Third Thursday Wrap-up

Writing About Texas



By WLT Board President, Tony Burnett

Texas is widely recognized as a hotbed of literary talent. If you regularly attend the Writers’ League of Texas’ Third Thursday panels, this will come as no surprise. The March event brought stratospheric levels of accomplishment to the panel. Rarely can one find this much talent in one room.

The panel included author Stephen Harrigan, who was born in Oklahoma City but educated in Texas. He has written both nonfiction and fiction set in our great state. His works wrestle with the idea of Texas and why Texans are Texans. He has won numerous awards including the Spur Award for the Best Novel of the West. He is also an accomplished and prolific screenwriter. Carol Dawson is a native Texan whose ancestors settled in Texas along the Red River before Texas even became a state. She comes from a long line of educators. Her grandmother taught English to Bill Moyers when he was a student in Marshall, Texas. She has written extensively in both the nonfiction and literary fiction genres and is currently working on a 100 year history of the Texas Department of Transportation. A longtime member and supporter of the Writers’ League of Texas, she will be teaching a class on revision at our retreat in Alpine this summer. Elizabeth Crook has also won the Spur Award. Her most recent historical novel, Monday, Monday, is set at the University of Texas in 1966 when Charles Whitman tragically instigated the first school shooting in America. Her ancestors came from England but she calls Texas home, having lived in Nacogdoches and San Marcos. She feels her work will continue to be set in Texas as it offers a wealth of opportunity for storytelling. Though James L. (Jim) Haley was born in Oklahoma, he went to school in Fort Worth and is now a resident of Austin. He has written extensively about Texas history and government in both the nonfiction and fiction genres. He feels the old Texas voices still reside in the soil of rural Texas. Authentic folk tales and oral history permeate his writing. James is yet another Spur Award winner, and has won several other awards including the Tullis Prize from the Texas State Historical Association and the T. R. Fehrenbach Book Award from the Texas Historical Commission. He also writes for the Texas Bar Association.

As you can imagine the panel was a hotbed of information about writing within the historical framework of a location. Anecdotes about researching and fact-checking were exchanged with all the authors agreeing that the Internet has made this much easier, though sources on the web are not always reliable. Most agreed that when possible, it is best to interview living sources face-to-face.

When asked about what audience a narrative would be written for, the answers varied. Jim suggested researching and running with it, generally writing for yourself and then letting the book find the audience. Carol admitted that different books have different markets. Novels, being about human interaction, have a wide audience but research is still required for the story to be authentic, and nonfiction is sometimes more specific in its target. Elizabeth writes for a specific audience open to human interest. If it’s moving and compelling it will find its niche. Stephen writes for a universal audience, not specifically Texan. He writes with curiosity, telling his own story in his own voice. If it’s accurate and authentic it will find the readership.

The writers agreed that writing in Texas is changing. The state is becoming more urbanized and losing some of its rural flavor. Though Texas was once sovereign with a small town atmosphere, its narrative must now be approached with new eyes as it continues to change. The deep rich history of our state and diversity of cultures allow for a wide range of approaches. From genre fiction to a narrow dispensation of factual information the rich heritage allows writers the opportunity to explore.

This is the type of information the Writers’ League of Texas presents monthly at absolutely no cost to the general public. Join us tomorrow, April 16th for the next Third Thursday. Our panel will be about humor writing with writers Wendi Aarons, Les McGehee, Neal Pollack, and Susan Schorn. See you there!

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His story collection, Southern Gentlemen, will be released January 10, 2015. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

When Less is More:
Writing Short Stories, Essays, and Flash Fiction

By Writers’ League Intern, Max Friedman


As the clock struck 7:00, the attendees of February’s Third Thursday panel settled down into their seats. The panelists took small sips from their water bottles, preparing to tackle tonight’s theme: writing short stories, essays, and flash fiction. To begin, each panelist talked about their writing roots. Steve Adams, an accomplished short story and memoir writer and writing coach, started out in the acting program at UT. He claimed, however, that “The best thing that ever happened to me was getting kicked out.” From there, he found himself gravitating towards writing. Meg Pokrass, the widely-published short/flash fiction writer and author of Bird Envy, had similar beginnings. She was working in New York as an actor, but found herself moving towards writing and away from the stage. When speaking of the two fields, she said, “The two have a very similar skill set in terms of paying attention to sensation.” Steve agreed with this sentiment, going on to say that actors need to have a good narrative sense to keep a scene going. Kelly Luce, author of the short story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (a 2013/2014 Writers’ League Book Awards finalist in fiction), did not come from an acting background, but was a science major in school. She found herself moving to writing gradually, doing it as a hobby until she finally realized it could be something more. Our last panelist, Robert Shapard, editor of the anthology Flash Fiction International, came into writing and editing after doing various odd jobs. He was always attracted to reading and writing, recalling that in his spare time “I would sneak into the back of college classes and listen to the lectures.”

The panelists then moved on to discuss their writing processes, and the advantages of writing short work. A common theme was the necessity of a coffee shop-like atmosphere, with a good amount of white noise. Robert added: “The worst place is a deadly silence.” Though, Kelly had a different opinion and feels that sometimes it’s better to separate yourself from others, “It can be better having an isolated space where nobody can bother you.” For each of the writers, their process of getting ideas proved fascinating. Meg usually gets a prompt from a newspaper, while Steve needs to distract himself until ideas come to him. Kelly likes to listen to people’s stories and take bits from strange news events, while Robert usually relies on images and things that come to him in dreams. In terms of the proposed advantages of writing short work, the panel shared similar sentiments. Steve believes, “It’s good to put the long form stuff down, and get some short work done. You get some confidence with short work.” Kelly echoed this idea, warning people against forcing themselves to sit in a room by themselves for months to write a long piece. In terms of technology, Meg believes that the mobile device revolution has made short form a lot more popular, as people can read it on the go.

At this point in the night, the focus shifted more towards the publishing side of the process. Steve and Meg had different helpful tricks of the trade to share. Steve recommended a site called Duotrope, which offers information on a plethora of literary journals. He added: “if you go down to the bottom, and this is my big trick, it’ll say people who submitted to this journal also submitted to these other journals. So that’ll give you other options.” Meg offered her personal trick: “Go to the list of award-winning Flash Fictions, and see where they were published. There’s a list every year of the best 50.” As an important caveat, the panelists all stressed the need for a writer to be persistent in their submissions. Kelly shared the submission record of one of her stories, which in the end took 53 attempts to get published. Steve added: “This is what you have to do, it’s just the system.”

An aspect of writing that can be troublesome for many, is the necessity for critique and revision by others. Kelly stated that if you don’t have the time to come back to the piece, you should have your friends look at it. Steve agreed, saying you must show it to someone else, because they might be able to find a hole in the story that you can’t see. In the digital age, there are many online options for this process as well. Meg offered: “Zoetrope Virtual Studio is a great resource. It’s a free online writing community that you can get feedback from.” Another site mentioned was Fictionaut, which offers a similar service to Zoetrope Virtual Studio.

As it came time to wrap up, each of the writers offered up pieces of advice for the crowd. Steve said: “Realize that everyone makes it up on their own. Just begin with one step.” Meg urged the listeners to lower their standards and just write, stating that eventually they would get to something good. Kelly stressed the importance of staying excited about your work, “However you can trick yourself into doing that, as long as your way doesn’t involve smoking crack.” Lastly, Robert offered up the notion that a writer need not take classes. He added, “You just need to read, and read closely. It’s all there, you need to take it in.”

If you enjoyed this discussion, come to our next Third Thursday panel at BookPeople on March 19 at 7:00 pm. Our topic will be “”Capturing Texas: Writing About the Greatest State in the Union.”

See you there!

Max Friedman is a sophomore at UT studying English and Spanish. He enjoys exploring Austin’s culinary and live music opportunities in his free time, and writing for Texas Travesty, UT’s satirical newspaper. He edits poetry for UT’s AnalectaLiterary & Arts Journal, and his own work has been published in UT’s Hothouse Literary Journal.

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Writing About Loved Ones:
Telling the Truth without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table

photo (4)

By WLT Intern, Lily Angelle

We’re in the thick of the holiday season, so it seems appropriate that our last Third Thursday of the year dealt with memoir writing, and the personal and familial struggles that come with telling the truth publicly.

Our panelists were: Robert Rummel Hudson, author of Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with His Wordless Daughter; Donna M. Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl; and Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief.

These authors toyed with the idea of writing memoirs for years – Leila, who taught Holocaust literature at St. Edward’s Unviersity, delved into a lifetime of research after she found old WWII photographs of her late father that revealed him to be a liberator of a concentration camp. Completely boggled by this news she’d been completely unaware of until then, she began to research transgenerational trauma, or the notion of transferable trauma from one survivor to second and further generations.

Donna was a young child when she was immersed in her part-time stepfather’s Evangelist tent revivals along the Sawdust trail in the 60’s and 70’s. She held these experiences inside for years until college. She found herself writing about her evangelist upbringing in creative writing courses where, she joked, she always received A’s on her pieces.

Robert’s daughter Schuyler was born with a disability called polymicrogyria, a rare neurological disorder. He started blogging when she was very young, and then decided to incorporate his anecdotes, hardships and successes as a father into a book that became a sort of love letter to his daughter.

The panelists all agreed that with memoir writing comes a certain requirement of discretion toward yourself and the people you’re writing about. Donna spoke of her strong reservations when deciding whether or not to write a memoir that would make vulnerable the lies and deception that went on inside the tent revivals as well as her family unit; “What sort of person does this to her family? And I thought, ‘a writer.'” Leila experienced some conflict with her brother through the publishing of her memoir, explaining that it’s no easy feat when your family lives in the silence of the past, and as siblings living in the same household, they came away with two radically different perspectives of traumatic events. Robert’s publisher hired a lawyer to go over each sentence in his book, marking anything that could get him in trouble. Having included a chapter in his book detailing personal marital conflicts with his wife, Robert said that it’s one thing when you’re in your house with the lights dimmed, typing on your laptop, and another when the manuscript is being passed along between in-laws, and up for publication in major magazines. The panelists stressed that in a writer’s unyielding efforts to tell the truth and portray an honest image, remember that you don’t have to include everything.

When asked about the research and process of memoir writing, the panelists offered that memoir writing should be the act of opening yourself up to surprise. Donna said, “Hopefully you’re discovering your story as you go along.” Leila returned to her childhood house to find inspiration; she also took her family with her to the northeast to conduct interviews with survivors.

Donna mustered up the courage to return to a tent revival, wanting to take in the sights and smells and reacquaint herself with the specific drawl of the southern preachers. Robert’s research and subject was right there in his home. He said the real research is watching Schuyler grow up. When he wrote the book she was a toddler, but now, as he works on a follow-up book, she’s fifteen and is a self-actualized human who has more expectations of privacy.

If there was one obvious takeaway from November 20th’s Third Thursday, it was that memoir writing certainly takes courage. While there are clear personal struggles over what to include or exclude, the humility of loved ones hinge on your decisions. Deciding what to reveal may not be so easy, but then, so much can be learned when you just go for it.

Lily Angelle is an intern with The Writers’ League, and writes screenplays and short fiction in her free time. She aspires to have her work published one day in the near to reasonably eventual future. When she’s not writing, Lily is scouring thrift stores for cool old things or jogging around parts of Austin with ample foliage. 

October Third Thursday Wrap-up

Unseen Authors Tell Their Tales


lari.bishopstephanieland-250x250Author Joni Rodgers

By Tony Burnett

As the edge of night approached our fair city on the Third Thursday of October, passionate souls from across the region converged in the cavernous upper room of BookPeople to share in a long celebrated tradition. Throughout decades of history members and guests of the Writers’ League of Texas gather every Third Thursday of all months not beginning with the letter D to study their craft. This meeting was special. Though every Third Thursday is known for the sharing of means and secrets to strengthen skills, on this night the panel included three editors who have crossed over…. into ghost writing.

We weren’t talking about horror, or even light fantasy. This panel was about secrets, the behind-the-scenes careers of writers who take on a project for others who have a story to tell or an idea to sell but who aren’t interested or capable of producing a tome. Our panelists were: Lari Bishop, an editor for John Wiley & Sons and Greenleaf Books who now owns Draft Lab; Stephanie Land, a former editor for Random House  and Penguin’s Portfolio imprint, who has collaborated with a National Book Award winner and a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist; and Joni Rodgers, author of the best-selling memoir, Bald in the Land of Big Hair and who often collaborates with high-profile celebrities, politicos and other extraordinary people. Though these panelists came to ghostwriting from backgrounds as diverse as bluegrass bands, theater and the financial industry, they all established themselves as editors before becoming ghostwriters. All panelists agreed that to make any project successful required that they not only be invested in the concept, but a have passion for the idea. Anything less would result in catastrophe.

Though their stories were fascinating and often complex, the one commonality in the panelists was their unwillingness, for the most part, to share the names of their clients or the works they collaborated on. It turned out there were legal reasons for this. In most cases ghostwriters are contractually bound to secrecy. Though a ghostwriter may be mentioned in the acknowledgments, it is rare that they make it to the cover.

All panelists agreed that working with a celebrity or a business tycoon not only helped the ghostwriter have a greater understanding of their client, but also helped them gain insight into themselves. They all mentioned the necessity of asking the hard questions: Why is this important? Why now? Who is your audience? It’s also important to push the client into a self-examination in order to authenticate the story.

Ghostwriting requires experience, the willingness to see the world from your subject’s point of view and a strong grasp of the market and publishing process. It’s not easy, but it’s not scary.

Join us November 20 at 7 PM for our next panel, Writing About Loved Ones: Telling the Truth Without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table.

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His story collection, Southern Gentlemen, will be released January 10, 2015. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

September Third Thursday Wrap-up

Emotional Research: Mining Your Own Mental States for Your Stories

catmull nan cuba

ANGEL SOMETIMES 275  Secret-Sex-Lives-cover

By WLT Intern Jonasu Wagstaff

Our theme for this month’s Writers’ League of Texas Third Thursday event was “Emotional Research: Mining Your Own Mental States for Your Stories.” We were privileged to have four distinguished authors on our panel: Katherine Catmull, Nan Cuba, Helen Ginger, and Suzy Spencer. Katherine Catmull’s novel Summer and Bird was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick for fall 2012. She is also an actor and playwright and is one of four spooky story-makers at the Cabinet of Curiosities website. Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread and founder of Gemini Ink (a nonprofit literary organization based in San Antonio). Nan Cuba won the PEN/Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction. She is currently a writer in residence at Our Lady of the Lake University. Helen Ginger is the author of Angel Sometimes and Dismembering the Past. She has also published tech books on various subjects. Suzy Spencer is the author of Wasted, a New York Times Bestseller, Breaking Point, and most recently Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Spencer has appeared on Good Morning America, ABC World News, Dateline NBC, CNN, MSNBC, Court TV, and the Katie Couric Show.

The panel was asked to describe the type of books they write. The majority of the panelists write fiction, yet Suzy Spencer described her work as “tabloid trash true crime.” The panelists discussed why they became writers. While Nan Cuba and Katherine Catmull initially had an interest in theater, all of our panelists always loved writing and language. The authors were then asked about their writing processes. Helen Ginger and Katherine Catmull have a similar style that includes writing and revising without an outline, while Nan Cuba started writing a collection of short stories that she eventually turned into her novel, Body and Bread. Suzy Spencer heavily researches for her books.

The authors were then asked how they get past putting their protagonists in bad situations. Katherine Catmull said she is happy to put characters in bad situations and that her theater background really helps her to do that. Nan Cuba said that her book loosely parallels her past experiences and that she is “pretty ruthless” with her characters. Through the use of familiar and unfamiliar settings, she is able to “embellish and expand” her memories as she writes. Suzy Spencer described her process of researching, distilling her data, and finding commonality with the people she writes about in her true crime books. At times, she admitted, “It gets to me.”

When asked about the impact this work has on their own emotions and lives, Helen Ginger confessed that she can get caught up in a character because she knows so much about her/him. Suzy Spencer compared her research to “living with” the people in her books, and was candid about the emotional toll it can take on her. She emphasized how important it was to have friends to talk to. Katherine Catmull said that even though writing exposes a lot of fears and anxieties, she mainly feels good when writing.

Helen Ginger discussed how authors often inject their own personal attributes into their characters because of the strong connection between them. Suzy Spencer explained how her work on a project can bring her to a point where she just has to laugh, and joked that her release is staying up late eating cookies while watching reruns of The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Nan Cuba said she believes that going to the places that are uncomfortable for her will ultimately make the reader enjoy the story more.

When asked for advice on writing emotional scenes, Helen Ginger recommended lots of research and then letting the story unfold “in your head.” Suzy Spencer emphasized the importance of finding something to connect you with the character. Katherine Catmull advised writers to envision how a scene feels and then describe that sensory detail. Nan Cuba warned the audience that avoiding melodrama is key and added that writers “should not let emotion that is not earned develop too quickly.”

The Writers’ League of Texas wishes to thank our wonderful panelists for their insights at September’s Third Thursday discussion. Stay tuned for our next Third Thursday event, “Ghost Writing: Unseen Authors Tell Their Tales” with Lari Bishop, Shennandoah Diaz, Stephanie Land, and Joni Rodgers. Read more here.

Jonasu Wagstaff is a senior at St. Edwards University getting a BAAS in English Literature. While studying at SEU, Jonasu works as a program intern for the Writers’ League of Texas. In her spare time, she enjoys her family, antiques, music, and painting.

August Third Thursday Wrap-Up

Coming of Age: Writing for Teens and Tweens

by WLT Intern, Jourden Sander

August Third Thursday

Our theme for this month’s Writers’ League of Texas Third Thursday event was YA and middle grade fiction. What better time to talk about teens and tweens than when they’re about to head off to school? We had a few distinguished young adult and middle grade authors on our panel, including, Kari Anne Holt. Kari Anne is a middle grade novelist who has written Brains for Lunch, which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and was highlighted on the Texas Library Association’s Annotated Lone Star Reading List for 2011. She also wrote Mike Stellar: Nerves of Steel, which was a nominee for the 2014 Connecticut Library Association Nutmeg Book Award, the 2013 Maud Hart Lovelace Award, a Great Summer Read for Tweens, and was named a Random House Fresh Fiction from New Voices book in 2009. The panel also included Lindsey Lane, a distinguished playwright who is celebrating her debut young adult novel, Evidence of Things Unseen¸ which will be released in September. Next on the panel was Greg Leitich-Smith, an award-winning author who hails from Chicago but now lives in Austin, and writes middle grade/tween novels including Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo, which was the Parents’ Choice Gold Award winner and Junior Library Guild Selection. Our fourth panelist was Jo Whittemore, a tween humor novelist who wrote Front Page Face-Off and Odd Girl In.

After a few WLT announcements, the panel began with the authors describing what type of writing they do and why they write middle grade or YA. Kari Anne started off by saying: “I write what I want to write and hope someone wants to publish it.” She continued to say that she’s interested in characters who are searching for themselves or characters who at first want to fit in, but in the end, find out who they really are. Lindsey said she was interested in the question: “What would happen if…?” and how it affected her characters’ lives. All the panelists agreed that they wrote YA or middle grade because they related to young people better than they related to adults. Kari said that while trying to write adult fiction, the voice of a ten-year old boy would emerge no matter how hard she tried to write in an adult voice, so she decided middle grade was the direction her writing needed to take.

The authors continued by giving a few tips to aspiring YA and middle grade authors. Greg talked about the importance of reading, and how he has always been an avid reader. Jo, on the other hand, said she didn’t read much when she was younger but now finds inspiration for the young voice she writes in, by watching kids’ shows on Nickelodeon and Disney. Kari talked about the freshness of YA and middle grade, and how writers of the genre should be careful not to date themselves when writing. Lindsey said to ask yourself, “What is your character lying about?” and explained that characters with lies and/or secrets are more compelling than ones without. The authors seemed to agree that as YA and middle grade writers, you have to be listening and consuming youth culture constantly in order to create believable characters. All four panelists touched on the topic of “gatekeepers,” (librarians, teachers, and parents), because these are the people who decide what young audiences are going to read.

Next, the panelists talked about the writing process. For Jo, (and as it turns out, most of the panelists) taking a shower is a meditative process that allows a writer to think about their story, without distraction: “I take a lot of showers; it’s like being in the womb again…Everyone should shower generally, but it’s a retreat from the world. I will stand there and just think,” Jo said half-jokingly. Jo continued to talk about how she abides by a strict outlining process, while on the contrary, Kari said she prefers to fly by the seat of her pants and not get bogged down by strict outlines. Lindsey was a balance between the two, whereas Greg had a rather complicated “multiple proto type” procedure of writing that seemed unique to his own writing process.

After several other questions regarding series books, the genres, and market, Jo made a salient comment about both genres that spoke miles for what it means to be a YA or middle grade author: “Middle grade is how the world affects you; YA is how you affect the world.” For more discussion, and to get your writing and publishing questions answered by authors and folks in the industry, stay tuned for our next Third Thursday event!

Jourden Sander is a University of Texas senior, majoring in English with a minor in Rhetoric and Writing. While studying at UT, Jourden edits for Spoon University Texas and acts as a consultant for the University Writing Center. In her spare time she enjoys creative writing, hot tea, playing tennis, and walking her corgi.

April Third Thursday Wrap-Up

WLT’s May Third Thursday event is just a day away. Join us at BookPeople at 7:00 PM, where we’ll be discussing everyone’s favorite topic: FOOD!

Our fantastic foodie panel includes Addie Broyles (Austin American Statesman and Austin Food Bloggers Alliance), James McWilliams (author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America), Angela Shelf Medearis (THE KITCHEN DIVA!), and Georgia Pellegrini (author of Modern Pioneering, Food Heroes, and Girl Hunter). 

Come here these professional food writers discuss the unique challenges, rewards, and adventures that come with their careers.

Until then, we’d like to share with you a wrap-up from April’s Third Thursday, written by one of our fabulous interns, Kelsey Peters.

Writing about Books

By WLT Intern, Kelsey Peters

Third Thursday 4.17.14

Our panelists this month came from very different backgrounds, but the common thread for all was that they began as voracious readers. All four of our panelists agreed, that regardless of where they are in their lives and careers, not much has changed. After all, in order to write about books, it’s necessary to read books, and as Sharyn Vane pointed out, “Austin is a fertile community for writers.” Jeff Solomon agreed by saying, “Austin is a big literary town.” All four of our panelists, who currently live in the Austin area, seem to have hit the jackpot when it comes to getting paid to read and to write about the books they love (and sometimes hate) in a city that fosters their creative side.

Sharyn Vane began as a journalist and currently works as the Books Editor for the Austin American Statesman. Today, she writes about children’s and young adult literature for the newspaper. When she’s reading for pleasure, she uses a “different brain” than the one she uses for work. She shared with us her thought process in picking books for her monthly column. She explained that she aims to give people a good idea about what the writing is like and said that in order to best do this, she will sometimes read some of an author’s previous work so that she has something to compare the newest release to.

As an avid young adult reader, Sarah Pitre runs Forever Young Adult or FYA, (“a site for YA readers who are a little less “Y” and a little more “A.”). She said that YA literature is a “much bigger thing” now than it was when she was a kid. She wanted the opportunity to provide a community for like-minded readers. FYA allows her to review and suggest books to her readers and, in the interest of fostering a community, it has given birth to over 80 book clubs across the nation so that people who share her passion for YA can meet in real life. She happily shared with the audience that the stigma against YA is going away, thanks to books like The Hunger Games series, but said (with a laugh) that it might have been slightly hindered by books such as the Twilight series. In addition to FYA, Sarah is the lead programmer at the Alamo Drafthouse and is in charge of Girlie Night and Afternoon Tea screenings.

Jeff Solomon currently serves as the editor for the books column for Texas Monthly, but he began his career as a rock critic. Somewhere down the line, he got burnt out on going to shows and interviewing rock stars. He explained that he loves to interview writers because he finds that they are articulate and love talking about their work. In reviewing books, he stressed the importance of reading “every vowel and every consonant” but said that he takes a different, less formal approach when interviewing writers.

Clay Smith began as a journalist and later became the books editor for the Austin Chronicle. Today, he edits for Kirkus Reviews, the toughest review publication in the industry. He told us that his background in book journalism gave him the chance to interview writers and get to the bottom of the beginnings of a book. Now that he doesn’t specialize in any one genre, he gets the opportunity to learn and to expand his horizons.

Though all of our panelists said they tend to give the most space in their publications to books they would recommend, there is definitely still a place for the occasional negative review because, according to Sarah, “not everything is unicorns and rainbows” and as Jeff added, “sometimes books are bad.” Clay explained that though it can be harsh, he’s proud of the consistent honesty of Kirkus Reviews. He admitted though, that in receiving eight to ten thousand books a year for review, it’s possible to become jaded.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Jeff took the time to ask the audience whether they were interested in reviewing books or getting their own books reviewed. The response was mixed, and Sarah encouraged those of us who want to review to read a lot. Not only that, but she challenged us to pretend that we’re reviewing for a publication that we admire, whether it be the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American Statesman, Kirkus Reviews, or Texas Monthly.

Overall, the sentiment echoed by all four of our panelists was the encouragement to write about what you know. Not only do they recommend this, but they embody it in their work.

Kelsey Peters is a native Austinite and a senior English Writing and Rhetoric major at St. Edward’s University. She is an intern for The Writers’ League of Texas’ Third Thursday program. 


     As the October Third Thursday panel began, the audience was sequestered on the third floor of BookPeople with no means of escape except a small lackadaisical elevator.  Jennifer Zeigler, the Writers League program director, moderated the panel, featuring four authors of high adrenaline fiction who had drastically different styles and genres.

Gaylon Greer began writing suspense after becoming tired of nonfiction.  Janice Hamrick says she is a suspense writer with little mystery in her work.  She became a published writer in a backwards fashion, first winning a contest, then getting a publisher, then finding an agent.  Don’t try this at home.  Lee Thomas began writing for young adults but after deciding the genre to be too structured now writes gross horror that is socially aware.  A reviewer said of his recent short story collection ” not for the faint of heart or optimistic.” Kathy Clark came to mystery from a long, successful career in romance writing when she ran out of synonyms for “nipple”.

One thing all the authors agreed on was that this kind of writing was fun and you get to kill people, sometimes even cats.  Sick?  Maybe, but it is similar to real life without the boring parts.  It also gives you a chance to explore the evil in society.  The genre has a certain magnetism made obvious by its large audience.

Each author brings a personal approach to writing their manuscripts.  Gaylon concentrates on conflict between characters creating tension in the reader. He completes the first draft before sharing his work with critique partners.  Janice writes character driven fiction using a map but not a solid outline, then letting the story take on a life of its own.  Lee became frustrated with outlining while writing YA.  He now writes multiple drafts before even considering his readership.  He has been known to write five or more endings to a story before deciding on one. Kathy likes to get the idea for a story in her mind and allow the characters to run with it in an organic fashion.

All the authors agreed that a critique partner could be an asset, whether you have a writing partner as Kathy does or use a critique group like some of the others.  Rewriting and multiple drafts were also a common thread, as was the use of “red herrings”, which are plot twists that throw the reader off course.  These need to be used sparingly and become an integral part of the story so as not to be too cliché.

It was interesting to find that each author had a different path to publication, some conventional, some not so much.  This was the topic of most of the Q & A session after the main program.  That, and of course, how many synonyms there are for “nipple”.

These panels occur every month on the third floor of BookPeople at 7:00 PM.  Please join us  next month.  We promise not to lock you in.  And don’t forget NaNoWriMo ( in November, you might be on a Third Thursday panel next year.

Tony’s Third Thursday Wrap-Up: Finding Fresh Pairs of Eyes

Using Beta-Readers and Critique Groups

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  –  William Faulkner

   Faulkner obviously said this before the advent of the computer. As writers, we never kill anything we love. We just put it in foster care until we can find a home for it.  What do you do, though, when you birth that baby?  Most writers are “single parents” when it comes to their artistic creations.  We need help!  Those of us fortunate enough to attend the August Third Thursday at BookPeople were enlightened by successful  authors and editors who had solved this problem in various ways.


       Editor Jody Edgerton, who is also an actress, comedian and is actually a birthing coach for real babies, suggests that at any point in the development of a manuscript it can be helpful to have a beta-reader.  This is someone who reads your work and gives feedback.  She advises to pair carefully with your reader.  Do you need a drill sergeant, a cheerleader or a supportive hugger?  It’s probably best not to involve your loving spouse or child, however, as you do want an honest opinion.


       The three authors on the panel, Varian Johnson, Julie Lake and Lynne Kelly, have extensive experience with critique groups, most of it positive.  One important point I gleaned is that these groups are in need of sustenance be it wine, cake or chocolate.  Participants tend to do more than just read each other’s work.  They develop into supportive literary communities that spawn lifelong friendships.  Just as a single parent needs family, these groups cooperate to raise the “little darlings” from infancy until they are ready to venture out into the world of publishing.  As Varian pointed out, though, don’t pass the little darling around to an abundance of breasts.  It still belongs to the parent.  The parent has final say.  Julie and Lynne agree with the rest of the panel when it comes to village law.  Always emphasize the positive and vibrant points of the creation.  Where work is needed, be gentle and make suggestions with a possible solution.  You are counselors not enforcement officers.  That role goes to the publisher in the editorial letter.


      If you are “expecting” to have a manuscript developing soon and need some input there are a number of suggested paths.  Of course you can always hire an editor.  Lynn and Jody mentioned the importance of finding someone you feel comfortable working with.  Remember, anyone can call themselves an editor.  It is a good idea to check their credentials by asking about their successful projects.  You don’t want to drop your child at just any old unlicensed day care.  One attendee suggested Meet Up as a resource for locating or forming a critique group.  I was fortunate to find an excellent poetry and short fiction group there.  The Writer’s League of Texas has a listing of critique groups in the “members only” section of the web page and will soon post a new Zip Group page where groups that form are listed by zip code for ease of location.

      Writing can be a lonely calling that those of us with the passion know we have no choice but to follow.  When it comes time to show your “little darling” to the world, a beta-reader or critique group can be a comfortable and productive first step.

ImageTony Burnett is a director of the Writer’s League of Texas and an award winning songwriter. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in national literary journals including, most recently, Tidal Basin Review, Fringe, Fiction 365, Red Dirt Review, The Vein, Toucan Magazine and Connotation Press. He lives in the middle of Nowhere, TX. with his trophy wife where his hobbies include having philosophical conversations with melons, poking wasp nests with a short stick and wandering aimlessly about.

July’s Third Thursday Wrap-Up: The Agony of Delete! Tips and Coping Strategies for Revising Your Draft

photoAfter a month off for the annual WLT Agents and Editors Conference, the Third Thursday program was back in full swing with panelists Samantha Clark, Bethany Hegedus, E. Kristin Anderson, and Sara Kocek with guest moderator Bradley P. Wilson. (He not only moderated, he reflected about the evening over on his blog,)

As usual, the Third Thursday  recap only scratches the surface of the knowledge and expertise shared. This month is a rapid-fire recap of the tip and tools from our authors.

On your mark. Get set. Go!

Tips and Coping Strategies for Revising Your Draft

  • Recognize and honor your unique writing and revising style.
  • Are you a plower or diamond polisher? Do you plow through your draft or polish it as you go.
  • Are you an outliner or not? Maybe both, depending on the situation.
  • Get feedback from other readers and other writers. Readers and writers can offer different kinds of feedback.
  • Scrivener, word processor on steroids – and then some, was recommended.
  • Carry a notebook for your current book and record ideas on characters, plot, etc.
  • Picture your character. Find a photo that could be your character. It may inspire your writing
  • Write on a treadmill. Walking & writing can help your brain and your body. (Read more about treadmill desks.)
  • Use Pintrest to build boards around your characters, settings, themes, etc.
  • Research tip – avoid the Google abyss by stopping your search after finding the one factoid you’re looking for.
  • Let your draft rest, then come back to it with fresh eyes.
  • Q: How do you know you’re done?  A: “When you’re sick of it.” “You’re never done. You just have to stop.” “When you keep changing and unchanging the same thing.”
  • Take your time on revision requests from editors or agents. Don’t sacrifice quality for quickness.
  • Remember it’s ultimately your story.  Consider the feedback from others, but retain ownership of your work.
  • Follow editor or agency guidelines for formatting.
  • Don’t double-space manually. Write in single-space mode (usually the default),  then highlight the entire text and format it with double-spacing. Use the help in your word processing program if needed.
  • Use one space after periods, not two. (Using two spaces after a period is used for typewriters, not computers.)
  • Use a professional, non-family email for professional correspondence. Save your UnicornGirl@gmail address for your friends and family.
  • Suggested fonts are Times New Roman and Courier. Display your style in your writing, not your fonts. If you want to write your draft in a font that inspires you, go for it. Just remember to change it before submitting your work to an agent or editor.
  • When you are ready to consider hiring an editor check out Yellow Bird Editors, the editing home of all of our panelists and our moderator.

These tips can lessen the agony of delete and move your towards the thrill of publishing victory. (Anyone remember the ABC Wide World of Sports opening?)

If you’re in the Austin area, join us at August’s Third Thursday. If you can’t make it, we’ll see you next month on the blog.