Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Authors Road Interviews Haki Madhubuti

Like several of the writers we’ve had the great fortune to interview, Haki Madhubuti found his voice in the social, cultural, political, artistic and civil rights turbulence of the 1960s.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas and growing up in Detroit under his given name, Don L. Lee, he discovered answers to his many questions at the local library through the leading black writers of his day. It is also the time when he began writing poetry and essays. His life led him to enlist in the Army, followed by college, and in 1967, an historic gathering in a Chicago basement with two other poets. That meeting resulted in the launch of Third World Press, which today ranks as the largest independent black-owned publishing house in the nation.

In 1972, he changed his name to Haki Madhubuti, Swahili words meaning “just” or “justice,” and “accurate and dependable.” He continued his writing and earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1984. During the subsequent five decades he has been recognized with numerous  honors,  founded several schools, taught at several universities, lectured in almost every state, and become one of the most prolific black writers in America.

We met with Dr. Madhubuti at his  offices in South Chicago. He took the time to show us around his extensive personal library, art collection, and the many awards and honors he’s received in his illustrious career before sitting down with us to share his remarkable stories.

We are very pleased to bring his interview with you.
Thanks for . . . 
. . . joining us . . .
  . . . on the road!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Finding the Right Critique Group

by Bill Johnson

As office manager of Willamette Writers, a non-profit writers group, I often get calls asking about critique groups. I advise people to think of them as coming in four types:

Light Critique
Heavy Critique
Wise Reader

Support groups generally offer encouragement in writing or marketing, and little or no critique. Some support groups also operate as social networks, and might involve eating a meal together or meeting at a restaurant.

Light Critique groups could have a format for critique, like a time limit to respond; or limits on the person responding; or a requirement that a critique start and end with a positive comment, etc. This is something a group works out. A group might have a moderator to make sure the guidelines are followed.

Heavy Critique
This is generally for writers who are published or who are interested in mainstream publishing. People read something and offer a no-holds barred critique. The author takes it in and does what they want with what is offered.

Wise Reader
Orson Scott Card developed this idea, that an author can give a spouse or friend guidelines for how to respond to a manuscript (for example, when someone started skipping pages or lost interest). A good resource for getting good feedback from casual readers.

Where to Meet

Some people meet at a home; others meet at a Starbucks (some do close at 6 pm); some people meet at a local restaurant (3-6 is often a quiet time for a restaurant, and they appreciate people coming in; this is also a typical Happy Hour time for lower costs for food). A few groups sign up to meet at the WW Writing House.

What to Look For

I advise people to try 2-3 groups to find a group that offers the right fit and personalities. Cynthia Whitcomb belongs to both a support and critique group to meet her needs.

Some people call the office and want to join a critique group (or be mentored by) New York Times best-selling authors. Those kind of people are generally protective of their time.

Finding a group that works for you could take some time and effort, but the rewards can be worth it. Even a group with prickly personalities that don't accept feedback on their work might offer you the feedback you need. Just don't get 'stuck' in a group that doesn't work for you.

Good luck.


Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 and on Smashwords.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

These Are the Best of Times, R.S. Gompertz

Author, No Roads Lead to Rome and The Expat’s Pajamas: Barcelona
Instructor: Every Trick in the Book to Optimize your Presence on Amazon
This is the greatest time ever to be an author.
I played guitar in garage bands back when I was an awkward teen hiding under a mountain of hair and amplifiers. In those post-Motown, pre-Madonna dark ages, the notion of recording a demo tape or cutting an album was the smoky stuff of fantasy. Even if you were able produce a demo, you had to be of royal birth to get it listened to by anyone of influence.
Now, of course, any talented kid with a smart phone can record a tune. A singer/songwriter with 1000 fans can make a living. More “next big things” come from YouTube than from the traditional talent factories.
The artists have taken over the asylum.
Writing and publishing have followed a similar path. Writers, like indie rock bands, have access to sophisticated publishing, printing, distribution, and marketing channels. We can print, tweet, blog, Kindle, Nook, and Facebook.  The tools at our disposal are truly groundbreaking.
The potential to be heard and read is greater than ever. A productive writer with 10,000 readers and an expanding back catalogue can bang out a modest living.
As a kid, I woke each morning to the staccato rant of my father’s Royal typewriter as he banged out novels and tore through sheets of eraser-worn onion skin paper. Long before word processors, my father struggled like Sisyphus to push his paragraphs up Rewrite Mountain and send his queries into the void. Then he waited months for rejection letters from agents, magazines, and book publishers. Hope, faith, and the occasional nibble kept him typing.
Writers now have more pathways to reach people and earn money than ever before. In writing as in music the industry has turned upside down. The tools have become cheap and the means of distribution democratized.
What hasn’t changed is the need for talent and good marketing. But the balance has tipped in our favor and that’s a nice place to be.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Conveying a Character's Journey on the First Page of a Novel

by Bill Johnson

I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transport an audience. In many of the unpublished novels I read, I'm often 40 pages into a manuscript before I have any idea of a main character's journey. In some cases, I have to read to the end of a novel to understand that journey. This puts me (and readers) in the unfortunate position of needing to keep track of all the details about a character while I wait for some sense of purpose to become apparent. This makes reading a novel work.

Lolly Winston's novel Good Grief has a structure that clearly conveys the stages of grief that a young woman goes through when her husband dies and leaves her a widow. This external framework communicates that the novel has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. From its opening lines, the story has a destination.

Each stage of the main character's journey is divided into sections. The chapters in Part One are about denial, oreoes, anger, depression, escrow, and ashes. Each chapter that follows is about the main character's journey in dealing with her grief over her husband's death. The title, Good Grief, speaks to the narrator learning that there can be good grief (which revolves around passing through the stages of grief) and bad grief (getting stuck on the journey).

A review of the opening of Good Grief conveys how a main character's journey is set out.

The opening line:

How can I be a Widow?

The answer to this question comes in the opening paragraphs as the narrator sits in a grief support group. In a few paragraphs, the narrator explains why she's in the group.

My name is Sophie and I've joined the grief group because...well, because I sort of did a crazy thing. I drove my Honda through our garage door.

What's important about these lines is they show the narrator is not only in grief, she's being overwhelmed by grief. What set up the garage accident was an irrational thought that she needed to get into the house quickly to tell her husband something. Except he's deceased. She's in denial.

Continuing in a few paragraphs:

Maybe later I'll tell the group how I dream about Ethan every night. That he's still alive in the eastern standard time zone and if I fly to New York, I can see him for another three hours.

The narrator tries to deal with her grief by going back to work, but she quickly finds herself overwhelmed. In the past, when she felt overwhelmed, she called her husband. The chapter ends with these lines.

The cursor on my computer screen pulses impatiently, and the red voice mail light on my phone flashes. My stomach growls and my head throbs. But I can't call my husband. Because, here's the thing: I am a widow.

She has started to come out of her denial about her husband's death. The first chapter is a clearly defined journey on her journey through grief.

Each chapter continues that journey until the narrator has passed through good grief to being whole again.

Highly recommended for writers who want to learn about structure from reading a well-written novel.


A fourth edition of Bill Johnson's writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle,

Bill is teaching a workshop on narrative tension at the Willamette Writers conference on Sunday, August 5th. Info: http//

Monday, June 25, 2012

Power Networking for Writers: It is About Who You Know, by Julie Fast

Julie FastIt's very exciting to finish a writing project. This requires time and diligence and is a true accomplishment. Unfortunately, some of the most talented writers work for years to sell a project, be it a book or a screenplay and wonder why the success they crave remains elusive.

It's easy to feel that authors who are published know something secret. And they often do. They understand that who you know is sometimes as important as the project itself. They understand the power of networking.
Networking takes confidence, research and planning. But it can make a huge difference in your conference experience.

My best advice is to take advantage of every networking opportunity you can find. Scope out the agents and publishers you want to meet and take their classes. You can then hear their special offers. Talk with people in the café and sit next to the person at lunch who has something you want. Yes, it's Machiavellian, but if you want to get published, this is often what it takes.  

I've taught ePublishing classes at the conference for seven years. I always say, "Let me know your topic and I will point you in the right direction of an agent or my agent." Guess what? About 10% take me up on the offer. Five of my students are now published and one worked with my agent. As a teacher, I'm impressed by networking. So don't be shy about networking. They weren't.

You are no different than writers who seem more successful than yourself. They wrote well (as I hope you do!) and then knew how to relentlessly network to get what they wanted. I've been in the publishing world for ten years and I know the big secret. Agents and published writers have to network as much as you do. So get out there, network at the conference and sell your project!

I hope to see you in class.

Julie A. Fast

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Great Expectations: Writing Opening Lines To Hook Your Reader, by Lois Leveen

There's an unspoken contract at the heart of every work of literature:  the writer must provide the reader with something so irresistible, the reader puts aside every other thing she or he might do and keeps reading.  Nowhere is that contract weightier than in the opening line.  How can you create a single sentence that makes it impossible to resist reading on?

Plant something in your opening line to cause your reader to wonder.  An intriguing character is good.  An intriguing relationship is even better.  Refer to something that happened in the past in a way that makes the reader want to learn more about it.  Or imply something that will happen in the future in a way that makes the reader want to watch happen.

"Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking."  Helen Simonson begins Major Pettigrew's Last Stand with a deceptively straightforward-seeming description.  In a single sentence, we know something big—implied in the reference to the upsetting phone call—has already happened.  And we sense another big thing is about to happen, because answering the doorbell without thinking is bound to lead to some unforeseen complications.  One sentence, and we’re already wondering about two different things. 

"In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers."  Téa Obreht opens The Tiger's Wife by setting action in the present tense (the grandfather is bald, and he takes the narrator), which imbues immediacy.  But the opening clause tells us this time has already slipped away.  Even as we feel a young child's present-tense anticipation about going to see something as exotic and ferocious as tigers, we have the bittersweet sense of retrospection.  

A short opening can be as effective as a long one, if you construct it well.  I begin my novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser with a five-word sentence, "Mama was always so busy."  What reels the reader in is what isn't there.  What keeps Mama so busy?  And whose Mama is this—i.e., who's speaking?  What does Mama's constant busyness mean for the narrator—what will it set in motion that unfolds in the pages to come?  The only way to find out, is to read on.

Lois Leveen is the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser (William Morrow/HarperCollins), a novel based on the true story of a woman who became a Union spy by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House.  A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she'll be leading a session on crafting compelling openings at the 2012 conference, and another on creating convincing dialogue.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Low Cost Book Publicity

by Bill Johnson

As the office manager for a writers group with over 1,750 members, I'm often asked by newly published or self-published authors, what do I do to promote my book in my local area?

First, it's easier to get an announcement about a talk into a local newspaper than a lone author doing a book signing. Many authors have some lifetime experience they can speak about at a local library. And some libraries also allow book sales for a nominal commission.

If you can't arrange a talk through a library, local community colleges often rent rooms on weekends for a small fee, and such locations generally offer easy parking and access.

Using a space at either a library or school also lends some status to your talk.

If these spaces aren't available to you, many communities have arts organizations, some that meet in publicly subsidized spaces. They can also be a resource for renting a room to hold a talk.

Retirement communities also will host speakers (or performers in general).

My most dependable resource for getting the word out about these kinds of events has been a local alternative weekly (most major cities have one). These weeklies generally have a bulletin board in their print editions that anyone can put notices in for .95+ cents a word. (Online bulletin boards are vastly cheaper, but you get what you pay for).

If you have an event, always keep fliers about it in your car. Bookmarks and post cards are also good resources that you can distribute; Avery provides templates for creating them. There are online services that will print small quantities of inexpensive business cards that can include the cover of your book and info about an event.

If you are near a community college, see if they have a continuing education program that offers non-credit classes. Such programs are frequently open to instructors with new class ideas. Teaching a workshop at a community college will help raise your newsworthy standing.

If you are determined to do a book signing at a book store, I suggest you set up a signing with at least three other authors who write in a similar genre. I've known authors who banded together to set up a signing at a table in a mall during a literary-themed time (like a national poetry month).

I advise new authors to think long and hard about putting down money for table space at another author's book fair, unless money is not an issue. If you choose to be involved in a book fair, look for one that is part of a larger event that generates foot traffic.

If you do want to do a book release party, contact a local book store and see if they can accommodate you. Many book stores are set up to handle authors giving short presentations. This is where a well-designed media kit can make a great first impression.

I've never had great success with free PR services that distribute announcements. Some of these services send announcements to link farms that are set up to automatically post every announcement received, so don't be fooled by promises of wide distribution if you'll just sign up for a service that costs hundreds of dollars.

If you can't get a response from a major newspaper in your area, contact someone at your local neighborhood paper. I've known a number of authors who have been interviewed and featured in smaller, community papers.

Does your town have a local public access radio station called Golden Hours? See if you can get interviewed about your book.

Whatever kind of event you set up, NEVER depend on anyone else (including book stores, loved ones, friends, or fellow authors) to send out your event/meeting/workshop PR. Always do it yourself to be sure it gets out. And if you send out notices to local papers or magazines, make the effort to read their submission guidelines. A third of the PR notices I receive are deleted because the authors didn't bother to find out my guidelines, like someone sending me a website link and telling me I can go there and write an announcement for them.

Ask your extended family if anyone has any media contacts or would be willing to do a book review and post it online. In general, the more relevant links you have on the web, the higher your search engine rating (some search engines discount links posted on link farms).

Authors Den now offers contacts for people who do inexpensive book reviews.

Writing a book is a creative process, but marketing a book requires a different kind of mental focus, determination and planning. But if you put yourself out there in the world, you'll come across avenues to promote your book you never knew existed.


Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. Spirit is now available on Amazon Kindle, He's teaching a workshop on narrative tension at the Willamette Writers conference on Sunday, August 5th.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Graph Your Novel (Seriously!)

If writing a first draft is like trying to out-run an avalanche, revision resembles digging out with a shovel.  Any tool that can cut through the details and provide a panoramic view of the shape of our story is useful.  Try a graph—seriously! 
Pick 1-3 things that you want to focus on and that you can rate on a 1-10 scale.  Some examples include voice, pace, likeability of a character, emotional intensity, conflict, fluidity of language, narrative coherency, moving plot forward, or a character’s transition from one state to another.  If a critique partner is doing this for you, asking if s/he’s “lost” will help analyze backstory components.  One of my critique group members analyzed the “turn the page factor” on a scale from 1, completely uninterested, to 10, can’t stop to pee.
Next make a graph that has all the chapters of your book on the X-axis (that’s the bottom line) and the numbers 1-10 on the Y-axis (vertical line).  Read each chapter and try to give a gut-level rating for each of your factors.  Connect the dots with a different color pen for each factor (e.x. red for conflict, blue for emotional intensity). 
Patterns will emerge.  For example, if properly plotted, conflict should trend upward (zigging and zagging a little on the way) toward a peak at the climactic chapter and then resolve downward quickly to the end.  One recent novel analyzed this way showed three distinct peaks at the end.  The author gave equal weight to the resolution of three major plot lines.  The book felt like it didn’t know where to end.  A line tracking reader’s involvement of the story will identify flabby chapters. 
Graphs like these can be powerful tools to help writers identify the parts of their manuscript that aren’t doing enough work or aren’t doing the right work.  They help you see where to focus your revision work.  And they’re pretty cool—seriously!
Amber Keyser is the author of five books for young readers, including a picture book, three nonfiction titles, and a forthcoming novel that is part of Angel Punk, a transmedia storyworld.  At the conference, Amber will teach Creating Transmedia: Big Stories, Collaboration and Cross Pollination and Using a Critique Group to Enhance Your Writing Life.  More at and

Monday, June 4, 2012

Ten things a writer must do to succeed online

Ever wish the rest of the world really understood what it takes to write a book, or just write something well? Good news…Google knows and understands! In fact… they do everything they can to weed out poor writing and let the cream rise to the top (of the search results).

The problem is, while writers have the advantage in print, the web is a completely different animal. Web content is not just about good writing. Book marketing used to be driven by publishers, now it’s driven by search, and until you’re a celebrity writer, you have to know what your readers are searching for.  This involves keyword research, the understanding of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and basic web mechanics to be effective and rise above the noise. 

Web Developers and SEO experts have been using SEO for years… producing average content that usually rose above better content because they understood SEO.  

If you want to be successful on the web, you have to learn SEO also. Not just the mechanics, but what it means for your web presence. SEO is not something you set and forget. It is an ongoing process. It is used everywhere and in everything you do on the web. SEO is what makes content get found. Just think what it can do for you as a professional writer.

The ten things writers need to know are.

1.     Start with keyword research

2.     Build an SEO website using WordPress

3.     Create a blog queue

4.     Blog your butt off

5.     SEO everything

6.     Promote your content

7.     Engage with your fans

8.     Measure your results

9.     Revise and repeat

10. Never stop doing items 4-9

These are the what. We’ll cover how in depth at the conference. The bottom line is… you have to educate yourself and learn how the web and SEO works. The industry has changed and the time has come to evolve from writers into writers that can use the web and eventually…Blogging Rockstars. Join us and learn how!



John Ellis co-founded Portland Internet Design, a custom web development and SEO consulting company based in Portland, Oregon.  A small business SEO fanatic… John’s passion is educating business owners about the infinite power of the web, what SEO web development is, and why SEO blogging is essential. Learn more in his presentation, “The Web was Made for Writers”. 

Learn more about Portland Internet Design

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Beautiful, Brutal "And So?" Test, by Lisa Cron


Lisa CronThere's something that we live by when we read a novel or watch a movie, but tend to completely forget when we write one: readers (and viewers) assume that everything the writer tells them is there on a strictly need-to-know basis. Our assumption is that if we don't need to know it, the writer won't waste precious time telling us about it. We trust that each piece of information, each event, each observation, matters-right down to how the protagonist's hometown is described, the amount of hair gel he uses, and how scuffed his shoes are-and that it will have a story consequence, give us insight we need in order to grasp what's happening, or both. If it turns out that it doesn't matter, we do one of two things: (1) we lose interest, or (2) we try to invent a consequence or meaning. This only postpones our loss of interest, which is then mingled with annoyance, because we've invested energy trying to figure out what the writer was getting at, when the truth is, she wasn't getting at anything. So as a writer how do you avoid falling into this particular trap? By using something I like to call the "And so?" Test. It works like this: ask of each insight, each piece of information, each scene, "And so?" Meaning, what is the point? Why does the reader need to know this? If the answer is she doesn't, give it the boot. You'll both tighten your story logic, and banish those pesky darlings that otherwise send your reader off into a decidedly different story than the one you're actually telling - that, or to the refrigerator for a snack.
Lisa Cron is the author of the forthcoming Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She's a story consultant, an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and there's nothing she loves more than talking story. She can be found at

Monday, May 28, 2012

Writing the Emotionally Resonant Character, by Rosanne Parry


Rosanne ParryOne of the pleasures of great fiction comes when a character you love takes an action that you didn't foresee and yet is so right for the character that it feels inevitable. You find yourself saying, "Of course! That's so like her!" The flip side of the experience is the character whose action so surprises you that you scratch your head and flip to the cover just to make sure you're still reading the same book. That's emotional resonance at work (or not at work in the second example.) Character interviews and charts listing personal appearance and habits are an excellent beginning, but how do you move into the realm of what makes a character internally consistent and emotionally true? To get at the deeper character, a writer has to ask herself deeper questions. Here are two to get you started.
What is the virtue that my character's family or friends or community values most highly? What is the worst sin this character could commit in his social circle?

For example, soldiers don't leave men behind. They will risk everything to bring the body of a fallen soldier home. This has been true since Hector and Achilles were fighting at the gates of Troy. The worst shame and guilt that a soldier suffers is from a failure to protect his men, even in death.

This question gets at the heart of what motivates your character's choices, and gives you a basis for escalating the conflict in your story. The more you put a character at odds with his personal moral compass, the more tension you will have in your scenes. It also protects you from unintentionally making a character choose something that is inconsistent with his values. For example a good soldier may well leave bodies on the field in retreat, but he would never do so without exhausting every option and suffering remorse. Having your character's core virtue or sin firmly in mind helps keep that character consistent and emotionally resonant.


Author Bio: Rosanne Parry

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further, please consider taking Rosanne Parry's conference workshop Character and the Seven Deadly Sins. Rosanne is the award-winning author of Heart of a Shepherd and two other novels. She has taught workshops at Fishtrap, SCBWI, NCTE and numerous schools and book festivals across the country. She lives in Portland.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

About Doubt, by Molly Best Tinsley

Writers hear voices--a provocative sentence or two bubbling up in the mind’s ear; a created, or remembered, character beginning to speak autonomously.  These are gifts of the creative process to be cherished.  Then there are the other voices, the ones that chime in when we’re mustering the energy to get started on a project, or when the first burst of energy has been spent and we’re trying to figure out where to go next.  “Why bother?” these voices ask.  “You’re not a real writer.  That was a dumb idea.  You’ll never get it  to come out right.  What’s the point of going on?”
These doubts are the legacies of childhood, when parents and other adults defined who we were and decreed what we had to do.  Back then, writing meant navigating a tangle of rules—spelling, grammar, and “what the teacher wants.”  There is safety in all these obsolete limitations; they maintain the status quo.  But they have nothing to do with our creative abilities or the vitality of our writing.  We must laugh them off our mental stage, embrace the freedom, and forge on.
No one ever postpones or stops writing because of lack of talent or technical expertise.  The talent is always there to be tapped, and solutions abound for any technical writing problem.  There’s only one thing that can stop us from writing if we let it, and that is self-doubt.

Molly Tinsley left the English faculty at the US Naval Academy to write full-time.  Her story collection Throwing Knives won the Oregon Book Award; her most recent release is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone.  Three years ago she donned the editor/publisher hat, co-founding the small press Fuze Publishing (  She facilitates the workshops, Crafting Lively Dialogue and The Second Draft.

For more information about the conference, visit

The Other D Word

 by Molly Best Tinsley

Asked what they consider their greatest writing challenge, my workshop participants always cite discipline:  if inspiration doesn’t find its way to paper or disk, it must be due to a lack of discipline.
But try inverting this diagnosis:  what if the obstacle to writing is too much discipline?  Isn’t it discipline that compels us to do almost anything else instead:  mow the grass, organize some piece of household or office entropy, honor to-do lists, and tightly schedule our time?  And if we do manage to set aside all the discipline that facilitates our daily lives, we come up against the discipline we’ve learned to associate with writing:  correct spelling and grammar, topic sentences and thesis statements, strictly defined assignments, all of which squeeze the air right out of the creative process.
The next time you find yourself not writing, think about setting aside all the discipline that’s getting in the way.  Get comfortable with your favorite beverage, writing implement, clipboard, and allow yourself to waste time.  Daydream.  Accept whatever comes to mind—a memory, an image, a what if.  Record it in your messiest handwriting, on the diagonal, or sideways, across the lines.  Forget logical connections; don’t worry about filling in gaps.  Let yourself enter the undisciplined unknown.

Molly Tinsley left the English faculty at the US Naval Academy to write full-time.  Her story collection Throwing Knives won the Oregon Book Award; her most recent release is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone.  Three years ago she donned the editor/publisher hat, co-founding the small press Fuze Publishing (  She facilitates the workshops, Crafting Lively Dialogue and The Second Draft.