Writing Workshop with Barry Lane

As many of you know, I’m a middle grades teacher. In the state of Texas, students take a state standardized writing assessment in 4th grade, 7th grade and later in high school.

The only problem (besides the fact that we have state standardized tests – trust me – never ending battle) is that after the kids take the writing test in 4th grade, they don’t write again until 7th grade! All the writing skills and techniques they learned go out the window, let alone building upon and developing those skills, let alone any authentic writing.

This past year with my 6th graders I had them doing various types of writing. When they first came to me I had them write me a letter about themselves. A few weeks into school we wrote a memoir, and later they wrote a eulogy. In the fall, we spent before Halloween til Thanksgiving writing, revising and editing a short story. In the spring they synthesized various articles about Sharks for Shark Week (which was more like three weeks) and did other short response writing. But it’s not enough.

Next year all the sixth graders will be required to take a class, Writer’s Workshop,texas-barry for a semester. They had to this past year, but it was a blow-off class. Next year it will be comparable to a core class with structure, taught by a former writing teacher.

Due to the incontinuity between grade levels, most of my school’s entire language arts department went to this writing workshop with Barry Lane. He is a kooky, zanie guy that is hilarious and heartfelt. It was so much fun, and I learned so many fun things to do to get my students writing.

Here are some of the great teaching tools I snagged:


Throughout the two-day workshop Barry had us listening to all kinds of music, he played his own music for us, and even busted out his guitar for several songs. For one, he made us sing along. For another, he made us make specific sounds to go along with the song. I will say this: there was plenty of laughter. It was a great workshop.

Barry modeled many of the writing activities for us to take back and implement into our classrooms, and as such we were writers for two days. Writers who are teachers.

Did I mention the title of the workshop is Rigor Without Mortis? In public schools, especially those seeking to be labeled “high performing” (or higher than they were performing) the word “rigor” gets thrown around A LOT. Barry gave us the top six definitions of “rigor” in the dictionary, and also the top definitions for the medical term. They were scary, and not the least bit about higher level thinking. Words like harsh, cruel, unfavorable to growth. Every time one of the APs uses this term, it is a battle not to roll my eyes. To get over this hump, Barry had us use our “best Texas British accents” to say “vigor, not rigor,” and a good example of a teacher who did that was Mary Poppins.

The 5 Cs of Writing

  1. Courage – getting comfortable enough to write
  2. Community – writing for someone besides the teacher
  3. Content – guided writing but also choice writing
  4. Craft – developing writing skills and techniques
  5. Celebration – authentic celebration by reading from the “author’s chair”


Here are some of the pieces of writing I did while at Barry’s workshop on the first day. The second day our writing was structured from a teacher’s point of view and how to teach writing good leads and arguments.

6 Word Memoirs

  • Life is full of grand adventures.
  • Writing is more than a passion.
  • Find yourself. Love yourself. Love another.

You can check out more six word memoirs at sixwordmemoirs.com.

Group Writing

We were given several sets of words, and had to create something using those specific words (bolded).

  • Your patience throughout the journeys and trials of life will lead you to a kingdom of worth.
  • I come from a tribe of ghosts. I hear Pocahontas sing on the riverbank, but these people have no names.

11 Minute Essay

Statement: Sometimes in life it’s hard to act with your best self.

Write about the statement. What does it mean?

Sometimes in life there are very try8ing, nonsensical, obnoxious situations or people that try our patience to no end, and being humans, we accumulate all of this stress over time. It doesn’t matter how long – my time is going to be different than your time. Some days it’s really tempting!

I started running out of time at the end, so I had to wrap up quickly.

In the book….

In the movie….

The Help, the main maid finally has enough of Miss Hilly and her snide, racist, smart mouth. In the end, she knows she’s ruined. No one will ever hire her again, so she tells Ms. Hilly just like it is.

My friend drew a maid next to those few lines and wrote, “How’s your pie?” 😉

In my life…

I struggle with being my best self. There are some people that need to hear it straight and have some tough love. They whine and complain about almost everything daily, but make no move to improve their life or make the changes they would like to see reflected in their life.

Write about the statement again. One thing you wonder about…

In our changing and dynamic world, where every last dollar and figure count, where people are more expendable than those dollars, is it worth it to be my best self? Or should I act like others to get ahead?

Memory Writing

Draw an image of a place you remember. Write a statement about the memory.

[I tried to draw a map of the summer camp I grew up at in the summers, particularly this grand adventure when the big girls FINALLY got to switch cabins with the big boys and we were in “the swamp” – open screen windows all around the cabin! Talk about cool summer nights. Anyway, we planned this elaborate prank to raid the boys’ cabin, but we didn’t want anyone to see us, so we hiked miles out of the way, went down numerous horse trails, followed the river, and came up the backside of an extremely steep cliff.]

The best laid plans don’t always end the way we envision but fun and friendship can take you a long way.

Originally I set this up into two separate sentences, and then later added the “but” in.

______ is ________

For this one, we wrote one using sentence stems. The original one I wrote I am not going to share, but these are the sentence stems:

  1. ______ is _______
  2. One way I know this…
  3. I wonder….
  4. I wish….
  5. ______ is _______

Then, we had to “bond” with a flower that represented us, and rewrite the poem.

I am a Spanish dagger

One way I know this is because like the towering bloom hidden and protected within the cacti, I am barbed on the outside

After getting past the prickly exterior I open into full bloom but always remain guarded

I wonder if things had been different if I would be a different flower

I wish people were better

I am a Spanish dagger


This activity is used for several different writing activities.

  1. This I believe….
  2. This I believe….
  3. People to write about….
  4. People to write about…
  5. Shopping list item…
  6. Shopping list item…
  7. What I want to change in the world….
  8. What I want to change in the world….
  9. What I’m good at…
  10. What I’m good at….
  11. A movie or book that moved me….
  12. A movie or book that moved me….
  13. A person who inspired me…
  14. A character from a book that inspired me…

Personal Growth or Shopping List – from Listing #s 5, 6, 9, 10

I need words

Without it I’m a rambling lost cause

This would cause massive chaos and discontentment

Eventually I will be published

And so I am a writer

What’s So Special? – from Listing #s 3, 4

What’s so special: Elizabeth

My main truth: she is perfect

One way I know this: she died with no mistakes

Another way I know this: my mother reminded me many times

Truth again: she is flawless

Above is the raw form of my writing. Then, you would use the writing techniques and skills to form a cohesive poem.

This is Why I’m Right – from Listing #s 7, 8

This is wrong: bullying

One way I know this is because: I’ve seen the pain and hurt it causes

Another way I know this is because some scars can’t be healed

Some think it’s wrong: and belittle it as “a joke”

This is why I’m right: you are your brother’s keeper

Writing from A Snapshot to a Thought Bubble

Thoughtshots contain thoughts and wisdom. Snapshots are concrete details or facts. You start with a snapshot – a concrete image – and morph into writing a thought bubble. I won’t share my piece that I wrote because I did this exercise backwards. Obviously, I don’t need to practice this exercise because I can write thoughtshots, but most of the time for students it is hard to do. This exercise is to help them get themselves unstuck when writing.

Writing from an Image

You can show a series of images or a singular image and write about it independently or using sentence stems. In the workshop, Barry showed an image of a toddler reaching up onto a picnic table for a Fourth of July decorated cupcake. He gave us a sentence stem to use for the image.

I’ve learned that sometimes….you’ve gotta grab life by the cupcake!


Now it’s your turn to get creative!
Take one of these activities and create your own piece of writing. Leave it in the comments below. 

Author Interview: Lance McCulloch

The dashing Lance McCulloch has stopped in today for an interview! He’s indulging about his debut novel, The Colors of Blue, and about the process of writing it.

Thank you for your interview. Can you tell readers a little about yourself?

I’m a 49 years old and only recently become a full-time author.  My wife Jennifer, three daughters, and I all call Boulder, Colorado home.  I have a degree from the University of Colorado in Chemical Engineering and spent the last ten years of my life starting and running a gear and technology company.  I love the outdoors and fly-fishing has been my go-to Zen for many years.

The Colors of Blue is your first novel. What line of work were you in prior to writing? 

I have a degree from the University of Colorado in Chemical Engineering and focused most of my time in companies that manufacture semiconductors.  My focus had been in the area of plasma physics.  In 2003, I started my own gear and technology company and ran that on a day to day basis until 2010.

20744355What inspired you to write The Colors of Blue?

My company had arrived at a unique GPS technology with military applications.  In 2007, a large public company approached my six-person company exploring a relationship to distribute our products.  I was excited and believed that we had hit the jackpot.  Unbeknownst to me, this company had an agenda that was outside of the terms of the distribution contract we signed.  The terms of that agreement made them the exclusive distributor of our product and when they missed a major US Army contract, they simply stepped away.

Their actions set forth a sequence of events including the loss of my company and a lawsuit I filed against this company.  I loved my employees and losing them and my company were some of the very darkest times in my life.

I needed something positive.  One day I closed the door of my office and simply began to write.  My book, The Colors of Blue, was the best and most positive thing to come out of those hard times, although, when a Dallas, Texas jury convicted the company of fraud in 2013, it was not bad either.

Can you expand on this quote?

“Although The Colors of Blue is fiction, it is loosely based on the true story of my father’s recovery from my mother’s death,” said McCulloch. “I also wrote it as a means of escaping the depression of my failing company.”

Since I was very young, I’ve found great solace in the outdoors of Colorado and especially fly-fishing on the remote rivers.  This is a very introspective experience and, over time, has allowed me to assess my life.  When I was in college, my mother came down with a terminal disease.  Eventually, she passed away, leaving my father to contend with the loss of his long-time partner.  They had met and married when he was in medical school and had been together for decades.

I spent a great deal of time on the river, not only contending with the loss of my mother, but also trying to understand how someone in my father’s position can move-on.  This is one of the primary story lines of The Colors of Blue and I tied into the introspective nature of fly-fishing.

How did you come to choose the title, The Colors of Blue?

That’s a great question!  In the end, I wanted to describe to the audience the most difficult of all things to put into words.  That thing is the emotion of love.  I thought that a clever way to do that would be to make it tangible, like a color that could be seen.   That consideration led to Sarah Field, my protagonist with a sixth sense.

For me, writing inspired by these kinds of events is very emotional and cathartic. Explain what the writing process was like for you.

The process of writing began as a healing process for me.  It was and is an endeavor into the positive and creative.  Although operating a small business has its moments of creativity, there is nothing like writing that provides end-to-end joy like creating characters, scenes, and constructing the story.  I think ‘cathartic’ is the perfect word to describe the process.  My wife will tell you that she often finds me deeply entrenched in the process with a wide grin on my face; usually there is a glass of wine too, should I mention that?

How did you come up with and develop the idea behind The Colors of Blue?

The first line I ever wrote was ‘Sarah Field lives in a world of colors.’  Believe it or not, when I began, I did not know the story I would write.  However, when I realized it was a story about the discovery of love, I knew what the colors meant to Sarah.

Where do you like to write?

I must change places with some regularity to keep it ‘fresh.’  Often I will find myself at local coffee shops in Boulder, my office in our basement, or just the living room surrounded by my family.

What does a typical day for you look like?

Until very recently, I have been consumed with the law suit that I mentioned above.  I was the primary witness in a sixteen day trial and sat on the stand for four days straight testifying about several years of a business relationship and tens of thousands of documents.  Preparing for that occupied the better part of my day until December 20th, 2013.  Now, I’m reinventing my day.  So far, I start the day getting my youngest off to school, hitting the gym, usually a four mile walk with the dog, and then settling down to write until I run out of energy.   Following dinner, I may pick up the computer again if I feel compelled or enjoy a glass of red wine with my wife.

animas_riverDo you have any books in the works?

I do; the current title is ‘The Funny Little Corners of Love.’  Once again, it is set in the Colorado Rockies, this time in the small town of Silverton, Colorado.  Two brothers will find each other again over the mystery of a train plunging into the Animas River.

What are your future goals as a writer?

 My near term goal is to finish my second book.  Part of that is both hoping I have found a compelling story and working on my writing skills.  I am also hoping to expand my audience but, oddly, not for the purpose of making it an economic venture.  It warms me to hear from people who have found emotion in my writing and simply gotten lost in the story.

What do you want readers to take away from The Colors of Blue?

An early reader wrote me and said that my story made her laugh, cry, and think about life.  As she found, I hope that others can relate, feel, and understand the hand of cards that both Rick and Sarah have been dealt.  If my story catches the reader, perhaps I will be awarded with a few hours of their life to share the beauty of the human experience.

7731618About Lance

The Colors of Blue is Lance McCulloch’s first novel.  He wrote this novel as a way to cope with the loss of his parents.  He lost his mother to cancer and then his father in the crash of Egypt Air 990 in 1999.

McCulloch has one brother who currently manages his family’s cattle ranch.  He worked for Fujitsu Microelectronics for several years in Portland, Oregon, followed by Cirrus Logic in the San Francisco Bay area. Then, he launched his own business in 2003.

Born and raised in Durango, Colorado, McCulloch holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from University of Colorado.  Currently, he resides in Colorado with his wife Jennifer and their three wonderful daughters.

Find the author: Website | Facebook | Goodreads

Giveaway + Author Interview: Eliza Gordon

Welcome to my tour stop for  Must Love Otters by Eliza Gordon. This is an adult romantic comedy and the tour runs February 24th- March 7th and will consist of reviews, guest posts, interviews and more. You can find the full schedule on the tour page.

Today the lovely couple cohort that is Eliza Gordon is answering some of my burning questions, but first…

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Tell us about yourselves, and how Eliza Gordon came into creation.

Eliza Gordon is, as you probably already know, two people—me, and the Husband. We write different things—I write YA under my real name, he writes screenplays. And we have other jobs—I’m an editor and he works in the film industry as a sculptor/model builder/art department guy. Creativity is encouraged in our house, mostly as a means of maintaining sanity. We LOVE movies, and of course I love books, so it’s not unusual for us to spend an inordinate amount of time dissecting films we’ve seen or books I’ve read. Last year I mentioned how I’d like to have more material out there as I waited for my YA project to make its way through the editorial machine, and Eliza Gordon was born. We felt that it would be a fun undertaking to write silly, romantic stuff where we could capitalize on our individual talents—he’s better with building the framework for stories, and I’m good with adding all the meat. We talk about the project through the entire process, but I’m the one who does the actual writing. Mr. Gordon then helps finesse the comedic elements, character nuance, and overall silliness.

What inspired you to become writers?

What inspires anyone to become a writer? LOL … madness, perhaps? It’s cliché to say I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, but it’s the truth. And it’s the only thing I’ve ever shown any aptitude in. Of course, life is expensive, so I’ve had to find other ways to pay for those pesky things (housing, electricity, food, underwear), but words have always stitched a common thread throughout most of my working life. Mr. Gordon, on the other hand, got a degree in art and then moved to Los Angeles for film school. He then fell into writing later as his understanding of the film industry deepened.

How did you connect and start writing together?

When we first met X years ago, we started co-writing a screenplay. Those were fun times. Sadly, we never finished it but we spent a lot of time talking about writing, about mentors, technique, who inspires us, etc. Over the years, I’ve edited his projects and he’s offered invaluable feedback on mine, but it wasn’t until 2013 that we really decided that collaborating would be a good idea. The timing was right—the publishing model has changed and I now have an agent who is very supportive of both my traditional and self-publishing efforts, so the ducks lined up for us.

How do you divvy up and balance writing?

Like I said above, Mr. Gordon is great with structure. We have a few intense brainstorming sessions to get things rolling, and we build the outline together. Then I go off and write like a maniac; we meet up to read and discuss the new pages and he provides his feedback, injects things I missed or stuff that will fatten up the narrative, and then we brainstorm again to really fine-line the scenes to come. Funny thing about writing a story—change is inevitable. And sometimes that change is HUGE and can completely redirect the course of a story. It’s like throwing a dam across a river and then the water flows over what used to be an abandoned field.

Our process of writing, singularly and together, has also evolved quite a bit. I was always a pantser (someone who writes by “the seat of his/her pants”), and then I started working with an incredible editor at HarperCollins Canada who taught me the beauty of outlines. I’d been so resistant to using outlines up to that point, but as I proceeded through this editorial process, I loved how much more in control I felt about the story, the characters, everything. With that said, though, when working on a story, certain elements will change or a character will pop up with his/her own agenda (I’ve had characters walk out of shadows and steal an entire scene!), and the overarching outline gets blown apart. Which is okay. When that happens, Mr. Gordon and I will go back through, tweak our outline accordingly, and I will rewrite scenes to fit whatever changes we’ve decided to go with.

Where do you like to write?

I used to leave the house to write in my car, longhand, in the parking lot of a local coffee shop. I spent a lot of cold nights writing alone. I mostly write at home nowadays, although I do like to hide in my room under my blanket when I need to meditate my way through a tricky scene. Mr. Gordon sneaks away to a room in the basement—it’s super quiet down there, but I don’t like it because the spiders also find that room comfortable. Eek!

Where did the idea for Must Love Otters come from?

We’d been talking about books and films and certain elements we really love about our favorite genres. I go through these stages where I only want to watch films with either romantic or romantic comedy themes, so one thing led to another. I said, “I wanna write something funny! With a happy ending!” We thought it would be fun to build a completely relatable character with everyday problems who finds love—and Hollie Porter was born. She’s not drop-dead gorgeous, she’s not particularly well organized with her life or what she wants—she’s a typical 25-year-old girl with some mommy issues who doesn’t quite know where she fits in the world.

There is nothing interesting about a perfect character, someone who starts the story with nothing to lose and nothing to gain. We fall in love with characters, and especially their faults, because imperfections make it easier for us to relate to and root for these people. When we built the Hollie/Ryan dynamic, we really wanted to bring together two people with their own baskets of issues and see what would happen. Long answer to a short question. 🙂

Why an otter?

Because they’re adorable! And we’re cat people—otters are so much like cats! We’re members at the Vancouver Aquarium, so over the years, we’ve fallen in love with Elfin and Milo (RIP) and the females, Tanu and Katmai. The Aquarium now has Wally (a big male who was found shot on a beach in Tofino, BC, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island), and a new orphan baby has apparently joined the ranks out of Alaska. A love for animals was something was felt our lead character should have, so otters just seemed like a fun fit. And we’re both from the West Coast, so sharing some of our local beasties was a no-brainer.

Hollie had a pretty amazing journey in Must Love Otters. Will we see any more of Hollie at Revelation Cove?

Maybe! We’re talking about a follow-up book for Hollie and Ryan, but we’re still in the planning stages.

Do you have any other books in the works? What are your future goals as writers?

We do have another project planned for release late spring/early summer. I can’t talk about it, though, which is dumb, I know, but I’m superstitious. I don’t talk about my projects until they’re at least through the first-draft stage. Under Jennifer Sommersby, I will have a young adult novel coming out sometime in 2015. That’s up to the powers that be.

Future goals? More books! Mr. Gordon has a few screenplays that are about to go through significant edits so his agent can start shopping those around, and I’m looking forward to moving onto the second book in my YA series.

What is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you?

Craziest thing? Wow … good question. I’m sorta boring. I think it’s pretty wacky that I, a native Oregonian, had to move from rural Washington to Los Angeles, California, to meet a boy from Victoria, British Columbia—and that he was my neighbor in the apartment I moved into. If you were to draw a map, we grew up within a few hundred miles of each other but we had to move to one of the most populated cities in the country to meet each other. And neighbors? It really is a “I married the boy next door” story.

Mr. Gordon’s crazy moment: He and a movie friend were driving a five-ton truck during a Teamsters’ strike in LA and they had to pick up some props from Paramount. They drove to the side gate to avoid the picketers, and as they drove through, they bent the decades’-old, historic metal Paramount Pictures sign. The Teamsters’ then started cheering. (That story cracked me up.)


Thank you so much for hosting us on your blog today! Great questions—we hope your readers get a kick out of us and Must Love Otters.

Must Love Otters – Synopsis

18715353Hollie Porter is the chairwoman of Generation Disillusioned: at twenty-five years old, she’s saddled with a job she hates, a boyfriend who’s all wrong for her, and a vexing inability to say no. She’s already near her breaking point, so when one caller too many kicks the bucket during Hollie’s 911 shift, she cashes in the Sweethearts’ Spa & Stay gift certificate from her dad and heads to Revelation Cove, British Columbia. One caveat: she’s going solo. Any sweethearts will have to be found on site.

Hollie hopes to find her beloved otters in the wilds of the Great White North, but instead she’s providing comic relief for staff and guests alike. Even Concierge Ryan, a former NHL star with bad knees and broken dreams, can’t stop her from stumbling from one (mis)adventure to another. Just when Hollie starts to think that a change of venue doesn’t mean a change in circumstances, the island works its charm and she starts to think she might have found the rejuvenation she so desperately desires. But then an uninvited guest crashes the party, forcing her to step out of the discomfort zone where she dwells and save the day … and maybe even herself in the process.

Find the book: Website | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Find the author: Website  Facebook | Twitter | PinterestGoodreads

GUEST POST by J Daniel Parra

Available Now

Early last month I received an email from Angela Craft, a marketing and publicity manager for Diversion Books. She was sending out queries for those interested in participating in a book blog tour for a summer book about to be released, Pieces of Tracy.

Silly me, new book blogger who just jumped in feet first (which I don’t recommend!) had absolutely zero idea what a book blog tour even was! I fired off a response to Angela that I definitely wanted to be included…again, jumping in with my feet first. Don’t do it! So I asked a friend, my lovely co-writer at The Eclectic Bookworm, who’s been in the book blogging biz for a while. She explained about blog tours, and then I felt even sillier! I signed up for everything on this book blog tour: a review, a give-away, an author guest post and an interview with the author, J Daniel Parra. You can follow Daniel on Twitter and like him on Facebook for more about his debut novel.

I’ve guest reviewed on EBW, but I’ve never had a guest post on Girl of 1000 Wonders. J Daniel Parra, you hold the distinction and honor of being the first guest writer and the first author guest post! Welcome!

IMG_0214 copy
J Daniel Parra

Some of the things I outlined that I wanted Daniel to focus on were suggestions for potential authors, as self-publishing has exploded like the .com of the mid-90s with the invention of the eReader and other digital reading devices. Lots of authors are bypassing the traditional route of being published with a large, well-known publishing house and going with small, independent presses, or self-publishing. It is definitely changing the world of books. This is what Daniel had to say about it…

Sweet Rewards: The Path to Publication

The path to publication is a bit like playing that old board game, Candy Land.  You have to make your way through places like the Gumdrop Mountains, the Peppermint Forest, and of course, Molasses Swap.  The rewards are sweet if you have the courage to tackle the colorful obstacles in your path.

As you work your way to the ultimate goal of publication, none of the pieces will click unless you start out with a good story that’s told in a compelling way with an original voice.  This could take years to accomplish, but it’s important to focus on your writing FIRST and to create the best possible product to send out into the perilous world of publication.

Once that crucial component is in place, you have to decide if you want to publish traditionally or self-publish.  These days, there are many great arguments for self-publishing and various self-publishing sites (like CreateSpace on Amazon or Smashwords) to help you on your way.  Self-publishing is particularly helpful for those who like a “hands on” approach to distributing their work.  In many cases it creates a higher profit margin.  It also requires the author to wear many hats, as editor, publisher, and publicist.  A traditional publishing house will expedite all these things, distributing the workload among various internal branches.  However, most publishers pay a modest advance for your work and then provide royalties based on sales.  Consider the pros and cons, do your research, talk to other published authors.  If you want longevity as an author, you might publish in a variety of ways over the course of your career and these days authors have more options available than ever.  Best-selling author Sylvia Day is an example of someone who has successfully used all possible options, publishing on her own, through publishing houses, in print and in Ebook.

Another helpful component to getting published is the community of authors and readers available online.  I recommend joining Goodreads or a similar site to get involved with your peers, to see what’s being published, read, discussed, and reviewed.  On Facebook and Twitter, follow your favorite authors and see what techniques they are applying to spreading the word about their latest works.  They are all building a readership and so should you.  The days of merely writing something and expecting it to catch on with the use of a few well-placed ads, blurbs, and reviews are long gone.  These days authors are engaging with their readers like never before and that’s useful all around, so take advantage of this accessibility and use it to learn how to create the framework for a sustained relationship with your readers.

In Candy Land, you often have to step backward before you move ahead.   The road to publication also requires patience and a thick skin.  We’ve all heard the stories of authors like Kathryn Stockett (The Help) who was rejected 60 times before finding a literary agent.   It’s a tough industry to break into and that means you should prepare for criticism and rejection.  This requires deep reserves of conviction and self-esteem.  In my process, my first published book isn’t the first book that I wrote.  I worked on a couple of books that will likely never see publication before arriving where I am today.  But I don’t consider those other manuscripts a waste of time.  They helped me improve as a writer and to get a deeper sense of my voice.  Without them and the rejection they received, I wouldn’t have become a published author.  I also learned to appreciate any advice I received from agents along the way. The best agents will reject you creatively and offer constructive criticism.  Embrace this criticism and don’t let your ego get in the way.

Candy Land ends when you arrive at the Candy Castle.  It’s every aspiring author’s goal to achieve publication and arrive at his or her own castle of sorts.  It will not happen overnight.  It will require overcoming various pratfalls.  But I can assure you, if you stick with it and follow some of the guidelines above, it will be one of the most rewarding things you’ve ever done.

Here is my review of Pieces of Tracy – and you can enter the giveaway to win the book! Check out my interview with Daniel. 

Tomorrow’s blog tour stop for Daniel’s Pieces of Tracy will be with Cinta Garcia De La Rosa. Check out Daniel’s guest post at Indie Authors You Want to Read.  Monday, 7/22, the blog stop will be at Diary of a Mad Stitcher.

Author Interview: J Daniel Parra

Available Now

Early last month I received an email from Angela Craft, a marketing and publicity manager for Diversion Books. She was sending out queries for those interested in participating in a book blog tour for a summer book about to be released, Pieces of Tracy.

Silly me, new book blogger who just jumped in feet first (which I don’t recommend!) had absolutely zero idea what a book blog tour even was! I fired off a response to Angela that I definitely wanted to be included…again, jumping in with my feet first. Don’t do it! So I asked a friend, my lovely co-writer at The Eclectic Bookworm, who’s been in the book blogging biz for a while. She explained about blog tours, and then I felt even sillier! I signed up for everything on this book blog tour: a review, a give-away, an author guest post and an interview with the author, J Daniel Parra. You can follow Daniel on Twitter and like him on Facebook for more about his debut novel.

This is only my second interview, and I was uncertain what to ask, so I kept it relatively short compared to my interview with Linda Harley (Destiny’s Flower). I was very interested by the fact that this wasn’t Daniel’s first attempt at writing a novel. Find out more in our interview below!

J Daniel ParraTell me about yourself.

I’m J. Daniel Parra, author of the debut novel, Pieces of Tracy, available now from Diversion Books.  I live in New York where I love running in Central Park and sampling specialty cocktails, though not at the same time.

Why did you choose a female as the lead character? Was it difficult writing from a female perspective?

I’ve always loved fiction with strong female protagonists and have never had trouble connecting with a female perspective.  As Tracy’s story unfolded, I realized that the best way to tell it would be to involve a protagonist who embodied the qualities to make this journey.  It all happened very organically but I don’t think I ever imagined a man at the core of this story.  It just made sense to do it with a female.  The key to writing about a woman for me was not to get too caught up in the obvious girlie things like hair and makeup and clothes and although those elements are there, I tried to make Tracy much more fully realized than that.

It took four years to finish Pieces of Tracy. Did you go back to Rome during the writing?

I managed to do all of my research in one trip where I kept a detailed diary of my experiences. At the time I didn’t realize how much of my diary would work its way into the book. A few things are invented, but for the most part the places and locations are as I experienced them, although I experienced them on a smaller budget than Tracy’s, I should add.

Your agent prompted the title of your debut novel. What was your original title?

That title is still in the book.  Non Basta Una Vita, which translates to One Life Is Not Enough. I stumbled in this phrase in the preface to Henry James’ Italian Hours and this notion that one lifetime is not enough to get to know Rome stayed with me and caused the spark that prompted the story.  All told, I think Pieces of Tracy (Many thanks to Melissa Sarver, my amazing agent!) is a much better title but I still have a sweet spot for One Life Is Not Enough.

The cover features the Roman Coliseum with New York transposed in the background. Is this a hint to Tracy’s choice in the novel?

What I love about the cover is that it beautifully represents Tracy’s dual attractions.  Whether the outcome of Tracy’s dilemma is in any way depicted there is up to the reader.

Before your trip to Rome that inspired this book, what did your day-to-day life look like? How has it changed?

I think on the surface my day-to-day hasn’t changed much. I still love my work and writing. But, as anyone who’s visited Rome can tell you, it’s a city that stays with you.  New York is much the same and that’s why I enjoyed juxtaposing these wonderful cultural capitals in one narrative.

Pieces isn’t your first attempt at writing. What happened to all the attempts prior to Pieces? Will we see any of those works come to life?

I’ve been writing fiction since high school.  That’s a lot of years spent getting it right!  I’m focusing so much on future works right now so I’m not sure if my previous efforts will see the light of day but I wouldn’t rule it out.

How did you get into writing?

I have always loved stories and story-telling.  I created stories for my younger sister’s stuffed animals which I did episodically.  I learned in front of an audience (of one) how to keep a story alive and to create characters that would best embody that story.  I was also a journalist for several years and that taught me the mechanics of language, words, punctuation, grammar, etc.

What are your suggestions for struggling writers (i.e. writer’s block, lack of inspiration/direction, etc.) ?

In my opinion, a writer’s best tools are inspiration and discipline. Let those pillars anchor you.  Maybe conviction is another pillar. But be prepared to work hard and to take criticism. Also: read, read, read!  I seriously learned everything I needed to know about writing by reading books.  The answers are all there.

Goodreads tells us that you’re working on a new novel. Can you give us an idea of what to expect next?

(Darting eyes coyly)  The only thing I will say on that topic is that if you enjoyed Pieces of Tracy, you’ll want to check out my next book.

It’s been a pleasure spending time with you.  Thanks for having me!

Here is my review of Pieces of Tracy – and you can enter the giveaway to win the book! To read Daniel’s guest post about publication, go here.

Tomorrow’s blog tour stop for Daniel’s Pieces of Tracy will be with Cinta Garcia De La Rosa. Check out Daniel’s guest post at Indie Authors You Want to Read.  Monday, 7/22, the blog stop will be at Diary of a Mad Stitcher.

Book Review: Cinderella & The Carpetbagger

GraceRobbinsBookCoverCinderella & The Carpetbagger: My Life as the Wife of the “World’s Bestselling Author,” Harold Robbins by Grace Robbins (Bettie Youngs Book Publishers, 2013)

Genre: memoir

Amazon describes Robbins’ memoir…

Harold Robbins s steamy books were once more widely read than the Bible. His novels sold more than 750 million copies and created the sex-power-glamour genre of popular literature that would go on to influence authors from Jackie Collins and Jacqueline Susann to TV shows like Dallas and Dynasty. What readers don t know is that Robbins whom the media had dubbed the prince of sex and scandal actually researched the free-wheeling escapades depicted in his books himself, along with his drop-dead, gorgeous wife, Grace. Now, in this revealing tell-all, for the first time ever, Grace Robbins rips the covers off their REAL lives. The 1960s and 70s were decades like no others radical, experimental, libertine. Grace Robbins chronicles the rollicking good times, peppering her memoir with anecdotes of her encounters with luminaries from the world of entertainment and the arts not to mention most of Hollywood. The couple was at the center of a globetrotting jet set, with mansions in Beverly Hills, villas and yachts on the French Riviera and Acapulco. Their life rivaled and often surpassed that of the characters in his books. Champagne flowed, cocaine was abundant, and sex in the pre-AIDS era was embraced with abandon. Along the way, the couple agreed to a modern marriage, that Harold insisted upon. With charm, introspection, and humor, Grace lays open her fascinating, provocative roller-coaster ride of a life her own true Cinderella tale. 

I had no idea about the contents of this book when I downloaded it. It wasn’t until I began prepping this blog post that I discovered just what this book was about. Grace is indeed in a pivotal place to reveal a tell-all: Grace Robbins is the wife of the legendary Harold Robbins, whom the press dubbed as “The World’s Best-Selling Author.” Considered one of the first five Beverly Hills Housewives; Grace Robbins is now working on movie based on her book, Cinderella and the Carpetbagger. Even though I barely scraped the surface in getting an idea about this book, I was looking forward to reading it.

And was disappointed.

I read through half of chapter 16 and just could not continue reading this book, and here’s why: I don’t believe Grace Robbins. There are several incidents in this book that as a girlfriend/fiance/wife/mother she just ignores of her husband. For example, several people (including his mother and sister) tell Grace not to believe a word he says; he takes his wife, screenplay writer, and ex-mistress (and mother of his first child) to a happening bistro and tells the maitre de that he has his ex-mistress, wife and future mistress with him to have lunch. And she doesn’t say a word, even at home in private. As I said, there are several incidents in which Grace should have asked questions as a wife, but she didn’t and I don’t buy this as a reader. I feel there was A LOT glossed over or sugar coated.

In addition, Grace Robbins only had a “life” because of her husband. Before, she was married to a jealous, pathetic, voracious alcoholic with a dead-end job and no friends. She had no motivation, no drive, no dreams she wanted to fulfill. And after walking into Harold’s life, that doesn’t change! The only decisions she makes in their entire relationship are to get married on a whim when they go to Vegas with friends, and the suggestion they buy a yacht to “do something different.”

I enjoyed reading about the connections between people of old Hollywood and Beverly Hills, but I cringed every other page because it is obvious Grace Robbins is not the writer in the family. Grace, leave that to Harold. There were incorrect uses of commas (or lack of needed commas) EVERYWHERE!! It was deplorable. With has much money as she brags about having in this book, it seems she couldn’t spare it to hire an editor.

Writing is Therapeutic

Billy Ray today

I don’t normally stray from book reviews, but this was something I had to share since this is a writing/reading community.

Recently, country star Billy Ray Cyrus (1992 hit Achy Breaky Heart) has released his memoir, Hillbilly Heart. I read this in an article published by The Boot about Cyrus’ return to the small screen and his memoir.

Billy Ray in the early 90s

Yes, I did love his hit Achy Breaky Heart as kid, and I did watch Hannah Montana on Disney Channel, but that’s not why Cyrus or this article are important to me. Something he said about writing his memoir struck home with me. If someone had asked me why I write, I don’t think I could have said it any better than Billy Ray did. He is perfectly spot-on how I wish I could answer the ever-burning question of why writers write:

The 51-year-old says writing the book was healing for him, even though much of the process was painful at the time. “The book is just the truth,” he tells The Boot. “But in writing it, [I was] remembering and uncovering so many things that I had tried to bury away somewhere because they were painful to think about. Writing the book has been therapeutic.”

Book review? Where do I start?

After writing my first few book review posts herehere and here, I realized I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I started this book blog for a few reasons: to bring myself back to reading, to kick-start my dormant writing, and to keep a link with education by promoting lesson plan ideas for various texts.

So…what the heck am I doing? Well, aside from the educational components, I don’t really know. So I needed to go looking for some help. In college I had to write some analysis of different works – books, movies, poems, plays. After reading some good articles about Book Review Guidelines and a How To, I got some great insight and ideas as to what I’m doing. Or trying to do, at least.

First, I realized my book reviews may be too long. That’s always been my problem as a writer – too much. I really gotta work on being more concise, because in not doing so I feel as if I’m mysteriously giving away parts of the book. I also feel like I’m glazing over the style, characters and affects. See what I mean below.

What exactly is a book review?

“A book review is a description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book. It is a reaction paper in which strengths and weaknesses of the material are analyzed. It should include a statement of what the author has tried to do, evaluates how well (in the opinion of the reviewer) the author has succeeded, and presents evidence to support this evaluation.”

Here are some general tips about writing reviews I gleaned from these two sources. Think of it as your handy dandy cheat sheet.

  • Be cautious about submitting reviews of popular books which have been reviewed extensively in mainstream media.
  • Take notes on the book you’re dissecting, and decide how you want to approach your review.
  • For any book, make a point of explaining why you’re reviewing it, your background in the topic or genre, and where else people might want to look if they are interested in the basic area the book addresses.
  • Write conversationally but seriously, as you might in a topical letter to an acquaintance who’s asked you to send your impressions of a book.
  • Remember: the whole point of a review is to offer insight on a book’s worth, not just whether it has a chapter on XYZ.
  • Compare it to other books, explain whether this one met your expectations, criticize, parse.
  • But don’t feel obligated to defend a poor book for its faultless page numbering and clean, unobstructed margins, or stretch to play up faults in a book you think is excellent in order to appear objective.
  • Write in complete sentences, and use logically connected paragraphs.
  • Check with a style guide, such as Jack Lynch’s Guide to Grammar and Style.
  • Try not to sound like a marketing campaign: avoid cliches, go easy on the exclamation marks,  be cautious in general about superlatives and strong adjectives (provide concrete examples from the text that demonstrate qualities), avoid using too many adjectives in each sentence.
  • Try to find further information about the author – reputation, qualifications, influences, biographical, etc. – any information that is relevant to the book being reviewed and that would help to establish the author’s authority.

Some questions to ask yourself to include (or not) in your review:

  • Did someone recommend the book to you?
  • What’s the author’s purpose?
  • Where and when does the story take place? (Does it cover an alternative universe, the present day, a span of thousands of years, a single day?)
  • Is this book part of a series or otherwise tied to an existing fictional universe?
  • Did you like previous works from the same author, publisher, or series?
  • Is there an identifiable central conflict, or a complex set of conflicts?
  • What is the tone and style of the narrative? (Is it frightening? Clinical? Amusing? Scattered?)
  • Can you identify the theme?
  • Do you like the characters? (What about them makes them believable or phoney, dynamic or static? Does character development occur?)
  • From whose viewpoint is the story told, and how does that affect the narrative?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • Is the pace satisfying? (Did you have to slog through any portion of the story?)
  • Do any twists particularly inspire? Are there major gaps in the plot or storyline? How satisfying is the ending? (Don’t give away too much!)Does the book remind you (or remind you too much) of others by the same other, or within the same genre?
  • How did the book affect you? (Were any previous ideas you had on the subject changed, abandoned, or reinforced due to this book? What personal experiences you’ve had relate to the subject?)
  • How well has the book (and author) achieved its goal?
  • Would you recommend this book to others? Why?

*For a more complete understanding of things to think about and include in your review, look further at the How To‘s for more in-depth information for fiction books, questions for biographies, poetry and other genres.