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Books I Might Not DNF

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To say I’ve been in a reading slump for the past few years would be an understatement. I’m not sure why. I used to read voraciously. I mean like at least two or three books per week. Even ‘way back when I was a single mom who had to get up at 5:AM to go to work, I would stay up late reading.

For the past several years, though, I simply haven’t been able to get interested in very many new books. I mean, I still keep buying them! Hope springs eternal, right? I even try reading one of them, once in a while. Unfortunately, I Do Not Finish far more than I finish. My To Be Read piles now totter near the ceiling!

Maybe today’s books, like today’s movies and TV shows, “just aren’t as good as they made them back in my day, sonny.” (That makes me sound real young and vibrant, doesn’t it?) Maybe my brain is just too old and tired for reading, anymore? But I can still re-read my old books (and watch old TV shows, for that matter) over and over! It’s just the newer stuff I can’t seem to get into. I mean I literally can’t make myself read more than the first 20 pages or so of most modern books without being drawn away by something that compels my interest much more intensely, such as cleaning the bathroom or folding laundry.

But! I am told that if I want to be a traditionally published author, I need to converse knowledgeably about today’s literature market, and be able to tell an agent my work is comparable to [insert author and title published within the last five – or preferably two – years] or, as they say, “provide good comps.”

So I came up with a plan. I sorted my To Be Read pile by publication date and put all the books published more than five years ago (with a few exceptions, noted below) into boxes to donate to Dog Eared Books. Then I sat myself down, and told my household I was not getting up again until I had read the beginning of every single one of the remaining books. 

The idea was to get all of these beginnings into my head, and let them stew there awhile. If, while stewing, any of these beginnings should persistently call me back to read the rest of the book I would, you know, actually finish reading it!

A few days later, I went back and sorted the books into two piles. One, I mentally labeled “Will Probably DNF.” The other contains books I have high hopes of actually finishing. Their beginnings are still bright and distinct in my mind, and I’m actually excited about them. But most of all, to my surprise and delight, the “Might Actually Finish” pile turns out to be the taller of the two! Maybe, this time, I won’t get bogged down in books I spend weeks trying to force myself through, precipitating another slump.

Books I Might Finish

An Enchantment of RavensMargaret Rogerson 
This book is a little dated for use as a comp (2017) but people keep telling me I’ll like it, and now I can see why. It’s got real magic in it, but so far the magic doesn’t want to splatter everyone’s guts all over the walls. The voice of the narrator, an artist who does portraits for the fey folk, is smart and funny. So far, I can’t tell if it’s set in a contemporary era or what. Era may well be irrelevant for this particular story-world. If it turns out I do like it, I understand the author has some more recent books in the same series. If the setting turns out to be contemporary, these could work for me as comps.

Mistress of SpicesChitra Banerjee Divakaruni 
Okay this one was published all the way back in 1997. But I want to finish it even though there’s no way I can use it as a comp, because so far it is (pardon my language) Fucking Brilliant. I love the narrator’s voice. It’s beautiful and enchanting, like we’re listening to a sweet, old ghost tell her tale. (I don’t know, maybe we are?)

Tales From the Gas Station, Volume 1 – Jack Townsend
Think Night Vale meets David Wong. I know, right? If I don’t like “dark and gritty” then why do I love these things? But all these works are, at heart, deadpan, satirical, tongue-in-cheek commentary on how stupid the human race is, and I eat that stuff up. This book was published in 2018, but I can’t use it as a comp because apparently it’s self-published. But I’m going to finish it anyway.

Black Water Sister – Zen Cho
Finally! A traditionally published (2021) Contemporary Fantasy that is still enchanting, lyrical, lovely, intelligent, and not drenched in dismembered limbs. Not so far, anyway. Another book with lovely “voice.” I’m really looking forward to following the rest of this modern-day woman’s journey into magic. But if it turns out she’s only hearing ghosts because she has a brain tumor or something, I swear to god I will burn this book right on the living room rug!

This Book is Full of Spiders – David Wong
Speaking of David Wong. This is his sequel to “John Dies at the End,” the book I often cite as the last book (2009) that kept me up reading into the wee hours because I couldn’t put it down. I bought this sequel in 2012 but I confess I have put off reading it because I was terrified it would disappoint me, thereby tarnishing my beloved memory of the first volume. So far, though, I am not disappointed. So far, so good!

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig 
Published in 2020. I haven’t got to where anything magical has actually happened yet, but I think I can tell by now that this author won’t be trying to conflate fantasy with horror. The voice is very lyrical. The construction of the storyline itself is also an interesting time-skipping device, done properly. I’ll let you know how it goes. It might legit turn out to be useful as a comp.

Books I Will Probably DNF

I put these aside, rather than into the donation box, because I tell myself I “might finish them someday, after I finish the others, and if something new doesn’t come along by then that I’ll find worth reading.” In other words, I almost certainly will not finish them, and will end up donating them ten years from now or something.

Dead Heads (Gloomwood Book 1) – Ross Young
The premise is cute so far but, 20 pages in, still nothing is actually happening. We are still being introduced to a lot of (I think there are six, so far) POV characters who do a lot of world-building thinking aloud about life in the land of the dead, but we keep hopping from one POV to the next, like, every page and a half or so, and none of them has a unique enough voice for me to be able to keep track of which one is who.

Kings of the Wyld – Nicholas Eames
Unlike the rest of this pile, I actually started this one a few months ago. But one day, after I stuck in the bookmark and went to dinner, I found myself not motivated to pick it up again. I was enjoying it quite a bit at first, but 15 chapters in (out of 53) I’m finding the “aging hero” jokes are starting to wear a bit thin. The premise was cute, and the rock-music references really rocked, but now it’s all just devolved to a bunch of manly men doing manly-man things, and I’ve always found that stuff tedious. I have a feeling we’ve already reached the mushy (and greatly protracted) middle; there are still two inches of pages in my right hand and the story has started going nowhere fast. I’m not even sure I care anymore about the far-off adult daughter caught in a besieged city who they, ostensibly, are intending to eventually rescue, since even if, after about a thousand more manly battle-pratfalls, they ever do win through to her and get her out, it’ll only be to let her live “free” in an altogether dismal, war-torn world without a speck of beauty anywhere in it. I’m sure there will be sequels (if there isn’t one already.)

The Other Black Girl – Zakiya Dalila Harris
I have to admit I was intrigued by the premise of the story even though it’s not even remotely fantasy. But it has reminded me of why I don’t care much for what they call Literary Fiction. Or is this Women’s Fiction? Literary Women’s Fiction, I don’t know. Anyway I’m 22 pages in (counting the prologue, a thing I’m told no debut author should ever attempt to get away with) and we’ve had about 20 pages of introspection and retrospection. Of the 3 brief passages that could be construed as “action” or “dialogue,” two of them have been conversations held over a cubicle divider. And by “conversations” I mean the other character speaks and then the main character introspects, for a few paragraphs, about what they said. I mean, at least get up and walk to the water cooler or something while doing all this deep thinking, FGS! The whole thing so far is like reading some long and rambling blog post… oh, wait…

Anyway, before you try to recommend them to me, I have already DNFed:

  • The Golem and the Djinni
  • The Bear and the Nightingale
  • Nevernight

I won’t go into great detail about why I DNFed these, other than to say the first two pissed me off by being the much-touted debuts of authors who got away with things I am told I should never, ever, ever do if I expect to be traditionally published, unless I’m already a bestselling author. Said things include, of course, prologues, as well as not even starting the story until after six chapters of events and characters we will never see again in the book. I might have finished these books regardless, of course, had I found them to be at all gripping, but they just slid out of my consciousness and didn’t call me back. As for Nevernight I can only say: please just stop. Just stop. Please.

Also. Some time ago, George R. R. Martin referred to his work as “Tolkien for grownups” and (after proposing he engage in several activities that are probably physically impossible) I vowed never to read or watch any of his work, ever. And to that I hold.

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Break Into Two

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I don’t always write according to any currently codified Story Structure, but when I do, it’s usually some form of the Three Act Structure.

I’ve found The Hero’s Journey to be a helpful guide in regulating my pacing, and also sometimes in figuring out just where the heck I’m going from here. Lately, though, I’ve become fascinated with Blake Snyder’s 15-beat “Save The Cat” structure. Not that I carefully adhere to it while actually writing, or anything like that, but on looking back I find I can deconstruct most of what I’ve written (or read, for that matter!) into these structures. I guess story, when you really let story tell itself through you, just naturally follows this sort of growth pattern. It’s in our DNA or something.

Anyway there’s a beat that almost all Three Act stories share, and that is the Break Into Two. And I don’t know why, but that’s just magical for me. I mean, all it really means is that this is where the story breaks into Act Two. Very prosaic.

But even knowing that, it still gives me shivers every time I hear it. Break Into Two. As far as I’m concerned, this is the real beginning of the story. The much-touted Inciting Incident is the very necessary beginning of the story itself, but it is usually something that happens to the character, outside of their control. The Break Into Two, on the other hand, is the beginning of the character’s story, because it’s something they choose willingly.

Here the character breaks their own world with their own hands. They know if they take one more step, they will plunge “down that damn rabbit-hole, where you know you can’t be saved.” But if they don’t take that step, there will be no story.

Couples and friendships are frequently broken up by the Break Into Two. When the old world is broken, the only hope of ever making it whole again is to forge unrelenting through the new world. The road is intimidatingly long, but the character shoulders their hastily-packed rucksack and sets out anyway (usually discovering too late that they have forgotten to bring a handkerchief.)

So I’ve just reached the Break Into Two in the [very rough] first draft of my current work in progress. This is the point where I, as the main character in my Author’s Journey, now honestly get a glimpse of just how far I have to go, how much work lies ahead of me, how ill-equipped I am to complete this task. It is also the point where I know there is no turning back. I’m as caught up in my character’s journey as my hapless character is, and abandoning the quest now would be as devastating for me as it would be for them.

Oh! Yes. About my story, my character, my current work in progress. I have given it the working title “Rivers and Roads” (you might remember this was also the original working title of Ghost of a Chance.) This, also, will probably change but I have realized there is definitely a theme (a river, and at least one road) running through all of my work, past and present. And yes, it’s the same river, in case you want to know. Just a different muddy riverbank.

Below is the blurb I’m writing toward. The content and wording, like the title, will almost certainly change as I get closer to the end, but now that I’ve reached the Break Into Two, it’s too late to turn back from the story itself.

Blurb v1.1 19June2021

Geddy Leigh Arkwright has a perfect, normal life – except she doesn’t. She vaguely remembers a magical childhood, wherein she believed in things more extraordinary than soul-stifling jobs and abusive fiancés. On the night when she decides she’s had enough, she throws her cell phone out her car window and sets off a chain of events which sends her tumbling, literally, into a hidden world of enchantment and mystery.

Only those who need a second chance can find the village of Tavisheen, or so its denizens keep telling her. Geddy isn’t sure she’s ever even had a first chance, but she checks into Keeper’s, a centuries-old country inn, anyway. After her initial shock at realizing not all of her fellow second-chancers are, strictly speaking, human, she begins to adjust to – and possibly even enjoy – her strange but intriguing new life.

But her old life comes back to haunt her when the dead body of her ex-fiancé turns up in the street in front of Keeper’s. She begins to understand it’s not so easy to leave your past behind by simply running away from it.

The Inn at night
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And so it begins. Again…

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Moon reflected in river

Yesterday I officially began writing my next series. I’m still not sure how I feel about this, but by the time I was able to stop myself writing I had penned over 4,000 words!  

I’ve been planning this, both in my head and on paper, for a long time. That’s probably why the first day’s writing went so smoothly. I’ve been saying, ever since I released A Midnight Clear, that I’d spend the first 3 months of 2021 reading, reading, reading – and then start writing again on April 1. But I have an appointment for my first Covid vaccination on April 1, so I said the heck with it, I’m just going to start writing right now.

I’d been thinking so obsessively about the beginning of the new story for so long that by the time I sat down to write it, I couldn’t stop until I came to the end of … well, what I’d thought was going to be the first chapter. Turns out it’s probably more like three chapters. Am I overwriting again? That’s what I do. I have set myself a goal of 80,000 words for this first volume which, to make it more appealing to potential agents, is a “standalone with series potential.” I am determined to stick to this low word count. Well, 80K is low for me! I can always edit and make it shorter. I mean, I always have to do that anyway!

This is what some might call my “zero draft.” I write the initial draft by hand, with an actual pen, on actual paper. I understand old farts like me find the hand/body component of handwriting to be beneficial to our creativity. I don’t know about that, but being forced to slow down, if only to keep my handwriting legible, does give my brain time to imagine details and make connections to future scenes in the story. If I write on the computer at first, I end up having to go back and put these connections and details in later. I spend a lot less time fixing plot holes down the road, this way, and a lot less time lying awake at night trying to iron out problems in the story that just don’t happen in the first place when I write by hand.

So in a few minutes I’m going to start typing what I handwrote into a Word document. This will be what I refer to as my “first draft.” While I’m typing, I’ll do a bit of line-level editing.

But! I must discipline myself not to spend a lot of time doing syntactical or atmospheric edits at this stage! I have learned the hard way, after many years of struggling, that if I start seriously editing now, I will get stuck in an endless cycle of rewriting and revising one page, one paragraph, one sentence over and over, and will never finish the actual book. I now make it my strict policy to make sure I am at least 3 chapters ahead with my handwritten draft before I begin typing it in, and eight chapters ahead in my first typed draft before I allow myself to edit anything in previously typed chapters. Once I’ve worked my way to the end of the story this way, that is what I consider to be a finished first draft. After that come second, third, and subsequent drafts.

And so it begins. Again

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not sure how I feel about this new beginning. I feel the story itself is quite good – well, has the potential to be quite good – but I miss Woodley, and Cally and Georgie and all the rest. I really fell in love with that whole story-world and its characters, and I did it quite quickly! I still vividly remember how I felt when I left the coffee shop on that first day, after writing the first two chapters of Seven Turns. I felt like my feet weren’t even touching the sidewalk as I walked to my car. I was over the moon – and wishing I had someone I could talk to about what I was feeling! But there wasn’t anyone, at the time. That is actually a large part of the reason I created this blog, to tell you the truth. Just to have someone to talk to about how excited I was about my story, even if it was just a theoretical audience.

Well, I have a wonderful circle of writerly friends, now, and a real-world audience. And I was pleased with myself, yesterday, but not floating. I felt accomplished, but not in love. Cally et al are a hard act to follow, it seems. I like my new MC well enough. And I’m starting to get a little turned-on by the new love-interest, even though he’s only appeared for a few seconds so far. I’m looking forward to discovering the new town and its denizens. It really is a beautiful and intriguing place!

But I remain skeptical, somehow. I really hated having to say goodbye to Woodley, and now this new world feels kind of like a new pet. You know – one you adopt after losing one you’d loved for so long. You know you’ll come to love the new pet just as much in time – and you will! But it hasn’t happened yet.

The Inn at night

I guess I should be excited about finding out how it’s going to happen. Well, my new MC is a skeptical type herself, so maybe she and I will figure it all out together!

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What the Author in Your Life Really Wants for Christmas

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Authors are funny folks, and I don’t mean amusing (though I guess some of us do write darn good humor!) It’s hard to figure out what to give them as gifts for holidays and birthdays. You know they love to read, but you don’t know what they might already have read (Note: they have probably already read everything.) Well, gift certificates to bookstores are nice for everyone, not only writers. Just be sure to force the recipient to open a package to get to it, like everyone else has to do!

Nice notebooks are always at the top of a giver’s list, but here’s a secret: Should you ever sneak into a writer’s office or lair and peek inside one of the lovely journals lined up on their shelves (which is a terrible thing to do, and I am not suggesting you do it! But! Just saying, if you ever did!) you would find absolutely nothing on the pages. Except maybe a little note along the lines of: “Wow, this is such a nice journal – I hope I can think of something profound enough to write in it someday!”

We never use our nice notebooks! That would ruin them!

You can’t just write everyday drivel in a gorgeously bound journal – you have to write something eloquent and meaningful, immortal words you would not be ashamed to have as-yet-unborn generations discover and place in a museum, or at least make a fortune from on eBay.

The same goes for beautiful pens. Antique-looking, lacquered pens carved in the shapes of dragons or faeries are nice to collect, but writers don’t actually write with them. That would be sacrilege to the gods of lovely pens! Besides, if you are writing an average of 1,200 words an hour, fancy pens make your hand sore, and run out of ink far too quickly.

An internet search on “what to give a writer for Christmas” will turn up everything from computer bags to herbal tea to socks with famous literary quotes on them. Admittedly, these things are nice (I for one can never own enough socks!) Many of these lists also include mugs with snarky or inspiring quotes about writing. Authors do use these. I am almost as addicted to mugs as I am to socks.

Staff to take care of all the daily interruptions so they can just write for a dodgammed change would also be appreciated by your favorite writer. But if you can’t afford that, there is one very special thing you can give them that is pretty much free.

Writers want reviews!

Preferably good reviews, but even bad ones help.

It only takes a few minutes – less time than it takes to fill up your internet shopping cart, and since you’re already there anyway, why not stop and review one of your beloved author’s books? Heck, you can even perform a random act of holiday kindness and review the book of an author who’s a total stranger to you! Reviews help books rise in the “Recommended” lists, and thereby enable the the author to sell more copies.

Doing this is also a gift to readers, because it helps people find books they might enjoy reading.

Because in the end (and in the beginning, for that matter,) what authors really want is more readers.

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A Midnight Clear is available for pre-order

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After I launched Ghost of a Chance out into the newly locked-down 2020 world, I intended to take a purposeful break for a few months. I would do some reading, particularly of old, gothic classics such as “Jane Eyre.” Maybe even take a class or two to polish my craft.

As I carefully picked through my towering To Be Read pile (ready to run, in case it came crashing down on my head) I came across a notebook that looked vaguely familiar. Upon opening it I recognized my own “handwriting” and realized: this was the notebook in which I had penned my 2019 NaNoWriMo project. I remembered, then! I had written it to explore the idea of what Christmas must be like at Vale House in Woodley, USA.

I won NaNo that year, by the way. The rough draft was nearly complete at just over 50,000 words. All it needed was a bit of revising, a few editing passes, and hey presto, I could publish it in time to give it as Christmas gifts to all my beloved critique partners and beta readers. Right?

As you might expect, it turned out not to be as simple as that. “Revising” quickly became “completely rewriting,” and I soon found myself turning my back on my long-neglected TBR pile. I was still determined to keep this manuscript short, though. Well, short for me. Just a bit of Christmas fluff. A Hallmark special to tuck into the boxed set as bonus content, someday, maybe.

I just couldn’t stick with the “fluff” part, though. I found myself getting really serious about making this tale as fully-developed a story as the rest. The final result turned out, I think, a bit too dark for Hallmark. But it’s just the right flavor for existing fans of Woodley, USA and its quirky denizens. And I did manage to keep it down to around 50K! That is quite an accomplishment, for me. I’m really proud of myself about that!

I also believe A Midnight Clear, while it revisits many of the town’s most beloved characters, fills out their storylines and answers many reader questions about them, has turned out to be a story which is able to stand perfectly well on its own, even for people who have never read any of the other books.

It’s available for pre-order now in All the Usual Places, and will be officially released for retail sale on November 16, in time to get you into the spirit of whatever midwinter holiday you may be celebrating. And now, I promise, I will get to that Reading Pile, and I will take a Masterclass or Skillshare class (or maybe both!) And then I will begin research for my next series, coming soon to a mysteriously enchanted border-town near you.

Whatever you are celebrating this midwinter, I wish you warmth and cheer and good health and, if possible, loved ones all around you. To your health!

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Are You a Writer or an Author?

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The question gets percolated around Twitter all the time: Do you consider yourself to be an author, or merely a writer?

Little Author!

Here’s the thing: it’s not open for debate. The definitions of the words “author” and “writer” are about as clear and precise as the definitions of words like horse, pen, or coffee (she said, looking around the room for objects with clear-cut definitions.)

The word “author” has the same root as the word “authority.” If you have authority over a piece of writing, you are its author. Not aspiring. You actually are the author.

Most people make the mistake of thinking you are “merely a writer” until you get paid for what you wrote, and until then you are an “aspiring” author. Nothing could be further from the truth. I used to get paid to write all the time. I wrote technical manuals, software guides, corporate safety newsletters, website content, all kinds of stuff. And I got paid for it! But I was not the author of those materials. Those materials legally belonged to the company for which I wrote them. The bylines and copyrights on them referred to the company, and my name didn’t show up anywhere on any of them.

On the other hand, when I was a young teen, I wrote dozens of what you might call novels. They were read only by my closest friends and ended up being stashed in a shopping bag in my closet when I left home. I may have been aspiring…to get rich off them some magical day! But until then, I was still the author of those materials. The byline on all of them said “by Kim Beall.” And even though I was just a kid, the copyright to them legally belonged to me the moment I wrote them down. In very fact if anyone had published any parts of those works for any reason, even if they did not make any money from them, if they had not credited me as author they would have been breaking the law.

Note: there is one circumstance under which it is correct to refer to yourself as an “aspiring author.” That is if you are always only planning to write, but never actually do it! Then yes, you are aspiring like crazy here. You will become an author as soon as you start putting words on paper (or disc.) (Or cloud. You know what I mean!) But yes, until then, you are merely aspiring.

If you write stuff, you are a writer, regardless of whether your work is advertising copy or fan fiction. If you get paid for what you write, you might be an author, or you might be a corporate asset. Both these things are fine. But remember: if your name is on the things you wrote, you legally own the copyright to it and you are the author, even if you never make a dime. Every court in the land will refer to you “hereinafter as The Author,” should you ever find yourself having to reclaim your work from someone who misappropriated it. This is regardless of whether you or they ever make any money from it.

If you write stuff on which your name rightfully belongs, then stop calling yourself an “aspiring author.” Stop shrinking away from referring to yourself as what you actually are. You are an author. Own it!


PS: Those stories I wrote as a teen and left behind at my parents’ house? My mom saved them for me for decades, and gave them back to me when she knew I was old enough not to throw them out. Bless her – I hope she’s enjoying Heaven, now. Her corner of it, I am sure, has a WalMart and a Gabes within walking distance of a Red Lobster and an Asian buffet!

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Pre-order Ghost of a Chance

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Ghost of a Chance in eBook and Paperback coming May 31, 2020
Coming May 31!

This is the third and final story in Callaghan McCarthy’s story-cycle, but it is far from the last story to take place in the strange world in which she has found herself (which just might be, for all we know, actually the same world we all live in right now. *wink*)

The back-cover blurb says this:

A year after her arrival in Woodley, USA, Callaghan McCarthy has become the manager of Vale House, a haunted B&B on the edge of a faerie meadow. The town elders are letting her in on more and more of the closely-guarded secrets that make this strange town tick. Best of all, her relationship with Ben Dawes has blossomed into a full-blown romance.

She is supremely content with her lot, until one of the town’s most beloved citizens dies, turning her weird but happy little world upside down.

In the midst of the tumult, a famous television ghost-hunter offers to cleanse Vale House of its resident spirits. Naturally, Cally and the other staff flatly refuse this offer. After the obnoxious guest leaves, however, the ghosts seem to disappear with them.

Cally is determined to rescue her spectral friends and bring them home, though she begins to understand she must travel to a very dark place to find them. In order to succeed, she must do something that frightens her even more: she must learn to trust those who claim to love her.

The eBook is available for pre-order from Amazon right now for $2.99 through May 30. After it’s official release date, May 31, the price will go up to $3.99 so pre-order while you can!

The paperback version is also available for pre-order, but only through Barnes and Noble or (if you ask them nicely to acquire it for you) your local Independent Bookseller. Unfortunately, the A-word does not allow indy authors to provide pre-orders of paperbacks, which is just one of the many reasons why I like Independent Booksellers so much better!

If you don’t know where your nearest Independent Bookseller might be, you can check at Indiebound.org (I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out there are more than one of them, and closer to you than you thought, too!)

And now, dear readers, before I get to work on a whole, new series, I am going to take a break to just read and read and read! My To Be Read pile is nearing dangerous proportions – I’m afraid it could topple and injure someone. (I really should write a book about that, someday, shouldn’t I?)

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I Believe There’s a Ghost of a Chance

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Ghost of a Chance preliminary cover art

This whole pandemic thing has really squashed the mojo out of a lot of creative people I know. Though supportive of others, I believed myself immune to this effect, since the third volume of the Woodley, USA saga was already written and in Beta by the time the seriousness of our situation became undeniable. All I had left to do (I told myself) was edit and format – technical, left-brained tasks I would have no trouble performing under the stress I wasn’t admitting I felt anyway.

But I guess I was also subject to the creative brain-fog, after all, because I really have been procrastinating things I need to be doing to get this book out the door on time. For one thing, I’ve been completely neglecting this blog! And I was avoiding getting to work on my back-cover blurb the way I avoid doing my taxes.

What helped me break this block was deciding to work on cover art instead. Unable to summon my favorite model for a new photo-shoot, I went through all the old photos of green-screen Cally, and suddenly my mind was filled with possibilities! I arbitrarily selected a Cally and color-corrected her outfit, setting her against a background and adding the proper atmospheric elements. To my surprise and joy, the whole while, my back cover description played through and through my head. By the time I was done, my blurb was nearly ready for prime time.

But I continued to struggle with the title. And you can’t make a cover without a title!

For the first two volumes in the Woodley, USA series, I had employed working titles that eventually felt so right, I ended up keeping them as actual titles. This experience did not repeat itself for me, this time. My original working title, “Rivers and Roads,” just did not seem to fit the story anymore, once it became full-blown. I tried everything! Brainstorming with Beta readers and CPs, free-association drawing, scribbling random words on slips of paper and pulling them out of a zipper bag. Nothing worked.

So for a few days, I tried to clear my brain while watching YouTube video tributes to Neil Peart. It would be hard for me to proclaim any one Rush song as my favorite, but “Ghost of a Chance” has always been one of my top fifty or so. Now that Neil is gone, his beautiful lyrics feel all the more poignant. I’m not sure why I did, but for some reason I held the title of this song up against my manuscript. It literally gave me chills.

A quick online search showed me there are already hundreds of books out there with this title. Well, that was a bummer. I talked it over with my CPs and readers. They all said. “Yeah, but if it gives you chills…and by the way, it gives me chills, too.”

My Biggest Fangirl said “Always go with your chills!”

So. There you go. I believe there’s a Ghost of a Chance.

Because Neil.

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Do Not Disturb

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As a woman who is blessed to have met and married every woman’s dream: a partner who Loves To Talk to Her, I have had to resort to some extreme measures to obtain unbroken time to write without interruptions. These measures include but are not limited to: going somewhere else to write (I love my local coffee shop!) and erecting a large easel in front of my office door with “Shhh!” spelled out in glittery hearts on a large project board. Unfortunately, I have not yet figured out how to attach electrified concertina wire to this sign, so it’s all too easy for said beloved partner to just poke their head around it and interrupt “for just a sec – I promise this really is important!” several times per hour.

In an attempt to clarify what actually is and is not important enough to interrupt me with while I am writing, I drew up the following document. I don’t know if it will help, but I offer it here for you to use as a template should you find yourself encountering similar difficulties communicating boundaries to your well-meaning loved ones. (Note: My husband is a consultant who teaches online business classes to adults, so you may need to edit the “Basic Rule of Thumb” to fit your own situation.)

When It Is OK to Disturb Me While I Am Writing

Basic Rule of Thumb: Do not call my cell phone or pop in to personally speak with me except for matters about which you, yourself, would find it appropriate for someone to interrupt you while you are actively in the process of teaching a class full of live human students.

To assist in clarification and choice-making, Specific Instances of such matters are defined below.

Specific Instances:

Do not attempt to speak with me during my writing day unless one or more of the following conditions has been met:

  • Our house is on fire
  • The house of Someone I Care About* is or has recently been on fire
  • The town we live in is on fire
  • The town I work in is on fire
  • You have a lead on a new puppy for me but want me to meet it before you commit
  • Someone I Care About* (see definitions in the “People I Care About” section below):
    • is dying
    • has died
    • needs to be bailed out of jail
    • is in Grave Mortal Danger

(Note: “Grave Mortal Danger” may include but is not limited to being admitted to the hospital or having been in an accident. “Grave Mortal Danger” does not include wanting money to pay bills, has the flu, has an administrative question, wonders where something is, is concerned or excited about the status of Today’s Politics, or has heard a great joke.)

  • Viggo Mortensen and/or Geddy Lee and/or the ghost of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien are standing at the door asking to talk to me
  • Peter Jackson called and wants to discuss the movie rights for my book
  • A movie producer other than Peter Jackson has called and wants to discuss the movie rights for my book AND will rescind their offer unless I call them back before evening

Everything else, including a unicorn taking up residence in the potting shed, can wait until evening. Also, if Christ has returned, I probably already know about it.

* People I Care About

For purposes of the above Instances, the following individuals fall under the category “Someone I Care About.” (Please note that I have additional friends scattered throughout the world, about whom I do care, but these would be most likely to contact me directly rather than through you via our landline.)

  • you
  • my children and/or their spouses and/or their children or anyone about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • your children and/or your children’s significant others and/or your children’s significant others’ children or anyone about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • my siblings and/or their spouses or children and/or their children’s spouses or children or anyone about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • my cousin and her spouse and children or anyone about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • my last two remaining aunts or anyone about whom they are concerned enough to contact us (I do not, as far as I know, have any remaining uncles. If someone calls claiming to be my uncle, he is almost certainly a scammer.)
  • Any of our immediate neighbors, or anyone (except Donald Trump) about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • Any former member of my son’s rock band, including Hunter’s dog Zappa, or anyone (except Donald Trump) about whom they are concerned enough to contact us
  • Our cats (but not the chickens. I mean, I care about them and all, but their demises are rather too common to be remarkable anymore.)

Note that I do not include my parents or your parents in the above list, as they are deceased, but if any one or more of them attempts to contact us for any reason at all, please do feel free to interrupt me!

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A Cordial Invitation to Prove Me Wrong

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No, seriously. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t find any comps for my own work, and that is a Big Problem. So I would be delighted if you could prove me wrong.

Do you believe?

I am trying to find a way to say all this without being negative, but I’m having a hard time not going into rant-mode. Thank you for bearing with me as I try again.

Conventional advice, for authors who want to be traditionally published, states that I need to read, read, read so that I can demonstrate my knowledge of the market and so that I will know, when the time comes, what books and authors to use for comps. And! That’s not good enough: said books need to have been written within the past five years; said authors need to have debuted in the past five years. It’s the latter part of this I’m having tremendous trouble with.

I have tried! I have tried and tried and tried, over the past five – OK, more like ten or even more – years, to find a new author, new books to love. I have, for the most part, failed. I even joined a book club that specifically reads and discusses fantasy books. They have introduced me to award-winning books by modern, traditionally published authors once a month. I have paid good money for these books, and forced myself to try to read them. I confess, I have finished few of them. My unedited gut-response would have been, “I enjoyed cleaning my toilets this week more than I enjoyed reading this book” if I weren’t trying to be nice at book club meetings.

Part of it is that I have reached an age where I realize life is too short to spend what little free time I can find, forcing myself to read or watch “entertainment” I am not enjoying. But, since I have started writing books, myself, much of my difficulty is that I utterly fail to understand why I should “just give it a chance. It finally stops being dreadful and begins to pick up and get good around page 100 or so…” when I know that I, as an author querying my own work, could never, ever, ever get away with that sort of thing! (I’m sorry, Meg La Torre, but I hated Nevernight. I really, really tried, but I haven’t been able to pick it back up since I put it down somewhere in the middle of chapter four.) It makes me want to tear my hair and yell “WTF!” Only, not the acronym.

I have, of course, also heard people in the publishing industry saying “OMG you should never let anyone in The Industry hear you saying you think everything coming out today is crap! That’s an insult to them and to all their clients and readers. How can you expect them to support you when you just got done insulting them?” And this is a legit point! But I’m not saying the books coming out in recent years are crap. They’re just not for me. I’m saying I really don’t think I could, or should, force myself to read, and then write, stuff I have never enjoyed and almost certainly never will, in order to obtain representation by claiming my own work is comparable to said other work. And I don’t think there’s an industry professional out there who would advise me to try to do that, anyway!

But it’s not like I’m not a reader and therefore don’t understand good storytelling. I used to read voraciously! From the time I was a pre-teen (um, that was in the 60s) until recently, I would literally read two or three books per week. Even when I was a parent of young children, living paycheck to paycheck and had to get up and go to work at 5 a.m., I would stay up late to finish that book, because I was enjoying it so much I couldn’t put it down.

These days, though, it feels like I’ve already read everything I might ever have enjoyed, and nobody is writing anything new for me. I swear I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say I would literally rather re-read a book I already own, over and over (and have done so) than read most of the stuff that is coming out nowadays. Did I say “most of?” I would actually settle for just a handful of new books I could enjoy, once in a while. Would, say, three or four a year be too much to ask?

Unfortunately I have, in the past five years, read two – count them: two! – traditionally published books I actually enjoyed. They were really good, too! I recommend them to everyone I talk to about books. One was Glimmerglass by Marly Youmans, and the other was John Dies at the End by David Wong. But I can’t use these as comps because neither of them is 1) in the genre I write in or 2) published in the last 5 years. (I have also enjoyed several self-published books, to which I have been exposed through networking with other writers. But I can’t use those as comps. Or can I?)

So, is it that there literally aren’t any good books coming out these days, or is it just that I’ve grown old and am unable to adapt anymore to “all that stuff kids today seem to think is so keen – get off my lawn!!!”

And, even if I, personally, don’t like the kind of stuff the kids on my lawn like, surely there are other readers out there my age? I’m a fekking Boomer, FGS! You would think there should be lots of readers like me out there, and other writers writing for their huge market-share. What are my contemporaries reading? Are they reading stuff they don’t enjoy, either, just to have something to read?

I am quite serious when I say what finally pushed me over the edge, after decades of intending to write a book “someday,” was the fiftieth or so time I left the bookstore disappointed and empty-handed because I could not, even with the help of the knowledgeable staff at my lovely indy bookstore, find anything I wanted to even take a chance on reading. That was when I realized I had to write it myself. Surely I can’t be the only person in the reading world who is looking for the kinds of things I’m looking for? In fact I know I’m not, because people (of all genders, but also of different ages) have told me they really enjoyed my work and hope there is more of it coming. (Only a couple of these were relatives, so you can stop right there with that line of response!)

What, exactly, am I looking for (and writing) then, that is in such dearth out there in the world that I not only have to write it myself, but also can’t find any comps in order to traditionally publish what I write? Because you know what happens when an author dares to say “But I can’t find anything like it.” The response is always:

“Oh, don’t be so precious. You are not that unique! Everyone thinks they’re writing ground-breaking stuff that nobody else has ever thought of before!”

But no. Seriously. I literally, honestly, absolutely am not kidding or even exaggerating when I say I Can Not Find anything like 1) what I want to read or 2) what I write.

So FYI, if you’ve made it this far and think you can help prove me wrong (and believe me, I want to be wrong about this!) here is what I want to read / am writing:

  1. First and foremost, it is written for adults, with adult protagonists. There’s a reason, dammit, why 70% of readers who purchase Young Adult fiction are actually Adult Adults. It’s because there are so many adult readers who want magic and wonder in their lives. They are forced to resort to the children’s section of the book store because Everyone Knows magic and enchantment cannot happen to grownups. At least, if it does, said magic can only be dark, miserable, painful, and end in dismay, making you regret for the rest of your life ever having wished for magic in the first place. To expect real enchantment without having to pay a dire price for it is childish, right? Once you grow up, you need to accept the fact that life is only about horrible things winning in the end. I think this is a terrible message the modern world is trying to ram down our throats, and the statistic above bears out my belief that I am not the only one who refuses to accept it.
  2. The magic (within the context of the book) must be real. Not some kind of Scooby-Doo trope where it was all just someone tricking the protagonist all along or, I don’t know, the fact that the protagonist was nucking futz the whole time.
  3. The female lead has to have a brain. Usually when I beg people to please, please, please direct me to a book or author who writes according to the first two criteria above, they inevitably say “Oh, sure! There’s this author who writes this whole Wacky Witch series!” and I go to Amazon and “Look Inside!” and realize it’s chick-lit. The entire plot revolves around the female lead being unable to stop making ditzy mistakes. Kind of an anti-Mary Sue sort of thing, I guess. If she had a brain, there’d be no story – it’s a laugh a minute.
    I honestly have no problem with chick-lit and a little mindless entertainment once in a while. I’ve even read a few of these stories, while floating in the pool with a margarita in my hand. The trouble is: it’s not what I write, so I can’t use it as a comp. Maybe I could do one of those cross-comp statements like: “My work is Kim Harrison meets an MC who is smarter than a hairbrush.” Might that work?
  4. Gore for the sake of gore, gratuitous violence, rape, incest, and (especially) suffering or endangered children are RIGHT OUT. Also I am completely over vampires and werewolves and other shifters, serial killers, and demons who have OCDs about not letting people’s guts stay inside them. I want (and write about) paranormal magic and entities, yes, but it is not automatically necessarily evil. Regardless of what Ed and Lorraine Warren tried to teach us, ghosts and demons are not the same thing. Get a dictionary! Anyway, a ghost does not have to want to rip your lungs out for you to be afraid of it, when you first meet it. The supernatural naturally frightens humans, just because we are not comfortable with The Unknown. It is this sense of “there is more to the world than we can possibly know” that I am after – not just the fear, for its own sake, which this realization initially causes. Besides, when a story becomes all about lovely people dying in grisly ways, for me, it is no longer scary – it is now tragic. I feel more pain than fear when forced to read or watch this stuff. If I wanted to pique my jaded modern emotions with profound sorrow, pain, and tragedy, all I’d have to do is turn on the news.
  5. Now we are getting into “preference” territory. That is to say, what follows are things I would love, love, love to see in books I might potentially buy, but am unable to find, no matter how hard I look. So I write them instead, which is why there really, literally, actually are no comps available, in modern literature for me to use. (Please prove me wrong! I would be so happy if you did!) These things are:
    • The stories take place in the modern age. Not in ancient Ireland or in some dystopian future. (I was over dystopia almost before it ever hit the scene, anyway.)
    • The stories take place in an ordinary setting wherein any one of us might find ourselves through no extraordinary means.
    • This ordinary setting is even, oh my god, is it even possible? In the good ol’ US of A! Rather than in some inaccessible, magical place such as Through A Portal or in the Cotswolds or some other place like that which doesn’t really exist. (No, I don’t believe the Cotswolds actually exist. After all, MS Word doesn’t believe they exist!)
    • The stories happen, as I’ve said, not only to actual grownups (with brains, remember) but to ones who are over twenty nine years old, who have some life experience. Maybe even have grown children of their own!

I could get away with using a story as a comp if the protag is only 27, or if it takes place in, say, modern-day Madrid, or ancient Ireland, or on another planet. One difference like this could work – two or more would be stretching it too far. With just one difference like this, I could do a combination-comp, along the lines of: “My work is like Amazing Positive Adult Fantasy That Takes Place In Ancient Ireland meets Contemporary Small Town USA. All I have to do is somehow find and read Amazing Positive Adult Fantasy That Takes Place In Ancient Ireland, published within the last five years. And I am legit having real trouble doing that.

The point I am trying to make, with my work, the sense I am trying to create, is that you, yes even you, a grown-ass adult who is successfully slogging through a standard adult life, could accidentally stumble at any moment into a world of magic and wonder. You can find out that dragons exist. Right here, right now, in your podunk little boring town. When you do, you will be able to bring your life experience to bear to not only survive this strange, new life, but also defeat the dragon, or maybe even make it your ally.

If you can point me to a book like that, I might be able to use it as a comp. Even if it wouldn’t work for me as a comp, I would be grateful because I would finally be able to read a new book all the way through!

Get off my lawn!
Get off my lawn!

If the kind of book I’m trying to buy/read/write is not edgy enough for you, fine. You do you. I am not writing for you. If you think the only people who like this sort of thing are laughable, weak-minded children, get off my lawn.

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