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Today: Ernie’s Writing Journey

If, like me, you go through stages in your writing career where you feel isolated and in need of connections with other writers, you may have sought out a writing group–or perhaps even considered starting one. Of course, online resources let us share our writing and collect tips from a plethora of experts. But these tips can be generic, not specific to our needs, and even strong online critique groups can suffer from the limitation of all online “teaching”: the loss of body language and verbal cues and the difficulty of eliciting immediate responses when we have questions about a comment or need follow up.

Recently I’ve read and shared several posts about writing groups, and I’ve written before about my group and how I value it. Some commenters have mentioned joining groups that folded or that didn’t work for them. I realized that my group, Green River Writers, based in Louisville, Kentucky, is an example of a group that has held together for decades. What exactly does make for a successful, long-lived writing group?Book with heart for writers

One important factor in the group’s longevity and success is its founder and president, Mary “Ernie” O’Dell. I cornered Ernie to learn about how the group began and why it has succeeded.

Today’s post introduces Ernie and her journey as a writer—a journey many of us can identify with in some ways.

A little about Ernie

I immediately asked about one thing I’d often puzzled over: where “Ernie” came from.

It comes from Mary Ernestine O’Dell. Dad’s name was Ernest Forbis Houck. I was named after him and his friends called him Ernie, so when I got in junior high, and was asked what my name was, I said Ernie. So that’s where that was born.Stephen King quote

Three of Ernie’s novels have been published by Turquoise Morning Press in Louisville: Cyn, The Sweet Letting Go, and Banger’s People. I asked Ernie about the settings and ideas that fed into her books.

I grew up in West Virginia and the southern and eastern Kentucky region. All the books have the flavor of that region; two of my books involve the West Virginia coal-mining industry: Cyn and the one I’m working on now, which I’m calling “Hope” for the time being. [Hope is one of the main characters, a high-schooler who lives with her older sister Lily and their parents and siblings in a coal-mining town just at the outbreak of World War II.]

Cyn takes place in the neighborhood of little row houses where my daughter became friends with the next door neighbor when they were seven or eight. The opening scene, the little girls in the elderberry bushes getting elderberry stains on their clothes, that was me: I would play in the bushes behind our house with my little cousin and get stains on me and my mother would not like that.

The interesting thing about Cyn was that I wrote in five different points of view. When Sheri McClaren, my mentor, read the first draft, she loved all these characters except the little girl’s father. She needed to know why the child loved him, because she wouldn’t have loved him if he had been her father. So I had to go back and rewrite the little girl’s father, and in doing so I had to figure out where I found him, who he was, and why he was so judgmental and vindictive. I discovered that he was my first husband who was a minister for some years. Then I had to find out why this fictional person would be this negative. I made him the son of an alcoholic and youngest son of three brothers, two of whom were alcoholics; they all made fun of him the time. I had to really deepen his character so he wouldn’t be such a bad guy that no one would care about him.

I wrote The Sweet Letting Go a few years after my second husband (my real husband) died of lung cancer. I was his main caretaker, but I didn’t want to make it autobiographical. I turned the whole thing around to make the female the one with the serious illness with the male as her caregiver.

Books and ladder

Ernie’s Writing Journey

Ernie’s writing career began during her career as an elementary teacher in Louisville. Continue reading


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Why Writers MUST Read

A wonderful perk of being retired from teaching is rediscovering what it’s like to read fiction for pleasure. I assume I don’t have to convince any writers of the pleasures of a good book!

But my new reading experience has reminded me why writers MUST read. True, we know we have to read in our own genres. After all, we have to be able to tell agents and editors we query how our own work fits into a landscape with which we had better be intimately familiar. But we need to read—we MUST read—more widely than that.

We need to know, we must know, what works for people who are not us. In my lifetime of reading fiction, slowed but not terminated by my years of teaching, I have always been surprised to discover what other people consider good. I hope I’m not the only reader to roll my eyes once in a while and wonder, “Who’d’a thunk anyone would publish that?”

But “that” turns out to have five-star reviews on Amazon, enormous followings on Goodreads, and thousands of Facebook likes. I’ve moved from “I’d never do that!” to “What can I learn from this?” For example, from watching how different kinds of writers win over readers, I learned the importance of the “pet-the-dog” scene. The protagonist you want your readers to stick with has to do one small “good” thing somewhere, somehow, in the book’s opening moments. Related: the “stop-being-mean-to-her” scene, wherein your protagonist is being treated unjustly. I didn’t learn about these strategies from reading Shakespeare—although I assure you, he does them, too.

In other words, there’s some reason a lot of people like the books you hate. There’s gold in figuring out what that reason is.

We need to know, we must know, that the kinds of books we love do exist, sometimes in the most unexpected places. I read so much about the fall of publishing, about the sheer inability of those of us who might once have been indulgently called “midlist” authors to persevere. I hear so often that unless you’re already a celebrity or a world-renowned expert, you only have two options for your quiet, literary, sort-of-mystery-but-sort-of-not: either self-publish it or stick it in the drawer.

Yet over and over I take a chance on a new book only to discover wonderful writing still bubbling up out there. I don’t say it necessarily gets shelved face-out at Barnes & Noble or makes it to the top at Amazon. I’m reading a terrific book right now that will probably never do either (Mary O’Dell’s Cyn, from Turquoise Morning Press). But good writing gets noticed, and it gets published. And I get to read it by opening myself to that chance.

More to the point, I get the reassurance that continuing to grow as a writer is worth the effort. I can’t write as well as the great writers I admire, but I can learn to write better than I do now, and it’s because I find these great writers out there through reading that I have the faith to soldier on.

We learn what we forgot to do in our own books. This is a little different from the strategies in point one above; it’s not about devices, it’s about fundamentals. Writing every day, deep in a story, we get into habits and patterns that, in my case at least, lull me so that I forget something vital I should be attending to, something I’ve left out. Often it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me, that I need to work at. For example, the other day I went to our local bookseller (Carmichael’s) to redeem a gift card. The book I wanted, Ben H. Winter’s World of Trouble, was out of stock, but I did find a discounted copy of The Girl on the Train.

I expected some sort of mystery/thriller, not too far from my genre. I expected one of those bang-up openings that set me on the edge of a cliff, teetering. Instead, I found myself in a tranquil, slow-moving country, listening in on the placid observations of a muted soul.

I thought of all my anguish trying to make my opening pages electric. Here I was holding a bestseller whose author saw no such need. Then, slowly, I began to understand what she was doing—something I struggle to do enough.

This was/is a classic, masterly demonstration of that single overriding rule for all writers of fiction: show, don’t tell.

From what this character noticed and how she reacted to what she noticed, she slowly let me build for myself a rich, nuanced sense of a soul in deep trouble, a world alight with danger, if not the guns-and-daggers kind (not yet, at least). A soul in trouble, a soul in danger: the classic “it” that a story either has or doesn’t. And all without ever shaking a finger at me to tell me what I was supposed to see or know.

That night, I got out my notebook. Above one column, I wrote, “What I want readers to know about Sarah.” Above the next column, I wrote, “What she does to show it.” I sat for an hour, working my way out of that all-too-available strategy of having Sarah tell readers how she was feeling, what she feared, worried about. What does Sarah do to let readers sense her danger, understand how she got here, so that they’ll be shouting at her, “No, no, don’t do that! Do this!” and sweating (I hope) to see if she does.

It’s not that I didn’t know this basic rule. But inside the walls of my own imagination, I had lost sight of it. I didn’t even miss it, until I wandered out into other landscapes and saw another writer doing it—when I picked up that book and read.

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Filed under Learning to write, Myths and Truths for writers, self editing for fiction writers, Self-publishing, Teaching writing, writing novels