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I’m kicking off my April giveaway for an advance copy of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things and a piece of book swag.

This month I’m keeping it simple. To enter to win, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter. That’s it. I’m going to choose one winner from everybody who is signed up for my newsletter by April 25th, so if you already signed up, you’re entered. (All 7 of you. Seriously, the odds are in your favor for this drawing.)

If you haven’t signed up yet, just click here to do so.

About All the Ugly and Wonderful Things:

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.

 

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The funny thing about trying to give away books is that sometimes you just can’t do it. When my publisher lists a giveaway for copies of ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS on Goodreads, like a thousand people enter. Right now, at this very moment, only 18 people have entered my giveaway for my own personal copies of the book. The good news is that you still have four days to enter! Your odds are awesome! Go here to see all the ways you can enter. Or if you’re really lazy, just go to my previous blog post and tell me what kind of love stories you like. You’ve got til Monday, February 29th.

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Shakespeare may have had a point about names and the sweet smell of roses, but I have to admit that I don’t feel that way about book titles. The process of choosing a title for a book is complicated, especially once an agent, an editor, and a marketing team get involved. You can find your beloved title tossed on the scrap heap, or conversely, you can find your totally mediocre title emblazoned on thousands of covers. For example, in my mind Lie Lay Lain was just a working title, until suddenly it wasn’t.

Although the novel I just sold is currently called What Belongs to You, it has also carried some other names. For much of its querying career it was The Sun In Cassiopeia, a title I never liked, and for a briefer while, it was Orion in Winter, a title I liked even less. I often joked about what its title might be, when it finally sold. Perhaps The Art of Making Meth, when we were in the Art of Something phase.

Whatever a book ends up called when it finally reaches readers, I find that working titles have to be something I can face every day that I hope to write. The working title becomes the bit I put in my mouth while I pull the plow. Almost from the first words I wrote of this latest book the story’s working title was Thirteen, the age at which Wavy’s life is shattered.

Up until yesterday, my efforts toward my unofficial NaNo project have been thwarted by the lack of a working title. Triplets was the name of the folder on my computer, but that implied that the triplets were the most important characters of the book. There was another notes file for the story called Mermaid, but that implied that the mermaid was the main character. I toyed briefly with retitling these files things like Short Stop, Apollo, Cut-Off, but they all fell short, because Apollo isn’t himself the most important thing in the story. I tried Sideshow and Athletic Show, both circus references, but neither one really fit.

As silly as it seems, when I went to open the files to work on the story, I spent most of my writing time obsessing about my failure to have a working title I could live with. Then two things happened.

1. I went to my local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and found this:

We have a winnah!

We have a winnah!

2. I remembered the great exchange between Charles Wallace and Calvin O’Keefe in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. “I’m a sport,” Calvin says. “I don’t mean like in baseball.” Charles Wallace provides the definition: “A change in generesulting in the appearance in the offspring of a character which is not present in the parents but which is potentially transmissible to its offspring.”

That is, after all, what Apollo is: a sport. Not just in the genetic sense, but in the baseball sense, too. It was just a simple matter of renaming my files Sport. Now that I have a working title, I am putting down words. I am building characters and crafting dialog. It’s the best part of writing. Remind me of that later, when I’m crying over revisions.

What about you? How important are titles to you as a writer? As a reader? Does the title change your attitude toward what you’re reading or writing?

ETA: Sometimes you find that you’ve rushed yourself, forced a working title on something. Later, you sneak back and change to the thing that really calls to you, which is why this project is now known as A Marvel of Nature, or Marvel for short.

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You might think the title of this blog post goes without saying, but considering some of the wacky things happening in the writing community these days, you’d be mistaken. We’ve had an author confess to stalking and harassing someone who gave her novel a poor review, and we’ve had a blogger apologize for years of harassment and threats against writers whose work she didn’t like.

As a passionate reader, I have always maintained a “review” of books I’ve read. In ye olde pre-internet days, I kept a little notebook in which I recorded the books I’d read with a few lines about the book. When Goodreads emerged, I joined and began to track my reading habits there. I viewed it primarily as a tool for me as a reader. Of course, as I connected with people on GR, I also began to see my notes on books as useful to like-minded readers. All the same, in the age of the internet, where data is perpetually retained and easily accessed, I have always tried to be polite when I write reviews of books. I am neither a professional reviewer nor someone who relishes drama. Just as I would hate to read a review of my books that was nasty or personal, I would never want a writer to read one of my reviews and feel that I was being anything but professional, even if I disliked the book.

Despite my policy of being polite, I’ve still received a few nastygrams, typically from people who loved a book I didn’t, and who wished to inform me that I was a stupid poopypants. I don’t think those were the exact words, but something juvenile and unnecessary.

Not a few people have cautioned me of late that as a published writer I ought to be more careful about reviewing and rating books, so as not to attract haters. I’ve considered it, and someday, maybe I’ll need to make a more anonymous Goodreads account, but in the interim, I’ve made a different choice.

I’ve always had a Did Not Finish shelf on my Goodreads account, to identify books that I did not or could not read through to the ending. Rarely do I remark on those books and never do I rate them. This week, however, I added a new shelf: Not Every Book Is for Everybody. Let’s call it NEBIFE. We know in our hearts that this is true, but it seems to get lost within the book community sometimes. A book isn’t bad, just because we didn’t like it, and a reviewer isn’t stupid or evil or many far worse things, just because they didn’t like our favorite book. I come face-to-face with this when I realize that almost 17,000 people on Goodreads have given Nabokov’s Lolita a 1-star rating. 1 star? One? Are you kidding me? I consider Lolita to be one of the greatest English novels of the 20th Century. I love this book.

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

ONE STAR?!?!?! OMGAAAAAAH!!?!?!?

Yet Goodreads reveals that two people whose opinions I respect have rated Lolita as 1 star. Huh. I guess we’re gonna have to disagree on that one, but I’m not going to send them emails to tell them they’re stupid poopypants. Primarily, because I don’t think they are. Secondarily, because I accept that even a brilliant book will not be the right book for every reader.

I was looking for an apt comparison, and found it quite by accident. I occasionally pull a recipe off allrecipes.com, and it struck me that even when people dislike a recipe and give it a low rating, I have never seen anybody get nasty or personal in a recipe review. I’ve never seen a recipe submitter called a stupid bitch, or a recipe called corrosive garbage, or seen someone wish the original recipe writer be raped to death, all things I’ve seen in book reviews. Similarly, I’ve never seen a recipe submitter get hostile with someone who didn’t like a recipe. Why? Because on some level, as a society, we’ve done well at accepting that not everyone has the same tastes. After all, my mother hates Indian food. Hates it. We’re still on speaking terms, because why wouldn’t we be? I think it’s silly that she dislikes an entire culinary tradition on the basis of one ill-fated buffet visit, but I’m not going to cut her out of my life over it. Similarly, I’m not going to kill a friendship over Lolita. Or even a potential friendship.

In this week, where madness is swirling all around us, I’d like to ask everybody to embrace the concept of NEBIFE. If you get a negative review on a book you wrote, keep in mind that not everybody loves the same books. You can’t expect everybody to love your book. If you read a book you disliked, try framing your review from the perspective that not every book is for everybody, and that this book wasn’t for you.

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I grew up in a small town, one where almost everyone went to church. From the mayor to my eighth grade English teacher to the sad, old, homeless drunk we called Uncle Stanley. In fact, the only person I knew who never went to church was my granddad, who was living proof that there are atheists in foxholes. With the exception of my granddad, my whole family went to church, twice every Sunday, and most Wednesday nights. Whether we wanted to or not. No one in my family was particularly devout, and outside of church we did not pay much lip service to God or the Bible. The only meal we prayed at was Sunday dinner, and then only if eaten at home. In our world view, only “odd birds” prayed in restaurants. In more ways than one, church was less a religious institution and more of a social club.

LieLayLain_Cover.fh11It’s that ethos that informs much of Lie Lay Lain, my second novel, which will be released on April 1. By chance, when I started writing the book, I was working as a church secretary. Not through any great religious zeal, or any notion that working for a church was a higher calling. I needed a job, they needed a secretary, and I was savvy and polite enough to keep my own opinions on religion to myself. There’s no doubt, however, that the book absorbed some of my experiences and observations as a church secretary.

The primary observation that soaked into Lie Lay Lain and its characters is that people who go to church are regular people. I knew that from my childhood, but after 20 years of adulthood, in which I stayed far away from church and religion, I had started to believe the messages about Christians that are so often promoted in the media. The primary message is that Christians are wholesome, inspirational people who obey the Bible and rise above the bad things that happen to them. The message is rarely that Christians are just regular people. When we look at the books and the movies that are promoted as Christian entertainment, so often the product being offered is sanitized. Remove the swear words, the sex, any suggestion at all that Christians are inclined to misbehave just as often as non-Christians. The industries that produce these products sweep the dirt of humanity under the rug and declare their products safe for Christian consumption. Consistent with Christian values.

On the reverse, you can’t help but notice that when a movie or book is proffered as a mainstream entertainment product, spiritual and religious elements are stripped away. Tell me, how often do you read a mainstream book or see a mainstream movie or TV show in which the characters go to church, and it’s not for a wedding or a funeral? If you believe in the mainstream message, average people don’t go to church. They don’t pray. They don’t have crises of faith. Despite this message, we know they do. We know people of all walks of life, who are not puritanical or devout or zealous, yet who value their religion. One of my raunchiest, most irreverently funny friends goes to church every week. She wears a set of rings with Bible verses on them.

As I start to see reactions from readers to Lie Lay Lain, I hear echoes of the responses that I got from agents and editors when I first started looking for a home for the book. People are puzzled to find a book in which mundane life intersects with religious life. More than a few people suggested that I’d find it a lot easier to sell the book if I could strip out either the divine or the profane. If you took out the sex and the swearing, you could sell this as Christian fiction. Or more ominously, If you took out all the church stuff, you’d have a better chance at selling this. A book that has both—sincere prayer and enthusiastic fornication—is an alien concept to many people.

This fact leads me to wonder about how far we’ve gone to segregate things into their “appropriate” niche. If a novel has Christians in it, it must be Christian fiction. You’ll find the same trend repeated throughout your average bookstore. If a novel has a person of color on the cover, it must be African-American fiction. Shelve it over there. If a novel is about gay people, put it over in the LGBTQ section.

The reason behind this pernicious niching is marketing. If we shelve the books in their niche areas, we can help people find the exact kind of books they are most interested in reading, thereby selling more books. It seems to me that in many ways we are walling up certain books and movies into their own entertainment ghettos, and that’s a bad thing. If a reader has to ferret out the tiny African-American section of their local bookstore to even have a chance of stumbling over a novel about people of color, that narrows their view of the world. If all the books you can find about Christians are Christian Fiction, you’re going to develop a skewed perspective about what it means to be Christian.

What I’m saying is, Let’s start seeing other people. Take a chance on something outside your niche. Take a risk with something that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.

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I have never sent a holiday card in my life. I don’t celebrate Christmas. Or Chanukah. Or Kwanzaa. As a result of my holiday abstention, I have never sent holiday cards.

But this year, just for you, I am sending holiday cards. My publisher, Stairway Press, is running a promotion during December that allows you to order a book and receive a personal holiday card from certain authors on their list. For whatever crazy reason, I’ve agreed to take part and send my very first holiday cards. The purchase can be for you or for someone else, but I will personally be sending holiday cards to anyone who purchases a copy of Last Will or an advance copy of Lie Lay Lain from my publisher’s website. Other participating authors are shown here.

Stairway-Press-2013-Holiday-Promo-AD

If you’re interested in getting a book and a card for yourself or for some other reader near and dear to you, just pop over to the Stairway Press book store page. And then use care when checking your mail…

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Now that I have this pile of advanced reader copies taking up space on my dining room table, I need to start giving them away. The cats said I had to, as they’re not willing to share the table with my books. So, here’s the deal. I’m giving away the twelve (12!) copies of the book seen in the following picture. That includes the top copy where I scattered cat treats to lure the cats into posing. It may smell a bit fishy, but it’s a free book! I’ll be happy to autograph the twelve copies in any way the winners see fit.

Sippy grudgingly deigns to pose with my book fort

Additionally, I’m giving away 20 bookmarks as secondary prizes.

Oooooh, book swag!

Now, there are a couple of ways you can enter, and each one gives you an additional entry. First and easiest, you can Like this blog post. Almost painless. (Unless your mousing hand cramps up, which I hope it doesn’t.)

However, if you’d like to enter the giveaway multiple times, come visit me over on Facebook.  There you can see the full array of things that will get you more chances to win. You can Like my author page on FB, follow my blog, follow me on Twitter, retweet the giveaway, and you can add the book to your to-read list on Goodreads.

The contest o-fficially begins at midnight tonight and runs for a full week.

About the book:

Bernie Raleigh fails at everything he touches. The victim of a kidnapping for ransom as a child, Bernie has spent his adult life trying to avoid being noticed. That’s impossible once he inherits his grandfather’s enormous fortune.

The inheritance comes complete with a lot of obligations, a mansion, and a problematic housekeeper named Meda Amos. Beauty queen, alien abductee, crypto-Jew, single mother — Meda is all those things, and she may also be the only person who can help Bernie survive his new and very public life.

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I know, I know. I’m always over-eager to share my opinion, whether anyone asks for it or not, but every once in a while, I’m asked for my opinion and have to scramble for one. This one is a doozy.

A great title makes a great book cover!

Over the last ten years, a goodly number of my friends and acquaintances have sold books. At some point in each case, they opened the emails in which they got to see the final version of their covers. That sight has been met with everything from giddy delight to caution to abject disappointment. Until the recent increase in self-publication, that was how the game went: the author was the last to know what the cover would be. Now I know a few people who’ve actually designed their own covers with varying degrees of success.

On the other hand, I fielded an email from my soon-to-be-publisher asking for my input on a cover for my book. It’s a small press, with a president who’s used to making his own decisions, so I was prepared for the likelihood that I would simply be sent a couple versions of possible covers for feedback.  From watching all those friends’ and acquaintances’ experiences, I was also prepared for the likelihood that my feedback might be the least important factor in the final decision. After all, I’m no graphic designer.

I guess I wasn’t really prepared for the prospect of being asked for my very own little ideas about the cover.

Uh, me? I …

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve cogitated, looked at a variety of photos, and a whole slew of book covers. Today, I actually mocked up a few things to see how I felt about the various possibilities. Today I clicked SEND, and I wait to hear what the guy who makes the decisions thinks.

How about you? Have you designed a cover? Had one thrust upon you? What are your favorite covers? Least favorite?

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Things have recently heated up over on the Wylie-Merrick blog on the topic of advertising in books.  Scott Jensen, a reader of the blog, was invited to post his ideas about the future of e-publishing, which in his opinion will mostly involve books being free to consumers.

We’re all familiar with the phrase “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” but I think we often forget what it really means.  “Free to the consumer” for example isn’t quite true.  In Scott Jensen’s view of future publishing, advertisers will bear the cost of producing and distributing the e-books.  Scott seems to like the idea and has some interesting concepts for actually integrating the advertising into the book-reading experience.

Nothing against Scott or his ideas for his own writing, but for me, as a reader … it gives me the willies.  While a consumer downloading these books wouldn’t pay any cash for the book, he/she would pay in time spent viewing advertising between chapters.  Like commercials on television.  Because we all love commercials on television, right?   I was called an “elitist” for my hatred of commercials, but I know I’m not alone.

Almost since the beginning of television, people have been devising ways to avoid watching commercials.  They go to the kitchen for a snack, let the dog out to pee, or myriad other household chores that only require two minutes.  The VCR allowed people to simply fast forward through commercials.  Tivo does the same.  The incredible popularity of television shows on DVD makes it clear that lots of people enjoy watching TV without the commercials.

Are all those commercial-skipping people elitists?  Are they all wrong?  Would they be joyfully converted to enjoying commercials in books?  You know, the books that vast numbers of Americans can’t be bothered to check out “free of charge” from the library now?  Would those books be more attractive with ads in them?

It has been suggested that “free” books, paid for by advertisers, would be beneficial to poor people.  The masses, if you will.  I don’t get it.  Seriously.  I’m not being snarky, but I don’t get how e-books with commercials in them would make more books available to poor people.  Poor people can already get books from the library.  Even dead broke homeless people can get a library card where I am.

When I was a kid, being raised by my hard-working single mother, we always got our books from the library.  There wasn’t some Big, Evil, Greedy Publisher lording it over us because we were poor, twirling his mustache and saying, “No books for you, dirty little Okie.”  That’s why I find it hard to imagine businesses as Duddley-Do-Right, come to save the day with their advertising dollars.  Corporations advertise to sell more product, in order to benefit their shareholders, not to provide a public service.

The thing we don’t often think about is what’s being sold.  When a television broadcaster sells advertising time to a business, the business isn’t buying x minutes of broadcast time.  The business is buying x viewers.  Advertising is valued based on the number of expected viewers for the time slot.  So if I’m watching television, the advertisers are buying my time.  They’re buying me.  To be honest, that creeps me out a little.  Especially if I carry that feeling over to reading.

For Sale

For Sale

I love books.  Right or wrong, I trust books.  When I’m reading a good story, I’m vulnerable in a way I never have been while watching TV.  The last thing I want is to have companies pitch their goods and services to me while I’m in my wonderful-happy-reading place.

This isn’t just speculation on my part.  When I was about eight or nine, I bought a book at a garage sale that hooked me like a fish.  It’s a fairly famous fantasy book, part of a trilogy, which I didn’t know at the time.  All I knew was that from the first sentence, I was in love with that book.  It was an older paperback, and some of you will remember that in the late sixties and early seventies some paperbacks came with advertisements.  Hard cover stock, often in full color, bound into the middle of the book.

This book that I fell in love with had one of those glossy, color ads.  Right in the middle, stuck between two pages of a scene in which the main character came to terms with the fact that she was responsible for the deaths of two men, and that if she didn’t act, she would be responsible for the death of a third.  Very intense reading for a nine-year-old.  Would she save this man, trapped in the dark and afraid?

I turned the page and there.  There was the ad.  For cigarettes.  Ah, yes, those were the days, when you could advertise cigarettes almost anywhere.  Including in books that were on the cusp between young adult/adult.  In a fit of annoyance, I ripped the ad out, but I still remember clearly what brand of cigarettes it was, what the ad looked like.  I still have that book, the cover torn and utterly worn down at the corners, and the spine warped by the little raised ridge of glossy cardstock where I amputated the ad.  Where I declined to be sold to the high bidder.

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I’m in the midst of selling my house and searching for a different home, so I’m having the requisite existential crisis over what I own.  A lot of dishes and a lot of books.  The dishes are an inherited problem.  Not that I got my obsession with dishes through some quirk of genetics, but that as people in my family have died, I’ve inherited more dishes.  It sometimes feels as though I’m amassing what will eventually become the Stoops-Greenwood-Hanner History of American Tableware Museum.

Add to that my little problem with books.  I can’t blame anyone for that.  I was raised to use the library, and I do, but I also have a bit of a jones for buying books.  As I pack up my belongings to prepare for the move, I’m trying to pare down the sheer volume, but I don’t know that I’m gaining much ground.

Maybe Tom Bendtsen could build my next house out of books

Maybe Tom Bendtsen could build my next house out of books

This would all be a pleasant little philosophical consideration, if I knew where I were going.  I don’t.  The house is sold, but I haven’t yet found the next house.  I thought I had, but it didn’t work out.  End result: all of my belongings go into storage while I continue my search for a home.  Strange but true, buying and selling a house resembles the writing process a great deal.

Sometimes you just know it’s the right house.  You fall in love immediately and nobody can dissuade you from committing to it.  Perhaps you pay too much in your zeal.  Both in money and time.  The same is true of a story.  Even knowing it’s “not commercial,” you develope a desperate infatuation with it.  You cancel social plans and hunker down in your writing corner, oblivious to the pleas of family and friends.

After the house is bought, even if you fell in love with it, there’s work to do.  Sure, it’s your dream home, but every room in the house needs to be painted.  Maybe the floors need to be refinished. Once you’ve done that, it becomes obvious that you need to replace the ceiling fans–those unsightly monsters from the 80s, all rattle-trap faux-antiqued brass with oak laminate blades.  And the bathroom tile isn’t quite right.  And the kitchen needs new countertops.  What about some landscaping?

There you are with the first draft of your book, feeling the same things.  Yes, you still love the characters.  You still love the plot, but there are these scenes that need to be tweaked.  Updated.  Add more conflict.  Clarify motivation.  After that’s done, it becomes obvious you’ll need to rewrite the first two chapters.  Or delete them altogether and start the story sooner.  And the climax?  It definitely needs reworking.

Unless you plan to polish the book for your own pleasure and store it in a box forever, you then contemplate the next scary step: selling it.  That’s like selling a house, too.  Right down to the terminology.  If you’re like me and believe in professionals, you’ll get a real estate agent to sell your house and a literary agent to sell your book. Having recently hired both, let me just tell you, finding a real estate agent was LOT EASIER than finding a literary agent.  Sure, a literary agent technically works for you, but they tend to be very choosy about their clients.  Real estate agents, not so much.

Once you’ve found someone you can trust, you start the hard work of getting your house/book ready for the whole world, and strangers at that, to look at it.  You don’t want to strip it of personality, but you find yourself trying to make it more palatable to more people.  Should that wall be beige?  Is that quirky, ironic picture of praying Jesus going to offend people?  What if they don’t get that it’s ironic?  Does it matter?  Will everyone who reads your sex scenes assume those are your sexual proclivities?  Is it okay to reveal your own ignorant Okie-ness through your character’s ignorant Okie-ness?

And then what?  What about after you sell your house/book?  Oh, right.  The next one.  The next project.  The next story.  The next bathroom renovation.

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