Friday, November 5, 2010

Applegate Interview

Today's author interview is with Jim and Marion Applegate. They are the authors of Symphony of Spirits and Listen for the Lark.

Jim and Marion Applegate earned their degrees in the Midwest from the University of Dubuque and Rockford College. After retiring in 1998 from a lifetime of teaching writing in public schools, they began a second career as authors, publishing their first novel, Symphony of Spirits, in 2005 and their second novel Listen for the Lark in 2007.

Born and raised in Watchung, New Jersey, they spent their formative years exploring the beauty and mystery of coastal beaches, inland forest, and mountainous regions where the rivers begin their journeys to the sea. Their memories of this territory before it became one of the most populated places in the United States provide the settings for both of their first two novels. The discovery of a heroic ancestor inspired them to begin writing these novels.

While raising their two children in the woodlands and prairies of northern Illinois along the Kinnikinnick Creek, they nourished their children’s love of the outdoors. Both graduate from Rockford College.

After retiring from a life of teaching, they began volunteering for the Natural Land Institute, an organization that preserves and protects the environment. Evidence of Native American villages still exists on some of the land they have helped restore. As chairperson for the Education Committee of the Natural Land Institute, Marion has, with Jim’s help, worked tirelessly to show children and adults the magic of prairies, forests and wetlands. They lead tours of the preserves, create educational activities for classroom teachers and their students, host public celebrations to promote the concept of saving our natural heritage, and donate funds to keep the organization alive.

Jim and Marion sell their novels at charity events and donate all the profit to the Rockford Rescue Mission, an organization that protects and helps homeless women and children.

They have three grandchildren, Julie twenty-four, Bennett twelve, and Aedan six. Julie, a graduate of Benedictine College in Lisle, IL, holds many sports honors, including being the first woman to play professional football, as a kicker, on the Chicago Cardinals indoor football team.

Jim, welcome to A Writing Passage

Can you tell us about yourself and how long you have been writing?

Jim:  I have always enjoyed story telling. I wrote my first novel, No More Pencils, in the 80’s but gave up trying to land a publisher while teaching full time. That novel is now morphing into Accidents Happen, the story of a man trapped in his own body with only the ability to hear and remember.

Our professional writing career began as a direct result of Peninsula Writers. After participating in one of the first writers’ camps at Glen Lake in 1987, Michigan, we came home and established Prairie Writers, a monthly writing group based on the New Jersey Writing Project. From there we joined the Woodstock Troubadours and now the Rockford Writers’ Guild.

Do you have a regular schedule or place where you write?

Writing group meetings have helped us keep a regular schedule because we have to have something to share at the read arounds. Since all the people in our small writing groups are working on novels they want to publish, each person brings a chapter or two to read at each meeting. People have often asked, “How can you write together?” I like to use an analogy to explain. I write the first draft. I think of it as creating a piece of unfinished furniture. Only half the work is done. Marion then joins in the finishing process. Revising and proof reading is a long and tedious process. We have spent a year on each novel preparing it for publication after the first draft was completed. Then each novel has taken between six and nine months of working with the galley proofs and the covers to complete.

Why did you decide to write your books?

Marion’s family history led us to research the Delaware Indians, who saved Penelope Van Princis’s life. Marion, her descendant, would not have been born if Penelope had not lived long enough to bear ten children after facing almost certain death the day she arrived on the beach of New Jersey in 1643. These few remaining facts about our heroine encouraged us to research the Seventh Century Dutch and the Indians of northeast America. Once we understood the environment, we could imagine how she survived and succeeded in building a remarkable life.

We wanted to tell a family story to show our children what their roots were. Penelope Van Princis was a survivor and one of the earliest Dutch settlers in America. Also, we wanted to thank the descendants of Lenni Lenape people for saving Marion’s ancestor by writing historical novels about them. Contrary to what many Europeans believed when they first came to America, the Delaware people placed a premium on family values over and above the importance of masculine prowess. These people fought only to protect their loved ones and were generous to strangers like Penelope.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while writing?

One of the biggest challenges we have faced was eliminating almost two hundred pages of flashback from Listen for the Lark and replacing the necessary details with back-story, a writing technique we learned from Robyn Ford at a Peninsula Writers’ camp. The original draft of Listen for the Lark was 690 pages long, 160,000 words. We reduced it to 396 pages. Here is what we did. We took a whole chapter showing their main character’s escape from a pack of wolves in the Netherlands and reduced it to a few details where she sees a group of renegade Indians running toward her husband on the beach and mistakes them for wolves, like those that stalked her when she was a child.

Facing two different writing groups with a limited understanding of point of view was another challenge. Even though I showed them how many bestselling novels today have multiple points of view, they refused to accept anything other than what they thought they had learned in college.

What was most enjoyable about your writing process?

Writing for us is an adventure. It’s like traveling to a distant land full of wonderful surprises. Once we are into the process, the troubles of the world are left behind or incorporated to show emotion. Writing is playing with words. We love to play with them to see and feel the effect on us and our readers.

Have you ever received advice from another writer that influenced you or that you still remember?

As members of Peninsula Writers of Michigan, the Troubadours Writers group of Woodstock, IL, and the Rockford, IL Writers Guild, we have been the fortunate recipients of encouragement and advice. Learning how to write back-story is something we will always remember.

What one piece of advice (or maybe two) would you give to your readers?

First, the one piece of advice we would give is to join a serious writing group with similar goals. For example, if you want to write poetry, join a group of poets. We like to write novels so we seek groups with similar interests. We left a group that only wrote impromptu pieces.

Second, we suggest that you spend whatever time it takes to find your own voice.

Thank you for this interview, Jim. Please share with my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book. 

Readers can order our books from us at for $19.00 including shipping.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Prompt, First Line & Question

I am loving this prompt and first line series.  When I'm trying to come up with a prompt, I can feel the writing wheels turning.  So without further ado:

Writing Prompt:

Write about a meal.  Where is it?  Who is there?  Is the food important?  Is there conversation or silence?  And when was this meal?

Right before I wrote the above prompt, I dripped ketchup on my keyboard.  Ideas sometimes literally jump right into my lap.

First line:

"You're kidding me, right?"


On Monday's post, I talked about writing groups and the importance of finding a good group.  I attended the Iowa summer writing festival for several years in a row.  I learned a lot and met some great writers.  But one year stands out to me because my group was horrible!  None of their comments were positive towards each other's writing, and their negative comments were personal toward the writer.  Some of the comments I remember are "this is terrible"  and "this person definitely cannot write."  After the first class I walked back to my room ready to quit writing.  The next day was no better and on the third day I asked the professor when we were going to talk about the positives in the writing.  He told me that if I wanted to be a writer I better get a thicker skin.

Wow!  At lunch that day I shared his comment with others at my table (none were in my class).  They were aghast and convinced me that this was terrible advice to give a new writer.  I was buoyed by their reassurances and the next day, surprise, the professor announced to the class that we were to focus on the positive aspects of the pieces.  But by then I was too afraid to open up and share my writing.  It was not a safe environment.  When I look back at this experience, I can see what a bad group looks and sounds like.

What about you?  Are you, or have you ever been, in a writing group?  What were your experiences, both good and bad?  And what do you look for in a group?

I'll be curious to hear your stories.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing Groups - Do I Stay or Do I Run?

I belong to two writing groups and I facilitate two additional writing groups. So, ask me if I think writing groups can be helpful to a writer and I will give a resounding "YES."

However, it has to be a GOOD writing group. By good, I mean you have to feel safe with the other group members. Only then will you be able to share your writing and hear what the other writers are telling you. 

What is a writing group? A group of writers who meet to read, discuss and help each other with their writing. 

In my writing groups, everyone brings a piece of writing and provides a copy to each member of the group. That writer then reads his/her piece aloud and the readers follow along on their copies. They often make notes to the writer on their copy. 

After the writer has finished reading, he/she becomes a ghost in the room and listens to the readers discuss their piece. The writer does not speak during this time, unless there is a question that needs to be explained. The readers discuss the piece amongst themselves and do not direct their comments to the writer. 

At first, this is difficult for the writer and the readers. The readers want to direct their responses to the writer and the writer wants to comment on the discussion among the readers. But when the writer is engaged in the discussion, they often do not "hear" the comments because they are busy thinking up defenses or explanations. The best thing a writer can do is sit quietly and take notes. They will be surprised by how much they learn.

So, what makes it a good writing group? The main goal of the group is to help each other become better writers. They do this by finding and pointing out what is good about a piece of writing, what works, what evokes an emotion, and what jumped out at us as the reader. However, they are not there to kiss your behind and tell you that you are the best writer in the world.

The group members also give you honest suggestions on what will help strengthen your piece or what it may be lacking. They will point out areas where they (as readers) were confused, or where something seemed weak.

They do this by suggesting, not criticizing. They do not attack. They do not tell the writer that they should do it their way. Their suggestions are about the writing, not the writer. The suggestions are not personal.

A bad writing group is intent on knocking the writer down. They are rude, they are personal with their attacks, and by the time they are done, the writer wants to crawl out the door. This is not helpful to a writer and if you find yourself in a bad group, run! Find another group and try them out. 

After you meet with your writing group, you should feel inspired and excited about your writing. You may leave with some thoughts on how to strengthen your writing, or be happy that the readers understood what you were trying to put out there. You should not feel defeated.

If you are not in a writing group and are interested in finding one, check with your library, bookstores or nearby coffee shop. These are places where many groups meet and you may be able to get information about how to contact a local group.

Remember, a good writing group means stay!  And a bad writing group means run.