Lightningstruck, A Captivating All Ages Novel

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Thanks to my dear friend, visual art critic Robert Pincus, I spent several delightful weeks in Shreveport, Louisiana as a visiting performance critic, sponsored by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. One of the most gifted writers I met there is a poet, Ashley Mace Havird, whose readings and publications impressed me with their originality, finely wrought detail, and ear-pleasing rhythms and tones. Ashley told me then that she was working on her first novel and not long after that, she wrote to say that her Lightningstruck had won the Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction and would be published by Mercer University Press.

Lightningstruck is a remarkable piece, easy to love but difficult to pigeonhole in any of the usual literary categories. I decided to review it in hopes of conveying to others just what makes the book and Ashley’s distinctly Southern voice also so universal. Enjoy!


Book Review

In Ashley Mace Havird’s captivating new novel Lightningstruck, set during the turbulent summer of 1964, Etta McDaniel turns twelve years old, and, with help from a broken down old horse named Troy, begins her journey into the world. Etta lives in a small South Carolina town surrounded by tobacco fields, and, like Huck Finn and Scout Finch, she tells her story in a voice distinctly and memorably her own.

Like theirs, Etta’s journey towards the adult world is far less about the externals she so vividly records than it is about the growth of her consciousness, the ripening inner voice of her conscience.

Bookish, adventurous, and averse to dolls, Etta comes to understand that real heroes are not just the larger-than-life ones in her treasured book of classical myths, but rather people close at hand—her beloved, little understood black nanny Cleo, her nerve-shattered, tobacco farming grandfather Mr. Mac, the eccentric widow of a Mohawk chief Miss Cass, the visiting Dr. Raintree who searches for clues in a slave cemetery, and maybe even her little brother, bullied for his deformity.

Havird is known primarily as a poet, and this first novel of hers shares the emotional depth and stylistic qualities of her highly regarded poetry. The prose in Lightningstruck is gorgeous in its evocation of the southern setting, the summer season, a torrential rainfall. The novel is dotted with fully realized set pieces that bear repeated readings: the tense standoff of a sit-in at the local soda fountain; the sights, smells and ceremonies of a Deep South tobacco auction; the meticulously attentive work of an archeologist intent on preserving that newly discovered slave graveyard.

And the specificity of Havird’s lush yet simple language conjures psychic states as vividly as the natural scenes and events depicted at a time when the realities of the civil rights movement and the faraway violence it triggered touches and changes Etta.

On her cheekbone, Havird writes, Etta could “feel the pressure of Troy’s eye like a bruise coming.” Saddling the old horse filled her with “the same cold dread of failure as her piano recitals.” And knowing that Cleo died before Etta “made up” with her, she feels “my insides twisted and wringing themselves out, as though they were rags in Cleo’s hands.”

The title refers to Troy, Etta’s gift horse who miraculously survives a direct hit by lightning. He’s left blinded in one eye, hobbled in one leg, yet he may also have acquired magical—or are they demonic?— powers.

Troy becomes a kind of totem for Etta, though an unlikely and unwanted one, at first. He shows up at the most unexpected moments, prodding her conscience, forcing her to confront her family’s secret history, and bringing help towards her when most she needs it. And to the universe of Havird’s novel, old Troy brings an element of spiritual mystery, one of many qualities, including its rich intermingling of history and myth, that make Lightningstruck a novel of widespread appeal beyond the pigeonholes of young adult, new adult, or literary fiction.

In the end, after a storm unearths the family’s hidden past and Mr. Mac allows Etta to open his private trunk of treasures—her grandmother’s rotting doll, his gas mask from World War I—Etta learns that the world and the people in it are far more complicated and death-haunted than she ever knew. She has discovered a new way of seeing, and she moves towards that changing world of what Robert Penn Warren calls “action and liability” with her eyes wide open and her hope tempered but intact, for Etta also knows that her true journey is only just beginning.

Happy Birthday, Diarmuid

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Diarmaid Mullins with his first drawing of the RMS Titanic.
Diarmaid Mullins with his first drawing of the HMS Titanic.
Sometimes a picture actually is worth a thousand words. But since words are my medium and “Words, words, words…” is the name of this blog, let me tell you a story about this little boy in Ireland.

When I left the newspaper business in 2008 for new adventures in writing and yoga, I took pretty much every opportunity that came my way to write for money. As the great critic Samuel Johnson said, “None but a blockhead. . . .” After all I had novels to write, and needed income to buy the time to write them.

Thanks to a dear friend, Robin Cruise in Seattle, I was offered a chance to work through her company, book packager becker&mayer!, on two historical books for young readers to be published by Scholastic. The pay was decent, the publisher is one of the best, and the subjects were interesting.

So I spent a winter researching and writing Heroes of the Titanic, a lavishly illustrated and uniquely sized account of the people, especially young people, who acted heroically as the great ship went down.

Heroes of the Titanic was published in 2012 on time for the 100th anniversary of the famous disaster. It led to a few speaking opportunities, several reading gigs in elementary schools and many letters from young readers whose parents had found me on the Internet.

Eventually I began hearing from disappointed parents or youngsters who were unable to buy the book online or in bookstores. Scholastic chose to make it available only at elementary school book fairs or to school libraries.

Requests continued to come in occasionally, but there was nothing to be done. I had five copies of my own and had given four away of those away—to libraries or teachers who brought me in to speak to their students about reading and writing.

Fast forward to last week.

A clever father in Dublin tracked me down and wrote, asking how he might be able to buy a copy of the book for his almost-seven-year old boy; the child had borrowed it three times from a local library, and he was not allowed to take it out again. Gerard Mullins had tried every means he could think of, and wondered whether I might have a solution. He attached the picture above of his son, Diarmuid. Who could resist that darling face?

And Gerard, an eloquent and wise man, also sent this photo of a drawing his boy had made (among many, I came to find out), of the famous ship, built in Belfast, just as its maiden voyage was ending in disaster.

Another view of the ship going down, from Diarmuid Mullins
Another view of the ship going down, from Diarmuid Mullins
Gerard said the book had ignited his son’s interest in history, and also inspired his creative side as he drew various pictures of the ship and the passengers whom he never tired of reading about.

I forwarded Gerard’s emails and the photos to Betsy Pringle, my editor at becker&mayer! books. She was as entranced as I by the story and by that sweet Irish face. I said I’d send Diarmuid my last copy, which I did. And she said she’d find five more copies in a storage facility to replace mine. Which she did.

The book arrived in Dublin on Diarmuid’s seventh birthday. And according to his father Gerard, the house grew quiet that night as a happy child read and reread the story to his little sister, Aisling.

The writer-reader bond is a special one, and sometimes, when you least expect it, even sacred. None more so than this one.

Diarmuid on his seventh birthday, with his sister Aisling.
Diarmuid on his seventh birthday, with his sister Aisling.
Later that night: A brother-sister bedtime story
Later that night: A brother-sister bedtime story

Ten Tips on Getting Started

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Tuscan sunlight, fresh fruit, Virginia Woolf and a writing journal: The Book Doctor's inspirations in Italy.
Tuscan sunlight, fresh fruit, Virginia Woolf and a writing journal: The Book Doctor’s inspirations in Italy.


So you want to write a book. . . 

Earlier this year Adventures by the Book founder Susan McBeth, organized a lunchtime discussion for Qualcomm employees who wanted to write books. Five authors, all members of Writing Women of San Diego, formed a panel with Susan moderating. One of the wonderful things about such gatherings is how quickly we discover that writers, accomplished or fledgling, are pretty much alike. Curious. Insecure. Creative. Self-deprecating—and always in need of constructive criticism and support.

From my perch as a veteran writer, writing coach and editor, I offered the Qualcomm group Ten Tips on Getting Started. The energy was high and the feedback was good, so here are my ten. There are dozens more, and I’ll be sharing them on this blog throughout the coming months. Hope these get you going.

Start. It doesn’t matter where – a scene, a bit of dialogue, a character sketch, even a story idea or theme or overview. The important thing is to get your dream book out of your head and onto the page. You need to see what you’ve imagined in words.
Keep Going. Try not to judge or interfere with the flow of your writing; perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor as Anne Lamott says. Buy her Bird by Bird to learn more about her helpful and hilarious concept of “the shitty first draft.” Everyone has an internal censor ready to pounce on first efforts. If that voice in you is super strong, buy The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron…and do the wonderful exercises that will help you release the writer in you, despite the carping.
Take a class at UCSD Extension or Writers, Ink. It might be on dialogue, or plot structure, or tone, or building a scene. Doesn’t matter. What does matter is learning that writing, like engineering, involves solving technical problems. And classes help you find comfort in the presence of other novice or struggling writers.
Buy these books: The old standard is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, and while you are at it, dust off your The Elements of Style by Strunke and White. Both are classics, filled with wise and practical advice about writing.
Cultivate positive relationships with other writers. Make a writer friend, or a bit later, form a read-and-critique group. Look for more experienced writers from whom you can learn. Just be careful that each member is constructive. No rotten apples to spoil the group dynamic.
Keep Going.
Create a writing journal. In addition to keeping a daily journal, keep a separate one for your book project. Here you can jot down ideas, but also monitor your progress as you find your voice and the book finds its shape.
Develop compassion for yourself. It took James Joyce 17 years to write Ulysses. Most good literary novels require three to five years to fully develop and as much as two more to be edited and brought to market traditionally. Even lighter works and genre fiction take time. So cut your writer-self some slack.
Remember: Writing is rewriting. Try to enjoy editing and making larger changes as much as the bursts of inspiration that created the text that needs revising and then layers of editing.
Respect your process. Some days even great writers feel blocked. Still, try to exercise your writerly muscles every day so they’ll be ready to flex and release when inspiration—and with it, the singular joy of creation—does return.

The Book Doctor’s Words

That's me, bright-eyed after leading a week-long retreat in San Miguel de Allende in April
That’s me, bright-eyed in a different kitchen after leading a week-long retreat in San Miguel de Allende in April.

Welcome to “Words, words, words. . . .” Here I will be sharing stories, tips, tricks, prompts, and guidance for writers — all culled from my editing practice. You’ll find support here, too,  because all writers need that.

And who am I to be guiding you? Here’s a short bio less formal than the one on my main site. This one’s purely from the heart.

My adventures with words began in my parents’ kitchen. From her command post at the stove, my mother quoted poetry, reams of it from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats, while my father piped in with readings from Virgil, Longfellow, and “Casey at the Bat.” During the same years I seriously studied ballet, finding childlike bliss in moving to music.

I began teaching writing as a graduate student at the University of Rochester where I earned M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in English literature and drama. Since then I have taught college courses in creative, critical, and other forms of writing, as well as the history, philosophy and criticism of dance and theater – most recently at the University of California, San Diego. But I discovered my own vocation as a writer when I began reviewing dance in 1976 for the Washington Star in the nation’s capital.

A long career as an arts journalist took root and blossomed when I was named that newspaper’s dance critic at the height of the heralded dance boom. When the Star met the fate of so many afternoon dailies, I moved in 1983 with my artist husband and our young sons to San Diego for a position as the dance critic, arts reporter and later, theater critic at the San Diego Union-Tribune. For 25 years, I communicated almost daily with readers, producing more than 6,000 reviews, features, profiles and think pieces. During this period I also free-lanced as an editor—initially for college textbook publishers in the humanities, including Addison-Wesley, Pearson, Longman, Macmillan, and Harcourt.

Soon I began work as a co-author of three college drama texts and, after leaving the Union-Tribune, I wrote a half-dozen books myself and many poems for young readers (Scholastic, Houghton Mifflin). It was then, too, that I “fell into Yoga.” By tapping into that time tested wisdom, I not only became a happier, healthier person, but I saw how my writing had benefited from the meditative focus, the breath work, and the stillness I had learned on the Yoga mat. Out of this awareness I formulated a new and deeper approach to writing, teaching writing, coaching writers and editing books.

I offer students and clients a method of getting beyond the chattering ego to access their deeper creativity and discover a distinctive voice for each work. I bring that same alert awareness to my editing assignments, attuning my ear to the voice of the work as well as attending to all the pesky details that mark the difference between an amateur and a professional author.

Thanks to the generosity of my students, many of them writers and Yoga practitioners, I also teach Yoga classes and workshops in La Jolla, and lead Deep Yoga and Yoga for Writers retreats on the West Coast, central Mexico, Italy, France and other inspiring places.

I have been blessed by the presence in my life of hundreds of writing students and dozens of Book Doctor clients. Many of their testimonials can be found on the Projects pages of this site. Their stories—and their books—remind me of the miraculous diversity of human experience and the simultaneous knowing that we are all more alike than we are different. It’s an honor and a pleasure to help others clarify their intentions, find their voices, and share their ideas and stories as they make the journey from aspiring writer to published author.

And there you have it— Anne Marie Welsh: writer, editor, coach, The Book Doctor. Hope to see you back here soon.