Saturday, May 14, 2016

Darwyn Cooks Dies at Age 53

Longtime readers of my blog know that, once upon a time, I fancied becoming a comic book artist.  I even got to take some classes with the late, great artist Joe Kubert.

As it turned out, I didn't have the chops for the business.  I could draw something (or someone) passably well if it (or she) was posed in front of me.  But ask me to draw something out of my imagination, and the result looked like it was done by a six-year-old.

Nevertheless, I continue to have a great affection for comic book artists.

So I'm saddened today by the death of iconic Canadian artist Darwyn Cooke.  Going against the trend towards photo-realistic art, Cooke had a distinctive, iconic style that was like no one else currently in the business.  He worked primarily on DC Comic characters, and may be best known for his revamped design for Catwoman.

He died of cancer at the age of 53, far too young.  I'm saddened by his passing...but I'm also angered at our own loss.  We have missed out on another few decades of work by an exemplary talent.

Goodbye, Darwyn. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Jen Conley, Noir, and Cannibals

Jen Conley reading at a Noir at the Bar event at Shade in NYC

The delightful Jen Conley is a writer and teacher from New Jersey. I first encountered her at a Noir at the Bar event, where she was reading one of her crime stories (which she did very well). She also edited an anthology in which one of my own stories appeared: “Shotgun Honey Presents Locked and Loaded (Both Barrels, Volume III)”

Jen, congratulations on your first collection of short stories! Tell us about "Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens"

Thank you! Cannibals is a collection of loosely linked gritty/crime stories that take place in central/south Jersey, Ocean County, which encompasses some of the Pine Barrens. Not every story has a typical crime, or a crime at all, but each one is a bit gritty.

Your stories all take place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Most of what I know about that area comes from John McPhee’s 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, which was originally serialized in The New Yorker. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to ask a native of the area: McPhee wrote that Pineys tend to say something three times. For example, a Piney might say, “It looks like rain, looks like rain, like rain.” I’ve never heard anyone speak like that! Is it true?
Good question. But not that I know of. I’m not a real Piney, either, so I’m not really sure. I think the Piney culture has been infiltrated by modern times so I don’t know how many old school authentic Pineys are left. And I also think the term “Piney” has changed. Now it can mean people who live near the Pine Barrens, or even in them, but not living that old rural type of existence, or even something close to that. For many people “Piney” is a person who enjoys spending time in the Pines, whether it’s hiking, fishing, hunting, four wheeling, etc.

Sadly, writing short stories doesn’t pay much. Like most writers, you alsochave a day job. I understand you teach middle school English. Many years ago, I tried doing that myself, with little success. Have any of your students ever read your crime stories?

I don’t think so. I try to keep it on the downlow. They know I write and I’ve read them a little bit of my work, things that are benign, but not the hard core stuff. However last year I was working on a YA novel geared towards middle schoolers and I read them the first six pages. They seemed to really love it --- they gave me a round of applause—but they also appeared to be a bit surprised I could actually write. 

Again, like most writers, you’ve probably had your share of rejections. Has that changed how you edit the work of others for Shotgun Honey?

We don’t edit the flash too much. We read the stories and have a discussion, and decide whether they are a go or not. Some stories are easy—yes or no. But some stories are in that middle area, that spot where a little help, suggestions, might make the story stronger. I’m more prone to give someone another chance if I see a story has potential. I hate getting rejected (as does everyone) so I do feel bad when we reject a story that seems to be on the line but ultimately just isn’t working. But Ron Earl Phillips, the head honcho, does give feedback from the editors, so I like to think if writers take our advice, then they can improve the story and try to send it somewhere else. “Home Invasion,” the first story in my collection, was rejected several times until another writer gave me a few tips so it would work better. I took her advice and it was immediately accepted at Thuglit and nominated for a Spinetingler Award.

Before they submit their work, many writers run it by either a trusted critique group or a cadre of beta readers. Do you, and how did you get them?  (It took me many years to find a critique group that I found truly helpful.)

I used to have two writing groups, one up in NYC and one in the Red Bank area. Both are disbanded, or on indefinite hold. I found my NYC group because I took a Gotham Writing Class in the Village and after it ended, I emailed my teacher and asked if she knew of a writing group. She invited me into hers. That was writer Karen Heuler and I was with her for many years. I found the other group

through an ad in a magazine. Again, I emailed them and they asked for a submission and then let me in. Now I have no one but that’s okay. I’m busy and I have to do a lot of writing this summer—working on a novel—so when I’m done with the novel, I’ll probably look for readers but not a group. I also know it’s hard to find a writing group, especially one that meets consistently, so I’m glad you have one. I think every writer at one point needs to hook up with a writing group. It really does help.

Let’s finish up with a process question: how do you write? Do you do it in the same time and place every day?

When it comes to short stories, I don’t write them until I have an idea and an arc in my head. So I spend a lot of time just thinking. For a longer project which I’m working on now, it was a loose outline and I blew through the first draft as fast as I could. I write on my laptop, either in my bedroom or downstairs in my dining room. I have a fourteen-year-old so most of my work is done when he is asleep, preoccupied or if he’s at his dad’s house. He’s pretty good about not bothering me but he’s still a teenager, so it’s never fool-proof. And I’d like to write every day but there are days after teaching that I’m just too damn exhausted, so sometimes it’s best if I sleep and save my energy for the next night.

On the flip side, because I teach, I’m off in the summer so I consider myself a lucky writer. I would work a side job in July and August but I’d rather skimp on extras and focus on my writing. It’s very important to me. It’s my Mount Everest so I need as much time as I can to climb this huge, giant, almost impossible mountain called “breaking into writing.” Actually, I think it might be easier to climb Mount Everest. 

We’ll look forward to your collection, which will be released in May. The official book launch will be at Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop on Friday 3 June at 6:30 pm. Thank you for your time, Jen!

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure!

You can follow Jen on her website or on twitter at @jenconley45
You can purchase her book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore.  It is published by Down & Out Books.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Would You Please Get Snarky, Please?

Authors at a signing this past weekend.  L to R: Kelly Simmons, Matty Dalrymple, Virginia Beards, Jon McGoran, Merry Jones, and Bruce Mowday

This past weekend I attended a multi-author book signing at the Levante Brewery in West Chester, PA.  One of the authors, poet Virginia Beards, had to leave early.  I asked the remaining five authors what were the best and worst things about doing a book event in a brewery.  (Although sales were light, the authors remained upbeat and refused to get snarky.)

What’s the best thing about doing a signing in a brewery?

Jon McGoran:  Beer!!

Merry Jones:  Dogs and babies among the crowd.  They’re the best!  You don’t get those in a bookstore signing.

Kelly Simmons:  Yes.  I love dogs and babies!  Notice how they always find the sunbeams to lie in.  It’s just a fun atmosphere.

Bruce Mowday:  You get to meet your readers.  It’s a chance to interact with them.  I’ve had some great discussions on Pickett’s Charge (the subject of one of his books).  Matty (Dalrymple) did a great job organizing this event.

Matty Dalrymple: It’s an exercise in community building. And it’s good that we’ve started to see some of the same faces among the attendees.

And what was the worst thing about this particular brewery signing?

Jon McGoran:  Well, you always want to sell more books.

Merry Jones:  A lot of people just walk by.  Most of them are here to drink, not buy books.

Kelly Simmons:  Yes, they didn’t come to buy books.  And I don’t want to intrude on families.

Bruce Mowday:  I wish we had more people here.  But it’s such a nice day – people don’t want to be inside.

Matty Dalrymple:  Wine drinkers are more interested in books than beer drinkers are.  I suspect you can sell more books at a winery than at a brewery.  Overall, I think we could describe this as more of a social than a sales event.

My Takeaway:  It was a fun event on a nice day.  But dogs and babies don’t buy worth a damn.  (Hey, if they won’t get snarky, I will!)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings, Part Four

When you become a star, you can make people wait.

Until then, here's some advice: when giving a public reading, get to the reading area (lectern, podium, stage, whatever) BEFORE the applause stops!

Last night, I did a group reading in front of about 25 people.  The audience consisted of other writers, so they were attentive and polite.

The host had a written introduction for each person reading.  He would read the introduction, ending with the name of the writer.  The audience applauded.

And, in every single case, the writer took his or her time going to the podium.  The applause was long over by the time they began to read.

(That happened to me, too...but I had a good excuse.  The host forgot to read my introduction.  Instead, he just announced my name.  Believe me, if he had read my intro, I would've been standing next to him by the time he finished.  And if I'd known that I was going to read next, I would've been there.  However, the host elected to keep the order of readers unknown to everyone except himself.  That's unusual, but it was his show and his rules.)

Folks, in the broadcast business, this is what they call dead air.  It's a span of time in which nothing is going on.  Broadcasters hate it.  (I assume they still call it "dead air."  I haven't been in a radio or TV studio in years.)

If and when you become such a famous personality that you can make a grand entrance...and people are paying to see you...and there's a big proscenium arch with a curtain for you to step out of...then you can make people wait.

Until then, don't inflict dead air on your audience.  Get to the podium quickly, before the applause dies.  OK?

My previous posts in this series:
Part Three of What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings
Part Two of What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings
Part One of What I've Learned About Giving Public Readings

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Catherine Quillman on Writing (and Interviewing Andew Wyeth)

Catherine Quillman is a well-known writer, artist, and reporter here in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I met her when we were both writing articles on local history for the Chester County Day newspaper. The former editor inadvertently assigned both of us to write an article on the oldest African-American Social Organization in the state. I’m glad that I yielded to Catherine’s expertise and stepped back so she could write it herself!

Catherine, I’m jealous that you got to interview the late, reclusive painter Andrew Wyeth – not once, but several times. Please, tell us about that experience.

Yes, interviewing Wyeth, or any of his associates such as the biographer, the late Richard Meryman, was definitely the combined highlight of my career at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I would have gladly written a year of obituaries for every encounter or interview I had with Wyeth. I consider him one of our greatest contemporary American painters, but on a personal level, I found him to be the closest I will ever get to a 19th-century painter.

Of course, he wasn’t born in that century but he lived a creative, close-to-nature life that many artists of that era embodied. I was sorry that Wyeth died just as I was researching my book, 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley. He influenced so many artists - it would have been thrilling to get his opinion on the regional art scene.

On the other hand, he might have told me to call his son – that’s Jamie Wyeth, the artist. Wyeth seemed to want to give the impression that he wasn’t an authority on anything beyond his art. That was very different from the 1960s, when Wyeth actually wrote letters to the Daily Local News about historic preservation (at the time, modish buildings with lots of glass were being proposed in West Chester).

I guess this is a long way of saying that Wyeth was difficult to interview mainly because he seemed to really value the opinion of others. He certainly didn’t act like a famous artist. I remember when Bob Williams, an Inquirer photographer, was trying to get Wyeth to pose outside the Brandywine River Museum and nothing looked right. Wyeth didn’t say anything, until Bob finally said something like, “Well, you’re the artist, where do you want to stand?” Wyeth immediately pointed to a nearby sycamore (one his favorite types of trees, btw). 

You and I have both published books with several different publishers. How do the different publishing houses compare?

I have published with several regional publishers that have gone out of business – really a
sign of the times considering printing costs and the diminishing number of independent
book stores. I’m in the process of working out a contract for my second book with
Schiffer Publishing. It’s also regional publisher. In fact, the owners seem to be proud of
their local Chester County roots. (The company headquarters is part of a former dairy
farm in Atglen, Pa. )

In terms of comparing publishers, I think Schiffer publishes an amazing number of books
– I mean hundreds of each quarter. But it’s still a considered a small, regional publisher,
which I believe are more receptive to new or unknown writers. Schiffer is especially
open to a nonfiction book idea if you present the subject as something you love and know

Several of your books are collaborations. How does that process work for you?  Do you write part of
a book, and your co-writer does another? Or do you re-write each other's work?

I don’t think I could ever write a large-scale book with another writer. I have too many solitary writing habits. I also suspect that the end product would be too much like a literary mash-up or sound over edited like a textbook written by HAL 9000. I exaggerate, of course. But I should point out that my co-writer, Sarah Wesley, and I received two grants from the Leeway Foundation that actually required a collaboration.

With our first book, Walking the East End, it made sense that Sarah would come up with the content or framework since she grew up in that neighborhood and began the research years before.

With short “popular” history books, I think the book’s cover and design is very
important. I joke about the NYT’s motto and say we write “all the news that will fit.” But
some of that is sort of true: I wrote sections and used Sarah’s material when the narrative
fit the context. There were times, too, that Sarah shaped my writing, based strictly on
research, since she knew all the personal stories that only a native would know.

You have a new book on Milford Mills. Tell us about that.

Thanks so much for asking! My answers so far remind me of that statement by Alfred
Conan Doyle (I think). To paraphrase, “I would have written a shorter letter if I had more
time.” To keep this short, the book’s title (and subtitle) is revealing: The Story Of
Milford Mills and the Marsh Creek Valley, Chester County, Pennsylvania. An historic account of early milling communities and a hamlet taken by eminent domain to build the Marsh Creek State Park and Reservoir

Speaking of regional interest, the book is so local, I decided to self-publish, I also
published an earlier version back in the 1980s and I now have what could be described as
a waiting list of readers. They have been waiting for decades for the second edition.

Let’s finish up with a process question: how to you write? Do you do it in the same time and place every day?

Great. I used to love to read old copies of The Paris Review mainly because they asked
such questions. For some reason, I never thought I had a process compared to writer
friends and acquaintances (some of whom have become fairly famous) – they live by their word count. Still, I believe that system works well with fiction writing (which I’m
not doing at the moment). But to answer your question: I generally keep a journalist’s
hours - getting started in late morning and letting my writing time be interrupted by
phone calls, etc.

I also believe in having multiple desks or work areas depending on what stage the writing
is in. I may work on my netbook, for instance, in a public space when writing a first
draft. (I like the background sounds - it reminds me of a newsroom.)

My latest habit is uploading my work to Google Drive and then reading it on my tablet.
I’m also an exhibiting artist, so I think seeing the words in a nice clean context makes the
errors stand out that much more. With my tablet, I can open the document in Kindle and
highlight areas that need further work.

Thanks for the interesting questions!

We’ll look forward to your next book. Thank you for your time, Catherine!

Catherine Quillman’s books are listed on her website.

Her Wyeth feature stories can be found here.

You can follow her at Facebook at Catherine C. Quillman, Twitter at

@catquillman, and her favorite social networking site Instagram at


You can purchase her books locally at The Chester County Book Co. and the museum shop of the Chester County Historical Society.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Goal Each Month

Each month, my goal is to have 25 short-story submissions out.

Understand, that doesn't mean I have 25 unsold short stories. Some are previously-published ones that I'm trying to re-sell. Others I've sent to five different magazines or anthologies; whoever responds first, gets the story. Only a few of the stories went to markets that specify "no simultaneous submissions." I don't like to send stories to those markets, but sometimes you have to -- they're the most prestigious, or they pay the most.

It's a lot of work to research 25 different potential markets. Even using Duotrope, it takes me an average of one hour to go through potential venues, find one that's appropriate, and adjust my submission to the venue's rules. Most months I don't get 25 out. But it's always my goal, and I'm glad to have accomplished it this month.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Bribery with Chocolate: Interview with Author Kelly Simmons

Today we interview one of my favorite people, writer Kelly Simmons.  Kelly is a member of a group of authors known as the Liar's Club of Philadelphia. I first met her at the Writers' Coffeehouse, a monthly gathering of writers sponsored by the Liar's Club. Her third novel has just been released.

Congratulations on your new book, Kelly. Your first two novels fell into the category of "women's fiction," but One More Day is a thriller. Why the change?

Well, the publisher and agent consider One More Day to be women's fiction with thriller and paranormal elements.  So theoretically, I haven't switched categories. But it WAS a shift for me -- because there is a crime at the center of the book, and because there may or may not be ghosts appearing to help the main character solve the crime --  these were genre elements I had never dealt with before. ​
 My agent felt very strongly that even though she liked the two other manuscripts I'd given her -- that the concept and early pages of One More Day were very exciting -- and would make a bigger splash than the other two books.  

​ ​
You've also switched publishers. Standing Still and The Bird Ho​use were published by Simon and Schuster, but your new book is from Sourcebooks. Would you like to tell us why you've switched publishers?

​My original publisher would have wanted to re-launch me more drastically -- with a book that went in a completely different direction -- or possibly under another name.  It was a game I wasn't sure I was ready to play, but I did submit a historical fiction manuscript to them before I went out with One More Day -- and they didn't love it.   So to punish them  (evil sarcastic laugh) we didn't include them on the round of submissions with One More Day -- because who needs more failure in any given quarter?

And Sourcebooks specializes in women's fiction, and functions completely differently than other publishers -- given the choice between them and a larger house it was an easy decision to make.

Like most authors, you support yourself and your family with a day job. You've worked as a reporter and in advertising, correct? Some authors prefer to have a day job that has nothing to do with writing, so they don't get tired of spending hours at the computer. Has it been a problem for you, making yourself get back behind the computer after you've already spent a full day doing that?

​It's true that I spend many days just sitting at the laptop.  Although advertising also requires filming, editing, recording, and going to meetings, so that breaks things up a bit.  Some times I do feel like my brain hurts, and my wrists -- but advertising has been a relatively lucrative choice. So many people write half the time and teach school the other ​
​half -- and I'm like, why would you choose TWO low-paying jobs?  :) 
Good advice!
My favorite publishing story of yours concerns your first book, Standing Still. If I recall correctly, your agent wanted you to add a sex scene, but you did not.  How did that issue get resolved?

Tony, when a girl says no, she means NO.  Even a publishing whore knows that!​

Let’s finish up with a process question: how to you write?  Do you do it in the same time and place every day?

A long time ago I got in the habit of getting up early and writing before sunrise, before my day began to spiral out of control.  The quiet helps. But now that the kids are in college, there is a lot of quiet -- I can pretty much write any time of day that works with my schedule or deadline -- but I don't love working at night.  I have to many times, but I have to bribe myself with chocolate.

We’ll look forward to your next book.  Thank you for your time, Kelly.

Kelly Simmons' books can be purchased at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-a-Million or your local bookstore. You can o​rder personalized autographed copies here:   

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