My True Crime Notebook

Thursday, February 29, 2024


I have one of those journals I got as a gift with a positive affirmation stamped on the front cover in cursive. It tells me how beautiful, smart, and talented I am and says I am going to do amazing things. But if you open the notebook, you might be surprised at what you find jotted down on the pages. 

This journal has become my true crime notebook. 

The first page has a post-it note where I’ve written “NC/SC John and Jane Does,” a note, no doubt, I wrote as it came to me and didn’t have the notebook nearby. The opening pages hold the original outline for my true crime podcast, “Missing in the Carolinas,” along with ideas for the first four episodes. I have domain name ideas for the eventual corresponding website, marketing, surveys, and merchandise items. 

I’ve jotted down notes from various episodes of true crime shows and documentaries. Most of the time my entries are brief, as I’m usually writing them down before I forget amid working on something else. 

While studying a cold case from North Carolina, I came across an archived article from August of 1984 in The Charlotte Observer with the headline, “Henry Lee Lucas ties to SC crimes (alleged).” Beside that I wrote, “Netflix documentary “The Confession Killer” about Henry Lee Lucas.” These notes turned into Episode 46: A Review of “The Confession Killer.” 

This past fall, I wrote: “Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month/November/Heddie Dawkins/High Point.” Often the pages feature a brain dump, where you can tell I’ve had a brainstorm session to try and plan content for the next few months. I’ll list out national holidays and awareness weeks and months to tie in content, such as with Ms. Dawkins, who was featured in Episode 73: Missing Senior Citizens from the Carolinas. 

While researching one case, a news brief in an old newspaper article caught my eye and I wrote: “Murder solved in Flat Rock. 16-year-old Pamela Denise Durham was shot and killed by a former Broadway performer, 64-year-old Wilton Clary. He was her voice instructor.” This turned into Episode 85: Denise Durham, Shelby Wilkie, and Marissa Carmichael. 

If I ever lost this notebook and someone outside of my family picked it up, I have a feeling they would be intrigued, and hopefully not horrified. But my true crime notebook never lets me down. When I’m having a day where I’m not sure what to write about next on my blog or need ideas for a podcast script, I can flip open the notebook, scan it, and quickly have two or three ideas. One of the last entries in it so far has the name of a serial killer in Charlotte, N.C. who murdered eleven Black women in the Carolinas before police realized what the common denominator was—many of the victims had worked with the man at a local fast food restaurant. And he was caught during the month of March, so I think I know what I’m working on next.

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and host/creator of the podcast Missing in the Carolinas. She will be teaching a webinar called “Introduction to True Crime Writing” on March 14. Learn more about the webinar, which offers the option to pitch a true crime article or project idea to Renee, here.
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What Writing System Works?

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Writers have dedicated an untold number of words to revealing their writing system to the world. Some writers swear by the daily word count. Others write for a certain amount of time. Set a schedule and stick to it. Start with free writing or journaling to clear your mind. I think there are as many systems to encourage writing as there are writers. Looking back over the years, I feel as if I’ve tried them all. Then this fall I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands – time to unravel what writing system gets the best results.

None of them. Surprise! Actually, they all work…until they don’t. I would consistently meet my daily word count until the day an old friend showed up out of the blue. There was a visit, an impromptu meal, wine and suddenly it was 10 pm and I only had 200 (bad) words strung together. The next day guilt drove me to complete that day’s word count plus the words I’d missed the day before. I didn’t quite make it so the next day I had a new day’s word count and still some words to make up from earlier in the week. And you never really do get ahead of it, do you? Then, if you’re like me, frustration drives you to abandon daily word counts.

So what’s next? Daily writing time? Let’s give that a try. Until that day the dishwasher breaks. There is water, angry cats, a pessimistic repairman, a trip to the home improvement store. Who has time to write on a day like that? The next day the guilt nags at me to make up the time…well, you see where this is going to go.

Happily, I have freed myself from searching for the elusive writing system that enables me to produce wonderful words every day. I still have a daily goal but it changes each day. Some days it’s a word count. Other days it’s a specific piece of writing I want to research or complete. Occasionally, I give myself permission to do nothing. I like this writing system because, instead of setting myself up to fail at some point, I’m setting myself up to succeed every day.

It’s a simple system that I recommend everyone try. Find a quiet time each day when you won’t be interrupted. Stop rolling your eyes. There are quiet times. The minutes when you’re brushing your teeth. That time when you settle into bed but aren’t asleep yet. The daily walk out to the mailbox. If you must, hide from your loving family in the laundry room. Look over your day and choose a goal that works with that day’s events and your overall writing goals/deadlines. If you have a dreadful head cold, make it something easy. If you’re feeling energized and creative, shoot for something impressive.

When it’s completed, you can give yourself that imaginary gold star. You’ve done what you set out to do today. Good for you! Chances are there’s still time left over for something else. A few more words. A query. An outline. Research. Or maybe you’ll use that time to watch snowflakes drifting down outside the window while you sip hot chocolate. That’s OK because you did what you planned to do today.

I got my gold star today because I finished my piece about pretzel bakeries. You were wondering about the photo, weren't you?

Nurture yourself and your love of writing by setting achievable daily goals.

I’d love to hear about a writing system that’s worked for you.

Jodi M. Webb writes from her home in the Pennsylvania mountains. After a decade hiatus from writing, she is back with bylines in Tea Journey, Mental Floss and a WIP about her plant obsession. She's also a blog tour manager for WOW-Women on Writing. Get to know her on Instagram

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Interview with Renee Rockland, Runner Up in the Q1 WOW! Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, February 25, 2024


Renee Rockland is an award-winning short fiction and flash writer whose stories have appeared in a handful of anthologies including Beach Secrets and Beach Holidays (Cat & Mouse Press), The Year’s Best Dog Stories 2021 (Secant Publishing) and the forthcoming Winter Solstice (Devil’s Party Press) as well as a number of online publications. Her stories, “Her Mark” and “Play at Your Own Risk” were both previous Runners-up in WOW! Flash Fiction Contests. A native of Iowa, she’s traded cornfields for seashores and resides with her wife, twin daughters and a menagerie of rescue and foster dogs in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she happily hoards books and is a member of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild. This is her first foray into Creative Non-Fiction. 

 ----------Interview by Renee Roberson 

WOW: There are so many memories, both beautiful and painful, sprinkled throughout “Refracted Love.” Was it difficult to decide which ones to include? 

Renee: Thanks for your kind words, Renee. What I found most interesting about my memories was seeing what bubbled to the surface without any kind of filter. From the outset, I knew I wanted to use the colors of the rainbow to tell the story, so I just played word association to see what presented itself, and I can honestly say the memories for each of the colors are simply my initial responses. From there, I layered in other memories to complete the picture and tell a richer story. First and foremost, I wrote this as a 30th anniversary present for my wife, so I was thinking of her as I wrote, which undoubtedly influenced my memories as well. 

WOW: I bet she loved this very special gift! While you’ve placed in two previous flash fiction contests here at WOW!, this is your first time entering the CNF contest. What inspired you to enter this time? 

Renee: Last summer, I stepped outside my comfort zone and took a one-week class from Nicole Breit. Even though I’d heard many positive comments about Nicole, my expectations weren’t very high because I don’t consider myself a CNF writer. But I figured I might be able to glean some gems that could enrich my fiction, and I love learning new things. To say the class blew me away is an understatement! Nicole is a gifted teacher. Each mini lesson was well constructed and thoughtfully presented. She doesn’t waste time and was so incredibly encouraging. Our challenge each day was to write exactly 100-words of CNF on a given theme, and the last reflection in “Refracted Love” is, in part, the result of one of those challenges. I look forward to taking more classes from Nicole in the future (even though I still don’t consider myself a CNF writer. 

WOW: That story just goes to show how trying something knew can really spark creativity. It sounds like an amazing and productive experience. Do you enjoy reading nonfiction as well as writing it? If so, who are some of your favorite authors in that genre? 

Renee: I love reading non-fiction! I’m so inspired by the vulnerability of authors who bravely share their truth. I adored "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls (who didn’t?). Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones still haunts me. And I’m a sucker for any writing on food/cooking – the intersection of my two favorite pastimes – so I’ve read everything by Molly Wizenberg, Ruth Reichl, and the incomparable Laurie Colwin. 

WOW: Your bio mentions you live with a menagerie of rescue and foster dogs along with your family. Do you have any heartwarming or fun stories you can share with us about your animals? 

Renee: What a great question! During the pandemic we fostered for a rescue organization specializing in bully breeds because we know firsthand how incredibly loving and amazing this misunderstood and unfairly vilified breed is. Shortly after we’d gotten our first foster, Reese, (a total sweetheart who didn’t bark, loved to snuggle, was super smart and easy to train), I took her for a car ride to drop my daughter at a Krav Maga lesson. I walked my daughter inside the building – couldn’t have been gone more than 3 minutes – still when I got back to the car, Reese was gone. I’d left her in the backseat with the doors locked, but the backseat was empty, and all I could think was that someone had stolen her for dogfighting. I immediately called 9-1-1 and while I was pacing in the parking lot, hysterically explaining my predicament to the operator, I noticed a little nose pressed against the rear window. Apparently, Reese had jumped from the backseat into the very rear, so she’d have a better view of me walking into the building. And because she doesn’t bark – and apparently didn’t think my frantically calling her name warranted a response – she calmly sat there until I noticed her. Fortunately, I figured it out before the police arrived. And yes, we foster failed. 

WOW: That's hilarious! I'm sure it was terrifying for you in the moment but I can just imagine what her sweet face looked like through that window. When you're not spending time with your family or pets, what is your writing process like? Do you carve out a specific time of day to work on your projects or is the process more fluid? 

Renee: My writing process involves many middle-of the-night sessions (one of the benefits of menopause-induced insomnia) with several cups of tea. Finding uninterrupted quiet time to collect my thoughts is a luxury. I also work full-time as a corporate controller, which necessitates nocturnal creativity as my days are filled with numbers. I don’t write every day, but I think about writing every day and am always looking for inspiration, for an idea that feels like just enough of a seedling that with some water and sunlight, I know it will grow. One of my favorite quotes is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “We know what we are but know not what we may be.” This fuels my writing because in the early drafting stages when my writing feels disjointed and cumbersome, I’m reminded that with enough perseverance, it will evolve, which gives me courage to stay engaged in the process. Thanks again, Renee. I truly appreciate your time and all that you do to help inspire and encourage women writers.

WOW: No, thank you! It's been a pleasure and we hope to read more from you soon.
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Evergreen Content? What’s That?

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Recently I saw a call for evergreen content. In the past, when I’ve seen posts about evergreen content, they were talking about subjects that readers want to read about year after year. For online markets that might include articles about holidays (Christmas and Valentine’s Day) or annual events (the new school year or tax season). 

The wording in this post made it clear that that was not what the publisher wanted. They wanted material that would continue to bring people to their site. 

How we use various writing-related terms changes over time. That shouldn't be surprising because writing and layout standards have also changed. For example, we no longer need to include two spaces after a period in a document. Now a single space is standard. Because it was obvious that the meaning of the term evergreen had shifted,  I knew I needed to do some research. 

Evergreen content is anything that is relevant long after it is posted or published. It is something that readers will continue to turn to with readership building over time. There are certain types of posts that tend to be evergreen. These include listicles, tips, how-tos including videos, and reviews. 

Remember it is more than the format that makes the content evergreen. The topic must also draw readers in. It has to be something that readers need to know.

What types of topics will do that? Many evergreen articles answer common questions. Others give tips. An evergreen post might be a how-to describing how to get something done. Or it might go into information about the topic that might confuse a newbie. 

For my own blog, which is on writing, I could post: 
  • What you need to know to write a picture book. 
  • 10 ways to find the facts you need for historical fiction. 
  • A video about how to find time to write during the holiday season. 

I could query a parenting publication on: 
  • 5 rewards that aren’t food. 
  • How to get your preschooler to eat healthy foods. 
  • What parents need to know about team sports. 
But there are just as many things that you need to avoid when pitching evergreen content. I have used deadlines to drive sales in that I will pitch a piece about an upcoming award or an anniversary. Because there is a date attached, editors will generally give me a yes or no. This kind of content is not evergreen. 

Neither are articles about trends or pop culture. Taylor Swift at the Super Bowl? That’s so two weeks ago. The Barbie Movie, chocolate covered bacon, and troll dolls all had their time in the spotlight, but they are not evergreen. Barbie dolls? You’d have to pick the right topic. Other topics that are not evergreen involve those that rely heavily on statistics which can quickly become dated, the latest fashion trends, or hot toys for Christmas. 

Evergreen online content also needs to be written with SEO in mind. SEO or search engine optimization is all about making sure that a site or article ranks high in a web search. Don’t worry. If you don’t know how to do this, Google it! You’ll find articles and tutorials to help you better understand how it works. 

Now when you see a call asking for evergreen content, you’ll know that they aren’t asking for pieces about literal evergreens. Instead, they want to you give them content that will draw readers in for months if not longer. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of 40 books for young readers.  
  • To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.  
  • Click here to find her newsletter.

She is also the instructor for 3 WOW classes which begin again on  March 4, 2024. 
She teaches:

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Interview With Courtenay Heilman, Runner Up in the Summer 2023 Flash Fiction Contest

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Today I'm excited to interview Courtenay Heilman, runner up in the Summer 2023 WOW! Flash Fiction Contest. Before we get to our interview, make sure you check out her story, Safe Keeping, first. Then come on back!

But first, here's a bit about Courtenay Heilman:

Courtenay Heilman is a content creator and short fiction author. Originally from Kansas but took a hop, skip, and a jump to Northwest Arkansas in 2017 where she resides with her partner Timothy and their pets—a dog named Arya and a cat named Athena.

She can usually be found at her desk, bingeing the latest horror podcast while she whips up copy. Courtenay’s aspirations for the future include living in a hut in the forest and dancing under the moon more frequently, ultimately rising enough in notoriety to be known as the local witch woman.

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: You wrote such an emotionally moving story. Can you tell me about what inspired you to write this?

Courtenay: The idea for Barbara, the main character of the story, actually came to me before the story she's in did. I wrote a pretty nitty-gritty character sketch about her that I ended up building "Safe Keeping" around. In my mind, Barbara is a young hippie who feels backed into a corner by the life she was born into - so, her troubles didn't necessarily start with the wolf in sheep's clothing from the story. To her, getting mixed up with this guy and his community then having to give up her baby because of the situational circumstances, just feels like another par for the course.

WOW: Wow, I love how much insight you have about this character and her journey. You managed to capture the story of a woman giving up her child for adoption in the midst of some tremendously difficult circumstances. How did you capture that so well?

Courtenay: I think as people we've all had to make extremely difficult decisions in our lives during some not so great circumstances. But that's basically what life is, right? Making decisions, then dealing with the following repercussions and anxiety surrounding whether you made the "right" one. Or at least now you have a little more insight into my own human experience - haha - because I'm constantly riddled with anxiety. I drew on that anxiety and tried to imagine what it would be like on an entirely new level. I cranked that feeling up to 10 and put myself in the mind space of a person trying to make, most likely, the hardest decision of their life up to that point.

WOW: Oh I love how you used your own anxiety! I think the underlying issue of her living in a dangerous situation (that sounded like to me, a cult) was really interesting. Did you know that would be part of the story before you wrote it?

Courtenay: I did! I've always been deeply fascinated by cults and the role that women play in cult dynamics. Around the time that the idea for the character of Barbara came to me, I was watching films like "Martha Marcy May Marlene," "The Other Lamb," and "Charlie Says" - all of which center around women in different stages of cult involvement or rebound. I became engulfed getting into the mindset of what it'd be like to be pulled into that world and what sort of circumstances someone might be facing that would make the idea of cult life seem enticing or better than the options they were already living with. And that's how I wrote my character sketch of Barbara that transformed into "Safe Keeping."

WOW: That must have been such a fascinating journey to explore through your writing. Do you plan out your stories before you start them? If so, how?

Courtenay: My best answer to this is... somewhat. The stories I write come to me in flashes, sparked by things happening around me in my daily life that I'll quickly jot down in a note to dig into later (lest I completely forget and lose the thread). Usually, I know how I want a story to end before I even start writing. So, most of my process is about building a congruent story to get to the desired ending. But I almost always start with character development. I want to feel like I know the characters I'm writing about intimately and understand their motivations before inserting them into different scenarios. I want my characters to really resonate with the reader, whether that be positively or negatively, and I feel like the best way to do that is to flesh them out as deeply as possible for myself beforehand.

WOW: That's a great balance! I had to smile at your current aspirations of living in the hut in the forest! I can understand the pull to live with nature. How does that inspire your work?

Courtenay: I'm originally from a rural area where we had quite a bit of land to explore, so I've always had a connection to nature and being in the great outdoors. Now that I've moved away from my hometown, I find myself thinking back on how precious having that solitude is, because you can't find it as easily in a bigger city. I think because I find myself pining for that so often, the nature imagery just finds itself creeping into my work whether I intend for it to or not. But mark my words, I'll be the witch woman of the woods with a hut and questionable jars filled with preservatives someday!

WOW: That's an awesome goal! I know you'll do it. What lasting thoughts do you have for writers who are uncertain about sharing their voice through their stories?

Courtenay: Just do it! It can be absolutely nerve-racking to put yourself out there as a creative soul, but you've just got to remember that no one has your voice or your stories to share. So, if you don't put yourself out there, you'll never know how your writing could make an impact. Even though it can feel scary or overwhelming, the first time that you experience sharing something you've written and find that it resonates with even just one person, it makes it all worth it.

WOW: What inspirational lasting thoughts! Thank you for joining us today! Best of luck on your stories!

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Interview with Mhari McCole: Creative Nonfiction Q1 2024 Third Place Winner

Sunday, February 18, 2024
Mhari’s Bio:
Mhari is a theatre-maker and teacher from Cambridge, England, where she lives with her partner and son. She produces, directs and devises plays for the stage, and she won an Offie (Off West End Theatre Award) in 2020. She worked for a number of years with Menagerie Theatre Company in Cambridge, and she has produced work for theatres across the UK, including Cambridge Arts Theatre and Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Mhari turned to writing stories and creative non-fiction quite recently, and she has been inspired by the incredible WOW Women on Writing community. 

If you haven't done so already, check out Mhari's award-winning essay "Falling" and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing third in the Q1 2024 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Mhari: I have always loved writing, but I have always found it difficult to write at length, so I have lots of unfinished pieces of work that I have started over the years and then left. Then, I heard about a fantastic flash fiction course, which I signed up for, and it was right up my street. I loved the brevity of the genre and the challenge of conveying as much as possible in as few words of possible. 

Then one day, I was playing with my young son in the living room, and he took a daring leap across the furniture, and I felt that sudden jolt of anxiety parents feel when their children are learning about how their bodies work in space. I held my breath as I watched him take off, wondering whether he would keep his footing on the furniture or fall flat on his face. Also, in that moment, I thought about my dad, and how it must have felt for him once he knew he was falling from a window, and my mum, as she watched. As my son came to a safe landing, I saw him steady himself with his fingers splayed out, gripping hard, and again, I thought of my dad, paralysed, with his fingers frozen in position as his spine broke. My dad's fingers on one hand like a claw and the fingers on the other hand splayed out and flat. The way in which my son's movements had triggered corresponding thoughts about my dad lingered with me for the rest of the day. It was such a vivid experience in such an everyday and simple event. Later, I was compelled to write down my thoughts and, being so inspired by the flash fiction form, this personal memory naturally developed into a tightly structured piece of writing. The way in which watching my son brought me back to my dad's accident dictated the content of the piece, and I ended up with an essay that stretched across the generations in very few words. 

WOW: Thank you for sharing that insight into your process, and, wow, what vivid memories your son’s leaping evoked for you! What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay? 

Mhari: I learned that my inner world is still very connected to the tragedy that happened in the early days of my parents' marriage and that it colours many ways in which I see and relate to the world all these years later. Being a mother myself makes me wonder how my mum coped looking after a paralysed husband and a new baby at the same time and how her experience of family took on a direction that she never expected and redefined what family means for her and me. 

WOW: It’s so interesting to hear about all of these intergenerational connections you’re making as you write and reflect on your family’s history. Your bio states that you’ve worked for the theater in a variety of capacities. In what ways do you believe your theater work inspires your creative nonfiction or vice versa? 

Mhari: I love all sorts of theatre, but theatre based in truth is the type of theatre that leaves a lasting impression on me. I am drawn to exploring what it means to be a human being and what paths life can take. I am fascinated by how human experience is shaped by environments and the choices people make. Also, I am interested in forum theatre, where theatre presents issues to an audience and makes space for that audience to respond to, engage in and ultimately shape a performance in the moment. Great insight and thoughts that challenge and provoke can emerge in a magical way when performers and an audience creatively explore together. I have had a similar experience with my creative non-fiction writing, and it has surprised me because writing is such a solitary endeavour; however, once readers engage and share their thoughts and feelings about your piece of work, it enables you to see your work in a different way and from a different perspective. It was a wonderful experience for me to read comments made by the judges in response to my creative non-fiction essay entry, and I was very moved by knowing the phrases and images responded to the most. I didn't think my work would have such an impact. 

WOW: I like the connection you make between performers and audiences creatively exploring together and writers and audiences interacting. You’re so right that writing feels like a solitary activity, but ideas don’t come from a void and audiences interpret writing in a variety of ways that keep that interactivity or exploration going. Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you? 

Mhari: I have been inspired by a number of the creative nonfiction writers whose work has been published on the WOW website. Their competition entries have shown how bold, creative and honest writing can be, and how in reach of a readership and publication work can be if you engage with a community. Also, as I said, I am inspired by theatre that is based in truth. However, I do love documentaries as well, and I am fascinated by the work of Louis Theroux. He is very popular in the UK, but I would be interested to find out what Americans think of him because he has made a lot of documentaries about groups of people and organisations in America - although he tends to seek out the groups with the most unusual lifestyles and with the most extreme views! 

WOW: I’m so glad you brought up theater and documentaries as subgenres of creative nonfiction – I hadn’t thought of in that way before. If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be? 

Mhari: Do more of it. Don't listen to your inner critic and finish some of those pieces that are half written! 

WOW: Great advice! Anything else you’d like to add? 

Mhari: The discovery of the WOW! Women on Writing website has encouraged me to be brave and submit some of my writing into a competition. I am over the moon to have achieved third place. Thank you for your support! 

WOW: You are welcome! Thank you for sharing your writing with us. Happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, founder and editor-in-chief of Sport Stories Press, which publishes sports books by, for, and about sportswomen and amateur athletes and offers developmental editing and ghostwriting services to partially fund the press. Engage on Twitter or Instagram @GreenMachine459.
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Grandmothers and the Marvelous Magical Real

Thursday, February 15, 2024

 By Christy O'Callaghan

“The narrator doesn’t get upset when out-of-this-world things happen, nor does he dismiss them or try to explain them. That would be considered disrespectful to the Grandmothers.” —Gabriel Garcìa Màrquez 

To best understand and respect a form like the Magical Marvelous Real, one must first understand and respect Grandmothers. So often, this style is misunderstood or forced into boxes that don’t fit. Familial relationships can suffer from the same problem of being placed into a single box labeled family, but each connection has its own vibe. The role of mothers and daughters is too much reality. That’s a whole other style of writing. The relationship of child to child is too much magic. That’s where Fantasy and Surrealism truly shine. The beautiful balance of grandmother and granddaughter is the deliciously perfect combination of marvelousness and realism. Grandmothers are the keepers of dreams and the teachers of life. They are the core and the heart of what makes Magical Realism so unique.

To be fair, this isn’t all individual grandmothers. Some are just plain awful. That’s where fairy tales come in. This is about the more significant role and concept of Grandmothers. They are the holders of dream worlds and the passers of secrets. Grandmothers perform magic in our everyday lives. They turn a bunch of ingredients into cookies. Wood into a birdhouse. A pile of material and thread into a new dress. Skeins of yarn into mittens. A bushel of apples into sauce and pie. A dull day into an adventure in the forest. Seeds and dirt into a garden and then into a snack. Words on a page into a world. Bedtime into an experience. And if asked nicely, they will turn children’s hands into creators of magic, too.

Grandmothers play an essential role in children’s lives. They are both the marvelousness and reality. They may slap hands one minute, then offer a cookie with a shhh; don’t tell your mother the next. In their lifetimes, they’re witnesses to the best and worst of our world. Then they’re charged with creating bubbles of protection for the young. They weave tales as lessons for children to face the world head-on with courage and pride. Magical Realism’s writing style is a beautiful tribute to those who came before us and, at the same time, is a lovely expression of our everyday lives.

Grandmothers share their hidden selves with their grandchildren, especially granddaughters. My grandmother had a public persona she showed outsiders, including her closest friends. Always using proper table manners. Her clothes were perfectly hemmed, cleaned, and ironed. Her halo of white hair was styled once a week at the salon. And boy, did she make a wicked strong highball. But in her private world, she knew the names of plants as she walked through the woods and collected bleached bones and shells to display on her shelf. Her white Keds never had a splotch of mud. She loved dirty jokes. Especially raunchy cards. And when those she cared for most in the world left her company, she brushed her fingertips on their shoulder and said, “Here’s a guardian angel to protect you.”

So why is this so important in writing The Magical Marvelous Real? Because the specific beauty of this style is bringing together those magical elements with a detailed world of the real. This style is dependent upon the two working together in harmony. The hand slap and the secret cookie. Grandmothers provide unlimited love. A love that doesn’t come at a price. But often, they are the ones who introduce the feeling and knowledge of loss. For many, they are the first loved one who dies. We learn about the varied layers of life from them. For some of us, they played the role of a parent or a second parent when life fell a little short.

Grandmothers share their world, the pain, and the joy. They tell tales of a time without the modern technology we depend on. They talk about a life when they were young with no wrinkles and a full head of colorful hair. And what your mother was like as a child. They shield as best they can and protect with their tales and beliefs. There is so much misunderstanding and misdefined about MMR. It’s not a form of Fantasy. It’s not surrealism. It’s not realism. It’s a balance of the real world and the marvelousness that comes from, well, Grandmothers.


Christy O'Callaghan
Christy O’Callaghan is a writer and Developmental Editor with an MA in English from SUNY Albany. She is Editor in Chief of Barzakh Literary Magazine and the 2023 SUNY Thayer Arts Fellowship finalist for writing. She spent twenty-two years in community organizing and education. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Great Weather for Media, Splash! with Haunted Waters Press, Flyway Journal, Trolley Journal, Sonder Review, Chestnut Review, and more.

Christy is teaching the four-week WOW Zoom workshop, Making the Mundane Magnificent with the Marvelous Magical Real starting March 5th. For more details, visit this page.

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Ask the Book Doctor: About Tight Writing and Voice

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

By Bobbie Christmas

Q: There is someone in my current critique circle who keeps saying, “Write tight.” Is he just being incredibly critical, or is he just trying to say something I should know?

A: “Write tight” is one of the basic tenets of creative writing. In truth it should be “Edit tight.” We need to write first, in any way that comes to mind. After we complete the first draft, though, we need to go back through the manuscript and examine every word to see if it is vital to the sentence, paragraph, or plot. We can then delete almost every superfluous, redundant, or unnecessary word, sentence, paragraph, or chapter. As an example, I could edit your initial question to read like this: Someone in my critique circle keeps saying, “Write tight.” Is he being critical, or is he saying something I should know? Recasting reduced thirty words to twenty-one without any loss in meaning.

Tight writing produces powerful prose. To write tight, seek and destroy weak wording in second and future drafts, and you will polish your prose.

Q: Please tell our writers’ group what is meant by a writer’s voice and if it is okay to change it from one book to another.

A: In creative writing voice refers to a mixture of things, such as word choice, punctuation, personality, perspective, point of view, opinions, preferences, interests, and subject matter. Voice can refer to a writing style, too, such short, tight sentences versus flowery, descriptive ones. Hemingway’s voice was tight, journalistic, without flowery descriptions. Here’s a quote from The Old Man and the Sea: “He is my brother. But I must kill him and keep strong to do it.” On the other hand, think of Dickens, who wrote more descriptive prose and who added humor and social commentary to his works. Here’s a short quote from A Tale of Two Cities: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Yes, Dickens’s voice definitely differed from Hemingway’s.

A writer’s voice can reflect the way the author thinks, speaks, and expresses opinions. Some writers’ voices reflect simple thoughts. Some writers express only popular opinions through their voices, while others may address controversial subjects.

Because voice reflects the writer, though, I’m not sure a writer can easily change voices from one book to another unless the writer changes the point of view. For example, my memoir would have to be in my point of view—how I perceived things that happened to me and around me. It would definitely be written in my voice. If I wrote a novel from the point of view of one of the characters, however, I could conceivably change the voice. If my character was incarcerated, for example, I might use more slang, graphic terms, and cuss words.

Consider as an example The Catcher in the Rye, which J. D. Salinger wrote from the point of view of a teenaged boy. Examine the following quote from Holden, the point-of-view character: “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” We clearly know Salinger himself didn’t speak that way.

Writing in a voice other than the author’s can be difficult, but it can be done. Easier, however, is to change writing styles from book to book. For example, one might write in a simpler style for a young adult novel, using small words and short sentences and paragraphs. The same writer might also write a literary novel with more complex sentences, less dialogue, more description, and longer sentences and paragraphs. In both books, though, the writer’s voice would probably be similar, because the same person conceived the stories and decided how they would play out.

Yes, it’s possible to write in varying voices, as long as the voice is consistent throughout the book in the case of omniscient point of view. If using the point of view of more than one character, it’s necessary to keep each scene in a singular point of view, but the point of view—and therefore the voice—can change with each new scene or chapter.


Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. She will answer your questions too. Send them to or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at
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Interview with Piyumi Kapugeekiyana: Summer 2023 Flash Fiction Contest Runner-Up

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Piyumi's Bio: 

Piyumi is a fledgling writer of fiction who is finally rediscovering her love of stories. A researcher by profession, she has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Nottingham and until recently, had relegated herself to writing only non-fiction. Piyumi was a finalist in the 2018 Bracken Bower Prize, an award given to the best business book proposal of the year by a young writer. In 2023, she was shortlisted for the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize and had her story published in the anthology Flashy Gifts, released in partnership with the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries exhibition Gifts and Books.

She can be found on Twitter @Piyumi_K

If you haven't read her story, "Periodically," yet then click through here and come back to learn from Piyumi.

WOW: Every writer finds inspiration in a different place. What was your inspiration for “Periodically?”

Piyumi: A friend of mine works for a company that produces period underwear and in some ways, this story flowed from seeing an ad for their product. The ad was very matter-of-fact and focused on practical design considerations that make the product well-suited to the contours of the female form in everyday motions like sitting and walking. I found it a refreshing departure from the usual ads for sanitary products, which tend to feature women on their periods somersaulting in white jeans in a bid to convince us of superior absorbency! It got me thinking about the ways in which women are marketed to, the unrealistic standards of beauty we contend with, the pressure to contrive one’s appearance in line with cultural and social norms, and the lifelong journey to becoming comfortable in one’s body. Even the title “Periodically” is a nod to the inspiration behind the story, and also the fact that it takes time to shed the clutter of outside voices and grow in self-acceptance. 

WOW: That is definitely something your fellow women writers will understand. In flash, every detail is important. How did you decide what details to include in this story? Can you reveal a few of the details that you discarded? 

Piyumi: I wanted the story to feel as universal as possible, and that influenced my choice of details. “Periodically” was written from the perspective of a brown-skinned woman and contains elements of my own personal experiences. In initial iterations of the flash, I’d worked in certain coming-of-age practices exclusive to my culture. When editing, I felt these details detracted from the broader relatability of the story, which led me to discard them. 

I’ve also been trying to use synecdoche in my writing, which is something I learned from a Joyce Carol Oates masterclass on short stories. For instance, initial versions of “Periodically” had the character recount two different experiences of sexual harassment to explain the discomfort she felt with her body when growing up. But that multiplicity isn’t ideal in flash, which requires economy. In the end, I pared it back to one example; one part that hinted at the whole. 

WOW: I'll admit it.  I quickly looked up synecdoche, which is a metaphor in which a part of something represents the whole. We do this all the time when we refer to a car as "wheels" or a ask a fellow writer for help because we need another "set of eyes" on a project. You are also a researcher and nonfiction writer. How do these talents feed into your fiction writing? 

Piyumi: Being a researcher definitely makes me approach fiction writing with a somewhat scholarly bent! I find myself doing research upfront and throughout the writing process. It helps me get my facts straight and sometimes yields a new thread to unravel during the writing process. My approach as a nonfiction writer is usually something I have to resist somewhat when creating fiction. So far, I’ve mostly written business or topical nonfiction which tends to be about communicating information and presenting a viewpoint or a coherent argument. It doesn’t necessarily require strong use of imagination, imagery, or seek to evoke emotions. With fiction writing, I’ve had to cultivate all those missing aspects, especially the use of descriptive details which doesn’t always come intuitively to me (the whole ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra). 

WOW: What advice do you have for any of our readers who are new to flash? Who aren’t sure where to begin? 

Piyumi: I’d say just go for it! Write about whatever piques your interest. Start with vignettes, if that strengthens your descriptive skills or makes it easier to write your way to a new character or a compelling theme. And most important, take the pressure off - no one else needs to read your work until you’re ready. A flash has all the elements of a complete narrative but at anywhere from 250-1500 words, it is a relatively undemanding format in terms of time and effort required. Unlike short stories or longer form works, it’s not the sort of thing you need to spend weeks on, and yet, provides every opportunity to experiment with styles, voices, characters, and plots - all the elements needed for your craft as a storyteller. 

WOW: That's good advice. What are you working on now? 

Piyumi: These days, I’m polishing a writing sample for a scholarship program that supports underrepresented writers. I’m also editing a humorous crime short story involving two social media influencers. In the new year, I’m hoping to start work on a collection of women-focused short stories. Let’s see how it all goes!

WOW: Good luck with that!  You'll have to keep us posted.  And thank you for taking the time to talk with our readers.
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Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge: Blog Tour & Giveaway

Monday, February 12, 2024
Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge

We're so excited to announce the blog tour launch of Anoop Judge's book Mercy and Grace. It's a perfect book for a culturally appreciative audience who are fans of shows like Amazon Prime's web series, Made in Heaven, and books like A Suitable Boy. We'll be interviewing the author and giving you a chance to win a copy.

But first, here's more about the book:

At twenty-one years old, Gia Kumari finally leaves the Delhi orphanage where she was raised. With few prospects for the future, she receives an unexpected invitation from a stranger named Sonia Shah, in San Francisco: an internship at Sonia’s weddings and event company. Jia and America. It’s love at first sight as she navigates an unfamiliar but irresistible new world of firsts. 

It’s Gia’s first real job: her first meeting with her only known family, her uncle Mohammed Khan, and her first romance, with Sonia’s quirky yet charming stepson, Adi. But it might be too good to be true. Gia’s newfound happiness is unfolding in the shadow of a terrible family secret, the impact of which is still being felt in a place Gia now calls home. To save what matters most, Gia must come to terms with a tragic past she’s only beginning to understand—and a lifetime of lies she must learn to forgive.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (September 19, 2023)
ISBN-10: 1662509219
ISBN-13: 978-1662509216
Print Length: 283 pages

Purchase a copy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Make sure you also add it to your GoodReads reading list.

About the Author, Anoop Judge

Anoop Judge
Born and raised in New Delhi, Anoop is the author of four novels, THE RUMMY CLUB which won the 2015 Beverly Hills Book Award, THE AWAKENING OF MEENA RAWAT, an excerpt of which was nominated for the 2019 Pushcart Prize, NO ORDINARY THURSDAY, and MERCY and GRACE. 
Her essays and short stories have appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern, Rigorous Journal, Lumiere Review, DoubleBack Review, and the Ornament anthology, among others. 
Anoop calls herself a “recovering litigator”—she worked in state and federal courts for many years before she replaced legal briefs with fictional tales. She holds an MFA from St. Mary’s College of California and was the recipient of the 2021 Advisory Board Award and the 2023 Alumni Scholarship. 

She lives in Pleasanton, California, with her husband, and is the mother of two admirable young adults.

You can find her online at:

--- Interview by Jodi Webb

WOW: Congratulations on Mercy and Grace, a novel that explores complicated family dynamics. Why do you revisit this theme through all your books? 

Anoop: What a great question! I find that family dynamics are universally relatable. Nearly everyone has some experience with family, whether positive, negative, or complex, making these themes widely appealing to readers.

Also, exploring family dynamics allows for the development of multi-dimensional characters, and helps in driving intricate plots. The conflicts and resolutions within a family can form the backbone of a compelling narrative.

I also find that through the lens of family, I can explore broader social, cultural, and psychological themes, offering commentary on issues like tradition, societal expectations, and the human condition, as I did in my latest novel, Mercy and Grace.

WOW: Mercy and Grace has two intertwined plots in different time periods. What was the biggest challenge about writing about characters in two time periods?

Anoop: Writing about characters in two time periods presents several significant challenges, the most important being to maintain authenticity in each time period. As the author I had to accurately depict the cultural, social, and historical contexts of each time period. This demands extensive research and attention to detail to avoid anachronisms and inaccuracies. 

Crafting smooth transitions between different time periods in a way that is clear and engaging for the reader also requires skillful narrative structuring, and I relied on my editorial team to help create those seamless jumps between different timelines.

Plot Interconnectivity is vital to keep in mind too. Ensuring that events in one time period meaningfully impact or resonate with events in the other can be difficult but is crucial for a cohesive narrative.

WOW: You describe yourself as a recovering litigator. Tell us about your journey from litigator to writer.

Anoop: I was raised in a middle-class family in New Delhi, India, where education was key, fresh pomfret fish for dinner was a treat, and budget-conscious holidays in hill stations defined our summers. As a young girl, I was expected to apply myself at college, get a job that would allow me to be financially self-reliant, get married, and have kids—in that order.

Given this worldview, “writing” was a bourgeois activity, encouraged by my mom, an avid fan of Reader’s Digest and Harlequin romances. My mom loved stories, and she made up endless tales on the fly—Ravan, the demon who was afraid of cake, the fairy who couldn’t find her magic, the princess who was forced to marry the tyrannical prince and was rescued just in time by the pauper she loved.

She gave me those things, and that’s how I survived adolescence. My command over the English language made me appear smarter than I was—growing up in post-colonial Delhi, where your zip code and what your Dad did for a living was all that mattered, the only way for a young woman to stand out was her chutzpah and her ability to flaunt her knowledge of big, blocky English words. 

Soon, I had a prolific output. At age eleven, my mother made my brother and I compete in a war of words—we had to write an essay about an out-of-town family wedding we’d attended—and, from the way my mom’s dark eyes shone as she read my offering, I knew I’d scored. In my teens, I spilled my hormonal angst over pages and pages of a daily journal that began with the salutation, “Dear, Diary.” One summer, I did an internship at a leading advertising agency as a copywriter, coming up with pithy slogans and jingles. After high school, when I enrolled in Hindu College at Delhi University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, no one in my family was surprised.

But, convention dictated that I procure a practical degree that would result in a paying job. This catapulted me into law school after graduation. Writing remained my first love, though—while pursuing my legal studies, I wrote a column for ‘Mid-day,’ a weekly newspaper, titled ‘University Beat,’ and I was a correspondent for All India Radio, submitting weekly news stories that were read aloud on air. While in my second year at law school, I was approached by a publishing house (Twenty-Twenty Media) to write a Dummies—style book for recent college graduates on the legal profession titled “Law: What’s It All About and How to Get in.” 

When a mess of typewritten pages—loosely bound by a haldi-stained pink ribbon—of dozens of interviews with notable legal experts in New Delhi became a published book of 92 pages, I couldn’t get over the shock of it. It was an eye-opening experience to see how good editing and an attractive book cover could transform my word vomit into a brilliantly-structured, polished work. I knew then that when I had the time, I would write books that appealed me to as a reader—fiction that wove imaginary worlds and left me spellbound with the magic of it.

WOW: So when did you make the jump to fiction writer?

Anoop: When I met and married my husband and immigrated to the United States, I continued to pursue my legal studies, acquiring both a JD and an Esq. at the end of my name. Writing legal briefs that would persuade judges opened my critical eye and taught me how to turn a good phrase. When I left law practice and stayed home to raise my kids, I began writing in earnest.

Ten years ago, my dream came true with the launch of my first novel The Rummy Club that gave voice through my story to the East-Indian diaspora in the context of 21st century America. In the last ten years, I’ve continued to learn the craft of fiction and write stories that have been published in many literary journals.

The themes of recreating identity, immigration, changing roles of women, and racial conflict deeply resonate with me and inspire me to write. I am passionate about applying these themes to my background and the traditions I grew up with, as well as the new traditions I have co-created with my first-generation children while living in America.

I’m fortunate that I have a literary agent who believes in my stories, and although the publishing industry is fickle—my fifth novel narrating the story of two estranged sisters based on colorism—didn’t receive much traction from acquiring editors forcing me to shelve it, I continue to write. As Anne Frank said, “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."
(Excerpted from Anoop Judge’s Nov 1, 2020 blog post.)

WOW: I admire your ability to move past your fifth novel and continue creating. What is the most rewarding part of writing?

Anoop: For me, the most rewarding part of writing is the sense of accomplishment and the ability to express myself creatively. It’s fulfilling to see a germ of an idea take shape on paper, and finally become a published novel displayed in book store. When readers connect with you, and bring their own perspectives to your novel, that’s an additional source of joy.

WOW: Can you tell us a little about your next book?

Anoop: I’m working on a novel about an open marriage and what happens when the carefully laid out rules are broken. Here’s a short blurb:

Having an open marriage has helped to bring new life into Uma and Vikram’s relationship. All they have to do is follow a couple of simple rules: One night stands only, and no dates with anyone they know. But sleeping with strangers can get lonely and, when Uma’s latest date turns out to be Deepesh, the husband of her best friend who she sees almost every day, Binny, Uma is initially reluctant until she is reminded how well they have always got along. Dates can be awkward and it’s nice to be out with someone likes. 

Still, did she really mean to end up sleeping with him? 

Now Deepesh, who isn’t in an open marriage with Binny, after all, has become infatuated with Uma. What will he do next? Will he expose what has happened and perhaps destroy her marriage, her relationship with her daughter, her closest friendship, and possibly even her career as a local realtor? Or will he go even further? 

And, when Uma finds out that she is pregnant with Deepesh’s child, what will be the fallout then? 

WOW: Thanks for that peek at what’s next. It sounds like a real page turner!

Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge Blog Tour

-- Blog Tour Calendar

February 12th @ The Muffin
Join us as we celebrate the launch of Anoop Judge's book Mercy and Grace. Read an interview with the author and enter to win a copy of her book.

February 13th @ Rockin Book Reviews
Visit Lu Ann's blog for her review of Mercy and Grace. You can also win a copy of the book.

February 15th @ The Shaggy Shepherd
Visit Isabelle's blog for a guest post by Anoop about creating compelling characters.
February 16th @ What is That Book About
Join Michelle for her spotlight of Mercy and Grace.

February 17th @ Silver's Review
Visit Elizabeth's blog for her spotlight of Mercy and Grace.

February 19th @ A Wonderful World of Books
Visit Joy's blog for a guest post by Anoop Judge about Indian wedding traditions.

February 21st @ Jill Sheets' blog
Visit Jill's blog for an interview with author Anoop Judge.

February 22nd @ Knotty Needle
Check out Judy's blog for her review of Mercy and Grace.

February 25th @ Chapter Break
Visit Julie's blog for a guest post by Anoop Judge about her journey from litigator to writer.

February 27th @ Lisa Haselton's Reviews & Interviews
Join Lisa for her interview with Anoop Judge about her writing journey.

February 29th @ The Faerie Review
Join Lily for her spotlight of Mercy and Grace.

March 3rd @ Boots, Shoes, and Fashion
Join Linda for her in-depth interview with Anoop Judge about her book Mercy and Grace.

March 4th @ One Writer's Journey
Visit Sue's blog for her review of Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge.

March 5th @ Word Magic
Join Fiona's blog for a guest post by Anoop Judge about managing the call with a literary agent.

March 7th @ A Storybook World
Join Deirdra for her spotlight of Mercy and Grace.

March 10th @ Michelle Cornish' blog
Visit Michelle's blog for her review of Mercy and Grace.

March 12th @ Plain Spoken Pen
Join Lisa for her review of Mercy and Grace.

March 13th @ Sara Trimble's blog
Join Sara for her review of Mercy and Grace. You also have the chance to win a copy of the book too!

March 15th @ Choices
Visit Madeline's blog for a guest post by Anoop Judge about writing your way through grief.

March 17th @ Boys' Moms Reads
Visit Karen's blog for her review of Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge.

March 17th @ Nikki's Book Reviews
Visit Nikki's blog for a review of Mercy and Grace.

***** BOOK GIVEAWAY *****

Enter to win a print copy of Mercy and Grace by Anoop Judge! Fill out the Rafflecopter form below for a chance to win. The giveaway ends February 25th at 11:59 pm CT. We will randomly draw a winner the next day via Rafflecopter and follow up via email. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway
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Interview with Jan M. Flynn, 2nd Place Winner of WOW's Q1 2024 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, February 11, 2024
Jan M. Flynn
I'm thrilled to chat with Jan M. Flynn today about her award-winning essay, "How to Avoid the Use of Adverbs While Telling You How My Husband Died." Isn't that a spectacular title? Be sure to read her essay, then pop back here for our interview! Jan and I chat about the inspiration behind her essay, garnering a literary agent, her forthcoming novel, whether it's harder to write fiction or nonfiction, and more.

Bio: Jan M. Flynn’s short and flash fiction has won First Place and Honorable Mentions in Writer’s Digest annual competitions and appears in literary journals including Midnight Circus, The Binnacle, Noyo River Review, Far Side Review, Grim and Gilded and Bullshit Lit as well as anthologies. Her essays appear in HuffPost Personal and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Lessons Learned From My Dog. Her debut novel, the first in a middle-grade fantasy trilogy, is forthcoming. She is represented by Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency in New York. Visit her website at

----- Interview by Angela Mackintosh

WOW: Welcome, Jan! We all fell in love with your deeply moving essay, “How to Avoid the Use of Adverbs While Telling You How My Husband Died,” which won second place in WOW's Q1 2024 Essay Contest. Writing about grief is so hard, and yet, you found a brilliant way of coming at it sideways using adverbs. How did the idea come to you and how did the essay evolve?

Jan: Grief is such a strange and bewildering place to negotiate: it's like a dense forest with overgrown trails that seem to wander endlessly before you hit on one that leads to some light again. And at some point, we're all going to have to stumble along those paths. When I first wrote this piece, it had been about 15 years since my first husband's death, so I'd had time to integrate the loss. But all such loss carves itself on one's heart like a memorial stone that invites revisiting at the oddest times. In this case, I was thumbing through Stephen King's superb On Writing and came upon his advice about adverbs (which in his view are to be avoided). That got me thinking about the word "suddenly," which is indeed overused, and then I realized how I couldn't imagine conveying the experience of my husband's death without using that word. Approaching the essay as a sort of apology for not being able to avoid "suddenly" gave me, I think, the distance to tell the story without wallowing in it.

WOW: "Suddenly" is such a hard adverb to avoid! I actually listened to the audiobook of On Writing for the first time a few months ago and loved it. Stephen King has great advice. I bet your agent does, too! Your bio mentions you garnered an agent and your middle-grade fantasy debut is forthcoming - congratulations! What's the book about?

Jan: I have a wonderful agent, Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency in New York — and it means the world to have an advocate who believes in my work and who can tolerate my inability to stick to a single genre! As for my debut, I am obliged to be a bit coy about it as the publisher wants to wait to announce it until we're closer to publication, for strategic reasons (and I am happy to trust their judgment on that). I can tell you that it's a middle-grade fantasy series about a girl from the lowest rung of a strictly hierarchical society, whose friendship with (let's just say, a being that would be a mythical beast in our world) offers her the chance to transcend her fate — but also threatens to upend the entire social order. One thing I'm learning as a debut novelist is that there can be a very long runway from acceptance to launch — the bright side of that is it gives me lots of time to work on the stories!

WOW: Oh yes, there's such a long runway. Your novel sounds fantastic! We'll have to have you back when it debuts. I love that you write both fiction and creative nonfiction. I'm a CNF writer who recently decided to try writing fiction. I have an ongoing debate with a friend about which genre is harder to write. She says CNF is harder because you have to include all the wisdom and takeaways, and I think fiction is harder because there are way too many possibilities. Which came first for you, and which do you think is harder?

Jan: I've journaled ever since I was old enough to scribble in a diary, so it's fair to say that for me CNF came first. Not to discourage you, but in my book fiction is much harder. That may be because most of my CNF is prompted by my own life experiences, and I have those "at hand" so to speak — an essay requires that I put them into some form that can speak to and be in some way valuable to a reader, but I don't have to make them up out of whole cloth. Fiction, especially long-form fiction, means cooking up an entire world peopled with beings who don't actually exist. That's true whether you're writing fantasy or contemporary thrillers.

WOW: Well put, and so true! Score one point for me. Lol! That's why it's so impressive that you wrote a novel, garnered an agent, AND had it picked up by a publisher. A lot of our writers are in the query trenches right now, desperately trying to get their manuscript picked up by an agent, so I'd love to know about your agent journey. How many queries did you send out before you got a yes? Did you use query trackers? What was it like when the call came? Any query tips for our authors-in-waiting?

Jan: It took me a long time and scores of rejections: a lot of form no-thank-yous, a number of full requests, and one revise-and-resubmit request from an agent with whom I'd had The Phone Call, but who then ghosted me (ouch). As it turned out, it was an entirely different book from the one I have under contract, a historical novel, that found me my agent — and even that was circuitous since a different agent had loved the book but couldn't take it on for various reasons, so referred me to who is now my agent. I can tell you that when she and I had "The Call" I was over the moon: we simply "got" each other, and that's important. As for tips for those in the query trenches: be kind to yourself and at the same time demanding. There's nothing harder than writing an effective query letter, so take advantage of all the expertise and help you can access, and be willing to rewrite again and again. And be prepared to spend a lot of time researching agents!

WOW: Thank you for sharing that rough journey with the agent who ghosted you! Writers need to hear that because so often we think getting an agent is the end goal, but ultimately there's a lot work left to do, and sometimes it doesn't work out. I'm so glad you found an agent who gets you. You are certainly prolific, writing a historical novel and your fantasy series! Where do you like to write?

Jan: I do almost all my writing at home unless I'm stuck on a long plane flight. I have a writing office upstairs in our home which is my official workspace. But I often like to sneak back downstairs and write on the couch next to the fireplace, especially in the winter.

WOW: That sounds really cozy right now as I'm looking out my window at the snowy mountains. You've had a lot of success winning contests! Your short fiction has won first place and an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest, and an excerpt from your novel won first place in the Novel division of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. And of course, there's your WOW essay contest win! What are some tips for choosing and entering contests?

Jan: I think contests can be great confidence-boosters! It's important to be strategic with contests too, of course: make sure the contest is from a legitimate source, read the submission guidelines very carefully, and then follow them to the T. If you're attending a conference that includes a contest like the Mendocino Coast conference and you have work that fits their parameters, that can be a great opportunity because the pool of entrants may be smaller and your pages may be judged by the conference faculty — having their eyes on your work is a win even if you don't win a prize!

WOW: That's a great point about the conference contests! Having eyes on your work is invaluable. I'm curious, who is your writing hero and what do you admire about them/their work?

Jan: Honestly, I'm in awe of anyone who can weave a spell with their words, who can convince a reader to give up their most precious commodity — their time — and come away feeling that it was time well spent. Neil Gaiman (who is, of course, among my heroes) says that writers need to have a core of audaciousness "normally only seen in seven-year-old boys" and I believe he's right.

WOW: Love that quote from Neil Gaiman! Thank you, Jan, for spending time and chatting with me today. It's been such a pleasure! Wishing you a fantastic 2024, and please do reach out when your novel is close to publishing! We'd love to have you back.

Find out more about WOW's creative nonfiction and flash fiction contests here:
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How I Became a Reformed "Pantser"

Thursday, February 08, 2024


Photo courtesy of Pexels/Jill Wellington

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “Confessions of a Free Spirit Writer.” I discussed the differences between being a free spirit writer (also known as a “pantser) and the type of writer who prefers outlines and projects that are planned out before attempting them. 

I’m here today to announce that I’ve almost grown out of my free spirit writing attitude (maybe). I’m on the verge of finishing up a massive edit of a book I wrote during NaNoWriMo in 2021, and I wouldn’t have been successful without the use of sticky notes on my office wall explaining the major plot points. I also have accompanying documents for this book that list the different characters, brief backstories, and physical attributes that are mentioned. The outline for this book is around 5,600 words, which is longer than some short stories I’ve written! 

This book features fictional podcast transcripts, newspaper articles, POVs from different characters, and diary entries. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep everything straight if I hadn’t organized the material before writing and revising. While I’m still more of a “free spirit” with short stories, I prefer now to be more organized when working on book-length projects and nonfiction. 

If I’m writing an article for a magazine or website, I’ll interview sources, find background material, and then write out a rough outline of how the piece will flow. When I’m working on a script for my podcast (I like to write them out rather than talk off the cuff with bullet points) I’ll compile the research and then create an outline that reads something like: Introduction, Title, Case #1, Case #2, Sponsor Messages, Case #3, Call to Action, Outro. Because I have weekly deadlines for the podcast it helps me to format each episode this way. However, I still don’t have a long-term plan for podcast episodes and usually plan them out one to two months ahead of time. 

Now, when it comes to coming up with ideas for writing projects, I still feel like a free spirit. I’m constantly writing ideas down in notebooks and discussing ideas with other people without finalizing the next steps. But I think that’s all part of being a writer and creator, right? I already have ideas for a non-fiction book based off my podcast and a novel following the “Out of the Bottle” formula. And you’d better believe I’ll be outlining that one! 

Have you gone from being a free spirit to an outliner/planner or vice versa? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and host/creator of the podcast, Missing in the Carolinas.
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