The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Karen Pullen

What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.


giraffe walrus cclllWhat do a giraffe, a walrus, and the short-story anthology Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing have in common?*


Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.

I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.

Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.

I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:

1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.

2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.

3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.

4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.

5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.

The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.

I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.


Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.

Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.

Karen Pullen knows much about harnessing the power of both right and left brain thinking. In college she majored in math, but also took many courses in creative writing. After teaching math for a few years (calling it one of the “hardest jobs ever”), and raising a family, Karen decided to pursue a PhD in operations research (at a time when few women did). She spent many years working for a systems engineering consulting firm before coming to a crossroads in life. Over a decade ago, she left her job, moved from the Boston area to North Carolina and began a bed and breakfast. This move helped her connect back to the love of writing.

profile cropped

Karen still owns the B&B, and is an accomplished writer, and teacher. I know her as a kind and generous nurturer of talent and one of the visionaries who helped to create the Creative Writing Program at Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) in Pittsboro, NC. This program offers a creative writing certificate, a unique feature for a community college and continues to attract outstanding faculty. She’s recently harnessed her extraordinary gifts to write her debut novel, Cold Feet, one that is already garnering high praise.

I recently caught up with Karen to find out more about her novel.

1) Tell us about your first novel, Cold Feet. What’s in store for readers?

ColdFeet cover

Stella Lavender is a young woman meeting unique challenges of life, love, and work.  In Cold Feet she tries to manage her incorrigible grandmother, finds a dead bride, meets some wedding guests with surprising histories, intervenes between feuding innkeepers, risks her life buying drugs undercover from paranoid dealers, is nearly shot by a stalker, and unearths a money laundering scam. There’s a dog, a kidnapping, and even a car chase. Good times for Stella.  She gets through them with a sense of humor and a strong survival instinct.


2) What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching what a State Bureau of Investigation agent does?

About six years ago, to prove that serendipity is truly a force in the universe, I saw a short article in the Raleigh newspaper about a woman who’d just retired after 30 years in the SBI as an undercover drug agent. She’d been Miss Winston-Salem when she joined the agency, and that made her retirement news-worthy. I looked up her phone number and called her. She told me how the SBI works with local agencies and how people are assigned to different divisions. She told me some stories from her own experiences. She’s been available to answer questions, to save Stella from behaving idiotically.

But I don’t want to imply that Stella goes by the book. I had to bend the reality of the SBI to fit the story. I expect to hear from SBI agents who will want to set me straight.

3) In the novel there’s an implicit critique of romanticized notions of marriage and the traditional nuclear family.  Did you intentionally want to explore these topics or did they emerge as you went along?

Michele, you’re right, but they emerged from my subconscious! Perhaps the fiction writer in me sees marriage as fertile territory for conflict.

Fern (Stella’s grandmother) rejects the institution, Stella’s just been dumped by her cheating fiancé, the murder takes place at a wedding.  The groom’s mother is unhappily married, for the second time.

But other characters manage to stay together despite some real challenges.  And the book ends happily. . . I won’t reveal more!

4) An important character in Cold Feet is transsexual. What prompted you to create her?

Michele, as a women’s studies professor you know that gender is a continuum.  But from the instant of birth we put a baby into one of two gender boxes, male or female.  Sometimes it’s the wrong box.  Some children are aware from a very young age – around three – that they have been assigned the wrong gender. Can you imagine the confusion and loneliness of that boy or girl? The pressure to be different? Cold Feet’s transsexual character is flawed, but I tried to convey the desperation that motivated her to alter her sex.  And I hope that she is appreciated as a whole person, not defined solely by her gender change.

5) Will we see more of your main characters, Stella and her grandmother Fern?  What’s your next writing project?

Yes, I’m planning at least two more Stella Lavender books. Fern is such a favorite character that she’ll play a major role in both.  I also have a short story collection that I’m polishing.

6) What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed? What are you reading right now?

I just finished Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, and I’m half-way through a biography of Isak Dinesen. I like to read biographies of writers. My favorite is Norman Sherry’s The Life of Graham Greene, in three fat volumes. Does that sound pretentious? I confess that I love Ruth Rendell’s mysteries. I own at least 20!

 7) What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

I’m working on short stories now, and one lesson I’m learning is how vastly a story can be improved when I do not hesitate to delete. Cut the word count, kill the darlings, minimize explanation, and you’ll increase intensity. An intelligent reader will connect the dots.


Karen Pullen left a perfectly good job at an engineering consulting firm to make her fortune (uh, maybe not) as
an innkeeper and a fiction writer. Her B&B has been open for 12 years, and her  first novel, a mystery called
/Cold Feet/, was released by Five Star Cengage in January 2013.

Her website and blog are at <>.





I’m new to the ‘blog hop’ world and excited to join in. This particular blog hop is making its way around the blogosphere. It’s called ‘My Next Big Thing’. I was tagged by North Carolina mystery writer Karen Pullen to answer 10 questions.  Then I get to tag some other writers. Here we go!

1.  What is the working title of your book?

I’m co-producing a literary zine with Beth Turner. It is tentatively called, ‘Chatmosphere’: The Arts and Cultural Buzz of Chatham County

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve lived in Chatham County, North Carolina for almost a decade and have been inspired by its unique character. Chatham County is full of farmers, artists, and green industrialists. At first, I wanted to do an edited volume that chronicled the history and stories of the county. I thought doing a zine, however, would prove much more accessible and fun, and would constitute a good first step to an eventual edited volume.

One day I was talking about this idea with my friend Beth Turner. We got really excited about doing this project together. We’re like the county in that we are a combination of “old” and “new” in terms of years living here. We’ve been involved in politics, the creative arts and community building. Beth is a regional non-profit organizer who was one of the co-founders of Girls Rock NC ( and is also a commissioner on Pittsboro’s Town Board. (We both live in Pittsboro) Beth has also designed lots of zines through her experience with Girls Rock, a summer camp that empowers girls through music, feminist activism and history.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

A zine is an independent publication (pronounced zeen!) that can contain just about anything from manifestos to collages. A zine can also include recipes, poetry, art work, drawings, or comics. A zine is a hands-on production and can be as informal or as fancy as one wants.

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since this question doesn’t quite apply to my project, let me say a bit more about our process. Last year, we sent invitations to people to submit their work for consideration. I tried not to get too intimidated when I reached out to well-known writers and thought leaders. Everyone has been so nice and supportive of this project!

Here’s a snippet from our invitation:

We are inviting submissions up to 1500 words* that play with the following questions/themes:

How would you define the ‘chatmosphere’?
What keeps you committed and passionate about living in Chatham County?
What brought you to Chatham County and why have you decided to stay?

We invite you to reflect and riff on:
What is ‘rural cool’ and how does it apply to Chatham County?  Think about the areas that involve YOU, including but not limited to farming and the local food movement, creating community across difference; emerging green industries and technologies, the creative economy, the role of the arts in Chatham County (i.e. music, acting, writing, singing, etc), natural resources, the history and value of our rivers: the Deep, the Rocky, the Haw and, the Cape Fear, cultural heritage traditions, healing traditions, activism and the political cultures of our county.

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your manuscript?

The ‘Chatmosphere’ is a space and attitude that blends together arts, the environment and passion unlike another other place in North Carolina.

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

We are self-publishing this zine.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

We received our submissions in a timely manner. We are now in the process working with authors on their revisions and planning the design of the zine. It’s been a bit slower process than we imagined, because of all the things we have learned along the way. Our target goal is to have the zine out by the end of the year!

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within the genre?


9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

We want to showcase the talent in our community and break out of the literary and cultural shadows of Durham, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

10.  What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

We have some incredible writers who have submitted poetry and prose including Belle Boggs, Marjorie Hudson, Ruth Moose, Karen Pullen and Nancy Peacock. Contributors in the zine are writing on everything from the local food movement, the dissolution of a local African American church to the vision behind some of the most successful nonprofits in the county.

Now I’m passing the baton to some truly exceptional writers . . .

Barbara Ehrentreu,,whose next big thing is a novel:’ When My Life Changed’:

A fifteen year old girl who would rather watch baseball than do her nails finds her life turns upside down when her father has a heart attack and needs surgery, and in the process she finds her friendship with her best friend Joey becomes more, her relationship with her family changes and she learns she needs more than a boy as a friend to be happy.

Posting NOV 25

AND Nancy Hinchliff, whose next big thing is a memoir. A story about family and significant relationships and events that have a indelible mark on one young girl’s entire life.

Posting NOV 26

AND Olga Godim, doing a guest post-on my blog about her soon to be published novel (yay!)  ‘Lost & Found in Russia’: One mother travels around the globe in search of her daughter, while another must delve deep into her heart to find understanding and acceptance.

Posting NOV 27

AND Kiersi Burkhart,, on her next BIG thing

Posting NOV 29

AND  Edith O Nuallain on  ‘The Artist’s Daughter’ (or an update about how the novel she is writing for the National Novel Writing Month contest is going)

Posting NOV 30

Follow the bunny!

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

View Full Profile →

Follow me on Twitter

Follow Us

No Instagram images were found.

Follow Us

Follow Us

Follow The Practice of Creativity on
%d bloggers like this: