Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, February 29, 2008

In Someone Else's Shoes: Guest Blogger Stephanie Humphreys

Very often, I'm amazed at how mundane my days have become. As a teenager, I imagined all sorts of exciting scenarios for my life. I would travel the world, sing on Broadway and be a best-selling author (still working on that one). Instead, I live in a little town of 2000 people, where exciting means you said hello to three people at the post office instead of one. I often watch people around me and wonder what they do to break the monotony.

But writing helps cure all my longing for a little adventure. Through the characters I create, I can be any age, live anywhere in the world, be male or female and choose bizarre occupations. In fact, I don't even have to make my characters be part of this world.

Once a character is born in my head, I get the wonderful task of getting to know what he/she is really like. The character I've been hanging out with today loves Tai Chi and drinking hot chocolate at midnight. She is independent and opinionated. She has a secret that will change the lives of everyone around her and she is also 99 years old.

Now I'm nowhere near 99, but it's fun trying to get into her head. I'm taking all the conversations I've ever had with my own elderly grandmothers and other women I've known and trying to get a sense of what it is like to hit that age. It's interesting to think what I might be like, if and when I get there. And then I wonder how a 99 year-old would react to the situation she finds herself in, compared to a 29 year-old who finds herself in similar circumstances.

The stories in my head have been pretty interesting this afternoon and beat the social event at the post office any day. Maybe that explains why my life, which really appears very boring on the outside doesn't drive me crazy. I can always walk in someone else's shoes as I craft a character and a story. That kind of excitement suits me just fine.

Stephanie Humphreys lives in Alberta, Canada with her husband and three children. She says she has too many hobbies to mention, but that most of her spare time is spent writing. Visit her incredible blogsite, Write Bravely, at

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

by Julie Coulter Bellon

As I was looking at some of the paintings that were posted on this blog recently, I thought of how pictures can really evoke emotions. But, since we, as authors, deal more with words, I thought of how even small lines of words can also evoke emotions in a reader. I have included three poems today from famous poets, (even though I hated poetry when I was at BYU because I never interpreted it the same as the professor), but I wonder, do they bring out any emotions or feelings in you? What is your interpretation of them? Do you really believe the line, "A picture is worth a thousand words?"

Seeker Of Truth by E. E. Cummings

seeker of truth

follow no path
all paths lead where

truth is here

The Soul's Expression by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

With stammering lips and insufficient sound

I strive and struggle to deliver right

That music of my nature, day and night

With dream and thought and feeling interwound

And inly answering all the senses round

With octaves of a mystic depth and height

Which step out grandly to the infinite

From the dark edges of the sensual ground.

This song of soul I struggle to outbear

Through portals of the sense, sublime and whole,

And utter all myself into the air:

But if I did it,--as the thunder-roll

Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,

Before that dread apocalypse of soul.

Dust in the Eyes by Robert Frost

If, as they say, some dust thrown in my eyes
Will keep my talk from getting overwise,
I'm not the one for putting off the proof.
Let it be overwhelming, off a roof
And round a corner, blizzard snow for dust,
And blind me to a standstill if it must.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

March of the Cheerio Monsters

by Stephanie Black

Cheerios are such a staple of American toddler life that it’s always seemed strange to me that my three-year-old doesn’t like them. She’s never liked them. No Cheerios in a baggie at church for her. But now, her dislike has reached phenomenal proportions. Cheerios freak her out. So do Lucky Charms. Lucky Charms didn’t used to bother her, but she’s decided they’re too similar (the cereal part, not the marshmallow part) to Cheerios to be allowed. She sometimes calls Cheerios "Cheerio monsters."

She doesn’t even want a Cheerio or Lucky Charms box on the kitchen table while she’s eating. “Put it in the pantry!” she orders. A couple of spilled Cheerios on the table are cause for distress. And woe betide the fool who tries to eat a bowl of banned cereal while sitting too close to her. On one particularly crabby morning, she threw two of her siblings out of the dining room, with much screeching and yelling. The kids could have told her tough beans, they were going to eat their cereal at the table, but really, at 6:15 A.M., who wants to argue with a shrieking three-year-old, no matter how tyrannical she’s being?

What offends her so strongly about Cheerios? The smell. She hates the way Cheerios smell. (Ironically, she helped me create the Cheerio monster pictured above. Apparently Cheerios are OK as an art medium--they just aren't to be taken internally).

Smells can evoke powerful emotions (though I will say, I’ve never before known anyone to have a meltdown over the smell of breakfast cereal). Smells also are strong memory triggers. Ever had the experience when a particular smell reminds you of something from the past?

So don’t forget to use smells to help make the world of your novel real to your reader. Does your white-haired granny character smell like lilacs? Or, as she peels off her leather jacket, does she smell like motor oil and car exhaust? The smell of rain, the smell of a subway, the smell of barbecued hamburgers--what are your characters smelling? Give us an occasional whiff.

That’s my writing advice for the day. Cheerio!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Critique Groups

[Author's note: Sorry this didn't post yesterday, chalk it up to too many brownies and operator error.]

The weekend before last, I took part in an F/SF convention at BYU called Life The Universe and Everything. I think I collected enough material for about a hundred blogs. One comment that I heard a couple of times really caught my attention. Several authors mentioned that they had previously been part of critique groups, but didn’t need them anymore because their writing had improved beyond that point.

Hmmm. Is that really the case? Yes, the writers who were speaking are very good. And it is quite possible that their writing skills surpassed the critique groups they were a part of. But can your writing get so good that you don’t need peer critique anymore? I don’t think so.

I’ve been a part of a critique group since shortly after my first book, Cutting Edge, was published, and I probably should have been a part of it before the first book was published—maybe someone would have told me about not starting your book with a chapter of flashback, oh well. And even before that I was part of the on-line critique group on Scott Card’s web site.

What do I get out of my group? This might surprise many of you, but possibly the most important thing is the support and empathy of a group of friends who understand what it’s like slogging through writer’s block, edits, rewrites, abridgements, meager royalty checks, etc. It helps to have people who “get it.”

From a writing perspective, I guarantee my writing would not be half as good if I did not have the feedback of many quality talented writers and editors. Would you want to watch a movie that was written, directed, edited, produced, and starred in by the same person? Regardless of how talented that person might be, they can’t look at their own work with fresh eyes.

That’s the benefit of peer review. Some people are good at physical actions. “How could he open the door when he’s holding her with one hand and the gun in the other?” Motivation. “Sorry, I just don’t buy that she’d walk into the barn without at least turning on a light.” Pacing. “The story moves really well right up until this point. But you need a beat after this scene, before you move on.” Believability. “Women don’t comb their hair, typically. They brush it or pick it.”

Of course I get grammar fixes, since I still haven’t figured out things like the correct usage of commas, but I also get insights that make the story so much more powerful. In a scene from my upcoming book, Farworld, I got a ton of wonderful advice. Not just from my critique group, who was amazing, but also from other writers I respect. Let me give you just two examples.

LuAnn is a school teacher with a major focus on reading and writing. She is also soon to be a librarian. She is an excellent writer and a great editor. In the feedback she gave me, she pointed out a scene where the protagonist is trying to accomplish a difficult task. As a writer, I was focused on the cool thing that would happen once she finished the task. What I overlooked was the power of having her initially fail at the task. As soon as LuAnn pointed that out, I changed the scene and the emotion increased ten times.

Our own Kerry was also kind enough to read Farworld for me. Among many helpful edits, she spotted several key physical errors that would have killed me if the book had gone out. She also gave me a huge fix on the last three paragraphs of the paragraphs of the book that no one else caught. Think about that. The last three paragraphs. Other than the first three paragraphs is there anything more important than the part of the book designed to convince readers to look for your next book?

Of course my editor has been great, and she catches a lot. But she’s only one set of eyes.
It scares me enough just to think about the fact that in six months I’ll be facing a national audience for the first time. But it absolutely terrifies me to think of facing those readers without the feedback of many, many talented writers.

So maybe other writers are good enough that they can just write a book and send it off to their editor with full confidence the story is great and the public will love it. But for me, you’ll have to pry my critique group out of my cold lifeless hands.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

On Traveling to Mesoamerica

By Sariah S. Wilson

I don’t much care for cruises. Now it’s possible I simply had a bad experience. We went on a Norwegian cruise ship, which is supposed to be a very good one, and I would rate the overall cruise-ness as average (I can’t see myself rushing to do another one. I discovered that I’m the type that would rather go to one spot and stay for a week than a bunch of different countries in a few days). The service was excellent, but I was a little disappointed with the food, the entertainment options, the cost of said entertainment options; but mostly it was the constant rocking of the boat.

I had asked my husband if the boat would move a lot. I didn’t know if I would get seasick. He explained about the stabilizers and how the boat would sway a bit, but shouldn’t move too much.

Enter the storm of Day 1 and Day 2.

I do, in fact, get seasick.

The next day the seas had calmed, the skies had cleared, and we were headed for Roatan, a small island off the coast of Honduras. We went on this trip with my husband’s family – his parents (who paid for it all), his siblings (three) and their spouses (surprisingly enough, also three) and Dr. Joseph L. Allen and his wife. We spent time before docking in classes. Unfortunately because some members of my husband’s family are either non-members or no longer members, a great deal of time was spent on basics of the Book of Mormon. I was a little frustrated, because I’d hoped by being in such a personal setting with Dr. Allen that I would get some good and fun information. (My in-laws compensated for this fact by seating me next to Dr. Allen on some of the road trips and at dinner so that we could talk more. The problem with this is that I didn’t always know what questions to ask.)

In Roatan we took a taxi to an unpopulated beach. I use the term beach loosely – it wasn’t quite what I had imagined a beach would look like in Central America. We were shown to a rocky overhang with steps that lead right down to the water (no sand). Everyone was going snorkeling. I’m not a big fan of the snorkeling. I don’t much like things in the water touching me. I’m also a big scaredy cat of eels and crocodiles. Whenever I have really bad nightmares, they involve eels or crocodiles or some hideous combination of both. I don’t know why. I’ve never actually seen them in the wild where they could hurt me. But they’re just creepy. I found out that they had many eels in their coral reef and that was enough for me.

But I did get to see one of the most incredible sunsets imaginable. Here’s me and my husband just as the sun touches the ocean.

On Day 4 we were in Guatemala, first home of the Lamanites and Nephites. Here we hired a tour guide to take us to the ruins at Quirigua. As we were on the bus headed for our destination, Dr. Allen began speaking about some Book of Mormon facts, but our tour guide interrupted us. She explained to him in rapid Spanish that she was also a member of our church. She said that during Hurricane Mitch her home had been destroyed and she needed assistance, and no one came to check on her until later from the church, so she had been offended and had stopped going. She said that recently she had been feeling as if she should return, and felt that being our tour guide (as we had hired them right there on the dock, it wasn’t pre-arranged) was a sign for her, particularly since there were so many other mitigating factors of how she wasn’t supposed to have even been at work that day, wasn’t supposed to have gone with us, etc.). She called us her Nephites, and said she was a Lamanite. Dr. Allen gently corrected her (despite the fact that he had actually been born in Nephi), but she called us her Nephites and her brothers and sisters for the rest of the day.

Quirigua is best known for the stela that exist at the site. Quirigua had been a vassal state to Copan, until Cauac Sky overthrew the king of Copan (18-Rabbit) and beheaded him in Quirigua, shifting the area’s base of power to Quirigua. The stela are amazing, but we only have movies of it and not any pictures of just the stela so I won’t post any. We did go over to the main site to see where they were recovering the temples, and here is a picture of me among the ruins.

I should mention that it was HOT. I’ve never experienced this sort of heat before, and it was winter. No wonder the Nephites wanted to get back to the highlands of Guatemala to the lands of their inheritance. It was winter and I felt like I would die (plus we had been told to wear long sleeves and long pants because of the mosquitoes, so doubly hot). I spent a large portion of my time sitting in the shade trying not to turn into a puddle of goo.

We got to eat at a fast-food restaurant called Pollo Campero . It was sort of like KFC, only there was an armed guard in the parking lot with one of those huge bars that stop cars from going through until it is lifted. It was fun realizing that I could order in Spanish and actually understand the menu and my server. I also enjoyed getting back to the docks and bargaining in the open-air market with the vendors completely in Spanish. Two years of Spanish at the Y goes to some use after all.

Day 5 we landed in Belize. Belize was a former colony of England so the national language is English, and they use the same measurement system (miles, feet, pounds, etc.) that we do. Their native Spanish has a totally different accent and I couldn’t understand a word they’d say when they lapsed into it. They’re also one of the few Central American countries that will allow foreigners to buy real estate. One acre is currently going for between $500 and $1,000. (My husband’s brother is the type who hopes to be totally self-sufficient some day and live off the land, so this is very appealing to him. I couldn’t get past the roaming armed forces with big AK-47s).

But this day was totally amazing. Dr. Allen wasn’t able to accompany us, as he’s had some recent health issues and came down with an infection. First we drove to Orange Walk, at which point we hired a speedboat to take us up New River to Lamanai. Interestingly enough, most Maya sites do not have their original names (i.e., archaeologists will give them their names). But Lamanai is a site whose original name has not been lost. So how interesting, of course, that Laman makes up part of that name. Lamanai means “submerged crocodile” because the lake and lagoon outside of Lamanai are filled with crocodiles. See a few paragraphs above to imagine how much this freaked me out and how much I prayed for the boat NOT to tip over.

Yes, we did see crocodiles. Fortunately they were only at the surface for a moment before quickly submerging, so I could pretend they were only sinking logs.

We passed by a Mennonite settlement right on the river. One of our guides explained that there were also “progressive” Mennonites in Belize City who drove Mercedes and had big beautiful houses.

The birds along the river were simply amazing. Herons, egrets, hawks and all other types of birds that I’ve only ever seen in pictures taking to the sky and roosting on their nests. The river was gorgeous, lined with walls of greenness on either side, the water calm and still like glass. We would slow down whenever we encountered native fishermen as the wake from the boat would tip their tiny canoes over. Fishing seemed extremely good there.

We got to Lamanai and had an excellent homecooked meal of tiny chicken breasts, beans and rice, coleslaw and potato salad. They brought water and soda for us – all of the soda being in glass bottles which reminded me of my childhood. Also, while it was still relatively warm, it was nothing like the day before where I thought I might actually melt. Here a nice breeze blew the entire time and it was much cooler.

The flora in this area is just incredible. Added to that the native knowledge of our tour guides and I was in heaven. I kept asking about plants and trees and finding out all their uses and seeing just what they looked like and the guides showed me how to get water and what things would be beneficial in the jungle. It’s one thing to read about these things, it’s entirely different to be standing there with a native in the jungle and hearing about how different bark and sap and leaves are used.

We saw the jaguar temple first, but quickly moved on to this temple (N-56):

We saw the top of the temple from the lake, it was so tall. This is the temple you could climb. We passed through a small ball court (which was exciting to me and when you read my Ammon book you’ll see why) and then arrived at the temple. The guides kept telling us that we were climbing at our own risk. Fortunately, I don’t have a fear of heights (although I do have a bit of a fear of falling off large temples) but I didn’t come halfway around the world to not climb this temple. So here I am climbing up the stairs:

It shocked me how steep and how high the stairs are. The Maya were not a large people and if I had a hard time at six feet tall getting up these steps, how much harder did they have it? I imagined King Noah scrambling up steep steps like this to escape Gideon. I thought of the bloodshed, of the priests and kings who had climbed these stairs before me, of the victims forced to climb to their death.

But then at the top…I have never in my life seen anything like this. Green as far as the eye could see, mounds and hills that indicated a temple beneath them simply waiting to be discovered. When people ask why it is that we have no definitive proof on buildings in Central America of the Nephite/Lamanite cultures, you could look at a site like Lamanai where 800 structures have been identified and only five have been uncovered (and of course many LDS scholars have identified gods and symbols that they think are Christ centered, but that’s a story for another day).

And as I took in that view, I realized why these men felt like gods. How could they not at this height, with the world at their feet?

We also saw the Temple of the Mask, with an Olmec mask on the outside of it. Completely fascinating that that culture came this far south and that a Maya structure had an Olmec decoration (or a Lamanite temple had a Jaredite mask). I was disappointed when we had to leave.

The last day we landed in Cozumel, Mexico. By this point, despite all the amazing things we had seen, everyone was exhausted (particularly since many of us had been battling an awful flu strain. One of my husband’s brothers spent almost the entire vacation in his bed he was so sick). My husband’s sister asked for us to go to Akumal, to a beach area where they’d had many childhood vacations. We were supposed to go to Tulum, but as almost everyone else had already been to that site, they decided against it. It was a bummer because I’ve seen so many pictures of that coastal site where so much trading went on, and thought it fascinating that it was one of the few Maya cities still being lived in at the arrival of the Spanish. My mother-in-law also wanted me to see a cenote (because of the important scene in one in “Secrets in Zarahemla”), but as it cut into beach time the majority overruled.

So off we were to white sands and turquoise waters, which is what I had envisioned when this trip was first mentioned. I’ve never been to a place like this, and its beauty was awesome.

Cozumel was a fun port – you had to go through an open-air mall to get off the boat and there were Mexican dancers and scarlet macaws and iguanas and monkeys (oh my). I loved going shopping there. It was difficult not to buy everything I came across (particularly everything Maya-related). Fortunately, lack of money necessitates restraint.

The next day we spent relaxing on the ship in our room watching movies that aren’t even out on video yet (i.e. Bee Movie) and ordering chocolate mousse from room service.

I was glad to come home, grateful for the things I take for granted living in America, but I was also glad to have had my adventure.

(P.S. - Probably one of the most fun parts of the cruise was that 70 percent of the crew were from the Philippines, and I can't even tell you what great service we got since my husband talked to everyone in their native language. He caused a scene everywhere we went! LOL We actually got almost the entire staff of the buffet one night gathered around him to figure out how this gringo spoke Tagalog so well.)

Friday, February 22, 2008

I Can Hear the Bells

Did you hear that?

I didn’t think so.

I’ve heard it said that when a person approaches a certain age it’s as if an internal alarm goes off, waking them to the realization that it’s time to re-evaluate their lives. I’m not going to name that age, but I’m pretty certain it’s the one staring me in the face every time I peak under this month’s calendar page. I might as well admit I’ve hit the snooze button more than once already. I’m just not ready to admit that in my heart I know perfectly well for whom that bell tolls.
Frankly, I never saw it coming. This morning I tweezed a stray hair out of my Great Aunt Polly’s double chin, slathered a tube-and-a-half of cream on the crow’s feet around my grandmother’s eyes, and used a red Sharpie to try to keep the color from bleeding off my mother’s thin lips. Then—and only then—did I realize I was looking in a mirror! I knew at once what had happened. Sometime, somehow I’d wandered too close to the outer limits of the twilight zone. You guys, somebody ripped out my still-beating ingénue’s heart and transplanted it in the frumpy old body of a crone!

Well, that or I missed a decade or three the last time I tabulated my turn on earth.

The fact that I have a child who is older now than I ever remember turning is a frightening indication it might be that second thing.

Where was I going with this? (Old people have a tendency to lose their train of thought.) I remember now! I was about to relate a meaningful metaphor about life being like a trek up a hill. (In the snow. Both ways. You young people don’t know how good you have it these days!) Or maybe I was about to admit that being on the brink of Rob’s age times two, minus the number of children Julie will have with this newest baby, plus Stephanie’s shoe size, minus the number of books Sariah will publish this year, plus the number of fingers Jeff is holding up (old people have a tendency to ramble) is very much like being in steerage on the Titanic. (Old people have a tendency to exaggerate.)

Okay, it’s not like that at all. But it is very much like pausing at the top of a hill to look over your shoulder. If you like the view of where you’ve been thus far, it’s easy as pie (old people love even older adages) to proceed gracefully on over the hill and down into the valley of the . . . oh, dear! . . . I don’t much like where that was heading . . . let’s just say you move on confidently with life and leave it at that. (Old people don’t have enough time left to fret over fixing run-on sentences. But old people do tend to have psalms flash into their brains at inappropriate moments, probably because they were around when David first sang them.)

But if a person looks over her shoulder and isn’t convinced she’s really accomplished much of what she’d set out to do in life, is that when she dyes her hair platinum blonde, invests in a tanning bed, and persuades the milkman to run off to Bali? (No, I don’t remember ever meeting a milkman, but memory is the first thing to go when you’re old.) Gosh I hope not! (About the blonde thing, I mean.) Not only do I freckle in the sun and not know a milkman, I have too darn many real-life crises going on right now to even consider squeezing in one of the mid-life variety.

Tell me then, what’s a crone to do?

When the going gets tough, I generally go to the movies. Last weekend my husband and I went to see The Bucket List. Possibly not a brilliant choice, considering my growing obsession with tolling bells and Light, but I must admit it was glorious to watch Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman on the big screen. (Compared to them I feel like a babe . . . in the woods, of course.) But then I sobbed at the end (which washes the cream out of my crow’s feet) and spent the next week compiling my own bucket list.

It didn't exactly shock me to discover I'm as boring as I feared. I have no desire to go skydiving, mountain climbing, or even to spend 2.7 seconds on the back of a bull, no matter what its name. World travel? Maybe, but I’d probably be equally content to watch Planet Earth on BluRay and call it a day.

My bucket list, then, is a simple one, better explained by 85-year-old Nadine Stair than I:

(Note: this has been around for a long time, in various forms, and usually without attribution. Mrs. Stair does, however, seem to be the original source.)

“If I had my life to live over I’d dare to make more mistakes. I’d relax, I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I would take fewer things seriously . . . I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would perhaps have more actual troubles, but I’d have fewer imaginary ones . . .

“You see, I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute. If I had it to do again, I would travel lighter than I have.

“If I had my life to live over, I would start barefoot earlier in the spring and stay that way later in the fall. I would go to more dances. I would ride more merry-go-rounds. I would pick more daisies.”

So this is what I have on my bucket list thus far: eat ice cream; go barefoot; dance; ride the merry-go-round (and while I’m in the neighborhood I’m darting over to Pirates of the Caribbean!); dance; pick daisies.

That’s it, but I’m open to suggestions.

In fact, I’d bore you even longer with my struggles with mortality (old people love to talk about themselves), but I can hear the bells again. Rob, you can have the hot water bottle. Julie and Sariah, the thermometers are yours. (I have two.) Stephanie, you need a raincoat there on the coast more than I do here in Arizona. As for the parachute, I’m going to have to give that to Jeff for when Farworld makes the top of the NYTBL. (He might want to drop in for a visit.)

Wow. I feel better already! Excuse me, will you? The greenhouse has a sale on daisies and I don’t have all the time in the world to waste.

Not at my age.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Emerald City

by Julie Coulter Bellon

A few weeks back I was in a venue where a young man was having his sixteenth birthday party. I knew right away it wasn’t a normal sixteenth birthday party because of the three huge men at the door who had muscles bigger than Rob’s head, with SECURITY across their chests that were patting everyone down. The TV camera crew also gave it away and the fact that half of the building had been rented out to them for this party. There was an employee who was more than willing to dish with us about who it was and what was going on. Apparently, this young man’s father is a famous music producer, allegedly to some music superstars including Michael Jackson, and this family has several houses across the country, including a Utah vacation home, hence the party being held here. There was an air of excitement around it as more and more people came, and the whispers were that the birthday boy would be making his arrival at any minute. The employee couldn’t wait to see him and what he was like since there was all this hype being set up just for him.

I think this is somewhat similar to some authors and their books. Some books have the connections, the word of mouth and the money behind them and they get so much hype before they are released. For example, I read that the next book in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer is going to be released on Aug. 2nd. The news seemed to spread like wildfire around the internet and I bet the book sells out quickly since it is so highly anticipated. It makes me wonder, though, does the author feel that pressure since expectations are so huge for that book? Will it live up to the hype?

Back at the party, when the birthday boy arrived, there was such a crush of people around him, I didn’t get to see him, but the employee came back and said in a somewhat disappointed voice, "He looks smaller than I thought and like a regular kid."

Have you ever had that happen to you with a book? You wait and wait for it, anticipate reading it and it just doesn’t live up to your expectations? It feels like you’ve made the long and arduous trip through Emerald City only to find that behind the curtain lurks something small and unremarkable? I've had that happen a few times and it's disappointing every time.

So my question to you today is, how do you wade through the hype of a book to see if it’s the real deal? Do you depend on other people’s opinions, do you read reviews, or do you just read the book yourself no matter what?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

I've Have My People Text Your People and We'll Do Lunch

by Stephanie Black

So there I was, headed to a YW presidents’ luncheon at the home of a sister in another ward. I’d looked up directions to her house online and they looked pretty straightforward, plus I’d been there once before, so I foolishly figured I’d be okay without writing the directions down. Granted, I couldn’t exactly remember the name of the street where I supposed to turn, but I knew it was Oak-something, so I figured I’d know the sign when I saw it. As it turned out, Oak was a recurring theme in street names in this area, and I didn’t know which Oak was the right one. Whoops. So I drove around a bit and made myself thoroughly late, then stopped and did the logical thing—took out my cell phone, called my sister in Phoenix (750 miles away) and asked her to look up directions for me. She went online, found directions, told me which Oak I wanted, and I was good to go.

Remember the olden days when getting directions meant unfolding one of those flappy paper maps (the ones I always had trouble re-folding correctly)? Now it’s easier for me to outsource direction questions to Phoenix. Technology is awesome, if slightly weird. Once my daughter asked me to stop by the home of one of the early morning seminary carpool mothers. My daughter had left a textbook in the carpool car and needed it back. By now, though, it was a bit past genteel visiting hours, being 9:30 at night. I knocked on the door, but no one answered. Even though I was sure the family was still awake, it seemed like a violation of door etiquette to pound on the door so late in the evening. So, standing on the doorstep, I took out my phone, called my daughter at home and asked her to instant message the family’s teenage son, who was likely on the computer. She instant messaged him and told him to go answer the door. Naturally, he was a bit confused, but he answered the door and I got the textbook. With technology like that, who needs doorbells?

I confess to finding cell phones very handy (yes, they can be overused and abused, but so can just about any technology). Cell phones are great for parents. We can go on a date, knowing if there's a problem, our kids can get in touch with us. Cell phones are also useful in large places like amusement parks, zoos, and Costco where you might lose track of members of your party. It’s very handy to be able to punch some buttons and say, “Where are you?” rather than wandering through endless aisles trying to spot your husband or daughter.

I'm still way behind the times, though, since I'm not into texting. Maybe I should work on that--especially since it's probably the most effective way to get messages out to the YW.

In other technology news, we went for a hike and picnic on President’s Day, and my husband and the kids went geocaching. They had a blast treasure-hunting around the mountain and found three different caches, including one hidden in a magnetic box on the underside of a cattle guard. Yes, my children were crawling around on a cattle guard (those metal grate things that cattle can't cross).

Gotta go get ready for a presidency meeting, though after writing this blog, meeting in person sounds so . . . retro. Next time, we’ll teleconference.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Weekend at Robbie's

by Robison Wells

You know me--I'm not the type to go on and on about my personal life! I've often been referred to as "The Hermit of LDS fiction", or "Covenant's Enigma". just the other day I was talking to Stephanie Black, and she could see a small tear forming in my eye, but I was all "I'll never let you know the true Robison E. Wells", and she was all "Why won't you let me in! I thought our friendship meant something!" Man, that Stephanie Black sure is needy.

Anyway, so I'm not the type to go on and on about my personal life, but there are times when I have to open up a little bit. For example: now. Because, holy moley, did I have a rough weekend.

I don't mean this last weekend, or even the weekend before that, but the weekend before that one. Yes, this is technically old news, but I'm just now finding the courage to deal with it. If you were a better friend, you'd cut me some slack.

My brother wanted to take his wife away on some romantic getaway, so he dropped off his daughter with us. He has three kids, but he only left his youngest. I think that it's because he knows that children and I don't get along. (They never share the Barbies!)

Anyway, the daughter we got is a roly poly little fat kid named Morgan. She's somewhere in between one year and two years, although I don't pretend to know where she falls in there. She's old enough to eat an entire pizza in one sitting, but not quite old enough to wash the thick layer of tomato sauce off her own face. (This is probably due to my brother's poor parenting skills, though, not her age.)

So, we picked her up in a tricky fashion, as the weekend was a surprise for my brother's wife. And we took her home, and all seemed well. In fact, all seemed well all evening, to the point that my wife said "See? We need to have another baby!", although Morgan could have set the TV on fire and my wife still would have said that.

But then we tried to put Morgan to bed and, despite the fact that my brother and I look nothing at all alike, Morgan wanted me to lay next to her all night long. (My brother, incidentally, weighs a good fifty pounds less than me, and is the epitome of a sun-starved pasty nerd. Somehow, I got all our family's attractive genes. It's kind of my curse.) And so I slept on the floor of the kids' room, and everything was fine.

So, the next day went very uneventfully, and I can't even remember what happened. It must have been awesomely non-descript. However, in the evening, my wife ran up to the laundromat, and I began to put the kids to bed. Whilst reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, I heard something leaking. Venturing into the hallway, I found a little puddle by the bathroom door. "Aha," I thought. "No big deal. The sink must be leaking again." (Our sink does that.)

But then, while looking accusingly at the sink, I heard another drip, this time behind me. There was another puddle by the bedroom door. Upon further inspection, I discovered a small trickle of water coming out of the air vent.

At this point I began to run frantically from room to room, looking at vents and thinking bad words when I saw they all had water coming from them. In a moment of parenting genius, I told my five year old that she was in charge, and then I ran out of the apartment. I hurried up the stairs to the neighbors above us and pounded on the door.

After a LONG time, someone answered. And, she was standing in two inches of water. She looked mildly concerned about the puddle on the floor (but only mildly, which kind of bothered me). As it turned out, she'd been watching TV in the front room and the dishwasher hose broke, pouring water all over the floor. If I hadn't knocked on her door, she'd still be watching CSI: Miami.

So, I ran downstairs, and I called to my wife who was just pulling up in the parking lot. When I got back inside the apartment there were steady streams coming out of all the vents--and the light fixture in the hallway! Given the fact that all the towels were at the laundromat, I had to mop up the enormous puddle with a couple of quilts.

After a few more minutes the water stopped, and we got the mess cleaned up (after a fashion) and the kids went to bed. The only real casualty of the disaster was that one of my daughter's picture books got ruined. (But it was one of those annoying Reading Rainbow books that only librarians like, so I didn't cry.) And then, two hours later, we noticed that there was an enormous bubble of water in the bedroom ceiling! Like, a two-foot-wide blister in the paint. And next to it was another one, smaller but more lopsided and wrinkly. It's like our ceiling had the small pox.

So, I called maintenance, and they told me to lance it like a big boil. It was kind of neat.

And then I slept on the floor next to my brother's kid again.

The next morning, my brother was supposed to pick up Morgan by 8:30 so we could make it to Stake Conference by 9:00. I must admit that I wasn't really looking forward to Conference, because it was at the Provo Tabernacle, which doesn't have a good seat in the entire building. And the acoustics are so "good" that you can hear every baby in the zip code, as though you were sitting right next to them. And the seats are wooden and narrow. Pioneers must have been smaller people, with no nerves in their bums. Maybe if I'd crossed the plains, I wouldn't care about bad seats at Stake Conference. (But you would have hated to be in the wagon next to mine, with all my bellyaching!)

Unfortunately, there was a big snow storm, and he was really late. That wouldn't be a problem on a regular week, but you kind of have to be on time for Stake Conference because that place fills up fast. And if you're late, then you get stuck up in the balcony on even narrower, harder benches. So, at five minutes to nine, my wife left with the kids, leaving me and Morgan to wait for my brother. He finally showed up at about twenty after nine, and he drove me through the slippery snow to the Provo Tabernacle. We got there at 9:35.

So, I crept in the back, and searched the back of people's heads, looking for my wife. But her hair is kind of brown, and kind of average length, so it was difficult. Giving up on the main floor, I headed into the balcony, and after five more minutes, I found her. Of course, she was crammed into the back narrow row. The only way to fit all four of us on the bench was for my daughter to sit on my wife's lap and my son to sit on mine.

And, I swear I'd been sitting down for all of four minutes when my son peed on me. And not just a little leak out of the diaper, either. It was about a gallon and a half of pee, all over him and all over me. My wife said that when I stood up to head for the foyer there was a big puddle on the bench. This, my friends, was a lot of pee.

So, we left conference. After a while, when problems pile up (or puddle up) it stops being aggravating and starts being funny. So, we laughed while we walked to the car, through the thick slush, me with my pants drenched.

I got revenge, though: the next week I left my kids with my brother.

Monday, February 18, 2008

We Interupt This BLOG to Report

I know, I know, you’ve all been waiting on pins and needles for the next Jeff Savage blog right? Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not going to blog today for three reasons.

1) Sariah has already done a lovely blog today and I’m afraid if I blogged as well, you all would get blog overload syndrome, more commonly know as BOS, which can result in itching, rash, bloody gums, and twitching eyes. Wouldn’t want to risk that would you?

2) I’ve been blogging so much over at my alter ego blog that I’m starting to suffer from itching, rash, bloody gums, and twitching eyes. I have no idea what that could mean.

3) After reading Kerry’s wonderful response to a couple of readers at LDSPub’s wonderful blog, I am working on a guest blog (if LDSPub will have me) in which I break down the goals of LDS fiction, and why so many people are happy or unhappy by what is published in the mainstream LDS market.

I know this is going to be rough on you, what with that Well’s character posting his second grade finger paintings as literary commentary and trying to ride my coattails with bogus postings and defaced photographs. But I’m sure that by Wednesday, Stephanie will be done psychoanalyzing herself and will share more interesting insights about how she’s frolicking on the beach while the rest of us are up to our armpits in snow. Except for Kerry who’s probably up to her armpits in birdhouses and cub scouts—and Lyle the Friendly Viking toys.
Until next week, now you know, and knowing’s half the battle.

Central America Rocks

So I'm back. I meant to post on Saturday, while on my cruise ship, but the ship charges 70 cents per minute to be online. Not pesos, as I inquired just to be sure, but cents. So much as I love our Frog readers, I just couldn't justify the cost it would take me to even type a "woo-hoo I'm on a cruise and hanging out in Lamanite/possible Nephite cities with names like Lamanai" type blog. Then we didn't get in last night until after midnight (thanks again to the husband for not booking us a flight until 5:00 p.m. despite the fact that the ship docked at 8:00 a.m., because hanging out in the airport for eight hours is my idea of a good time, especially when the flight is delayed an hour and a half and we only made our connection because I went to the nice ticket man and cried about needing to get home so they held the plane for us until we arrived. I'm much calmer about it today now that I'm home. :) )

More to come this week. I would promise pictures, but I can't be sure that will actually happen. I'll also talk about some cool stuff I learned from Dr. Allen, including his thoughts on skins of darkness.

(Oh, and Rob, he said the face of the land changing was actually a good thing because they often trapped cities either in lava or underwater, making them easier to pinpoint. He also said that the locations of cities didn't necessarily change, and Mormon and Moroni referenced the cities by their Alma locations as well, which would mean that they still stood in the same place as before the coming of Christ.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Millions of Stories to Tell

I love the Internet! It's kind of like being able to stroll through the whole world. You never know what you might discover on a any given day. My very favorite part, however, is the people I meet when I'm out wandering around. This week I got to know Doug Johnston, the new director of public relations at Cedar Fort. You know how there are some people you like instantly? Well, Doug is one of those kind of guys. After maybe two e-mails I asked if he'd guest blog here someday. Turns out Someday isn't on Doug's calendar with Tuesday and Thursday and the rest. So here he is Friday. Today. And I'm happy as can be about it! Welcome Doug!

Kerry Blair asked me to do a guest editorial and I am thrilled.

My name is Doug Johnston. I would say that the first picture is when I had hair, but then you would know I am bald. I like the second one better, anyway. It is after I shaved off my beard.
I have worn many hats, and done many things in life. I am the father of five children, ages 21, 19, 17, 15 and 8. I am also a stepfather to two wonderful daughters and four charming grandbabies.

I have been a storyteller my whole life, but my love for writing started when I was a senior in high school. I was sitting in English class, and the teacher walked up to me and in front of the entire class said, “You are close to failing my class and you will not be participating in the track meet tomorrow unless you complete this extra credit assignment.” She then placed it on my desk and walked away.

That night, I spent all of 30 minutes writing an essay. I didn’t know it then, but I had written for an essay contest. I passed the class, ran in the track meet, and a couple of weeks later found out I had won a scholarship from the essay. (What I didn’t know at the time was that I had a teacher who had taken my essay, typed it and turned it in for me.) When I asked her why, she told me, “You have a talent for writing.”

I have been writing ever since.

I had a school guidance counselor that same year, that when I told him I wanted to be a sports reporter, told me to find something else to shoot for. We both laugh at that now. I have been told that I cannot do something many times in my life, and I do my best to prove whoever said it wrong. I owned two weekly newspapers for many years (and covered many sporting events) and though it was difficult work, it forced me to write on a weekly basis. I received several awards for my columns because I was honest and personal.

As I read LDS novels, I learn about the authors’ personal thoughts and ideas. I know many of these authors already, and now that I am in charge of the Public Relations at Cedar Fort, I'll have the privilege of becoming acquainted with many more. I have read back though most of the blogs on this site and I am amazed at how well-written they are. I can see that all of the bloggers are very talented and dedicated. EDITORIAL NOTE: He left out thrifty, brave, loyal, and kind, but at least you know the real reason I invited him here! (Kidding, Doug! I just couldn't resist.)

People have asked me many times how I wrote a column every week for more than nine years. The answer is: I pushed my fingers down on the keyboard one letter at a time! I call it my weekly journal. My children and grandchildren will know a great deal about my life and their childhood because of those columns. They'll be able to read the good things and the bad things, the happy times, and the sad times. My life has been like a good novel. It has had its ups and downs, just like a roller coaster. It has made me laugh and cry. Some people can read me. Some people can understand me. Some don’t want to. Once again, like a novel, once they pick up the story of my life, what are they going to learn from it? Will they only see the cover? Read the first page? Enjoy the whole book?

I never got rich writing columns, and most of us won’t get rich writing books. In my short life I have been an actor, a director, a producer, a publicist, a newspaper publisher, a columnist, a songwriter, and now I am in Public Relations. (I also made diapers for 13 years when I was young, but that is a story for another time.) If I could give each of you any advice, it would be to write every day -- if only for a few minutes. Write your thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

There are millions of stories to tell, and if you don’t tell them, who will?
See? I told you he's terrific! He's already promised to come back in a few months so we'll be among the first to hear about the fruition of a project he has in the works. In the meantime, you can "talk" to Doug yourself at
Speaking of projects-in-the-works (this is a thinly-veiled segue) I've been working on something new in anticipation of my "book of letters to the world" that is coming next month. I would very much appreciate critique from people I know and love (you) before the world at large beats a path to my door. (As if.) My endeavor is now up HERE.) Ignore the poem and the essay, but be sure you scroll down far enough to see the pictures of my pit bull!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.
THANK YOU, DOUG! Keep us posted on the further adventures of a born storyteller!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I have a friend who doesn’t like romance novels. She doesn’t like the sappy, sugary, happily ever after stuff. I, on the other hand, am the opposite. I love romantic books that show a couple with potential, with angst, and overcoming it all, end up together. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a happy ending and a good romance both in books and in real life.

Most of you know I had an unconventional courtship and romance. I did not date my husband before we got engaged. I met him at BYU and we became friends. I got sick at school and he took care of me, bringing me meals, getting my homework for me, things like that. We seemed to be able to talk about anything and spent hours just talking and laughing. He quickly became my best friend. I was starting to have feelings for him, but wasn’t sure exactly how he felt about me until we were sitting on the couch in my apartment living room one morning and he leaned toward me and said, "Will you marry me in August?"

Those six words changed my life forever.

During our engagement I realized what a romantic my fiancé was. He wrote me notes and poems, bought me little gifts, and made me feel as if I were the most beautiful woman on the earth. Everything in life seemed perfect then and I couldn’t imagine being any happier.

And here we are, almost twenty years later. He still writes me notes and poems, brings me flowers just because, and makes me feel as if I’m the most beautiful woman on the earth. But the love I had for him during our engagement has deepened and grown to so much more. The happiness and love I didn’t think could get any better, did. While I still love those romantic gestures, the true love and romance has come from the daily things he does for me and for our family. I’m feeling especially tender toward him lately, because I’ve been so sick from my pregnancy, and my husband has been there every step of the way, calling me throughout the day to check on me, making sure I have everything I need, as well as coming home from a long day of work and making a meal or doing a load of laundry. He takes our children to their activities and helps them with homework, reads the small ones a bedtime story, then falls into bed himself. Yet, instead of complaining, the first thing he always does is ask how I am. No matter what. And I love him for that.

Our relationship has had its ups and downs, we’ve had our struggles and triumphs, but through it all I know that I can count on him. That basis of friendship that we started out with is the foundation for our marriage and we’ve continued that. We still do dates every week, we still spend time just laughing with each other, we tell each other often that we love each other. And I think that’s what has kept our relationship so strong over the years.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I hope you get to spend it with someone that you love. Or, if you are still searching for that special someone, may you love those around you. You never know which one of your friends could turn out to be your valentine. :)

(And to my friend who doesn’t like the sappy stuff—if you are reading this, I’m sorry! I’m a sap! But then, you already know that.)

Sonnet from the Frog

The Frog wrote this for you in honor of Valentine's Day!
If thou must love us, let it be for naught
Except for love's sake only. Do not say,
'I love Rob for his wit - Jeff's wisdom - Kerry's way
Of croaking pretty - or for Stephanie's trick of thought
That falls in well with mine, or Julie who brings
A sense of pleasant ease on such a Thursday' -
For these things in themselves, Beloved, may
Be changed, or change for thee - and love, so wrought,
May be unwrought so.
But love me for Sariah's sake, that evermore
Thou mayst love on, through writing's eternity!

Oh, wait! Now that I look a little closer, I think perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have written part of that! (Sonnets from the Portuguese XIV) The Frog's poems go more like this:

Popsicles are cold. Cocoa is hot.

Don't go away 'cuz we like you a lot!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Bangkok, Oriental setting

Oh, hey. Sorry I'm late posting this week. I'm in Bangkok today on yet another one of my many sales calls. Yesterday I was in Atlanta and the day before that Morocco. It's just one thing after another in the exciting life of a salesman! I tell you, if I had a dollar for everytime someone made a joke about ketchup popsicles, I'd be a millionaire!

However, while I've been hopping from airport to airport, I've been thinking about how sales can be likened unto writing. I've listed eight reasons:

1. Les Brown once said about sales: "You gotta be hungry." I'll tell you one thing, when I was in Atlanta eating waffles, I was no longer hungry. But now that I'm in Bangkok, not so much. As the song says "One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster. The bars are temples, but the pearls ain't free." I can't say that I have any idea what that means, but I think my pad thai had fried rat in it.

2. Og Mandino, author of The Greatest Salesman in the World, said "Love doesn't sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread: remade all the time, made new." I think this makes a lot of sense, because you know how you always have to remake your bread, so it's new? Like, you make it once, but then you have to remake it? What the crap, Og Mandino? What the crap?

3. There's an old joke: How can you tell when a salesman is lying? His lips are moving! But that's not always the case, because sometimes we salespeople type things, too. Granted, my lips move when I type (and I drool a bit), but when you're reading my blogs how do you know? Answer: when it comes to the new X-36 TransGenerator Couplings, I never lie. They're the best, and I can get you a great deal. But when it comes to writing, it's mostly lies. (You remember that zinger about no self-addressed stamped envelope?)

4. Og Mandino (Uncle Og, I like to call him) also said "Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight." How does that relate to writing? I don't know, but I do know this: I tried this picture-everyone-dead-by-midnight stuff, and you know what? My wife is having me see a therapist. And now I write horror novels. Thanks for nothing, Uncle Og.

5. Famous sales manager Michael Scott once said "There are four kinds of business: tourism, food service, railroads and sales (and hospitals/manufacturing . . . and air travel)." I think this one explains itself.

6. A comic strip about dinosaurs recently included the aphorism "Customers know what they want, but they want what they know." I think the same is true of readers. Hah. Readers are such sheep, always wanting what they know. That's why I write a series.

7. Siam's gonna be the witness to the ultimate test of cerebral fitness. This grips me more than would a muddy old river or reclining Buddha.

8. I can't think of an eighth, so I'm just going to post some excerpt from my upcoming book. I call this one "Shanda Coverington and the Diamonds of Ghosts at Night in the Dark."

It was a dark and stormy night...

Dream, Dream, Dream

by Stephanie Black

Last week, I dreamed that my new book had been released, but for some inexplicable reason, my publisher had changed the cover. Instead of a cover designed to tingle spines with an aura of suspense, the cover was now light and bright and looked a lot like the cover to Annette Lyon’s Spires of Stone. I was not happy with the change. Don’t get me wrong—I love Annette’s cover. It’s extremely well done and suits her book perfectly. However, Annette’s book is a historical romance, and mine is contemporary suspense and I couldn’t understand why my publisher would ditch the creepy cover they originally designed and use a cover not suited to a suspense novel. And to add insult to injury, there were hearts printed on the title page, and some of the scenes were done in comic book form.

I’m no dream analyst, but I’ll give it a shot. This dream could mean:

--I worry about my books, like every author does, and want everything to go smoothly with the release (see last week’s blog).
--I’m obsessed with Annette Lyon.
--I have a pathological fear of romance novels.
--I’m weird.

Dreams overall are a funny thing. Do you ever have dreams where suddenly some kid from junior high that you haven’t thought about in twenty years pops into your dream and you think, where did he come from? A friend once dreamed that I’d faked my own death to get out of being Primary chorister. Strange dream. I mean, I can see someone faking their death to get out of being Scoutmaster, but Primary chorister?

One thing I’ve figured out about dreams is that generally speaking (and excepting Lehi-style visions) unless you can summarize a dream in a short paragraph, hitting only the highlights, your audience will be asleep, face-down in their Cheerios, before you can finish saying, “And I knew it was my high school, even though it didn’t look like my high school, and I couldn’t find my locker, and I was going to be late to class, only I didn’t know what classes I had, and it was the end of the semester and I was going to flunk all my finals . . . ”

Why do dreams tend to bore listeners? They’re not real, for one thing. If the story about the impending academic failure were true, likely your listener would exhibit some genuine interest and sympathy—“You poor thing! What did you do? What happened?” But since it’s a dream, nothing happened. It’s not real. Maybe the dream ended when you handed in your math final and your teacher (Yoda) said, “Flunked you have. Get a scholarship you will not.” Then you woke up and said, “Wait a minute. I’m not even in school anymore and I already have a college degree.” Poof! Tension gone.

So why does fiction work? It’s not real either. But it follows a narrative structure that makes it interesting. When a reader picks up a novel (unless it’s some wildly experimental thing) he or she knows that the story is going somewhere. The author has a point. The story has a beginning, a middle, a climax, a wrap-up. It's not just a random recitation of events, and the reader knows it’s not going to disintegrate with, “And then I woke up.” He or she is willing to suspend disbelief long enough to react to the story as if it were real.

Speaking of creating the illusion of reality, I once had a dream where the villain from The Believer was chasing me. I hid under a bush. I don't think he caught me. Or maybe I just woke up.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Coke and Pepsi Part II

Okay, unlike some authors who shall not be named, I really do have something to say about Coke and Pepsi—and it does kind of relate to writing even. There is an interesting problem you face when trying to get shelf space for a new product. Let’s say you have invented a new cola. This cola is ten times as good as Coke or Pepsi. It makes RC Cola taste like yellow snow, and don’t even get me started on how much better it is than Shasta.

You have done all of your research, taste tests, cost comparisons, marketing surveys. The works. So with your portfolio in hand, you take you new cola to Dave Dopey, the head of 11-7, a chain of 2,000 mini-marts.

Dave listens to your spiel. He tries a taste of the sample. And . . . he loves it! It’s the best tasting cola he’s ever tried. Success, at last! You begin to celebrate your new found customer, when Dave drops a bomb shell. “I’m sorry,” he says. “But we are not going to carry your cola.”

You are crestfallen. How can Dave admit your cola is much better than Coke or Pepsi, but decline to stock it? There are many possible reasons—advertising budget, co-op deals, brand recognition. But for the purpose of this blog we will focus on only one issue—shelf space.

Here is the problem. Dave already carries Coke, Pepsi, and a small supply of RC Cola. He currently sells $5 million of cola products. In order to carry your product, Dave will have to take something else off his shelves. That would be okay if your product would increase his sales revenue. But the fact of the matter is that people who drink cola already buy Coke, Pepsi, or RC. Your product is unlikely to attract new cola drinkers. All it will do is cannibalize sales of his other colas. Since he won’t stop stocking the three colas he already carries, he is giving up valuable shelf space for nothing. Since you don’t have a following yet, he won’t lose potential customers looking for your product, so he tells you to come back when you’ve built up your brand further.

You go back to the drawing board. Remembering the problem you faced last time you decide to come up with a flavor of soda nobody carries. Being a whiz at this kind of thing, you develop cherry-lime-chocolate blast. Again you do taste tests and all the appropriate research. Again Dave loves the taste of your product. And again he turns you down.

“Why?” you ask. “Surely you don’t sell any sodas to lime, cherry, chocolate aficionados. This is cool new stuff. It will stand out.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” Dave says. “There’s just no market for this sort of thing. People aren’t ready for it.”

Thus we come down to a dilemma as soda manufacturers and also as authors. On my Farworld blog, I’ve been running a poll. The question asks fantasy readers what types of books they prefer. The range goes from the standard, tried and true, elves and swords to a book like nothing they’ve ever read before.

Not surprisingly, all but two of the votes fall in the middle. People either want something a little new, but with familiar concepts or they want standard fantasy with a twist. In the world of sodas, consumers would be telling us they want something familiar but a little different. Lemon-lime with a hint of orange or a strawberry cola. What they don’t want is the same-old same-old or anything really radical.

In the world of books, we are fighting for shelf space as well. We have to fit into a slot that retailers and publishers are familiar with how to sell, but we must be different enough to stand out. Is that what you look for in a book? Is that what you write?

Coca-Cola and Pepsi

In the spirit of the illustrious Robison Wells, please study the image to the left and tell me what you derive from it.

You can divide into groups. Just pull your chairs into a circle. You can even put your comments into the form of an interview if you’d like

I’ll just be over here reading the last Harry Potter book on my PDA, um, I mean studying. Take your time, I'll be back in a couple of hours to tell you if you're right.
If you love the painting so much you want to buy it, it can be yours for only $5500.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

What Do You Mean This is the Wrong Airport?

by Sariah S. Wilson

Something that has never happened to me before happened to me today.

I missed my flight. And I missed it in the biggest way possible - we were at the wrong airport.

In my defense, *I* didn't make the travel arrangements. My husband insisted that he wanted to do it, that he would take care of everything. I, of course, should have remembered that my husband is extremely forgetful and this morning one of the things he forgot is which airport our flight was leaving from.

We have quite a few airports that we can fly out of. Cincinnati is the closest, but the most expensive as it is a Delta hub. We can fly out of the Dayton airport (which is where we should have gone today) or the Indianapolis airport or the Louisville airport. It can get confusing. Especially with making my sister's flying arrangements, as she was coming from SLC to Cincinnati.

But regardless of whose fault it is, here we are in Cincinnati still. There wasn't a single airline who had any seats open today to get us to our destination, and we would never have been able to drive up to the Dayton airport in time for the last flight they had available that day.

We were able to catch an early flight out tomorrow, and despite going down to the airport, paying a fee for being in the long-term parking lot and driving back home, paying an additional fee to transfer our tickets to the new flight, this has turned out well. We've had a really fun day with the kids since we had no other responsibilities or obligations (as we got everything ready before our departure day), and my sister (the saint watching my kids this week) came in earlier than expected this afternoon. I went back to the airport to pick her up (she was pretty surprised to see me) and got all misty watching people reunite, and the homecoming for a solider just about made me sob. (One of the most fun airport arrivals I've ever had was coming in to the St. George "airport" (it's more like an air room) the same time as two missionaries returning home. The sound when we stepped off our pondhopper plan was deafening as all those people cheered and clapped for the return of their beloved sons)).

Although the hard part has been how the baby is handling this. She cried the entire time we were gone until she exhausted herself and fell asleep. She kept wanting to be put down and would crawl (while crying) to the baby gate and call out "Mama?" pause, call out again, "Mama?" She kept giving me kisses and hugging me after she woke up from her nap and saw that I was there. Everyone keeps telling me she'll be fine. I'm not sure I believe them. Has anyone else had a similar experience with leaving a little one? I'm freaking out even more now.

But back to the original topic, have you ever missed a flight or nearly ruined your vacation somehow?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Accepting This Award on Behalf of The Frog . . .

Thanks to Tristi Pinkston for this award and the insightful comments on her blog! She observed that Sariah and Jeff are knowledgeable, Julie & Stephanie witty, and Rob is insane. Alas, we all knew that last thing, but were trying to keep it in the family. (Who keeps letting Rob out of the basement, anyway?) And me? I'm the "mature" one, but Tristi was too polite to mention it.

Readers like Tristi --and YOU -- make our day!

The Year of the Rat

by Kerry Blair

Yesterday was Chinese New Year—the very first day of the Year of the Rat. Raucous sounds of celebration could be heard late into the night in and around Blair House.
The celebrants were rodents. I took two aspirin, went to bed, and tried not to think about it.

I’ll bet you’re wondering what a nice girl like me is doing in a vermin-infested place like this. You’re not the only one. Suffice it to say that several years ago we moved to idyllic Chino Valley, a smallish town in central Arizona. Pastoral settings, vast blue sky, adundant fresh air, gorgeous vistas—it seemed too good to be true. It was. Little did we know that Chino is home to 11,000 people, 68 pronghorn, and 309487059872390582347523987520394875 mice. (The first statistic is from the Chamber of Commerce; the last is a conservative estimate on my part.) If you followed the link, you know my town’s website features pronghorn. If there were any truth in advertising going on around here, they would feature mice. The little critters are everywhere. Nobody has erected a statue in our town square, but if somebody did, it would probably look like this:
The fabled Town of Hamlin had nothing on us.

Not that I’m doing much in the War of the Rodents myself. . . besides complaining, that is. I used to do my part. Up until a month ago I kept a very effective biological mousetrap in peak running condition. Its only drawback was that it would occasionally let a rodent escape—injured—to die within the walls of our abode. (Let’s just say that when I described the stench of a rotting corpse in my last novel, I knew very well whereof I spoke.) Unfortunately, the cat recently went to college with my daughter and . . . hold on . . . I fear I phrased that badly. (David winced, LDSPublisher reached for her red editing pencil, and Jon now wonders what the cat is studying and if her grade point average is higher than Rob’s. NOTE TO JON: she’s pursuing a degree in eduCATion, and while she may not be too much brighter than Rob, she can stay on task longer.)

As I was about to tell you, with Finlee gone, things have really gone to the dogs. I mean mice. The dog is suffering as much as I am. Maybe more. This afternoon Bandit sat in the laundry room and whined. When I went to investigate I found a mouse eating out of her food dish. (I only wish I were making this up.) I hunted down our auxiliary cat—curled up in the easy chair as usual—and carried him into the rodent-infested room. Plopping him down, I opened the cupboard and pushed his nose toward the mouse droppings. He mewled once to indicate that somebody really should clean up that mess then retreated to a back bedroom to work in that 23rd hour of sleep he so desperately requires between meals.

I am at a loss to know what to do. I was able to justify cheering on my mouser as a circle-of-life kind of thing, but I’ve never personally murdered a rodent. How could I? Our culture is fervently anti-raticide. I mean, isn’t it? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the closest thing America has to royalty is a guy with two big black ears and fairytale castles smack in the middle of his theme parks.

For sure I grew up indoctrinated by Cinderella—the mice were her best friends! I never missed an episode of The Mickey Mouse Club. In fact, for years I wore an embroidered Mousketeer cap . . . with my name spelled wrong, no less. In later years I spent hundreds of dollars taking my children to The Secret of NIMN, The Rescuers, The Great Mouse Detective, and An American Tail parts I, II and MCXII—and then buying them all the stuffed rodents and ratty action figures their little hearts desired. (Even the mentor of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a rat. I remember his nasty little figurine best.)

I can’t seem to break the vermin-watching even in my twilight years. (It’s like trying to look away from a train wreck, I guess.) Just last week I told my husband over dinner that he had to do something about our furry little infestation or I would divorce him and move someplace without mice. Anyplace without mice. (Antarctica comes to mind. I like penguins all right.) After my diatribe I pulled out the Netflix feature-of-the-week. Wouldn’t you know it was Ratatouille? We watched in stunned horror the scene where all the rat—intelligent, good, defenseless creatures—carcasses were hung from hooks by two-legged fiends from heck. (I’ve never seen Schindler’s List, but I can’t imagine it could be any more chilling.) We didn’t speak after the movie, or even look each other in the eye. As you’ve probably guessed, Disney anthropomorphism triumphed again. Gary didn’t buy poison or set a single trap and I haven’t brought it up since.

Until today.

Rats have their own year? Is there no stopping them? Quick! Anybody got a pipe? (Either the kind you play to get mice to follow you gaily out of town,or the kind you use to beat them over their pointy little heads. I’m not picky.) First person with a sure-fire plan to rid my environs of vermin gets this:

If nobody comes through, I guess I’ll just wear the ears myself under the old “if you can’t beat them, join them” adage. And maybe things will improve on their own if I can only hang on. Anybody know what next year is? The Year of the Ox, maybe? Admittedly, we have a lot of cattle in Chino, but at least they’ll be easier to find if they get in my cupboards!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

May I Have a Toast Please?

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Since I have been struggling with morning sickness lately (which is really all day sickness for me), I’ve been eating a lot of toast. And as I ate my toast last night, and this morning, I was thinking about how much toast is like writing.

Like writing? I know. Stay with me, though, and I’ll explain.

First, you start off with a beautiful white piece of bread. As a writer, you start off with a beautiful white piece of screen, ready for your story. You put said bread into the gentle glow of a toaster, just like you put your story into the fires of the muse, ready for a draft. But here’s where it gets tricky.

Sometimes your toast pops too early and it’s a little crunchy on the outside, but still doughy on the inside. Just like when you finish your draft too early and it needs a little more time with the muse to really be cooking.

Or, sometimes your toast stays in too long and it comes out burnt. Then you have three choices, you can eat it as it is (of course slathered with jam to make it taste better), or you can try to scrape off the charred part, or throw it away and start over. Just like in writing a draft, if you’ve written and re-written, and re-written again, sometimes you need to re-evaluate----do you go with it as is and try to fix it as best you can? Do you try to trim it, or do you just throw it away and start over? Generally, an author wouldn’t throw it totally away, but I have heard of some who did, just to start fresh.

Other times, the bread pops up and it looks perfectly toasted, but when you go to get it out, it breaks off into pieces. Then you are faced with trying to get it out. Do you put your fingers in and risk getting burned? Do you turn it upside down and make a big mess? (**Warning** You never want to put a knife or other utensil in a toaster because then you could electrocute yourself.) Sometimes, writing can be like that broken piece of toast. You’re going along with your draft and everything looks perfect, but then, all of the sudden, you hit a writer’s block and the story goes to pieces. You can try to rescue it, but you may get burned, or you can try to shake things up in your story, but you may end up making a bigger mess. (**Warning** You may begin to feel at the end of your rope with the broken story, but you should never do anything that may harm yourself or others over it. )

Obviously, when you finally get a beautifully toasted piece of bread, the foundation for the toppings is laid, just as the foundation for your story is laid. But what kind of topping/story direction will you choose?

  • Will you choose to have a sweet, fluffy sort of story? Like butter and jam on your toast?
  • Will you choose to have a quirky, it’s an acquired taste, sort of story? Like Cheez Whiz on toast?
  • Will you choose to have a dramatic, meaty sort of story? Like bacon, lettuce, and tomato on toast?
  • Will you choose to have an adventure story with a little romance thrown in? Like cinnamon with sugar on toast?
  • Will you choose to dip yourself in a fantasy world? Like melted cheese on toast, dipped in tomato soup?

The possibilities are endless.

So while I’m going through my toast phase, my writing is as well. I’m searching for the right foundation for my story so I can get to the topping phase, just as I’m searching for the right sort of toast that will help me assuage my feelings of morning sickness. It’s definitely a process, both in my writing and in my toast-making, which hopefully ends in something enjoyable for the person who made the story/toast and for the person who eats the toast/reads the story.

And now I think I shall go work on some more toast.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Confessions of a Worrywort

by Stephanie Black

A couple of months back when I first got a look at the cover of my new book, I printed out the cover image and took it to an Enrichment activity to show to a friend. Which reminds me--you know how they have those “good news” minutes in Relief Society where sisters share good news with each other at the beginning of the meeting? Do you suppose it would be okay for an author to share her good news for the week? Picture it:

Relief Society President: “Does anyone have any good news they would like to share?”

Sister A: “I’m going to be a grandma! My daughter-in-law is due in July!”

President: “Congratulations! Anyone else?”

Sister B: “My son just got his mission call! He’s going to Guatemala!”

Pres: “Wonderful! You must be so proud of him. Does anyone else have anything to share?”

Sister C: “I just made a huge breakthrough in my novel. I realized the book is too flat because it doesn’t have enough sources of tension and I need to give Jane some sinister motives of her own and a secondary evil plot to complement the main one. One murder just wasn’t enough for this book, but now that Jane is planning to do away with Sally, it’s all coming together. I’m SO excited!”

President: “Um . . . great.”

Anyway, I showed my book cover to my friend and we were talking about it. She made a comment along the lines of how I must be impatient for the book’s release, and I realized that, strangely enough, I wasn’t particularly impatient.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very excited for the book to come out. I’d be acutely disappointed if the release date was delayed for six months or a year. But when my friend made that comment, I wasn’t at the point where I wanted to fast-forward. I was in a relatively worry-free zone. A honeymoon period. The book had been accepted and the publication process was in full swing, which means I was free of the biggest, most stressful worry of all--will my manuscript be accepted? But the book hadn’t been released yet, which means I hadn’t moved into the second phase of worrying—sales numbers, reviews, and so on.

As soon as the book hits the shelves, I’ll start worrying and obsessively checking for data to let me know how the book is doing. Are people talking about it? Do they like it? Are the reviews good? With my first book, I would check the Deseret Book website fanatically. There was a place where I could see how many copies of my book each store had in stock. I actually had a spreadsheet where I would note the changes in store inventories—look, I sold two books in Idaho Falls! Oh no—those six books in Cedar City aren’t moving. You could drive yourself crazy that way. And then there's the googling--I’ll be searching the Web, eagerly (and anxiously) checking to see if anyone has mentioned the book on his/her blog or if a reviewer has taken note of it. I even like to look at library catalogs on occasion—hey, look, someone checked out my book!

Yep, we writers can always find something to worry about. But we wouldn’t trade those worries for the world.

My new website is up, by the way. Drop by and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Survey Says:

by Robison Wells

So, last week I said that I was going to write a big in-depth analysis of branding, using myself as an example. Well, as I got into it, I realized that it'd take more time than I'd expected. Consequently, you'll get that analysis next week.

In the meantime, here's an interesting painting. (No, this is not another blog of my favorite paintings...)

Don't you love it? Statistically, you should.

Back in 1994, two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, surveyed America to discover what types of art Americans truly love. The survey consisted of 44 questions, rating everything from favorite colors to subject matter to style. Survey says: You'll like this.

Blue and green were the most popular colors. Landscapes were preferred, especially ones that contain water. People like paintings of children and animals (specifically wildlife, hence the deer). And, right in the middle, is George Washington (because we Americans like historical figures).

So, how does this art relate to writing/publishing? I have my thoughts, but I'm more interested in yours. Comments?

Monday, February 04, 2008

A Tale of Two Brands

Last week Rob and some no-name hack talked about Branding with a capital B. As Rob so eloquently pointed out to Monsieur Steinbeck, your brand must be not only clear but also consistent. In the business world, it is the job of the marketing department to make sure the company’s literature, web site, media, trade shows, ads, mailers, and all the cool stuff marketing departments spend gobs of money on, all match what your sales reps are saying in the field. In the writing world that is the job of the publisher and the author.

“Get the message out,” is the mantra of every virtually marketing guru you will meet. Your brand is everything—except when it isn’t.

That’s right. Except when it isn’t.

What happens when you’ve done everything Rob will teach you about tomorrow—you’ve differentiated yourself and your product, you’ve clearly articulated what makes you unique in the market place, you’ve got business cards, web sites, speaking gigs, reviews, articles by the boatload: in short all of your arrows are pointing in the right direction and they are big and red and flashing—and it’s all wrong?

Not what Rob is teaching. That’s right on the mark. Or at least as right as anything can be when you present it through a Q&A with a dead man. But sometimes your very brand can work against you.

“How can that happen?” you ask. How can branding be bad? Or at least not good? Well let’s say that your brand is IBM. Great brand huh? How many companies can say three letters and have instant recognition? Well AT&T of course, but they also have an ampersand. AOL. CNN. ABC. MSN. All right so lots of companies can do that. But you still have to admit IBM is a great brand. What do you picture when you think about IBM. Computers? Reliability? Dark suits and starched white shirts? Nerdy haircuts? Sounds kind of like James Dashner, except for the computers and the reliability.

Anyway, let’s say IBM came out with a really great new product. Except instead of an overpriced server with lots of flashing lights, it was a cutting edge, hip hop, rock the world, video game. How would the IBM logo help that product? It wouldn’t. Of course people would recognize the name, but they’d be expecting spreadsheets and networking, not fast cars and cool explosions. The very strength of the brand they’d spent years creating would work against them.

So how does this apply to the world of writing? Well let’s say your six-year-old comes home and says, “Daddy, daddy.” Of course that would probably freak you out if you were his mommy, but stay with me here. “Daddy, daddy. Teacher read us a great book today.”

“Really?” You say plopping your dumpling onto your lap. “Tell me about it.”

“Well, it was really neat. But a little bit scary. There are these two brothers. And a really bad man who kills their father. And it’s by a an author named, um, . . . Stephen King.”

How long would it take before you were on the phone to Jr.’s teacher? Or would you go in person? How angry would you be that your child’s kindergarten teacher was reading them Stephen King?

Except here’s the thing. Turns out that Stephen King wrote a wonderful fantasy novel called, “The Eyes of the Dragon.” It’s not bloody or gory. It doesn’t contain any profanity. It’s really a great fairy tale. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s by Stephen King. And who in their right mind would let their six year old kids read Stephen King? Shoot, even if you found out the story was okay, you might still very well have a problem with letting your kids read a book by Mr. King. And you would have lots of justification. What if your young son or daughter loved TEOTD so much they went out and grabbed another Stevie King book? Say like, “It” or “The Stand?” Good luck getting them to sleep alone before they’re like thirty-eight.

So what do you do when your brand works against you? Well, in the case of a publisher, you create an imprint. Essentially a sub-company or at least a sub-brand to market your different line of products. Big publishers and even some small publisher do it all the time. In the case of IBM, you might even create an entirely new company to sell your game. Because sometimes it’s better to have no brand then a well known brand that gives the wrong message.

How does that work for authors? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let’s say Frieda Feelgood is a prolific LDS author. She has published a dozen novels of mysteriously historical romantic suspense. She generally sells eight to ten thousand novels to an audience that is almost exclusively LDS. Great for her and great for her readers. Also great for her publisher. Everybody is happy.

Then something strange happens. Frieda writes a book that isn’t a mysteriously historical romantic suspense. And even more strange, it isn’t aimed specifically at an LDS market. Let’s say it is science fiction. Of course Frieda’s audience is excited to hear she has a new book coming out. But how excited will they be when they find out that instead of pioneers who solve grisly murders while finding true love, this novel is about a futuristic shootout story between two clans of mind-reading cyborgs?

The truth is that some of Frieda’s readers will think the whole Cyborg thing is the cat’s meow. Frieda is breaking new ground. And she’s every bit the great writer she has always been, In fact, this may be her best work yet. But most of Frieda’s readers will be disappointed. This isn’t what they expected. It’s like going to your favorite steak house to find out they stopped severing beef. Frieda could lose a part of her hard won following and not see a lot of crossover success either.

But that’s not the worst of it. Frieda is looking to break into the national market with this book. Of course, she loves LDS publishing and wants to keep writing for XYZ LDS publishing. But there is not yet a huge market for LDS cyborg books. And Frieda wants to take her book national. While Frieda’s previous books have helped her become a better writer, and provided her with some level of credibility, those dozen published novels could actually hurt her in the national market.

Why? Because publishers and bookstores are always on the lookout for “the next big thing.” How many times have you read, “The next Harry Potter” or “The next Stephen King?” The problem is, it’s hard to be “the next big thing” when you’ve published a dozen books but no one outside of the LDS community has ever heard of you. If you are an unknown author you could be amazing. Who knows since they haven’t read you yet? But if you’ve published a dozen books—even if they sold quite well in the LDS market—store owners are going to think, “This Frieda what’s-her-head can’t be all that good if she’s published a dozen books and I’ve never heard of one of them.”

Finally you have the problem of preconceived notions. Let’s say you hear about a great new mystery writer by the name of Mary Chin Flair. Everyone says her new book is incredible. Since you’ve never heard of her, you google her, or Amazon her, or yahoo her, or whatever flavor of searches you prefer. Only to discover Mrs. Flair has written a dozen sappy syrupy western romances. You hate western romances. (No offense, Jennie) So instead of trying her new book, you buy the latest Book of Mormon thriller from Uriah Milson.

In this case it is actually better to be a clean slate. True, you have no brand yet. But that means you can be judged solely on the basis of your new work. Of course it would be nice to get some cross over. Surely there are people who like mystery-solving romance-making pioneers and gun-toting cyborgs.

Which brings me to the last and mostly self-serving part of my blog. (Announcer’s voice says, “And now a word from our sponsors.” So feel free to go back to whatever you were doing and skip this last part.) As many of you know, my first national fantasy novel is coming out this August. It’s being published by Shadow Mountain, and I'm really pumped about what they are doing with it. For all the reasons I have listed above, and a few more, I will be publishing this five book series under the nom de plume of J. Scott Savage.

I’m excited about this opportunity for several reasons. For one thing, Shadow Mountain has had a lot of success with not only their YA novels, but other novels as well, in the national market. For another thing Shadow Mountain is putting a lot of time and money into this series. The first three YA series they have done, Leven Thumps, Fablehaven, and The Candy Shop War, have all sold very well, and all three have sold movie rights. That’s all pretty cool stuff.

The other thing I’m excited about is the chance to try my marketing skills on a much broader scale than I have been able to in the past. The first part of this effort was to set up a J Scott Savage blog. I’ve actually been holding off on doing this because up until recently not a lot has happened since I signed my contract. Not very exciting when your blog says, “Still no news. Check back later.”

Finally though, things are starting to cook. I have an artist to do the cover and inside illustrations. My editor is now working on my book. I’ve been putting together things like a map, discussion questions, and all that cool stuff. In the coming months, I’ll be getting ARCs, doing a blog tour, doing the actual multi-city tour. Hopefully getting international sales and movie rights. And I’d like to invite you to join me for all of that.

I’m hoping this blog will be of interest to writers and non-writers alike. Kids and adults. Everyone who loves fantasy. And people who are interested in the process of launching a national series. Of course I will keep on doing the frog blog once a week, but I am going to try to update my J Scott Savage blog three or more times a week. I’d also like to invite any of you who would like to cross link to go to my new blog and click on the trade links button. I am happy to trade links with anyone who is interested.

If you’d like to drop by, I am at You may notice that I am still tinkering with things. Changing the logo, adding more sidebar stuff etc. But I’d love to have you drop by. And if YA fantasy isn’t your thing, not a worry. Someone’s got to keep Rob and the straight and narrow and Julie’s going to be pretty dang busy with that new project of her own. So I’ll be here until they kick me out.