Monday, December 30, 2013

Pushcart nominee Jeffrey Penn May offers "good writing...honesty & courage"

Welcome to Jeffrey Penn May, a fellow member of the St. Louis Writers Guild. He has won several noteworthy short fiction awards. His story “The Wells Creek Route” received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and his novel Where the River Splits, an excellent review in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Jeff has published mountain climbing articles, short stories, poems, novels, technical writing guides, and education articles. He was the principal of a small alternative school where he organized a fund-raising climbing expedition and appeared in television and radio spotlights. He wrote and performed a short story for Washington University Radio and was a consultant to a St. Louis theatre company. Jeff worked as a waiter, hotel security officer, credit manager, deck hand, technical data engineer, creative writing instructor, and English teacher. His adventures include, but are not limited to the following: floated a home-built wood and barrel raft from St. Louis to Memphis, navigated a John boat to New Orleans, drove an old Volkswagen alone 8000 miles around the west, spent a month in a dirt-floor shack in west-central Mexico digging for Pre-Colombian artifacts, climbed mountains from Alaska to South America, and spent several days in the Amazon jungle. Visit Jeff’s website at

Where the River Splits
St. Louis couple, David and Susan Brooks, go on a canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness; it’s a last-ditch effort to evaluate their marriage. The trip turns into disaster as their canoe capsizes leaving the couple stranded on opposite sides of the river and each believing the other is dead. David soon discovers that his wife survived, but satisfied that she is okay, decides not to reveal himself to her. How will she survive? While Susan returns to St. Louis to cope with the loss of her husband, David begins his new life in the Wyoming mountains. But can anyone really start over?

The Writers’ Lens is about “Bringing fiction into focus.” What brings your writing into focus – the characters, the stories, the love of words? All three. The idea for a story might start with plot but ultimately it’s focus must be on the characters, and if you don’t love words your writing will read as if you were watching a tone-deaf dancer.

Many of the scenes in Where the River Splits are in St. Louis . How important was it for you to use St. Louis as a setting for the novel? Extremely important. I’ve lived in St. Louis for most of my life, know its streets, parks, its feel, the smell of hops wafting up Pestalozzi street from the brewery, the small corner taverns, the airport expansion leveling and paving over the streets of my childhood, all of it serves as a backdrop to the novel, especially the homes being torn down.

Steve Wienberg, in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch review of your book, says that your scenes feature “geography as much as the characters.”  Can you explain what he means and what it means to you?  What is the role of the landscape? A central conflict occurs when the main couple, Susan and David, argue about what is important.  Susan wants to visit museums as well as explore the outdoors.  For David, however, escape to the wilderness is essential to his well-being, and when anxious, he becomes almost obsessed with that escape. Each phase of the central conflict is mirrored in the locations: St. Louis, Canada, Wyoming, San Diego, Mexico. Also, of course, the river itself is a metaphor, their lives splitting and then flowing back together.

Where the River Splits alternates between the male and female point of view.  Why did you choose this approach?  Did you find it difficult to write the female point of view?  Was this structure something you decided on from the beginning, or did it evolve during the writing of the novel?My wife gave me the story idea and originally I wrote from the male point of view. But it soon became one-sided and therefore bordering on one-dimensional. Susan needed to develop as well. Once her point of view appeared, the novel took off. Their journeys were set. Apparently, it wasn’t too difficult for me to write from the female point of view, at least based on reader comments such as the following: “Jeffrey Penn May possesses something rare as a male writer. I usually avoid fiction with romantic angles written by men, as most generally do not accurately capture a woman's perspective and thoughts on relationships and emotions as I believe they need to be captured to make a truly entertaining and believable story. However, Jeff describes the often heartbreaking sensitivities, pain, fears, and dilemmas of the female psyche and describes them in ways that I can relate to as a woman - not a man's view of what he thinks she might be feeling.”

What’s the highest compliment someone could make about your writing? Fortunately, this difficult question has been answered for me. While the review in the Post-Dispatch made me feel good about my work and I’ve gotten many excellent responses from readers online, the editors who nominated my story “The Wells Creek Route” for a Pushcart Prize provided a pretty good compliment. “This is more than good writing. This is what happens when good writing, superior craftsmanship and honesty and courage all come together.”

Left Bank Books:

Author Website:

Other works by Jeffrey Penn May:

No Teacher Left Standing--Sarah Morgan is a first-grade teacher who must fend off a libelous, vitriolic attack from a mean-spirited, crazy parent, and confront a duplicitous principal and a Machiavellian superintendent, misguided, confused colleagues. Sarah must survive on her own, against her nurturing personality, and outwit her tormentors. And, after two miscarriages, she is pregnant again. Sarah Morgan has characteristics of both Marge Gunderson in Fargo and Tom Sanders in Crichton’s Disclosure, however, she is neither. She is a unique individual who represents the best in all of us and shows grace, courage, and understanding as a first-grade teacher under duress.

If you are one of the 6.2 million schoolteachers in the United States , then you are likely to recognize and appreciate the circumstances facing Sarah Morgan, a first-grade teacher in a “good, suburban school." If you have ever thought about education reform, you might want to read about what faces many teachers in this country. Or if you are just looking for a good, suspenseful drama in an unusual setting, then you might enjoy No Teacher Left Standing.

The idea for No Teacher Left Standing came from classroom experience. While it is fiction, the story has a solid basis in fact, and reflects challenges my wife and I have experienced over the years. I hope you will enjoy following Sarah Morgan as she survives her first-grade classroom and those who try to destroy her.

Cynthia and the Blue Cat’s Last Meow-- Written in a poetic style reminiscent of Richard Brautigan, "Cynthia" is a story of red berries and howling caverns, fury and fishing, moonlight and candlelight, where we dream of blue cats and idyllic sensuality. The offbeat natural setting progresses into a rich ménage of unusual happenings and vivid colors, a land where many of us would like to visit.

Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy--Eight Billion Steps: My Impossible Quest For Cancer Comedy is about (as may seem obvious) finding humor in cancer. After Jeff was diagnosed with an extremely large and rare salivary gland tumor on the back of his tongue, throat and jaw, he and his wife began their fun-filled search for treatment.

Eight Billion Steps is Jeff’s uplifting, life-affirming odyssey, told with honesty and humor, interspersed with moments of terror. Although not written as a "How to beat cancer book," it does contain some practical information that may help.

Finding Your Fiction: Concise Steps to Writing Successful Fiction--A condensed guide for motivated writers who want to focus more on their own writing rather than reading about how to write. Avoids excessive examples and endless activities. Clear, concise, and direct. A poor person’s MFA.

Helps you avoid amateurish errors (professional errors are often hailed as “groundbreaking”). Gives you a strong foundation to build on and set you forth on a lifetime of exquisite misery -- for there is no misery as grand as the struggling artist, poet, writer. Mastering literary tricks and infusing passion into your work requires you to sell your soul to the devil and endure a lifetime of pain, which is of course hyperbole. 

There are no “rules.” However, you should learn the rules before you break them. You should master accepted “norms” before deviating from them.

Roobala Take Me Home--In "Roobala Take Me Home" Jesse Enoob fights insanity while reflecting on his absurdly stylized name and his Roobala-chasing misadventures. He was once a "healthy" MACOFF Corp Repo man reliant on Goohoobing Info-Searches and "correct" Inner Space Theory. But a seemingly innocuous event, repossession of an old man's tuba, causes him to lose his job, and his Goohoobing, and sends him careening on a comic odyssey of self-discovery, disillusionment and survival. "Roobala Take Me Home" applies western themes to a futuristic Earth and space frontier. It is a grand comedic novel in the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Douglas Adams, full of romance, sex, adventure, mystery, literary and cultural allusions, and financial crisis. Aside from being told by publishers and agents that Roobala is "beautiful, witty, and surprising," that I have a "vivid imagination," that there are many "beguiling moments" and many "admirable aspects" one reader who I barely knew stared me in the eyes and said with the deepest sincerity, "You're crazy."

The Wells Creek Route and Other Stories
Notable and award-winning stories from Jeffrey Penn May.


This is T.W. Fendley. You can find out more about me and my books at Thanks for reading and commenting on The Writers' Lens.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Writers' Lens Big Stories of 2013

The Writers’ Lens Big Stories of 2013

It’s been another great year, here are some of the top stories from each of the contributors to The Writers’ Lens! Read them again or check the posts you might have missed from throughout the year!

T.W. Fendley provides some great interviews and guest posts throughout the year here are three of the best from 2013!
Swoon Reads: Bringing Writers and Readers Together in Publishing
Guest post by Cori Bair

Guest post by James Dorr: The Marketing Game

Guest Post by James Dorr

Gerry Mandel celebrates Charlie Chaplin with book giveaway

David Lucas writes a popular ongoing series of articles about Writing the Fight Scene. Here are two of those posts and another he wrote about writer mistakes.

Writing the Fight Scene: The Uses of a Cane

Exploring Mistakes Writers Make: Not Finishing What is Started

Writing the Fight Scene: Your Character is Never Unarmed—and Neither are You

Brad R. Cook writes about writing and writers, including his popular ongoing Lens On: Series.

Pearl Curran, A Writer Unlike Any Other

Lens on P.O.V. (Point of View)

What Books Made You A Writer?

In Case you missed it in 2013!
The Writers Lens continues to bring you interviews from the Missouri Writers Conference and to rebroadcast the St. Louis Writers Guild Author Series

MWG Conference

The 2013 Missouri Writers Guild Conference

SLWG Author Series

SLWG Author Series - A New Twist on an Old Lecture Series

Find all the MWG Conference and SLWG Author Series interviews on Youtube or on The Writers’ Lens Tumblr Page –

The Writers’ Lens is gearing up to bring you more of the great stories, interviews, and articles in 2014! 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Ellie S. Grossman shares parenting humor in Mishegas of Motherhood

Known by readers as the “Jewish Erma Bombeck,” Ellie S. Grossman considers herself a stay-at-home mom who never stays home. She is also the author of Mishegas of Motherhood. Raising Children To Leave The Nest…As Long As They Come Home For Dinner, which is a collection of stories that combine domestic satire with Jewish wisdom that applies to all modern families. Her award-winning writing has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country and blogosphere. She was featured in the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, which is the largest literary event of its kind in the country, and continues to speak at various organizations and events. In addition to writing a blog “Mishegas of Motherhood,” she is a director/producer of Listen To Your Mother,, which is part of a national movement to give motherhood a microphone. As one of 32 cities across the country hosting the show, St. Louis’ second annual live stage performance is held over Mother’s Day weekend and gives a voice to writers in the community with proceeds benefiting a local cause.

What brings your writing into focus-- the characters, the stories, the love of wordsWords are very powerful, and when they string together perfectly, it’s like a song. In fact, the easier the story is to read, usually the harder it is to write. If my words connect with the reader in a personal way, my mission is accomplished. When I write non-fiction, I try to keep it real and write from the heart. When I’m working on a children’s book and write in the voice of another character, I try to put myself in the shoes of the young reader. What story and words will engage their minds and hold their interest? The words have to be rhythmic and purposeful because often an adult is reading the book to a child. Not only that, kids are smart and imaginative.

What do you think readers will like about your book? Mishegas of Motherhood is entertaining and enlightening. The stories make you laugh, but also make you want to learn. Even though the theme is mostly Jewish, parenting is a universally appealing topic, no matter what your religion or non-religion is. Raising children is the hardest job of all, and the most rewarding one. Laughing at ourselves makes the journey a little bit easier.

Would you share a bit about your next project? I’m very excited about my current children’s book writing endeavors. The first one is based on the life of a famous Olympic athlete, who has overcome many obstacles throughout her life to be a champion track and field sports hero. Her childhood story will inspire young people to work hard, overcome challenges, and follow their dreams. The other children’s book series that I’m working on carries a similar motivational message, only the voice is a three-legged dog named Marshall. The true story of this lovable rescue dog is being made into a major motion picture and teaches children to believe in miracles, as well as promotes anti-bullying, acceptance, and tolerance in a way that only an animal can.

What's your favorite way to interact with fans/readers? Of course, meeting people face-to-face, networking, and interacting with the community is always a good way to build a relationship with readers. Social media is another necessary way to stay connected and inform people of my book signings and other events, while learning tricks of the trade from other authors. As a blogger and speaker, I have an opportunity to get to know my readers and keep my writing current and fresh.

MISHEGAS OF MOTHERHOOD: This collection of parenting humor essays is written in the tradition of Erma Bombeck with a Jewish twist. MISHEGAS OF MOTHERHOOD is guaranteed to tickle the soul with topics such as, “Answering The Big Question: Is There A God?”, “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From My Dog,” “Chocolate Makes Everyday Sweeter,” “Planning A Dream Bar Mitzvah Can Be A Nightmare,”  and “Teen Brain Baffles Parents.” Her chapter on “Jewish Girls Don’t Camp” inspired a webisode on the Internet-based sitcom “In The Motherhood,” starring comic actress Leah Remini.

Mishegas of Motherhood is available at:
This is T.W. Fendley. You can find out more about me and my books at Thanks for reading and commenting on The Writers' Lens.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Writers' Lens 2013 Year End Review!

The Writers' Lens 2013 Year End Review!
by Brad R. Cook 

It’s been an exciting and successful year for The Writers’ Lens! Thank you to all of you who take a moment to stop by and read our posts! Don’t worry; in 2014 we’ll continue to bring writers a resource blog that provides advice along your publishing path.

This year went the same as last year in terms of readership – TW Fendley wins again with the most page views!

Here they are – the most viewed stories of 2013!

1 – St. Louis Writers Guild workshop June 1: Understanding local publishing options

2 – Richard Brawer: Marketing free books

3 – Giveaway & guest post by Gail Z. Martin: Promoting Your Book with Podcasts & Trailers

4 – L&L Dreamspell: Making dreams come true

5 – St. Louis Writers Guild Write-ins To Celebrate NaNoWriMo!

I was just going to run with a Top 5 but this was too close not to include it!

6 – Writing the Fight Scene: The Third Person

All of our top stories make sense; the winner for 2013 was a great workshop with several publishers about understanding your options. The next two are posts about marketing something all writers must master. The fourth most viewed post also contained the most comments of the year. Linda Houle’s passing affected a number of writers around the world and it is no surprise that TW Fendley’s touching tribute would be on this list. St. Louis Writers Guild NaNoWriMo Write-ins ended off the Top 5, and with hundreds of thousands of writers participating every year, it’s easy to understand how it made the cut. However, I felt the need to mention one more. David Lucas has been writing a series of articles on fight scenes and this one just missed the Top 5 by a few clicks, and The Third Person is the most read post in the series.

Next week I’ll post each of our Top 3 stories of the year, and the stories maybe you missed from 2013!

2014 is looking like another great year we hope you’ll continue to join us!

The Writers’ Lens, founded in 2011, is a resource blog for writers. Founding contributors TW Fendley, David Lucas, and Brad R. Cook are committed to Bringing Fiction Into Focus! 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Margo Dill -- Watch Out for Overwriting: Once is Enough!

Guest post by Margo L. Dill

How many times do you need to tell young readers important facts in your novel? Or even how your character is feeling after a major event? The best answer is probably only once—kids and teens are smart—sometimes, we don’t give them enough credit, which can lead to overwriting.

Overwriting is when you tell and retell, and then even show (and maybe even retell again), a character’s emotions or a reaction to an event. Overwriting tends to slow down the pace of your novel and bore readers—some readers may even be offended that you feel like you have to tell them so many times the important points of your book.

Beginning children’s novelists and picture book writers can really struggle with this before they get to know their audience well and put trust in them. These young readers will figure out plot points and character emotions without being told again and again. Think about this: if you handed a fourth grader a new smartphone and handed the same smartphone to his mom, who do you think would figure out how to use it first? When young readers and teens are interested in a story and love characters, they don’t need overwriting to understand the story. Picture book readers have the text and the illustrations to help tell the story. Trust them! They’ll get it.

Here’s an example of overwriting from my own writing. I use the characters from my middle-grade historical fiction novel, Finding My Place, set during the Civil War’s Siege of Vicksburg; but hopefully, I do not actually do this in the novel. (although the draft probably had passages like this or worse!)

Anna didn’t think she would last another minute living in a cave. She hated the cave! Her brother and sister detested it, too. Her brother said, “I hate living here.” Her sister cried every time they went into the cave. Anna felt nauseated when they entered the cave to sleep. She felt sick to her stomach when she lay on her mat. What was she going to do? How could she help her sister and brother? She didn’t know what to do. She hated the cave.

When trying to overwrite in this example, it was easy for me to do; but you will be amazed once you think about overwriting and how many times you may do this in your own work-in-progress—accidentally. Has anyone ever written something like: “She felt sick to her stomach. She was nauseated,” like in the above example? I find myself taking the same idea and wording it in a different way—or saying the same thing in my dialogue and my dialogue tags, such as: Martha felt horrible about lying to her parents. “Why did I lie?” she said to her brother. “They wouldn’t have been that mad. My stomach is killing me.”

In picture books, writers hardly ever have to tell readers how a character is feeling because the illustrator can show this. Sometimes for the sake of rhythm or explaining a concept, an “emotion” sentence will be included. But this should be the exception, rather than the norm. 

I’ve overwritten more times than I can count—and I hope I catch these overwriting spots in my revisions or with the help of my critique group. Most of us tend to overwrite in the first draft. When we’re working on word count or exploring the emotions of our characters, we get wordy and repeat ourselves (as well as forget to show and not tell). The great news is that revision is the place to concentrate on fixing these simple and common mistakes.

When you have a spot where you think you’re overwriting, then choose the strongest image or the least wordy one or even the example where you do the most showing instead of telling. Most of the time, you only need to tell a reader ONE TIME about an event or a character—unless you’re repeating words or phrases on purpose as a literary device.

One spot to really watch for, especially if you have an exciting YA novel or a middle-grade mystery: you write an action scene for readers to read and then a character is asked about it in the novel. The character SHOULD NOT retell the entire story. For example, let’s say one of your characters witnessed a convenience store robbery when he was buying a candy bar. He talks to police after the robbery, but all readers need to know is something like this:

After Officer Davidson asked Rob what he saw, he tried to remember as much as he could. Did he see the face of the guy? Rob told the officer what he heard and what the guy had on, but that’s all he could come up with.

Remember, readers are with you, and they get you. You don’t have to tell them too many times—so, I’ll stop now, too.

Margo L. Dill is the author of Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg, a middle-grade (ages 9 to 12) historical fiction novel, and upcoming picture books, Lucy and the Red Ribbon Adventure and Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire, and the Case of the Missing Cookies. To find out more about Margo and her books, please visit her blog at

This is T.W. Fendley. You can find out more about me and my books at Thanks for reading and commenting on The Writers' Lens.