Guest Post: A View from the Critique by George Seaton

Several years ago when I was attending critique a lively discussion was prompted by one of the members asking the group if we thought of ourselves as writers or authors. I was surprised by the fervor some exhibited in response to that question. The person who’d brought it up was the group’s constant devil’s advocate, a young man whose demeanor was firmly categorical, his criticism blunt and sometimes unkind. When a few said they were authors, the young man aggressively responded that authors were published writers. There was disagreement on that point, and the young man countered with, “Well, raise your hand if you’re a published writer.” (I suppose one could argue that asking such a thing of folks whose singular ambition is to be published is a kind of shaming; if your hand doesn’t go up, well shame on you.) None of us had been published at that time, and no hands were raised. I gave a passing thought about the uselessness of labels and concluded the young man was as usual just giving another performance, just letting us know his ego was stoked that night. Who knows? Maybe that young man was just as frustrated as the rest of us; none of us had yet to publish our Great American Novel, and, by God, when would somebody see the worth of our talent?

I didn’t stay with the face-to-face critique group for very long.  Even though they were good people who shared my passions—to write and become published—I just had no talent for it. I was lousy at it. Who was I to tell another writer how they could improve their work? Hell, I had enough problems trying to figure out my own. The criticism? I took it well except when I didn’t. Besides that I found I was devoting more time preparing for critique than actually writing anything I was happy with.

After I’d left face-to-face critique, I joined an online group. We had three members, one of whom wrote from an assisted care facility way out on the eastern plains of Colorado. She was a delight. Her stories were as homey as I imagined she was. I don’t know where the other one lived, but from her writing I got the impression she was a Highlands Ranch soccer mom who had an interest in Biblical lore and murder mysteries which formed the basis of her storytelling. I believe it was the soccer mom who left first, and I left after that because, as I said, I was spending too much time on it. I did regret leaving my buddy out there on those pancake-flat plains to fend for herself. Though, if memory serves, the critique chair promised to hook her up with another online group. I hope that happened. Her stories were precious and they reminded me of Kent Haruf’s gems—clean construction and salt of the earth.

I’ve had some success over the years since leaving critique. My first published novel appeared in 2010. (I don’t count the novel I published in 2005. It was the product of a vanity press for which I paid a goodly sum. It was not ready for eyes other than mine to see. I’m not ashamed of it, but just a wee bit embarrassed that I had thought it was ready to see the light of day when now I know it clearly wasn’t. I suspect if I’d been attending critique at the time, and had let others see what I was up to, I probably would have heeded the criticism and polished it a lot more than I had.) The 2010 novel was published by a New York publisher. No,  not in Manhattan but Albion, six hours from the Big Apple and just off the shores of Lake Ontario. Small presses do abound, and I hooked up with one of them. Since 2010 three more of my novels have been published, as well as several novellas and short stories that have appeared in anthologies and some as stand-alone. I’ve not delved much into self-publishing and, truth be told, prefer to let someone else handle that part of the process. And, like every other writer I know, I’m working on several WIPs, writing every day, holed up in my writing room where the rest of the world knows to knock before entering.

I don’t think I’ll ever return to critique. I know I’d still be lousy at it. But, as I write this, I know there are those whose dreams have a much better chance of being fulfilled by attending critique than by not bothering with it. Not only for the constructive criticism that is essential to the process, but from the camaraderie as well. Something like everybody being in the same boat, working their oars, and all searching for landfall in the distance. That’s fine, some may say, but you didn’t stay with it. You gave up the ship. Well, I’m reminded of C.J. Box’s—former RMFW Writer of the Year and a New York Times Bestseller—response about his experience with critique: He said, and I paraphrase, “It just wasn’t for me.”

The point of all this is that we’re all different. I, for example, am a solitary writer with a quirk about letting anyone read my stuff before I send it off to a publisher. Others write good stuff in Starbucks, share it with fifteen friends, their critique partners, their Aunt Sybil in Paonia, and their Uncle Ted in Tulsa and then send it off for evaluation and hopefully a contract. We all do what we do because, yes, we are who we are. We can call ourselves writers or authors or whatever the hell we want to. I suppose what we can’t do, though, and I know you all share this sentiment, is give it up.

We breathe therefore we write.

 

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George Seaton lives and writes in Pine, Colorado. Learn more about him at http://www.georgeseatonauthor.com/

 

 

 

Do You Write Candy?

Do you write candy?

Or something—you hope—more filling?

Do you hope the next book you write is everyone’s guilty pleasure?

Or do you want readers to stop and admire your prose stylings like a rare orchid?

Do you want your readers to enjoy the experience as if they were going to an amusement park?

Or a museum?

Do you want to give Lee Child a run for his money?

Or Karl Ove Knausgaard?

Or ….

Or can you do both?

I’m fascinated by the line between “genre” and “literary.”

It’s an old fight. The Maginot Line has shifted over time, but not the arguments. There have always been literary snobs who look down their snouts at drivel from the “genre” hacks (who make millions).

And there have always been “genre” hacks who spurn dense tomes of navel-gazing as ponderous pieces of self-indulgence.

Can’t we all get along?

Is it possible to “upgrade” your techniques so you can reach audiences who yearn for some literary flair? Is it worth it? Necessary? A good idea?

Who says you need to upgrade and by the way, who decided it was an “upgrade”?

Should you just write your damn story and not care or worry about symbols, metaphors, alliteration or other literary devices?

Jack Kerouac said: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

Vladimir Nabokov said: “It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

Tom Clancy said: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”

Donald Barthelme said: “The combinatory agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”

P.D. James said: “The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action.” 

My pal Barry Wightman (Pepperland, a 1970’s rock n’ roll novel written with a savvy artfulness) will join me in wading into the chasm of this dispute during a workshop at Colorado Gold.

The workshop is called “From Pulp to Meta” (3:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11).

Where do you fit on the spectrum?

Where do you want to fit?

Leonard Nabokov

 

Guest Post: “We’d like to request an R&R” By Janet Fogg

Receiving any sort of positive response from an editor or agent is always a shiny moment, but when one such response included an acronym with multiple definitions, I found it impossible to resist substituting a few of those alternatives.

Excerpt from an editor's recent email after reviewing full manuscript:  [We've] highlighted a number of ways that the story could be tightened and angled a little more towards the target audience. We’d like to request an R&R if you’re open to taking a look at the notes.  Please let me know how you’d like to proceed.

R&R?

Rest and recuperation?  Reading our manuscript must have exhausted this editor.  Poor thing.  Yes, please take some R&R.  Wind and waves?  Mountains and trails?  Regardless, margaritas are on us.

Refuse and resist!  This could work.  In fact a friend of mine had an agent request revisions three times before declining to represent her manuscript.  That didn't seem fair when it happened and it still doesn't sit well with me.  I suspect my friend might refuse any query-related R&R unless it's for rest and recuperation.  And margaritas.

Roles and responsibility?  This one's easy!  My role is to write a terrific book.  Yours, dearest editor, is to offer a multi-book contract with a million dollar advance.  Wait, that creates too much performance pressure.  How about a nice six figure advance?  Yep.  That'll work perfectly.

Revise and resubmit?  Or request for revisions?  This is what the editor meant and his notes  provided some terrific insight.  Did I agree with all of his suggestions?  After re-reading our manuscript with his suggestions in mind, I did.

However...

My first agent tried to sell my third novel for about six months, and after a number of declines she received a request for revisions (R&R) from an editor.  As in, change the book from dark fantasy into a romance.  A complete re-write.  I pondered this for a long time.  After all, I'd hooked that agent with the dark fantasy version.  Plus, I'd never set out to write "romance."  After some R&R (Research and Reconnaissance) about what was selling well (Romance and more Romance), I decided to try a few chapters, which evolved into my changing the entire story.  And that version did sell, ultimately earning a HOLT Medallion for Best First Book. (Romance Rocks!)

For this newest manuscript, even though the editor liked the revisions, he eventually declined because of word count.  (Hello!  We only cut 2,000 words!)  But all is well.  I'm enormously grateful for his R&R (Review and Recommendations), as the new, improved version is so much better and already under consideration by an agent.

Do I love R&R?  You betcha!  (Rock and roll, baby!  Rock and roll!)

Have you received a request for revisions from an editor or agent before signing a contract?  Did you choose to edit your manuscript?

 

Janet Fogg

www.janetfogg.com

Janet Fogg’s interest in writing began in the 5th grade when she won bronze for a statewide essay contest. Her focus on writing flourished while CFO and Managing Principal of OZ Architecture. Several decades and 15 writing awards later she resigned from OZ to follow the yellow brick road, and 10 months after that signed a contract for Soliloquy, her HOLT Medallion Award of Merit winner. Her military history, Fogg in the Cockpit, co-written with her husband, Richard, received an Air Force Historical Foundation nomination for best WWII book reviewed in Air Power History.

Janet joined RMFW in 1993 and has volunteered at conference and served on RMFW's Board of Directors. She has also served on the boards of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Boulder, Inc., OZ Architecture, and KGA Studio Architects, P.C.

 

I’m Better Than You

So in this writing game, part of the currency authors are paid in is status. Money might come, but even more important than fabulous cash prizes, in some circles, is status.

And how do you get status? Oh, the status game has many markers.  Who is your agent? Oh, that’s your agent? Wow. You get a hundred status points.

What is the name of your publisher? Oh, you signed a book deal and got a huge advance? You get two hundred status points. And since you earned out, you get bonus status points!

Friends on Facebook? One status point for every friend. Each like above one hundred likes gives you a status point. Traffic to your blog? You have to get at least five hundred hits a day to start accruing status points.

Twitter, Instagram, Wattpad, all work similarly. Email me privately and I’ll let you in on how status points work on those platforms.

A good review in the Publisher’s Weekly? That’s fifty status points, and if they like it, more bonus points. A starred review gives you the gold star bonus. I’ve heard you get special powers if you get the gold star bonus.

A good Kirkus Review? Well, that depends. The Indie Kirkus review only gives you twelve bonus points, but if you get a “real” Kirkus Review, well, that’s forty-nine points.

Are you an Amazon bestseller? Well, in what subcategory? You see, if your book is in the top 100 across all of Amazon, that is a thousand status points. If you are a bestseller in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Children's eBooks > Science Fiction, Fantasy & Scary Stories > Fantasy & Magic > Coming of Age>Judaism>Horror>Golems, well, you get an honorary five status points, but not much else.

Are you a U.S.A Today bestseller? Impressive. I’ll give you forty-eight status points.

Are you in the “real” game? Are you a New York Times Bestselling author? For realz? If you are, I bet you don’t use the word “realz”.

For every spot on the list, you get exponentially more status points. If you’re like fiftieth, you get X amount of status points. If you are #1? You get X to the fiftieth power. You can use your status points to buy the following: purse dogs, private jets, a date with Kanye West (to convince him to read novels), and a spot on Oprah, which I know is so over, but we have a time machine for you.

If you are #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks in a row, your bonus points quadruple, and you transcend status points. Now, you can count your status in chits.

One trillion status points equals one chit. And one trillion chits equals a Schrute buck. Google Schrute bucks. I love The Office.

I know what you’re thinking. That Aaron Michael Ritchey (three names gives me one status point automatically) is stomping around in his own sour grapes. You are totally right. I get jealous. I have a few status points, sure I do, but not as many as I want.

In the end, I had to really think on this issue. Is status my end goal? Is that why I’m in the game?

To be honest, at first, yeah, that’s what I wanted. I wanted the golden ticket. I wanted to be intrinsically better than you. I wanted you to bow down before my genius and kiss my ring.

And then, the status didn’t come like I wanted, and you know, it might not come.

Which makes me wonder why I’m writing?

I have my answer. I want to write books. I want to write a lot of books. I want to write books with people, and I want to write books alone. And since I already wrote for twenty years without publishing my work, I want to spend the next twenty years publishing what I write because for me, if I don’t get my work out in the world, it loses its meaning. For me, writing must be a selfless act, and for it to be selfless, I must let go of my fear and publish books, by any means necessary.

The status may or may not come.

But the books? The time I spend writing?

It becomes something you can’t buy with status points, chits, or Schrute bucks.

The time I spend crafting novels becomes priceless. And when I’m holding my books in my hand, I’m holding the minutes of my life. After all, I only have a few precious minutes alive on this planet, and I want to use those minutes to write.

However, for every comment on this blog post, I get one status point. Hurray! And for the record, I don't think I'm better than you.

It’s Perfect. Almost.

I sent 25 pages of my just-finished manuscript to a contest last week, but not before I’d gone over it carefully. My critique group had reviewed it. My beta reader had gone through it. I went over it a couple more times before I sent it - damn, it looked good. Yeah!

Then it was time to get the first 10 pages of the same manuscript ready for the critique roundtable I’d signed up for at Gold. Another several rounds of edits. A few punctuation changes. Better, more descriptive words here and there. I liked it! So it got packaged up and shipped off to the coordinator.

Then, because I’m on a roll, I decided to enter another contest. It’s 25 pages again, so there were more edits to the extra 15 pages. Then another hard re-read of the whole thing. Suddenly, out of the blue, I realized that pages 2 and 3 were important, but not important enough to be there. Arrgghhhh! I cut those pages out, and put them at the end with my story notes so I can go back and work those pieces of information back in where they REALLY needed to be. Then I read the story again without the pages and, yep, it’s better.

perfectionSo where am I going with this blog? I thought the submission was ready. Then I really thought it was ready. Now I really hope it was ready because I couldn’t see anything else that bothered me. But perfect? No. I don’t think such a thing exists, in books or elsewhere. Even if the mechanics are perfect with no typos or grammatical errors, I'd be willing to bet there was more than one word or scene choice the author wishes had been different before it went to print. Something. You can bet I’ll be going through the entire manuscript several more times, as well as having beta/critique reads, before I make the mistake of submitting the whole thing to an agent or editor.

No story should be submitted until the writer feels it is as close to perfect as it possibly can be. That means critique groups, beta readers, contests, workshops, conferences, and edits, edits, and more edits. When all those others seem to agree with you that it’s a great story and no one, including you, has any idea on how it can be improved (as in, not just rearranged to death), then you need to find the right person or place to send it to. Because it’s easy to get into a rut by convincing yourself that it needs more—more or different words, more time, more pages, more something that you’re sure you’ll know what it is tomorrow. And so that book, which could be the next best seller, never sees the light of day.

So polish the heck out of it, make sure others who know what they’re looking at—and for—think it’s ready, then submit the sucker. And….Write On!

Three Rules for Writing a Novel by Leod Fitz

According to W. Somerset Maugham, “There are three rules for writing a novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

I have no idea who W. Somerset Maugham is, or what he wrote, but clearly he was a man of intellect and discernment.Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 6.24.46 AM

No, I know what you’re thinking:  You’re thinking, “Leod, you’re a visionary genius, surely you’ve sorted out what one of these rules is?”

Yes.  Yes I have.  But I’m not going to tell you, and it isn’t because I don’t know, it’s because of… other reasons.  Totally legitimate reasons.

But I’m getting off topic.  What I wanted to discuss today are the three rules of promotion.  Unlike the rules of writing, the three rules of promotion were figured out years and years ago, presumably by the guy who invented the toga and then convinced the entire Roman world that not only was wearing a sheet a perfectly legitimate ‘style,’ but that they should pay him for his specially made sheets.

Or her specially made sheets.  I don’t actually know who it was selling the sheets.

This sacred knowledge has been handed down, generation after generation, century after century, hidden, lost, found again, then lost again, and finally found again.  Now, after years of secrecy, I have discovered it and am prepared to share it with the world.

Of course, those of you who’ve taken the time to look me up on google are probably asking yourself, ‘hey, if this Leod guy has figured out the secrets to marketing, why is it that the internet has never heard of him?’

Well, maybe the internet is just stupid.  Huh?  Did you consider that, smart guy?

Anyway, where was I?  Okay, the secrets of marketing and promotion.

I should explain: years ago I embarked on a sacred quest.  I scoured the earth interviewing hundreds of people, spending a small fortune searching for the hidden truths that would guide us all into a bright new world, a world where great works wouldn’t lie unread, because nobody wanted to read a book with that few reviews, and there was no way to get it enough reviews until people started to read it.  A world where a bad book cover wouldn’t spell the end for a brilliant new novel.  A world where you didn’t need to tell people the cool twist at the end of your story just to get them to start reading it.

It took years, but I found the ancient secrets in a small bodega in a middle-eastern country, owned by an ancient woman with skin so wrinkled I thought she was a bag that somebody had deflated.

I took the parchment she gave me back to home and had it translated, and here they are.  The three sacred rules for marketing.

  1. Focus your attention on the people who end up buying your product.  You’ll find that your other efforts are largely wasted.
  2. Try to make advertisements that people will notice.  The best way to do this is to avoid making advertisements that people don’t notice.
  3. While some might argue that all publicity is good, in most cases you will find that good publicity is better.

I have since learned that the woman in the bodega makes most of her money selling scraps of parchment to treasure hunters.  I wonder if I can convince her include one of my promotional bookmarks in each sale?

 

Alpha group 2Leod D. Fitzless has been a writer for nearly as long has he has been a reader.  Absurdly fascinated by the power of the written word, he realized at a young age that the only career which held any interest for him was that of an author.  When he isn’t pouring his blood, sweat, and tears onto the page, he’s selling his blood to plasma clinics, his sweat to a variety of employers, and his tears to pretty much anyone who'll buy them.  He’s worked as an animal caretaker, a shelf stocker, a farmhand and warehouse employee, but he’s always been a writer at heart.

The Happiness Advantage – Don’t set a goal without it!

Last month we explored the topic of happiness, and how we can regain the joy of writing we felt when we first started writing. We can boost happiness by establishing a few simple daily habits--very important, because we can think best when we’re happy. Because we naturally store negative events in a deeper, more permanent way than positive experiences, there is a dismaying propensity to embed the negative ones. We can overcome that by investing extra effort to focus on our good experiences.

Are you happy? How do you feel right now? Anxious, worried, with the ol’ inner voice whining and complaining?

Shawn Achor, head of Goodthink and author of The Happiness Advantage, talks about how we have been fed the life formula of “Success First, Happiness Second.” If we can just get published, we’ll be happy. If we can just get a higher advance we’ll be happy. If we can just win the Golden Heart or the (fill in the blank Award), we’ll be happy. If we can just lose twenty pounds, we’ll be happy.

It’s a formula that doesn’t work, because as we achieve one thing, we set the bar higher and keep chasing that next goal. The formula keeps repeating in our heads, eroding that delicate happiness state for which we worked so hard.

Achor says we’ve got it all backwards. We should not be gaining success to be happy; we should find happiness, which will help us to succeed. Happiness and optimism, she says, is what fuels the success! Positive brains are more motivated, efficient, and creative. Achor quotes John Milton from Paradise Lost: “The Mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

Think of that. Your mind is beautiful. Powerful. Are we focusing on the joy and rewards of writing, or are we hung up on the difficulties, the competition, the stress, or lack of appropriate rewards?

* * * * * * *
“The Mind is its own place,
and in itself can make a heaven of hell,
a hell of heaven.”

* * * * * * *

Don’t worry, be happy. And how do we get there? And stay there? We needn’t become non-stop zombie smile fanatics, but think of the boost we get from talking to an optimistic, happy person. Like some giant, woot-woot magnet, that type of person attracts people, and their happiness is contagious. Short of hiring a talented clown as a full-time body guard, though, how do we “get” and “stay” happy?

In a Denver Post interview with Achor, he gives some suggestions. If you’ve read something similar before and forgotten it after you walked away from the magazine or newspaper, don’t walk away now. Read these tips. Re-read them, and think about how you can integrate some of these behaviors and methods, so you can be happy, and then be successful.

Three Acts of Gratitude. Just two minutes a day, write down three new things for which you’re grateful. Do it for 21 days. The frequency and repetition are powerful because you’re training your brain and, in doing so, will begin to see the world with fresh, happiness-inspiring eyes. Achor warns about generalities, because they don’t work. Rather than “My health,” my kids, my home,” etc., be specific: “I’m grateful for my daughter because she called to ask my opinion. What I think matters to her.” Or, “I’m grateful because I was alert and caught the fine print in that contract, before I signed it.”

The Doubler. Again, for two minutes a day, think of one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours. You’re a writer, so I know you can provide details about it. This can double the most meaningful experience in your brain. Doing it for 21 days will help your brain connect the dots, and you will begin to see and feel the meaning that runs through your life.

The Fun Fifteen. 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day is, Achor says, the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant. With successful completion of just 15 minutes, your brain records a victory, which carries over into your next activity.

Breathe. For two minutes become conscious of your breath going in and out. Fill your lungs, be aware. This has been proven to raise accuracy rates and increase levels of happiness. And drops stress levels.

Happiness, Achor says, is a huge advantage in our lives. When the human brain is positive our intelligence rises. We stop diverting resources to think about anxiety.

Our creativity triples.

More next month. I’ll be asking you if you tried the Three Acts of Gratitude, the Fun Fifteen, and the Breathing. Give it a try, and let’s meet again next month and compare notes.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Non-Human Characters

Birds and beasts, werewolves and vampires, fairies and trolls, rakshasas and dragons and inari okami (and did you think of a western European dragon or a Chinese dragon)? Aliens. Some or all of these can populate your work . . . for good or ill.

Liesa Malik and I will be talking about writing non-human characters at the Colorado Gold Conference, so this post is short because it's a teaser to come to that workshop and I want to invite you to come and talk to us about YOUR non-human characters and brainstorm with us.

I have spent my career writing non-human characters – everything from a mole (yes, a mole, the earth-digging-nearly-blind animal) to a planet (actually two planets, one of them Earth). My Heart series – futuristic/fantasy set in a Celtic pagan culture – features telepathic animal companions and has since the first book. In fact, I think the cat character in that book, Zanth, sold HeartMate.

Since then, I've written a slew of animal companions including (of course) a puppy and dogs, cats of various colors and attitudes, and have branched out to foxes, raccoons and most recently birds, a hawk and a raven.

I do my homework on the animals, how they live, their social structures, what they eat, how they might think. I want my readers to believe these animals are not just humans in disguise. And Liesa and I will talk about how to do that research, hands-on and otherwise.

Unlike many people writing urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance, I've only written one shapeshifter hero – a jaguar-man – and absolutely no vampires. Though since I write in those genres I've read a lot of books on both. I know what I, personally, like in a vampire and werewolf, and how the myths have been explored by various authors.

So, we'll add in shapeshifters and vampires as common characters – both as good guys and as monsters that can highlight your very human characters.

And Liesa, especially, has studied the market for writing animals, and the fantasy genre is full of variety, and in science fiction humans continue to interact with alien races.

Yes, we do have peeves about how animals and monsters are portrayed, don't you? Come share those with us.

And, yes, I also write ghosts, mostly of people of the Old West, but I consider those humans . . . except the evil one . . . oh, and the Labrador spirit guide. No, neither of those are human . . . .

So drop by and talk with us about your non-human characters and why you love them. And what makes them different. Or how you want to delve into a different psyche.

See you at the Colorado Gold!

WRITING THEMES: Do we choose them? Or do they choose us? by Joan Johnston

Book ShamelessWhy do all my books have “abandoned or neglected children” as an underlying theme?  Until about book 25 (I’m writing book 57 now), when another writer pointed it out to me, I had no idea that this issue resonated throughout my writing.  I’d grown up in a family of seven children and my parents had remained married until my father died late in life.  So why was I writing about abandoned children?

When I asked my mother why I might have focused on this subject, she replied, “When you were four years old, your father (who was in the Air Force at the time) left to go to the Philippines and we stayed behind in Little Rock.  You took a photo of him to bed with you for a month, until it was in tatters, and cried yourself to sleep.”

Aha!  All questions answered.  I was “abandoned” when I was four years old and, according to my mother, didn’t see my father again for an entire year.  No wonder the topic of abandonment—and subsequent healing through love—pervades my books.

But as in my novels, mothers don’t always tell the truth.  Or at least, not the whole truth.

Recently, my sister Jeanne, who was one year older than I, died of complications from diabetes.  My cousin Ron wrote that he had “a nice story about Jeanne” to share with us.

Here’s what he said:  “I remember when your father was stationed at Langley, Virginia, my mother got the wild idea that she had to visit her baby brother [who was my father].  I know there were presents, so it was probably around Christmas.  We got in the car [in Baltimore] and drove down to your parents’ house.”

At the time Ronnie wrote about, my mother had a brand new baby (my sister, Jackie, born October 22), a three-year-old (me), a four-year-old (my sister Jeanne) and a five-year-old (my sister Joyce).  From Ron’s story it appears that she wasn’t getting much help from my father, and there wasn’t enough money to buy a refrigerator or pay for heat.

“When we left,” Ron finished, “we took Jeanne with us.  I don’t remember if she stayed a few weeks or a few months.”

Cousin Ron’s story provided answers to questions that had remained unanswered all my life, but which had appeared in my writing all along.  Apparently, in an effort to help out my overwhelmed mother, Jeanne was taken to live with my aunt’s family.

My sister Joyce and I have always been best friends, even though she’s daughter #1 and I’m daughter #3.  We shut Jeanne, daughter #2, completely out.  I’ve always wondered why.  Now I know.  Jeanne left.  She went away for three weeks—or three months.  But during that period, Joyce and I bonded. My mother never acknowledged having sent Jeanne away, so we were unaware of what had happened when we were children.

When Jeanne returned, my family immediately left Virginia and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we stayed while my father moved to his new station in the Philippines.

Within the period of a year, I had lost my sister, who “disappeared” and then “reappeared,” then moved from one home to another, and then lost my father, who “disappeared” and didn’t “reappear” for an entire year, at which point we moved to the Philippines to join him.

This is a fascinating story all by itself.  I can see how I might have ended up writing about abandoned and neglected children.  But there’s more.

In December 2013, Harlequin reissued a book I wrote in 2002 called Sisters Found.  Interesting title.  I’d previously written a book called The Substitute Groom in which the two heroines, twin girls, were named Hope and Faith. I was at a dinner meeting when a Harlequin sales rep asked, “So where’s Charity?”

I sat there stunned.  And realized suddenly, “There’s a Charity!”

It doesn’t take much psychology to figure out that I wrote The Substitute Groom about myself and Joyce, completely excluding Jeanne, even though the names I chose suggested there was a third child.

What I wrote in Sisters Found, eleven years before I learned the story of what happened to my sister Jeanne, is little short of astonishing.

In Sisters Found I wrote that Faith and Hope weren’t twins, they were two of a set of triplets.  Charity was given away when she was two years old because her parents couldn’t afford to care for three children.

Charity confronts her parents about why she was given away in this wrenching scene from Sisters Found.

         “Why me?” she demanded.  “How did you choose? I want to know.”

          Her mother and father exchanged a glance before her Book Sisters Foundfather turned to her and said, “Of course we kept Faith,    because we would always love her as she is [with a missing hand], when others might not. Hope was the troublemaker,   the one who howled with colic. You were the most beautiful      of our three lovely daughters.”

          “We’re triplets,” Charity countered. “We look exactly alike.”

          “You were the prettiest, with deep brown eyes that saw so much,” he continued.  “Such a perfect baby, always   laughing, always smiling.”

          “Newborns don’t laugh or smile.”

          Her parents exchanged a troubled glance, and she remembered what her father had told her.  She’d been two years old when they’d given her away.  Had spent two years being loved by them, held by them, a part of them.

          “We tried so hard to keep all three of you,” her father said.  “But it wasn’t possible.  We knew that whoever became your parents would have to love you, because you were such a good child, such a happy baby.  We gave up our most precious child.  The one most certain to be loved by strangers.”

I don’t know if I actually heard a conversation such as that as a three-year-old, but I will always wonder how much truth there is in it.

Most authors I know write some consistent theme.  Mary Balogh’s books feature terrible family rifts that are mended through loving the right man.  Susan Mallery also writes about relationships that mend families.  Sandra Brown’s characters all have conflicts with authority.  Debbie Macomber’s books focus on family and faith.

I didn’t consciously choose to write about abandoned children, but the subject has found its way into every book I’ve written.  If you haven’t already done it, you might want to take a closer look at your own novels and see what you find.

I’m working now on a new series of Bitter Creek novels, Sinful, Shameless, and Surrender, which just happen to feature women who’ve been physically abandoned by their mother and emotionally abandoned by their father.  Imagine that.

I don’t think I can consciously change what I write.  Nor do I want to.  The powerful emotions that end up on the pages of my books come from the wounded child inside.  My sister’s death, as sad as it is, has brought me solace and understanding.  I can’t wait to see what wonderful stories of healing and love find their way onto the pages of my books from now on.

Joan Johnston

Joan Johnston is the top ten New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of 56 novels and novellas with more than 15 million copies of her books in print.  Watch for the reprint of Outlaw’s Bride in mid-October and the second book in her King’s Brat series, Shameless, in stores December 29.  You can reach Joan through her website, www.joanjohnston.com or Facebook at www.facebook.com/joanjohnstonauthor.

WTF Was I Thinking? One Month until CO Gold

By J.A. (Julie) Kazimer

The Lady in PinkIn a few short days, August 18th to be precise, my tenth book, THE LADY IN PINK, will be released. Yes. 10 whole, big books. I can’t hardly believe it.

Don’t stop read!

I am not bragging nor am I trying to subliminally mind control you into buying it

*buy my book, buy my book, buy my book* Okay, maybe that time I was. Can’t blame an author for trying…

Anyway, my post has a much more important and relevant to you, I hope, point.

Though I’ve had 10 books published since 2010 when I sold my first series to Kensington at the CO Gold Conference, which, in case you missed it, is ONE MONTH AWAY as of today, I still feel that twisty, sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach at the thought of pitching to an editor.

Which I will be doing at this conference.

For the first time in over 3 years.

If anyone says it’s like riding a bike, they are LIARS.

Or maybe they aren’t. I was never any good at not falling off a bike either.

The very thought of having to tell someone about my book in 30 words of less or at all gives me the willies. Why can’t they just read it, love it, and pay me millions?

I plan (if she’s not full already) to pitch to Chelsey Emmelhainz, Associate Editor at HarperCollins. Now the question is, what to pitch? And how to do it? I need to stand out, to make her love me in the first 3 seconds (no pressure). Bribery is nice. Maybe she’d like a cookie? Or $5?

Maybe I shouldn’t pitch.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be a writer.

Yep, you are witnessing my nervous breakdown in blog post form.

Lucky you.

I hope I don’t throw up on her.

I should bring a vomit bag just in case.

If you didn’t get my point in all my neurotic rambling, it is this, no matter how many times or how many books someone has, they are writers at heart. Meaning they are half desperate, crazy and unsure with equal parts terrified of failure. Can’t forget sweaty. We are a sweaty people.

Oh, that’s just me, huh? Sure it is….

The key to surviving the next month as terror sets in at having to pitch, is to remember, Chelsey Emmelhainz probably won’t stab me in the eye with her pen. I think HarperColllins frowns on that. But maybe not.

So if you see me at the conference wearing an eye patch, well, you know what occurred at my pitch session. Same if you see her walking around with cookie crumbs on her shirt and me with a huge smile on my face. If I see you, please tell me all about how yours went. I love to hear practice pitches too. Sharing is caring after all.

Or share your pitch in the comments.

See you all in a month.

And remember--buy my book, buy my book, buy my book—to smile, shake the editor/agents hand, and give them all you’ve got.

 

Come stalk me on my shiny new website or on facebook, where I spend most of my writing time.