Monday, February 28, 2011

A Genre Primer

I hear a lot of discussion about book genres and debate on what they mean or where a certain book belongs. With the Whitneys around the corner, I've heard even more discussion on it (why is this book in this category instead of that one?).

So here it is: a primer on some basic literary genres.

This is by far one of the most misunderstood genres. If a story is romantic, it may or may not be a romance. A true romance must fit a specific formula (but, we hope, will find fresh, new ways of doing so): the bulk of the story revolves around the relationship, and by the end of the story, the hero and heroine are together in a committed relationship.

Sometimes it's boiled down to: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl for good.

But can't you write a story where they don't get together? Sure you can. But then you need a different label. Romeo and Juliet is romantic, but ultimately, it's a tragedy, not a romance.

Another example of a genre that requires a formula is a mystery. If you were to pick up an Agatha Christie book and Miss Marple didn't figure out who done it, you'd feel cheated. And rightly so. A mystery, by definition, requires the murder to be solved.

Many genres add romance to them, so the trick with those is determining whether a story is primarily a romance or a "romantic [fill in the blank]," such as romantic suspense. Or, the flip side: a suspenseful romance.

Young Adult & Middle Grade
These are books targeted at younger people. YA tends to be targeted at older teens, and MG at tweens and early teens.

Note that I said targeted. That means the book is written and marketed with a young age group in mind as the audience. That doesn't necessarily mean that a book with a 16-year-old hero is going to be YA. By character age standards, To Kill a Mockingbird would belong in Middle Grade or younger (Scout's what, 10 or so?), but it's clearly not targeted at fourth graders. Not that there's inappropriate content for young kids, but they're aren't the target audience. Grown-ups are.

Modern examples of books with younger characters that are not YA books include Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and his new (Whitney finalist) Pathfinder. All of those have some young lead characters, but the books aren't written to please young readers, and Pathfinder in particular (which I loved) would likely confuse the bejeebers out of them. And Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer is most definitely not targeted at youth, even though the main character is 16.

Another factor: kids tend to enjoy reading about other kids slightly older than they are. So a true YA book won't have a 13-year-old protagonist. More like 15+. Sometimes the difference between YA and Middle Grade is content. Older characters plus "darker" or "heavier" content makes a book lean toward YA (quote marks because those terms are hard to define . . . and they don't necessarily mean "bad stuff") .

Examples: The Fablehaven series is Middle Grade. The Maze Runner series is Young Adult. Dragon Slippers is Middle Grade. My Double Life is Young Adult.

Speculative Fiction
This is a catch-all term that lumps science fiction, fantasy, and others together (paranormal, horror, etc.). If it's not real-world stuff, it's speculative. This year, the Youth Fiction category of the Whitneys was split into General and Speculative. With so many youth books being published, I think that was a great move. (Also because comparing general fiction with speculative is very much like apples and oranges.)

That's the Whitney category, and I could also add thriller. They're all slightly different, but similar enough that they compete together in many awards programs. In mysteries, the question is "who did it?" In a thriller or suspense novel, the reader often knows who did it (or who is going to set off the bomb/kill the victim/whatever) and the story is about the protagonist trying to catch or stop them (and maybe not get killed in the process).

This year, Gregg Luke's Blink of an Eye is a finalist in the General category. His previous books have been in Mystery/Suspense category. Why General this time? I agree with where it's placed (even though it means I'm up against him . . .), because while Blink does have many suspenseful and mysterious elements, at its core, the book is about one man's journey toward healing and the family dynamics he faces along the way rather than the mystery.

This is sort of the Whitney catch-all for books aimed at adults that don't fit another category. It includes Women's Fiction (like Band of Sisters), literary fiction (like Bound on Earth), and more.

Plenty of other genres exist, but these are the ones that seem to get confused the most often. Have more questions? Fire away in the comments.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sample Sunday: At the Water's Edge, from Ch 1

To learn more about Sample Sunday see this post on the Kindle Author blog. To find more samples of e-books, follow the Twitter hash tag #SampleSunday.

From Chapter one of At the Water's Edge

($2.99 on Kindle)

A pebble skittered across the rock and landed on the white sheet of ice below her feet. She looked over her shoulder to find the source—a man with blond hair and a dark blue coat. For an instant she didn’t recognize him.

“Hey,” he called. “Thought I’d find you here.”


Annela couldn’t decide whether she was glad to see him. I should be excited. I haven’t seen him for weeks. Usually she welcomed his smile, especially at emotional times, but today was different. “How’d you know I was here?”

“When I got home and you weren’t there, I called your cell. When that didn’t work, I tried your parents. Your mom said you’d left ten minutes before. Since I could hear your dad yelling something in Swedish, I guessed something had happened between you two, and you’d come here to escape.”

Annela’s father was from Swedish stock, and his first language tended to come out during angry tirades. Tommi took a seat beside Annela on the top of the huge outcropping overlooking the ice and kissed her cheek.

“It’s good to be back. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and looked across the frozen sea. It was a relief to know she didn’t have to speak. She and Tommi felt no obligation to make small talk with each other and she realized she would miss him—miss the easy comfort they had with one another They gazed at the ocean inlet before them, encircled by land. The water had only a small opening to the ocean, blocked by an island of rock and pine trees in the center.

“It’s strange to think that this is really part of the ocean, isn’t it?” Tommi said after a few minutes. “It looks like a lake, but it’s part of the ocean, part of a greater whole.” Annela nodded mechanically. Sometimes Tommi embarked on philosophical tangents, and while she often listened to them with interest, she didn’t want to hear one now. Not with so much on her mind.

She could still hear the echo of the apartment door slamming, the sound of her father’s voice hollering in Swedish to himself on the other side. Normally his outbursts embarrassed Annela unbearably. Most Finns never drew attention to themselves unless drunk. She preferred to blend into the crowd. Her father didn’t require a drink to shed restraint like an old overcoat, although alcohol intensified his temper considerably.

Annela glanced at Tommi. His family was also from Swedish stock, and he must have inherited the accompanying outgoing temperament. Funny that the genes skipped her. Part of her wished she had them. It would make a lot of things easier to bear if she could feel so strongly and react aggressively to defend herself.

Tommi nudged her with his elbow. “So what’s behind those tears?”

She hadn’t noticed that her cheeks were wet again. She made a swipe at them with the back of her hand, and Tommi patted her knee in reassurance. “Is your dad still upset that you’re still seeing those ‘American boys’?”

Annela nodded. “But I wish you wouldn’t call them that. It makes you sound like my dad.”

“Oh, no. And we can’t have that,” Tommi said with an apologetic grin.

Tommi hadn’t taken her investigation into the Church seriously, but he hadn’t been around to see most of it, either. Even so, such comments felt as if he were trying to undercut her. He removed his coat and put it around her shoulders, then reached for her hand.

“Maybe your dad just needs some time to cool off. Bringing up the missionaries and their book is probably not the best way to stay on his good side, you know. Just give him some space.”

“It’s not just the missionaries that we’re fighting over.” Annela lowered her head.

His eyebrows came together, and he pulled back. “Then what is it?”

She licked her lips and paused before answering, hanging onto the smallest thread of courage to say the words. “I’m getting baptized.”

Tommi let out the breath he’d been holding. “Is that all? I thought maybe you really were going to dump me for one of the American elders.” He chuckled with a nervous edge to his voice.

How can I explain without hurting him? She looked away.

“Annela?” Tommi reached for her shoulders and turned her to face him. “What aren’t you telling me?”

This is it.

“I have to move out.”

There. I said it.

Tommi’s eyebrows furrowed. “But . . . I thought things are going so well between us.” He withdrew slightly, tilting his head in confusion. And a little anger? “I know we haven’t been living together that long, but I thought we were adjusting. What happened?”

He didn’t get it.

“I decided to get baptized—that’s what happened.” Annela pulled her hands away, though gently. This was harder to say when she was touching him—she needed some distance. “And to do that, I can’t live with you anymore. I can’t . . . sleep with you anymore. So, either I move out, or we get married.” Tommi’s jaw hardened, so she rushed on. “I know you’re not ready for marriage. I understand. So I’m not asking that.”

“Of course you are.” He looked across the water, eyes narrowing. “I didn’t see this coming. Of course you’re asking me to do that. It’s either that or lose you, right? Not much of a choice. Let me guess, you’re pregnant, too?” His tone was cool and distant. It made goose bumps break out on Annela’s arms.

“You don’t get it, do you? This has nothing to do with us. It’s about—”

“It’s about the missionaries. You do have it for one of them, don’t you?”

She hated this side of him, the unpredictable, moody one. “Just listen to me, please—”

He cut her off. “I can’t believe you’d let something so trivial like this come between us. I thought we had something really special, that there was a reason we found each other again after all those years. I was convinced it couldn’t be a coincidence that my best friend from grade school just happened to come into the restaurant that day. I’m such a fool.”

He made a move to stand up, but Annela grabbed his arm and pulled him back down, frantic to calm him down, make him understand. “Please, just listen for a minute. This whole thing is just as hard for me, but I feel like this step is something I have to do.” His face still looked blank, but she pressed on in hopes of finding some way to give him a glimmer of understanding. “It’s as if—as if God let me see into His mind for just a moment, and now He expects me to act on that knowledge. If I don’t, I’m running from Him. He has given me a gift, and I can’t throw it back in His face.” She searched Tommi’s eyes for a sign of understanding, but found only hurt.

He did relax enough to turn back to face the ocean and clasp his hands around his knees. They sat in awkward silence for a moment until Tommi finally said, “So . . . when are you leaving?”

“As soon as I can. My father won’t let me stay with them. That’s what we fought about.”

“So . . . we aren’t over?”

Annela smiled at him, grateful that he was coming around. “We don’t have to be. Just that one part has to be. For now.”

“Good.” Tommi’s arm slipped around her shoulders. He was only a few centimeters taller than Annela, so she had to slouch down to rest her head on his shoulder, but the closeness was reassuring. She closed her eyes. Tears came in earnest now, and she let them come. Tommi’s embrace eased her loneliness.

I’m glad he came.

He held her close for some time without saying a word. She was grateful he didn’t try to soothe her right now. He wouldn’t have known the right thing to say and wouldn’t have been able to say it with his heart if he did, but his quiet acceptance meant the world to her—so much better than his anger.

Annela’s breath evened, and her eyes gradually dried. Tommi turned his head to look at her, sympathy on his face. She forced a smile. He wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb.

“Your nose is red again.”

She choked on a chuckle and covered her nose with both hands. Whenever she cried, her nose deepened to a dark red bordering on purple. Then it swelled three sizes and stayed that way, often overnight. Tommi brushed a stray piece of hair from her face.

“I hate to see my girl hurting. It makes me miserable too.”

She looked into his pale blue eyes and wished his words eased the ache. He was trying so hard. Tommi leaned closer, and his lips parted ever so slightly. But instead of leaning in, Annela found herself pulling away, avoiding his kiss. She couldn’t be romantic—not at a time like this. She felt too vulnerable. It would be too easy to take the comfort too far.

He pulled back, holding her at arm’s length. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” she said helplessly, searching for an explanation which he wouldn’t understand, because she didn’t even know why she’d shied away. She groped for an answer. “It’s just that I am feeling so many emotions right now, and there is no space left to feel anything more.” Lame explanation, but it would have to suffice.

Tommi released her suddenly, as if her shoulders were hot coals. “I didn’t think kissing was against your new religion,” he said with a bite in his voice. He stood and brushed off his jeans. Pulling away couldn’t be blamed on her decision. Her heart was just so tangled up.

“Tommi, don’t go,” she said, reaching out. “I’m sorry.”

He avoided looking at her by checking text messages on his phone. “I’ll be at the apartment.”

Annela nodded and watched him walk away across the Elephant Rock, wishing she could call to bring him back. Wishing things didn’t have to change.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Word Nerd Linkage

It's a day late for Word Nerd Wednesday, so I thought I'd do something a little different: show you some of my favorite nerdy places to hang out.

Oxford Dictionaries Online and their Word World blog brings me no end of joy. I follow their Twitter stream, and it always points me toward posts that cheer the nerd inside me. (Up today: Five Events that Shaped the History of English)

Check out this fun Michigan Today post about obscure words. (It even mentions mondegreens, which we talked about more than a year ago HERE. In related news, we bought Mad Gab for Christmas.)

Grammar Girl. I'm going to admit here that I first learned about Mignon Fogarty, known better as Grammar Girl, when she appeared on Oprah to clear up some grammar confusion. She has a great podcast and blog (and a book and regular vlogs on YouTube) where she addresses a wealth of grammar and usage issues. (I admit I've learned a few things from her.)

"The Alot" on Hyperbole and a Half. The writer here is hysterically funny and does a few other posts related to language, like the one on the semi colon. (Note that the entire blog isn't about language or punctuation, and some posts are somewhat PG-13, definitely not appropriate for kids.)

Fake Editor and Fake AP Stylebook. Both of these are on Twitter, and their streams keep me in stitches. (November had a Fake NaNo Tips feed. Holy crimeny, I laughed.)

Also on Twitter, and showing that his wit is just as sharp with 140 characters as it is on the silver screen, is Steve Martin. He's a great writer as well as actor, and his tweets show an awesome grasp of not only what Twitter is (and how to poke fun at it) but how to craft a great tweet with the language. (Like how he used "FYI" and went on to explain that it means "for your information" but FYI is shorter . . . all in the same tweet.)

Common Errors in English. This site is a treasure trove of information. Stuck on whether it's wrack your brain or rack your brain? What about the difference between discreet and discrete? The guy behind the site is thorough and easy to understand, and the it's all arranged alphabetically. Just click on the letter of the word you're wondering about. (He has a book version and a calendar. I think I need that.)

Proofreader's Marks, courtesy Merriam-Webster. I do a lot of freelance editing, and while most in digital, every so often I get a hard-copy job. Once or twice, I'll get a brain freeze (which was the right way to insert a hyphen?), so I pull up this bookmarked site and double-check.

National Punctuation Day. Yes, it has its own website. Remember this one when September rolls around.

Funds for Writers has been listed as one of the top 101 best web sites for writers by Writers Digest for over a decade. It's a fantastic resource. (Tooting my horn here: I won the 2009 essay contest. Felt kinda cool.) The owner, C. Hope Clark, has a sister blog, updated regularly in addition to putting out three regular newsletters with oodles of great information for writers.

Not that I'm even a little biased (Hahahaaa!) but I think Precision Editing Group's Writing on the Wall blog is pretty great too.

I could list more word and writing-related sites, but I'll stop there and leave you with one that's for the pure fun of it. It's where we see inside the lives of the people who inhabit those picture-perfect catalogs like Pottery Barn: Catalog Living.

Check it out and laugh.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

21st-Century Literacy: Or, Why Kids GOTTA Read

I've had a lot of people ask how I managed to get my kids to be good readers. My experience won't be the same as any other parent's, because every child is different. Each of my four children had a different path toward reading, and we lucked out in that we don't have anyone with dyslexia or similar learning challenge. (Not that we didn't have our challenges, but I'll talk about that another time.)

Before sharing parts of our family's literacy journey, I want to establish why reading is so important to begin with, why I did a jig in the hall the first time I caught my son sneaking a book under his covers past bedtime.

I'm an avid reader, so of course as soon as I became a mom, I wanted to pass along my love of books to my children. That desire increased as I studied literacy statistics and learned just how important those skills arefar more important than they were even one generation ago.

Back then, the majority of jobs didn't even require a high school diploma and many jobs required little, if any, skills related to reading and writing. (Common sense, a solid work ethic, and a bit of brawn did the trick.)

In the 1950s, 60% of jobs were unskilled labor.* Today, unskilled labor accounts for only 20% of jobs. But there's a caveat: today, even blue-collar jobs require some level of literacy, and when the workers don't have it, entire industries suffer.

In a survey of the National Association of Manufacturers, 40% said they couldn't implement productivity improvements because their work force didn't have the reading, math, or communication skills the upgrades would require.

The modern world requires that we know how to read and write. Those aren't just a nice skills to have; they're vital for success. Consider that just about every job requires some kind of written communication, whether it's e-mail, reading a memo taped to a wall, or (more likely) something far more involved.

I have several friends (and this includes my husband) who, at times, do more writing at work than their job description implies. This includes stuff like writing reports, proposals, memos, team messages, e-mails (to superiors as well as team members), preparing presentations, and more. Two of my friends who are lawyers spend 12-hour work days, yep, writing.

(Side note: one of those lawyers is such a good writer that he's now the go-to guy at his firm for writing briefs and reports. Pain in the neck on the one hand, but it also means his mortgage will be paid off just before his 40th birthday.)

Aside from benefits like getting, oh, a job, literacy has huge effects on individuals and society.

It's not a surprise that children of mothers with poor literacy skills are likely to have poor literacy skills themselves. We know that parental involvement is big for students.

What we don't always realize is that when such support is lacking at home, it leads to a vicious cycle of poverty: an illiterate teen, possibly living in poverty herself, gets involved in drugs and other risky behavior, drops out of school, has a teen pregnancy, raises the child in poverty . . .

And the cycle continues with the next generation.

But get this: literacy skills even affect things like children's health. Studies have shown that kids with illiterate mothers tend to have poor nutrition, don't get to the doctor when they need to, and don't always get the care they need when they are at the doctor (hard to know what to ask when you don't understand basic health issues). These same children are less likely to ride in car seats or even have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the home.

At first some of that didn't make sense to me, until I realized that literacy has fingers in just about every pie of life. How did I learn about toddler nutrition, when to take my kidlets to the doctor, or how to install a car seat?

Oh, yeah. I read about those things. Even knowing what questions to ask of a doctor or pharmacist (or even being able to read a medicine label) is something those with poor literacy skills can't do.

A lot of problems go away when the mother in the home is educated: kids' grades go up, their chances for at-risk behavior drops, their health improves, and more.

Yes, I'm aiming this at moms, because we really do have so much power. (No pressure, right? Oy.) This means that yes, educating a woman is critical, even if she's "just" going to be a stay-at-home mom.

Aside from family-level issues, illiteracy has a huge price tag on the community. Consider a few numbers from 2003:

47% of adult welfare recipients have not graduated from high school.

70% of adult welfare recipients are not literate.

High-school drop-outs are 3X more likely to need public assistance than high-school graduates.

Illiterate adults are 6X times more likely to be hospitalized and are more likely to have heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes. (Again, if you can read, you're more likely to know about preventative care, treatments, and more.)

Prison inmates are often illiterate, and after release, they often return to prison. In one study, inmates who receive literacy training had a return rate of 20% instead of the 49% of their fellow inmates who did not receive similar training.

The conclusion of the study was that every dollar spent on education in prison is worth at least two dollars in the future reduction of crime. (You'd think that education would be a no-brainer, but only about 9% of inmates get literacy training.)

You could say I'm a tiny bit passionate about the topic, which is why I got somewhat panicky when my children didn't take to reading like fish to water. I did a lot of asking for advice, digging around, and I put on my detective cap to find some solutions. So far, the efforts have paid off.

Next week, I'll share some of our struggles and the tips I gleaned along the way for getting my kids to read.

*Literacy stats in this post are from the ProLiteracy America Report, 2003

Friday, February 11, 2011

Just in Time for Valentine's . . .

Some fun news!

At the Water's Edge, my second novel, has long been out of print.

That is changing. Assuming we don't run into any snags, it will debut on the Kindle on Valentine's Day for a whopping $2.99.

With this book, unlike with Lost Without You, I did decide to get a new cover.

I love how it turned out. Behold:

On Monday, all seven of my novels will be available to readers again. Yippee!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Author Interview: Joanna Penn

Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post (how and where I don't recall). I was immediately impressed and had a feeling I'd be smart to follow it. I promptly added the blog, The Creative Penn: Adventures in Writing, Publishing and Book Marketing, to my Google reader.

I'm glad I did.

The author, Joanna Penn, has written four books and seeks out all kinds of tips, sites, and helps about writing, publishing, and marketing. She's a great resource for all writers, whether they're doing freelance work, shooting for traditional publishing, or blazing their path on the indie route.

(Is it just me, or does she look a little like Elaine on Seinfeld? And you know how I love me some Seinfeld.)

I enjoy Joanna's posts, Skype interviews, and energetic personality. She's a great tweeter; if you follow me, you've probably seen me re-tweet her, many times.

Her first novel, a thriller called Pentecost, is out now on in print and Kindle formats. Buy it TODAY, Monday, February 7, for a chance to win one of her great prizes. (It's all of $2.99. That's less than a good burger, and I'm betting the enjoyment will last a longer than one too! See details on the book's Facebook page. Link below.)

Watch her book trailer (I dare you to not be intrigued by it), and then read my interview with Joanna:

You started out with technical writing and other non-fiction. When and how did the fiction bug bite?

I’ve always wanted to write fiction but I was crippled with self-doubt for years because I thought I had to write prize-winning literary fiction or nothing at all. Then I looked at what I love to readfast-paced, action-movie style thrillersand decided to write one of those. I finally attempted to write fiction during NaNoWriMo in 2009, and that became the first few chapters of Pentecost. I loved the process of writing it and I’m already planning the next one. I can’t believe I waited so long!

Where did the idea for Pentecost come from?

I have a Masters in Theology from Oxford and also a post-graduate diploma in Psychology, so I was always going to use my academic knowledge in my writing. Religion, mythology and the supernatural fascinate me so I wanted to explore some of those areas. I also wanted a topic that resonated with people and where the fiction could hang on established tradition. Pentecost and the Acts of the Apostles are known to Christians, but I took the basic idea and then extended the story further without impinging on what the Bible says.

The premise of Pentecost is that the Apostles took stones from the empty tomb of Jesus and wore them as a symbol of their Brotherhood. These stones were empowered at Pentecost and handed down through generations of Keepers who kept their secret, but now the Keepers are being murdered and the stones hunted by those who would use them for evil.

The specific idea came to me when I was in Venice at St Mark’s Basilica looking up at the Pentecost mosaic and I realized that little is known about the Apostles, so it would make for an interesting theme.

What research did you have to do for the book?

As the story ranges across the world, I spent a lot of time researching physical locations. I have been to many of them but had to refresh my memory (e.g. Jerusalem) but also had to write from research for Tabriz, Tunisia and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I used websites and also for photos to write more visually. I also researched Carl Jung and The Red Book, his journal of a breakdown that I used images from. The synchronicity was incredible as Jung painted a pillar of fire emanating from a stone, which of course, I had to use in the book!

What was the most interesting thing you learned (either for the book or about research)?

The hunt for the stones of the Apostles centers around the locations where their relics are kept, so I did a lot of research on where the twelve men died. Little is written about what happened to each apostle after the book of Acts. Peter’s crucifixion in Rome and John on Patmos are well-known, but for others there are conflicting traditions. So I took as much as I could and then fitted the story around that, which meant that I learned a lot about the Roman Empire and early Christian world.

What is your writing style? Are you an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pantser? Somewhere in between?

I started off by writing the scenes that were playing in my head, mainly the opening and climax as well as scenes in Jerusalem, Venice and Rome. Then I did an outline to join those together with a coherent story. Of course the outline morphed as I continued writing, but it was a good guideline. I used the outline as more of an editing tool to track what I needed to change in the second draft. One lesson learned was that I should be using an outline earlier for faster production of the first draft but still leave room for change as I write each scene.

What is your typical writing schedule like?

I’d describe myself as a binge writer! I have a day job and now two blogs as well as a podcast and videos to produce (and a life!), so I have to balance my time. In my productive writing phase, I was up at 5am to write 1000 words before my day job and then scheduled four hours on a Sunday to immerse myself for a longer session. I’m currently in "gathering" phase for the next book and not writing fiction at all, although I write every day for the blog and other places. I anticipate gathering ideas and research for the next month at least before I start another binge writing phase!

From another interview, I gather that you have a “regular job” four days a week. How soon do you foresee the day when you can write full time?

Yes, I work as an IT consultant four days per week, and it is a mixed blessing! I like the income, which means I don’t have to write for money, only for pleasure. I also enjoy the social side and my work is intellectually stimulating in a different way. Fitting everything in keeps me motivated to write, so I’m pretty happy with this way of life at the moment. I do want to be a full-time writer/blogger/speaker, but I see that as maybe two years away at the moment, and it will be a portfolio-style career. I enjoy the writing, but I also love speaking and blogging.

How did you make the decision to self-publish your novel?

I’m basically impatient and a fast worker. I hate to sit around waiting for anything to happen. With Amazon Kindle, you can have your book published in 24 hours, and with print-on-demand, your print book can be for sale in 3 weeks or less. I have a market ready to buy it, as I have built an author platform, so it seemed crazy to wait. I also hate the negative energy of rejection and would rather try to get a book deal by getting publishers to notice me than chase after them.

There are more stories now of self-published books being picked up by traditional publishers after they achieve great sales. So it’s win-win. I carry on writing and marketing, and whether or not I get a book deal, I am selling books!

What is the most important thing writers hoping for self-publishing success to know/do?

It’s critical to use a professional editor for both editorial review and copy editing. You cannot pick up all the problems in your book yourself, and you need your book to be a professional final product. Self-publishing gets a lot of criticism for lack of quality, so please organize editing. Professional cover design is important and will help your book stand out for good reasons.

Building an author platform is also critical because no one will know your book exists otherwise. There’s lots more info about publishing options HERE.

Social media seems to have played a big role in your success to date, Twitter especially. What advice do you have for writers feeling overwhelmed by the idea of social media? (Where should they start, and/or what has made the biggest impact for you?)

It’s important to be into social media in some way now. It’s expected by publishers and agents as part of your author platform, and it’s critical for independent authors as a marketing angle. But you need to choose what is best for you in terms of personality and audience. Different sites have different audiences as well as etiquette and ways to be successful.

I love Twitter, and it’s my focus for social networking although I do use other sites. I made a conscious decision to grow my influence there, so I dedicate time to it. A big mistake people make is to scatter-gun their efforts, and then they achieve nothing and give up. It also takes time. I’ve been on Twitter nearly two years now and spent the first six months in the wilderness like everyone else! Here’s a longer article on how to use Twitter effectively.

Which authors have had the biggest influence on your own work?

In terms of fiction in the thriller genre, I love James Rollins, Matthew Reilly, Michael Crichton and Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. In order to share more of the books I enjoy, I’ve started a new blog for lovers of the mystery and thriller genre, Mystery Thriller TV. Come and check it out if you’re a fan of the genre!

Any additional advice for aspiring authors?

The publishing world is changing, and opportunities are growing for authors who are willing to write and promote themselves. Ebooks now outstrip paperback sales on, so you can get your work out there without barriers to entry anymore.

If you have ever dreamed of writing a book, now is a brilliant time to do it!

To find out more about Joanna, check out The Creative Penn, the Pentecost novel web site, or follow her on Twitter. To follow the her book launch and see the details about the launch contest, LIKE the Facebook page for Pentecost.

Good luck, Joanna!

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Sample Sunday: Lost Without You, from Ch 2

An excerpt from chapter two of Lost Without You ($2.99 on Kindle):

“I know it’s best that I don’t see him anymore, but it still hurts.” Brooke found herself rubbing her upper arms as if they were cold. “And then I start thinking I must have been a total idiot to date him in the first place.”

“But you didn’t see any red flags early on, right?” Pat said.

“No, but—”

“And you broke up with the freak the moment you realized he was bad news. Give yourself some credit.”

Brooke shrugged. “I’ve never had a guy shove me before. The whole thing really rattled me—the only thing that could get me to calm down was pounding out Broadway show tunes and pretending I’m some big stage star.” She laughed at herself.

“You were a pretty darn good Anna,” Pat said, referring to The King and I.

“I wasn’t too bad, was I?” Brooke said with a half smile. “I’ve always wanted to do another play—but Anna was nearly half my life ago. It’s not like I could even get cast at the local theater if I tried.”

Pat raised her sunglasses and her eyebrows. “Is there a local theater you’re referring to?”

Oops. Hey, at least it’s a change of topic from Christopher.

Against her better judgment, Brooke mentioned the audition notice. “I cut it out of the paper on a whim. It’s not like I’d actually try out or anything. Please.”

“So . . . when are the try-outs?” Pat asked casually, popping a cracker into her mouth from the box the kids foraged from.

“Monday evening.” The word slipped out before Brooke could take it back. “But I’m not—”

“You’re going.”

“That’s crazy,” Brooke said, snatching the box of crackers and grabbing a fistful. “I haven’t sung in public since, well, forever. And I don’t have anything prepared for an audition. That’s crazy talk.”

Pat swatted Brooke’s arm. “Oh, come on. You said yourself it’s just a small community thing. I’ll come with you. It’ll be a fun excuse to give Grandma time with my kids while I come with you.”

“Fun?” Brooke leveled a look on her sister. “That’s the last adjective I’d use for an audition. Try terrifying or humiliating . . .”

“You’re going.” Pat said it as if it were a known fact. She took the cracker box back and plopped another cracker into her mouth defiantly.

Brooke laughed. “Oh, really?”

“Yep,” Pat said with a business-like tone. “I’ll pick you up for it, and Mom will watch the kids.” She paused, leaned closer, and added in a sing-songy tone, “We’ll go out for ice cream afterward.”

“Ice cream?” She reached into the cracker box, again in Pat’s hands, and put some into her mouth, one at a time, as she glared at her sister, but the look had laughter behind it. She sighed dramatically. “I suppose I could go if I get ice cream afterward,” she said with the tone of a martyr.

Pat looked at her watch, which broke the spell. “Yikes. It’s later than I thought. Amy’s way past her naptime, and Krissy and Tammy are probably close to meltdown too.” She went into the wood-chipped area. “Kids, it’s time to get back to Gamma’s. One more time down a slide, and then you come with me.”

With a bit of coaxing and compromise, all three girls were finally gathered. But just as they got to the van, Krissy began to bounce up and down.

“I gotta go. Bad!”

Pat groaned. “Can’t you wait until we get to Gramma’s? Her house is just a few minutes away.”

More like ten, but Brooke wasn’t going to argue the point.

Krissy’s eyes were desperate, and she bounced harder. “No. I gotta go now.”

“Fine. Come on,” Pat said in surrender. “The last thing I need is a return-trip to Arizona where the car smells of a potty accident. Let’s go.”

“The bathrooms are on that end,” Brooke said, pointing. “I’ll get the other girls buckled up and bring the van around if you want.” Pat tossed the keys to her and headed off in search of the facilities.

The van had grown hot in the unusually warm May heat, practically stifling everyone’s breathing. Brooke buckled the other girls into their seats quickly. Then Tammy found a bag of peanut M&Ms left in the van.

“Put those away,” Brooke said. “They’re probably all melted, and they’ll make a big mess.” From inside the van, Brooke slid the sliding door shut and squeezed her way forward to the driver’s seat, where she collapsed and pushed her fingers through her hair.

“It’s hot,” Tammy declared. “I don’t like being hot. Turn on the air.”

“That’s exactly what I’m about to do.” Brooke glanced into the rearview mirror and caught Tammy popping M&Ms into her mouth. “Hey . . .”

She turned the key, but instead of starting, the van let out a loud, drawn-out wail. The vehicle seemed frozen, except for the high-pitched siren, which attracted stares from passers-by. Brooke’s face flushed red as she fumbled with the dashboard controls, frantically trying to figure out what she’d done wrong. No matter what dial she turned, no matter how hard she twisted the key, nothing worked. She punched the red alarm button on the key fob, but that didn’t work either. Aside from the screeching alarm, the van was dead. But what had set the alarm off? And more importantly, how in the world could she get the thing to stop?

Amy, who’d been about to dose off in her car seat, awoke with a start and began crying at least as loud as the alarm.

Tammy joined her in a chorus of cries. “Turn it off,” she cried, holding her ears. “It’s loud. I’m scared.”

Brooke reached for the owner’s manual in the glove compartment. “I’m trying. I’ll turn it off as soon as I can figure out how.”

With each wail of the van, Brooke’s nerves wound a little tighter. Pedestrians gave her odd looks, and the cries of the children continued to escalate. By this time Amy was nearly hysterical—her entire body was such a dark red, it was nearly purple. Breathe! Brooke commanded her mentally, and every ten seconds or so, Amy would pause her shriek long enough to take in a lungful of air. Tammy thought it great fun to imitate the alarm to see if she could yell even louder.

Brooke flipped the pages of the manual blindly, willing the right page to show itself. She couldn’t think clearly; she wanted nothing more than for the alarm to turn off.

A tall man with short, brown hair appeared a few yards away and walked with a determined step in their direction. He looked vaguely familiar, but then, how many men in Utah Valley had short brown hair—a few thousand, give or take?

When he reached the minivan, he mouthed, “Do you need help?” Brooke nodded in humiliation, wishing she could become invisible, but at the same time grateful for the help. She got out of the van so she could hear him over the noise. With her nerves on edge, she had to focus to understand his simple instructions.

“Just lock the door, close it, and open it with the key instead of the key fob.”

It was worth a try. Brooke pushed the power lock button on the driver’s side door and closed it. As the door left her fingers and shut tight, she gasped. “Wait!”

The man took a step forward, looking for what was wrong. “What?”

“If this doesn’t work, I just locked two little girls inside a hot car.” She swallowed nervously. “I should have gotten them out first.”

“It’ll work. Trust me.” His voice was calm and reassuring. Brooke tried to believe him and be comforted when he added, “And if it doesn’t, I know how to open a locked car door.”

An eyebrow went up at that. Who knew how to break into cars? Brooke did her best to brush off thoughts of heat and the van’s continued wailing and tried to steady her hand enough to get the key into the lock. Tammy pounded frantically on the driver’s window.

“What’s wrong?” Brooke yelled through the window.

Tammy, who’d apparently unbuckled herself from her booster, held up the pack of M&Ms and pointed to her throat.

Brooke’s eyes went wide. “Are you choking?”

Her niece nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. Brooke said a silent prayer that the door would unlock; turning off the alarm didn’t seem so urgent anymore. But with her hand shaking, she couldn’t get the key in. Who used keys to get into cars anymore? She glanced up at the driver’s window, where Tammy watched, tears streaking her face, her hands at the throat.

The man reached for the keychain. With one quick motion, he slipped the key in. Brooke held her breath. A second later, the wailing stopped as abruptly as it had begun. More importantly, the door opened. Before Brooke could do anything, he had opened the sliding door, reached inside the van, and pulled Tammy out. He turned her around, wrapped his arms around her, and after two quick thrusts, the offending candy flew out of the girl’s mouth. She took a large gasp of breath and collapsed in Brooke’s arms with shaky sobs. Brooke let out a harsh breath of her own.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” she held Tammy close as she nodded and then buried her head in Brooke’s shoulder for another hug. Brooke looked skyward. “What a relief.”

The man smiled at her. “I can imagine. I know how powerful those parental instincts are. If it had been my child, I’d be a bit shaky too.”

Tammy took a deep breath and pulled away, wiping at her eyes. “I’m better now. When’s my mom going to be back?”

“Soon,” Brooke promised. Tammy climbed into the van, and Brooke straightened. She gestured toward the girls. “They’re my nieces,” she admitted. “My sister’s girls. But I can’t imagine my being any more pathetic even if I had been their mother.”

“Not pathetic. Worried.” He chuckled with a shake of his head. “Those little ones can have quite a hold on you.”

Tammy sat in her booster and gave Brooke a look she had undoubtedly gotten from her mother. “Hey, we’re not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“I think this is an exception,” Brooke said, pointing at the man. “He just saved your life.”

He stepped forward and held out a hand. “If you’re not allowed to talk to strangers, I suppose I’d better introduce myself. My name is Greg Stevens.”


That’s why he seemed familiar. This was the police officer at the accident. She didn’t recognize him without the uniform and name tag.

G. Stevens.

No wonder he knew how to open locked cars.

He held his hand out to Tammy. “And you are . . . ?”

She giggled and shyly extended her hand. “I’m Tammy.”

“That’s a very pretty name. How old are you?”

“Seven. I’m almost done with first grade.”

“Wow, almost a lady. You’re tall for first grade.”

Tammy bit her lip with pleasure.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand. He turned to Brooke and shook hers, too. “It’s nice to meet you, too. . . .” His forehead creased. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” He thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. “Last night. Accident on University, right?”

“I think so.” Brooke could feel heat climbing up her face and tried to change the subject; anything that hinted at Christopher was to be avoided today. “First you help with the alarm, and then Tammy . . . Anyway, thank you. When it went off, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do. I don’t even know how it happened.”

“Oh, you probably closed the doors, then accidentally locked them with the fob. If you do that and then try to start the car, the alarm will go off. Alarms are programmed that way—if the fob locks the car and then someone tries to start it, the alarm assumes the car’s been broken into.”

Brooke nodded, figuring that she probably hit the lock button on the key chain somewhere between buckling up the children and squeezing into the driver’s seat. Greg went on. “It’s not that uncommon, especially when a person’s not familiar with how car alarms work.”

Brooke flushed with humiliation, convinced that this handsome stranger saw her as an idiot blonde who couldn’t take care of herself. No matter that her hair was chestnut brown and that she’d been taking care of herself for over a decade. “Oh, this isn’t my minivan,” she said more quickly than intended. She didn’t know this man, but somehow she wanted to be sure he didn’t leave with the wrong impression. “I mean, if it were, I would probably know how it worked.”

Greg shrugged. “Could have happened to anyone. It was nice meeting you again.”

She watched him head down the sidewalk, hating the fact that the dimple in his left cheek refused to leave her mind. She suddenly called out to his retreating figure, “Thank you . . . again, I mean.”

He turned around. “No problem,” he said with a final wave. She got back into the minivan and almost started it when Pat returned with Krissy.

“We made it, but barely,” Pat said, helping Krissy into the van. She looked down the street and pointed. “Who was that?”

“Here’s the keys,” Brooke said, ignoring the question. “Sorry I didn’t pull the van closer. We had a bit of an incident involving peanuts, chocolate, and car alarms.”

With Krissy buckled, Pat took the keys, but looked down the street again. “Do you know that guy?”


“But you just waved at him.”

Tammy jumped into the conversation with her seven-year-old explanation. “The van started making this loud noise, and Brooke didn’t know how to stop it, and that guy did, and he told her how, but he turned it off and got the door open, but I had a peanut M&M stuck in my throat, and he got me out and lifted me hard and got it out—”

“Are you all right?” Pat interrupted, her maternal worry replacing curiosity.

“I’m okay. I won’t eat any more of these candies, though. But he was really nice.” As she went on, Brooke was amazed that a girl her age could rattle on like that. “He shook my hand so I could talk to him and we wouldn’t be strangers anymore, and then we introduced ourselves. And his name is Craig.”

“Greg,” Brooke corrected, then blushed and looked away.

Pat eyed Brooke. “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Tammy said. “And Mommy, he called me a lady.”

Brooke ducked around the van to climb into the passenger seat. On her mother’s orders, Tammy buckled back up and had her interest hijacked by her Nintendo DS. Pat put on her seatbelt without saying anything, but as she turned the key, she eyed Brooke. “So is he cute? Did he get your number?”

“No.” The word kind of coughed itself out. “I mean, yes, I suppose he is pretty good-looking, but no, we didn’t exchange any personal information.”

Pat turned her head to get a good look at Brooke, laughed, and put the minivan into gear. “Your ears are red.”

Brooke looked away and stifled a smile. “Hush, Pat.”

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

In Lieu of WNW . . .

I'm over at Precision Editing Group's blog today discussing TIME and the writer.

Come visit me at the Writing on the Wall blog!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Whitney Awards: Behind the Scenes

The reading is done, and the ballots are in. I'm writing this the night before the finalists are announced, and by the time you're reading this, we should be within a couple of hours of knowing who the finalists are.

Being part of the awards has been a fascinating and rewarding experience, especially since I was able to part of the growth of the program from early on. Robison Wells, the founder of the awards, bounced the idea off me the day he came up with it (I consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time). I landed on a name for the program that he liked. The second year of the awards I served on the committee, and I've been a judge for three years.

At the first gala, I felt overwhelmed with the potential for the program and where it was headed, and honored that I'd been part of something so amazing. (You can read more on that and my teary reaction HERE.)

Enough people ask about the Whitney Awards that I thought I'd explain a bit about how they work. This post will already be long enough without explaining my personal judging philosophy and process, so those things may have to wait for another post.

I will say, though, that I try hard to judge each book by the same criteria and to judge as objectively as possible, so that even if a particular novel isn't my personal taste, I can still acknowledge whether it is well-crafted and accomplishes what the author set out to do.

Michele Paige Holmes blogged about her job as a Romance judge this year in two posts, HERE and HERE. Read them. They're excellent and insightful . . . and good lessons on writing, too.

How the Whitney Awards Work
For the full list of rules and such, see the site's ABOUT page, but this post should give you the basics.

In essence, the Whitneys aim to recognize the best LDS fiction writers, regardless of genre or market. They're named after Orson F. Whitney, an early apostle who gave an inspiring talk about the arts and literature, saying that one day we'll have "Miltons and Shakespeares of our own." We're seeking to move toward greater and greater excellence, to one day fulfill that prophesy.

For a book to win a Whitney, it goes through three phases:

1) Reader Nomination
To be an official nominee, a book must be nominated by at least 5 people who do not have a financial interest in the book (such as the publisher, the author, etc.). Nominations are accepted throughout the year for books published during that calendar year, so the upcoming awards will honor books published in 2010. Nominations closed on December 31.

(Note: Keep in mind that you can already nominate 2011 titles. Nominations for the current year are open all the time.)

2) Genre Judging
The Whitneys include 7 genre categories: General, Historical, Romance, Mystery/Suspense, Speculative (Sci-Fi/Fantasy), YA General, and YA Speculative (a new category this year). Each genre category has 5 judges assigned to it by the Whitney president and committee. Judges are selected based on their qualifications, and while they are often writers in the field, sometimes they're editors or other industry professionals. Judges read every nominee in their category/categories.

The current Whitney president and committee are not eligible for awards (too bad, really, for current president Josi S. Kilpack, who has won a Whitney in the past but also has two books out this year that could have easily been finalists). Writers serving as judges are eligible for an award; they just can't judge a category in which they're eligible. For example, one year I judged General and Romance when I had a Historical novel eligible.

When they've read all the nominees assigned in their genre, the judges cast a complex ballot online that uses a point system to give each book the fairest rank possible. It's a Condorcet-style ballot, where every book is pitted against every other book in its category.

So instead of just ranking the books a judge liked ("this one is my favorite"), the ballot creates every possible pairing of titles and asks the judges, one pair at a time, to say which book of the two is most deserving of the award. Each vote for a book in any pairing creates a specific weight in that book's favor.

This is where we are right now. The judges' ballots were due yesterday at midnight, January 31. The points have been tallied (using some fancy computer formula that's beyond me).

Now 5 titles in each genre are finalists.

(The list should be up on the Whitney site by noon today.)

3) Academy Votes
Where do we go from here? Once the finalists are announced, the Whitney Academy members will get busy reading them. The Academy is made up of literally hundreds of industry professionals: writers, editors, reviewers, publishers, and so on. The Academy keeps growing. Just the LDStorymakers guild itself has doubled in membership since the inception of the awards four years ago.

Academy members will cast their ballots a week or two before the Whitney Gala, which takes place immediately following the annual LDStorymakers conference. In the past the Academy has had about 2 months to read finalists; this year, the conference and gala will be held a bit later, giving us almost 3 months. Yay!

Voting rules for Academy members are simple: Vote in as many, or as few, genre categories as you wish, provided you have read all of the finalists in any category you're voting in.

In other words, an Academy member could read just the Historical finalists and cast a ballot for only that award. Or a member could read finalists in two or three categories and vote in just those areas. They cannot vote in any category where they haven't read every finalist.

To cast a vote for the two overall awards (Best Novel by a New Author and Best Novel of the Year), the Academy member must read every book eligible for those awards. That means reading several titles to vote for Best Novel by a New Author and reading every single finalist to vote for Best Novel of the Year.

(That's a lot of books, but I did it last year. Barely, but I did it.)

The Whitney Gala
The genre and overall awards are announced at the Whitney Gala, as well as special awards that the committee decides on, given to people who have had big achievements in their work and/or been instrumental in serving LDS writers. Previous award-winners include Orson Scott Card, Gerald Lund, Kerry Blair, Dean Hughes, and Dave Wolverton, among others.

One rule change this year could be fun to see unfold: In the past, one book could win one award. If it won in its genre (say, Speculative) but and also won New Author and Best Novel, it would take just the highest award (Best Novel). The next highest-ranking book in New Author would take that award, and the same with the genre award. Spreading the love, acknowledging more books.

Now, a book can win any award it's eligible for. That means one book could take its genre award as well as Best Novel.

Or we could see a 3-award sweep with 1 book taking its genre award, New Author, and Best Novel. (Wouldn't that be wild?)

I make a point to read widely during the year, especially writers who I know are good at what they do and who have been previous finalists or winners. That way when the finalists are announced, there's a decent chance I've read at least a few of them and don't have 35 books to read in a short span.

Of course, I can't predict every finalist; there are always surprises: underdogs I've never heard of, self-published books that are gems, and so on. It's exciting to see the list each year. I really hope I've made some decent guesses.

After all, I must have read every finalist if I'm going to vote for Best Novel again.

And I plan to.


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