Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Insider's View on Book Reviews

When Christine asked me to do a post on Book Reviews, I was stunned! What can I say, I’m a complete novice! Then I decided to bring HM&B multi published author Christina Hollis with me and get her views on it as well.

Luckily, it’s not that tough to write book reviews once you hit your reviewing stride. It may take a while to figure out your style, but once you have it, you have it.

Here are the points I try to hit in most reviews, I start by grounding my review with a synopsis. In a way, I offer my own version of a back cover teaser. I want the reader to know what’s going on, who the key players are and what is at stake before I dive deep into analyzing the writing style or the deeper meaning.

Don’t spoil the excitement for future readers by giving away the ending. How many times has a book or movie been ruined for you by a mouthy friend or sibling? If I find it’s impossible to talk about the book without divulging all of the details, I come up with an alternate review style by asking some insightful questions while at the same time whetting readers’ appetite for that particular book!

Overly negative or unconditionally positive reviews suck. They just do. Why bash a writer by attacking her on a public forum (especially when you know how time-consuming and emotionally wrought the entire process is)? Alternately, over-enthusiasm may also come across as bias. “What does this reviewer have to gain?” A reader may ask. I make it a practice to only review books that I like, which means I may sometimes sway to the over zealous side of things. Providing my interpretation of the book’s synopsis definitely provides some balance.

But on the other hand, I try to focus on the positive and fail to discuss areas that don’t work. I don’t lie; just with a little creative thinking, I’m able to figure out a way to provide an honest review.

Christina Hollis is a bestselling author of romantic fiction. She was born in Somerset, England and met her husband on a blind date. After moving to Gloucestershire, Christina produced many articles and photographs for national magazines, mainly about life in the country.

 In 1990 her first full length novel, Knight’s Pawn, was published by Harlequin Mills and Boon under the pen name Polly Forrester. During a career break to raise her family, she wrote award-winning short stories. Then in 2007 her first Mills and Boon Modern Romance, The Italian Billionaire’s Virgin was published. Since then, her books have appeared in lists of best sellers all over the world.

‘As well as romantic conflict, I like my books to capture the countryside in all its moods,’ she says. ‘Reading romance is my idea of luxury - it’s the chance to escape from the pressures of everyday life for a while.’

Let’s see what Christina has to say:
“Many months go by between an author getting the germ of an idea and the day when their book if finally published and released for distribution. By that time we've lived closely with our characters for a long time. Dispatching books for reviews is almost like sending a child out into the world. You can only hope that other people will love them as much as you do!

Reviews are a great way to attract new readers, and I like Nas' approach. There's no point in a reviewer highlighting where they consider an author has gone wrong - when a book is already on sale it's far too late to do anything about it. Speaking as a reader, I'd much rather be guided toward a book that sounds good and that I'd like to read, rather than hear about its shortcomings which, after all, are subjective. Everyone's opinion is different and we're all entitled to our own views.

I also think reviews are vital. Word of mouth is one of the most important tools in the business of bringing enjoyment to the widest possible audience. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve fallen in love with after a personal recommendation.

Feedback from readers is indispensable for an author, too. Everyone loves good reviews but criticism - as long as it’s constructive - is useful too.”

Christina's latest release:


Now duty is his only mistress!

For notorious playboy Prince Lysander Kahani, playtime is over…Left with a country to run, he draws the line at playing nanny to his orphaned nephew!

Instead he sends for a professional. But one glance at buttoned-up Alyssa Dene and Lysander’s wicked side re-emerges! Wary of his scandalous reputation, Alyssa tries to keep her distance – but Lysander draws her like a moth to a flame.

Lysander is fighting a battle between public duty and private desire, but he is determined to make Alyssa a royal offer she won’t refuse…
Weight Of The Crown, available at:
Amazon                           Amazon UK                   Mills & Boon
Christina Hollis on the WEB!
Website             Twitter        Facebook        Blog     Tumbler       

Monday, September 19, 2011

Why a Book is Better Than a Kindle or a Nook

Unlike most of the tech-savvy people I know, I just can't get excited about e-readers.  Don't get me wrong, I love technology.  I use an iPad, smart phone, Facebook, Twitter and Pandora. But, I come from a long line of book-reading nerds that believe a book is meant to be held and smelled.  I frequent the library for the tactile satisfaction of picking a book off the shelf and flipping through the pages. 
I can't get cozy with a hard piece of plastic that I have to plug in.  I have tried to read a book in my iPad, and I hated every second of it. It took me forever to get through the book, which I also ended up hating because it all felt cold and sterile. 
I know you are thinking I am crazy, but I have come up with 5 reasons that a book is better than a Kindle or Nook.
1. The smell and feel of a book can't be digitally recreated
At least not yet.  I enjoy holding a book in my hands and turning each page.  I can turn down a page or write a note in the margin to remember next time I read the book. That paper smell just relaxes me, and lets me know it's time to sit down and read. Soon people may walk into a library and wonder what the funky smell is, and I have news for you, it's the BOOKS!
2. You can't share your Kindle with your friends.
At least not without parting with your e-reader while a friend reads the book you are "loaning" to them. I know some services let you borrow books, like at a library, but so far I haven't found a great solution for this problem. I regularly read something and pass it on to a friend and get books from my friends in this same fashion. 
3. I read a book to get away from the computer screen
With an e-reader you are stuck staring at a screen.  I work in a job where I look at the computer most of the day.  I like to come home from work, and grab a book to get me away from the harsh computer screen. Not to mention all the other technology we deal with regularly like TVs and iPads. I've seen the Kindle digital ink, and it's not bad, but it still feels like tech in my hands. Sometimes I just need a visual break from all the screens in my life, and I go to the pages of a book to get it.
4. Used book stores are a huge part of my life.
I do buy new books too, but I frequent the used book stores and trade in my books and buy others.  Without books in our world these places would not exist at all.  Sure it's convenient to download a book and lighter to carry, but there is just something about shopping in the store for a book that gets me excited to read it. Another thing I love about the used book store is I can get a book for 1-3 bucks, and with an e-reader the prices are usually not that good.
5. With a book I know where I am at.
A Kindle gives you a visual representation (like a progress bar) and a percentage of how far you are in the book. A Nook has the page number in the upper right hand corner, but since you can change the font and size, the total number of pages will change. So page 87 of 242 is the same as page 96 of 267, or in Kindle speak, 36%. I don't want to do math, I just want to read!
We can agree to disagree on this if you think I am way off. I would love it if I could learn to read on an e-reader, but for now I will continue to be a book lover.  And that means I will keep holding, smelling and turning actual pages as long as I can.
About the author: Elli is an avid skier and tennis player who enjoys writing in her spare time for – home of <a href="http:/">CenturyLink Internet</a>.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Writers Need Craigslist

With our impending house-merge and move to Charleston, Barry and I have been listing furniture on Craigslist. We own doubles of everything—couches, cookware, tables and rugs. Choosing what to take and what to leave behind is a dizzying project.
On Saturday, two twenty-something fathers arrived to haul away a pine wall unit gathering dust in my basement. The men were new to Ohio, having come by way of Kentucky and West Virginia. The twang in their voices was “hill country” with an undertone of weary acceptance. Their job digging sewers for municipalities meant they never stayed in a city longer than a year, and I marveled at the logistics of moving two wives and seven children from state-to-state. I took their cash with misgiving then loaded them up with children’s books and toys, including the huge neon blue “bouncy ball” my own children enjoyed from the toddler years through high school After-Prom.

An elderly black couple appeared to buy my bar stools. She was lean and elegant, her tight curls glossed a modern, metallic gold. Her husband? He stood silently, the front pocket of his shirt half torn off as if he’d donned the clothing on a pass through Goodwill. Which immediately brought to mind a depressing statistic: more men than women have lost jobs in the Great Recession.

A gay couple arrived with chatty effervescence to purchase my living room couch. A nurse with a limp loaded my end tables into the back of her rust-bitten Chevy. A young man from a local church, his teeth bad but his smile wide, picked through the freebies stacked in the foyer.

A landscaper covered in dirt and frantic with worry hauled away the refrigerator in my garage. He was twenty-six years old, a single dad with four kids, and his girlfriend was back at their apartment trying to salvage the contents of their dying freezer.

Why should you care about the people I’ve met on Craigslist? If you’re a writer, you know that good prose evokes an emotional response in the reader. The characters we dream up carry shadings of fact. Those “facts” deliver the most impact if they cause the reader discomfort or allow her to view aspects of the human condition that are unfamiliar. Leave the fluff to the neophytes. Gritty is good.

The people we meet shape the books we write. This last week has taught me a great deal about endurance, about how everyday people lead heroic lives. No doubt most, if not all, of what I’ve learned will soon find its way into my fiction.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Muddling Through

I've been absent from my blog for a variety of reasons. The house we *thought* we'd buy in Charleston, SC turned out to be a disaster. Then we returned to Ohio to relatively good news: a local pediatrician wants to buy my house if she can sell hers.

Now we're back in real estate limbo.

On a more positive note, the paperback version of Treasure Me will be available in several weeks. The CreateSpace team is currently designing the galley proof.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Pick Up Phone, Buy House

Last night Barry and I bought a house in Charleston ... over the phone.

I'll return to regular posts on this blog--not to mention my writing schedule--in several weeks. Tomorrow we're driving from Ohio to Charleston to inspect the house and sign paperwork. We'll move over Labor Day weekend.

I'll try to post again next week. Until then, wish me luck!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guest Post: The Review Girl

My love affair with blogging
By Komal Mansoor

Having a blog is like having your own diary – only it’s much more than that. You express what you want to, without any constraints or limitations and this gives you the freedom to customise your blog according to your needs and your requirements (personal and professional) and you share your ‘online diary’ with everyone. Unlike your private diary with a big lock, it’s public! If you are an author, you might want to use it for marketing your books or discussing different aspects of writing with fellow authors. If you are an avid book reader like me, you may want to read and review it, so others can also understand what the book is about and whether they should buy it or not. If you are into make-up and beauty, you would love to share about your cosmetic products. If you are a musician or a graphic designer, it can showcase your professional work and so on.

The best thing about the blog is it reflects you, your personality and it gives you the opportunity to be part of a community which has the same likes or dislikes, regardless of the fact that the people you interact with are from Ghana or from ‘sin city’ of Las Vegas. Thus, it gives you exposure to the world while maintaining your interests and professional demands. You can be yourself while connecting with the rest of the world. Bless you, World Wide Web for giving us the gift of blogging! Sitting at home, we can write, post and publish and gather comments and feedback in seconds! That is the power of blogging and definitely one of the major reasons why I blog!

My love affair with blogging started in 2006, it was because of a cover story on blogging, an assignment from my editor at “The Nation” (one of Pakistan’s biggest English newspapers). The result: I started chronicling my life on daily basis on my blog. Being an introvert, it gave me the perfect opportunity to connect with everyone without exposing myself too much. Most of all, it made me happy.

Every time I sat in front of my PC, and scribbled (typed), it gave me that adrenaline rush, that excitement of having my presence on internet. After many years, I still feel the same nervousness coupled with high levels of exhilaration as if I am one carefree teenager! Trust me, it is the best feeling in the whole wide world! It’s an addiction, you just can’t stop, once you are into it, you are a blogger for the rest of your life.

There were phases in which I did not write for months or wrote daily, or did away with my previous blog and opened new ones. Until now, I have created and demolished more than 5 blogs, each with a bit of new theme, and overall, posting more than 100 times. When I look back, I think they actually reflect my maturity level that comes with age and after passing through different phases of life. When I read them now, I laugh out loud because some of them are so funny or so idiotic (Ah! the pleasures of adolescence!) Some things which will either make me blush or feel bizarre about myself now. Gosh! This is so making me sound crazy. *laughs*

Now I have opened up a book blog (for the first time!) “The Review Girl”  which is a lot eclectic in nature. It focuses mainly on reviews of course, but not just books. I review music, movies, celebrities, rarely travel. Why I started this? Because after many years of rambling about my life, I felt I needed to mix and match my personal likes with my professional work, which is journalistic writing. Being a feature writer for more than a decade now and working for many English dailies and magazines in Pakistan, I wanted to have my own paper, more like a magazine. But since I am married now and my hubby’s odd working hours do not allow me to go for my full-time job, I decided to open my blog.

It is styled on the likes of an e-zine, offering reviews on fun stuff, some celeb gossip and author interviews. I am also including some useful articles on different aspects of writing which come under the umbrella of “guest posts”, so people not only find my blog entertaining but also informative and helpful. Though my desire to have my own print magazine still remains a fantasy, it somehow gets satisfied through my blog.

Thanks to all my lovely followers who have encouraged me so much in a short span of time. To show my appreciation, I am having my very first international “Giveaway” on my blog, open till 17th July. I am loving the whole concept and with so many entries already, I think it’s going to be awesome! Fingers crossed!

I love blogging because unlike newspapers, TV or other media, this does not hamper an artist to showcase his/her abilities with censorship and rules etc. If you are creative and know how to grasp attention of others, sky is the limit!
So tell me why do you blog?

About Komal:
Komal Mansoor has worked as a feature writer for “The Nation”, “The News” and many English monthly magazines as well as e-zines from Pakistan for many years. She loves to work behind the camera and has worked as an assistant director under a Delhi-based production house during her 4 years stay in India. She has wooed audiences with her chirpy voice and quirky style of presenting talk shows, music programmes as well as doing news-anchoring and voice-over on radio for a year, while working for a community radio station in West Yorkshire, UK. Her biggest dream is to become a television talk show host like Ellen and Oprah and travel around the world. She has a Masters Degree in Mass Communication from Kinnaird College, Lahore, Pakistan.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Essential Life

My horse-farm-with-no-horses is still on the market but Barry’s house sold yesterday, accelerating our move. The new date for the trek to South Carolina? August 25th.

We’re both in hyper-mode packing, sorting, organizing our respective children for return to college and, in Marguerite’s case, preparing her for transfer to a new high school in Charleston. We’re also scrambling to stay on top of professional duties.

Today I’ll wrap up the Q&A for a blog then march into the basement for yet another session of Serious Sorting. There are boxes everywhere, towering stacks for the Salvation Army and the local Goodwill. Other stacks are destined for nieces and nephews, many of whom now have children of their own and could use more Christmas ornaments and dishes, another couch or children’s board games.

Wading through the stuff is painful, like a sudden viewing at a funeral or an unexpected visit to the museum of one’s life.
Gone are the dinners for forty relatives prepared with my sisters in my oversized kitchen. The parties, with guests spilling across the acres, are reduced to memory. Once I sat on the back deck critiquing with two other writers and a ferocious sound rose from the front of the house, startling them both. Recognizing the sound, I leapt up from the table and dashed into the pasture with my critique partners at my heels. A hot air balloon had touched down and the owner—glad we weren’t upset by the intrusion—gladly gave us a ride.

In many ways, I’m packing up the heartache from a long-ago divorce and setting a new course for my family. I’m paring down to the essentials and carrying to South Carolina only what I need: the promise that my three older children will soon join me in our new city, the odds and ends Barry and Marguerite will want for our new home. I’m bringing my computer and the vision of writing novels in a Charleston park surrounded by blooms. I dream of strolling the beach at sunset with Barry, and watching my youngest daughter hone her creative instincts in a city brimming with art.

What is an essential life? It’s different for all of us. Yet even with the differences, some items tucked into our pockets are the same. A photo or a letter—the evidence of love. An address or a phone number, to keep one connected with the people left behind. And dreams, surely, of new beginnings.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When a Line Edit Isn't

All writers have their quirks. Here's mine: a novel never feels finished.

I'm one of those writers who sculpts a scene over many weeks, adding texture, paring superfluous language, deepening character or reshaping dialogue. I've learned the lesson of patience: write it, set it aside. Wait a day or two or ten before starting the first of many edits.

This tendency would slow me down with any novel but now that I'm deep into the edit of Second Chance Grill, the next book in the Liberty series, I can't help but think, "There are scenes missing from this baby."

The first book in the series, Treasure Me, has received so many complimentary reviews that I'm understandably nervous about releasing the second book until it's flawless. Which is why I must write those missing scenes, dang it. Gun-toting Theodora and skillet-wielding Finney deserve nothing less. The romance between Liberty's saintly yet sexy single dad, Anthony, and the new doctor in town, Mary Chance, has some very amusing scenes. I want to make those scenes perfect.

So now I'm wondering if I should take more time to work on SCG and release another novel instead. The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge is finished (yes, even by my standards) but it's dramatic women's fiction. Not comedy. And it isn't a book in the Liberty series.

Will I confuse readers if Tree appears next on Amazon? Especially since I've been promising Second Chance Grill? Yikes. I have no idea.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


This is becoming a hectic week.

Marguerite and I are moving to Charleston, SC in August. Barry will follow soon after, and Marlie, Christian and Jame are heading back to college.

Two houses for sale, what to bring/what to sell before leaving Ohio, attending freshman orientation with Marlie next month, completing the edit for Second Chance Grill--my days usually start around 5 a.m. and don't finish until 10 p.m. Of course, I'm incredibly excited about the move to South Carolina and the prospect of never again living through six months of snow. I imagine sitting in a pretty Charleston park writing a WIP on an iPad while my pooch, Nala, frolics in the flowers. Barry and I both dream about wandering the beach at dusk. Marguerite is excited about making new friends and living in a city where art rules.

Charleston, here we come!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Me, Cubed

I spent thirty minutes this morning battling Gravitar for a user name. It's a familiar struggled waged in the electronic age.

In the pre-Internet world, it never would've dawned that three other "me's" walk the planet. We're all communicators. Three of us are writers. Two of us write fiction--novels (me) and screenplays.

Dr. Christine Nolfi--who I believe changed her Internet presence to Kristine Nolfi in the last year--is a physician from Rome, Italy. She writes on holistic subjects and natural alternatives to healing, issues that are dear to my heart. In case you haven't already guessed, my family (on my father's side) is from a small village outside Rome. I'm 99% certain I'm related to Dr. Kristine.

There's also a Christine Nolfi who's an attorney on the east coast. I think she's in her thirties and lives in Philly. The fourth, Chris Nolfi? He's a writer in Hollywood.

These discoveries have effectively banished any hubris I might've harbored regarding my individuality. Geez, I'm wrought from a cookie cutter mold, and all of the me's arrive with the desire to write. Why haven't I found a Christine Nolfi, real estate agent? Or secretary? Hey, there should be a Christine Nolfi, chef, but maybe that one exists in all four: you know, the Italian thing. We like to cook.

If you're reading this post, I must ask: have you found duplicate selves in cyberspace? Do those other "you's" share the same interests? The same career?

Do tell.

Drawing: A random sketch by my youngest daughter, Marguerite

Monday, June 13, 2011

Gummy Bears Underfoot

As I write this on a sunny Monday morning, a herd of teenagers are a few feet away. They've taken over my kitchen. Pots clattering, egg shells flung across the counter and Gummy Bears underfoot--the last time I checked, they'd grabbed the chocolate chips and were tossing them into the pancake batter. Yesterday 100-plus people arrived for Marlie's grad party; the kids in the kitchen are the pals who decided to spend the night in the basement.

Tomorrow evening I have a critique meeting with Mary Ann and Ellen. There's a stack of pages on my desk awaiting one last edit. My inbox is full. I picked Barry up from the airport last night--he worked a Wellness show in Chicago--and he's dead to the world in my bedroom. How he's managing to sleep through the chaos is a mystery.

All of the above makes me wonder: how do other novelists find time to write? How is it possible that any books are ever written? It's no wonder that so many works are created in the dead of night, with a pooch dozing at the writer's feet, the phone silent, and those cherished loved ones tucked in their beds. What is even more amazing is how so many novelists pull off the late night writing shift then rise in the morning to greet the 9-to-5.

To all of them, I send heartfelt cheer and a hearty thumbs up. I'd also send a pot of coffee but it won't transmit through cyberspace.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Not My Favorite Business Game

I'm suffering a conundrum.

Social media--FB, tweets, emails and Skype--have become a cherished addiction. I've made some wonderful friends among the great women who run book blogs (you know who you are) and I'm delighted so many of these dedicated professionals have read and reviewed Treasure Me on Amazon and Goodreads. At the same time, I've begun to connect with other authors, joined groups, offered praise and received the camaraderie artists need to make long days of solitary work tolerable. I'm having a blast.

The conundrum arises when it comes to touting Treasure Me, and the upcoming Second Chance Grill, through all of these media outlets.

I'm a pragmatist by nature. It strikes me as silly that many novelists seem intent on selling their wares to other novelists. Most of us break into publishing on a shoe string. We work feverishly to turn a lifelong dream into a lucrative business. Most of us won't strike it rich but some of us--God willing--do build a readership, allowing us to pay the bills, eventually quit the day job, and perhaps even move Fido up from discount kibble to gourmet treats. Personally, I harbor a silly dream that, eventually, my novels will do so well I'll be able to pay off my children's college loans. A crazy dream, but it's mine.

So here's the deal. I'll continue to connect with reviewers and other writers through social media. I'll never feel comfortable linking my every comment back to my Amazon page or to this blog. The way I see it, if I write compelling novels, never slack off, and never publish first-draft rubbish, readers will find me. Not other writers--readers.

That's my new credo and I'm sticking to it.

Photograph: wild phlox by the woods. My youngest, Marguerite, shot the photo

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Thank You

Over the last few weeks I've begun to receive many positive reviews for Treasure Me on Goodreads and Amazon. If you're a book blogger who has recently read and reviewed my novel--a thousand, heartfelt thanks. Nothing puts wind in a debut author's sails quite like a nice commentary by a respected blogger.

On another note, the final polish of the next book in the Liberty series, Second Chance Grill, is proceeding well. I hope to have the book uploaded to the Amazon Kindle store in a few weeks. I've also begun researching POD for both novels, wondering if I should use Amazon's CreateSpace or one of the other providers, like Lightning Source, which offers fulfillment in the U.K. and Australia. If you have thoughts on this, I'd appreciate your feedback.

Monday, June 6, 2011

AWOL Blogger

I've been AWOL on my blog quite a bit due to my second daughter's graduation from high school. Come September, I'll have three children in college ... and only one child left in high school. In between preparations for Marlie's grad party next weekend, I'm spinning through a final edit of Second Chance Grill, which will appear in on Amazon in several weeks.

Drum roll, please:
Marlie outside our house on Sunday afternoon. 
That's the barn and riding arena in the background.

My daughters, and Barry's daughter, Julie, at Sushi Rock Sunday.
Yep, we all wanted sushi but my son, Jame (pronounced jA-mee, like Jamie) ordered steak.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bring on Summer

I love this time of year.

The windows are thrown open, the kids have the warm summer months ahead of them, and I write, day or night, guilt-free. There's something about summer that lets you off the hook--you can do whatever you wish, brush your hair or not, catch fireflies at dusk and great story ideas at dawn.

You can let those creative juices flow.

Writers have habits and here are a few of mine: I rise early and immediately head for my office with a cup of coffee. I work in my pajamas for the first hour or two, blissfully aware that a world without high heels is my kind of heaven. I like an orderly desk. Sometimes I eat salads for breakfast and cereal for dinner.

At 52, I feel I've earned the right to do what I like.

Today I'll work on polishing Second Chance Grill, slated for release on Amazon this month, and pray that Joe, a mechanic head, shows up to look at my tractor. I don't know why the Kubota is overheating. Nala visits the vet this afternoon. The mini-beach is now open at the gym, and I might take work up there later in the afternoon--there's nothing quite so fun as completing a line edit beside gurgling waters while wearing a bathing suit.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Critique Group Update

Mary Ann, Ellen and I met last night for a critique meeting. Mary Ann still isn't writing, but Ellen had a wonderful scene from her current WIP, a romance set in the late 1800s. TOR requested 100 pages of another novel, which is definitely motivating her to continue producing.

As always, I loaded down my valiant critique partners with 25 pages to edit.

Prior to releasing Treasure Me on Amazon, I was working on a WIP set in Istanbul. The novel isn't a comedy like so many of my works. I like to think it's deeper, closer to literary fiction. But, for now, it's on hold as I continue polishing Second Chance Grill for release on Amazon in June.

I'll spend much of today on a tractor mowing pastures of my horse-farm-with-no-horses. The time won't be wasted. Time outside, enjoying nature, always helps with characterization, plotting, motivating a character for an upcoming scene. There's something about walking away from a WIP for a few hours that stirs the subconscious. I've written more great scenes while doing anything BUT writing--why the creative process works in such a mysterious way, I'll never know.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Pluto is Not a Planet

My second youngest daughter, the high school senior, went AWOL last week.

She's completing a two-week mentorship at my brother's company, about thirty minutes away, and bunking at a friend's house. This appears to be a sort of pre-college test run, allowing her to deal with homesickness in small doses. The strategy is a good one, and she is enjoying herself. Come August, we'll do the race through Target for dorm gear then pack her off for life's next big adventure.

Three down and one to go. My youngest, a junior, is a little blue about the increasing silence in a house once filled with chaos. Of course, she now has run of the place and never has to share ... anything. A nice break for a youngest child.

The blur of hands-on parenting is coming to an end. I'm no longer the sun, with my children revolving around me like pretty planets. These days, I'm not even sure I rank with Pluto. Young adulthood offers so much excitement, the new love, new friends, the scary Math professor and the all-nighters in the college dorm. What parent could possibly compete? I'm not even sure I rate with some aimlessly spinning boulder in the asteroid belt.

On the up side, my time is now my own. All of those books I imagined writing are now being set down on paper and loaded onto Amazon. Without the responsibility of little ones, it's easier to keep a schedule. I no longer sit cross-eyed with exhaustion in the pediatrician's office, or at ballet recital or at the kitchen table explaining phonics to a third grader. After the slog of single parenthood, I'm now engaged to a man who's witty, wise and very silly. Yes, I miss the endearing conversations with my children, like the time my son informed me in a dreamy voice that angels and mothers never fart. Or reading books to kids pink-cheeked from a long bath and their eyes brimming with delight. But I don't miss being the center of their universe.

They have long lives to lead; I'm merely passing through. In the grand scheme I stand here but for a moment, heart filled with hope that they'll enjoy every minute of their long, lovely lives.

  With Barry

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Writing Guides

A young novelist posted on Book Blogs the other day asking for feedback on writing compelling dialogue.

Which got me thinking: What books did I find most helpful when learning the craft of storytelling?

Here are some of my favorites in no particular order:

Strunk and White's Elements of Style
Yes, some irritating English prof made you buy this in college. Dig it out of that dusty drawer and put it back on your desk.

Sol Stein's Stein on Writing
A seminal work that continues to offer up valuable insights as you pass from newbie writer to accomplished novelist.

Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel
Clearly written, amusing at times, this gem of a tutorial will help you understand the marketing considerations behind your next brainchild.

Jesse Lee Kercheval's Building Fiction
Myriad examples throughout provide a step-by-step approach to creating memorable fiction.

Stephen King's On Writing
A witty, wise and eminently useful memoir written by one of the kings of fiction.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Myth of the Consumed Artist

Perhaps my mothering antennae is a bit too fine-tuned, but it seems there's a lot of poor advice on writing blogs about succeeding as a novelist.

The advice goes something like this: If you want to succeed, write day and night to the exclusion of everything else in your life.

There's no question that art can become all-consuming. There are times when you need to put everything else aside and perfect your craft. But not every day. Not all the time, to the exclusion of your loved ones and your health.

If you're young and you're planning a career as a novelist, that's wonderful. Work hard, take good advice with grace, and ignore older writers who tell you that you can't make it in this game unless you're willing to work 24/7. Perhaps they made it into the big leagues by shutting out loved ones and the sheer joy of everyday living. For all you know, they harbor silent regret about the wedding missed, the sunlight never felt, and the children that grew to adulthood while the absent parent went on yet another book tour.

How will you write with depth and deep emotion if you're too bleary-eyed to form a coherent thought? How will you render the world in a compelling fashion if you never stroll in the park and simply think, or take the time to hear the heart-songs of the people you meet every day?

Don't burn yourself out, baby. Live your life and enjoy every moment. You'll have far more material for your next WIP than if you write until dawn fueled by caffeine.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Prom Week

Yep, it's Prom Week. Writing time? Nope. Helping my daughters get ready for the big day? Oh, yeah.

Actually, they're excited. They were just goofing off for the camera.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Publishing's Overlooked Sea Change

Recently the publishing industry experienced a sea change you probably missed.

In January, Amazon announced they're now selling 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks sold.

If you’re shrugging your shoulders, consider: Traditional publishing houses release the vast majority of paperbacks. New releases are rigorously slotted into genres so bookstores know where to place them on the shelves. In your local bookstore, you won’t find the Harry Potter series shelved beside romantic suspense or Stephen King’s latest work.

Novelists understand this as “branding.” Most of us learn early on that if we’re to catch a literary agent’s eye then proceed to the big prize of a publishing contract, we must write stories with a specific audience in mind. This works well if, for example, you write straight romance or fiction that’s easily recognizable as Young Adult.

What if you don’t? Most people have heard of J.K. Rowling’s struggles to bring the Potter series to print. That critical first step—finding an agent to represent her masterpiece—was nearly impossible. Advances for so-called “children’s books” are usually small. Most agents prefer working in the adult market where the pay is better. Like the rest of us, they have to eat.

It was pure luck that an office manager at a literary agency in London fished Rowling’s manuscript out of the reject basket. Bryony Evens liked the smart black cover. Once she started reading, she couldn’t stop. Neither can 45 million readers worldwide.

That wasn’t the only miracle. A host of rejections followed—editors couldn’t “brand” the book. Was it meant for the children’s market? Middle-grade? Was it an adult fantasy novel? Once Bloomsbury Publishing finally took the gamble, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone received a tiny print run in the U.K. If it weren’t for Rowling’s dogged persistence in promoting her work after Scholastic brought the novel to the U.S., Harry Potter never would’ve become a household name.

You might ask, “What does this have to do with Kindle books outselling traditional paperbacks?”

It has everything to do with branding, baby.

Today there are thousands of novelists tirelessly writing books you’ll want to read. Sadly, their creativity doesn’t fit the confines of a publishing house’s profit and loss statement. Many have worked with a literary agent—or several agents. They’ve received compliments from editors on their skillful handling of plot and character. They’ve been told, time and again, that their books deserve a wide readership. But they never garner a publishing contract because no one knows, precisely, where to sit their books on the shelves.

I know. I was one of those novelists.

The questions posed by editors were difficult to answer. Were my books Romance? Women’s fiction? Was I writing women’s fiction bordering on literary? Bordering on mystery?

I’ve written five novels so far, with Treasure Me receiving the most attention. The manuscript did well in an international contest, receiving the kind of review that editors notice. Publisher’s Weekly said, “Birdie Kaminsky, a beautiful blond bombshell of a con artist, has met her match in Hugh Schaeffer, an investigative reporter in this zesty novel rife with witty dialogue and well-drawn characters. Their catty romance and zany interactions filled with witty double entendres are gems.”

It wasn’t enough to ink my name on a contract.

Ten years ago I might’ve thought, “Well, lots of books take time to reach the public.” I might’ve searched for yet another agent (my third). But in late 2010, I noticed something happening in the industry.

Something big.

The Internet sizzled with talk of writers who’d jumped ship from legacy publishing and gone digital. Established novelists were releasing their own e-books and following up with print-on-demand. Other writers, who’d never made it into New York’s hallowed halls, were joining in. If they wanted to combine romance with zombies, or produce experimental fiction, or write a 500-page novel, they were finding a home on Amazon and other outlets. Both groups—established and newbie alike—were using their hard-earned profits to build an ever-expanding readership without the help of a literary agent or a New York editor or a publicity department.

They were flying solo in a literary landscape forever changed.

Will traditional paperback and hardbound books disappear? Not on your life. There will always be readers who cherish the tactile delight of holding a physical book. Will digital publishing harm literature in some unforeseen way? Hell, no. Devices like the Kindle allow readers to sample different genres and a variety of authors’ works quickly and cheaply. On average, one hardbound book costs upwards to $26. For that money, you can download 8 or 9 e-books from some of the finest authors on the planet.

Needless to say, traditional publishers are nervous about so many talented writers cutting them out of the game. They can no longer decide what you’ll read. And they can no longer decide what authors will write. If you’re trying to break in as a debut novelist, you’re told repeatedly “less is more.” You’d better produce a book that doesn’t exceed 350 pages in length. If you can write your masterpiece in 300 pages or less, all the better. Over the years, thousands of superb novels never saw the light of day because they were simply too long—and rare was the editor who’d take the financial risk of bringing a debut, overlong novel to market.

Now you know why Rowling’s books got longer, richer and deeper as she skyrocketed to fame. Once the Potter series was a success, no editor would dare to dictate word length or subject matter. They left her alone. They left her alone to create.

Thanks to digital publishing, the rest of us now do the same. We post e-books in cyberspace, work to build a readership, and follow up with print-on-demand. Already the number of success stories is staggering. But wait: the next ten years will see a flowering of creativity like nothing that has come before.

Publishing houses may pooh-pooh e-books as a fad, or stuff better left in the reject basket. They may suggest that, without the vetting process of hard-nosed agents and experienced editors, the books brought to market will be less than stellar. Don’t you believe it. As they say, cream rises to the top.

How it does is another interesting development.

Book blogs are proliferating like daisies popping up in a springtime meadow. Regardless of your tastes, there’s a blogger in cyberspace talking about the stories you’ll want to read. They encourage you to join in the fun by posting comments and chatting directly with authors. They search for books, new and old, to read and review with the added fun of contests and publishing tidbits and some of the best commentary on literature you’ll find anywhere.

The only experts that matter now run the show: eager, insatiable readers.

The woman who drags her Kindle or a book with her everywhere? She’s the glorious soul who finally realizes that the best book reviewer is, well, an avid reader. Women (and men) who read often and well set up shop in cyberspace. Soon the world’s speed-of-light connectivity will give the best book blogs followers running into the thousands then tens of thousands. And higher. Readers in Chicago, London and Tokyo will log onto a favorite site daily, along with folks in Toronto and Buenos Aires.

Authors worth their mettle will find these blogs and, through them, a readership. The finest books will go global overnight. Works not ready for Prime Time will disappear for lack of review.

Watching all of this unfold, I’m filled with excitement. The digital frontier is fast expanding.  The art of storytelling will never be the same.

Friday, April 29, 2011

High Wire Act

Whenever I'm strolling through an art show or immersed in the work of a debut novelist, I can't help but wonder, "How do so many people find time to create?"

Life isn't structured to allow time to follow one's muse. Whether you want to act on the stage or dip your hands into clay or scribble down your latest story idea, the tedium of everyday chores bogs you down. Family members conspire to take the weekend away. Employers gobble up far too many hours.

Somehow, artists continue to produce. In snatches on the lunch hour, late on Sunday night--artists make fire. And thank the heavens they do: the world would be a cold place without them.

I don't know if any young writers will ever stumble across my blog. In the off chance that, one day, they will, here are a few pointers from a seasoned artist on how to complete that beloved work you've been hiding from family and friends:

1. Turn Off Your Internal Editor. If you're sitting down late at night after slogging through the 9 to 5, forget about perfection. It's more important to get the first draft down on paper--the entire draft. Whether you're writing a short story or a novel, you can't reasonably edit until you've made a complete pass through your story idea.

2. Find Your Tribe. Your boyfriend won't understand why you're desperate to write. Your parents may subtly question why so many years of education are "wasted" pursuing nebulous dreams. Ignore them. Find other artists who are struggling to produce. They'll offer useful feedback as well as sympathy when the going gets tough.

3. Don't Rush into the Marketplace. Take time to polish your work. If you haven't yet joined a critique group ... do. The competition for a readership has always been tough. To survive--and grow a readership--you need to present your very best work to the world.

4. Let Your Elders Inspire You. Precious few artists make it overnight. Most spend years balancing on the high wire, trying to earn a living while finding the energy to follow a heart's desire. Personally, I've always been inspired by comedian Billy Crystal. One of his finest quotes? "It took me twenty years to become an overnight sensation."

Here's hoping you get there a whole lot sooner.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Crack the Whip

Seven days and counting until my next critique meeting.

This sounds like a lot of time, but isn't: critique partners should evaluate polished prose, not the last-minute scribbles of an over-committed novelist. Fact is, all novelists are over-committed. Most pen stories late at night after working the 9 to 5, attending to family duties then sucking down that third (or fourth) cup of coffee.

Full disclosure: I'm not one for nocturnal creativity. Early bird catches the worm and all that--my brain simply doesn't work late at night.

My schedule changes depending on where I am in a novel. During the first 100 pages, I write in the morning or the afternoon. After that? The characters become firmly entrenched in my life, demanding attention at all hours. I've been known to wake from a dead sleep at 4 AM to begin the work day because the murky pool of my subconscious has offered up a solution for a difficult scene. I've leapt out of a swimming pool at 8 AM to scramble for the pen and paper by my towel because the damn funniest dialogue appeared between the 12th lap and the 13th.

So now I'm on the count to next week's critique meeting, and I need to revise (yet again) a few chapters of Second Chance Grill.

You'll note the cover isn't done yet. For starters, the title and my name need to switch places. And the manuscript still needs a nice buff and polish before reaching the Amazon Kindle Store in June.

Next week, when I meet with Mary Ann and Ellen, I'll read another section then sit back as they perform jujutsu on the pages. I adore my critique partners. Wise, funny, insightful, they always find the missing characterization and gently suggest cuts to overlong passages. I don't want to disappoint them by offering lackluster pages for their review. It's time to get to work.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Treasure Me is Live on Amazon!

Writing versus Cornflakes

(Christian, several years ago, on her way to college)

Yesterday an insightful (and probably suntanned) blogger in Hawaii sent a few questions that got me thinking. Question number two: What’s more difficult, breaking into publishing or raising four young adults?

Wow. No Contest. Raising the kids.

Sure, breaking into publishing is extremely difficult. The writer who is serious about her craft will write hundreds—perhaps thousands—of pages destined for the trash bin before submitting that first, polished novel to a literary agent or a book editor. If she has the courage to self-publish, she’ll ask her critique partners to perform slash-and-burn operations on her prose. Before uploading to Amazon or B & N she’ll edit once more, keeping in mind Stephen King’s mandate to evict the “little pretties” from every chapter, those long, loopy sentences a writer pens, thinking, “Ah, how beautiful!” but which make the reader think, “What the hell?”

In comparison to parenting, all of the above is a walk in the park amidst the daisies.

I’ve been a single parent for many years now. I can’t threaten the use of serious ammo: “Missy, wait until your father gets home.” I can’t head for the exits when an adolescent implodes. Every issue a child faces on the journey to adulthood is mine to navigate. Rough seas? Often. But the days of sunshine are the sweetest reward.

My two older kids are now in college. The younger two are wrapping up high school. Born in the Philippines, they were abandoned at an early age. I became their mother in my late 30s after working for years in public relations. Fifteen years later, we’re a tight-knit group.

The home office where I write straddles both the worlds of motherhood and writing. High school graduation invitations are neatly stacked beside my current WIP. There’s a note by the keyboard to remind my oldest daughter to wrap up her passport application for that semester abroad. It’s Friday, and all four kids (and the dogs) had a party in the living room last night. Where’s the vacuum?

All parents will agree the days are many when you're not sure how to guide your child. I have a few tricks: get one kid alone in the car and drive slowly. Kids tend to open up on the open road. Hug your child often. There's a direct correlation between lack of parental affection and how quickly a young adult becomes sexually active. Insist the kids pitch in. If I'm preparing egg rolls, someone offers to fry them and someone else appears at the sink, to help with the dishes. Praise your children often and tell them--every night--how much you love them. Small steps all, but they'll make a rocky road easier to tread.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Praise of Book Bloggers

I have a confession to make. I've fallen in love with book bloggers.

In the last 24 hours I've been checking out book bloggers in the hopes of finding a few reviewers for Treasure Me, which will appear in the Amazon Kindle store next week.

A few more confessions: I'm rarely in cyberspace. I don't own a cell phone. If I find time to sit in front of the tube, it's usually for a dose of BBC America or to watch a movie with my four young adult children. We have a rule: Mom can't spoil the film by revealing the plot when she figures it out. If I am on my computer, it's usually to flesh out a first draft. Most revisions (and more revisions and more revisions) are completed long-hand. Usually with Nala staring at me as I scribble away in my easy chair:

Sandy, my golden retriever, also harasses me as I revise (biscuit! biscuit!) but I don't have a pic of her presently; she's wandering the house in search of socks to steal.

Back to book bloggers. They're amazing. Sweet, special people drifting through cyberspace with the message that literature is a good thing and you ought to pick up a book and read.

Regardless of your tastes, there's a book blog that's right for you. Women's fiction, high literature, mystery, suspense, romance, experimental fiction--somewhere on this pretty blue planet a dedicated bibliophile is spending her precious time posting in her blog so that you'll know what to read, what's new, what's not-so-new but damn good so you should hurry to the library and dig the book out from the stacks. Some bloggers are open to reviewing e-books (thank the heavens) which allows many novels that weren't published in the traditional method to reach the light of day.

Here's my last confession: I spent several years watching my various novels garner interest with the heavy hitters in NYC. I was sure Random House would pick up Second Chance Grill. An editor at the Penguin Group was so enthusiastic about publishing Treasure Me, and the rest of the Liberty series, in hardcover, that I spent several months sweating bullets while writing a series proposal. When Wall Street melted down, so did the editor's interest. Which I understand. It's difficult to consider releasing a debut novelist when your publishing house is laying off your compatriots in droves.

Through it all, book bloggers continue to write about books they love and books they dislike. They keep interest in literature alive and--I suspect--they introduce younger readers to the delights of fiction. You can never get beneath another person's skin. IMHO the closest you'll get to understanding another human heart is through fiction. So please read. And visit those book bloggers in cyberspace for the sweetest celebration of literature you'll ever enjoy.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Nervous Dervish

I've blissfully spent the morning in Istanbul with Greer, Adelaide and the other characters of my latest WIP. Now it's time to attend to the day's other responsibilities.

The valiant Barb S. sent through the cover art for two of the novels in the Liberty series. Here's the first book that will appear on Amazon for the Kindle:

I'm not sure yet about the sidebar copy, although "Liberty safeguards the cherished heart" is an important clue during Birdie's search for hidden treasure.

The second novel, which should be up on Amazon by late May, takes the reader back in time before Birdie's appearance in the town of Liberty:

Of course, the sidebar copy isn't correct. Another item for the old "to do" list!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Stumbling Through Cyberspace

I've spent most of the day working on a cover design for the first women's fiction novel I'll publish for the Amazon Kindle, Treasure Me, which should be released in late April/early May. The process is overwhelming. How do I find book reviewers for an e-book? How should I market the novel? No doubt all novelists brave enough to wade into digital publishing asked the same questions, and struggle to find solutions.

Here's a short synopsis:

Petty thief Birdie Kaminsky has arrived in Liberty, Ohio to steal a cache of rubies hidden since the Civil War. She’s in possession of a charming clue passed down in her family for generations: Liberty safeguards the cherished heart.
The beautiful thief wants to go straight. She secretly admires the clue’s author, freedwoman Justice Postell, who rose above the horrors of slavery to build a new life in Ohio. Birdie wants to rise above her own past and escape the criminal tendencies that have put her infamous parents on the Fed’s radar. If she can unlock the clue’s secret, she’s sure she’ll snatch enough loot to start fresh as a law-abiding citizen.
According to family lore, Justice left South Carolina at the dawn of the Civil War. Heavy with child, she carried untold riches on her journey north. As Birdie searches for the rubies, she begins to believe a questionable part of the story: a tale of love between Justice and Lucas Postell, the French plantation owner who was Birdie’s ancestor.
If the stories are true, Justice bore a child with Lucas. Some of those black relatives might still live in town. Birdie can’t help but wonder if she’s found one—Liberty’s feisty matriarch, Theodora Hendricks, who packs a pistol and heartwarming stories about Justice. Birdie doesn’t know that an investigative reporter who has arrived in town will trip her up—as will her conscience when she begins to wonder if it’s possible to start a new life with stolen riches. Yet with each new clue she unearths, Birdie begins to discover a family history more precious than gems, a tradition of love that is richer than she could ever imagine.