Friday, November 24, 2017

Book Talk & ARC Giveaway: PEOPLE LIKE US by Dana Mele

Kay Donovan may have skeletons in her closet, but the past is past, and she's reinvented herself entirely. Now she's a star soccer player whose group of gorgeous friends run their private school with effortless popularity and acerbic wit. But when a girl's body is found in the lake, Kay's carefully constructed life begins to topple.

The dead girl has left Kay a computer-coded scavenger hunt, which, as it unravels, begins to implicate suspect after suspect, until Kay herself is in the crosshairs of a murder investigation. But if Kay's finally backed into a corner, she'll do what it takes to survive. Because at Bates Academy, the truth is something you make...not something that happened.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wednesday WOLF

I'm a nerd. In fact, I'm such a big nerd that I tend to look up word origins in my spare time because I'm fascinated by our language. The odder the origin, the better. I've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications.

In any case, I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you guys in the form of the new acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF.  Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit, and also that this first feature of WOLF is actually an idiom, not a word.

Today we'll tackle the phrase "raining cats and dogs." There are a lot of  erroneous assumptions about where we got this little gem, but the truth is that we have the same guy to thank for this as we do the outrage over eating Irish babies a little while back. Yeah, Mr. Jonathan Swift.

You might have guessed this, but big cities in the 17th and 18th centuries didn't exactly smell great. The unwashed masses... well... they were unwashed, and massing. Personal hygiene wasn't a big priority, and your neighbor's hygiene even less so. Got a full piss-pot? Toss it out the window! Done with you lunch? Throw it out the door! Did your cat die? Give her the boot!

I don't know if many people actually kept household pets back then, but the streets were overrun with strays sniffing out the garbage, and multiplying just as prolifically as the people. Crushed by carts, kicked by mean assholes, or just falling dead in their tracks of sickness and starvation, dead doggies and kitties could probably be found in streets everywhere.

And a good hard rain could run down those cobbled streets, turning it into a river and picking up all the detritus on its way, creating the image that it had actually rained cats and dogs. We probably never would have had this lovely idiom without Jonathan Swift immortalizing it in the last section of his poem, A Description of a City Shower:

Now from all Parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell
What Streets they sail'd from, by the Sight and Smell.
They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force
From Smithfield, or St.Pulchre's shape their Course,
And in huge Confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge.
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown'd Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench'd in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnips-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

Awesome! Who wants to go live in the Middle Ages??

What's your favorite word origin? Tell me, or ask one you've always been curious about - I'll do my best to find the answer and get back to you in a future WOLF!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Laney Nielson On Being Given the Who & What... Then Coming Up With the How & Why

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Laney Nielson author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, the second novel in the new Swirl line for tweens from Sky Pony. Laney is a writer of middle grade stories and lots of to-do lists. She is a former classroom teacher with her masters in education. As a teacher, Laney loved teaching reading and writing (surprise, surprise) and nothing makes her happier than a student falling in love with a book or finding their voice.

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Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Unlike other stories I’ve worked on, the seeds (maybe I should say, the ingredients!) for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes were given to me. Becky Herrick, an editor at Sky Pony approached me about writing a novel for their new line for tween readers. I was super excited about her initial idea. She gave me the who (Sasha and her two best friends) and the what (they want to win the school talent show) and I needed to come up with the how and the why. Fun!

Figuring out why winning was important to Sasha was the first step. I also wanted to explore how Sasha who is a high achiever handles change. As we know, middle school is all about change—shifts in friendships, interests, and family dynamics. Not to mention physical and hormonal changes! Plus Sasha has experienced a number of recent upsets (her parents’ divorce, moving, her older sister going to college). That’s a lot! She copes by trying to take control. But she ends up not seeing every situation clearly. So there are mishaps and a major disappointment. As I developed the initial idea, I kept asking the questions we, writers ask: what if and so what. 

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

As I developed the synopsis, ideas for specific scenes kept popping into my head. I’d decided most of the story was going to take place between Thanksgiving and right before winter vacation. So I printed out the month of December from the calendar and filled in the events I knew I wanted. There were a couple of critical scenes I built the story up around. Then I began to break everything into chapters. 

This is the point in the process when I’m spreading index cards out on my dining room table and doing a lot of arranging and rearranging. I love my index cards! A few years ago I attended a Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop where Alan Gratz showed us how he uses index cards to plan his stories. It was a light bulb moment— a great lesson for someone like me who previously wrote without a plan. I’m not too meticulous about it, but my index cards definitely give me a roadmap. Anyway like a lot of writers (and teachers) I believe in office supplies. If you’ve got a problem, there’s an office supply that can fix it! Plotting isssues? Grab a stack of index card! Okay, if only it was that easy, but you never know, a field trip to your local office supply store might just help. 

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Yes, all the time, but with this project I needed to stay focused. (The deadline loomed large!) So the story didn’t change that much. After the first draft, my editor (the fabulous Becky Herrick) highlighted the areas that needed addressing. And then those changes were made but they were adjustments not a major plot overhaul. 

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Ideas come to me all the time! For me, the hard part is figuring out how to grow the idea into a cohesive story readers will care about. Writing a pitch and a synopsis before I begin working on a story can help me see where the holes might be or if there isn’t enough there beyond the hook. Other times, I will get an idea that seems interesting but then I realize I’m not the person to write that story. Having an idea is only the beginning! I think for a story to work it needs to tap into an emotional truth that is personal to me.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I try to write the one that’s been percolating the longest. That being said, I’ve recently stepped away from a manuscript I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It was a hard decision to make because I’d spent so much time with these characters but ultimately I didn’t have a clear enough vision for the story. I’m hoping a little time in the virtual drawer will help that one! I love it when I’m living inside a story. It’s hardest for me when I’m starting a new project (so many decisions to make!) or when I’m in between stories. 

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

Eight cats! I’m impressed. I also have a writing buddy (just one): my sweet dog, Olivia, but she likes her space. We both move from room to room. She’s looking for the perfect place to nap and I tend to set up in different spots depending on where I am in the process. When I’m working on the overall story which involves laying out index cards, I’m at the dining room table and when I’m writing a tough scene, I might sit on the sofa next to Olivia, hoping some of her serenity will rub off on me. The best thing about my writing buddy is that she is also my walking buddy! While she sniffs and does her thing on our walks, I often try to unknot a story tangle I’ve created or think through the next scene. 

Do you struggle finding inspiration to write when you are on deadline, or do you find that perspiration beats inspiration?

Writing Peppermint Cocoa Crushes was the first time I’d ever written a novel on a deadline. And it was a tight one! I wrote the first draft in six weeks. This required perspiration (and extra strength deodorant)! It also required daily writing goals. Rather than focusing on word count, I set goals for what scenes I was going to write each day. I keep an old school weekly planner for my writing life and when I finished my work for the day, I’d write down what I needed to do next. That allowed me to stay focused and it kept the story alive as I moved through the rest of my day. As for inspiration, most days it showed up. 

Writing Peppermint Cocoa Crushes was a lot of fun. I hope tween readers will curl up with all the Swirl novels! From pumpkin spice to peppermint cocoa to cinnamon bun to salted caramel, each one is great flavor! 

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AftenBrook Szymanski On Finding New Ways to Stand Out With Your Swag

Most authors will agree that the creative part of the job is where we excel, the business and marketing side, slightly less. It’s lovely when the two can meet in the form of SWAG – Shit We All Generate. I’ve invited some published authors to share with us their secret to swag… little freebies that can sell a book longer after the author is no longer standing in front of a prospective reader. In order to create great swag, you have to be crafty – in more ways than one.

Today's guest for the SWAG is AftenBrooke Szymanski, author of KILLER POTENTIAL, a young adult psychological thriller with a psych ward, a murder trial and revenge.

Finding something that represents your book and hasn’t been played out by a million authors before is difficult. What’s your swag?

I attempt to find novel ways to engage readers/writers, but honestly, the best I do is twist things to fit my personality. I’m crap at hard sale methods. Salesmanship is not my strength. I do connect with people conversationally and hate pissing people off with spammy stuff. So, I post gif games and try to have fun. I have no evidence any of my interactions lead to sales. 

But, I feel like less of a desperate loser begging readers to pay for my creative powers and more like a the everyday-loveable quirky-nerd I am, interacting with a wide range of readers (not all readers who like gif games and quizzes are going to be interested in my writing, but we can still connect with shit I generate) 😉

I bring colored gel pens to signings, attendees pick their favorite pen for me to sign with and get to keep the pen.

I also carry mini Pokémon figures in case younger kids stop by—they have to pick a Pokémon without looking because the Pokémon picks them. It’s fun for everyone and I get adults wanting to pick Pokémon all the time.

I have a book filled with pictures of things I’ve done since choosing to pursue writing full boar, very fun things, like being haunted in a hotel for three days, flying a Cessna, running in a 200ish marathon with Mercedes Yardley, and other nuts stuff I’d never have done if I wasn’t a writer. I have the book available to flip through at events. So aspiring writers can go, ‘daaaang, I want to be a writer too!’—hahaha). I didn’t have any pictures saved on my phone. Also, plug for chatbooks. I totally use them 😉

For online swag, I’ve created a free quiz connected to my book Killer Potential. It can be accessed at anytime, not just for those who’ve read the book. And it goes through personality strength to determine an area where the persons potential can shine through in their real life. I’ve been amazed at the accuracy and responses so far.

I also created a contest for photo uploads as part of a release I have coming out next year. That contest hasn’t launched yet, but it’s going to be awesome. Based around the tag line “forget covering your butt, cover your code. Cheat Code is coming.” The early feedback I’ve seen for the contest is awesome. I will have a $100 gift card for Amazon as a prize, as well as possibly featuring winning entries during promotional run.

How much money per piece did your swag cost out of pocket?

For signing event swag, it’s less than $.50 per item. I am happy to give the gifts to passers by without feeling like I’m blowing money. And I don’t offer candy unless it’s gluten/peanut/allergy free. That’s why I try to have useful swag such as pens.

Contest items are generally gift cards, because if I’m winning something, I want to spend however the blast I want and I might not want a necklace. I don’t wear jewelry other than my wedding ring and prescription glasses (my glasses count as both makeup and jewelry). For prizes requiring big actions I offer 50-100$ gift cards.

Do you find that swag helps you stand out at an event? 

I see other authors with bigger swag and bigger names. I honestly don’t see my swag as having an impact other than I appear prepared and ready to interact/aware of my audience. Even if I don’t compete with bigger names, I feel it matters that I come to events showing I care about my fans and want to demonstrate appreciation for their time. Maybe that’s quantifiable, maybe it’s not.

What do you think of big item swag pieces versus cheaper, yet more easily discarded swag like bookmarks?

I think of gift cards and electronics as big items. I’ve seen people give away skateboards, tickets to events, and baskets of book specific items. These are more engaging than bookmarks to me. I intend to have hourly giveaways at my next launch signing, where  I’ll gift a store card at the bookstore I’m signing in, every hour. It’s fun and keeps patrons in the store, which benefits the bookstore as well

What’s the most clever / best swag by another author?

Things that have driven me to enter things include illustrated Harry Potter Books, big money gift cards, and tickets to events I won’t pay for myself but would attend if I won tickets (such as a comic con or concert) I also admire when authors offer to put someone’s name in their next story. So fun.

And the biggest question – do you think swag helps sell books?

No. At least not directly. I think swag helps generate name recognition, author/book awareness and a connection to author/book. I don’t think it directly affects sales other than getting people talking about an author/book, which might lead to future or later sales. 

I keep all my online swag links available at my website

If anyone has particular shit they’d like me to offer, they’re welcome to contact me through the website contact form. If it’s feasible, I’ll make it happen. 😊

Monday, November 20, 2017

Research, But Not Too Soon by Julia Glass

Research, But Not Too Soon by Julia Glass

When I teach, I like debunking the mythical dictates carved in the styrofoam pillars supporting the shrine built to deify the Real Writer. (Picture the Lincoln Memorial, but it’s Ernest Hemingway up on that throne, fountain pen clenched in a fist as big as a Thanksgiving turkey.) There’s a reason, I point out, that novelists do not have to pass exams to practice their trade. Architects and sea captains, sure. Surgeons, you bet. Why not novelists? Simple: Our form of malpractice won’t kill anybody. The worst we can do is bore you silly, fail to suspend your disbelief, make you waste a little money. So we get to do this thing we do by whatever rules and rituals we devise.

Prominent among those dictates (close on the heels of Write every day) is Write what you know. Which holds true, admittedly, to the extent that every journey begins at home. But I like Grace Paley’s retort: “We don’t write about what we know; we write about what we don’t know about what we know.” Write what you want to know, and start out pretending you know a lot more than you do. Surmise, invent, and bluff your way through it as far as you can. Flex your imagination. Why else are you here?

One of the ancillary pleasures in writing fiction, however, is finding out stuff, “real” stuff, stuff you never knew before, stuff you need to know if the story you’re telling is to hold up as true. Curiosity is the apprentice to your imagination. Yet I have found that the longer I can put off my research, the stronger and tighter my stories are. This is personal, of course; maybe you, setting out to write the great modern Western, need to pack up and live as a Wyoming cowhand before you can write a single word. Herman Melville went on an honest-to-God whaling voyage, no luxury cruise, before sitting down to write Moby-Dick. I hasten to add that I am not writing historical fiction, so the broad context of my work is the world we live in now; nevertheless, I delve deeply into my characters’ personal histories, which means I’m facing history with a capital H. I may need to find out about, for instance, the rationing of farm equipment during World War II. (Wars of the last century have influenced the lives of my fictional people as dramatically as they have the lives of actual people.)

I won’t deny that laziness factors into my method. Years ago, I loved nothing more than a good excuse to roam the library stacks. Now, even heading downscreen to Safari seems like a chore when all I want to do is hang around with my characters, eavesdrop on their secrets, and get them in trouble just to find out how they’ll endure (or not).

In every story, I challenge myself to create characters outside my know-it-all zone, but never arbitrarily. Though I may not understand why, I will have felt a deep curiosity to inhabit the psyche of a wildlife biologist, a pastry chef, a Guatemalan gardener, an elderly widower, a music critic, the devout Catholic mother of two gay sons, a cancer patient, a cellist, a lonely film star, an insolent young man bent on what he sees as constructive anarchy.

To know their passions, preoccupations, and afflictions, I have researched the infrastructure of wedding cakes, the culture of a 1960s summer camp for teenage musicians, the pathology and treatment of AIDS in the 1980s, the training of Border collies, the politics of water rights in the Southwest, the conservation of grizzly bears – but I began by writing from instinct and hearsay. The problem with doing research too soon is this: If I uncover too much captivating knowledge in advance, I cannot resist including it, nor can I tell when it dilutes or distracts from the story I’m trying to tell. If, on the other hand, I must pack it into the brimming suitcase of an existing story, only the pertinent details will fit. (The vast lore I uncovered on the variously eccentric traditions surrounding wedding confections was hard to leave behind, but because I was working to authenticate an existing scene, the narrative had only so much give.) The story must be the boss of the research, not the other way around.

I like doing my research live, using people as sources whenever I can. And sometimes those people find me. Years ago, while struggling to craft a character living with the after-effects of head trauma, after reading medical journals had left me more confused than informed, I was called for jury duty – where I happened to meet a stranger who had gone through an experience parallel to that of my character. I conducted some enormously fruitful “research” over lunch breaks from the courthouse.

Inevitably, you miss things. If you’re lucky, people who read your work early on catch those gaffes before it’s too late: the clam sauce with onions, the cello seated behind the flute; an idiom or a gadget or a popular song deployed before its time. Sometimes, however, alternative facts wind up in print. In Three Junes, I began by using memory and guesswork to describe the surroundings of a Scottish country home, an essential setting, knowing I’d fine-tune the details later. Several drafts later, I consulted a guide to British birding, overwriting my placeholder blue jays, robins, and cardinals with yellowhammers, chiffchaffs, and collared doves. Botanically, however, it turns out I wasn’t so thorough.

There I was, out on tour, closing my book after reading to a small audience, when a hand shot up, emphatically. “Excuse me,” said my questioner, “but please see page 117. It isn’t possible, you realize, for the women’s final at Wimbledon to fall within the month of June. And, on page 47, can you tell me what a dogwood tree is doing in Scotland? Dogwoods grow only in North America.” He was holding a copy of my book sprouting a thicket of Post-Its. He was my first of a certain kind of reader. I want to hug and slug these people at the very same time. They are, after all, devoted to the truth.

Okay, so he had me on Wimbledon – a necessary torqueing of reality that I had hoped no one would notice. “But as for the dogwood,” I said, keeping my cool, “there were these American houseguests who, wanting to make a memorable impression on their Scottish hosts, and knowing how much they cherished their garden, smuggled a dogwood sapling in their luggage as a house present. The climate proved perfectly hospitable. The guests were invited back. Next time, they brought a pair blue jays.”

Julia Glass the author of six novels, including the best-selling Three Junes, winner of the National Book Award, and I See You Everywhere, winner of the Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Other published works include Chairs in the Rafters and essays in several anthologies. Glass is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emerson College. She lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Julia's essay is excerpted from Signature's 2017 Ultimate Writing Guide - which you can download for free!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Book Talk & Giveaway: ALMOST MISSED YOU by Jessica Strawser

Violet and Finn were “meant to be,” said everyone, always. They ended up together by the hands of fate aligning things just so. Three years into their marriage, they have a wonderful little boy, and as the three of them embark on their first vacation as a family, Violet can’t help thinking that she can’t believe her luck. Life is good.

So no one is more surprised than she when Finn leaves her at the beach—just packs up the hotel room and disappears. And takes their son with him. Violet is suddenly in her own worst nightmare, and faced with the knowledge that the man she’s shared her life with, she never really knew at all.

Caitlin and Finn have been best friends since way back when, but when Finn shows up on Caitlin’s doorstep with the son he’s wanted for kidnapping, demands that she hide them from the authorities, and threatens to reveal a secret that could destroy her own family if she doesn’t, Caitlin faces an impossible choice.

Told through alternating viewpoints of Violet, Finn and Caitlin, Almost Missed You is a powerful story of a mother’s love, a husband’s betrayal, connections that maybe should have been missed, secrets that perhaps shouldn’t have been kept, and spaces between what’s meant to be and what might have been.

Want to help me with all the mailing costs? I do giveaways at least once week, sometimes more. It can add up. If you feel so inclined as to donate a little to defray my mailing costs, it would be much appreciated! Donating has no impact on your chances of winning.


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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Wednesday WOLF

I'm such a big nerd that I tend to look up word origins in my spare time because I'm fascinated by our language. The odder the origin, the better. I've got a collection of random information in my brain that makes me an awesome Trivial Pursuit partner, but is completely useless when it comes to real world application. Like say, job applications.

I thought I'd share some of this random crap with you in the form of another acronym-ific series. I give you - Word Origins from Left Field - that's right, the WOLF. Er... ignore the fact that the "from" doesn't fit.

It's always bothered me that a baker's dozen actually equals thirteen. Now why would that be? Turns out bakers weren't the most trustworthy of shopkeepers back in the day. Air pockets can slip into loaves of bread, and it seems that some bakers took advantage of this, charging full weight for bread that was actually a little light in the ... loaf.

This was such a problem in England that Parliament passed a law in 1266 regulating the weight of bread, the penalty for shorting your customers being that you were nailed to your own doorstep by the ear. Uh, yeah. Shopkeepers decided that was a line they didn't want to cross, but there was no way to be sure that their loaves didn't contain an air pocket or two.

In order to stay within legal limits as well as assuring their costumers they weren't being shorted, it became common to bake thirteen loaves of bread, using the extra 13th as a "bonus" loaf. When a customer bought a regular loaf of bread, the baker also cut a chunk off the 13th loaf, to make up for any air pockets inside the first loaf.

Fascinating stuff, eh?