A Bookish Tradition

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Around this time of year, I start to get pretty serious about holiday shopping for my friends, relatives, and loved ones. I wanted to share something I’ve been doing the last several years.

Throughout the year, I read quite a bit, usually a novel or story collection every 3-4 days. By November or so, I’m thinking about my favorites of the year. I usually share on social media and with my bookish friends my top 5 reads of the year. This doesn’t necessarily mean the books were published this year, just that I read them this year.

I try to pick one top favorite. Then I go to my local independent bookstores–shout out to Page 158 Books and Quail Ridge Books–and I buy copies of that book for my bookish friends as my holiday gift to them.

I love supporting local businesses and sharing with my friends why I loved the book.

It’s always a bonus when, throughout the following year, a bookworm friend lets me know whether they have (or have not) enjoyed the book. Bookish chats make my day!

How about you? Any bookish holiday traditions?

We are nearing the end of my Laureate term (sob…) and I’ve love to stay in touch!

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Re-querying with Revised Work

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Should you re-query an agent with a revised manuscript?

We’ve talked before—and there’s a lot of chatter on the internet—about how hard it is to get a literary agent. These days, agents are receiving hundreds of queries a week from aspiring writers. One question that comes up: is it permissible to re-query an agent with a revised manuscript?

The scenario we’re talking about: you’ve queried agents with your manuscript, The Lost Balloon, and haven’t received any offers.

In the meantime, you’ve been working hard, and you have revised The Lost Balloon. A substantial revision, you say. You’d like to reach out to agents whom you’ve already queried. After all, you’ve done your homework, and they’re still well-respected agents who represent projects like yours.

The essential question is whether your revision is actually substantial. Courtney Maum in her Substack newsletter “Before and After the Book Deal,” puts it this way:  “If I part my hair to the right, and show up to work one day parting it to the left, that is not a substantial change. If I cut all of my hair off, or dye it an entirely different color, those are visible and higher-level changes. But if your manuscript is going to show itself at an agent’s desk again, it needs to be so unrecognizable, it’s not about a different haircut—your manuscript has on a different head.”

A change in POV from first person to third person? Not substantial for purposes of this scenario (although plenty of tedious work… ask me how I know…).

Switching the setting from a rural area in West Virginia to a rural area in Kentucky? Not substantial.

Converting a slow-paced, pensive literary story to a pulse-pounding thriller? There you go. This would be considered a substantial change.

Subject to agency guidelines, which you should always double-check, if your revision fits this definition, if it will sound like a new and different book, then go for it. Re-query those agents. I’m cheering you on—I hope to see The Lost Balloon at an independent bookstore or library someday!

Halloween Writing Prompts

Does your main character believe in ghosts? Why or why not? Have you ever taken a ghost tour? (I’ve been on ghost tours in Charleston and Savannah, but I’m not sure I enjoyed them, to be honest. I don’t necessarily gravitate toward a creepy or spooky atmosphere.)

What was your main character’s favorite Halloween costume when they were growing up? Why? Was the costume home-made or from a store? Did they copy their friends or were they unique?

Does your story involve a neighborhood? Is it the type of neighborhood that comes together for holidays like Halloween? Maybe they have a parade to show off the children’s costumes. Or is something sinister underfoot?

What’s the best Halloween candy? (Skittles get my vote. I know, I’m weird… If Skittles aren’t available, I’ll take Jelly Bellies.) The worst? (Come on, it has to be circus peanuts. Or black licorice. Or anything with coconut. Or Twizzlers.)

A black cat saunters by. Does your main character flinch, wondering if bad luck is on the way? Entice the kitty closer with a saucer of milk?

Would love to hear any thoughts / comments below. Thanks for reading!

Happy writing! I’m cheering you on.

Tips for Finding a Great Title

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Whether you start with your story title or add it at the end, finding the right title can make or break your story. A title serves as an invitation to the reader. Let’s explore some tips to help you find a strong one.

Set Up Expectations

Because your title is an invitation to the reader, it helps set up your reader’s expectations. Make sure your title fits the genre. For example, if you title a story “The Scorpio Galaxy,” your reader is not going to envision an Amish romance. That’s an extreme example, of course, but the principle holds. Really think hard about what a reader would expect. They don’t have months of familiarity with your work, like you do. They might arrive at your story knowing nothing but the title.

You likely won’t be surprised to discover that Gina Heron’s Buried Beneath the Lies is a family drama about hoarding and reality television. Or that Meagan Lucas’s Songbirds and Stray Dogs is a gritty and yet uplifting southern story.


Your title should tend more toward unique than ubiquitous. While it’s true titles aren’t copyrighted, publishers will shy away from repeat titles, and you don’t want to create reader confusion.

Heather Newton has a new novel out called The Puppeteer’s Daughters. Doesn’t that title make you want to flip immediately to the first page? What if she’d called it Daughters or The Family?

Evoke the Story World

By non-generic, I think what I mean is evocative. As a reader and writer, I prefer titles that conjure up a story world or a somewhat specific mental image, as opposed to a vague idea. Instead of “The Secret History,” consider, “The Forgotten Cottage.” Instead of “What We Knew,” what about “Signs & Wonders”?

The North Carolina Literary Review recently published a short story of mine called “The Virgin of Guadalupe’s Moon.” The story is about Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s honeymoon in Acapulco. I could’ve titled it “The Honeymooners” or something like that. But I spent an embarrassing amount of time (really, I struggled with it…) trying to think of a non-generic title that related to the story and might intrigue the reader.

Jon Sealy’s novel title The Edge of America immediately sets the reader on edge in a delicious, tension-filled way, signaling that the story involves characters who are teetering somewhere between dark and light.

Not too Specific

You can be too specific or “on the nose,” however. My second novel, The Good Luck Stone, was originally The Disappearance of Audrey Thorpe. It was too specific, maybe hard to remember, and kind of sounded like a middle grade mystery. An editor suggested I think of a new title and that was excellent advice.

On a related note, you might want to avoid titles that state the obvious or seem to answer a question that’s better left open as the reader explores your story.

Easy to Understand

A good title will not confuse your reader. Try to pick titles that are easy to understand and pronounce. My first novel was originally titled Hold String and Fly, but I received feedback that people didn’t understand it. We changed it to Maranatha Road. And let me be honest, if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t use this title. “Maranatha,” while common enough in western North Carolina, is a somewhat unusual word and some people don’t know how to pronounce it. You definitely want people to feel comfortable pronouncing your title so that they can share it far and wide.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to title your work, I recommend Shuly Cawood’s online class, “Make Your Titles Do More of the Heavy Lifting.”  You can find more information here: https://www.shulycawood.com/appearances

Fall Writing Prompts

Although it still feels like summer, fall is surely around the corner. I hope you will have fun with these fall-themed writing prompts!

Fall is resplendent with vibrant, fiery colors. Write about a fiery conversation—an argument or a shocking revelation.

Many people like to get outside during the fall. Do you want the pacing of your story to feel like a strenuous mountain climb? Or a leisurely stroll around a lake?

Fall can be a time of preparation as we hunker down for winter. Is your main character a planner? Do they look ahead with comfort or trepidation? Why?

Write about your favorite or least favorite fall traditions. Pumpkin carving? Raking leaves? Ghost stories by a campfire? Hot chai lattes?

Consider a literal “falling down.” What’s the worst thing that will happen to your character in this story? Will they get back up? How?

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5 Ways to Plan Your Story

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(1) A Basic Outline:

Start with the big plot points. For example, when does your main character enter a new reality or embark upon a journey or quest? That’s the demarcation line between the old story world and the new. If you’re doing a three-act structure, this will be the beginning of Act II. It’s often a great place to start.

You’ll want to go through each Act and list your scenes. You can be as basic or as detailed as you’d like.

(2) The Reverse Outline:

Mix it up! Start at the ending and unwind from there. The kingdom is saved, but not before a final battle in which the hero is injured, but not before he has one last tryst with his true love, etc. Rewind the clock to explore how you can reach the ending.

(3) Milestone Moments:

Maybe a full outline is too intimidating. I tend to fall in this category. What I do instead is focus on the big events that I know must occur for the character to make her way from point A (beginning) to point B (midpoint) to point C (resolution).  You might have any number of these moments and it’s okay to start small.

Some writers called this the tentpole approach. These are the story events that, if they were missing, the plot would fall down.

(4) Beat Sheet:

This approach might appeal to you if you enjoy spreadsheets and getting down to the details. It involves charting each beat of the story in every scene. You don’t need to include description or dialogue, just the events and developments.

(5) Draft Zero:

If outlining and beat sheets aren’t your style, try what some refer to as a “vomit draft” (sorry!) With this approach, you’re trying to dump it all out there on the page. It’s not fancy. It might not even make sense. But you’re getting words on the page, and you can fix it later.

There’s no one right way to plan your story. Even if you find a solution that works for you now, your next project might benefit from a fresh approach.