Starting Your Novel…and Killing Words

I’m writing this post because this message hit home yesterday. An editor can usually tell within the first page or two if a manuscript is good or acceptable. A novel’s first pages encapsulate much of the story and establish character, setting (time and place), voice, pace, and even audience.

I started my novel a while back and wrote it piece by piece–a piece here, a piece there, knowing the pieces would need to be shuffled around and reworked. I started in a mysterious tone. I really liked it. But, alas, it didn’t work.

Actually, I broke all the rules. So I spent yesterday killing words.

There were words and paragraphs and chapters that I loved. The wording was precise and exact and descriptive and I thought, um, beautiful. But I killed them. I can easily kill the words of other people when I edit, but it was really hard to kill my own. I’ve done this before to my own work, but never, ever this much.

Do you know how it feels to kill words? (Maybe, just maybe, you should.)


After killing words, I like the new chapter. I think I’ve created a platform, a story opening, that I can jump into the depths from and swim across the pages.

So if you are wondering about your own manuscript, I can not only help you kill words and get the opening right, but now I can really and truly sympathize and empathize! We’ll cry together, hug, and then be happy! Check these things in your own novel opening that you may need to address:

  1. Do you open in scene? Some manuscripts open with interior thoughts of the characters or with description of the place. Ask yourself: is anything happening?
  2. Do you give too little information? Some manuscripts attempt to create a sense of mystery, but in doing so, don’t give the reader enough information. Some manuscripts don’t make clear what is happening or the importance of what is happening. Ask yourself: do you make clear where the characters are and what is going on?
  3. Do you give too much information? Some manuscripts start with pages of backstory or description or flashbacks. As an editor, I’ve killed five to fifteen opening pages of different manuscripts. (It’s easy when it’s not my own!) A reader only needs enough information to understand the scene in progress.

Good and successful manuscripts are well-balanced with action, motivation, a little description, and some thought. They begin with a main character in a scene with an immediate goal to achieve. They pull the reader in to turn the page and see what happens next.

TurnStyle helps with the editing of full manuscripts, but also with first chapters. Let us know if you need to make sure you are on good footing in your opening!

Summer Growth

I’m sitting here at my laptop beside the bay window eating granola and revising the opening of my novel. I’m wishing for fresh peaches to go on my cereal. I bought some at Betty Reed’s Produce a week ago, but they’re gone. I should scoot down there this morning and get some more, along with chives for the twirling herb pots on the patio.

I planted a little garden this spring. I plant tomatoes every year, sometimes peppers, and I have a garlic plant that grows every summer, but I don’t ever harvest the garlic. This year, fearing empty store aisles because the truckers can’t afford the high diesel costs and go on strike, refusing to deliver food, thus famine — and above all, high prices — I planted not only tomatoes, but bell peppers, banana peppers, cucumbers, cabbage, and okra. If the sky falls, I will have cabbage salad to eat over the summer. And fried okra. Besides, okra is the tongue-in-cheek mascot of my college alma mater — the Fighting Okra. That, and the more impressive Statesman.

I hope the squirrels and I don’t have to fight over the garden vegetables or the patio plants this year when summer brings heat and drought. Hands down, they win.

I’m tightening the prologue and first chapter of my novel. I’m struggling to get the narrator’s voice exactly as I want it. Claire is vulnerable and likable right off the bat, a little over the edge in her thinking, a mix of giving up and getcha back. There are other strong characters. I’ll see what they do over the summer. I already know what’s going to happen in the end. I hope the characters know how to hold their own and get there.

Meeting of the Minds

The Writers In CAPS critique group met last night in the Barnes & Noble Cafe to pore over two pieces of fiction by Neil and Chance. CAPS has met twice a month for five years. Quite a feat! A few have come and gone, and we’ve added a few. We started as a group of all women and are currently mixed, half and half, which makes for a good balance in perspective.


“We are writers based in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. We write fiction and creative nonfiction. We are a highly motivated support group, naming ourselves Writers In CAPS. ‘CAPS’ is an acronym for Critiquing, Authoring, Publishing and Supporting.”

CAPS 2008


We are currently writing: two novels, one memoir, one collection of short stories, and short fiction. Currie, an award-winning songwriter, is working on her second novel. She’s a transplanted Canadian who uses a serviette when she has her latte and cookie. Neil is writing embellished boyhood stories based on some real-life incidences of a bunch of mischievous kids in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas in the 50’s and 60’s. Chance puts out some contest-winning short fiction, some springing from a recent trip to Vietnam and some coming from his experiences in Nashville with music, ethnic restaurants, and other cultures. I am trying to balance a memoir and a novel, both evolving out of the Mississippi Delta.

CAPS at Barnes & Noble


Last night’s work had a lot to do with a high school graduation that almost didn’t happen, a science test with a grade of “G,” a sushi restaurant, a homeless veteran who didn’t ask for a handout, and those annoying orange cones they use to mark lanes for church traffic on Franklin Road. (I was left with the impression there might be a few less of them one day real soon.)

When it is my turn, I find it amazingly helpful to have those six other eyes on my work. It’s helpful to discuss techniques that will take the writing to the next level. There’s nothing more valuable to a writer than a critique group.

I’m lucky. I have two — one here in town and one online (born out of the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference) that focuses on creative nonfiction.

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, shared her writing and publishing experience with local writers gathered at Barnes & Noble Wednesday night. I’d just finished her novel about Catherine Grace, whose only objective was to turn 18 and leave the small town of Ringgold, Georgia, where her daddy was a preacher and her mama had drowned years earlier. “Every Saturday afternoon, she sits at the Dairy Queen, eating Dilly Bars and plotting her getaway to Atlanta.”

The book is written much like a memoir, which was good for me, as that’s what I’m working on in my personal writing. One of the book’s layers deals with small town/small church people and issues, which was also good for me, as that brings reminiscences of my novel in progress…before I set it aside briefly to write creative nonfiction. Church members are good folks, but they tend to be gossipy and judgmental. And preachers are just regular people and face the same problems and struggles as those on the church rolls, and sometimes they are wrong in their actions and choices.

And then there’s Gloria Jean. You’ll have to read the book to get the full picture of this wonderfully complex character. “One Fourth of July, she stuck real-live lightning bugs inside her hair and then covered it all with netting. Her head glowed like some kind of fancy firecracker till all the lightning bugs choked on her hairspray and died. She paid [sister] Martha Ann and me fifty cents apiece to pick all those poor little bugs from her hair. Nope, nothing about Gloria Jean was ever simple or plain.” Now, is that memorable, or what?

As Lee Smith — who happened to be Susan’s seventh grade English teacher — says in her cover rave: “This is an unusually engaging novel by a very fine writer who knows exactly what she’s doing.”

CWW Workshop with Darnell Arnoult

CWW Workshop with Darnell Arnoult

I’ll tell you one thing for sure — Darnell Arnoult can lead a good workshop!

CWW Workshop


CWW Workshop 2

The Council for the Written Word had its sixth annual spring fiction workshop this morning. Darnell led our first spring workshop in 2003, and in the intervening five years, she has published a book of poetry and a great American Southern novel, Sufficient Grace, and among other honors and achievements, she was the 2007 Tennessee Writers Alliance’s Writer of the Year.

Darnell Arnoult

The colorful cover of Darnell’s hardback novel featured a birdhouse. Susie was in charge of decorations and food and had her husband build two birdhouses to decorate with, and we used one for a door prize and gave one to Darnell. Susie employed one of the book’s themes — food and baking — to prompt her decorating ideas, as she scattered old needlework doilies and cloths and aprons about the room, and served several kinds of pound cake (and of course, the obligatory Krispy Kremes!). There was food in every scene of the book — Darnell said she gained twenty pounds writing it. Susie, Currie, Colleen, Angela, and I were in charge of putting together the event. We’ve been doing these for so long that we can almost read each other’s minds and know where to divide the responsibilities based on the talents of each. (Like when we blew a fuse in the classroom due to three coffee pots going at full speed, Currie was naturally the one to find the fuse box and fix it!)

Darnell Arnoult leading workshop

Darnell not only puts energy in her own writing, but she fills her presentation with it. And speaking of energy … a novel, she says, should open with a confident voice, a specific event, and an early hook — something that will make the reader want to move forward.

If you have an impulse for a novel, Darnell continues, it will only get you fifty pages. After that, the impulse loses its gas, and at that point, novel writing is hard because you have to start pulling things out of the air. So from experience and observation, you pull in specifics with which you can bring in colorful and memorable details (and you get these from looking through the little notebook you are supposed to keep in your purse or pocket to record all the interesting and unusual details that happen during your days). Once you’ve written a scene, you go through the manuscript with a red pen and circle every meaningful specific, every image you can see vividly in your mind. Then you hold the page out and squint at it. When you see big holes with no red, look for a meaningful specific to add.

Darnell and Kathy


This afternoon, I called my mother and told her I had a workshop this morning. She said, “Well, I bought pork chops when you were down here last week and you wouldn’t eat them!”

I’m thinking that should go in the little notebook in my purse.

A Tribute to Doug Marlette

Doug Marlette’s Cartoons

Gray walls in the hallways of the Overby Center at Ole Miss display framed black-and-whites of Doug Marlette‘s cartoons. Friday’s workshop prior to the Mid-South Creative Nonfiction Conference was held here and so were the agent/editor One-on-Ones, so I had some time to browse.

Marlette’s editorial cartoon The Challenger — in the center above — is probably the most widely known. On the day of the shuttle accident, he captured the look we all felt — shock, sadness, a grave sense of loss.

He won every major award for his editorial cartoons, including the Pulitzer. But Marlette was also a novelist. His first book The Bridge was published in 2001 and named Best Fiction Book of the Year by SEBA in 2002. His second novel, Magic Time, was published in 2006, less than a year before his untimely death.

Magic Time moves between two periods of time: New York City and small-town Mississippi during the early 1990’s and flashbacks to Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964 — a church bombing that took the life of NYC newspaper columnist Carter Ransom’s first love and the deaths of three civil rights workers. Marlette gives an honest account of what it was like back then.

I know. I was there.

Marlette spent his growing up years in Mississippi and graduated from Laurel High School in 1967. His father helped search for the three civil rights workers, and Marlette didn’t even know that until after he had written Magic Time.

Months prior to the book’s release, I got an email from the publisher, asking if I’d excerpt Magic Time on the online journal I publish — Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal. I was thrilled at the opportunity. They mailed an unedited copy of the author’s typed manuscript, and I selected a portion of Chapter 5 to feature.

I met Doug Marlette at the 2006 Southern Festival of Books in Memphis and he signed my Magic Time: “Mississippi girl, you’ll know these folks.” Yes, Doug, I do.

Marlette was on his way to Oxford when he was killed July 10, 2007. The Toyota truck in which he was riding hydroplaned on rain-slick Highway 78, hit a tree, and he died instantly. I had the same pained expression as the American eagle in his cartoon when I got an email from my friend Currie: “Oh my God, Kathy, I just heard Doug Marlette was killed.”

Shock. Sadness. A grave sense of loss. I couldn’t fit the word “killed” in the same sentence as his name. I cried. I didn’t want to drive to Mississippi. I didn’t want to go home. I refused to drive there in the rain. He was too young. He was my age.

I felt connected to him through his book about civil rights and race in Mississippi during that long, hot summer of ’64. It was our coming-of-age period in a sensational time and place unmatched in American history.

Marlette had a history of openness and honesty on national and world issues in his cartoons, and his written words on the page will go long into the future without him because they speak of raw reality — he tells it as it was. In that way, Doug Marlette will always be with us.

Fiction Crossroads

I just love it when things turn out so dandy!

The Council for the Written Word‘s sixth annual Spring Fiction Workshop is March 29, eleven weeks from today, and we are good to go. Everything is perfectly in line. We even have 24 people signed up so far.

Sufficient Grace

Darnell Arnoult is the featured speaker this year. “The Fiction Crossroads: Where Imagination and Craft Intersect” is the title of her presentation. Darnell’s novel is Sufficient Grace, and her book of poetry is What Travels With Us.

Currie, Colleen, Susie, and I met yesterday at Merridee’s in downtown Franklin to put the finishing touches on the workshop. I sipped Italian coffee and unrolled a cinnamon bun, savoring each bite, letting each sweet and spicy piece melt in my mouth. We went through our checklists to make sure everyone was in gear. Susie is in charge of the food and decorations. She enlisted her husband to build birdhouses to decorate with, because there’s a birdhouse on the hardback cover of Darnell’s book. We’ll give one away as a doorprize. I’m going to make certain my name is in that drawing, as I love birdhouses and have a collection in my backyard. There are only six in that collection, so I could use another. (Maybe there will be sufficient grace for me to win.)

“Get some of those pastel malted milk candy Easter eggs to go with the birdhouses,” Colleen suggested. And thus we slid into that genuinely creative spirit that makes all our workshops so much fun to plan and to attend.

Darnell Arnoult


Darnell led our first CWW spring workshop in 2003, held in the old public library at Five Points in Franklin, as they were boxing up and getting ready to move into the brand new Williamson County Public Library. Since then, Darnell has published her novel, which got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a nomination for 2007 SIBA Fiction Book of the Year, and a nomination for 2006 Weatherford Prize in Appalachian Literature. Darnell was selected as the Tennessee Writers Alliance’s 2007 Writer of the Year. I saw her at the Southern Kentucky Bookfest last spring, where she was having a ball signing her books, and again at the Southern Festival of Books last October, where she was just oozing smiles and happiness. It should be a wonderful workshop!

As for the writing part of the workshop…

How do you take an impulse for a novel and give it momentum? How do you improve on an early draft? How do you infuse your work with energy?

Darnell plans to tell us how, and goodness knows, her novel is chocked full of energy, with memorable details and memorable characters! She also plans to share how to get our manuscripts in the right hands. At least two in my writing group plan to have novels finished by the workshop date. If I get my Great American Southern Novel in gear, I might be the third!

Hurry March, and bring it on!

Baby Doll House Update!

The Baby Doll House in Benoit, Mississippi, is being renovated! After a previous post [Oct. 27, 2007] about visiting the dilapidated and decaying old house, I got an email from Jane, whose family is from the small Delta hamlet on Highway 1 that follows the river. She says it is now privately owned and the restoration project is nearing completion. My friend Currie, from Toronto, now living in Nashville, saw it in Old House magazine last year and wanted to buy it. So did my sister, who lives in Memphis. Somebody hit paydirt! That old house has been lingering in the back of my mind until I decided to give it new life in my novel.

The house was brought to fame by the 1956 movie Baby Doll, based on a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Baby Doll. “She’s nineteen. She makes her husband keep away–she won’t let the stranger go.” Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) is Archie’s (Karl Malden) wife in title only. They agreed to be married for one year without sex. Time’s about up, when a rival gin owner (Eli Wallach) comes into play. It’s two hours of seat-gripping sexual tension, even though Baby Doll’s constant tease of a laugh is annoying. Extremely erotic, it’s a steamy classic that still sizzles.

A lot of Benoit locals were recruited for the film. Jane’s great uncle was the town Marshall in the movie.

The movie brought to fame “baby doll” pajamas, or the shortie nightgown–a short, sleeveless, loose-fitting gown made of nylon or chiffon, with lace or ruffles and bows and ribbons. Some styles had matching bloomer-like panties. I grew up wearing them, but had no idea of the origin of the name.

The movie has a place in local history. In the book Reflections of Bolivar County, there’s a picture with a caption that says, “Mayor Jimmy Williams of Benoit outside his grocery and hardware store with movie stars Karl Malden and Carroll Baker, who were in town filming Baby Doll at the Burrus Home in 1956.”

The Baby Doll House

Baby Doll House

I grew up knowing about it. It was ten miles from my hometown–near Benoit, near the River. The River, that is, the Mighty Miss, the Ole Mississipp, the Old Man River. (Yes, it deserves a capital R!) It was believed the house was haunted. High school kids went there for kicks–for the thrill of maybe seeing a ghost. I only went once–drove by, didn’t get out. The house is famous because the movie Baby Doll, based on a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, was filmed there in 1956. Carroll Baker was Baby Doll, a 19-year-old naive, yet sultry, seductive girl, married to sexually-frustrated, older Archie Lee (Karl Malden), but who has never allowed him to lay a hand on her and by agreement, the marriage has never been consummated. Her first sexual encounter ends up not being with broken-down-gin owner Archie Lee, but rival gin owner and younger, vibrant, “wop” Silva. Themes of the film are lust, sexual repression, seduction, and moral decay. Amazing that it was filmed right there, deep in Baptist mud! In the 1950’s, no less. I was only in first grade at the time, so I wouldn’t have known anything about the steamy, suggestive, salacious scenes. I recently ordered the black-and-white from because the Baby Doll house is referenced in my novel and one scene takes place at the current site of the house. I wanted to see it again.

The last time I went to the Baby Doll house was about seven years ago. It was about the time Dad was beginning to get ill. I was home for a visit, along with my sister and older son. I always loved going home, getting in the car with Dad, and going somewhere–especially to the River. That trip, we drove over to Rosedale and went to the riverbank in the rough part of town, then to Benoit. We drove up on the levee and followed it a while, and then decided to go find the Baby Doll house. It is stuck in the middle of nowhere and is decaying and dilapidated, what’s left standing ripped to shreds and falling down. It wasn’t safe to go inside. It’s the last high-style antebellum house left standing in Bolivar County. The only reason it was left alone during the Civil War was that Judge Burrus, the owner, knew the invading federal officer. It’s said that John Wilkes Booth stayed there for 10 days after shooting Lincoln.

My sister wanted to buy it and fix it up. My father walked around, kicking dust, commenting on details. I stood there in awe of what was and how time wears on something of beauty and significance until it wastes to beyond restoration. I will always remember it because it was the last time I went to the River with Dad.

Whittle It

Seven chapters, 40,600 words into the Great American Southern Novel, I stopped, went back to the prologue, and read forward, whittling, checking the flow, the dialog, making certain facts and dates agreed, as I’d made changes along the way. Chapter 7 is an important one because it brings all the characters (except 2–for a reason) together in one location to interact.

Now as I move forward laying the words down, I am remembering a conversation with a publisher I met during the Southern Festival of Books. He stopped by my booth promoting the fact that his company, located in downtown Nashville, publishes Southern fiction; since I was promoting an organization supporting [Southern] writers, he thought I might direct some his way. His company, an award-winning, independent publisher of specialty and trade titles, with six imprints, has produced over 1,000 titles since 1984.

“What are you looking for?” I said. He launched into a 15-minute explanation of what he looks for in “good writing.” I can sum it up in 3 points. He’s interested in 1) the writing and the story. A good story that moves, a conversational tone, not a lot of description. He wants 2) quick movement out of the first page. He also wants it 3) tight and whittled down.

Now if I could just keep my internal editor at bay and move the story and string the words along without worrying about whittling it!