Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Writing Book Discussion Questions

Should discussion questions be included in your new book?

Do book discussion guides encourage book clubs to select a book? And, just as interestingly, do writing them help the author by honing in on the book's message and answering the all-important question: What is this book about and why should my readers buy it?

In my memoirs, I did not include book discussion questions. When I published Again in a Heartbeat in 2010, discussion guides didn’t seem in vogue as now. For my upcoming novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, I decided to include them.

Interestingly, what emerged from the process of crafting discussion questions helped me hone in on major themes in the story.

As an editor, I often hear a beginning writer’s – sometimes an experienced writer’s – greatest lament. "What is my story really about? I’m not sure . . . let me think."

Crafting a discussion guide can offer a useful pathway to the heart of your story.

It also serves as a marketing tool – part of your “elevator speech,” if you will.

An example. One of my questions:

Jay realizes that the war in Vietnam is fraught with ethical and moral dilemmas. “My job,” he writes in his memoir – “learn to be a soldier. That did not include questioning my superiors – yet.” Talk about a time when you faced a choice – to question “authority” or remain silent.

As I promote and market my book, I will want to emphasize that this is a story of confronting systems and "authorities" . . . which  leads to realizations and turning points.


Another question: Jay writes in his memoir: “Maybe I learned to live with adversity because of West Point. One thing I now know is that adversity taught me true lessons in life.” What does adversity mean to you? What adversity have you faced in your own life and what has it taught you?

So this is a story of adversity and what we do to overcome and survive.

Composing book discussion questions requires skill.

TIP: Look at your editor's notes. Many of my questions for A Portrait of Love and Honor emerged from reading her editing notes, queries and questions.

I've read many wonderful books that do not include discussion guides. And some publishers do not ask for them.

  • Are book clubs more likely to read A Portrait of Love and Honor  with discussion questions? 
  • Do they act as the modern day version of Cliff Notes, serving as an overview of the story and plot line?
  • Do they jump start meaningful discussion?

I don't have answers.  I do know that I love the thought of my readers applying some of these questions to their own lives.  (I have crafted a dozen questions. Seems enough.)

Do you, as a reader, find discussion guides helpful? As an author, are you apt to include them, or not? 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Memoir Writing From the Heart In Tucson

Sometimes when things come together, there’s a sense “this was meant to be."  You just know it is all unfolding for a reason.

My upcoming memoir workshop “Writing From the Heart” in Tucson, Arizona on Feb. 14 lends itself to this “magic”.

It started with something as simple as a telephone conversation on a cold winter's day as I sat in my kitchen in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

Tucson friend, Melanie Mizell, who I met when we worked together in the nonprofit sector, called.  I mentioned my upcoming visit to Tucson. We talked about the importance of reaching out to the community in a meaningful way. Why not offer a memoir writing workshop?

Melanie, a Rachel Carson-type naturalist and environmental writer, suggested we also invite as presenter, Patricia Preciado Martin - whose stories and memoirs document the heritage of Mexican American women of  the Southwest.

I met Patricia last year and featured her in this interview in the Women’s Writing Circle. Patricia's enthusiasm to join us encouraged Melanie and me to move forward.

For people struggling to tell their stories, a memoir writing workshop offers a lifeline . . . a pathway to the heart’s desire to be heard; that our stories matter.

Our press release evolved. Please share:

Have you always wanted to write your story or the story of another but weren’t sure how to get started? Bestselling memoir author, Susan G. Weidener, University of Arizona Press author, Patricia Preciado Martin, and Tucson nature writer Melanie Mizell will offer a special Valentine’s Day memoir writing workshop from 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 14 at the Pima County – Tucson Women’s Commission, 240 N. Court Avenue. Free parking available downtown on the workshop date. The authors will discuss writing life stories and read from their work. Time provided to write in small group sessions for sharing with the larger group. Bring your favorite writing tools: notebook, laptop, journal. Light refreshments will be provided. Fee is $25 –payable at the door. No prior writing experience required. To reserve a space, email

Offering the workshop on Valentine's Day offered its own synergy  . . .writing from the heart. We’ll light the candle and for two and a half hours shut out the distractions of the outside world and concentrate on our writing  . . . all of this in a 19th century building that is the home of the Women's Commission.

Inside, photographs and renderings of women who came before us and fought to be heard and recognized as equals adorn whitewashed adobe walls. I’ll be reading a short excerpt from my memoir, Again in a Heartbeat.

The Women’s Commission, a vocal advocate of equality in Tucson since 1976, serves as rich resource for women struggling with issues ranging from domestic violence and substance addiction to poverty and homelessness.

For centuries, women were not viewed as equals when it came to telling our stories . . . or even voicing an opinion. Sometimes we forget that challenging the double standard - that men could write what they wanted - but not women – is a relatively new phenomenon.  It is one that I believe has driven much of the recent interest in memoir writing.

Writing  memoir serves as a nurturing and healing medium to express ourselves in a way not open to generations of women who came before us.

Our workshop also offers the pleasure of networking with other women and men in the local business community. The Commission is situated in the heart of the Old Town Artisans section of Tucson.

Participants can take a short walk and enjoy lunch at La Cocina, where owner JoAnn Schneider - who I had the pleasure of meeting yesterday - creates the magic of the Old Pueblo – its romance, and distinctive heritage in an intimate courtyard setting . The restaurant is surrounded by speciality shops featuring glass wind chimes, jewelry, art and clothing.

None of us can do this work alone . . . it’s all about collaboration and sharing and coming together in community.

In a world too often isolating and calculating, the essence of the memoir movement resides in the beauty and connection of sharing our stories, finding our voices, offering a listening and supportive ear.

I do hope if you're visiting or living in the Tucson and Pima County area you will join us on a Saturday morning as we write from the heart.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Moving Out of the Comfort Zone

In my upcoming novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava Stuart dreams her dream and goes on to live it. She takes a risk, dares her way out of her comfort zone . . . loving deeply and completely.

Along the way, Jay Scioli challenges and confronts his demons . . . and his naive and youthful dreams of honor and glory. He moves toward a greater understanding of himself and the impersonal systems that tarnished the dream he once revered.

Moving out of one’s comfort zone is a trending theme in many areas of life, not just in books and literature.  Yet some never leave the “comfort zone"  . . . that place or situation where one feels safe or at ease and without stress.

In my own life, I realize how easy it is to become complacent – especially the older I get. It is easiest to stay in my bathrobe in the comfort of my warm living room or study, writing and blogging the morning away. An upcoming trip to Tucson, Arizona, while invigorating at the thought of sunshine, the warmth of that desert oasis, planning a small memoir workshop and book signing, still takes huge effort of will. Taking a trip means arrangements for the dog must be attended to, traveling to the airport, picking up the rental car, getting to the studio suite I have rented . . . driving to a friend's up in Scottsdale to talk about memoir writing.

But as I have said before on this blog, the writer must continue to challenge herself, taking in life’s fullest potential and possibility each day.

As a journalist, I realized long ago that I can only understand the human condition by opening myself up to others, meeting new people, being passionate about this business called “life”.

A writer also has a larger obligation to stand for something – something ethical and true. Our work, as Ursula Le Guin, fantasy and science fiction writer, says in this inspiring video often lies in realizing the difference between the "production of a marketable commodity and the practice of an art.” 

"Sales strategies, in order to maximize profits, are not the same thing as responsible book publishing";  authorship is not  “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant and tell us what to write" . . . 

Accepting the status quo seems at odds with the writer’s lot in life, or if it isn't, it should be. Whether or not our book has “marketing potential," we write that which is the unspoken, the unmentionable . . . challenging ourselves and our readers to dig deep . . .

As Le Guin puts it: “Books are not just commodities and profit motives are often in conflict with the aims of art.”

My friend sent me this quote by Neale Donald Walsch: "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone."

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Jay questions and moves forward and grows as a man.

Ava, relearning the importance of taking a risk – and moving away from her insistence that it is better to “stay out of the mess of other people’s lives” – discovers the freedom to fully love another human being.

Together, Ava's and Jay's pluck and determination lead to an authentic life.

As the weeks go on, I'll be blogging more about the themes in my upcoming novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor.

I invite guest bloggers to join in the conversation with their own posts about the comfort zone, as well.  Guest blogger guidelines for the Women's Writing Circle are here.

Or . . . I'd simply love for you to share your comments about this post. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Healing and Health Benefits of Memoir

Linda C. Wisniewski
Linda C. Wisniewski, author and life writing teacher, shares in this eloquent and thought provoking essay the many health and healing benefits of starting the new year off with writing.

Linda urges us to "get it down" before it's too late.  I had the pleasure of meeting Linda when we attended the IWWG Conference at Drew University the summer of 2013. Please welcome Linda to the Women's Writing Circle.

Does anybody but me have this underlying anxiety, this fear of aging, of death, of being unknown? Some days I think it’s the malady of our age. Otherwise, why the popularity of so much “escape” entertainment, TV, movies, the web, video games, gambling, drinking? What are we escaping from?

Facing our feelings, says Dr. Margaret Paul, author of Inner Bonding. We are afraid of facing the loneliness, heartbreak and emptiness of our lives, and our helplessness over others.

James Taylor sang “the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” But how can I do that? It’s passing, tick by tick of the clock. Yesterday, I was in high school, now I’m collecting Social Security. What happened in between seems like a day, a week, a month at most. The great actress Maggie Smith in an interview said “old age is having breakfast every half hour,” meaning, the days flip by that quickly.

How do we come to terms with this, if ever? I want to. I don’t want to be an anxious old woman. I want to live with purpose, to do something worthwhile and do it quick, while I still have time. But what if I never find that something, feel worthwhile enough? Can I never relax? Maybe James is right: the secret is enjoying every minute as it passes, not because it passes, not focused on the passing, but on what is here, now, this moment.

And maybe that’s the reason for the popularity of memoir writing. We want to record that we were here, that we learned something, that our lives had meaning.

When I teach a memoir workshop at a retirement center, I go around the room at the first class, asking each student to say why they want to write a memoir. Often, the answer is “my kids want me to do it.” It seems that even in old age, we are still doing things for others. What I tell my students at the very beginning of class is therefore very important to me. I want them to know that writing the stories of their lives has very real, tangible benefits for their physical as well as emotional health.

I tell them that psychiatrist Ira Progoff noticed that patients who kept a personal journal healed more quickly from emotional trauma than those who simply used talk therapy.

I also tell them that University of Texas researcher James Pennebaker did clinical studies that proved writing about emotional events lowers blood pressure, slows the heart rate, relieves asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, and elevates the level of healthy T-cells in the blood for up to six weeks.

Then I ask them to do an experiment. Write for twenty minutes a day, every day, and see how it makes you feel. This is my not-so-sneaky way of getting them to form a daily writing habit. Science tells us that doing something for 21 days makes it permanent in our brains, something that we don’t want to stop, i.e., a habit.

Whether or not the habit sticks, by the end of a six-week course, most of my students are smiling more, even through tears when they share a piece about the death of a spouse or child. Putting our painful times into stories somehow makes them more than just a sad episode. It makes them works of art, amateur maybe, but art nonetheless.

The bonds of sharing similar life experiences bring older students to the class with anticipation. New and closer friendships are formed.

Even in classes and groups of middle-aged people, meaning is found in life writing. One man facing a terminal illness began, in the third class, to write about it, telling me he had not planned to share this, to “distract” from my teaching, to elicit “pity.” He had planned to write for his children about his boyhood growing up on a farm in a simpler time. But somehow the shared vulnerability of his fellow students gave him the courage to be fully open, and of course, they fully supported and encouraged him.

A woman whose son was murdered hesitated before writing about him, but for her, the tragedy loomed so large that only writing about it freed her to write about him as a person, herself as his mother.

When we share our heartache with others, there is healing. We find we are not alone, that others, whether or not they have the same experience, do indeed care about our welfare.

Invariably, there is something in everyone’s story that teaches us how to live, reminds us what we have known but forgotten, gives us permission to be whole.

Now, at the beginning of another year when so much is unknown, unwritten, my heart quickens at the thought of all those people sitting down at keyboards, or picking up pen and paper, ready and willing to discover the hidden treasure, the meaning of their lives.

And maybe that’s the cure for our free-floating anxiety. Slow down time. Stop the clock. Face what your life has been, and decide for yourself what it all means. I firmly believe that the best way to do that is writing with others. Happy new writing year!

Linda C. Wisniewski has taught memoir writing workshops throughout the Philadelphia area, and currently at the Pearl Buck International Writing Center in Dublin, PA. Her work has been published in newspapers, literary magazines and anthologies both print and online. Linda writes a column on local women authors for the Bucks County Women’s Journal and is a freelance reporter for the Bucks County Herald. She has won first prize in contests run by the Wild River Review, the Pearl S. Buck Writing Center, and Mom Writers Literary Magazine, and her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Linda’s memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother and Her Polish Heritage was published by Pearlsong Press.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Thank You, Bob Mayer

John always used to say that West Pointers stick together. No matter what happened, they could always count on each other. After all, they had shared something few ever do.

Indeed, when my husband, John M. Cavalieri, lay dying that warm October day twenty years ago, several of his academy classmates traveled from as far as Georgia and Michigan to be at his hospital bedside in suburban Philadelphia.

I still recall John’s excitement when they showed up, smiling, hugging him, even bringing at his request a six-pack of Coors. “Can you believe it?” John said to me, tears in his eyes.

I quietly slipped out of the room as they laughed and shared memories of academy life with their friend and fellow cadet whom they still called “Cav". Their friendship and camaraderie illuminated a greater truth – that even at death’s door, life’s most precious moments are relished with friends who care enough that despite years apart, no words need be spoken.

It was with this thought I contacted New York Times bestselling author Bob Mayer, a West Point graduate. I described how John graduated West Point in 1971. Although he was never commissioned (John received an honorable medical discharge), West Point and all that happened there during the Vietnam War years forged who he was and resulted in him writing his memoir. John tried to get his manuscript published before he died in 1994 at the age of 47 from colorectal cancer. I explained that his mentor for the project was Tom Carhart, one of the cadets featured in Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line. Tom told John that writing the memoir represented, among other things, "scriptotherapy."

I asked Bob if he might consider endorsing my new novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, which is based on John's memoir. Without hesitation Bob agreed: "A revealing and authentic look into a cadet's life at West Point against the backdrop of America's social upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s. . . and an inspiring love story about two people who help make each other's dreams come true."

“I wish you all the best with it. What a wonderful project,” Bob wrote.

Last week I wrote on this blog how writers should seriously consider supporting other writers, as many of us do and continue to do. Still, sometimes it can feel somewhat “cold” out there as everyone's frustration with the changing dynamics and upside/downside world of publishing comes into play. The thing is this: Yes, we may have disagreements among ourselves, but never should those disagreements be taken in any light other than goodwill and collegiality based on our love of the written word.

Bob’s support is one that I know John would have cherished – as do I. It is exciting as I embark on this new journey toward publication that I have not only a respected author - but, more importantly, a member of the Long Gray Line offering his enthusiasm and encouragement for John's story. Thank you, Bob Mayer.

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Christmas Wish For Writers

My late husband John M. Cavalieri wrote on the dedication page of his memoir; “I owe more than I can ever repay to my wife, friend, lover and first editor, Susan . . . to her I dedicate my efforts.”

Many people have blessed my life, but John is, and always has been, my inspiration.

All it takes is one person. In the Women’s Writing Circle we teach each other the power of love and acceptance. We remind each other that writing is a great act of generosity and personal exposure. 

We dig deep for meaningful stories. 

We learn that our brokenness can be an instrument for change.

As I look back on this year, I see many writers have given up. They have folded their tents . . . disappeared. They feel overwhelmed by social media, keeping up with all the expectations they find impossible to meet. Constant comparisons and competitions based on what our culture tells us equates to success buries their enthusiasm to move forward.

They tell me they are disheartened by the predatory nature of the publishing world; one that revolves around impersonal stats: author rankings, ebook sales, reader reviews, awards won or not, contests entered or not, comments or lack thereof on blog posts . . . 

Yet often the most unforgiving audience is ourselves. We demand perfection . . . . brood over the jealousy, shameless self-interest or cold silence of others.

Sometimes, we turn our back on a changing world, longing for a time now a distant memory. As my son would say, "Don't be a fossil. Embrace the changing times."

Writing is not whether your parents or your children approve of you, it is not dwelling on unhealthy attitudes that hurt rather than nurture. It is not whether Random House or IngramSpark publishes you.

A Portrait of Love and Honor,  based on John's memoir, might never make the NY Times bestseller list, nor receive a review from some "literary expert" . . . win a prestigious publishing award . . . even sell very well.

But I hope it does this: Offer readers something of value about the pain and the joy of living . . . or possibly encourage another writer to push the send button to their editor, their publisher, their online audience.

My Christmas wish for every writer: Give each other the gift of one nod or word of encouragement . . .  find someone who believes  . . . even if that person is you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Designing A Book Cover With Love

How many of us have agonized over our book cover? How to make it eye-catching? How to write a blurb on the back that engages readers and makes them want to buy the book?

How to create a cover without breaking the bank, yet not look amateurish?

One of the most challenging aspects of being an independent author and publisher is the cover design. 

So here I am unveiling the cover of A Portrait of Love and Honor . . . and what went into designing it. I'm excited, I love my cover, and I hope you do.

A Portrait of Love and Honor is a love story and a novel based on a true story - John’s West Point  memoir.

His memoir was never published; nor was it published when he tried to sell it as a novel. We worked on it together, but his illness soon consumed us. This project is a personal journey. I wanted my cover to reflect that.

At first, I considered a cover with two people walking hand-in-hand down a road. Hiring someone to render that illustration seemed complicated. What would the people look like? The book's genre is literary fiction. I've seen many covers where the people look like they belong in a video game. I didn't want that.

I researched agency and freelance design fees - they began around $750 (if you supplied your own image), moving upwards of $1,600. As with my memoirs, I was working within a budget. With a quality point and shoot digital camera, (mine is a Lumix Panasonic with Leica lens), an eye for color, good light and a clear concept of what your story is about, your cover image reveals itself.


A photograph that didn't make the cut.
I wanted a cover conveying the theme of a romantic story, along with a man’s story of West Point. The cover needed both the feminine and masculine touches; the flowery font for the title which stands out and the heavier, more masculine one for the subtitle and author name. John’s West Point hat from his days as a cadet and the crimson roses Jay gives Ava in the novel added to that.

Was my cover beautiful?

The reader decides. I feel my cover is unique . . . personal. I don’t shy away from the personal. Authenticity means a lot. I took over a dozen photographs of John's hat and long-stemmed roses. I then asked several people which one they liked best. Interestingly, they all agreed on the same photograph, so I used that. I own the image. No copyright worries. (I also used my own photograph on the cover of Morning at Wellington Square.)

Some say less is more. These are the book covers cited in The New York Times as the best covers of 2014. I leave it to you to decide if they are “beautiful.”


I worked with my design team at Amazon's CreateSpace. Kristin understood what I wanted because of the questionnaire I filled out and the photograph I supplied. She and I also talked about the story, my upcoming trip (at that time) to New Zealand . . . it felt like the personal touch.

CS charges $399 for cover design, which is up $50 from two years ago. They also reduced the number of cover concepts. It used to be three, now it is one. I did receive two concepts - one in black and gold and the other in cream and red - because I supplied my own image and told them I felt one was insufficient.

One concept included my name at the top; the other, the title of the book at the top  . . . and a choice of fonts. Changes and edits can cost $49 for each new round after the initial changes so know early on what you want. Again, I sought the opinion of several people. All but one person preferred the red and cream and the title at the top.

Hiring a professional meant collaborating with people trained in design and graphics. It’s worth the money. That said . . . .We’re artists, aren’t we? While there is an abundance of fine illustrators and graphic designers, have confidence in your artistic taste and talents. The best concept is often within you. No one knows your book as well as you do.

The Synopsis/Blurb on the back.

Be able to answer the question: What is my story about? If you can write that, you're on your way to "hooking" and intriguing your readers.

Run it by your developmental editor, someone who, like you, knows the story inside and out. I was limited to 250 words on the back so tight writing is essential.

Market yourself in your bio. Since my ebooks have been on the Amazon bestseller list several times, I felt 'bestselling author of memoir' was accurate and fair. (Click on the image of the back cover to enlarge it.)

Final note: Work to get advance reviews from a well-known author. I’ve done that and may soon have an exciting announcement. Even if it won't go on the back of my book, a two-line endorsement from a bestselling author can be highlighted on my Amazon Author Page.

Designing a book cover you love is one of the great joys of the indie publishing experience. Creative control is yours. Have fun with it.

What are your experiences with designing or working on a design for your book cover? Share your thoughts, insights and experiences. We love having you here in the Circle. ~ Susan