Thoughts and Inspiration for Creative Writers

-from Chrysalis Editorial

Unforgettable Classics: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird 50th Anniversary

Posted on | July 28, 2010 | 3 Comments

By Caitlin MacDougall, Intern

You never forget your first read of your favorite novel—at least I don’t.  In the wake of your first reading, you remember how the book became a part of you, how it shaped and defined that one period in your life, and the painful separation anxiety you felt when you realized you were on the last chapter.  It’s about as good as falling in love.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was that first love for many, but I never got the chance to read it.  I remember showing my mother my reading list in junior high and her puzzled look when she realized Lee’s one and only masterpiece, a coming-of-age prerequisite, did not make the cut.  “What kind of middle school doesn’t have To Kill A Mockingbird as required reading?” she asked.  I felt excluded from this literary secret that everyone seemed to relish, but I made it my personal responsibility to read the book on my own.

Years went by and as I checked the American classics off my unofficial reading list (F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, J.D. Salinger), To Kill A Mockingbird lingered as the itch that had not been scratched.  Walking around Politics and Prose recently, I noticed a re-print of the novel in honor of its 50th anniversary (I’ll let the baby-boomers take a moment to let that settle in).  As a recent college graduate experiencing my first taste of funemployment, I knew that this summer was my chance to finally fulfill the experience I had missed out on when I was thirteen.

I read the entire book during a weekend with my family in Lake George.  Instead of sailing, hiking, or biking, I spent hours sitting on a hammock on the porch, engrossed in the story.  What I love most about Lee’s writing is her mastery of place.  The passage in which Scout first describes the town of Macomb is unforgettable:

“Macomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oak on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” (5)

How beautiful.  The description completely sets the tone for the entire novel.  As we follow Scout, Jem, and Dill through the seasons, through their neighbors’ yards and the through heartwrenching trial of Tom Robinson, we are reminded of the heat and listlessness in that first passage about Macomb in the summertime—a description of stagnancy that was sure to be torn apart as the town’s racial epithets are challenged and the characters are drained of their innocence.

Lee’s masterpiece is a testament to the importance of setting certainly, but it is also a reminder to re-read the books that inspire you.  Ask yourself: why is this story so important to me?  What makes it magnificent?  You can read as many How-To books about writing or getting published as you want, but the best lessons are those hidden in the sleeves of that dusty hardcover you love so much.

Herta Announced Winner for AIW Best Published Memoir!

Posted on | June 25, 2010 | No Comments

I have received this year’s American Independent Writers award for best published memoir piece (“The Wall,” which is my immigration story and more broadly that of immigrants now). I feel honored and a bit proud. At a luncheon during the AIW’s conference in DC (mid-June) all the award winners (in various categories) received recognition.

What’s the reason for mentioning this besides wanting to share my good fortune? This: All you writers out there slogging away churning out short stories, essays, novels and non-fiction books should apply for grants and submit your work to contests and award opportunities. You don’t need to do it often, but every so often check the contest & grant sections of Poets & Writers, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest, find one that interests you (some awards are regional, giving you a better chance at winning) and submit your work! Really. DO IT!

Over the past few years, I have received a grant and a fellowship ($6,000) from the DC Commission on the Arts, the James Jones First Novel Fellowship ($10,000) and now this. I’ve applied to other contests and have not “won.”

Pursuing awards and contests is not just for the money, though those are fantastic, it’s more about getting recognized for hard work, having someone acknowledge that your writing is interesting and/or valuable. I have found that receiving such a “prize” is incredibly motivating and heartening, as you might imagine.

A plug for the AIW conference in June. Check it out online: American Independent Writers Conference.

And a plug for my services. I can help you win prizes, land an agent and get published. It’s all possible. GO FOR IT!

Success for a “Blended” Book at a Small Press

Posted on | June 14, 2010 | No Comments

Mary Collins was recently awarded the Grand Prize for Nonfiction from the Indie Book Awards for her book American Idle.  Below, she describes her inspiration for writing the book, her journey finding a publisher, and the reasons she chose to embrace a small press.

I am often skeptical of writing contests but I must admit that I started my most recent book, American Idle: A Journey Through Our Sedentary Culture, because an essay I did about the culture of sitting for the Health section of the Washington Post won Best Essay of the Year from the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), which convinced me a cultural take on the health crisis (rather than purely medical) could work.

I came to write American Idle as well as the essay on sitting because I had a horrible bicycle accident that took away my previously active life as an athlete. I could not sit for more than a few minutes; I dragged my left leg when I walked. Back surgery (and a lot of swimming and PT over many years) helped me recoup about 80 percent of what I lost, but the impact of being forced into a sedentary life—and all the resulting consequences, including depression, a huge decline in my social life and work life—made me want to explore why the majority of Americans choose such a life.

So I set off across the country to talk to factory workers, poor Hispanic women with diabetic children, health care specialists, even the director of the Olympic Center. Along the way I came to believe that the right to move in healthy ways through our landscape is a civic right, which is currently denied a huge portion of the population. Most people do not CHOOSE their unhealthy sedentary lifestyle—as I had supposed—they get boxed into it because of lack of time, unsafe public spaces in their neighborhoods and more.

As a writer with plenty of experience under my belt, I thought it would be easy to sell American Idle, which reads like a memoir but includes plenty of fresh health science. But I quickly learned that the big publishers really dislike blended books—does this belong on the Health shelf or the Cultural shelf, editors would ask? My agent and I did not have a clear answer, which killed my chances. I did find the trade divisions of university presses like Rutgers and Oxford University Press, very eager, but they also take forever (as much as two years to get through outside readers) and often charge way too much.

So I embraced a small press (Capital Books in Washington, DC) and found out a few weeks ago that American Idle won the Grand Prize for Nonfiction from the Indie Book Awards, which just validates in my eyes my decision to go small, quick, low cost (cover price under $20) and with a blended approach. If your product is good, it will get recognized.

Mary Collins author American Idle

You can find out more about my book and my own background at You can order the book at Amazon or contact Jean Westcott at directly.

What We’re Reading…Book Review: Generation X

Posted on | May 31, 2010 | 1 Comment

(Being read by Editorial Assistant, Amanda)

Generation X, by Douglas Coupland
Published: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1991, ISBN-10: 031205436X

The inside flap of my faded library copy of Generation X hails the book as a “salute to the generation born in the late 1950s and 1960s—a…suspiciously hushed generation known vaguely up to now as twentysomething.” Having picked up the book on a recommendation, I was immediately worried about the story’s relevance to today—I wanted a book criticizing the culture of now, and this book heralded what Wikipedia defines as the generation born between 1961 and 1983. While some books are timeless, others are only relevant in which the time they are written. This sounded like one of the latter.

The book trails three people (in their twenties) as they drift through the California desert, working (or having quit) pointless jobs and seemingly feeling ambivalent about where they’re headed. It is only through the stories they tell each other–made up renditions of alien planets or of the last man on earth—that we are made aware of just how much they actually expect from life, just how deeply they crave love, stability, and purpose.

I’ve now blazed through the first eighty pages of Generation X. As someone who has spent the last four years drifting down the East coast, who is now contemplating traveling across the world to “find my culture”, I find reading about Coupland’s trio both enlightening and insanely painful.  Coupland has peppered the margins with “vocabulary” that every time stings me with its bitter honesty and makes me question my own life’s importance–from “Cult of Aloneness” (The need for autonomy at all costs…often brought about by overly high expectations of others”) to “Semi-disposable Swedish Furniture” (self-explanatory). And the stories that the three wanderers tell are dripping with the same fears and desires I hide away before bed every night.

It’s not just relevant for me, of course—it’s the majority of my generation. Almost everyone I’ve talked to from my graduating class has expressed their dissatisfaction with the “real world”, or bemoaned their lack of excitement about the future. Many of us have both loved and hated Ikea. The book could have been published yesterday.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s definitely relevant to now, and a definite must-read for any recent graduate. Perhaps even not-so-recent graduates. It seems maybe we’ve all been there.

MATTERHORN–Book Review–Vietnam War

Posted on | May 26, 2010 | 2 Comments

MATTERHORN: A Novel of the Vietnam War (Karl Marlantes)

The description of the novel on Kindle (yes, I have one) is as follows: “Intense, powerful, and compelling. MATTERHORN is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.”

That sums it up. I couldn’t do better. I’m about 2/3 of the way through, and I can’t put it down. Riveting is the relationship between the decision-makers and the soldiers in the field (make that jungle and a small mountain they are commanded to defend). Commanders make decisions based on what their superiors want to hear. How many gooks have been killed. Interrupting ammunition and supply lines. Regaining control of that damn hill. Anything that makes them look good despite the consequences to the men out there.

For example, at one point the men have not been resupplied for a week. They are starving, almost out of ammunition, medical supplies, water. They try to capture condensation on their ponchos from the surrounding fog. The higher-ups could give a shit! Recapture the hill. Do this do that, though it will cost the lives of half the troops! That’s what fascinates me. That they would sacrifice their men simply to advance their military careers, and they make these decisions from the safety and comfort of the bases miles removed from the grunts. They smoke, they drink fine whiskey, they converse, check maps, and send out orders. “Fucking do it!”

I admit I’m a bit obsessed with the Vietnam War. It was my war. I protested and fought with state troopers and city police screaming for the US to get out. What I did not understand was the soldiers’ suffering. The horrible conditions they had to fight in. The devastation, deprivation, and the sadness.  I lumped the soldiers in with the military/govt conducting the war. As if the men wanted to be there. I must have been daft. The draft was in effect. Most soldiers, or at least many, many, were there against their will.

The man who wrote the book–Karl Marlantes–was there. He fought and afterwards sat down and typed a novel based on his experiences. He tried to sell it 30 years ago, but no publisher bought it. Thank God they finally saw value in it and someone had the sense to publish it. Though I suppose the time factor has something to do with it. Thirty years ago with the war in the recent past, it was too close, and people may not have bought it. Waiting 30 years, on the other hand, was too long.

As if you couldn’t tell, this book gets five stars from me. It’s terrific. If anyone wants to understand that war, and likely many wars, it’s a must read.

p.s. My next book is Sebastian Junger’s non-fiction WAR. Recently, I had a chance to hear him speak at Politics & Prose here in DC, and he was terrific. This one is about our war in Afghanistan, where he spent five months with the soldiers in a remote valley. Check out the reviews, they are fantastic.

NCAA Lacrosse Playoffs–Achieving Goals

Posted on | May 19, 2010 | 1 Comment

First read article, then I’ll comment on why it’s on a blog about writing.

The Cornell v Loyola lax game, on Saturday (May 15th), was aired on ESPN-U, then made ESPN news, was featured in numerous newspapers, and Max’s (#33) goal made top 10 on ESPN’s sports center the following day.

Max Feely’s Goal In Triple Overtime Advances Cornell Men’s Lax Past Loyola In NCAA Tourney

5/15/2010 5:25:23 PM

Feely #33-in foreground

max feely lacrosse5/15/2010 5:25:23 PM

ITHACA, N.Y. — Junior Max Feely (#33) picked an opportune time to score his first career goal, as the All-Ivy defender took the ball coast-to-coast for a clear before depositing a shot past the Loyola goalkeeper 1:55 into the third overtime to give Cornell an 11-10 victory on Saturday afternoon at Schoellkopf Field. The win advances the seventh-seeded Big Red into an NCAA quarterfinal contest next Sunday at Stony Brook against the winner of tomorrow’s contest between No. 2 Syracuse and No. 16 Army. Cornell improves to 11-5, while the Greyhounds ended their season at 9-5.

Feely’s goal ended the longest NCAA tournament contest in both school’s history and the longest game on record in Loyola’s storied lacrosse program. Cornell last went into a third overtime against Yale in 1996, falling to the Bulldogs 11-10.

* Box Score
* Cornell Postgame Notes
* Cornell Postgame Press Conference (check it out–Feely answers Qs)
* Loyola Postgame Notes
* Photo Gallery

Okay, I’ll admit it. Max Feely is my son. And this is a ‘proud mom’ moment. Sorry for the brag, but hey, I’m a mom.

A quick disclaimer: The point I want to make may be a bit of a stretch, but this was the thought that came to mind the more I thought about my son’s feat, and that of so many people who succeed at what they set out to do: YOU can accomplish what you set out to do. Even amazing things. It takes hard work, perseverance, discipline, more hard work, perseverance, and faith in yourself. It takes a vision of success.

This morning there was a story on the Today Show about a girl, who at age 8 was kidnapped and brutally raped. The rapist then slit her throat from ear to ear and left her bleeding in a field. She was lucky to have been found 14 hours later by some kids playing nearby. She couldn’t call out because her vocal cords had been sliced. She was told she would never be able to speak again. The next day she spoke. She recovered physically, but was traumatized, as you might expect.

This beautiful little girl set a goal. She would find the killer. Everyday she thought about him and worked to achieve justice. She never gave up, certain that she would succeed. About 18 years later they found her killer! He was convicted and sentenced to life w/o parole. In the cell he hung himself.

Writers and artists: set goals, envision them, keep writing and creating. It’s not easy; it requires diligence, a dedicated work ethic, training, faith.

But there’s one more thing. Make sure you read the following paragraph before moving on to the next blog.

These days there are far too many people who think they can simply write a novel or a memoir, or a work of non-fiction without putting in the time getting training, working at the craft, honing their writing skills, etc. They think a draft or two will do. They think they don’t need a class or a workshop. They think they were born writers. (Okay, for a few that’s true. Sorta’.)

So, like Max Feely, who puts in several hours a day training, who then has to study to get grades (he gets good grades…okay, I’m bragging again), and who then has to find time to sleep, and like the little 8 year old girl, who worked each day to find her killer, you have to put in the time, you have to be disciplined, and you have to believe in yourself.

In the same vein, it is possible to write a story or a book that gets published or wins a prize or both.  So keep at it. Good luck!

Love to hear from you. Or comment below.

AWP: props just for showing up. dot dot dot.

Posted on | April 14, 2010 | 1 Comment

Just returned from a long three days at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Denver. Each day is filled with hundreds of writing panels to choose from, readings to attend, and thousands of people to meet. For my assistant, Amanda, all of these experiences were new. Here is her take on the conference half-way through!

well, it’s a huge nerd gathering here. i’ve never seen such a condensed population of messenger-bags and plastic-framed glasses. the people who sport such things (me included) have been shuffling from panel to panel all day, further shredding the bottoms of our jeans beneath the heels of our graying Converse sneakers and lace-up loafers.

it’s not like i imagined it would be. from the way all the writers back home talked it up, i got the picture that this would be a huge party…that there would be explosions of ideas and expressions of writerly camaraderie not to mention sex in the convention center bathroom stalls and french kissing in iambic pentameter. maybe i’m not hanging with the right people, but it’s been quiet. really quiet. as i wandered the book fair, though the room had hundreds of tables and four times as many people, i was even able to make phone calls without plugging my opposite ear with a forefinger. for people who work with words, they sure don’t use many of them.

instead it feels to me like everyone is watching everyone. before the last panel i attended, i took a moment to survey the people around me, and was met with the gaze of four other people who appeared to be doing the same thing. you walk down the street here and you’d be able to pick out attendees even without the green lanyards we hang around our necks–awp attendees’ eyes follow you like those of a horror movie painting. however, instead of looking at your face, they’re staring at your midsection, trying to read the name and affiliation printed on your badge. for that reason, it feels like we’re sizing each other up. everyone is looking for the next person they want to meet. and a lot of people keep themselves busy pretending that they are that person.

the panels themselves are okay. a little odd. i attended one on writing in prisons, and one about “ellipsis–using negative space in fiction” which basically just involved a man shouting “dot dot dot dot dot” at the audience for a half hour. in one a girl the row behind me was clipping her nails. i learned early on that the chairs near the doors are the most valuable. i’ve slipped in and out of up to three panels in one session, which felt sort of like trying to see more than one movie on a single ticket, and gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush. so far the information has been rather shallow, and i’ve started wondering whether the money people pay is not for these sessions, but rather for the permission to label themselves as Writers, capital W. even people like me (unpublished, new to the field) look legitimate just for showing up.

“Confessions: Fact or Fiction?” is Now Available

Posted on | March 30, 2010 | 1 Comment

We are happy to announce that all the hard work we  put into compiling our anthology of fiction and non-fiction stories is finally complete.  Confessions: Fact or Fiction? is now out in print!!!  It is currently available for purchase in both paperback and digital format at and through, as well as other popular retailers.

Second guest author: Amy Fries; Writing Inspiration and Motivation

Posted on | March 22, 2010 | 5 Comments

Introduction: Amy and I attended the writing program at Johns Hopkins together when we were both struggling fiction writers. I too knew Ellen—hip hip hooray to her success. It can happen to you, too. (See my endnote.) Now here’s Amy:

Amy Fries new bio photo

Amy Fries

“Thanks to Herta for inviting me to do a guest blog. These days the value of persistence is on my mind. Two of my classmates—one from ten years ago and the other from seven years ago—have recently achieved phenomenal success. I just found out the Ellen Bryson, who was a classmate of mine in the Johns Hopkins University program, sold her wonderful novel for a six-figure advance. It’s called The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, and it’s a love story about the “freaks” in PT Barnum’s turn-of-the-century sideshow. Believe me—you’re going to find it unforgettable! I remember the story well from our workshops a decade ago. Ellen hung in there and over ten years later, hit a well-deserved jackpot. (

Likewise, my friend from the Sewanee Writers Conference (2003), Ann Weisgarber, had the novel she had been working on for almost ten years published in 2009 by Macmillan UK. The Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a moving account of black ranchers struggling to survive in the badlands of South Dakota in the early 1900s. This wonderful novel was short-listed for the UK’s prestigious orange prize and has since been picked up by a US publisher. I think it would make a perfect movie and wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it on the screen soon. (

The point is: both of these extremely talented writers persisted with their fabulous novels, and they finally got them published. They kept revising and revising and then championed their work until they both received the recognition they so well deserved. They are an inspiration to me to dig out my own novel and revise it until I get it right, and then champion it with passion. At the end of the day, it’s a simple lesson. Work hard to get it right, and then don’t give up because the publishing world is a fickle place. You can suffer a million “no’s,” but all you need is that one “yes” to get things going.

Tying into this is the need to stay motivated and engaged. Diving into a novel means immersing yourself in another world. It’s wonderful to get into that zone, but often hard to get there and stay there in our busy to-do-list world. This requires getting enough alone time to get your head back into the dreamline of your story. When I was deep into fiction writing, I’d go for long walks or bike rides in which I thought about nothing but my story. I was transported. Getting into this daydream-like trance requires building yourself the time and space. No one is going to give this to you. You have to take it.

Daydreams at work cover thumbnail

The cover of Amy's wonderful book!

Once a breeze came along and blew away my things-to-do list from my kitchen counter. And guess what? I didn’t miss any of it. Didn’t remember what was on it. None of those chores mattered. But I do miss writing. I do miss my stories. Those matter. I need that breeze again to waft through my brain and set me free. I need to find the strength to do things like turn off the TV, walk away from the computer, and stop being practical. Then I have faith that the quiet and the stories will return.

I write more about this topic of “entering the dream” and jump starting your imagination in my nonfiction book Daydreams at Work (Capital Books 2009). You can read more about it or order it from My blog on also has more on the creative and motivational aspect of daydreaming. Check it out at

If you want to talk further about anything, please feel free to contact me via the following sites:
Daydreams at Work fan page

Footnote: I’d like to echo what she says. Recently I spent 12 days in remote Mexico. No TV, no “bummer” news, few distractions other than walks on the beach, hiking, kayaking, watching the sun sink into the ocean. It put me in the mindset of my novel in progress; ideas came to me; I worked diligently with breaks as those mentioned.

While I know that everyone can’t just pick up and visit far off places to write, you can do as Amy says. I too go bike riding and walking for inspiration. For some reason, taking a shower, singing and just plain “letting go,” is often where I receive opening lines, mid-chapter lines, last lines, etc. The muse visits! I also encourage you to file in the back of your mind whatever problem areas you are having, and I guarantee you that the answer will arrive when you least expect it. At least that’s what happens to me. The mind has a way of sorting through and resolving problems.

We’d love to hear how you get inspiration, persist, and the success you’ve had.

Our first guest author: Tim Wendel

Posted on | March 11, 2010 | 9 Comments

I’m pleased to introduce the first of what I hope will be an on-going series of guest writers on the blog: Tim Wendel! Tim is the author of eight amazing books, the newest one, High Heat, recently published and now available on Amazon. His guest article, below!


by Tim Wendel

I knew I was about to make the call that every editor dreads. “Hello, sir, I’d like to change the working outline.”

A few months before, I’d signed a contract with Da Capo Press for my eighth book, High Heat. While my publishing credits include narrative nonfiction and novels. I knew some editors found me difficult to categorize. That makes some of them nervous. And, now, I was about to make life complicated for my latest editor, Jonathan Crowe.

Only after signing did I discover that High Heat was Jonathan’s first deal at Da Capo. He was a young man on the rise and I didn’t want to derail anything. Still, I couldn’t get it out of my head that we were going about this new book all wrong.

I was on the road, watching a Durham Bulls ballgame. The team and the movie Bull Durham are major threads in the new book. That was expected. Where I was about to rock the boat was how High Heat was basically put together.

The proposal called for 12 chapters. A building chronology that moved through baseball history, including such legendary names as Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan and Steve Dalkowski, who the Nuke LaLoosh character in Bull Durham was based upon. All of them were blessed with a rocket arms — a talent seemingly handed down from the gods above.

I believe all of us are born with a gift. Part of living a life is bringing that gift to the world. Even though none of us will ever throw 100-plus miles per hour, we can learn a thing or two by what such baseball notables went through. How some of them turned their gift into a blessing, while others were forever cursed.

In a way, that’s the path for any book. At least it is with me. Can we take that vision that’s in our head and really make it come alive on the page?

That’s why I knew I had to call my new editor and give him the bad news: I was messing with the outline – big-time.

My new idea was to structure High Heat around the basic phases of a pitching motion: Windup, Pivot, Stride, Arm Acceleration, Release and Follow-Through. It’s the same motion that anybody learns as a kid and it’s duplicated every night during the season in the big leagues.

As I dialed Jonathan’s number, I wondered if this could make or break our budding relationship. I need an editor to be in my corner when I’m lost in the tall grass. Gary Brozek, who edited my first novel,  Castro’s Curveball, worked with me to pull together the past and present narratives in that tale. Bronwen Latimer at National Geographic walked me through how to do a coffee-table book chocked full of great photos, which became Far From Home.

“Jonathan, I’d like to change the outline,” I said.

There was a pause at the other end of the line. I listened for any profanity but none was audible.

“What are you thinking, Tim?” my editor replied, and I told him about the phases of the pitching motion. I did so as I gazed out on that beautiful diamond of a park in Durham, trying to make it sound like the most logical thing in the world.

At the end of my spiel, there was another long pause. I knew I’d complicated things. But to Jonathan’s credit, he not only listened, he began to understand.

“OK,” he said, “I think I see where you’re going with this.”

That evening, back in my hotel room, I began to write High Heat again. This time it had plenty of momentum and the final draft was on Jonathan’s desk seven months later.

High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time comes out this month. Library Journal gave it a “Highly Recommended” label and the book has blurbs from Ken Burns and David Maraniss. It also has the full support of my editor.

Tim Wendel is the author of eight books. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. For more information, log on to or

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