Monthly Archives: September 2010

Inteview with author Karen Winters Schwartz, author of “Where are the Cocoa Puffs?”

Tell us a little about yourself
Let’s see…. I am an optometrist, a mother, a writer, a keeper of a plethora of creatures, an advocate for mental illness and a recently published novelist. I was born and raised in Ohio and went to The Ohio State University forever. I met my husband in Chicago at an optometric student conference. We married and moved to Central New York, and bought a house on the shores of Otisco Lake. We’ve been together for twenty-four years: buried two good dogs, raised two beautiful daughters and watched one million, three hundred thousand and five Canada geese wing over our house.

Can you tell us a little about your book?

Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family’s Journey Through Bipolar Disorder, is just that: a novel that follows a family through the tragedy of mental illness; but it’s not tragic. Even more so than my other three novels, Cocoa Puffs is written from my heart; it’s an honest, raw snapshot of a family who’s going through a crisis. In my little world, no matter how dark and desperate things seem, I always manage to find humor – even if it’s very dark. One of the novel’s strongest assets is its humor, and the way levity is interweaved with the dark and desperate moments – very much like the bipolar condition itself.

Here’s my short short synopsis (Yes. I guess we writers really must write them….): As eighteen-year-old Amanda spirals into mania, her father, psychiatrist Dr. Jerry Benson, sees the realization of his worst fears: his daughter is not just moody, but truly ill. With his words, his diagnosis—manic depressive illness—his world and that of his family is forever altered.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?
What I want, more than anything else, is for the readers of this book to enjoy the journey – to be entertained. And as my readers are enchanted by my incredible wit and amazing ability to spin a very simple tale, I’d like them to take away a little better understanding of mental illness and its far reaching effects. Seriously, I tried to write a story that would be a pleasure to read, without bogging it down with too much sadness. I guess I want, most of all, for them to take away hope and empathy and compassion toward those people struggling either directly or indirectly with these illnesses.

Why did you decide to write about mental illness?
Interestingly, I wrote my first book over twelve years ago. As you know, I’m an optometrist. Before that, I used to do scientific research. And although I’d written some creative pieces when I was younger, I was not trained in English or fiction writing. What motivated me to pick up my computer, over twelve years ago, and start pounding out a story was (I’m almost embarrassed to admit) a dream. I woke up one morning during my mid-life crisis and said, “Damn! That was a good, powerful dream! I better write a novel!” And I did. That first novel was about a man and his attempt to come to grips with his diagnosis of schizophrenia. I wrote my second novel quickly thereafter, which also dealt indirectly with mental illness. And then, devastated by my first handful of rejection letters, I wrote nothing for ten years.
Then, when mental illness assaulted my world in a very personal way, I was moved to write again, but this time with honesty that can only be achieved by living through the effects of a loved one’s illness.

How much research did you do for your book, and how did you go about it?

For my first novel, I did a ton of research – back then there really wasn’t so much going on with the Internet, so I read a lot of memoirs and textbooks on mental illness. I did the same sort of thing with Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?; only it was so much easier with the Internet at my fingertips. I’d also gone through the Family Training and Education Class taught here in Syracuse by Sheila Le Gacy, which contained a wealth of information. I became involved in NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), became a board member of NAMI Syracuse and got to know many wonderful people who helped me and inspired me while writing Cocoa Puffs.

What is your all-time favorite book, and why?

That’s really hard. I have so many favorite books…but I guess if someone had a gun to my head, I’d yell out, “Prodigal Summer! (Please don’t shoot!) by Barbara Kingsolver!” I love the way she writes. Her stories are character-driven, which is how I like to write; and in that particular novel, I just love the way she slowly and smoothly weaves the three stories together. And the scene with the old man when he thinks he’s had a stroke and really he has a large snapping turtle attached to his boot! You just don’t get any better than that!

Do you have a specific place and time where you write?

In the summertime I write outside with my adorable little buddy on my lap (my Eee PC netbook) and my iPod, playing either Dave Matthews Band or Neil Young, in my ears. Usually I’m in the shade on our little brick patio at the side of the house. It’s tucked away; I still have a great view of Otisco Lake and often, people can’t find me. In the winter, which is a long, long time in Central New York, I write in our living room, facing the lake, or if people keep bugging me, I withdraw to our bedroom. As far as time – whenever I can. If I’m in the middle of a novel, I write constantly, either in my head or actually typing away. It’s very all-consuming…but damn, it’s fun!

What was the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten, and what was the worst?

The best advice I ever received was from my wonderful, amazing editor, Lorna Lynch. She’s given me tons of great advice, but the best was when I was complaining about my frustrations with the whole publishing modus operandi and she wrote to me and said, “Suffer the fools as you go along. They’re a necessary part of the process.” Then she went on to tell me how wonderful my writing was. How could I not love her?!
The worst was from someone who told me I would never have my manuscript accepted if I changed character point of view within a scene. I fretted over this for quite a while as I purposefully wrote Where Are the Cocoa Puffs? from all my main characters’ points of view, within the same scene, because of the manic nature of what I was writing about. Happily, she was wrong! The people at Goodman Beck Publishing (my publisher) fully understood what I was trying to do and loved the way the book flows.

What are your favorite writing resources?

I love the website: It’s a great writing community. My favorite book on writing is: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Stephen King’s book On Writing is great also.

What’s your writing process like? Do you outline, or do you just pick
up your pen (keyboard) and start writing?

I do not outline. I usually have an idea of where I’m going and if I am suddenly hit with a pivotal moment in the novel, I’ll write that scene first and then write toward it. But in general, I just start writing, get to know my characters; and they lead the way.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a major rewrite on my very first novel. I think it turned out pretty darn good. It’s most likely the next novel I’ll put out there for publication. I changed the main protagonist’s name to Reese and plan to rename it Reese’s Pieces! Seriously! It was my husband’s idea! I’ll probably give it a subtitle of: One Man’s Journey Through Schizophrenia. My fourth novel: The Possibility of Bananas, a fun, sad little romp set in Belize, is also polished and ready to go. I’ve started my fifth novel, also set in Belize, which deals with the cultural and economic dichotomy in the small fishing village of Hopkins, Belize. Weird, but it seems all my novels, so far, have ended up with food in their titles!

Where can readers find you on the web?

Where can readers find your book?

The novel will be in all the major, and hopefully, independent booksellers throughout the country. I really like to support small independent bookstores. If your favorite bookseller doesn’t have it, ask them, “Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?” It’s also listed on all the major online sites of booksellers.

Any last words?
Yes. Buy the book!

Meet Flash Fiction Guru Mike Kechula

PEGGY: You write flash fiction. What attracted you to this genre and when did you start writing it?

MIKE: I like the idea that a well-written flash tale can be read in just a few minutes. I started writing flash about six years ago when I joined a Yahoo writing group, FlashXer, which was dedicated to flash. In the beginning, I was a total failure. Couldn’t write flash to save my life. Then I had a breakthrough, and before I knew it my flash tales were getting published very regularly and winning contests. By the way, I’m now the moderator of FlashXer. I’m also moderator of the Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group. Both are listed under Yahoo Writing Groups.

PEGGY: You used to be a tech writer. How did/did not the skills you developed there carry over into your fiction writing?

MIKE: None of my writing skills as a tech writer were worth a cent when I began writing fiction. Tech writing is a separate arena. Never the twain shall meet. For me, tech writing was far easier than fiction-writing.

PEGGY: Do you write anything except flash?

MIKE: Yes. I write some short stories up to 13,000 words, but lots of micro-fiction. Micro consists of complete stories from 55 to 200 words. This includes 100-word drabbles, which are in high demand by magazines. Some may scoff when they hear that we can tell complete stories in as few as 55 words. I did the same until I tried it. It’s a highly disciplined way of writing. Had to learn how to edit my work ruthlessly. I’ve had dozens published. I’ve also had dozens of drabbles published, and won four drabble-writing contests. In fact the first contest ever sponsored by the Muse It Up Club was to write a drabble. I won that one.

If you can tell a complete story in 55 words, it’s almost a luxury to write a 100-word drabble, because you have 45 more words to use. I also wrote 150-word micro-fiction tales specifically for Alien Skin Magazine, and they published every one I submitted. In fact, one is available right now, online, in the final issue of that magazine.
As to 200-word micro, I’ve written a few dozen. All have been published.

PEGGY: Have you had any formal training as a writer?

MIKE: Not for my nonfiction works. By the way, 39 of my nonfiction books have been published since 1980. Most were self-study textbooks for the IBM Corporation and SRA, the folks who publish textbooks and tests for K through university level. One of them brought in 3-million to the corporate coffers. Unfortunately, I wrote that one as a salaried employee. By the way, one of them was leased by SRA for $1,100 per year. That was the first time I ever heard of a leased book.

While I’m talking about nonfiction, I wrote books for slot machine technicians on how to install, test, and maintain bill acceptors, the devices in which you insert money into slot machines to obtain game credits. Every casino around the world has multiple copies of these books. I wrote these for a company that has 96% of the global market for slot machine bill acceptors. So the next time you put a twenty into a slot machine, chances are it’s one discussed in my books.

When I turned to fiction just nine years ago, I attended five creative writing and fiction-writing courses at universities and community colleges in California, Arizona, and Nevada. None prepared me to write flash fiction. The worst flash fiction I’ve read–and I critique dozens every week on several sites–are from folks who write as they were taught in creative writing courses. I’ve seen tons of poorly written flash while critiquing over 6,000 flash and micro fiction tales over the past 6 years.

Here’s what I’ve observed: most authors come to flash with preconceived notions. They tend to approach flash as if it were nothing more than a mini-novel that should be crammed with trivial, nonessential details. They write lots of fancy, artsy stuff, which has little or zero plot. The worst offenders are those who feel compelled to include action tags with every line of dialog. I think if I see another character sigh, roll his eyes, or shift in her seat before or after a line of dialog, I’ll tear out what’s left of my hair. Which means, I’ll be bald by the end of today.

The only thing worse are the inane similes they include. I have a collection that’d have you laughing for an hour, if I ever published them. I also have a collection of reports of characters turning. Every time I critique a flash tale in which characters don’t turn, I feel like sending a $10 check to the author with a thank you card.

Authors are always startled when I tell them that as much as 60% of their submissions are nothing more than fluff and filler typically found in short stories and novels. They were never told in any formal classes that flash fiction is a separate literary form from all others. That which works so well in novels and shorts doesn’t work at all in flash fiction.

PEGGY: What do you find are the key qualities for an effective flash fiction piece?

MIKE: Here’s my list of what I think comprises the ideal flash fiction tale. I suspect it will surprise everyone who reads this. However, I fashioned my opinions after transforming a few dozen short story authors and novelists into flash fiction authors, from critiquing 6,000+ tales, and from what I learned when I was a flash fiction wanabe on the FlasXer writing site:

– It should tell a complete story that can be read in 5 minutes or less.
– It should have an opener that pulls readers into the story.
– It should be plot-driven.
– It should emphasize telling over showing.
– It should be a fast read.
– It should always move forward at a brisk pace.
– It should be free of inflated prose.
– It should be free of trivial details.
– It should be free of distractions that can throw readers out of the story.
– It should contain dialog.
– It should contain a maximum of 4 characters
– It should contain a maximum of 4 scenes
– It should end in a way that makes it complete.

PEGGY: What do you want readers to take away from your work?

MIKE: I hope to always entertain my readers, and give them the quickest read possible in as few words as possible, without sacrificing a smooth read. I hope to draw them into the story instantly with an opener they can’t resist. Let me give you an example: Billy was in Grandma’s kitchen when his thumb fell off. Who can resist such a grabber like that? Of course, once you commit yourself to such a bizarre and strong opening sentence, the rest of the story has to keep the reader’s attention. Which reminds me—I’ve read and critiqued tons of flash tales in which authors gave a good, snappy opener. Then in the very next sentence, they changed the subject. I also saw this in many submissions when I was editor of five online and print magazines, and when I had my own magazine. Drives me crazy. It’s as if they learned one lesson in creative writing: open the story with a sentence that grabs interest. Then it seems they forgot that the
rest of the story had to be just as compelling. It’s quite a trap that many fall into. As an editor, I used to stop reading and reject immediately any story that had such a glaring deficiency.

PEGGY: What’s your writing process like? Do you write every day?

MIKE: I’m not sure what you mean by writing process. But I’ll take a guess by saying that since I’m a very fast typist, I develop all my stories on a computer. I never write an outline, because flash is too short for that. I just sit in front of the computer, have a concept in mind, and take it from there.

Yes, I write every day. Even if it’s only a 200 word vignette. I’ve saved every word I’ve written since I started writing fiction.

PEGGY: Do you use any writing software?


PEGGY: You are extremely prolific. How do you keep track of all your submissions?

MIKE: I keep written records of each submission. As you know, I submit like mad. Some months I’ve submitted more then 50 to magazines and anthologies.

As to my written record, I list the date, title, publication or contest to which the story was submitted, and country. When I get an acceptance, I list the date received, and the anticipated date of publication. When I receive a rejection, I just list the date.

PEGGY: Who is your favorite writer?

MIKE: I have two: W. Somerset Maugham for novels, and Guy de Maupassant for very short fiction. In fact, I think Maupassant was the first flash fiction writer.

PEGGY: Do you have an all time favorite book?

MIKE: Several share the top spot for me. Here are a few:

– Of Human Bondage
– The Manchurian Candidate
– Invasion of the Body Snatchers

PEGGY: Do you ever suffer from writers block or even a disinclination to write, and if so, how do you get yourself out of it?

MIKE: When it comes to writer’s block, I think I hold the world’s record. Here’s why: when I retired from tech writing, I wanted to switch to fiction. Thought it would be a piece of cake. Wrong. I couldn’t get a sentence on paper. Don’t know why. This lasted ten years. It was broken by a superb professor in Las Vegas, Dr. Sherry Rosenthal, PhD in Comparative Literature. She conducted a fiction-writing course. I walked in the classroom on day 1, and said this, and I’m paraphrasing: “I have a terrible fiction writing block. If you think you can break it, I’ll stay. If you can’t, I don’t want to waste my time.” I was 62 years old at that time.

She said she would, and she did. I haven’t had any blocks ever since. She did this just nine years ago. Because of how she instructed me and whipped me into shape, I’ve dedicated two of my flash fiction books to her. I was startled when she told me that I’m one of her favorite writers. What a turn-around from not being able to write a single sentence of fiction.

PEGGY: I earn my living as a software engineer, and it’s made me very wary about data loss. What do you do to protect/back up your data, and what advice , if any, do you have about backup for other writers?

MIKE: I backup my files on two different devices not connected to my computer, just in case. Consequently, I’ve never lost a word of the 500+ flash fiction and micro-fiction tales I’ve written.

PEGGY: What are your current writing projects?

MIKE: I have five:
– I just sent a manuscript of 100 flash fiction tales to my publisher, Books For A Buck. Title: “Martians, Monsters, and Pepperoni Pizza.” This collection of speculative fiction tales will be published in December in both E-book and paperback formats. Many in the collection were previously published by magazines and anthologies in several countries.

– I also sent a manuscript of 35 flash fiction tales to the same publisher. Title: “Revenge Day and 34 More Crime and Espionage Tales.” This collection should be published first quarter 2011. Many in the collection were previously published by magazines and anthologies in several countries.

– Just completed a very unique self-study book that teaches how to write flash fiction. Will put into my publisher’s hands this month.

– Just completed a self-study book that teaches how to write micro fiction. Will put into my publisher’s hands this month.

– I continue to write an average of three new flash or micro-fiction tales per week.

PEGGY: Where can readers find your books?

MIKE: Three places. I’ll give you the online addresses and titles separately.

Ebook versions: or
Paperback versions:


“I Never Kissed Judy Garland and Other Tales of Romance”
“The Area 51 Option and 70 More Speculative Fiction Tales”
“A Full Deck of Zombies – 61 Speculative Fiction Tales”

PEGGY: Any last words?

MIKE: If you want to learn how to write flash fiction and micro-fiction of any genre, consider joining FlashXer, where I’m moderator. I issue three prompts per week. If you do join, expect some hard, thorough critiques, which are designed to transform you into a flash fiction author. Check Yahoo Writing Groups for FlashXer.

Also, if you want to learn how to write speculative flash and micro fiction for publication, join my Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group. By speculative, I mean sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I issue one prompt per week. Almost every prompt is targeted at a specific magazine, anthology, or contest. Expect to work very hard, if you do. This group is not a mutual admiration society. Objectives: to get you published as quickly as possible and as frequently as possible. It works. Some of my students have already won contests. Currently have a few openings.

Check Yahoo Writing Groups for the Muse Speculative Fiction Flash Group, also known as Muse Spec Fic Flash.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to discuss one of my favorite subjects.

Meet Author and Editor Margo Dill

Tell us something about yourself
Like my Twitter ( account says, “I wear many hats.” I am a children’s writer, writing instructor, freelance editor, book reviewer, blogger, and freelance writer.  I have run an editing business since 2006 where I edit and revise any written document. It’s called Editor 911 (, and I love helping people improve their written work and also working on resumes! I also love going to schools and writing groups and presenting programs as well as teaching online classes and telecourses.   
Your historical novel, “Finding My Place,” has recently been accepted for publication. Can you tell us a bit about your book?
Finding My Place is the story of 13-year-old Anna Green and her family’s struggles throughout the Siege of Vicksburg (Mississippi) in 1863 during the War Between the States. Anna lives in caves, eats rats, works in an army hospital, experiences her first love, and strives to keep her family together through this horrible battle. Anna learns where she belongs in more ways than one while Grant’s cannons shoot over Vicksburg day and night, causing misery and grief for Vicksburg’s citizens.

How did you become interested in writing historical novels for kids, and why this particular subject?
I actually came up with the idea while I was teaching fifth grade social studies in 2000. I was a classroom teacher in Missouri back then, and we read about the Battle of Vicksburg. This battle was particularly fascinating to me because the citizens were the ones being bombed. The Union Army hoped the citizens would convince the Confederate Army to surrender, but the citizens held on for over 40 days, living in caves and eating anything, including rats, they could get their hands on. The people showed an amazing strength, and I wanted to write about this for kids.

How did you go about doing your research? Any particular pitfalls you encountered in researching this book?
Well, one pitfall was that I was scheduled to fly to the south from St. Louis on September 14, 2001 to start my research. Obviously after September 11, 2001, I wasn’t going to be flying anywhere right away, and so I rented a car and drove to Vicksburg. Going there was the best research I could have done. I highly recommend visiting the place you are writing about. The people in the town were very helpful and led me to wonderful resources, including the vertical file at the library.

What are your favorite historical novels for middle graders? What appeals to you about them in particular?
I really like the Little House on the Prairie series–what girl doesn’t, right? I also think that Gennifer Choldenko is writing amazing historical fiction books right now about Alcatraz such as Al Capone Does My Shirts. A great historical fiction novel about slavery is Trouble Don’t Last by Shelley Pearsall.  I think historical fiction for kids is so great because it teaches them about a time period while allowing them to get involved in characters’ lives. Half the time, kids don’t even realize they are learning history when they are reading these books.

You also review books, have an editing business, and teach workshops. How do you balance all of this?
That’s a great question! Well, I’m pretty disciplined and work just about every day–even on the weekends and when I don’t feel like it. I have a calendar where I schedule what I need to work on each day, and I just work until I get it done. I also have a family and friends; and so sometimes, I am working into the night or early in the morning in order to get everything finished.

Any particular place you write?
I write mostly from home in my office, but I really enjoy going to coffee shops. When I am feeling a little writer’s block coming on or a poor attitude regarding my work, a change of scenery really helps. The public library is also another great place–and you don’t have to feel like you have to buy anything to use their free Wi-Fi either!

Do you have a writing schedule?
As I mentioned before, I don’t really have a schedule per say–it sort of depends on the day. If my stepson is here and out of school, I usually write in the mornings and at night. In the afternoon, we do activities. Otherwise, I try to write mostly in the morning and afternoon and then use the evening time for other activities, chores, spending time with my husband, and so on. All of this is about to change, however, when I have a baby in December.  Then my writing schedule will be determined by her!

What are you working on now?

I am always working on freelance articles and book reviews. For my creative projects, I have a YA novel that I am just about finished revising and a few picture book manuscripts that I take to my critique group–they tell me what is working and what is not–and then I take them back. Soon, they will be sick of these, but hopefully, they will be ready for publication. I am one of those writers who is always working on a ton of projects at the same time. I just can’t help it!

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten? The worst?

The best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is that persistence is what leads to success. Talent is important, and so is perfecting your craft. But the most important thing is definitely persistence. As writers, we can not afford to give up on our dreams. The worst advice–hmmm? That’s a hard question. It’s probably just a comment or two that I’ve received at critique groups that didn’t do my manuscript any good. I’ve probably heard bad advice, but I guess I tuned it out because I just can’t think of any right now.

How did you get started as a writer?

I have always liked to write as most writers have–creating “novels” as a young teenager. Then when I was in high school and college, my creative side took a back burner until in 1999, I saw an ad in Family Circle magazine that said, “You can write for children!” This was an ad for the Institute of Children’s Literature. I wound up taking their beginner correspondence course, found a local critique group, and the rest, as they say, is history.

If you could be any character in any book, who would you be, and why?

Interesting question, and I think I would have to say–Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. These books, in my opinion, are brilliant. I’ve read them all a few times, and I just can’t get enough. I love Hermione because she is smart, does magic, wears her heart on her sleeve, and is a loyal friend and girlfriend. You can’t ask for a better character than that. Not to mention, I would have LOVED to go to wizarding school!

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Figure out your writing goals, and figure out a way to achieve them. We all have busy lives and distractions. Don’t let your distractions get in the way of your writing dreams.

Where can readers find you on the web?
I have a website that tells about me and my editing and speaking services: I also have a blog where I write about children’s books, and I also have a special section on books and organizations that help women and children around the world. I have a lot of author interviews, book giveaways, ideas for parents and teachers to use with books, and some lesson plan ideas, too. That address is I also teach online classes for WOW! Women On Writing. I currently teach three different classes: Social Networking for Writers, Writing Children’s Short Stories and Articles, and Blogging 101. You can find these classes at: Finally, I am an instructor for the Children’s Writers Coaching Club (

Any last words?
Thank you so much for having me as a guest on your blog. Good luck to all the writers out there–go get ’em!

Guest Post by author Jane Sutton

Here is a guest post by author Jane Sutton. Jane has had several articles published and has won a couple of short story contests. Her first novel, The Ride, received an honorable mention for best first chapter of a novel. Her second novel, Reigning Cats and Dogs, (due to be released later this year) was a finalist in the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Contest.
Jane lives in Florida where she’s an active member of the Gulf Coast Writers Association and the Florida Writers Association. When taking a break from writing, she enjoys walks along the beach or in the park, bicycling, kayaking and playing with her grandson.
The Ride is available in hardcover or on Kindle on . It is also available through other online bookstores or can be ordered by your favorite brick and mortar store.
To find out more, please visit her blog or her web page

Helpful Assets for Writers

It’s not enough to simply be a writer these days. Authors must develop certain skills and traits in order to be able to survive to write another day. Here’s my list of what I think every writer needs.
10. A basic understanding of grammar and punctuation
9. Patience, patience, and more patience for nothing happens quickly in the publishing world
8. The tenacity to edit your work several more times after thinking you’d rather die than to have to read your entire manuscript again
7. The strength to delete a paragraph (page or chapter) that you spent the last eight hours perfecting after realizing it has nothing to do with the idea you were hoping to convey
6. The ability to grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros or thicker in order to handle rejection notices or not so glowing reviews
5. The self-discipline to sit down and write or rewrite daily, even during those periods when playing solitaire might seem a bit more productive
4. To keep your publisher happy, you must be able to focus on writing the next book, while trying to arrange signings, interviews and other innovative marketing techniques for your currently available book(s)
3. The skill to set up and maintain a presence on dozens of social media sites—which also means you must be able to express yourself in 140 characters or less.
2. The knack of retaining all the passwords and log-in info for the numerous sites and forums you’ve joined
And the number one thing a writer must possess:
1. The ability to cram at least 48 hours’ worth of writing, marketing, blogging, reading and networking into a 24-hour day and still have a life
What assets would you add to this list?

Tomorrow: Next on the VBT tour, visit Dianne Sagan when she features author Marietta Taylor