Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Unless Somebody's Bleeding, Don't Call Me

by Sariah S. Wilson

Thanks to everyone for the jokes last week - my kids now have some new favorites.

Speaking of kids, I got a very stupid phone call on Friday.

Let me preface this by saying that I love teachers - I think they have one of the hardest jobs in this country and I have spent many years doing my best to appreciate and support my kids' teachers. Let me say secondly that I understand everyone's got to start somewhere.

That being said, it was with a fair amount of trepidation that I answered the phone. Caller ID indicated that it was a phone call from a school (the local schools all have the same "name" - a nearby township). I assumed it was my older son's school, and as it was the middle of the afternoon, there was no way it could be a good thing.

I answered and a woman who introduced herself as a student teacher began talking. She said my second son's name, and my immediate thought was that there had to be some kind of mistake. He's not the type to do something wrong. As I sat puzzling over how it could possibly be him, I decided to ask to find out what name she'd actually said. As I'm probably suffering from severe sleep deprivation psychosis, I thought it best to ascertain what exactly she'd said since auditory hallucinations are not outside the realm of possibility.

Before I could interrupt her to ask, she repeated my second son's name.

What? What could he have done? He's the one who never, ever gets in trouble. I sat down in my chair, my legs suddenly giving out from underneath me. I felt like I couldn't go down this road with him. It's hard enough with my oldest - for example, just the day before the oldest's principal had called to tell me that my son had bit himself on the arm in an attempt to get another boy in trouble. (The indentation marks were still on his arm when he got home.) My mom said, "Hey, as far as I'm concerned that's progress. Last year he would have bit the other kid!"

I'm feeling panicked as the very young student teacher informs me that my second son was in the bathroom at his school with another student from class when he was "caught" by another teacher.

Holy crap. "Caught" doing what?

Worst case scenarios, welcome to my brain.

Had he hit the kid? Peed on the floor? Exposed himself? Set off a cherry bomb in a toilet? Turned on all the sinks at once and flooded the entire first grade?

"It seems that he and the other little boy were playing basketball with wadded up paper towels, using the trash can for a hoop."

It was at this point that the student teacher paused for the first time. I was obviously supposed to respond.

I didn't think it would be appropriate to laugh. So I just sat there.

Seriously? You're calling me because he's acting like a six-year-old boy? He threw wadded up paper towels in a trash can? That's the serious offense that warranted a phone call?

When I didn't answer the teacher proceeded to tell me that she could tell he felt really, really bad about it and that she wanted to give me a heads up and that he had really managed to pull himself together that afternoon.

Again, imminent laughter that had to be held at bay. Just the week previous my oldest son in a fit of rage had torn down all the wall art/posters in the hallway outside of his classroom after he was sent to time-out, thrown the desks and chairs in same said hallway and then proceeded to pee himself because he was so upset. So when he managed to "pull himself together" after that colorful morning, I was highly impressed. That's something to pull yourself together from.

Paper towel basketball? Not so much.

"Well, I just wanted to give you the heads up and let you know what had happened."


To be fair, he is a very sensitive little boy so it was entirely possible that he had cried when he was punished for the major behavioral travesty he had committed, so maybe she wanted me to understand why he would be coming home that day upset. (Which so did not happen. I asked him about the situation and it was such a non-issue to him that he didn't even really recall it happening. No tears at all.)

I continued just to sit there, unable to think of anything appropriate to say. Because I'm thinking, "You want to see a problem? I can show you what a real behavioral issue looks like."

Another long pause and then the teacher said, "Again, I just wanted to give you a heads up. Just so you know. Okay?"

Yes! Finally, something I could say. "Okay."

Then another extended pause. It was still my turn to say something. So I added, "Um, thank you?"

I could practically hear her beaming on the other end. I had finally recognized her efforts. "You're very welcome! Have a great day!"

It did end up being a great day as I called my husband to recap the conversation. I couldn't stop laughing, and it didn't help any when he said, "You should have told her that unless somebody's bleeding, don't call me."

I don't know why that struck me as so funny, but it gave me the best laugh that I have had in many months.

But I wondered whether the other little boy's mother felt like I did, or if this was devastating news for her.

Perspective makes so much of a difference in how we react to any given situation, and it is especially important in writing. Your character might not react to the obstacle you give them the same way you would. The hero and the villain have perspectives that make their reactions entirely different (which is also part of what makes them the hero or the villain).

Sleep deprivation and yet I still have the ability to laugh at my life and provide a fairly obvious writing tip. I think that earns me a gold star:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hanging with my Peeps

by Kerry Blair

I regret to inform you that I am simply too ill to blog today. I have a fever. Other symptoms include:

Dizziness (when looking at the plum tree in full bloom.)

Heart palpitations (when holding one of my eight little chicks and marveling that three days ago they looked like an almost-omlette.)

Shortness of breath (when intercepting the cat in mid-leap toward a nesting oriole.)

Strange cravings (for abundant vegies in the garden—or at least dirt under my fingernails.)

Mark Twain best diagnosed my ailment. “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want—oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”

Alas, this fever precludes the desire to sit inside at a computer, even long enough to blog. Nor do I want to thumb through musty tomes—unless I do it outside after hanging the hammock from the apple tree. Therefore, I’m going to share two of my favorite “spring” poems from memory and call it a day. If I whiff a word or three, I’ll hope for forgiveness from you in this life and Shelley and Browning in the next.

Spring arose on the garden fair
Like the spirit of love felt everywhere.
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
Rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
~Percy Bysshe Shelley

The year’s at the spring
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven; (Six here in Arizona)
The hillside's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven—
All's right with the world!
~Robert Browning

Clearly, I am not busy (like Julie) or creative (like Rob) but I am sick. I am practically delirious with longing to welcome the bees, stir up a little nectar for the bummingbirds, and bond with my chicks. As much as I love and appreciate you all, you will just have to excuse me while I go hang with my (other) peeps.

Happy Spring!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I Didn't Have Any Bonbons

by Julie Coulter Bellon

It’s hard work taking a day off.

I tried to take a day off two days ago, and it was fairly successful. I stayed in my pajamas all day, I did only the essential housework, and I finally watched the movie, Twilight. (Of course, I did make dinner and take care of the baby.) My kids seemed a little surprised when I showed up to carpool in my pajamas with a coat and loafers on, but didn’t say much when I explained why I was still not dressed. It was the day that Fablehaven 4 came out, though, and my husband had bought it for my son on the way to work so it was still in his car. As you can imagine, my son was anxious to get his hands on it and start reading, so he asked if we could swing by my husband’s work and get it out of his car. “Sure,” I said.

We get to the parking lot of my husband’s work and there were about seven people milling around near where his car was parked. (Doesn’t anyone have work to do these days? Why were all these people in the parking lot?) I looked down at my flannel pajama pants and BYU shirt, then pulled my Disneyland coat a little tighter around me. “I can’t go get it,” I tell my son in the back seat. “They’ll see my pajamas.” So my son scrambles up to the door and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll go get it.” Which he did while I tried to act nonchalant in the car and said a silent prayer that my husband’s car alarm wouldn’t go off or anything like that. It didn’t and we were able to drive away with no one being the wiser that this mother was trying to take a day off.

I don’t usually take days off. Ever. But Monday was the last straw. For weeks now I’ve been coaching a basketball team and we made it to the Final Four of our region tournament with only five players on the Saturday before the dreaded Monday. (Keith, I only yelled at the refs once. They refused to call three in the key and told me that unless it’s an advantage, they don’t call it. I loudly said, “Of course it’s an advantage. That’s why there’s a rule against it!”) I was also teaching at a PowWow that Saturday between games (I’m a merit badge counselor), trying to help one son stay organized while he does his Eagle project that is happening in less than a month, teach my BYU students that just because they handed in their portfolio does not mean I have to grade it on the spot, I was speaking at a book club, my son was preparing for a track meet, and we were putting on a birthday party for another son. Oh and I’m in charge of a Book Festival fundraiser next week, I’m teaching a class at the Storymakers conference next month, and I’m currently helping with a First Chapter contest, so I’ve been doing legwork for all of that. And Sunday was the Draper Temple dedication. So it was a busy weekend.

The last straw Monday came and I was getting ready for a special dinner party for Family Home Evening. Our new furniture was supposed to be delivered and I was excited to show it to our guests. I was making homemade rolls, Jell-o salad, Japanese pork roast, with a cabbage crunch salad, and a yummy dessert. Unfortunately, the baby was fussy, I forgot my son had a doctor’s appointment, and I didn’t have the roast on hand like I thought I did. I picked up my kindergartener, ran to the grocery store, went back and checked my son out of school for his appointment, and dragged my little baby in to wait with him. I managed to still get the roast in the slow cooker on time, the rolls were rising and I thought we were okay. The furniture was to arrive by 5:00, so we got rid of our old couches and started getting antsy to see the new stuff. When it came, we unwrapped it to find they’d given us the wrong ones. And we had gotten rid of our old ones so we had nothing comfy to sit on for my dinner party. I consoled myself that at least we had some good food to eat, but one of my dinner guests counseled me to let the rolls cook longer next time because they were a little doughy in the middle and that if I let the Jell-o dissolve more it won’t be chewy. Honestly, at that point, I just wanted to sit down and cry. Everything I’d tried to do hadn’t turned out, but thankfully, no one in my family said anything. The boys seemed thrilled to have those doughy rolls and chewy Jell-o and said it was the best dinner ever. Which might mean they’re just used to doughy rolls and chewy Jell-o, but I have to admit it made me feel better that they liked it.

I tried to let it go, just shrug it off and go on with my to-do lists, but I think it was just the exhaustion of the last few days leading up to that. I felt like a tired, old, worn out shoe. So I decided a day off was just what Dr. Mom should order.

But it's nearly impossible to take an entire day off I discovered. I was reminded that I had a Relief Society obligation that started at 7 p.m. that night, but, honestly, I still felt a little better rested from the time I had taken off. Maybe if I ever do take another day off, I’ll get some writing done. Which reminds me, I have two writing deadlines coming up fast. And I’m helping with a road show tonight. And it’s my turn for extended family home evening this weekend so all 43 members of the extended family are coming to my house. And my son has a temple trip he needs to pack for. And I haven’t written to my missionary son yet this week.

Maybe I’ll pencil in that next day off right away. And this time, I'll buy myself some bonbons, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Annette Lyon: Forgive Me Please

by Robison Wells

So, Annette Lyon has a new book: Tower of Strength, which is the fourth in her series called Books About Temples and Pretty Girls. You should totally GO AND BUY IT.

In other news, you may have recently heard a lot of hubbub about a movie called Watchmen, which is based on a graphic novel. (A graphic novel is a pretentious comic book.) You may have also heard that otherwise respectable authors have released graphic novels: for example, Shannon Hale's Rapunzel's Revenge. Consequently, Annette Lyon, ever the trend-following hack, has decided to release a graphic novel as well. (Due to a very small art budget, the graphic novel isn't very long.)

(I had hoped that Blogger would actually make the image look right, but apparently it doesn't. Click on the image below and it will get bigger.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Rabbi, a Priest and a Mormon Missionary Walk Into a Bar...

by Sariah S. Wilson

Screaming babies. Two of them. Short post ahead.

I'm in need of a joke. A short, clean joke. Something that when it's told will make people laugh out loud. (Whenever I have to give a presentation or talk, I always start with a joke or something that will catch the audience's attention. My parents are amazing public speakers, and we were instructed very early on to never begin any talk with "My name is ________ and today I've been asked to speak about ________." I think jokes are the fun way to go.) This presentation is to a non-LDS audience, so it doesn't need to be LDS in nature (although LDS-based jokes are also welcome!).

Here's the sort of joke I'm talking about (this was sent by author Laurie Lewis to a list I belong to):

A man in Phoenix calls his son in New York two days before Thanksgiving and says, 'I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough.

'Pop, what are you talking about?' the son screams.

'We can't stand the sight of each other any longer,' the father says. 'We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her.'

Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. 'Like heck they're getting divorced,' she shouts, 'I'll take care of this,'

She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at her father, 'You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?' and hangs up.

The old man hangs up his phone and turns to his wife. 'Okay,' he says, 'they're coming for Thanksgiving and paying their own way.'

So please post your favorite/most amusing joke in the comments. (I'll most likely read them at 3:00 a.m., and I'm guessing that said sleep deprivation will probably only make them even funnier to me.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Haute Topic

by Kerry Blair

Did anybody make it to Spring Fashion Week in Paris? I’d hoped to drop in but just couldn’t clear my busy calendar. (I think I was bathing the dog. Or maybe that was the week I decorated 96 cupcakes for the Blue & Gold Banquet.) At any rate, I missed the haute couture I’d hoped to pick up for the Whitney gala, but some of the ready-to-wear stuff may still be available.

If only I could make up my mind.

I think this leather skirt might be a fun look, what with being from Arizona and all. I could pair it with cactus earrings, a lasso necklace, and the red leather cowboy boots that were too-cute-to-pass-up-but-have-never-since-been-out-of-my-closet. The obvious downside is that the skirt was designed for a light pole whereas I more resemble a fire hydrant.

This creation by the same designer (Giles) is probably more me. I regret that these cuffs don't have the embellishments of the previous one—I thought those claws would make handy envelope openers were I called upon to be a presenter—but I am drawn to the look by the model herself. I have the same square face, thin lips, sunken eyes . . . and hairstylist! This might be the way to go, especially if it’s as cold up in Utah this year as it was last. For sure the boots would be great for slogging through snow and/or mud up at the Draper house.

On the other hand, I simply adore hats and I’ll never find a better one than this offering from Chanel. I’m thinking of adding a raven to the top. (Or possibly a beacon to alert low-flying aircraft.) You can’t beat basic black for evening attire, but I did wear black last year. (A stunning little number my daughter suggested had been designed by a witch with an aluminum foil fetish.) I loved it, but want to lighten it up a little this year. Plus, I might still be able to work in the cactus earrings and red cowboy books for a funky schoolmarmish look.

There is, however, practicality to consider. My royalty check was only slightly larger than Rob’s, so perhaps I should take a stand for provident living by copying a designer look at home. I’m frankly quite enamored with with this Marc Jacobs ensemble and—hallelujah!—a new Goodwill opened a mere 25 miles or so down the road. With a little careful scavenging, I think I could pull it off, don’t you? (I love the hat!)

What do you think? Anything will be better than what I have at the moment. I recently found myself flat on my back with an afternoon to kill, so I let my fingers do the shopping on eBay. The result arrived in yesterday’s mail—a supposedly $500 evening gown that I got for a song. (The song was “Going Out of my Head.”) As advertised, the elaborately beaded top is indeed a wonder! I wonder how I’d keep it up. (Think: chain mail, only heavier.) I wonder how I’d keep from toppling over. I wonder how my friends would react to hugging a giant brown armadillo. Heavens! I weigh too much already without lugging around fifty extra pounds of sparkly couture. That dress will be back up on eBay soon . . . unless I send it to tour Enrichment Nights as a vivid warning of what even a single SUI (Shopping Under the Influence of prescription pain relievers) can do.
So, while I wish I had time to blog about trivialities today, I don’t. While the rest of you debate how to judge a Whitney book—and the judges who’ve judged them—my mind is occupied with the important issue: What is everybody planning to wear?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

And So It Begins . . .

by Julie Coulter Bellon

As I’ve been judging entries in the First Chapter Contest for the LDStorymakers conference coming up, I've realized two things. First, we have some talented writers who have submitted great chapters for the contest, and second, there are still some problems out there with writing an opening that draws a reader into a story immediately. If I could say one thing to aspiring authors (well, there's a lot of things I could say, but this is one of them) don’t waste the small amount of time you have with a potential reader telling them all about how much your character loved Aunt Mae’s brownies and they were so tasty just warm from the oven and she used to bring them to you when you were sad and you always wondered how she knew just the right time to bring them over. It’s too much information and quite frankly, boring. (And no, that’s not from a chapter I judged, I just made it up.) You want something that will stand out, that will make your reader turn just one more page, and wonder about your story and characters.

To illustrate, let's take the brownie opening from above. Instead of starting with all of that, and having your readers close your book before they’ve even gotten to the end of the first page, you could draw your readers in with, “I was crouched behind the locked bathroom door, trying to hide my sobs, when I heard Aunt Mae call out that she’d brought brownies.” It's a better opening because it gives your readers something to wonder about. Why is she crying? Who is Aunt Mae? Make that reader want to read more. As a writer, you just can’t afford to have a flat opening with a ton of information that isn’t essential.

But how exactly do you make your beginning paragraphs stand out and draw a reader in? There are three basic elements that are essential to a good opening—action, questions, and imagination. A good opening will have all three.

Where possible, I would suggest starting your novel out with some sort of action. If your character is fighting with her mother on the phone, don’t start after it’s all over and she’s thinking about how the conversation went. Start with the yelling on the phone and show us that argument. Or, if your character is walking home from work, don’t start with the trees were budding and the birds were singing. Tell your readers that, “For each step she took, she counted four drops of blood before the next foot fell.” Give us an action that makes us want to know more about that character.

But you can’t just have random actions. You need to have an action with an oh boy factor in it that makes your reader ask questions. Make your readers wonder and want more. For example, in Jeff Savage’s book, Dead on Arrival, he begins with the statement: “Someone is trying to kill me.” Then we go on to find out more about a strange man who is claiming someone is trying to kill him, even though he’s already dead. It’s an oh boy factor in that the reader is wondering how can that be? And who is trying to kill him? If he’s already dead, does that mean he’s a ghost? It opens up all kinds of possibilities that the reader will wonder about and read on so they can find out more.

But a good opening also has a good imagination behind it. Stephenie Meyer starts out her novel, The Host, with “The Healer’s name was Fords Deep Waters,” and then she goes on to describe the “insertion” of an alien into a “wild” human. It’s original and imaginative, it’s got action, and the readers have a whole lot of questions that make them want to read on.

Too many novice writers think that they have to describe the setting to get the story going, or they have to tell the reader all about their main character and explain their actions. The goal of a writer is to draw the reader in from the very first words. Use the precious few seconds you have when a potential reader picks up your book and reads/skims the first two or three paragraphs to make them want more. Give them action with an oh boy factor that makes them wonder what is going to happen next, and be original and imaginative. A stellar opening sets the tone for the rest of your book and will make your story stand out from the start.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Laundry Effect

by Stephanie Black

Multiple discussions about the Whitney Awards have been taking place over on the LDS Publisher blog, including comments on how judging should be done. What criteria do the judges use? Josi Kilpack made the following comment in the comment trail:

A good book is one that keeps me reading instead of doing dishes and laundry--that's my basic measure. The more dishes and laundry piled up when I finish the book is a pretty good indicator of how good that book really was.

I love this. I can relate to the Laundry Effect. And for clarification, the Laundry Effect doesn’t mean that if someone gave me a choice to do laundry or read a particular book, I’d choose the book, therefore it must be good stuff. The back of a cereal box could win in a contest like that. The Laundry Effect means that a book grips me so tightly that I have trouble doing anything else until I’ve finished it. To me, that’s a strong indicator that the author did something very, very well. On some level, that book connected with me. I was riveted by the story. I cared about the characters. The book worked.

Does a novel need to have the most brilliant writing ever penned in order to evoke the Laundry Effect? Not necessarily. The writing has to be solid enough that it doesn’t annoy me and jar me out of the story (and the more I’m enjoying a book, the less likely I am to nitpick), but it doesn’t have to be poetically marvelous. Some writing is “wow” writing where the writer has amazing skill at weaving words together in a beautiful, powerful way. Some writing is transparent writing, where words aim simply to tell a good story. Either type of writing can produce a good novel, depending on the effect the writer seeks.

I can and do enjoy and admire books without experiencing the Laundry Effect. More often than not, I don’t experience it--I can usually set even an excellent book aside and come back to it later. But every now and then, I end up with a book absolutely glued to my hands and I’m willing to let the roof fall in if I can just finish it.

Interestingly, a book that is a Laundry-Effect read for one reader may be a dud for another reader. Reader A was riveted by the book; reader B gave up on page 20 and used the book for firewood. To which I say—so what? We don’t all have the same tastes, and thank heavens we don’t, or the selection of fiction would be far more limited. As Josi also pointed out (I love Josi), just because she hates a book doesn’t mean it’s bad.

I’m guessing most of us give lip service to Josi’s sentiment, but when it comes down to it, we secretly feel that our opinion on a book is the right one. You read a glowing review of a book—or a jillion glowing reviews—then read the book and think, “Meh. Poor to mediocre. What’s wrong with those people who raved about it?” Or vice versa—you loved the book and others didn’t. “What’s wrong with those readers who don’t see how good this is?” Am I right? Have you ever felt that way? Admit it.

What it comes down to is that our taste is books is very subjective. The same book can evoke very different reactions in different readers. I'm betting there isn't a single reader anywhere who thinks every book on the Whitney finalist list is superb. Each reader will love some of the books, like some, and dislike some--and their preferences will be different from those of the next reader. That's just fine. The Whitney Awards can't be all things to all people, and they never will be--not as long as our tastes vary.

Monday, March 16, 2009

It's Official!!!

All along, I have been saying that Land Keep, book two of the Farworld series, will come out this September. Unfortunately, as I think many of us authors are learning, the current economy makes nothing certain. As most of you know, my wife, Jennifer and I have been working on school visits fulltime since late December, when we realized that a fall release of book two might not be as sure of a thing as we had thought. It has been a great experience, but I also know that it has been pretty taxing on everyone having Mom and Dad gone as often as we’ve been.

Well, last week, I got the call from Chris Schoebinger at Shadow Mountain. They had their meeting, and . . . it’s a go. Book two is coming out in September. I don’t know how I sounded on the phone when Chris called, but I can tell you that inside fireworks were going off, confetti was flying through the air, and a bunch of little guys were jumping around screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

First of all, let me just say that Chris is a stud. Every time a publisher makes a decision like this, they are putting their financial neck on the line. So to have Chris believe in my writing and support me as an author means a lot. I won’t have the marketing budget that I had on book one. But that’s okay. The second book in the series is coming out a year after the first one; which is all that matters to me at this point.

And let me just say that it is going to be such an exciting book, you won’t believe it. There is a climactic battle scene toward the end that gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. You will see some characters from book one you might expect, but there will be at least three you probably didn’t expect. You will learn lots more about Farworld, the elementals, the Dark Circle, and a whole new group of nasties called the Keepers of the Balance.

Here is a brief description I gave Lisa Mangum:

Marcus and Kyja thought convincing Cascade, a water elemental, to help them open a doorway between Farworld and Earth was difficult. But now it looks like their goal of gathering the other three elementals, land, air, and fire, may be coming to an end before it even gets started. Land Keep—home to the powerful and wise, land elementals— is empty, deserted for at least a thousand years, and the rumor is that the creatures who once controlled all land magic are extinct.

Marcus has his magic stolen by a group known as the Keepers of the Balance. His health is deteriorating rapidly as the Dark Circle’s power grows, and a terrible nightmare haunts his sleep. At the same time, something strange is happening to Kyja. What is the secret she is hiding? Could she be gaining magic? If so at what cost?

And what of the whispers that Terra ne Staric has fallen and Master Therapass is dead? Cascade might know the answers. But if he does, he isn’t saying. Instead, he seems strangely interested in the growing distance between Marcus and Kyja that threatens to tear their friendship apart.

The only hope seems to lie in the Augur Well, a legendary Oracle protected by traps and trials set by the Land Elementals before their disappearance. But to get there, Marcus, Kyja, and Cascade must travel deep underground, where Cascade’s water magic is weak. And if anything should happen, Marcus and Kyja will be unable to leap to the safety of Earth.

I can’t wait till you can read the whole thing!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

When Do You Take Your Baby Out?

by Sariah S. Wilson

First, let me introduce our newest addition to the Wilson family:

Here is my husband's favorite picture:

He captions it as "One MILLION Dollars!!!" My brothers laughed; my mom and dad didn't get it.

Things went...not well. We arrived nice and early at the hospital, did all our prep stuff (including the IV. How I loathe and hate the IV and I nag until they take it out of me). I went in and managed to heave myself up on the operating table to get my spinal.

Which didn't take.

Well, the anesthesiologist claims it took. But only about 90% or so. However, that idiot was not the one on the table getting cut open and feeling every single cut. It went all epidural-y on me and while it "blocked the pain," I felt everything. And it HURT. It was not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. I felt it so much that my blood pressure and heart rate dipped down dangerously (which they didn't tell us until after the fact) and they hurried to get the baby out with me shuddering, shaking, feeling nauseous and dizzy so that they could give me pain meds to stabilize me.

So recovery has been interesting and I feel like I'm falling apart as a mom. I've never had kids so close in age before and it is really hard. But so far my life consists of eating chocolate Entemann donuts and sitting on the couch holding my two little ones at the same time. Nothing else gets done. Nothing. My house is scary.

But enough with my pity party - I know that this too shall pass (and I know that I will be equal parts happy and sad when it does).

Since I don't dress little girls in blue, you may have guessed by now that we had a boy. Jennie Hansen is not only a talented writer and reviewer, she is also now slightly psychic. Our little boy was indeed 10 lbs. 2 oz. (as Jennie guessed exactly in the comments of my last post ), and he was 22 inches long. While everyone else was oohing and aahing over our big baby, I was completely shocked that he was so small. I thought for sure he'd be some 14 or 15 pound behemoth with as difficult as he was making pregnant life for me. Ten pounds just stunned me.

To date, he is the perfect baby. He doesn't sleep more than two hours at a time, but that's to be expected. He doesn't cry. I realize that we may be in some weird new baby honeymoon phase, but he only cries if he's hungry and I take too long to get him fed. Otherwise he just sort of squeaks and squawks his displeasure at an empty tummy.

Everyone asks who he looks like - just like all of my other children, he looks like himself. You would never in a million years guess that any of my kids are related. Which is weird to me - my family definitely has a "look." My husband's family does as well. You know what I'm talking about - when you're at church and you see a kid in the hall, you may not know their name, but you can tell just from looking at them that they're a Gibb or a Hansen or a Rahlf because the siblings look alike. My kids don't. The newest is no exception to the rule. (And I hope his hair stays dark like mine, but the second child already pulled that one on me. He had shiny black hair that fell completely out and then came in the same color as his older brother's.)

As for taking the baby outside to the store or church or whatever, I don't take my kid out anywhere for four weeks. Period. I thought this was normal. It was what my mom advised, it was what my pediatrician recommended.

But I've noticed this trend at church (which is the only place I ever see new moms) and I've seen a lot of birth on Friday, in church the following Sunday going on. Is it really that much easier when you have a regular birth? I can't even fathom it. Two days after my birth I was lying in a hospital bed working on getting up three times a day to walk around. It just sort of bewilders me that such a thing is possible. And I do worry about the baby getting sick. I know of a woman who took her infant out places right after he was born, and he ended up with RSV and nearly dying. That makes me even more cautious than I would probably normally be.

So I was wondering - do you wait to take your newborn out on the town? Or do you figure there's enough immunity passed on from the mom that it doesn't matter?

Friday, March 13, 2009

The 14th Comment

KERRY BLAIR said . . .

Daron's right! My comment didn't count, so I deleted it, leaving us with a perfect number 13! (This is not superstitious as much as it is obsessive/compulsive.) But then I couldn't respond to the comments without adding a 14, so I am publishing this addendum for everybody else who wants to comment. Including me. Especially me.

Pat: I love your comments! I don't even resent the fact that you're always funnier than I am! :)

Julie: I didn't know that about cows! The crowd down the street from us were all lying down in their field this evening. I hope it rains! (Too fun. Thanks!)

Shanda: You have long been one of my favorite people on the planet, but now I want to adopt you! Those are some of the absolute coolest "13" things I've ever heard! My grandmother would have pegged you for a witch, but I kinda consider you a super hero.

Just Me: Too funny about the grazing. I can't wait to read your books. You have such a marvelous way of putting things. Also, I'm ready and willing to organize a fan club for ANYBODY who'd name their blog Vampires in Space!

Doug: As much as I love and admire you, I have to admit I'm one of those "some people" you mentioned. :) Did you cross-post your confession under "I'll Tell You My Quirks . . . " below? (I don't think it's a contest, but if it were, you'd probably win.)

Jennie: Don't even get me started on baseball superstitions. That's a whole 'nuther blog! (Most of those guys are crazier than my sainted grandmother.)

Sue aka MyDonkey Five: I'd forgotten the cemetary one, but yes! I passed out once while my mother and grandmother planted a tree on my grandfather's grave. (I figured if you had to hold your breath just driving by on the street, you'd darn well better hold your breath extra hard inside the walls!) BTW, I just have to tell you how much I love the service you're giving on your blog. (Note to all: This woman is sharing study questions for book groups. Her latest is for one of my favorite books: Fool Me Twice by Stephanie Black. I'm telling you, MDF is not only generous with her time and talent, she's got great taste!)

Karlene: I definitely think a healthy fear of vampires and werewolves counts! Possibly double. That's one I just can't share. When I was two or three I told everybody I wanted to be a werewolf when I grew up. (My maiden name was Wolfe and I was never a particularly bright child.) To this day my cousin calls me Werry. (I can't believe I just told this to anybody with Internet access and a rudimentary understanding of the English language.)

Jon: Oh, sure . . . bring in the calendar to confuse me. Glad you're a superstitious gamer, though. I have a friend who has to own Marvin Gardens every time she plays Monopoly. If she doesn't . . . well . . . I think the world ends or something. Fortunately, she is very, very good at getting her way. I think we're safe for a few more years.

Kelsi: I didn't know that about railroads and screws! (Thanks.) I do know that you must raise both your hands high in the air when driving over cattle guards. (Does anybody outside Arizona drive over cattle guards these days?) I have to cross one to get from the highway to my home. Thank goodness there's very little traffic on that road -- what with having to drive with my knees and all.

Deb: I predict that this will be a special year, indeed. You should all watch for this woman at the Storymakers Conference. She's about to take the world by storm. (A very well-written and entertaining storm.)

Daron: Robison Wells never reads the blog on Fridays. (He knows whose day it is.) Your secret's safe. (Not to mention much appreciated. When you're number six you try harder!)

Thanks, all! If any of the rest of you know superstitions we've missed, I still like to hear them. I will probably be awake half the night worrying about all the luck I may be missing out on . . .

Is it Friday (the 13th) Already?

by Kerry Blair

I’m having a very difficult time coming up with a blog today. I think it’s because it’s Friday the 13th. It is, in fact, the second of three this year. According to some people, this makes 2009 the least-lucky year of the decade.

My grandmother was one of those people. She rarely left the house on a Friday the 13th; depending on the day’s numerology and/or horoscope forecast, she might not have left her bed. She was possibly the most superstitious woman this side of the Middle Ages.

Sometimes, as fetishes go, Gram's superstitions were charming. I spent many happy hours on the front lawn helping her search for four-leaf clovers to take to bingo night. (Thank goodness we could buy her rabbits’ feet keychains from a day-glo display at T, G&Y.) I loved the horseshoes over every door—each affixed to resemble a U so the luck didn’t drip out and make a mess. It was easy to avoid ladders since I feared heights, and mirrors since I feared my reflection even more. These days I still toss spilled salt over my left shoulder to blind Satan, and knock on wood to summon the help of tree faeries. I have to admit, however, that as I have grown older I have found Satan harder to blind and wood faeries harder to attract. (Perhaps the latter are merely annoyed. It would irritate me if people knocked on my house all hours of the day and night for centuries on end.)

Other times my grandmother’s superstitions have been a pain. Literally. I have practically broken my own back avoiding cracks and picking up pennies. I’ve never passed a wishing well without emptying my pockets. (In fact, I have begged on the street exactly once in my life, and only out of desperation. I really, really, really needed a penny.) I’ve even discussed with a full-grown Marine (when we both knew better) if a bird in a Humvee in Iraq could be the same "omen" as a bird in my grandmother's house. (The answer is no. That mission went without incident, except that I worried more than I should have.) Don’t tell me insanity isn’t genetic. I have proof.

Thirteens were the worst in my grandmother’s book. (Of silliness.) She held NASA responsible for disaster for merely considering a 13th Apollo mission. On the other hand, she had no truck with “fakers” either. You know who I mean: the skyscrapers that “skip” the 13th floor, the hotels that eliminate the 13th room, and the airports without a Gate 13 anywhere to be found. I ask you, who do they think they’re fooling? Certainly not my grandmother. In the last days of her life, battling cancer and too ill to recognize family, she nevertheless noted right off that the hospital tried to put her in Room 814. She would never stay in a room with a 14 in it for fear it was a trap. “You can call a pig a princess,” she would say, “but it’s still a pig.” (I’m not sure how that relates, but she said it so often I felt compelled to throw it in.) In this case, Room 814 was worse than tomfoolery. Add up the numbers. Now you understand the shrill screaming that was likely heard in the next block . . . and the next life. My grandmother died peacefully down the hall a few days later. It was a Friday, but certainly not the 13th. She’d have waited until Saturday if she’d had to.

Fear of Friday the 13th is called paraskavedekatriaphobia or friggatriskaidekaphobia, depending on if you trust AOL or Yahoo. (Tip of the Day: when it really matters, trust neither.) Triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number 13. Apparently, my grandmother was not the only sufferer. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not travel on the 13th day of any month and never hosted 13 guests (or multiples thereof) at a meal. Napoleon, President Herbert Hoover, and Queen Victoria were also said to be triskaidekaphobic.

I wasn’t . . . until today. It’s obviously a very unlucky day to blog. Will somebody please wrap this thing up for me? Tell me your superstitions. Do you have lucky socks? A favorite number? A ritual you won't leave the house without performing. (Remember this is a family blog.) And don't anybody dare slink away, I simply won't believe you've never made a wish on a birthday candle or waited for the first star at twilight.

Or is it just me?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I'll Show You My Quirks if You Show Me Yours

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Laying the foundation for a character in your novel is one of the most important things you will do as a writer. You want your characters to be easy to relate to and believable. Getting the basics down is easy—what does your character look like? How old are they? Where do they live? But once you have the foundation laid, it’s time to breathe some life into them and make them memorable---give them some quirks.

I love quirks in a character because it makes them layered, unique, and realistic. For example, Indiana Jones is a handsome, brash adventurer, but he’s afraid of snakes. He’s strong, yet vulnerable. Or, when we are introduced to Meg Ryan’s character in French Kiss, she’s trying to overcome her fear of flying. Her character likes to plan and is sure of her relationships, but she has that vulnerability about her that endears her to the audience. There’s just something more human about a character when they have a little quirk. It reminds your reader of someone they know and brings memories to their mind, which makes it easier for them to picture the character. It just breathes life into the story.

So I thought we could have some fun today and make our own list of possible character quirks. I will start it, then in the comment trail, you add your ideas.

Has a ring she fidgets with all the time
Hates small spaces
Twirls hair when nervous
Low threshold of patience
A throat clearing tic
Chews his nails
Enjoys cleaning
Gets migraines
Is an insomniac
Loves to sit on the floor
Refuses to shake hands with people
Enjoys arguing over anything
Will only make right hand turns while driving
Is frightened of birds
Has a lucky shirt
Loves to juggle
Children make him nervous
Loves to read tabloids
Eats a bagel at precisely 8:00 a.m. every morning
Won’t step on cracks in the sidewalk
Picks their teeth
Loves to jog at night
Rolls pens across knuckles when bored
Needs to know the time at all times
Loves to use big words on people
Is frightened of doctors
Doesn’t know how to drive
Has never cut her hair
Loves food—especially junk food
Is afraid of the dark
Chews inside of cheek when stressed
Can’t wear the same clothes more than once
Slouches constantly
Doesn’t smile wide enough to show teeth
Afraid of heights
Talks a lot
Wave hands around when they talk
Loves to floss
Constantly check return slots on every vending machine they see
Hates chocolate
Refuses to use a microwave
Can’t swallow pills
Blow into a cup before using
Terrified of bridges
Laughs during stressful times

Can you think of any more? What characters in books have stood out to you because of their quirks?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means

by Stephanie Black

(Today’s definitions are brought to you by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, which is an extremely handy resource. Not only does it provide definitions, which authors tend to need every now and then, but it will say words out loud for you, in case you’re unsure what those little apostrophes and upside-down e’s mean).

Some words sound exactly like what they are. I’m not talking about onomatopoeia ("1: the naming of a thing or action by a vocal imitation of the sound associated with it (as buzz, hiss) 2: the use of words whose sound suggests the sense"). I’m talking about when a word just sounds right. Take “gossamer”, for instance--"1: a film of cobwebs floating in air in calm clear weather 2: something light, delicate, or insubstantial." The definition fits the feel of the word, doesn’t it? “Gossamer” sounds wispy and filmy. Maybe it’s that double s in the middle. On the other side of the spectrum, take “acrid”--"1: sharp and harsh or unpleasantly pungent in taste or odor: irritating 2: deeply or violently bitter: acrimonious." The word just sounds harsh and bitter, like something burning the back of your throat.

But in my opinion, some words just don’t fit their meaning. Yesterday's M-W “Word of the Day” that landed in my e-mail inbox was “crepuscular.” Do you have any idea what it means? I didn’t. Go ahead and guess.

Okay, here’s the definition. "1: of, relating to, or resembling twilight: dim 2: active in the twilight." That’s what “crepuscular” means? What a pretty definition for a word that has such a bubonic plague ring to it. I mentioned the word to my sister. She didn’t know the definition either, but her knee-jerk response was, “That’s disgusting.” And then she said something about zombies. So it's not just me.

Another, not quite so medically gruesome, example is “pulchritude” which M-W defines as “physical comeliness.” Beauty? Hmm. (“Wow, dude, look at that pulchritudinous supermodel.”) Latin roots aside, pulchritude sounds like something possessed by the formidable Eulalie MacKecknie Shin, the mayor’s wife in the Music Man, as she swoops around town chewing out Marian the Librarian for advocating dirty books.

Maybe I should start the next kissing scene I write (yes, I do write them occasionally--I was working on one yesterday) with “Dave sat on the garden swing next to Jane, enjoying the crepuscular coolness after the heat of the day. He wanted to say something witty, but Jane's astounding pulchritude took his breath away." Kinda makes your pulse race, doesn't it? Maybe not. It sounds more like Jane punched him in the gut. Not that it will matter anyway, since that crepuscular sky is going to kill them both.

So are there any words with definitions that you find particularly jarring or particularly perfect?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It's Not Just Good--It's Great Depression

by Rob Wells

I don't know if you've seen the paper lately, but there's a recession on. I'm just about to graduate with my MBA, which gives me a little insight into the world of business and the machinations of industry. Were I to appear on CNBC, discussing cap rates and credit default swaps, I would be deemed an expert. (My credentials: I can play Roller Coaster Tycoon on moderate difficulty. The game simulates theme park management.) (Surprised you didn't know that.)

Let me explain a little bit about the current economic crisis in layman's terms. First, there used to be a whole bunch of money. Now, not so much.

Interesting note: Two years ago, I quit my job with Weyerhaeuser, a wood products company, so that I could come back to school. The month before I left the company, their stock price was at an all-time high of $82. Since I've been gone, their stock price has dropped to $21. Coincidence? I think not.

So, anyway, I'm in the job market, which makes me just like everyone else on earth. And, let me tell you, the job offers are rolling in just like something that doesn't roll in. This surprises me because, as you know, I'm kind of awesome. I mean, I'd hire me, and I have very discriminating tastes.

There are many different theories about what caused the financial crisis into which we are comfortably snuggled. Democrats like to blame those dang Republicans, and Republicans like to blame the commies, and the commies blame all of us (I assume), and people on the blogosphere like to blame everyone, everywhere, including, but not limited to: the Hollywood Elite, the Nazis, the Illuminati, the Food Network, the Chippewa, Billy Joel, mom-and-pop bakery owners, and podiatrists.

However, the one group that everyone seems to blame is homeowners. Those greedy homeowners, with their "my house is nice and all, but I'd rather have one with a big enough yard for a horse". Well, let me just state that I have never owned a home, which means that I never bought one with a subprime mortgage and no down payment. Therefore: you dang homeowners all owe me a job, because you screwed everything up. Thanks for nothing. I hope you're enjoying your mud room. (Well, I hope you enjoyed it before you got foreclosed on.)

As a side note, we were all sitting around in the MBA lounge a couple weeks ago, commiserating about how we all stink like smelly socks and we're all going to be working for Arby's, when someone remarked: "Rob, you're in the best situation of all of us. At least you have a fallback."

He was referring to my writing. I had to point out to him that my most recent check from my publisher was for $4.51 (and I'm not making that up). So, yes, when we're all working at Arby's, I'll be able to buy myself one of the cheaper combo meals, all thanks to book writin'!

Anyway, the point of all of this is that I've been eating more Top Ramen lately, and I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The other point of this is: may I come live in your basement?


The good news about visiting schools is that you get to meet some amazing kids, teachers, librarians, principals, and parents. I’ve been having a ball. The bad news is that you come home absolutely exhausted after doing four of what really amount to one hour performances. It feels like you are a light bulb that’s been running at extra high intensity all day. Combine that with meeting lots of kids, and the results are probably predictable enough.

Last week, I did two days of Provo school visits. Tuesday night I did a signing. I’d been fighting a chest cold for about two weeks, but medicine was pretty much taking care of it. Wednesday, we went up to Ogden for the annual UELMA (Utah Educational Library Media Association) conference. I had asked to do a workshop on integrating authors and illustrators into curriculum. They agreed, and generously offered to let me join the author panel as well.

I had a great time and met lots of wonderful people, including authors Trudy Harris, Karen Houston, and Becky Hall. The last two, I knew from e-mail but had never met in person. They were great to spend time with. I want to give a special thanks to Mike Goodman, his wife Chris, and the rest of the UELMA board, who took us out to a great dinner. But that night I started feeling kind of weird—really tired, achy, and cold a lot. I figured it was just the cold and took more meds.

I made it through Thursday, but kept asking my wife if the hotel felt cold to her. And that night, I could barely eat at one of my favorite restaurants, Maddox.

Friday, I was really feeling lousy, but I had three schools to visit up in the Brigham City area, and I love that area. By the end of the visits, though, I felt completely wrung out. We went to get something to eat and I could barely keep my eyes open. An hour before we needed to be at the first of two book signings, we went out to the car and realized I had locked the keys inside.

Now this is more of a trick than it sounds like. First, the van has a remote lock on the key fob, so you would think I would have noticed I had no keys. But apparently I locked the car by hand, which I never, ever do. Second, you cannot lock the door by hand with the keys in the ignition. Unless, that is, you remove the keys from the ignition until they are just barely hanging there. Which is exactly what I did. Of course we called Triple A, who promised us someone would be there in thirty minutes or they would call us. Thirty minutes later, no call and no truck. So I call Triple A, and have a conversation something like this.

“I’m calling to check on the person who will unlock my car.”

“We told you they would be there by 4:01. It’s only 4:00.”

“So you want me to hold for a minute until it’s 4:01?’

“That’s only an estimate. They have an additional ten minutes to call you if they are going to be later than that.”

“Okay, but I need to be at a signing twenty minutes away by 4:30. Can you call and see what their ETA is?”


“You can’t call them?”


“Can you give me their number so I can call them?”

“No I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“You know it show here that your service is inactive. I don’t even know why the other person took your call.”

“But my card says my service is good until May.”

“I’m just telling you what the computer says.”

“Look, can you just tell me the name of the company who is coming?”

“No. I can’t.”

“Wow, you guys don’t seem very service oriented for a company that is supposed to provide service.”

Just then I get a call, so I let her get back to “serving” other Triple A customers. It’s the locksmith. They ask me where I am. I repeat exactly what I told Triple A. (See how much fun I am having repeating the name of the company that was so not helpful!) I am at the corner of 300 East and Main in Tremonton, in the Taco Time parking lot.


My heart drops. “Where are you?”

“Logan. They didn’t tell us Tremonton. I can be there in about forty minutes or so.”

After discovering that the Tremonton police department dispatch would not send anyone to help me unless a pet or child was trapped in my car, (do books count?) and that they wouldn’t tell me if there was a local locksmith. (“Use 411 or the yellow pages” Again, what happened with “To protect and serve?”) I called 411 and found that there was only one locksmith in Tremonton, and he was not in town.

About this time, my wife took matters into her own hands and walked down the street to the Tremonton Big O, who had my car open in less than five minutes for free. Big O, Big O, Big O. Apparently they have heard of service!

So we made it to both of our signings, came home and found out I had STREP. Got a shot, felt lousy, rested, felt better. Got snowed on, felt lousy, and rested some more. Fortunately today was an off day. Tomorrow I have five school visits.

So what’s the moral of the story? I think service—Triple A’s lack of it and Big O’s abundance of it—would be high. Don’t do school visits when you are sick has to fit in there somewhere. And thank goodness for really good people.

Just as an update on the schools. Since January we have visited just under a hundred and fifty schools, which amounts to about 60,000 students (about 200 schools and 100,000 students since the book came out.) I have signed over 4,000 books, and easily twice that many posters. I have answered over 1,000 e-mails. And I have made a bunch of great friends. So thanks to all the great kids! Thanks to the schools who have let me come visit. Thanks to Shadow Mountain for providing tons of posters, bookmarks, and a free book to all the UELMA attendees. Thanks to my son Scott who has booked many of the schools, my daughter Erica who has created the signing invitations and fliers, and my two little guys who have done everything from stuffing flyers to helping at signings.

And most of all, thanks to my wife who not only runs the whole show, joins me on so many of my school visits she could do the whole thing herself, and coordinates all of my events, but can even get me back into a locked car with only a smile!

Here’s to a lot more schools and a lot more good times. But no more sickness. (Crosses fingers.)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Thoughts From a Dentist's Chair

by Julie Coulter Bellon

My face is numb.

I was at the dentist this morning getting a crown, which is the reason why my face is numb and I feel like I’m talking with a thick floppy tongue. As the dentist was using the horrible tool that sounds like a hacksaw grinding into my brain, I tried to think of something else besides what was going on inside my mouth. It wasn’t easy.

I thought of the edits I’m making to my newly accepted manuscript. There were a couple of bits that needed to be changed, and I had some ideas for changing them.

I thought of my new manuscript that I’ve been working on and an idea came to me for an opening scene that might work better than the one I have. But that would mean cutting the current opening out entirely, which is hard to do, but probably necessary. I will just make a castoffs file to console myself that someday I might use that scene again. (I have large castoffs files for each of my novels. I just can’t bring myself to delete them and I haven’t actually ever used them, but for some reason they make me feel better about the cutting. Weird, I know.)

I thought about the books we’ve been reading in our family book club. We finished all three of the Fablehaven series and are anxiously awaiting the fourth book that is due out this month. But while we waited, we started the Lightning Thief series by Rick Riordan. They are really fun books that have real-life mixed with a little fantasy and peppered with a lot of funny snark. I have thoroughly enjoyed the books as an adult. I actually took the second book in the series, “The Sea of Monsters,” with me to the dentist this morning in case I had time to read. I was at the good part and really wanted to finish. I am planning on starting the third book tonight and I can’t wait to see what happens to Percy Jackson and his little band of half-bloods trying to save the world. I heard the first book is being made into a movie and I think it will be action-packed for sure. I also noticed the author has an adult series and I’m going to check that out since I’ve liked his YA novels so much.

I thought about how impressed my ten year old son was with J. Scott Savage’s school presentation and his use of magic tricks. He got his Farworld book signed by Mr. Savage and is already diving into it. (It’s next on our family book club list.) I thought about how I wished I knew magic tricks that would mesmerize and impress children. Sadly, I’m just a boring old mom most of the time.

I also wondered if the anesthesia they’d shot into my mouth with a needle big enough to anesthetize a horse would affect my nursing baby---like perhaps make her really sleepy or something. But the dentist said it wouldn’t. Rats.

So here I am with my half-numb face and mostly numb tongue and no trauma-reducing nap in sight. Maybe if I try to read out loud to my baby in this state, she’ll laugh herself to sleep. It’s worth a shot.

(Aren’t I punny?)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Boulders and Rollercoasters

by Stephanie Black

I’m happy to report that my current writing project is going well. It’s exciting to watch a new novel taking shape. Right now I have about 46K—that’s about 164 pages of manuscript—which is probably more than half of my first draft. Whee!

Writing does not always come easily for me. I read about writers with so many ideas that they’ll never be able to write them all, or how they can barely type fast enough to keep up with the flood of words coming from their heads. I, um, don’t think that’s ever happened to me. Sometimes writing a novel is like pushing a huge boulder, though at least not uphill—I haven’t yet had something I’ve written roll backward and squash me. Then again, maybe that’s the rejection part of writing. You . . . get . . . (gasp) almost (pant). . . to . . . the . . . top (urgh!) . . . of the . . . hill . . . and then . . . aiyeee! (splat). I love this quote from Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.” After it’s taken me twenty minutes to write an e-mail because I keep editing it, I can definitely agree with that.

But it’s not always the boulder. Sometimes, like with my current project, things really start to flow. The adrenaline pumps. The words pile up, scene after scene. I love it when that happens. It’s riding a rollercoaster, as opposed to boulder-pushing.

Prior to the publication of my first novel, writing involved a lot of rollercoasters. I did it purely because I loved it—it was an absolute blast. I scrambled for the computer every chance I got. But one thing I discovered post-pub is that to be successful, you need to keep new books coming—even if you can’t always find the rollercoaster. Sometimes you’re pushing the boulder, which is frustrating and difficult. I still struggle with staying focused. When I’m boulder-pushing, it’s easy for me to get distracted and waste time that I should spend writing.

But even when the boulder gets stuck in the mud, I can remind myself that I can do this—I’ve written novels before; I can do it again. Maybe I’m struggling with the current story, things aren’t flowing like I want, the plot is thin and boring, the villain is painfully obvious, and all my characters have spinach between their teeth and 80s hairdos, but it will come together.

Some days it's boulders. Some days it's rollercoasters. But either way, there's going to be a book at the end of the road.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Publishing 101 Part 2

Publishing is selling. There is no easier way to explain it. One of the sayings I teach at writing workshops is, “Don’t write what sells . . . unless you want to sell what you write.” It sounds kind of obvious, but the point is that if you have no plans to sell what you write, you can write whatever you heart desires. But as soon as you decide you are writing for publication, you must give at least some thought to what is selling. That is not to say you should chase after every trend, “Vampire books are hot. Maybe I should write a vampire book.” But you should research the market enough to understand the trends and know what is selling and what is not.

When we last left off, we had researched the market, discovered the publisher we wanted to pursue required an agent, and got a copy of a publication that listed agents. Now, you have a book or website with a whole bunch of agents in it. What’s next? Well first, you need to narrow down the agents to the ones that are the best fit for your work. It is a waste of your time, and the agent’s time to send him or her a manuscript that she does not represent. This is not a lottery. You do not increase your odds of selling your manuscript by randomly sending out submissions.

The first thing you want to do is decide what genre your work falls into. There are many, many sub-genre classifications. Horror can be anything from psychological thriller to splatter-punk. But at its essence, it is still horror. So you’ll start by finding agents that represent horror [or fill in your genre here]. Of course, your story probably has elements of romance, mystery, action-adventure, etc. But for the purpose of finding an agent, you need to start with a single genre. Romance? Mystery? Women’s fiction? Fantasy? If you can’t decide what genre you are writing, you are not ready to find a publisher. Go find books that are similar to yours and see what genre they fall into.

Next, you need to know who you are writing for. Is this a picture book? Early reader? Middle Grade? YA? Or adult? One again, many books cover many audiences, but you have to decide. You can’t tell an agent, “My book is great for everyone from one to a hundred.” Agents specialize in certain areas. If you are writing a middle grade mystery, you don’t want to go after an agent who only reps adult books. Don’t worry if you are not sure whether you are writing a middle grade novel or a YA. The agent will let you know if you are wrong—or may even ask you to change your protagonist’s age, down the road.

Let’s assume you are writing a YA mystery. You will look up agents that represent YA and mystery. Then you will read their submission guidelines to see if they do YA mysteries. Most agents who do YA, are going to accept a YA mystery, but not all agents who accept mysteries also rep YA works. Once you have a list of agents that represent your work, you want to see if they take new and unpublished clients. Not all agents do. Some agents have all the clients they can handle. Some take on a small number of new clients every year. Others are actively seeking new writers. Other things to look for include how many and what type of works the agent has sold. This may require a little additional research, but hey that’s what Google is for, right?

Okay, so far, so good. You’ve decided what genre you are writing and found agents who represent this type of work. You’ve put together a list of twenty agents. Now rank these agents from the one you would like the most to the one you want the least (remembering that any of the agents would be acceptable or you wouldn’t have chosen them, and that you are going to do much more research if one of them actually offers to take on your work.) The next thing to do is find out how the agent prefers to be contacted. (Sound familiar? It’s just like the publisher guidelines we checked out in the Publishing 101 post.)

While most of this information will be listed in the same place you found your agents in the first place (Writer’s Marketplace, etc), I prefer to double check it on-line. Agents move around, and often their guidelines will change from what’s shown on a current year’s print listing. So for this example, let’s head over to Bookends Literary Agency. This is one of the better submission pages I have seen. If you read the whole page (including following the various links), you will learn what they are looking for and how they want it sent.

Notice a few things. First, they are only accepting unsolicited manuscripts via e-mail. Let me just step in for a minute and say, “Hallelujah!” Those of you who know me, know that I believe paper submissions—in particular the whole SASE idea—is a waste of time, paper, and money. We are in an electronic age, and it’s about time more agents did away with the wasteful practice of sending out reams of paper and using countless stamps just to hear, “No thank you.” I LOVE the fact that Bookends is doing away with all of that.

Second, they clearly tell you what they are actively looking for. Can’t get much easier than that. If you fall into one of these categories, submit away. If not, find another agent.

Last, they tell you how to send your information to them. If you are not familiar with what a query letter is, read their whole FAQ, it is a wealth of information. There are a gazillion different ways to package a query, but remember that a query is like the clothes you wear to an interview. It won’t get you the job, but it could very well disqualify you. Bookends does a great job of identifying what they want in a query letter.

1) Your name, address, phone number, e-mail address, and any other pertinent contact information. This is pretty self-explanatory. But make sure your information is up to date and that this contact info is included with every piece of correspondence you send. More than once, an agent has read something they really liked, only to discover they have no way of contacting the author. Also, make sure you spell the agent’s name right. Misspelling an agent’s name is not the way to get off on the right foot with them.

2) The book's title, the genre it best fits into, and the length or word count. Keep it simple here. Death in a Fruit Cellar, cozy mystery, approximately 73,000 words. Do NOT try to get fancy here with something like: Working title, Death in a Fruit Cellar (but I’m open to changing this), mystery/thriller with a touch of romance and intrigue. Word count about 73,000 (I’m not sure as I haven’t finished writing it yet.

3) A very brief synopsis of your book. This is the most important piece of the letter since this is the one thing that's going to hook the agent. We don't need to know every detail of your secondary characters, but we do need to know what those key things are about your book that makes it different or special. To use one of our own books as an example:

"Featuring amateur sleuth and wine expert Nikki Sands, Murder Uncorked is the first in a proposed series set in California's wine country. When Nikki stumbles upon a body in Napa Valley, it isn't long before her nosiness gets the best of her. Now she's knee-deep in trouble and must find the killer before he finds her. In addition to a terrific cozy mystery, I've incorporated wine-pairing suggestions with delicious wine country recipes."

Pay attention to the brief part. That is the agent giving you a big hint about what they will throw in the trash. A query letter should never be more than a single page (I know we are dealing with e-mail here, but you still know what a page looks like.) The hook should be no more than two paragraphs max! The hook should include: who the protagonist is, what he is trying to accomplish, what stands in his way, and the consequences of failure. This is not a synopsis. Save that for later. This is a hook that makes the agent go, “Wow! I’ve got to see more of this.”

4) A bio that highlights any significant writing experience you have had. Key word here, significant. Do not tell the agent about how much the neighbor kids (or your grandma) liked your book. Do not tell the agent how many other agents rejected you before. Do not tell the agent about all of your other unpublished works. Keep it simple. Previous publishing experience. Awards. Marketing experience that is applicable to this work. If you don’t have any previous experience, just leave this blank. Don’t try to make something up.

Let’s put this into action with a sample query letter:

In 1964, in the small town of Twin Forks, Utah six second graders were lost in a Utah gold mine. After days of searching, five of the children were found. The sixth was never recovered, and eventually the mine entrance was dynamited closed. Now, more than thirty years later, tragedy has returned to Twin Forks. Someone is killing the survivors of the mine incident. All clues seem to point Cal Hunt, Chief of the Twin Fork’s Police Department, to the dead boy’s ghost.

Struggling to deal with the recent and unexpected death of his wife, Cal must stop the killings before all the survivors end up dead, while unraveling the secret of what happened in the mine all those years ago. In order to do that, he may have to admit the presence of the supernatural and come to grips with his wife’s passing.

Dark Memories is a 102,000 word supernatural thriller. I have previously published a nonfiction book on rose pruning and several magazine articles. I have an excellent PR background and have procured interviews with television, radio, and print media. I have also taught many writing classes and seminars.
If you would like to see more of my novel, I can be reached at 801-555-1212 or e-mail me at


J Scott Savage

That’s all there is to it. Keep it simple. Make it interesting. Check very, very carefully for typos. Your manuscript may not be perfect, but sending a query letter with misspellings and poor grammar is not the way to impress an agent. Finally, once you send out your query, forget about it and move onto other things. Do NOT send another e-mail a week later, saying, “Hi! Just wanted to make sure you received my query.”

In part three, we will focus on how many queries to send out at a time, who to send them to, and what happens if the agent asks for more. And remember, there are lots of scams out there. NEVER, EVER pay an agent or publisher. The money should always flow to you. Not the other way around.