Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Life Changing Experiences

Recently, my brother landed in the ICU at Henry Ford Hospital. He's been in the unit for over a week and I'm really worried about him. One of the nurses caring for him is Cyndi. I've watched her for several days and have found her to be very good and professional. Whenever I'm in my brother's room and she's on duty, Cyndi takes the time to explain what's going on and makes suggestions for ways that my sister and I can help him.

One afternoon Cyndi and I started talking. She confided to me that she'd worked in the corporate world for years before switching careers. Right out of college, she'd went to work with the purchasing department at General Motor. Her life took a dramatic and painful turn when her husband died suddenly at the age of 31.

Cyndi told me that she realized that she wanted more from her life and that selling auto parts to GM just wasn't it. She enrolled in nursing school and now works with critically ill patients in the medical ICU.

I told her about my life changing experience and how I started my writing career after my mother was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. I went on about how writing got me through one of the darkest periods in my life. Writing gave me something to hold on to.

When I left the hospital that afternoon, I replayed our conversation in my head. I thought about how important it is to do the things you love. How short life can be and how we can let self-doubt and naysayers destroy our desire to do unique or make us question our talent.

So here's my rant for this week. Don't give up. Whether your passion is writing, photograph or knitting, give it your best. If writing is your goal, don't let anyone or anything stop you. Work hard and learn your craft and I believe you'll get the contract or see your book in print.

You know I'm always interested in what you have to say. So , don't be a stranger. Email me at


Sunday, March 28, 2010

The persistence of...persistence

I once had a couple of friends. Let's call them Fiona and Irene. At the time when I was friendly with Fiona and Irene, I was training in martial arts. Because both women were somewhat interested in the topic, I invited them to a class. For whatever reason (maybe I was a bit too "intense"), they didn't take me up on my offer. However, when I touched base with them a few months later, Fiona was beaming.

"Guess what Irene and I did?" she asked. "We took up martial arts!"
"That's great," I said. "Which one?"
"Well, it wasn't exactly a martial art. We did a six-week self-defence course for women."
"And how long ago was this?"
"We finished it last month."
I nodded. "And did you find it useful?"
"Oh it was fabulous. Irene and I know so much more than we did before we went. Now we understand what you were talking about. It's very empowering."
So Fiona went on about how wonderful the instructor was and what kind of moves he showed them.
"And how often do you practise those moves?" I asked.
Fiona shrugged. "We don't. But we don't think we need to. After all, it was a pretty full-on six weeks."
"But you haven't rehearsed anything you learnt since then?"
"Why would we need to?" she insisted with a frown. "We already know what to do."
Despite what other people may think, I occasionally know when to stop gnawing on a particular bone, so I smiled and wished Fiona the best and just told her not to get too cocky when she's out late at night.
With a laugh and a wave, she tripped off.

And I was left in utter despair. Fiona and Irene were getting a very misguided picture of their skill level based on weekly attendance at a short course in self-defence. And, judging by the way Fiona held herself and what she said, I knew that the level of confidence she had acquired was dangerous enough to put herself into trouble if she didn't keep her eyes open. Added to that were her rapidly eroding skills due to lack of practice. So, if she let herself get into a bad situation, even if she had some inkling of what to do, chances were she wouldn't have been able to do anything about it.

It seems a far stretch to compare Fiona and Irene to writing but bear with me. Before I was published, when I mentioned that I wrote, the inevitable question would be, "So, what have you got out?"

At that point, I didn't have anything out. "Nothing yet," I'd say, "but I'm working on a science-fiction romance."

"Oh yeah," they'd inevitably reply, "I thought I'd write one of them too. Or one of those Mills & Boon romance things. I mean, how hard can it be?"

Because my commentators didn't know what it was like to actually sit down and write one of those "things" from start to finish, they thought it was easy. Like writing a letter (or email), except longer! And who hasn't written someone a letter or email at some point?

Now, with a few releases under my belt, I get a different reaction. It's now more along the lines of what exactly it's like to be a writer rather than a casual remark about "whipping off" one of "those books" and "making a ton of money" as a result.

But I hope you can see where I'm coming from. The people who make those remarks are a lot like Fiona and Irene. They may be wonderful people in their own right, but they're making vast generalisations based on a small slice of experience. The next time someone takes the same tack with you, just remember that it isn't a deliberate slight. They're actually trying to identify with you, I think, but just not going about it in the best, most productive way. Best thing to do is just smile and move on. Or, if you can't resist baiting the bear, agree with them and have some fun. It works for me.

* Kaz Augustin is a writer who is definitely not out to win any popularity contests. You can find her website here and she blogs three times a week, more or less, here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

World Literature: The Caribbean (2)

In my February 22 post, World Literature? Try the Caribbean, I featured three of my favorite Caribbean writers and their work, writers who all happened to belong to my own little rock, Trinidad. Today I'm venturing out a bit into the wider Caribbean with three more of my favorite authors from the region.

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Cynthia Potter Richardson in Antigua in 1949 and migrated to New York at the age of 16. Her family disapproved of her writing so she changed her name in 1973 and went on to write a series of articles for Ingenue magazine. She also worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker until 1995.

In her novels she deals with issues such as coming of age in a foreign country, her anger at colonialism, and mother-daughter relationships. Until 2009 she was a visiting professor and teacher of creative writing at Harvard University, and is currently a Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College. Her novels include (my favorite) Annie John, A Small Place and The Autobiography of My Mother.

Jean Rhys was born in 1890 in Dominica of Welsh and Dominican creole ancestry and moved to England when she was sixteen. The harshness of a patriarchal society, feelings of displacement and rootlessness, and racial inequality became important themes in her writing.

Her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published in 1966 and won the prestigious WH Smith Literary Award in 1967. A prequel to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, it's the story of the first Mrs. Rochester from the time of her youth in the Caribbean to her unhappy marriage and relocation to England.

eorge Lamming was born in 1927 in Barbados, and later taught school in Trinidad. In 1950 he emigrated to England where he became a broadcaster for the BBC Colonial Service.

My favorite of his novels is his first, In the Castle of My Skin (1953), a coming-of-age account of his childhood in a small Barbadian village. Common themes in his novels are colonialism and its effects on the Caribbean people, particularly the absence of a sense of identity.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Guest author Carol Mitchell: Writing for Children

Carol Mitchell, an IT specialist based in St. Kitts, has been writing for years, but this is her first novel. Her passion for reading, children and her Caribbean home led her to create the Caribbean Adventure Series.

Writers of children’s books have the best job. Perhaps I am biased; my foray into writing has been through the Caribbean Adventure Series, a series of books aimed at 8 to 12 year olds. However, I think that we definitely have more fun!

In the first place, we are writing for an audience that finds it easy to suspend disbelief. Fiction authors must often write in a way that makes their readers let go of their preconceptions and believe the unbelievable. This comes naturally for children who are not yet bogged down by knowledge of the constraints of physics, biology, mathematics, geography and politics. They are willing to accept it all. Talking animals? Flying elephants? Why not?

I’ll give you an example. In the Caribbean Adventure Series, the main protagonist is a monkey. In the second book, he stows away on an airplane. Most adult readers asked me “How could he get through security?” The children accepted this without question – the monkey travels through time, airport security is a piece of cake!

Another advantage that children’s writers have is the ability to write with imaginative abandon. When I was in school, I was taught that you needed to have a story planned completely before you started writing. However, when I began the Caribbean Adventure Series, I never knew how the books would end until they ended. I thought that this method of writing was unorthodox, until I read that Enid Blyton, an English writer of great acclaim, had the same technique. Now, I am in the process of writing my first novel and I find that to write about adult’s life, I need to be more structured in my thinking and develop the book fully before really beginning to write the meat of the story.

Children’s writers do face challenges that their counterparts with a more mature audience do not. Since our books are usually about children in the same age group as our readers, they do not have a long history that can be woven into the story to develop their character. We are forced to use the way that they interact with other characters to reveal information about them. In the Caribbean Adventure Series, for example, I ended up using two children to enable the reader to fully understand my main human character.

Finally, to quote Spiderman (I am a writer of children’s books, who else would I quote?) “With great power comes great responsibility.” We address a very impressionable audience and I believe that writers of children’s books need to use this medium to send very positive messages to our future generation about responsibility, morality and the triumph of good over evil.

Carol Mitchell

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Staying on track

BICHOK: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Easier said than done, unless one is a hermit on a mountaintop. The writer mired in daily life needs constant reinforcement of her goals.

The Orange County Chapter of the Romance Writers of America has a great system for helping writers set and stick to their goals. At each monthly meeting, we can write down one or more writing goals that we plan to accomplish by the following month's meeting. We also put a dollar in a jar for each goal. At the next meeting, those who met a goal tear that goal off the sheet and put it in a box. A name is drawn from that box, and that person wins all the money contributed the previous month. A dollar may not seem like much, but I know I feel terrible if I don't meet my goal and my dollar is wasted.

One of the 2008 Clarion Workshop graduates belongs to a goal group. When I asked what a goal group was, he explained that it was a group of people who meet every month to review their goals and their progress toward them and to support each other in their efforts. That sounds like a great idea; who wants to admit in front of a group that they fell short? If I knew any writers living near me, I would set up a goal group myself.

One motivator I came across recently is Habit Forge ( At this free Internet site, one can set goals. Every morning, Habit Forge queries you whether you met your goal for the previous day and charts the number of days in a row you've succeeded. The kicker: No matter how many days you've been successful, if you fail one day, the meter resets at 0 successes. Ouch! So far I've been using Habit Forge for personal goals such as "I will not snack between breakfast and lunch" and "I will not windowshop on the Internet." But I've found the service so motivating that I plan to start using it for writing goals as well.

One motivator I used when I had an office with a lot of wall space was a huge yearly calendar hung on the wall. Each day that I wrote at least half a day I rewarded myself with a sticker on the calendar. One could tell from across the room how well I was doing.

What systems have you used to create a writing habit and maintain it?

I'm glad you visited my post today. Please come back on April 7, when I'll tell about my talks about writing at my former high school.

—Shauna Roberts

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Functions of Dialogue!

I'm the type of writer who begins with dialogue. Actually I'm heavy on dialogue with most of my novels. I have to hear what's going on as I see it in my head, so that's where I start. And as I approach a blank page wherein I've already written a one-line sentence on what that scene is about (based upon my outline), I usually begin my layering with what my characters are saying, their conversations and conflict, their drama, be it internal or external. I can end up with four pages or twelve pages, however it flows until they're done talking, but for me, that's a big part of the first level of my draft. I can randomly, as necessary, add narration, setting, movement, visual descriptions, dialogue tags, etc., in layers, or go back and do it all at once, one element at a time.

Right now, I'm in the 9th inning of a novel, but wanted to share a small bit of info that was sent to me by I've taken a few of their classes, though I haven't in a while, but sometimes the bit of info they send in their emails serve as great reminders of the craft.

Authentic and effective dialogue in a story performs many functions: It characterizes and reveals motives, it sets the mood, it intensifies the story conflict and moves the story forward, it creates tension and suspense, it speeds up the scenes, it adds bits of setting and background, and it communicates the story's theme. When working well, dialogue can accomplish all of these functions at the same time.

The mood or atmosphere in a story doesn't happen all by itself. On its own, even the setting can only do so much to establish a story's mood because the only tool you have is narrative description. But when the characters come on the scene and start interacting, the reader begins to get a feel for exactly what kind of story this is; whether she's going to laugh or cry her way through it, whether it's going to be a fast or slow-paced ride, whether the story is just for fun or whether she's going to have to think deeply about some aspect of the human condition. If the writer has found her authentic voice for the story, the characters will express themselves through dialogue in a way that creates and sustains the story's mood.

Much of the time, real people's conversations aren't all that interesting, certainly not the stuff of daytime drama on television. Things get interesting when one person's agenda collides with another's, when one person wants one thing and another person wants something else. How much each of them wants something also plays a part in how intense the conflict between them becomes.

How do you approach a blank page? Are you a narration or dialogue person, or do you just go with the flow?

Much love and happy writing!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spring Break

Facebook. Twitter. Shelfari. YouTube. Goodreads. LinkedIn. E-mail loops. Blogs.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…


Sometimes social networking is just too much of a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong; most of the above networks are an important (and fun!) part of my daily routine. However, I remember what life was like before they came along.

Back then, I wrote short stories for the confession magazines on a used Smith-Corona word processor. And honestly, my head was filled with less mind clutter, and I got more actual writing done.

So in honor of the first day of spring, I’m taking a head-clearing, weekend break from it all.

I’ve turned off my regular cell phone and iPhone. And once this post is written, the MacBook goes into its case.

My new Liberty of London for Target tote (click here to read more about my obsession with this adorable line) is packed with my Alphasmart, noise-canceling headphones and a snack. I’m headed to Starbucks at daybreak to write.

That’s it. Just write.

Soooo, do you sometimes find social networking to be a bit overwhelming????

Friday, March 19, 2010

Who you are

Back in October and November I discussed writing outside yourself – writing from the perspective of another gender or ethnic group; writing as a citizen of worlds you don't know. These are important skills, tools that should be in every writer's kit. But the fact remains that writers – at least all the writers I know – are human. We can never quite get away from being who we are. And part of being human is putting a part of yourself into everything you create.

My grandfather lived to be somewhere between ninety-four and ninety-six. (He was fairly sure he was eight when he arrived as an orphan on Ellis Island, but the medicos who kept him quarantined until they were sure he didn't have TB were more sure he was six.) My father, who will be eighty-seven in a month, gave up golf only last year. As I close in on sixty, I have the sense that at least a third of my life is still ahead of me. But there's no doubt I'm older than I was, and as I've aged my view of the world and of myself has gone through a distillation process. In many ways I am not the man I was at twenty-five, while in just as many ways I am that man honed and refined. All evidence indicates I'm going to remain inescapably me for the foreseeable future. Which means every word I write will be written by me and probably heavily influenced by me as well. No getting around it.

So who am I, this person I let affect my writing so? My faith is a big part of my identity – perhaps the biggest. I'm a Christian of the anti-fundamentalist anti-evangelical sort. (Quick recipe: Start with Kierkegaard, leaven with a large measure of Brother Lawrence, fold in some C. S. Lewis, and simmer in Sojourners for half a decade.) My family is also vital – I define myself as husband and father. I'm by personality a teacher and mentor. I love living in the south, though I am perpetually a stranger in a strange land I think of myself as a southern writer. I love language – both beautiful and punful – and find just about everything funny.

Being who I am will always impact my writing; shape my voice as a writer. Being me will not, note the difference, limit what stories I tell, but it will dictate how I tell those stories. On one occasion, spanning nearly three years of pitching, my voice prevented me from writing for Warhammer 40,000, a gaming universe I very much wanted to break into. The universe of WH40k is one of unrelenting war as humanity fights a futile battle against Chaos. (No, that wasn't a spoiler. A fundamental fact of the IP is that evil eventually wins.) I don't do futile well. I could not not write a happy – or at least poignantly hopeful – ending. As one editor who really liked my work and wanted to fit me in put it: "You're too damn cheerful."

But that is only one market, and was the exception rather than the rule. For example: I am, have grown into being, a pacifist – war is a waste of lives – yet most of my published stories are military science fiction. How do I pull that off? I find angles of war I can approach. My first sale to BattleCorps was about a six-year-old girl whose belief in a cartoon action character gives her courage when war machines rage across her family's farm ("The Immortal Warrior at the Battle of Vorhaven," recently anthologized in The Corps). "Commitment" concerned the balance between marriage and duty; "A Line in the Dust" examined the tipping point between duty and justice; the list goes on. Even tales that look like straight stand-up-and-shoot stories are about values and personal growth. Honor, difficult choices, consequences of actions, love, all of these are a part of the experience of war.

So when your story requires an element you think you do not understand – something outside your experience and alien to you – do not shy away from it. Do not weaken your story by leaving out something the proper telling calls for. But more importantly, do not cheat the readers by employing cliché or set pieces; they deserve your best. Take the time to study, to look and to think about what you're looking at. Sooner or later you will find a thread or stepping stone – something within the strange that speaks to you; and ingress that will lead you into the center of the story and let you make it uniquely your own.

Never think that who you are is a limitation on your storytelling. It is your most valuable asset.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

You're Even Better Than You Know

About four years ago, a group of friends encouraged me to take part in a half-marathon at Disneyland. Let me get this out there: I am NOT an athlete. In fact, I'm the complete opposite of an athlete. My first thought was no way!

But for years I've had this desire to push myself into things that at first seem impossible. It started when I decided I would finish my undergraduate degree in three years instead of four. Since then, I've been challenging myself to go beyond my expectations of myself. I figured the Disneyland Half-Marathon was a way to challenge myself, so I decided to go for it. I completed that race in under 3 1/2 hours, and even though I said it would be my last, this past weekend, I participated in my third half-marathon. I'm even better than I thought I was!

The same thing has applied to my writing life. When I set out to write my first novel back in my sophomore year of college, it seemed so daunting. Could I start with a blank page and end up with hundreds of pages of readable material? I knew others did it, but I didn't think I had it in me.

I'll be honest, that first attempt probably wasn't readable. I still love the story, but technically, it leaves much to be desired. But that doesn't matter, because since then I have stared at a blank sheet of paper (though I've graduated to a blank computer screen) and have written nearly a dozen books. Some will never see the light of day, but, in my opinion, each one has been better than the last.

There is much wisdom in that old saying, "You can do anything if you put your mind to it."

Don't ever succumb to fear. If you think you can't do something, it is the perfect motivation to prove to yourself that you can. You are probably better than you know.

On a side note, visit me at my personal blog where I will be discussing my trip to China. Prepare yourself for tons of pictures!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guest author LaConnie Taylor-Jones: Creating Characters Readers Will Love

LaConnie Taylor-Jones blends her enthusiasm for teaching health, social responsibility and social justice with her love for the romance genre. In a little over four years she’s authored three full-length novels. In 2008 Ms. Taylor-Jones was the recipient of the Romance Slam Jam Emma Award for Debut Author of the Year for When I’m With You.

A few weeks ago, one of my readers e-mailed me. Her query was simple: how do you create the characters in your stories? That’s a simple question, right? Well for me, it’s a little more complex than simply creating a character. My goal as an author is to create characters readers will love!

Here’s the analogy I go through each and every time I sit down to develop the characters in my stories:

Suddenly, you receive a call with the news that your best friend has eloped with someone she’s only known for a couple of months. What would your reaction be? Would you slump to the nearest chair, flabbergasted and say, “Oh, my God, she did!” Or would you confidently say, “Sorry, you must be mistaken.”

Your answer will be based on how well you know your best friend.

Now I offered that scenario to you so you’d better understand the fundamental basis I use to create my characters. I take the time to become intimately acquainted with their personalities. And trust me, it’s time well spent. If at any point during the writing process I get off track with the direction my characters should go, I stop and get back in tune with them based on my complete and unequivocal knowledge of their persona.

My books are character driven. Long before I sit down to plot the story my characters will be featured in, there are three tools I use to truly understand them once they’ve given me a sneak peek into their persona: intuition, questions and habits.

Allowing my intuition to take over helps me to go far beyond merely providing readers with the physical descriptions of my characters, but helps me give the reader the same insight into the character that I have. In order words, I allow my characters to speak to me. This process helps me to get to know them as I would my best friend. I know how they dress, what they will say, and most importantly, what they will and will not do in certain situations. Also, I understand their strengths and weakness, what they fear and what event will spark them to rise up and fight like hell. Now is there a set amount of time for this process? Frankly, for me there isn’t. However, when I can honestly say I know my characters the way I know my best friend, then I’m ready to settle down and write the story.

Next are a few of the questions I pose to each of my characters:

• What do you want readers to know about your life?
• What do you want readers to know about you at the end of the story?
• How would you explain your greatest fears in life to readers?
• What way will you show readers how you’ll overcome the conflict in the story?

And finally, the ever important idiosyncrasies of my characters take center stage. Understanding this aspect of my characters helps me explain to readers the reasons for their quirky mannerisms or their annoying habits. I want readers to see my characters as actual people they want to love.

Now someone will read this and say, why bother going through this long, drawn-out process. And to those critics, my justification is simple: if I don’t love my characters enough to truly get to know them, who will?

Until next time – stay well and be blessed!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing and Web Work

One of my favorite parts of being an author – besides the writing itself – is that it’s given me an excuse to have an online presence. I love having a web site. So much so, in fact, that I actually built my first web site as soon as I finished the first draft of my first novel.

My web site has been through more incarnations than I can count. I had several drastic color changes and shifts to the look and feel before I settled on the current site that no longer tip-toes around the fact that I write paranormal romance. My mother doesn’t like the animated woman who greets my web visitors and I’ve given up reminding her that the woman isn’t really me.

Even though I’m not a designer, I have a fairly extensive background in web site design. That certainly helped my initial fledgling attempts at creating a site. Eventually, I gave in to the desire for a more professional look and hired a designer. I was then able to handle the content management on my own – which I still do.

Some people choose to be totally hands off with their writer web sites; opting to let another company or individual upload photos and content. However, the control freak in me likes being able to post a great review as soon as I get it or move information on the page from one place to another whenever the whim strikes. Even though I use Yahoo’s Sitebuilder to manage my site, knowing HTML has been immensely helpful. It’s allowed me to get around the constraints of built in templates to do things like add the star-sky background to my page. When in doubt about how to do something, I Google the question. Believe me, somebody in cyberspace has always come through with an answer.

For those new to web sites, I’d suggest the following:

1) Definitely develop a web site. Or a blog. Blogs are free, so if you’re not ready to commit to the time and expense of a full-fledged site, a blog (I think) is your next best bet. Today’s readers expect you to be online in some form or another.

2) Figure out who you are as a writer and make sure your web site reflects that persona. If you’re blood-and-gore horror, your site shouldn’t be daisies and puppies. Well, unless there are fangs and poison poppies mixed in there somewhere. You get the idea.

3) Feel free to experiment. That’s the great thing about the internet. Your web content isn’t written in stone. Figure out what works for you and what you write by visiting author sites in your genre.

4) If you can’t make it great on your own, invest in some help. Like I said, I paid someone to create the design, but I handle the layout and content maintenance. If you see a style that you like, ask the author who handles their design. Their typically glad to make the referral.

5) Mimic your site’s look and feel across the internet where possible: in your blog design, MySpace page, business cards, etc.

6) Have fun with it. Your web site is one of the few places you, the author, really get to be you.

My site and the lessons it’s taught me have been four years in the making. I don’t ever expect to settle in and be totally comfortable though because the internet itself is an ever-changing medium. There will always be some new widget or app to toy with. But I’m okay with that. The only part of being author written in stone are contracts and published books, right?

What are your web site questions or insights? Somebody’s bound to have a few words of wisdom to share.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Books are only the beginning

Noon Hour Book Brunches are one of the programs that my library hosts. It is an opportunity for authors and readers to get together and talk about books. Generally, authors contact us for a spot on our schedule. The authors discuss a variety of topics related to their books and after the discussion, they sell and sign copies. It's a great way for an author to introduce himself to a community and build book sales.

Recently, a self published author got in touch with my library director and introduced himself and his book. Impressed, my director asked me to schedule a book brunch with the author. A week before his talk, we received a call from his publisher asking us to purchase a case of books. We are a small community library and like most of Michigan watching every penny to stay afloat. Budgets are tight and property taxes are down, we told the publisher that we could not afford to buy a case of books (48 at $22.00 each), but invited the author to bring books and sell them after the event.

Although the library could not purchase multiple copies of his or any book, we had advertised as much as possible for his appearance with us. The local cable station had agreed to film his presentation and broadcast it for a minium of 30 days. The local paper had also agreed to write an article on his visit and his books. The subscription area for the paper encompasses the entire county. My library is a member of a 27 library cooperative, information about his book had been passed to all of the cooperative libraries and copies of his book would be purchased by at least half of the inclusive libraries.

On the day of the book brunch, one of our regular attendees stopped by my desk and mentioned that the author had not shown up for a book discussion meeting at one of our cooperative libraries. This put the fear of God in me. I immediately got on the telephone and tried to reach the author. All I got was his voicemail. After leaving several messages, I prayed that he would show up and that the other date had been an isolated incident, a mix up of dates or anything else that could happen to a person on their way to a meeting.

As it got closer to the noon hour, my nervousness increased. Several additional patrons revealed the same information about our speaker, but for different libraries. Noon came and went and our author never appeared. I had the embarrassing task of informing the audience that our speaker would not be available that day.

Later that same day, my library director admitted to me that he'd never had a no call/no show for the book brunch. In the past, several authors had arrived late, gotten lost, whatever. This author was the first to do a no show or call.

I believed the author's behavior surpassed unprofessional. Regardless to the number of books he might sell, he made a commitment to our community and should have honored it. It was his responsibility to call and cancel if he couldn't make it.

Since becoming a published author, I've learned that you never know where an opportunity will lead you. I once did a telephone interview with a reporter from a small local paper, an article that I've never seen. Two years later that same reporter had become a television producer at a CBS affiliate. She contacted me and invited me to be a guest on her show for a discussion about my books. The program ran on their station for several weeks. Later, she allowed me to add a permanent link from their station's website to my personal website. One of the gentlemen on the show with me gave my name to a television producer in another state and I found myself on that show, as well as the one in my local area.

Another example, I did a talk at a very small library. I believe the population for that community is appropriately 8,000. I did not sale one single copy of my books. It was one of the best talks I ever gave. Seven people attended and I stayed for several hours answering their questions. This talk led to my being asked to share my writing experiences on another local television station. The opportunities are endless, but an author must get passed the notion that all you want to do is sell books. Of course, books are the end game. You have to look passed how many books did I sale to what this experience brought me.

What do you think? I'd love to hear from you.

Remember, don't be a stranger.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Know Your Characters

Someone once asked me, "What's the best bit of advice you've ever received from a publisher?"

I figured that person was thinking along the lines of publishing advice. However, the best advice I received from a publisher was not about publishing, but about writing. It came while trying to publish my first full length novel. I had submitted it to just about every literary agent I could think of. In each case I got the same generic rejection form letter. Of course I was disheartened. It did not even get past the query letter and synopsis.

But as a credit to my own conceit, I did not give up. I extended my submission to publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts, and submitted a query letter and first fifty pages. It took a while before I got an email response from one of them. Instead of the form letter, it was a detailed critique of the work. I was so elated that someone at least took the time to read my work that even though it was rejected, I emailed her back a heartfelt thank you. She responded to my email with pleasant surprise stating that most authors she dealt with were more offended by a critique of their work than grateful.

So what was her advice? "Get to know your main characters and let that be your guide to their actions."

Of course I re-read the manuscript bearing that in mind. Indeed I found so much inconsistency in the actions and the dialog of the main character, that I realized I would have to rewrite too many scenes.

By the time I decided to re-write the story, I was already imbued with a new story that just had to be written. The first thing I did was to write a character sketch for each of the main characters. The story flowed from there. It took only a few months to complete and the story sold in less than a year. That was my debut novel: "A marriage of Convenience."

Since then I learned to appreciate the importance of character sketches in writing. Recently I was reminded once again of the importance of knowing your characters. I resumed work on one of my many incomplete manuscripts filed away in my "to be completed" file. I got to the middle of the book and took a few weeks break (ok more like months). When I resumed writing, I couldn't think of where to go with the story. As I read it from the beginning, I found the story boring, the characters not striking and their actions and dialog inconsistent. I could not feel the characters. The problem: I never got to know the characters; I never did a character sketch.

I refiled it in the "I'll get back to you someday" part of my brain and began to work on another manuscript. This time I did a character sketch and I am much farther along than I was on the previous one and I'm really feeling the characters.

So to reiterate the sound bit of advice given to me by that publisher: "Know your characters and let that guide their actions."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A most immoral Moral Education

One of the school subjects my kids are taught is "Moral Education". Asians are very big moralists. Put that together with an obsession for education and voila! Last year, ME wasn't too bad; The Wast drew posters about the dangers of smoking, learnt that drug users "die like udang" (prawns, in a saying that has now become part of the family vocabulary, accompanied by a shaking finger bent into the shape of a hook) and Little Dinosaur learnt that it's good to save money. This year, however, is a different kettle of fish (crustacean?) because both kids have :: cue scary music :: Ms Susann.

I've never met Ms Susann but one thing I've gleaned from the children's accounts is that she's bitter and quite humourless. In fact, she's exactly the kind of person I want to teach my children about moral education because there's nothing that sparks a dissenting mind more than being sermonised by a hypocritical tyrant.

Take God. Ms Susann says that if you don't pray to God (it doesn't matter which one, we're trying to be multicultural here) then, if a tornado comes, you will be killed. However, if you do pray to God, then God M-A-Y save you. There's no discussion about faith in God leading to a more spiritual life, perhaps one that stresses compassion, sharing, ethics and love for your fellow humans. (And, remember, I'm an atheist saying this.) Nope, we're down to brass tacks instead -- disbelieve and you die, believe and maybe you'll live but no guarantees, m'kay? With religious people like that around -- and Ms Susann assures the class that she believes and prays to God daily because all good people do and she's A Good Person -- who needs sceptics?

Ms Susann also tells the children that all lying is bad. Period. All. Lying. But then she gets a phone call on her mobile, answers it in front of the class (wtf?) and tells the caller that she can't talk because she's "in Singapore". You should have seen the look on The Wast's face as he related this to me. "What do you think about that?" I asked, watching him. "She's a complete hypocrite," he crowed.

And she also fills the class in on how lonely she is, how she's stuck at home on a Friday night with nobody to talk to because her sisters and their children live so far away. But then she also shouts at the class until she makes several of the children cry.

I'm caught in a quandry here. While I detest everything that Ms Susann seems to stand for, she's actually doing part of my job for me. By observing her, the children are seeing a concrete example of the disconnect between words and actions; that, while people may say they're pious and humble, their actions often prove the unfortunate opposite. I could tell them that in hundreds of words, every day of the week, that they should judge a person by what they do not what they say, but all they need is one class (thirty-five minutes) of Ms Susann to bring the message home in a most unambiguous fashion.

So now, without me having to exert myself at all, I have an unwitting adult helping me raise little thinking sceptics. Both the kids discuss Ms Susann's latest pronouncements over the dinner table, taking the default position that she's wrong. Of course there are times when she isn't, and I'm at pains to point that out, but the damage has been done. The kids have independently learnt to question moralistic dogma. So, er, thank you Ms Susann?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Welcome to Caribbean Literary Salon

In my last post I promised to highlight three more Caribbean writers, but I'll save that for the next time around. Instead, I'd like to welcome a brand new community, Caribbean Literary Salon, to the literary cyberverse.

Anouska Kock, who hails from Aruba, launched the site on March 1st. CLS welcomes all Caribbean readers and writers, as well as
anyone who enjoys the work of Caribbean writers.

There are two versions of the magazine: the English-language and the Dutch version. Highlights include:

* Interviews with writers
* Readings
* New books
* Articles
* Discussions
* Events
* News
* Photos
* Videos
* Book groups
* Profile pages for members
* Community guidelines
* FAQs
* Bookstore
* Reviews
* Links to related sites (English and Dutch)

I've been honoured to have Caribbean Literary Salon feature an interview with me in its inaugural issue. Take a look around, and join the community if you're that way inclined. Members even get their own profile page. But don't take my word for it - go see for yourself!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


My mother wrote short stories, children’s books, and a few articles. I know my grandmother did the same. There has been a writing gene on my mother’s side of the family fighting to get out for some time. I have found its footprints in the typed and handwritten pages I used to find in my grandmother’s attic when I was a kid, among my mother’s effects. I’d stumbled across the trail for years when I was young, but it never had any significance to me when I was growing up.

Writing had no real meaning for me then. It was a form of communication, just words on paper that told you stuff, something else you had to learn in school. As I learned to read stories, I began to appreciate that there were different kinds that affected me in different ways. Sad stories, funny stories, scary stories...I started to pay attention to why they were different, then to how the writer did it. Lessons learned over a lifetime led me to become the writer I am today.

But that seed was planted in my head by the women who encouraged me to love the written word as much as they did, who nurtured my own writing ability, even if they had abandoned their own ambitions ages ago. I love them all the more for that, for not letting any regret or envy taint their appreciation of my growing joy at what they already knew. As I look back on them, when they lived, what they had to do and sacrifice to make my life as it is now possible, I see that in addition to the social strictures of the day, there was one other thing that they lacked more than anything else that stopped them.


I found a rejection letter to my mother for a children’s book she had written, which I found with it. It was a lovely story and when I read it to her in her assisted living apartment after I found it. She didn’t remember writing it, was losing a lot of the past as well as her present by then... I read it to her and her friend across the hall, and felt tears well up in my eyes at the end, it was that moving.

It wasn’t just that it was my mother’s story, or that reading it aloud to her was releasing a lot of emotions in me, it was really a good well-written story. Maybe not the best fairy tale ever written, but it had structure, good characters, and a little darkness in the style. But she gave up after one rejection letter. If there had been others, they would have been there in the attic too. I was sorry that she hadn’t had the faith in herself that I had in her, that neither her or my grandmother had been given the encouragement that they gave me to persevere.

Thirty agents rejected my first novel before I found the one who got it and thought it could work, and I won’t admit how many publishers. In the end, my second novel, BLOOD PRESSURE, is coming out at the end of this month with another great review from Publishers Weekly to launch it. Each rejection was a knife in my heart, but I rode it out for over a year, listened to people along the way, did rewrites, worked harder than I ever dreamed I could, and eventually got published.

This picture is of me as a baby on my grandmother’s lap. She always made me that happy. She died of bone cancer when I was in high school, and it took me well into my twenties to realize how important she’d been to my life, my development as a creative artist, and my sensibilities. I know how incredibly proud she would be to see what I have done now; as my mother was before she went to join her. It is because of them that I am where I am, and they’re why I always encourage people who say they write and how hard it is to get anywhere with it to stick it out, to keep writing past the bad writing, past the rejections, to the work that makes them happiest, to the work others can see and get as much as they do. The work they can get published, in any number of increasing ways these days.

Usually, I tell people not to pursue writing as a career unless it’s a passion for them, something they’d do every day whether they were paid or not. If it is an addiction you can’t shake, you also have to learn to feed it on your own. If someone had been there to tell my mother and grandmother that, who knows what legacy they would have left me? Instead, it's left for me to spread the love of language and story they instilled in me, in their name.

Now get back out there and write!

Monday, March 8, 2010

And the Winner Is . . .

The entertainment industry has the Oscar, the Emmy, the Golden Globe, and many other awards. Those of us who love words—their shape on the page, their feel in the mouth; homonyms and rhymes; connotations and denotations; their convoluted histories through the ages—also have a yearly award to look forward to: the Word of the Year.

Actually, several organizations announce a Word of the Year. The most venerable of these is the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year. The membership of the society include linguists, etymologists, grammarians, historians, writers, and other word lovers, and they vote each year for a word or phrase that is newly prominent or notable. Their 2009 Word of the Year is "tweet." Nominees included "Fail!" "public option," "H1N1," and "Dracula sneeze."

The ADS also chose a Word of the Decade: "google." That's right—they followed the common practice of demoting the capital "G" in this trade name. I shudder.

The Merriam-Webster Word of the Year is more pedestrian. No "Dracula sneeze" for M-W; the company bases its Word of the Year on the number of times a word is looked up online in M-W's online dictionary and online thesaurus. The highest-scoring word for 2009 was "admonish," followed by "emaciated," "empathy," "furlough," "inaugurate," "nugatory," "pandemic," and "philanderer." Most of these words were prominent in news stories in 2009. The exception, "nugatory," I had to look up. It means trifling or worthless.

The Oxford Word of the Year is yet another award. It's chosen by a group, like the ADS's WOTY, in this case, the staff of the New Oxford American Dictionary. For 2009, they chose "unfriend." Other words considered for the top honor were "netbook," "sexting," "funemployed," "birther," "death panel," and a long list of new coinages starting with "Obama-."

People often have strong emotions to new words and terms. What would you choose as your favorite new phrase? What current hot phrase do you despise?


Thanks for visiting. I'll be blogging at Novel Spaces again on March 23, but have not chosen a topic. So why don't you? Suggest something you'd like me to blog about, and I'll choose from among the suggestions.

—Shauna Roberts

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Marketing - and the Book That Lagged Behind

Great job, your book is in there - in the bookstore, on the shelf. It made the cut out of the more than one-hundred thousand submissions the store's buyers receive annually. And there it sits (it could be B&N or any other store, library, or online, e-book, whatever).

As an author, in the months prior to a book release, we surely put our promotional thinking caps on, trying to come up with the best ways to get the word out that our next literary baby is about to hit the shelves. We take the advice of others, willing to try something new to get the "word of mouth" going about our book, relating the topic to our own lives, sending email blasts, updating web pages, discussing promotional avenues with the powers that be, making sure our baby is discussed and demanded.

They say build it and they will come, but the main point is, once you build it, they're not going to come unless you let them know it's there. A book on the shelf, or in our garages, is just taking up space if the buzz is not buzzing enough to make people want to choose it and purchase it. No phenomenal cover in the world can do that alone.

In 2007, I released a book called Dr. Feelgood, which I picked up the other day and began to reread. I will say that this book is by far my most well-written title, and honestly, the title that has sold the least number of books. It was released in trade, without a mass-market follow up, and the numbers were not nearly as high as for my other titles.

A good book must be heard about or stumbled upon, sampled and tasted for others to spread the word. And I think most readers who go into the stores, for the most part, already know which book(s) they're looking for. So how do you make sure they hear about your title and seek it out if you're not on Oprah, or there's no scandal in the media about it, and you're not a celebrity? I've appreciatively written books long enough to know that I have a good number of readers who follow my works, but I'm still thinking about that book that lagged behind, Dr. Feelgood, and how well it could have done, or perhaps still can do, with the right marketing strategy.

Do you have a book-baby that lagged behind that you think would sell better if the promotional angles were sharper? If so, then I'm not alone. I guess it's like an all-star athlete who played but didn't get recruited. Someone should have known about him/her.

I'm bound and determined to revive that title, one way or another. Gotta show some love to all of our good books, that lagged behind! Cheers!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shifting Priorities

The husband e-mailed me this photo (along with one of a mop) the other day.

The explanation:

“I just wanted you to know what they looked like.”

Later, he stopped running the vacuum cleaner as I walked by and placed my hand on it. “You can touch it,” he said. “It won’t hurt you.”

He’s totally exaggerating, but does have a point.

Housekeeping was just one of the activities that went on the back burner last year, when I decided to take my writing career more seriously.

Oh, I’ll still do it. But only if there’s time and energy left AFTER my writing is done.

It used to be just the opposite. I’d clean and run errands to clear my slate for writing. By the time everything was done, I was usually too exhausted to write.
Nowadays, the writing comes first.

Long telephone conversations and my once-favorite television shows get the same treatment. Indulging is infrequent now that they come only after the page quota is met.

So I have a dusty house, annoyed friends and no idea which washed-up celebrity is looking for love on VH-1.

How have your priorities shifted since you began writing?

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Much has been written lately about what and how and why writers read. So, to change the subject, I've decided to write about writers and reading.

Read nonfiction? I subscribe to Discover, National Geographic, and Time -- not to mention 30-40 minutes or so each day following interesting news and science stories on the internet. I also read layman-grade science and history books for fun.

Read in my field of interest? I buy annual "Best of-" anthologies in science fiction, mystery, and fantasy; acquire or borrow I'm not sure how many related novels; and pick up a half-dozen copies of Ellery Queen, Analog, and similar magazines during the year. I also read a handful of romances, because there are romance novels in my future.

Read in my industry? I read fiction set in the universes I write for and want to write for (see my columns on Media Tie-In writing).

Read as a craftsman? There are a few writers whose work I read to remind myself how things can be done.

Does this mean that as a writer all reading is work related? That everything must be part of building my skill set; a search for gadgets to add to my utility belt? It can. But while you should be focused on developing your craft, broadening your experience, diversifying your skill set, and learning new tricks of the trade, that can not be your only focus.

I was a public school teacher for many years, working with children and teens with severe emotional handicaps and/or conduct disorders. Two years after I should have, I quit; burned out. I needed a break. So I worked for eighteen months in a warehouse. Handled vender returns and seconds sales for a company that made baseball caps and polo shirts. I saw few people, spoke to fewer, and spent a lot of time with clipboards, boxes, and label makers. After my break, I did not return to teaching as planned, but went into community mental health.

So every so often, but not too often, I read a young adult novel. Rarely contemporary and never dealing with social issues. Historicals, or culturals, or science fiction, or fantasy, or mystery, or coming of age -- pretty much anything unrelated to any form of my work. Forty thousand words of clean cut, straightforward storytelling complete with beginning, middle, and unambiguous end. (To a lesser extent, sweet romances -- no physiological improbables performing gravity-defying sex, psychically bonded murderers, undead werewhatevers who must mate, etc.) My break, my time in the warehouse, my recharger, is just a well written story I don't have to think about to enjoy.

What about you? What do you read purely for enjoyment? How do you recharge?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Books, Movies and Satisfying Endings

I took my younger kids to see Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightening Thief over the weekend. What a great movie!

While I stew or rejoice over reviews of my books, I pay no mind to movie critics: I see what I want to see. With that in mind, Percy Jackson joined a lengthy list of must-see flicks my crew keeps top of mind (followed by Alice in Wonderland and The Karate Kid remake).

It's been awhile since I've delved into a Young Adult novel (though I still read plenty of grade school fare for the youngest) and though both my sons are avid fantasy fans, neither of them has picked up on Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. This fact comes with its pros and cons.

My oldest – a Harry Potter fan since the beginning of the series – refused to see any of the movies after The Prisoner of Azkaban, citing too many inconsistencies with the book. Though we managed to lure him into seeing the others, he complains bitterly about each one, reciting skipped passages and pieces of action he feels would have improved the script.

The second son is not quite so tough on movie translations, though he insisted on reading Eragon before we could go see the movie and was crushed by one of the movie’s detours from the novel’s plot. Of course it all worked out in the end, but, still, he complains about the scriptwriters’ decision to “mess up the story.”

Pros: I love that my kids love to read -- especially fantasy. Cons: Their novel plot loyalty can make movie night at home a little trying as we're watching DVD re-runs.

I have to say that my first thought barely into viewing Percy Jackson was not that I must now read the books (though I’ll probably pick them up for the kids). No, I was immediately compelled to write that kind of story. The movie, from my perspective anyway, was fantastic. The level of action caught me by surprise and I felt like the writers wrapped up all the pieces of the story into a plausible, satisfying ending.

Do the Percy Jackson books have page-turning action? I don’t know. But after seeing how well fantasy and thrills combined in this effort, I’ve taken a step back to examine the pacing and plotting in my current work-in-progress to be sure that readers remain perched on the edge of their seats (or beds or beach chairs or whatever) until THE END.

I feel fortunate that I was able to enjoy the movie from several points of view: as an author who often wonders what it takes to get a book even optioned for a movie; as a parent watching one child cover her eyes when the action got intense and peeking at the other to see him piece together the clues that led to the Lightening Thief; and as a movie buff who loves to get her money’s worth.

My curiosity is certainly piqued for Percy Jackson’s next installments – literary and theatrical. What are your favorite book-to-movie translations? Your least favorite? Let us know and thanks for stopping by!


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Books: Another way to see the world!

It seems as if every few months I have to write "absent" posts here at Novel Spaces. Once again, I'm not here here. I'm smack dab in the middle of a ten-day tour of China's Golden Triangle, and according to the itinerary, I'm currently touring the Hutongs and Temple of Heaven in magnificent Beijing. I'm even supposed to visit a local kindergarten class today! Sweet!

I've always dreamed of traveling, but for this girl who grew up surrounded by sugar cane in South Louisiana, I first toured the world through books. The book that piqued my interest about China was Pa Chin's Family. It is a fascinating portrayal of the structure of Chinese families and the struggles between the generations. It has remained with me for years.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who first saw the world through books. Share some of your favorite exotic locales, and the books where you first discovered them!

Stop in at my personal blog later where I promise to post pictures of my trip!