The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Sisters in Crime

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.


I had heard about Ashley Memory several months before I met her. People in my monthly writing group raved about her new novel, Naked and Hungry and asked me, “Did you know she works at UNC-Chapel Hill?” I didn’t and set out to correct that oversight as I’m always interested in meeting faculty and staff members at the university who are also creative writers.

In September, I had the pleasure of meeting Ashley at a ‘Sisters in Crime’ writers’ group when I gave a workshop about creativity. I learned quickly that Ashley is a woman of many talents and passions. She’s been a professional communicator for over twenty years and has experience in writing, editing, media relations, and strategic communications. For the last six years, she has served as Communications Director for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Her biography is long and distinguished, though you wouldn’t know that by talking with her because she’s so good at listening to her companion’s interests. Ashley has published essays and stories in Cairn, Portland Literary Review, Georgia State University Review, and North Carolina Wildlife. She has won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize sponsored by the N.C. Writer’s Network twice (!) and Eureka Literary Magazine nominated her short story Tamarisk for a Pushcart Prize. She is also an essayist; samples include  Missing the Dixie Superette and For Barking Out Loud.

Her first novel, Naked and Hungry, was named a finalist in the  2009 James Jones First Novel Fellowship competition sponsored by Wilkes University and was published in 2011 by Ingalls Publishing Group.

And, to top it all off she is a crepes aficionado and also writes about crepes!

She’ll be a featured panelist at the upcoming N.C. Writer’s Network Fall Conference.

We’re both in a course on short fiction taught by Ruth Moose. I appreciate the depth of literary knowledge and writing craft that Ashley brings to the class. I find myself paying close attention when Ashley comments on a story (esp. the elements that aren’t working in it). I’m so glad she made time to chat with me about writing and the writing life.

Tell us about your first novel, Naked and Hungry. What’s in store for readers?

 Naked and Hungry is a darkly humorous suspense novel featuring a former loan officer named H.T. McMullen who rejects materialism and moves to a one-room cabin in the Uwharries. There he finds his pristine wilderness tainted by dangerous pollutants. And when he dares to complain, he becomes the target of a deadly game of intimidation by the high-powered villains.

Justin Catanoso, author of My Cousin the Saint, executive editor of The Triad Business Journal, and an early reviewer of my book kindly offered the words: “In Naked and Hungry, Ashley Memory has written an entertaining and twisting first novel with a storyline pulled from today’s headlines. Bank loans gone bad, pollution for profit, unchecked law enforcement, reluctant heroes. With shades of Richard Russo, Memory’s characters are quirky and funny and often a little dangerous. And her sense of place — small town North Carolina — is vividly rendered.”

Besides writing novels and short fiction, you also have written a book about crepes, a food you love. Is there a story about your passion for crepes and interest in teaching people how to make them?

I’ve loved eating crepes since I was a girl. When I was eight years old, my parents took me to a restaurant in Greensboro named, appropriately enough, Frenchy’s. There I had my first crepe, which was wrapped around beef burgundy and baked again in the oven until it was crispy. It was simply divine.

Many years later, when my father and I were thinking of starting an online business together, we quickly landed upon the concept of crepes. At that time, there seemed to be a dearth of good crepe recipes on the internet. This inspired us to create our own collection and launch World of Crepes at This effort sparked a true culinary adventure that led from experimenting in the kitchen to winning first place in the 2009 Citrus Dessert Challenge for our recipe for tangerine crepes.

The timing was right for the creation of the website because crepes are enjoying a renaissance of sorts due to an appetite for healthier eating. Crepes are low in gluten and calories and relatively inexpensive to prepare. In fact, Michele, I bet I could raid your pantry right now and make you a delicious dessert based on crepes.  I would insist on bringing my own crepe pan, however, because I’m a bit finicky about the tools of my trade.

Do you conceive of a story in the voice of a narrator, or in key images or characters, or in events?

Great question. Occasionally an image, event or an overheard snippet of conversation will inspire me, but the most satisfying stories arise out of characters. A character is the shortest distance to a true story because they tend to drive the car, so to speak. When you plunk a believable character into a story, things such as motivation, action, and even physical description seem to write themselves. In these cases, it truly doesn’t feel like work! It’s more like a joy ride for the writer.

Can you give me an example?

Yes! The interactions and the mini-story arc in Naked and Hungry between my main character, H.T. McMullen and his office manager, Margaret Freeman, arose almost magically from my keyboard. With her MBA-wired brain, she was such a delightful antithesis to H.T.’s laissez-faire way of operating a business, it was as if I were operating a Ouija board rather than a keyboard.

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your writing career?

Never feel bad about losing yourself in a book, no matter what your parents say! Today, my parents would probably admit that there are much worse places a twelve-year-old girl could be than behind the couch secretly reading a copy of Endless Love. She could be doing the things in that book! The act of reading is so essential to writing that it should never be suppressed in any young person.

What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see? And, how do you manage this side?

The book signings are fun, and these are the things that perhaps aspiring writers most envy, but for me, it’s the non-glamorous things that I most enjoy. It’s slipping away from a dinner party to write (headache, sorry!) or scribbling a random story idea on the back of a conference brochure. Fortunately for me, these things tend to manage themselves. The day job, the family life, and the obsession with cooking are also enjoyable, so I never feel as if I’m really sacrificing anything.

There is a little pressure nowadays to be promoting oneself on all available social media platforms, and I will admit to feeling overwhelmed from time to time. But while I have often regretted the time I’ve spent to set up and maintain a “presence” on the latest platform, I’ve never regretted a Sunday afternoon penning a new story.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a follow-up novel to Naked and Hungry titled Born Again, Dead Again. After having taken a sabbatical from short stories for a while, I’m delighted to once again be exploring this short form. My career began with short stories and I’d be more than happy to go out this way.

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

It comes from an interview with Pat Conroy that I once read. I apologize, but I don’t remember his exact words. But the idea has never left me, and it’s worth a feeble attempt at paraphrasing.

When I have trouble with a story, Conroy said, it’s not because I haven’t done enough research on the details. It’s because I haven’t reached deeply enough inside myself. He implied that the answers to our struggles, be it writer’s block or whether a story is believable or not, lie within us.

So, when I find myself quibbling too much over a surface detail, I realize that the main problem with a story isn’t whether my character would have had depression glass in her cupboard but what would have motivated her to hurl this thing across the dining room at her husband. And it’s this – the emotional reality of a story – that’s the currency of a true writer.

See Ashley discuss Naked and Hungrhere!

You can read more about Ashley here.

Photo Credits:

Hi! My Sunday Surprise includes tidbits gathered from here and there. Soon I will return to my longer posts, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy this interlude.

-I’m now on Twitter and loving every moment of it. I’m reconnecting with teachers and alums from 1996 Clarion East, a science fiction and fantasy writers’ summer intensive, that I attended! Come find me @MicheleTBerger

-Visual artists trick our brains all the time in how we perceive light and color. This article on explores what neuroscience is teaching us about how we perceive art.

-I gave a workshop, ‘Are You a Wooer or Withholder? What’s Your Creative Relationship Style?’ a few weeks ago for the ‘Sisters In Crime’ writers’ group in Raleigh. One of the prompts I gave them was to imagine that an adoptions worker comes to interview them on their capacity to “adopt the creative”(based on Deena Metzger’s work). Judy Hogan, farmer, co-founder of Carolina Wren Press and newly minted mystery author attended the workshop and just posted a dialogue between her and the adoptions worker. You might want to try the exercise and then read Judy’s engaging response.

-Feel like you’ve lost that loving feeling with your Muse? Brenda Moquez’s quirky and  funny dialogue with her Muse might give you some ideas about how to court yours!

-Very compelling post by Kate Elliot on the male gaze, the female gaze, and women’s sexualized portrayals in fantasy and science fiction novels.

-A thought about persistence. Yesterday, after an all-day faculty retreat I got to the gym as planned so that I could exercise as a reward. Well, I quickly realized that in my early morning haste, I had forgotten to pack my sneakers. I also had to be somewhere else within an hour and knew that if I didn’t work out during my allotted time, it wasn’t going to happen later. So, although I felt a bit silly, I changed into my workout clothes and grabbed my patent blue wedge shoes (the only shoes with me), and walked with my head held high, barefoot, into the gym’s workout area. I picked up a few magazines and  sat down at one of the recumbent bike stations, put on my shoes and began my thirty minute workout. Yes, I felt a bit silly as people walked by and looked at me pedaling away in my nice shoes. However, it was more important for me to be true to my fitness goals then let a little thing like shoes stop me. This incident made me think of writing. It is so easy to get off our game if one little thing goes wrong during our scheduled writing time. It could be that we’re out our special tea, or the pen we love has just gone dry. Or, that we have an interruption that we have to attend to. And, we can feel silly and out of sorts that we have to make do with our sometimes ‘less than perfect’ writing life. But, if we remind ourselves that our larger goal of consistent writing practice is so much more important than fleeting frustration when things don’t go as planned, we just might find ourselves able to persevere and receive a greater payoff in the long run.

(Photo Credit: these shoes look a lot like the ones that I wore while pedaling.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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