEggMurder72What do you want to be known for as an author?
I’d be happy to have a reputation for giving the reader a tight, quick-paced story that leaves them wanting more when they finish.

Is there something you know now about the writing journey that you wish you had known when you first started?
I wish I’d truly known, in my bones, that I didn’t have to have all the answers before I started. I came to realize that “starting” was really the beginning of “learning” how to do it. Without ever starting, you can’t possibly learn the steps along the way. It’s so true that the only way to improve is to simply sit yourself down and start—no matter how bad you may think it is. You can only get better by actually “doing” it! And by the way, I made this monumental discovery when I attended my first SouthWest Writers meeting. I “got permission” from the people there to call myself a writer because I was actually writing. That was my first big step in learning how to improve.

What is the greatest tool in a writer’s arsenal?
A really good, compatible critique group. There’s nothing like surrounding yourself with people who will give you the unvarnished truth, and yet encourage you by pointing out the good things you’re doing. When you have people like that, whose opinions you value and trust, you can do amazing things. I’m confident that’s why The Easter Egg Murder was a finalist in the 2013 NM/AZ Book Awards in the categories of Best Mystery and Best First Book.

What is your writing routine like?
I hate deadlines, but I do my best work when the pressure is on to produce. And often that pressure comes from my critique group. I’m a “panster” so I sit down (often the night before a critique group meeting when I’m expected to bring something to read) and I produce. I let the characters tell me what’s going on in the next chapter. You’d hardly call it a routine, but it seems to work for me.

Why did you choose Aakenbaaken & Kent to be your publisher?
Largely because they were the first ones to ask me! I wish there had been a vigorous competition amongst the five top New York houses to snap me up, but alas, that was not the case. They also came highly recommended to me by an award-winning writer, whose opinion I trusted. I’ve been well treated, and they’ve helped me tremendously.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on the third book in the Harrie McKinsey Mystery series. Because I’m an amateur radio operator, my fellow hams have asked when I intend to include something about that hobby in the books. So the next book will have a touch of “ham” flavor. It’s called Murder on Frequency.

What advice do you have for writers who are still striving for publication?
I’d have to say, if it’s your dream to be published, don’t give up. In today’s world of books there are so many ways to achieve your goal. But always (and I can’t stress this too much)—ALWAYS—make sure that what you submit is clean, professional, highly edited, and free of typos and slop. If you end up publishing it yourself, you’ll have half the battle done if you’ve made sure it’s truly ready before you let it out of your hands.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

On Finding a Reason to Join the Crowd

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1

I attended my first SouthWest Writers Saturday meeting a couple of months ago. By the time I got there, all the seats were taken, so I stood in a back corner of the room. I began meet-and-greet by circling the room, smiling at people and idling near interesting conversations. When I gathered the nerve, I made a beeline for the most densely populated part of the room with every intention of adding my perspective to some rousing debate. But by the time I made my way into the hub, my heart was racing, my palms were sweating and I felt as though my expression had gone wild eyed and maniacal. I beat a retreat to the food table, grabbed coffee and a cookie, and tucked myself back into the corner from whence I came.

Standing there terrified and praying that the crowd wouldn’t turn on me like an angry mob of rabid zombies—have I mentioned that my anxiety is both wildly irrational and excessively creative?—I wondered why I seemed to be the only writer completely paralyzed by her own introverted nature. Goodness knows, I can’t have been the only introvert in the room. And yet, if there were others, they were so graceful in maneuvering their way around that particular obstacle that no one was the wiser.

Dusting cookie crumbs from my shirt, I wondered what motivates introverted writers to behave so against the grain of their nature in situations such as this. Myself, I am hard-pressed to think of more than two things that I value enough artistically to push through the hyperventilation and flop sweat to have a discussion with complete strangers. Then I remembered a lovely encounter my husband and I had on a recent weekend in Santa Fe.

We were having a quiet breakfast at Bishop’s Lodge. The restaurant was empty, but for ourselves and a well-dressed older woman contentedly dining alone. At the end of our meal, as we rose from the table and moved to push in our seats, the woman politely motioned us over to her table. My husband and I were taken aback and a bit incredulous. She just wanted to thank us, she said, for our genteelness and consideration. She appreciated that we didn’t talk on our cell phones during the meal or make her an unwilling participant in our conversation by talking too loudly. She told us it was refreshing to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to hear herself think. Or, more accurately, to have a peaceful breakfast out and to be able to concentrate on editing.

As it turned out, she had been editing the galley of her novel while dining. When I asked her about the progress of her editing, she smiled courteously and mildly cursed the “find and replace” function of her editor’s word processing program. But when I asked her about her novel, she transformed from a quiet, unassuming diner to a passionate artist and enthusiastic salesperson. While she maintained her impeccable decorum in discussing her novel, her eyes lit up, her vocabulary became peppered with hyperbole and she leaned in so close to us that she nearly put her elbow in her eggs. The novel she was editing was the first in a series that married theology, spirituality and history. And while this combination isn’t my usual fare, her exuberance made me want to run out and buy the first copy to hit the bookshelves.

I clutched my Styrofoam coffee cup to my chest and willed myself to breathe deeply, and thought about the impetus for her transformation from mild-mannered Lone Diner, valuing quiet and solitude, to enthralling Intense Writer, discussing theology with strangers. Quite simply, I had asked her about a piece of work that she believed in, that she had worked on for years and that she now wanted to share with others. Discussing and promoting her book were so important to her that there was nothing else she could have done in that moment but passionately broach taboo subjects with two random fellow diners.

If this level of enthusiasm and passion for writing is at the heart of the conversation and buzz at our Saturday meetings, I am simply awestruck. Awestruck and humbled. Awestruck, humbled, and determined to find that piece of work that will propel me into the throng with wild abandon, leaving my introversion in the corner with a cookie.

BentleyClark125Though it has virtually nothing to do with this article, Bentley Clark wonders if zombies can get rabies. Opine and give her a piece of your mind in the comments below.

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

Travel Essays: Your Inner Wanderer at Large in the World

by Teresa Cutler-Broyles

ADreamThatKeepsReturning169In 1987 I attended a writers’ conference in San Diego, California, and one of the most engaging speakers was a travel writer who spoke in big words about the romance and excitement of a travel writing career—the free flights, the scrumptious food, the exciting experiences and exotic people. Immediately, I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I bought magazines with travel articles and studied them all, I sent query letters to all the right people, I stole all the in-flight magazines I could get my hands on…sure that all it would take to be a travel writer was my desire to do it.

Alas, that didn’t actually work, and it wasn’t until 1992 that I wrote my first travel piece, a little essay about an art gallery in New York City I’d discovered as I wandered through the city on vacation. It was published locally in Albuquerque, in a small publication called Women’s Voices. Since then I have steadily published travel pieces over the years, and I have learned a few things along the way.

A quick note is necessary here: travel writing comes in many forms, many of them based on information—giving a reader a basis he or she needs when visiting a place—from The Ten Must-see Museums, to The Five Best Restaurants, to How to Find the Best Shopping, How to Avoid the Worst Tourist Traps, What Roads to Take, What Not to Do, What’s New in Miami or Paris or Minsk, and so on. These kinds of travel articles are less about emotion and connection than are travel essays, in which your emotion, your memories, your personal experience come into play. And travel essays are where a writer will build a devoted audience, readers who wait for the next published piece and who will line up to buy the book that comes out of them.

Travel essays are harder to write than how-to or must-see articles; instead of gathering information, organizing it and writing it up, you must be willing to let the reader in to the part of you that no one gets to see, and open up the secrets you don’t normally share with anyone. Travel essays are about putting yourself into the piece. Readers are far more likely to read, enjoy, and want to read more of an author’s work if that author has connected with them on an emotional level.

This connection with a reader is more than talking about how happy or sad a place makes you feel, or how full of joy and excitement you are to be there. It’s more than telling a reader how delicious or terrible a particular meal was, or that the streets in Rome are loud. It is all those things, and it’s also about you.

How do you feel when you’re in Rome, or New York, or the mountains of Montana, or the horse show in Spain? What memories do the sounds of the sea or the roar of the subway bring up? What do you feel as you eat the cookie baked by the corner baker that tastes like the ones your grandmother used to make? What half-remembered childhood dreams—or future hopes—do the sounds of children playing in the park in London or the local zoo bring to mind, and how does that affect what you do next? These are the moments travel essays explore. They’re hard to find at first and sometimes we must wait for them, but they happen and when they do we must capture them for our readers as well as ourselves.

None of us travels in a vacuum. We bring with us our expectations of the place, our hopes of what we will see, our frustrations at our jobs, our desires to escape or to discover or to lose. None of us travels without learning and coming back with something we didn’t have when we left. Often it comes in a revelation, engendered by our encounters with new people and places and food and sounds. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until we return. And sometimes it is the moment of writing about our travels that the revelation occurs.

Whenever it happens, it is that essence we must learn to capture and it is in the moment we impart that essence to others that is the magic of writing travel essays.

If you are wondering how to do this, the best advice I have is—in the unforgettable words of my first college writing professor—“just write.” There are no secrets that are more important than that: just write. As you travel, write the mundane—where you go, what you see, what you do, who you talk to. And write the next layer—what you felt when you saw, did, talked. And then dive deeper and explore those emotions, the memories they evoke, the moments they bring forth.

And then trust that when you write about your journey, all of that will coalesce into a beautiful essay that captures both place and personal, both out there and inside. When you can pull readers in to your heart and let them mingle with all those elements, and then let them back out into the world with this new perspective, you will have succeeded in creating a piece of writing that will keep them coming back for more. You will have indeed tapped into the romance and excitement and wonder that is writing travel essays.

Now, where are you going—and can we come, too?

OneEyedJack150Teresa Cutler-Broyles is a local Albuquerque writer who has published professionally since 1992. She writes short fiction, novels, travel essays and nonfiction pieces for both print and online venues. Her small book of travel essays, A Dream that Keeps Returning, is available on Amazon and through her website, and her YA novel, One Eyed Jack, is available on Amazon as well. Her upcoming historical novel set in 1570 Italy will be available in early 2016.

She teaches in the Film, Peace Studies, and American Studies departments at the University of New Mexico (UNM); at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy during the summers; at UNM Continuing Education; and with the Story Circle Network online.

Teresa runs TLC (travel/literature/culture) Writing Workshops, and Hero’s Journey Tours, in Italy; upcoming dates are May and October, 2016. Visit her website for more information: or, or send her an email:

This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

10 Stages of Writing Achievement

by Sherri Burr

SherriBurrHow do you determine when you are making progress as a writer? I submit that there are at least 10 stages to measuring writing achievement.

Stage 1: Conceptualize an Idea
Ideas emerge from an infinite number of sources, from reading books and going to movies to walking with friends or dreaming. When you get a promising idea, write it down and rejoice because your imagination is working.

Stage 2: Express the Idea
Copyright law protects the expression of ideas, but not the ideas themselves. Your reward for fixing your ideas in a permanent form, such as an article for a magazine or a chapter in a book, is that your work is automatically copyrightable. You also have the option to place copyright notice (© 2015 by writer) on your work or register it with the U.S. Copyright Office at

Stage 3: Expose Your Writing
Sending your work to magazine editors, agents, book publishers, or print on demand websites indicates you are ready to share your words with the world. You must risk rejection to reap rewards.

Stage 4: Receiving Personalized Rejection Letters
There are three types of rejection: (1) silence; (2) form letters; and (3) personalized rejection letters. You learn to be grateful for the third because they signify that your work resonated enough with outside sources willing to spend time telling you how to fix it or recommend another publication. If the rejection letter is nasty, use it as inspiration and ultimately get the last laugh.

Stage 5: Acceptance with No Pay
Some writers start out by publishing works in newsletters connected to social networks. This accomplishes the goal of seeing your words in print.

Stage 6: Paid Enough for Coffee at Starbucks
When you receive that first check, no matter how small, celebrate and dance to the music. I once received a check for $4. Do you cash or frame a $4 check? I recommend cashing it because it proves that you are indeed in the business of writing. Count the $4 as income on your Schedule C and deduct all your writing related expenses.

Stage 7: Paid Enough to Afford a Meal
When the checks come in for $50 or hundreds of dollars, you’ve attained another milestone. Treat a friend to lunch or a loved one to a gourmet dinner. Toast your success!

Stage 8: Paid Enough to Fund a Vacation
If you grossed enough revenue to fund a vacation, you’ve climbed to another echelon of freelance writers. Enjoy your trip.

Stage 9: Paid Enough to Live On
You’ve truly arrived as a creative person when you can live on the proceeds. Writers at this level often have steady gigs as columnists, contribute to a number of publications, write books, or all of these. Since you now benefit from a steady income flow, be careful to mind your expenses and do not spend more than you earn.

Stage 10: New York Times Best Selling Author
Congratulations, you’ve hit the jackpot by joining the likes of John Grisham, David Baldacci, and Janet Evanovich. When your writing income substantially exceeds your living expenses, it’s time to think seriously about giving back. David Baldacci (Absolute Power, The Camel Club) and his wife started the Wish You Well Foundation to increase literacy rates in this country and abroad. Whatever your cause, you can really make a difference. Ultimately, that’s what the writing life is all about.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the December 2007 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Author Larry Greenly

Larry Greenly brings a diverse background to his writing life, having been a physics teacher, a civil engineer, and a doctor of chiropractic before beginning a career as a writer and editor over 25 years ago. His YA narrative biography, Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot (NewSouth Books, 2013) was named a 2015 Booklist Top Ten Multicultural Nonfiction Book for Youth, won a Gold Medal in the 2014 National Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, won Best Young Adult Book in the 2014 NM/AZ Book Awards, was a finalist in the SCBWI Southwest Region Crystal Kite Award, earned a starred review from the American Library Association (ALA), and earned a recommendation from Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA). When not serving on the SWW board of directors or judging fiery food competitions, Larry can be found tickling the ivories at Chez Axel Restaurant in Albuquerque.

EugeneBullardCover200Give us your elevator pitch for Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot.
It’s the story of Georgia-born Eugene Bullard who fought in the Lafayette Flying Corps in WWI, but was not allowed to fly for his own country because of the color of his skin. A hero in France, he’s virtually unknown in this country.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
First, I’d like readers to experience what an amazing man Eugene Bullard was. His exploits and dogged perseverance in spite of never-ending racial discrimination are enough to make anyone’s jaw drop. Second, but no less important, I’d like readers to know how insidious and stupid racial discrimination is. It makes this country hypocritical to proclaim “all men are created equal” and then make minorities less equal even if it hurts this country’s own self-interest. Take, for example, this letter:

Dear Sir: Through the most unfortunate circumstances, your application was allowed to be completed because of our ignorance of your race. At the present time the United States Army is not training any except members of the White race for duty as pilots of military aircraft. ~ U.S. Air Corps letter, 1940

Not long afterward, the Tuskegee Airmen black fighter squadron was formed. Nicknamed the “Red Tails,” they performed heroically. And many bomber crews owe their lives to those skilled and daring pilots. Nevertheless, racial discrimination in the United States kept the squadron segregated from the rest of the Air Corps. The Red Tails were even filmed only in black and white, while other squadrons were filmed in color.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
The most frustrating aspect was getting agents and editors to read my manuscript or even understand the point of my book. The response I hated most was, “Never heard of him.” Did they want me to write another book about Abe Lincoln? But I believed in my book and felt it was “pearls before swine” for those kinds of people. Ultimately, I took a lesson from Eugene Bullard himself and persevered. I knew someday someone would publish my book. But I didn’t realize it would take three years to find a publisher and two more years to get the book into print.

What was the most rewarding aspect of putting Eugene Bullard together?
When I was writing the book, I was totally immersed and living it in my head. At the time it was like living in two universes. I gained a new appreciation of WWI and how nasty it really was. My goal of having Eugene Bullard recognized by his own country is finally being reached. I even nominated him for a U.S. postage stamp; I’m crossing my fingers as the 100th anniversary of WWI starts this summer.

What are you most happy with, and what do you struggle with most, in your writing?
My biggest struggle is facing a blank page and somehow writing down all the ideas and data swirling around in my head in some semblance of order. But once I have a first draft, I’m able to edit fearlessly and not fret about it. Chop, chop, chop.

Looking back to the beginning of your writing career, what do you know now that you wished you’d known then? Is there anything you would have done differently?
Like most writers, I always felt “I could write a better book than that.” Rather late in life, I got a chance to co-author a medical piece for a professional journal. The writing bug bit. I read everything I could about the art of writing, and soon afterward I was on the editorial board of that journal. I continued writing magazine articles on myriad topics (I figured if I was interested in something, someone else would be, too). Probably the only things I would change would be to write a book sooner and pursue the overall craft of writing much earlier.

How has the creativity and discipline you employ as a musician (or music itself) helped you in your writing journey?
I think of writing and music as complementary opposites: left brain for writing and right brain for music, although good writing has a rhythm, just like music. After writing for a while, I take a break and tickle the ivories to recharge my mental batteries. I sincerely believe that reading music has helped me in rapidly reading and sifting through research. Piano music requires you to read and instantly interpret music for both hands, even looking at notes that are ahead.

What advice do you have for discouraged writers?
Discouragement is part of the writing game. So is perseverance. And perseverance will eventually win (think Thomas Edison). My advice:

  • Keep honing your craft.
  • Join a critique group and learn to take criticism; after all, they’re readers, and writers need readers.
  • Realize your writing isn’t sacred and not to be changed in any way; remember, you can’t see mistakes in your own writing, you’re too close.
  • Don’t give up.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

Finding My Writer’s Voice

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245

Science tells us no two humans are exactly alike, that each of us is a distinctive amalgamation of DNA and life experiences. It follows, then, that inside every writer lives a one-of-a-kind Voice, a Voice I believe resides not only in the brain, but in the gut. And it’s never too late to find it.

Searching for my Voice as a writer has been an interesting process. It has not been as easy as I thought it would be, but after nearly twenty years of plugging away, some things are finally beginning to click. My writer’s Voice is making herself heard. And it’s been an amazing trip of self-discovery, albeit one that is taking place late in my life.

I always assumed clever writing to be just a matter of focusing one’s mental faculties. I thought anyone plopped down into the right scenery could crank out creative, imaginative stuff that people would clamor to read. Cool stuff, the warp and woof of which open up new neural pathways in the reader’s brain, the cadence of which draws the reader in and compels him to better himself, or the cocoon of which offers solace to one overwhelmed with the pain that life inflicts upon the living.

But from the moment I first put my fingers on the keys of my laptop, I realized that was a false hypothesis. Great writing is not merely the result of a writer’s ability to wax cerebral. Great writing springs from the craftsman’s ability to connect with his unique Voice.

Early on in my writing career, I tended to pattern my own writing after that of some of my favorite authors. I mimicked Agatha Christie, Helen McInnes, and even Isaac Asimov. It was as if I could plug into a writer’s version of one of those electronic voice filtering gizmos. You know, the things that have the ability to make a five-year-old girl sound like James Earl Jones.

And why not ape the best of the best? After all, the greats became so by opening their writer Voices full-throttle. Copying their Voices saved me the trouble of having to search for my own.

I soon discovered, however, that the trouble with writing in someone else’s Voice is that it pushed my own into the periphery. But as is the way of things, even as I felt secure in my not-me mask, my authentic Voice would stubbornly make herself heard. And the more often I glimpsed her, the more determined I became to give her air.

Pursuant to that end, I bought some books guaranteed to catapult my writer’s Voice into up-and-running mode. Each author offered a list of tried-and-true strategies to get one’s metaphorical peristaltic muscles moving “in no time at all.”

One interesting how-to suggested I dress, act, and talk like one of my characters for a day. Another told me to flood my senses with potpourri and my favorite instrumental music while writing. Yet another commanded me to meditate on the meaning of life while staring at my navel.

I did all that. And I found it interesting. However, while those strategies may be effective devices for some, they didn’t work for me. My explain-everything-so-the-kids-can-understand-and-pass-the-test inner teacher didn’t seem to want to let go of the controls.

That is, until I discovered something called free writing. Here’s how it works: I sit comfortably at my desk, a pen and pad of paper in front of me. I clear my mind as much as possible, and then write whatever thoughts pour forth. I don’t censor anything. Sometimes I write the same word several times, and sometimes the result is meaningless drivel. But often, fun and exciting things pop onto the page. Things I’ve then built into stories–uniquely my own.

According to a Dutch proverb, “We get too soon old and too late smart.” While there’s something to that, it’s encouraging to note that Mary Wesley didn’t get published until she was 71; Colonel Harlan Sanders didn’t start up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment until he was 66; the famous American artist known as Grandma Moses didn’t begin painting until in her seventies, and Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote and published her Little House books when in her sixties.

So, my evenings and weekends are spent spelunking into the caverns inhabited by my Voice, relishing the tasty morsels she leaves in the pathway for me to follow. And I, in turn, saw away at the chains forged by the fear of being seen as different, fear of making mistakes, fear of rejection, and the fear that it’s too late. Because, it’s never too late. It’s NEVER too late.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the April 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

On Being Woefully Platformless

by Bentley Clark

Out of Ones Head1I first heard the term “writer’s platform” in 2009 at the annual From Start to Sales Writers Conference at UNM Continuing Education in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I am given to daydreaming, I imagined a café at a London train station populated with authors feverishly writing in poetically tattered Moleskines.

The term “writer’s platform” is now ubiquitous in writing publications and at writer’s conferences. In an effort to educate myself on the matter, I have recently read innumerable articles defining the writer’s platform and attempting to clarify its purpose.

The most concise definition I found comes from Christina Katz:

“Your platform communicates your expertise to others.”

And the purpose of this platform? Well, to get you published, of course. Rumor has it that an effective writer’s platform can market you, your craft and your expertise even whilst you sleep. Almost better than that, it can create a built-in audience for your future publications—an audience that will buy your work without the publisher having to do anything more than typeset your words and print them on paper.

By my count, then, there are really only two elements to an effective writer’s platform: communication and expertise. And while I know that neither of these is a terribly complicated concept, when you throw technology and the information super-highway into the mix, I become bewildered, confused and, quite frankly, creatively constipated.

Now, communication I get: I can send e-mail and I can operate a cell phone (so long as it isn’t “smart”). Only, that’s not really what any of the articles mean by communication. They are, in fact, referring to this very small, entirely approachable and not the least bit intimidating list:

  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Guest posts
  • Tweets
  • YouTube-style videos
  • Newsletters
  • Speaking engagements
  • Published articles
  • Media interviews
  • Social networking
  • Facebook
  • Free e-books
  • Spin-off products
  • Teaching classes

Look, that’s a lot of work. And, honestly, I am lucky to keep my full-time job, cook an occasional meal, and keep my pets fed while simultaneously publishing one article a month and penning a couple of really bad, really short stories. Of the items on this list, I have: 1) this column; 2) a Twitter account that I don’t use; and 3) a Facebook page that is frequented primarily by family members and high school friends. That’s about 21% of the communication I’m supposed to be putting out there in order to build my platform. That’s failure on anyone’s grade scale.

And what exactly am I supposed to be communicating? My expertise, apparently. The thing that sets me apart from other writers. The thing that has landed me my (theoretical) built-in audience: my loyal blog subscribers, Facebook fans, Twitter followers and enlightened students.

Only… I’m not sure I have any expertise. No. Really. I have been racking my brain over this for several weeks. What am I an expert in? I have mastered filling a hot water bottle with boiling water without burning myself. I know a thing or two about baking really delightful popovers. And I can fold a fitted sheet like a pro. But are any of these the expertise that I can build a platform on? I think not. Perhaps I am meant for a platformless life.

For reassurance and guidance, I turn again to Christina Katz:

“In my opinion, it’s a platform connected to a person’s inner reality rather than some clever juxtaposition of external ideas or a volcanic explosion of personality that [is] the most compelling and lasting….”

Well, now, that’s something I can work with. I definitely have an inner reality. It is filled with frilly pillows, empire-waist dresses, china teacups, and string quartets. And goodness knows I wouldn’t begin to know how to cleverly juxtapose external ideas, and I would never want my personality to volcanically explode under any circumstances.

So, in short: I am failing to effectively communicate my indiscernible expertise. But I can be reticent and unfocused and still be successful, right?

One last return to Christina Katz for a much-needed pep talk:

“If you don’t have a mission or a purpose or a raison d’etre, then guess what? No one is going to listen to you. And why should they? There is an awful lot of noise out there and people have personal lives and they can’t spend the entire day staring into their computers waiting for you to say something or inspire them to action or entertain them or whatever it is that your writing sets out to accomplish.”

Argh! I’m doomed! Doomed, I tell you!

BentleyClark125Bentley Clark isn’t sure whether the phrase is “racking my brain” or “wracking my brain.” You can assist her with the distinction by leaving a comment below.

This article was originally published in the March 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Image “Out Of One\’s Head, Relax The Brain” courtesy of thaikrit /

Backstory: TMI (Too Much Information)

by Sarah Baker

OnlyAmelia169Some of you may have come into this fantastic world of writing by a logical path; you aced junior high grammar, paid close attention to high school composition instructors, earned degrees in creative writing, and then wrote your first novel. For the rest of us, the whole experience has more closely resembled a headfirst dive into Alice’s rabbit hole.

I started writing fiction on the internet in the mid-’90s, and went to work on my first novel a few years later. Between the time I saved chapter one of “Book One” on my laptop in 1997 and this past year when I signed my twentieth book contract, I learned lessons in ways I wouldn’t want to repeat. I’m still learning lessons daily, but few of them leave as many bruises as those first dozen or so.

One thing I discovered is that we, as writers, tend to share too much information. I don’t mean about ourselves, necessarily, but about our works. When someone asks what you’re working on, they are rarely looking for a detailed outline of your novel. They expect a sentence or two. A paragraph at most. This is especially important to know when the person asking is an editor or agent.

In the same way that you’d never start a pitch to an editor with, “My main character, George, was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he had a normal childhood, even though his father was a little strict, and when he was eighteen, he left for college…,” you don’t want to start your book with everything there is to know about your characters. One of the joys of reading is discovering the hidden parts of a story, the delicious history that motivates characters to do what they’re doing. If you reveal all up front, there are no surprises left, and readers will quickly lose interest.

But loading a manuscript with backstory is natural. We’re excited about our new story; we want to explain everything right away. The tough part—the part that comes with experience—is recognizing backstory and knowing what to remove. Was George convicted of killing his college roommate because he was framed by another student who thought George had witnessed a major drug deal? Don’t tell me in chapter one that George is innocent. Maybe you don’t even want to tell me that George was in prison. Let me guess why he won’t answer questions about his past. Make me worry about Susan when she’s alone with him. You’ll keep me interested.

Equally as important as knowing that you must sprinkle backstory throughout your book, is understanding how to do it. Less is better, and showing is better than telling. Are you ready to divulge that George was in prison? (Disclaimer: I’m not saying this is great writing. These are only examples.) “Metal bars clanged into place. George bolted out of bed, his hands clenched into fists and his heart racing,” will be more effective than telling me, “George had spent fifteen long years in San Quentin. Even after all this time, he still woke to the horror of the door sliding shut on his cell.” While there’s nothing technically wrong with the second excerpt, it lacks the feel of action of the first one.

We, as writers, not only want to tell you everything about our characters, we also want to use all our wonderful research. If George grew up in Albuquerque, would he really be thinking about the fact that Sandia Crest is 10,678 feet high as he’s driving around town? Or that the population was 535,239 in 2010? That would be a little absurd, wouldn’t it? But maybe he would tell Susan, a newcomer, that Sandia is always on the east side of downtown, or that the city is home to about a half-million people. If your character doesn’t have a reason to consider something, don’t force it on your readers. They won’t appreciate it.

The first editor I spoke to about my first manuscript told me my story started in chapter eight. I was hurt and horrified, but realized before long that she was right. I had way too much backstory and no action in the beginning of the book. I feel better now when my own first edit is full of red ink where I’ve sliced away all that extra information.

My advice to relatively new writers? Question every line; be brutal with the red pen. There’s nothing more wonderful than putting together a page turner. And practice a one-paragraph pitch. You never know when you’re going to run into an editor or agent who is looking for your book.

Good luck out there, and enjoy the next Mad Hatter’s tea party.

ReturnToMarshallsBayou3_200Sarah H. Baker is the author of more than 20 novels, with publishers ranging from Kensington to Harlequin to small presses. She holds an MS in engineering and works full time, but also writes fiction under three pen names: S. H. Baker, Sarah Storme, and Lydia Parks. The first book in her Dassas Cormier Mystery series, Murder in Marshall’s Bayou (Zumaya Publications, 2009), was recommended for an Edgar Award. Return to Marshall’s Bayou (Siren Audio Studios, 2010) is the full-cast audio version of this first mystery and was a finalist in the Audie Awards. Sarah enjoys sharing her experience with other writers and teaches courses for the University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education Department. Visit her at

This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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