Evaluating Expectations

We’re in the midst of graduation season, with scores of high school and college students embarking on various goals for their future. On this blog, I’ve often discussed how we set our goals and manage them as they come to fruition, change, or even thistle out over time.  As challenging as it can be to manage our expectations for ourselves, it’s even a more daunting task to control our expectations of others.

No matter how well you know somebody, you can’t map out their course for them. From an outsider’s perspective, you may be convinced someone would excel in this or that, but he/she may have reasons for not pursuing such a venture. A lot of aspirations were thrown at me by well-meaning friends when I graduated, one being that I should become a social worker. Granted, the friend offered sound logic behind it, remarking that my history gave me insight into helping people. In reality, however, my experiences shied me away from the field, as I selfishly didn’t want to relive those battles every day. I’d prefer to help others in a different way.

Life pursuits aren’t the only area where expectations can be tricky. Many times, others don’t meet our expectations in the way they act. From a young age, we learn about cause and effect, a so-called fact of life. You plant a seed, water it, and it grows into a plant, right? When it comes to free-willed humans, though, the effect of whatever cause we might initiate isn’t always what we predicted. We might offer somebody a smile and expect them to reciprocate, but they scowl, instead. How should we react to such disappointments?

For starters, we need to acknowledge our own flaws. A habit we all get into is holding others to a higher standard than we do ourselves. We fool ourselves into believing we handle things the right way at least most of the time, but do we? Under certain circumstances, don’t we dish out treatment contrary to what someone deserves? Beyond that, even what we deem the proper behavior may not match up with what others consider appropriate. We might be on our best behavior, but it rubs them the wrong way. Just because somebody acts differently than we do, we can’t judge it as wrong.

 We should also appreciate the fact that expectations can be surpassed, and we have to be open to that prospect. We might expect someone to fill one spot in our life, but they eventually ended up filling another. I encountered that with a dear friend, who initially didn’t meet my expectations and actually annoyed me at one point. Before long, however, we developed a very special bond. If you aren’t careful, you’ll miss out on such an opportunity by sticking to your rigid expectations and not allowing somebody the wiggle room to enrich your world in another way.

We can’t rid ourselves of all expectations because they contribute a lot to everyday life. Some have to be met for our benefit, and the ones we put on ourselves govern everything we do. With regard others, however, we have to strive for a balance. We have to put away our measuring stick, realizing it’s likely inaccurate. Instead, we ought to keep our minds open to people’s differences.  

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Behind the Podcast

Over the past few years, podcasts have been popping up like Starbucks restaurants! In truth, the idea has always appealed to me, given I used to make up stories while speaking into a cassette recorder, like my dad did before me. Because of my speech impediment, however, I didn’t think it would be a suitable avenue for me.

Then came my fellow author, TG Wolff. A couple of months after we participated in a virtual panel last year, she invited me to submit a short story to be considered for her podcast, Mysteries to Die For.

The whodunnit had to center around a vehicle of some sort, so I immediately began brainstorming. I wanted to choose something off the beaten path, in an effort to stand out. Being an avid golf cart driver, that was a tempting notion, but I steered a different direction.

I remembered a shuttle my family rode during a couple of vacations in Orlando Airport. Since my series of mysteries novels, The Unde(a)feated Detective Series, is set in the city, I used this as an ample opportunity to bridge the second book, Brother of Interest, and its follow-up, Accidental Allies, coming out later this year. Thus, “A Shuttle to Trouble” entered the station! To my delight, she accepted the proposal I sent her, telling me to have fun with it, and that’s exactly what I did.

But, you may wonder, what’s the inside scoop on the creation of the Mysteries to Die For series? TG Wolff herself is here to answer that!        

“Welcome to Mysteries to Die For”: That’s the way we start our show…but it’s not the way it started. What did a 50-year-old civil engineer / writer / mother and a 16-year-old student / musician / son know about podcasting? Nothing. But we did it anyway.

I am TG Wolff and I write mysteries. Shortly after my book, Widow’s Run, was released, I was hanging out in our piano / computer / everything else room where Jack was playing around with basslines on the piano. His fingers grooved up and down the keyboard and I thought…I can read to that!

Jack was game. He took his baseline, flattened the major key because apparently, “I have a minor voice,” and we found a rate that sounded pretty cool. So, what next?

Let’s do it live! And so we did. In 2019, at Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore in Chicagoland. The audience was small, but they got into it. It was olde time radio-y. Jack and I had fun doing it so, after much over thinking, we decided to launch a podcast.

The first season is WIDOW’S RUN. Each episode was a chapter. Compared to now? Those episodes are pretty bad. We didn’t know what we were doing. I tried doing different voices for each character. Bad idea. Our microphones weren’t the best quality. We were getting by with free software. We were learning.

Seasons 2 and 3, I wrote adaptations of publicly available mysteries. From Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to the 1925 Earl Derr Bigge’s 1st Charlie Chan “The House Without a Key”, Jack and I brought the earliest mysteries to today’s audience in 8,000 words or less.

With Season 4, we went in our current direction, inviting authors to write new mysteries for our listeners and readers and, of course, Jack, to try to solve. “A Word Before Dying” was themed around on the last word spoken before death. Season 5 “Move It or Lose It”, which is dropping now, is themed around vehicles of all kinds. We are in the middle of planning for Season 6 “Things that Go Jack in the Night.” It’s the most unusual collection of mysteries you’ll ever hear…or read. Think jackalopes, jack-in-the-boxes, and lumberjacks. And we have more ideas brewing that will keep mystery lovers entertained.

Karina and I first met virtually during a COVID modified Ohioana Book Festival. Jack and I are very happy to count Karina among our authors for this season and to have her detective, Minka Avery, solve a mystery to die for.

About “A Shuttle to Trouble”

​Minka Avery and her family have just come off a relaxing Jamaican getaway…followed by an exhausting flight. The source of their exasperation? Lloyd Wells, a fellow passenger who drives everyone crazy with his incessant demands.

The grumpy man finds a friend in Minka’s husband, Wes, and accompanies him for the entire journey. Just when they expect to break free of him, he dies on the airport shuttle, poisoned by exposure to coconut, his dreaded allergen. 

With a tram full of suspects, can Minka use her sleuth’s instincts to crack the coconut wide open before the killer can fly away?    

“A Shuttle to Trouble” begins streaming TOMORROW at 1:30PM EDT on TGWolff.com!

Also available in the accompanying anthology, Move it or Lose it.

The Difference in Five Minutes

There are 1,440 minutes in a day. We often hear how carving out just a few to exercise or perform some type of self-care benefits us more than we’d expect. While we sometimes don’t bother with such, that idea of setting aside a mere five or ten minutes appeals to many of us, as it makes those tasks more doable.

When it comes to other people, however, we’re prone to say, “I don’t have the time for him/her.” Granted, some people don’t let you get away in a brief span…and with others, even a few moments can seem like an eternity! That said, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact we can have on others in just a short period.

I learned this first-hand over the course of several years. Like My Story shares, a group in my high school—particularly among the football team—gave me special support throughout my teen years. They took time out from their practices and comradery to cheer me on for my weekly hundred-meter “dashes,” which usually took me a sloth’s pace of around two minutes. Some visited with me for a few more minutes beforehand and afterward, amounting to five minutes or so. Still, those five minutes strengthened me as much as the physical exercise those walks offered.

The guys rallied around me even in the rain!

Beyond that, a select few spared a short spell every day before and after school to catch up with me and include me in their circle. We never discussed anything monumental, nor did they spend a great deal of time rooting me on about my endeavors. Rather, they chatted about common subjects in a way that dignified me and made me feel “normal”.  

I didn’t take those visits for granted and knew I wouldn’t always have them, even up to my graduation. I was younger than them, so the last of them graduated two years before me. When that time came, I didn’t look forward to returning to school without the prospect of starting my day on that note, but I figured I’d manage all right. I was sixteen, an upperclassman, and I had a good reputation among teachers and my fellow students. Besides, it was just five minutes, right?

Well, the lack of that five minutes rattled me a lot more than I anticipated. I was in the same building, among the same people I’d known for most of my life, but everything seemed different. I didn’t even think about my friend’s absence a great deal, but my self-confidence sank lower than it’s ever been. I became painfully aware of my disability and speech impediment, which even led me to drop a class for the only time in my academic career.

After I realized what lay behind my despair, my appreciation for those five minutes deepened still. Along with that, it impressed on me how I could impact others in the same way. Because of my limitations, I’ve doubted my ability to lend a hand, considering the only one I can use isn’t worth much! However, this experience taught me that a listening ear, compassionate words, and just a slice of time can mean more than anything to somebody.

While all of us benefit from this, I can’t overstate how much the youth need such attention. Recent studies have shown that young people are struggling with mental health now more than ever. The suicide rate is high, and as reported by “The Hill,” twenty percent of young girls and ten percent of boys suffer a clinical episode of major depression before they turn twenty-five. Though these disorders are often caused by biological factors, extending attentive care can certainly boost someone’s spirits and provide the strength to go on.

During those 1,440 minutes we have in a day, we can both accomplish much and waste much. I think we can all agree we do a little of both every day. We might tend to consider the moments we “waste” on ourselves to be more valuable than those we feel we waste on others, but we need to fight that mentality. What we deem just a short branch we’re extending to somebody may well be the life preserver that’s keeping him/her afloat.

My only worry during those years was how late my friends might arrive!

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The Trouble with Epiphanies 

As humans, it’s in our nature to ask for input from those we trust. We might ask for advice about something they’re experienced in or just for their insights into whether an uncharted path is right for us, given how well they know us. Like I discussed in Guide versus Lead: Are They One and the Same?, everyone reacts to direction differently, so we often elicit counsel from the ones who give us feedback the way we need.

While we all seek out advice, we also choose not to follow it from time to time. It can be administered from the best source in the best way and with the best intentions, but we usually have our own idea and probably wasted our breath—and theirs—by even asking. In such cases, our heart can get in the way and cloud our judgement. In some instances, following our instincts can prove to be the right call, but conversely, it can also lead us to learn our lesson the proverbial hard way.

I recently came across this quote by author Jodi Picoult: “Some lessons can’t be taught; they simply have to be learned.” We attest to this fact from the time we can start acting for ourselves. Our parents tell us not to do something because of the consequences we’ll suffer, but if you have your heart set on it, you’ll disobey their caution eventually and discover the logic in their warnings. On the bright side, you typically remember the lesson long afterward.

Once in a while, though, you’re struck with an epiphany out of nowhere, which spares you the aftereffects of hard-learned lessons. This happened to me as a young teenager. I always planned to get my driver’s license despite my limitations inflicted by Cerebral Palsy. In fact, my disability fed my hunger for independence. Truth be known, I never dared to ask for my parents’ thoughts on it, but they never discouraged it, either.

Over a year before I could pursue it, though, I just woke up one morning, and to my surprise, I resolved that I wasn’t going to attempt to get a license. To this day, I don’t know what triggered the conclusion, especially since we hadn’t been discussing it at all and because I had such a drive—pun intended—to have that freedom. Yet, my veil of desire suddenly lifted, allowing me to realize how my challenges could affect my skills, and I accepted it. I never looked back or tried to talk myself into it again, either.

Those kinds of epiphanies are so liberating. They give you more peace than a decision you make after hours of debate. You’re left with the conviction you made all on your own, sparing you the grappling you might do if you acquiesce to someone else’s logic. For my part, I have a stubborn streak and fight back when people tell me I can’t do something. I probably would’ve resisted if my family tried to steer me—again, pun intended—away from driving. This way, however, my choice gave me solace instead of scorn or even disappointment.

Unfortunately, these out-of-the-blue revelations are rare, at least for me. At times, we might try to force them, particularly when it comes to matters we’ve mulled over for an extended period. Our own experiences or those of others may prompt us to think with our heads that we should make a certain call, but our hearts don’t comply.

When that happens, we need to be patient with ourselves and those who want to help us. We’ll likely come to the right decision with time. It may not pop out of nowhere like we probably wish, but counsel or circumstances can slowly illuminate the best course that will bring us success and contentment.

Epiphanies are tricky, illusive things, but understanding them can benefit us and others. Regardless of how or when they hit us, they have to come from within, so we can’t expect somebody to give them to us. Likewise, we have to accept that we can’t make one for another person, even if we have a clear picture on what we feel they should do. Life is one big learning project that often has tough problems and few solutions, but working together to find them can enrich the process a great deal.

Oh, What a Pity…Or an Empathy?

Of all the words in the English language, I’d classify “pity” as a true frenemy. By definition, it’s a kind term, with Merriam-Webster describing it as “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy” and equating it with compassion. Still, it’s been weaponized by people—often facetiously—saying, “I pity you.”

Such use has led all of us to chide against ever being pitied. As a disabled person, I resented the word before I even grasped its meaning. I think it played into my debate about whether someone was nice to me because of my qualities or my handicap. From a young age, genuineness really mattered to me, and I could usually see through it when somebody showed me kindness in the view of others but never in a private setting. Thus, that represented pity to me, as it conveyed that they felt bad for me but didn’t seem to desire a true relationship beyond that. I’ll admit with regret that my sensitivity to the notion of being pitied spilled onto actual friends who didn’t deserve my scrutiny.

Even so, I had trouble pinpointing the reason I despised the word so much. A recent interview with Michael Kutcher, who, like me, lives with Cerebral Palsy, and his famous brother, Ashton, helped me get some clarity at last. During the sit-down, Ashton shared his candid thoughts about feeling guilty for having a privileged life when his brother faced significant health challenges. When Michael perceived his remorse, he told him, “Every time you feel sorry for me, you make me less,” adding, “this is the only life I’ve ever known, so stop feeling sorry for the only thing I have.”

The powerful statement resonated with me and explained my own conundrum with pity to me. Regardless of the type of limitations you have, a key to thriving despite them is not dwelling on how they confine you. You have to accept your normal instead of wishing you had everyone else’s normal. When others display a sorrowful manner about what you’ve accepted, however, it downgrades everything you’ve done to make the most of your circumstances.

Along with that, none of us can accurately guess what factors really bother them. I’ve experienced people giving me somber looks or making sympathetic comments about matters I don’t long to do, even in different circumstances. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, but frankly, I’ve never had a burning itch to participate in them. Plenty of able-bodied people might not be athletic but enjoy being a spectator, don’t they? Still, someone once asked me how I can enjoy them, given I can’t play. While I appreciated the concern, it was an unnecessary reminder of my disability.

Despite the bad reputation “pity” gets, I realize, for the most part, pity stems from good intentions. No matter how distasteful some of these pitiful remarks may seem, I’d rather somebody be considerate of my limitations rather than oblivious to them.

What’s more, though, is transforming your pity for someone into empathy, namely, “an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person.” (Merriam-Webster) Having such intuition comes more naturally to some than it does others, but whatever your inclination, getting to know somebody is the start of cultivating empathy.

To illustrate, we might feel sad for any animal that’s suffering, but when it’s our own pet, it just about kills us inside. Why? Because we’ve developed a kinship with them, learning their personality and observing how they act when they’re well. Thus, when they limp on the leg they once ran on, we feel their pain.

Likewise, instead of just watching someone’s struggles from afar with pity, take the initiative to get to know them. Don’t conclude you understand them just because you know the basics of their condition. Foster empathy, and more than likely, they’ll be able to empathize with you, too.   

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A Reality Check on Characters

As an author whose books are very character driven, I take it as a high compliment when readers tell me I made my characters live in their minds. In Forgetting My Way Back to You, one of the characters, Mabel, wrote a note to protagonist Charlee, which contained timeless wisdom about love and forgiveness. This version of Mabel—who’s also featured in Wrong Line, Right Connection—is ninety years old, about seventy years my senior when I wrote her letter to Charlee. You can imagine my delight, then, when people asked me if I based that on a real note, since it sounded so much like an older woman’s thoughts. I still haven’t decided if that means I was wise beyond my twenty-one years or if I just have geriatric tastes!   

While we strive to create vivid characters that leap off the page, we still need to strike a balance. As discussed in “Keeping the Fiction in Fiction“, most readers like to escape from reality through their books. A dose of real-world problems can enhance a story and make it more relatable, but if we carry it too far, we can drive a reader away. When it comes to our heroes/heroines, especially, we ought to draw a stranger-than-fiction line, stopping short of making a character do exactly what an actual person might do in real-life.

Most of us do this to some degree without even thinking about it. For instance, we might say the character visited the restroom, but we don’t often elaborate on the specifics of what happens in there. Why? Because everybody knows the gist of it, and it wouldn’t add much more than disgust to detail the dirty deed. Although toymakers have added those quirks to make their dolls realistic, we realize those habits will serve as a distraction from the plot.

This same rule applies to inner traits of a character. Granted, no one’s perfect, and making characters too goody-goody turns plenty a reader off, as well. Just about every story out there is fueled by mistakes and flaws protagonists encounter, and watching how they handle them draws us to them. At the same time, we crave that escape reading provides, so don’t we hold a fictitious character to higher standards than we do even of ourselves? In fact, we may at times look to a hero/heroin to be the role model we never had.

Two of my favorite authors have disappointed me in this regard with their latest works, which inspired this post. They both chose to center their plots around very complicated, albeit lifelike, characters. These protagonists represent realities in our society, and I suppose some could argue they give a voice to those who are misunderstood.

I’m all for shining a light on unique, maybe even suppressed, perspectives, but the qualities they instilled in these characters didn’t make me root for them like the authors probably wanted. Rather, they tainted the whole tale that surrounded them, and I didn’t finish one of them because of that. I realize each one presented insight into very real issues—with one being based on a true story—but as a fan of fiction, I didn’t reap much joy because I was too preoccupied with silently yelling at the characters.

Of course, you can always take more chances with antagonists, as everyone loves to hate a villain. Even so, you need a boundary there, too. Stories vary in grittiness, and some authors choose to make their villains do pretty despicable acts. When deciding how vile to make a bad guy, it’s important to consider your target audience, including publishers. Some companies won’t review submissions that feature the most heinous crimes that are committed. Besides that, you don’t want to overblow how evil they are, unless you’re doing it in a satirical way. If you turn a thief into a murderer into a drug lord into a double-crossing spy all in one book, readers will likely get confused and deem it unrealistic.   

Authors ought not underestimate the impact of their characters on readers. They may only exist on a few hundred pages or less, but they can stick with someone for a lifetime, perhaps becoming a friend of sorts. When forming them, we should establish realistic elements but also maintain that dose of fiction that can taste so sweet. Fictional characters may not be able to change the world, but they can bring hope and inspire their fans to do their part.

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Why Write?

Guide versus Lead: Are They One and the Same?

My post, Influencers: A Trend Long Before Social Media, acknowledged the fact that we’re all influenced by others, whether we admit it or not. From a young age, we’re taught leadership skills and trained not to follow the crowd, but nobody’s one-hundred percent a leader or a follower. Whether we tend to be a leader or prefer to let someone else take that role most times, we all likely guide somebody, maybe when we don’t even realize it.

We often use lead and guide as synonyms, which they are indeed. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary uses each word in the other’s definition; lead means, “to guide on a way especially by going in advance,” while guide is, “one that leads or directs another’s way.”  Although the terms are grammatically interchangeable, the way we manifest the verbs can be pretty different. How so?

To illustrate, take a compass or even a modern-day GPS. Both devices provide instructions on how to guide you to a destination or at least keep you acclimated, but can we aptly call them leaders? Sure, advancements have made GPS systems more reliable, with them able to tell us the current traffic and weather conditions as well as pit stops we might enjoy along the way. If given the choice, however, wouldn’t someone—yes, a human. They still exist!—familiar with the area offer better leadership? They’d be able to tell you the best route based on more than duration, how weather conditions affect specific roadways, and whether you’re headed for Hershey Amusement Park or a park in Hershey, Pennsylvania (I speak from experience).

Likewise, we can be guided by somebody who may not have the best insight or at times the best motivation for dishing out the appropriate guidance. Being handicapped, I’ve encountered well-intentioned people, even professionals, who have provided me with input about solutions to problems I don’t have. They might have the knowledge and good sentiments behind the advice, but without understanding of my individual circumstances, they can’t point me in the direction I need.

On the other hand, a true leader goes through the same challenges as the ones who follow him. Harkening back to the definition, leaders go in advance rather than just barking instructions from the sidelines or behind the crowd, perhaps saying, “I’ll catch up with you.” Thus, they speak with confidence in what they suggest, and they’re likely to win others’ trust in turn. A skilled leader is also wise to listen to his followers’ limitations so that he can better navigate them through potential pitfalls. After all, doesn’t every good pilot perform a pre-flight check on his/her plane to ensure the aircraft’s safety before leading his passengers into the skies?

All this said, leaders don’t always have the leg up on guides. As I mentioned in the outset, everybody becomes a guide on occasion, and in certain cases, a guide is what someone needs. Some people don’t take well to a bold, assured leader, but they react more positively to a gentle guide. If we want to benefit somebody like that, we may need to fight our leadership instincts and just offer those subtle nudges accordingly.    

No matter which side of direction we may be on, we should never take the preciousness of it for granted. Life presents many uncharted waters, so we naturally need each other to remain afloat. Whether we look for a guide or leader or aim to be one when the situation calls for it, we can do our best to foster trust and understanding. Even a simple word of guidance can lead somebody down the right path.

Creative Artists versus Created Artists

Right off the bat, I’d like to credit the talented Lionel Ritchie with inspiring this post. During his acceptance speech as he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last fall, he discussed the difference between being a creative artist and being a created artist. He shared how many of his colleagues discouraged him from releasing certain music because they were a departure from his genre. Then, when the songs exploded into mega-hits, those same associates pushed him to do a similar song. Naturally, that prompted him to do the exact opposite!

Even if we’re not an artist of his magnitude, we all face the predicament of others giving us input about our work. There’s nothing wrong in taking it, either, if it aligns with where we see our path headed. As I’ve mentioned before, my mystery series developed after my writing coach nudged me to compose a sequel to the first book. She also coaxed me into Wrong Line, Right Connection…though it took a decade to convince me. Both projects have brought me immense joy and fulfillment, and I don’t regret taking her advice for a second.

Still, even those who know us best may not always steer us in the right direction, and we have to politely pass on a suggestion from time to time. I typically just offer a noncommittal giggle unless the tip is presented in a way that merits a more serious response. Regardless, we don’t need to feel ashamed when we make such a call, as it’s a sign of being in tune with your individual style.

Well-intentioned friends and mentors often give you the first taste of maneuvering your creative decisions, but the pressure doesn’t end with them. Especially at the start of your career, open calls for submission tempt you to your core because you just want to get your foot in the door. I don’t recall many details, but somewhere along my quest for my first publisher, a company had a request out for westerns. For a fleeting moment, my desperate mind supposed, “I don’t write westerns, but maybe I could,” until common sense lassoed me. Perhaps some would argue that you need to take any chance extended to you like actors who make their debut in commercials for digestive supplements, and I respect that outlook. At the same time, though, I think you’re better off putting forth whatever helps you shine rather than submit inferior work that could leave a bad impression.

Pressure can also sneak up on you if you haven’t obtained the level of success you wanted to. You might observe the subjects or styles others employ and wonder, “If I began writing like that, would I make the best-sellers list?” While it can be good to learn and evolve, you really need to evaluate your definition of success. If it is to reach new heights of fame, you might consider trying the mainstream thing. If you want to leave your own imprint on the literary world—regardless of whatever size it may be—you’re best off sticking with your personal style and creative choices.

Artists come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and we’re all inspired by different things. Sometimes, we might need a nudge about our next project, and if we listen to advice, that’s okay. Just the same, we may choose to take the input and do the exact opposite because it’s not on point with where we want to go in our career. No matter what, the important thing is having passion for whatever you opt to create. Your passion will translate to your audience and showcase your authenticity.  

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Can You Read My Voice

Who Governs Your Genre?

Taking Scissors to Your Synopsis

While I was promoting my debut novel, a fellow newbie author attended one of my signings and told me she was publishing her first book in a few months. I asked her what it was about, and she replied, “It’s kind of hard to explain in a few words.” Granted, I didn’t have much experience, but alarms went off in my head. Why? Because that sort of statement won’t attract anybody to your story.

Sentiments like this are understandable when you’re a new writer, and admittedly, I struggled with similar feelings at one time. After all, you’re spending hours and hours crafting your tale, with twists, turns, and complexities. If you aim to compose a longer work, you’re used to embellishing on subjects to boost your word count. It’s a bit of a culture shock to shift gears and have to condense our subject. Sometimes, too, we feel pressure to prove the value of our story and efforts to write it, so we’re inclined to babble about it to help our case.

Whatever the reason, we have to overcome it. If we take one extreme and refrain from attempting to pitch our book like the woman I met, we’ll lose a reader’s interest right away. On the other hand, we can overshare and push someone away just because they’re sick of listening to us. Most of us don’t want somebody to buy our book simply to make us shut our mouths.

How can we strike the right balance?

Even before my exchange at the signing, I appreciated a tip from Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s The Frugal Book Promoter. While discussing how to attract attention to one’s story, she advises, “When a reader (anyone really) says, ‘What’s your book about?’ you need to tell her quickly (in the time it takes to get to her floor in an elevator) why she will benefit from reading your book or…make her want to read it.” (Second edition, page 106) The quote drives home the phrase elevator pitch, doesn’t it?

The length of your verbal synopsis is only half the battle, with content being the other half. It might not take long to say, “A guy meets a girl, and they fall in love,” but how intriguing is that description? The Frugal Book Promoter helps in this regard, too. “A good pitch or logline for fiction focuses on conflict…Nonfiction authors can find conflict in their books, too.” Hollywood takes the lead in this, as most of their trailers begin like, “In a world where tragedy triumphs over victory…” set to dramatic music. Though you don’t want to share every element of conflict the plot offers, mentioning the main one and how it affects the protagonist will pique a reader’s curiosity.

One more rule of thumb to abide by is to stick to the main storyline, even if the secondary ones connect to it. Secondary plots can enrich a book, but in a synopsis, especially a verbal one, they usually detract and confuse your audience. Thus, you’re better off to restrain yourself from talking about that funny next-door neighbor and let the book introduce him/her to the reader.

As authors, we’re naturally excited about our work and want others to be, too. Like with any matter, you’ll present it in the best way if it’s near and dear to your heart. Most of us don’t have trouble with that, which is why we’re liable to ramble on whenever someone shows the slightest interest in our story. To share just the right amount, reflect on what first drove you to start the book. It’s quite a commitment to set out to compose a whole story, and there’s always that core of motivation that both initiates your writing process and keeps you going. If you isolate that and come up with a way to vocalize that aspect of the plot, you’re more likely to capture someone’s intrigue, giving them the impetuous to read it.    

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Watch your Words…and Count Them While You’re at It?

Secondary Storylines-A Plot’s Friend or Foe?

When Imaginations Run Wild

Imagination is a powerful ability we all possess—just ask Spongebob Squarepants or Barney the Dinosaur. With it, we can accomplish many things, such as creative works for entertainment as well as the construction of buildings and landmarks of any sort. Let’s face it, our infrastructure and all the modern conveniences we rely on every day wouldn’t exist without somebody making extraordinary use of their imagination.

As I discussed in “Imagination for Self-Preservation,” it can also help us mentally…but only when we use it to our advantage. Yes, it can be all too easy to envision what might go wrong rather than what might go right. Like I shared then, I’d fallen into that trap and justified it as guarding myself from disappointment.

In an ironic twist, the pandemic took over the world just days after I published that post, a scenario I—along with most people—couldn’t have dreamed up. We all faced unprecedented challenges, which didn’t foster optimism and has left a mark on many even three years later. Because of that, it’s easier than ever to picture worst-case scenarios and to live your life in fear. How do we escape that pitfall and redirect our imagination to boost our spirits instead of dampen them?

One way is by acknowledging how clueless we are about the future. Again, very few expected these past few years to play out like they did. Thus, doesn’t it show how useless it is to get wound up about something we fabricate in our heads? While there’s always the chance things may turn out worse than we predicted, they may also turn out better, beyond our wildest imaginations.    

Our anticipations can be wrong even when we think we have a well-founded reason for them. To illustrate, my friends and family wanted to try out the ride based on the movie Twister at Universal Studios years ago. As we stood in line, we kept reading and hearing warnings about the winds and special effects being so intense that people with various disorders ought to think twice before riding. At eight years old, I grew scared of what awaited us, as did others in our party, and the continued alerts drove my dire imaginings, filling my eyes with apprehensive tears.

We almost backed out of line, but peer pressure beckoned us to forge ahead. Terrified, I entered the building, all the while wondering how many of us would make it out. Enhancing my agony, the attendant ushered me to the front row of the theater so I could watch ALL the action. Aside from the controlled fire that seemed way too close to the designated handicapped seating, though, the experience hardly put the thrill in thrill ride. Everyone just stood and viewed a fake gas station with tumble weeds and inflatable cows blowing by it! With all due respect, our imaginations provided more amusement than the designers, especially after we realized how ridiculous they were.

We can also make our imagination work for us instead of against us by letting it wander on positive aspects of life. Even if we don’t have a big event to look forward to, we can envision trying something new and how that might impact us or we could draw on a past memory, calling to mind the tastes and aromas that we enjoyed. On occasions when we know something won’t be immediately pleasant, like medical treatment and so forth, we should contemplate what benefits we’ll gain in the long run as opposed to ruminate on the difficulties during recovery.

Being a few days into 2023, we don’t know what the year holds, which provides ample opportunity to employ our imagination. Sure, there are bound to be some rough patches along the way, but utilize your imagination to make them easier. Most buildings feature multiple windows, with some offering picturesque views of the outside world and others revealing crummy ones. Likewise, our imagination can bombard us with bright and bleak prospects. When we catch ourselves peering out at the latter, we’d better close the curtain and turn to another window.

Also See

Old is the New New

Influencers: A Trend Long Before Social Media

Many moons ago, a friend and I appeared in the local paper as part of a human-interest story—what can I say other than we grew up in a small town? The reporter asked my friend how I’d changed since we met and grew close, piquing my curiosity. My friend rather uncomfortably expressed that I’d opened up more, which gave me mixed feelings. I couldn’t disagree, of course, but my stubborn streak made me wince a little, as I didn’t know if I liked somebody else taking credit for that. In all fairness, though, the question merited such a response.

In the years since then, I’ve grown to appreciate how true the comment was and that it isn’t a shameful thing to admit someone has rubbed off on you, especially in a positive way. Even as recently as a few weeks ago, I’ve drawn on my observations of my friend and several others to try to be a good influence when it was my turn.

The experience taught me how powerful influence is. Regardless of your status in life or how independent you are, you’re prone to be influenced—for good or bad. It’s the “influencenza,” if you will, and there’s no way of steering clear of it. It strikes in every season and is around every corner.

Jokes aside, being influenced doesn’t mean you’re weak-minded or deficient in something; it simply means you’re human. Even if we’re shy and introverted, we need interaction to some degree, and whether we realize it or not, we often crave influence along with that. Influence contributes to the most basic aspects of life, with us processing language and various skills based on what we see our parents doing.

As elementary as it sounds, we sometimes overlook the impact influence has on us. While we can benefit from the influence of others, the wrong kind of influence can lead to our downfall. The concept of peer pressure seems so juvenile, as our teachers harp on it a lot in middle school, but in truth, we never outgrow it. Sure, experience helps us avoid certain harmful practices, but we can adopt even seemingly subtle traits that could trip us up. No matter how old we are, we won’t elude the power of influence.

Not only can this force impel us for good or bad, we also have to consider what kind of influence we’re putting out to others. Like with everything else, we can get into the habit of taking something good but not giving something good in return. We might not even realize it, but we could leave a conversation feeling encouraged, while our companion walks away miserable. To keep ourselves in check, we might reflect on how others have influenced us in a beneficial way and strive to exert that to others, even if we do things a bit differently.

Influence is like the wind, in that it’s invisible but its effects are not. We have to acknowledge its existence and take appropriate measures to live with it. If we realize it’s a cold, gusty wind that’s going to kick up storms in us, we ought to put on extra layers so it won’t affect us as much when we encounter it, or we might avoid it altogether. If it’s one of those warm breezes that’s going to gently glide our sails, however, we can bask in it and allow it to carry us in the right direction.   

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From Reluctance to Refreshment: My Blogging Journey

This post marks my one-hundredth blog. Granted, that’s not very remarkable after almost five years, as many of you pros probably hit this mark within a year, at least. Given my limitations and hesitant leap into blogging, though, I deem it an accomplishment of sorts.

In truth, I never aspired to start a blog. I don’t like to step into controversy at all, and early on in the blogging era, the conflict a blog could brew was the primary thing I heard about the subject. More than that, I don’t consider myself an expert on anything and am uncomfortable taking a platform about any matter. Plus, I wouldn’t term my life as interesting enough for a regular blog. I’m just a disabled girl with a lively imagination in a smaller-than-small-town community. What could my perspective offer to the vast blogosphere?

After my debut novel came out, I tiptoed into blogging, writing a few articles on my website, which wasn’t hooked into a blogging network. I just wanted to keep my site somewhat fresh for any regular visitors. I decided to focus on how I sculpted my work, keeping it as benign as possible. That’s when I chose the name “Behind the Pages,” obviously a play on the Hollywood expression, “Behind the Scenes.”   

During those first couple of years, I only wrote about a subject when it came to mind. Because of my doubts about my own qualifications as a new author, I ended up with just four—“Setting the Scene”, “What’s in a Name?”, “The Menacing Blank Page”, and “Getting to Know You”— which I eventually transferred to WordPress. When I signed my second book deal with Vinspire Publishing, however, I realized that wasn’t enough. I followed their recommendation to establish an actual blogging site and try to have a more active presence.

Still, I struggled with what I’d discuss. I contended with the qualms I mentioned earlier, besides the fact that I can only type with one hand and have to use it wisely. I also preferred to devote my time to fiction, which takes me out of this crazy world. Even in elementary school, I hated to journal and reflect on my day because for starters, I didn’t find myself interesting back then, either, and I often didn’t have a day I wanted to remember. I’d always rather dream up stories, maybe with a dusting of reality, instead of craft a narrative around reality.

It took me a while to settle in, but I gradually grew more comfortable with it. For the first few months, I strictly centered my posts around aspects of writing, before some personal matters crept in. I’m still not one to share my everyday routine, but I’ve come to appreciate the outlet it’s given me to express some of my views on life and the lessons I’ve learned…or more often than not, am trying to learn. I’ve enjoyed seeing how, despite our many differences, we all experience much of the same challenges, and I always hope something I say can benefit even one person.

In the case of this particular post, I hope my behind-the-blogger story shows how stepping out of your comfort zone has its perks. Five years ago, blogging was not a pleasant concept to me. I pouted and dragged my feet initially, but I figured out how to fit it to me. It even led to my latest novel! (See The Book the Blog Wrote) Hence, if you ever feel like you’re being thrown into a sea of unknown depth, it’s understandable to brace yourself and doggy paddle on the surface for a bit. Once you get your bearings, though, muster up the courage to dip down and discover the wonders that lay beneath.

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The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing

The Glitz and the Grammar

Back in grade school English class, I used to love grammar lessons—nerdy, I know. To me, they were a breeze because you typically have an example sentence at the top of the worksheet and then just have to repeat the rule over and over. With all due respect, I can’t understand how anyone could flunk those assignments.

Once you commence your independent journey into the literary world, you discover how much you really retained from those lessons. Admittedly, I disappointed myself in the first draft I ever wrote because of all the sloppy mistakes I made…and just a couple of years after I graduated with honors! Yes, repetition for effect only gets you so far—especially if you don’t know the difference between effect and affect.      

More than that, my time in the publishing industry has taught me something that would make any English teacher grind his/her teeth: Grammar is often subjective. As kids, we’re told grammar rules are clean-cut rules, and that’s why those trusty worksheets are so easy to polish off. At the professional level, however, the waters get a bit murky, as editors and companies vary in their standards.

The first time I worked with an editor, it didn’t take me long to catch on to this fact. In school, I learned commas should be placed between independent clauses; this editor liked her commas, though, and scattered them liberally. As a newbie without college experience, I wasn’t about to dispute it and accepted it as the new normal. After working with her, I tried to emulate her style and even persuaded my writing coach, who’s an English teacher, not to worry about the excess commas.

Well, that strategy worked out…until I met up with my next editor. She took out the commas I intentionally put in to look cool and proved to have her own criteria—some of which seemed natural to me and some of which didn’t. Nonetheless, I adopted her ways, beginning to realize the process is like transitioning from one teacher to another. During the past year-and-a-half, I observed that more than ever, as I’ve collaborated with two different editors from the same company, who each manifested their unique preferences.

So, then, does this mean our grammar skills don’t matter and that it’s just a game of editor roulette? Not at all. If you submit a piece with bad grammar, you can expect a rejection. It distracts from the story, and editors aren’t there to correct mistakes the way a teacher would. You should absolutely put your best foot forward, using those classic grammar techniques, and get help from a qualified proofreader or copy-editor.

At the same time, you need to be ready to compromise and pivot. If you earn an editor’s favor and an acceptance letter, your editor has already championed your book, so they deserve your cooperation. Even if some of their tips don’t mesh with your style or seem downright silly, make the adjustment and be open to learning something new.

Writing may appear black and white—after all, we are typing on a black and white page—but like so many other aspects of life, it isn’t. Opinions vary and circumstances change, and regardless of background, we always have something to learn. Thus, don’t squander your chance at success by resisting instruction just because it runs counter to your long-standing methods. Accommodating an editor’s taste may prompt you to make a scene better than you first envisioned…perhaps after some internal whining and groaning!     

Also See

Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World of Readers?

The Education of Writing

The Power of Perseverance in Publishing

The Identity Fraud of Your Mind

Identity fraud is a serious concern nowadays, as many fall victim to having their information stolen by people from near and far. Sometimes scammers do it for financial gain, an elevation in society, or just to cause aggravation. Countless sources of so-called protection have emerged, but there’s a form of identity fraud no one can protect you form: the type that spawns form within you.

We all go through phases of not knowing who we are and more importantly, whether or not we want to be who we are. As tots, we’re usually content with how things work at home with Mom and Dad, until we start seeing what others do or have at their house. After that, we yearn for whatever privilege or toy our friend has, and we’re no longer pleased with our lot in life.

I observed this way back in my preschool days. Easterseals, a charity that promotes inclusion for the disabled community, visited my class and gave a presentation about what it’s like to be handicapped. They even brought wheelchairs and walkers in an attempt to show the kids that they didn’t need to be uncomfortable around others with limitations. At age three or four, I welcomed this chance for my peers to understand me and my challenges better. Well…

To my surprise, my classmates spent that day and the next few telling me how lucky I was to be disabled. They all wished they had a wheelchair and could have the “fun life” I did. I wouldn’t say I was angered by the twist, but their enthusiasm floored me because I always wanted to have their abilities.    

Granted, a lot of kids would reap similar joy from riding around, popping wheelies for a few minutes without any of the constraints of a disability. Still, the experience highlights that tendency we all have when we’re looking from the outside in. Even when someone might be less advantaged than we are, we can spot something seemingly better about his/her life that we don’t have. We, of course, want to look for the best in others, but we need to be careful not to let that turn to envy.

How can we avoid that? For starters, we need to be honest with ourselves. Think about what others might conclude about your life. Maybe you have a great physique, so everybody expects you to have lots of friends and self-confidence. Inside, though, you’re actually lonely and insecure. You might even have a strange birth mark nobody sees that you hate! Similarly, the person you think has better circumstances no doubt has his/her challenges of which you’re unaware.

However, we won’t solve our identity issues just by admitting others have them, too. Rather, we need to focus on those positive things outsiders see about us that we take for granted. Many times, our perception of ourselves is like a fun house mirror, distorted and under terrible lighting. We don’t want to endeavor to get an overinflated ego, either, but we can take to heart the compliments people give us and strive to see ourselves in a better light.

Going back to my wheelchair anecdote, I’m still not happy to be in one and yearn to be free of it. Just the same, it’s comfortable, and I enjoy being able to sport cute heels in it! Sure, silly little perks like that may seem shortsighted and even juvenile, but if you can’t change something, you have to change your viewpoint of it.

A popular saying goes, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” I’d like to add on to that with the words, “But sometimes, the greener grass is all weeds!” Yes, each of us has our own, often little-known struggles, and nobody can walk in our shoes, even if we spell everything out for them. Thus, we shouldn’t waste time wishing we had a life like so-and-so, realizing it may not be the cakewalk it appears to be. Instead, we’re better off cultivating the little patch of the world we have—our identity—and accepting the parts that we don’t like. That way, we won’t fall prey to the identity theft from within.  

Also See

The Comparison Conundrum

Growing Into Your Garden

Behind the Public Speaker

Last week, I participated as a speaker at the Ohio Library Council Expo, the biggest engagement I’ve had to date. As I prepared for it and even during my journey into the building, I almost had to pinch myself over the fact that it was actually happening. Of all the dreams I’ve toyed around with in my life, public speaking was not one of them.

I grew up with much training in public speaking and even took a class in it. I never had a fear of it like many do, but because of my speech impediment due to Cerebral Palsy, I’ve always cowered away from giving a discourse to an audience I don’t know. At one of my lowest points in self-confidence, I dropped out of journalism class because I was terrified the people I interviewed wouldn’t understand me…even though most of them knew me!

Suffice to say, the pleasure I find in performing has always been crowded out by my anxiety about my speech. In high school, I also took drama, but as much as I loved the idea of acting, I never mustered the nerve to audition for a production, despite knowing they sorely needed cast members. On one of those occasions, someone special to me encouraged me to try out and that my voice was better than I thought it was, but I wouldn’t budge.

So, how did I get into public speaking? Clearly, not by my own initiative. Rather, my seventh-grade English teacher gave me a push into it back in 2014. It started as a reading assignment, which I found odd, considering I hadn’t been his student in over ten years. The young adult novel, Out of My Mind, focused on a girl with Cerebral Palsy, so his reason began to make sense once I discovered that. As I read it, I had a hunch he had more in store for me.

Sure enough, he asked me to talk to his class after I returned it. Doubts about my speech still plagued me, but I agreed pretty quickly. Just the fact that he asked me showed me his confidence in me, which infused confidence in myself. I didn’t know if the kids would understand me, but having been that age once, I figured they’d enjoy a day without bookwork if nothing else!

I gave my presentation several times throughout the day as classes came and went, and I enjoyed each one more than the last. My biggest hurdle was content, since to me, I hadn’t accomplished a great deal at that point; I hadn’t yet landed a publishing deal and didn’t have a job or degree I could tout. Nonetheless, the students seemed to appreciate my reflections on my efforts to walk independently, and discussing it also helped me regain some optimism for my future goals.

I returned every year for the next six, and in the meantime, a few other teachers asked me to visit their classrooms. Each experience has boosted my confidence little by little, to the point that I’ll actually volunteer to participate in panels and the like. It culminated to the expo last week, which I never could’ve agreed to without my teacher’s first nudge into public speaking.

Everybody’s intimidated by one prospect or another, and most times, it’s with good reason. I spent several years in speech therapy as a kid but still haven’t developed a voice I’m proud of, and that’s beyond my control. It’s all too easy to say, “I could never…” and feel completely justified. Before you give into that notion, however, consider what you have to lose versus what you have to gain. More than that, listen when someone who knows you well manifests confidence in you. While it might feel like they’re throwing you overboard into unknown waters, they just may be putting you on a raft to a better destination than you ever imagined for yourself.    

See one of my early presentations from 2016 here!

Character Spotlight: Evelyn Sanders

This week, I wrap up my series of character spotlights ahead of the release of Wrong Line, Right Connection with Evelyn Sanders. Evelyn is Mabel’s roommate, and though you’d probably term her a secondary character, she still plays a big part in the plot. In fact, an early review makes special note of how “she always knew what to say to Mabel to either pick her up when she was down or in an attempt to make her see the error of her way,” adding, “everyone needs a friend like Evelyn.” ~Sammi Cox, Sammi Loves Books

Unlike Mabel and Roy, Evelyn didn’t have her roots in anybody I personally knew, but she was based on an actual person. In real life, Mabel lived with an elderly friend before she married Roy, and she took care of her to a degree. Of course, this was decades before I was born, but I decided to include a character like that to deepen the storyline and add another voice to the mix. Mabel’s true roommate was named Rebecca, but I deviated from that a bit, preferring Evelyn for my version.

A balance that was a little tough to strike was trying not to make Evelyn the same character as Mabel of Forgetting My Way Back to You. Because of having Mabel and a few other spunky older women in my life, I have a soft spot for ladies with fiery personalities. As I sculpted Evelyn, I wanted to bring some of that without making her a carbon copy of elderly, man-loving Mabel. Thus, I endeavored to channel her vinegary spirit in a different direction. Still, with the two women coupled together, you can definitely see how Mabel was influenced by her friend later in life.

Now that I’ve shared my two cents’ worth, I’ll yield to the character herself. Below is a journal entry, which isn’t a part of the novel but gives you a sneak peek into her feisty but caring demeanor.

Also See

Character Spotlight: Mabel Jennings

Character Spotlight: Roy Stentz

Character Spotlight: Roy Stentz

Today, I’m continuing my series of character spotlights as we near the release of my historical romance novel, Wrong Line, Right Connection. This second installment introduces the love story’s gentle yet persistent hero, Roy Stentz.

Like Mabel, Roy was a dear family friend and Mabel’s real-life other half—but don’t ask them who was the better one! In reality, the couple met through the Lonely Hearts section in the newspaper and became pen pals, with her in Louisville, Kentucky and him in Wakeman, Ohio. They married in May 1959 at Niagara Falls.

Roy was pretty quiet and allowed his wife to do most of the talking. During my mom’s time of cleaning at their house, though, she observed his witty side and how he could hold his own with dynamic Mabel. On one occasion, Mabel found her old swimsuit and decided, in her words, “to give Roy a thrill.” In her seventies at the time, she sauntered out and modeled it for her husband, who looked up at her and dryly remarked, “What do you want me to do? Go out and set the hose on you?”

While Mabel was “Grandma Mabel” to my sister, Anna and me, he was our “Grampy Roy.” We didn’t get to have much of a relationship with either of our biological grandfathers, so Grampy Roy filled that void, especially for Anna. He’d hold her on his lap while Mom worked, and being a musician, he played the Mary Poppins soundtrack for her as he twirled his hand like a conductor.

Sadly, he died when I was just shy of two, before he and I could make many memories, and it hurts me that I don’t have vivid recollection of him at all. He’s always been kept alive, however, by memories of my family. I’m told he called me his “Little Sweetie Pie,” a nickname I cherish. I was also privileged to have a collection of his love letters he sent Mabel in the weeks leading up to their wedding, which helped me to sculpt his character.

To give you a feel for the Roy of Wrong Line, Right Connection, here’s a letter from him to his son, Gregory, which does not appear in the novel.

Also See

Character Spotlight: Mabel Jennings

Character Spotlight: Evelyn Sanders

Character Spotlight: Mabel Jennings

As I prepare for the September 5 release of Wrong Line, Right Connection, this is a full-circle moment. Like I shared in “The Book the Blog Wrote”, my character spotlight for Mabel Stentz from Forgetting My Way Back to You set Wrong Line, Right Connection into motion. Just about four years later, here I am, writing another spotlight about her, this time for her spin-off novel—which details how she became the Mabel Stentz from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

At the risk of being redundant, allow me to summarize the Behind-The-Pages story of Mabel. Mabel was no figment of my imagination, though she did seem larger than life. Mabel was a very dear friend, whom my mom started housecleaning for around 1975. What began as a little cleaning job for my newlywed mother turned into a decades-long friendship, with my mom doing much more than clean as the years passed.

Of course, my sister and I came along through that time, and we always called her Grandma Mabel, a moniker she more than lived up to. In fact, she and her husband, Roy—more about him next week!—were the first people to meet me aside from my immediate family. We accompanied Mom to work almost every week, forming a very special bond with them. She had a wit like no other, which she maintained up until the very end. For instance, when a nurse asked her if she felt like she was dying during her final days, Mabel snappily replied, “I don’t know; I’ve never died before!”

Wrong Line, Right Connection isn’t a biography, but I enjoyed implementing as much as I could to make this fictional character true to her real-life counterpart. I tried to craft that incredible wit and the qualities I cherished in her, including the delicious peanut butter dessert she made. In short, I took the best of my fifteen years with her and spun it into a tale I hope she’d find entertaining.

To introduce you to the Mabel Jennings of Wrong Line, Right Connection, below is a fictitious newspaper article about her experience working as a switchboard operator.

June 8, 1964

Local Switchboard Operator Reflects on Telecommunication’s Advancements

By Leonard Briggs

If you’ve placed a call in the past few years, you’ve probably spoken to Mabel Jennings, switchboard operator for Southern Belle Telephone Company. As a matter of fact, Miss Jennings is on her second tenure at the ‘cord board,’ as employees call it. Originally hired in 1940, she operated the now-outdated system, where we were fully dependent on the switchboard girls to talk to anyone.

“I was just a girl out of high school, so I relished in our ability to listen into people’s calls. I picked up on so much town gossip! I miss those days,” she confesses with a wink.    

Miss Jennings stepped away from the telephone company a few years later to wed her husband, Clark. Following his tragic and untimely passing, she returned in time to her old stomping grounds in 1960.

“I didn’t hesitate to ask for my old job, since I left on good terms and knew everything. My life was in such disarray, so I craved familiarity. Plus, I expected they’d like to have a veteran who didn’t need training.”

Despite her experience, both the turnover in the staff and upgraded equipment during her hiatus threw her a learning curve.   

“I get along with the other girls, except one, but the new setup surprised me. In a lot of ways, it’s much easier now because most people have direct dialing. Whereas we used to handle every call, these days we mostly cater to businesses and out-of-towners. I welcomed the lighter load, but I had been looking forward to eavesdropping, which we can no longer do. What can I say? My life was so messed up that I wanted to hear how much worse others had it!” 

Nonetheless, Miss Jennings admits she still finds ways of establishing connections.

She grins. “Yes, I’ve been accused of flirting while on the job, and I won’t deny it. I never let it impact my efficiency…well, up until the other day.”

Want to learn more about that ‘other day’? Pre-order Wrong Line, Right Connection now!

Visit Romance Lives Forever to see my guest post about Mabel’s eating habits.

Also See

Character Spotlight: Roy Stentz

Character Spotlight: Evelyn Sanders

Character Spotlight: Mabel Stentz

Can You Read Their Voices?

A few months ago, I discussed the importance of developing your own voice as an author in “Can You Read My Voice?” It shared how you don’t want others to influence you to the point of adopting their style. In fiction and even some nonfiction, however, there’s more than one voice you need to convey—your characters’.

If you played with dolls or stuffed animals as a kid, you probably gave different ones their own voices as they chatted with each other. Maybe the elephant had the deep, booming tone, while the monkey spoke in a higher pitch. Sometimes, though, you might catch yourself giving them the same basic phrases or characteristics, despite the change in voice.

You run into a similar snafu in writing, especially early in your journey. Since my school days, I’ve loved composing dialog and yearned for the times a teacher would assign us to write some sort of script. When I penned my first couple novels, I thrived on conversations, and it’s a favorite technique of mine still. My editor for Husband in Hiding, though, had to fine-tune my methods to further my characterization so that I didn’t just duplicate the same person time and again.

One way she did this was by weeding out my repeated terms, like anyways. Though the word seemed insignificant to me, she helped me to see that, not only did it become redundant, it morphed the characters together. Wes and Cael, who are brothers, could get away with having a similar speech pattern given their close relation, but putting the word in everyone else’s repertoire didn’t create for strong characterization.  

Another trap she lifted me out of was letting my impression of a character dictate the way she spoke. This secondary character had a troubled past and looked to Wes for help. Her woes made her fragile, which makes sense, but I suppose I carried it a bit too far. In my mind, she had a pitiful little voice, and though she was an adult, she came across as a third-grader!

Even though all the characters are a product of our imagination, we have to lose ourselves in them. How? We may not act out their scenes, but we have a lot of the same duties as an actor does. In Matthew McConaughey’s language, we have to “find our guy” with each character. He or she may be nothing like us, but we need to step into their shoes and figure out what makes them tick.

This can be particularly difficult with antagonists who commit misdeeds we never would. To present them in a believable way, we should reflect on why they’re doing whatever it is. We can always strike common ground somewhere, since in reality, we all encounter negative forces that could drive us in the wrong way if we let it. For instance, we probably had an occasion—multiple ones, in all likelihood—when we wanted revenge but didn’t take it like the character did. Understanding their motives and mentality also helps us not give away their hidden agenda if they have one. After all, none of us consider ourselves bad guys.

The best way we can establish good characterization is by viewing our characters as real. If we do, our readers will, too. Whether you pre-write, draw, or just visualize them, connect with them, even the unsavory ones. A masterful ventriloquist doesn’t get famous just for carrying his/her voice well but also for making each puppet distinctive and genuine. Likewise, we need to make our characters more than vessels that propel a plot. They should engage with one another and our readers, forming a bond that goes beyond the pages.

Embracing the Fundamentals

Pretty much all our lives, we’re set on moving onward and upward, as they say. We advance from infant-care products and toys, to toddler ones, to youth ones and so on. Especially at that age, most kids despise the thought of going back to baby stuff, all too eager to explore what’s higher up on the rung.

Even though age sometimes makes us appreciate those simple pleasures, that drive to progress sticks with us. Some climb up the corporate ladder, while others pursue different endeavors, like raising a family. Regardless, we appreciate however we reached our status, but if we have to return to those building blocks for any reason, we grapple with a sense of disappointment, even shame.

I’ve encountered this during the past few months. I have Cerebral Palsy, and though I’ve accepted that I won’t outgrow it, I thought I’d never have to revert to certain things after I began walking when I was fourteen. Because of the pandemic, though, my activity has been limited, and I couldn’t keep up my normal routine, such as walking at my local recreational center. Like most people’s, my only laps consisted of my journeys between the couch, desk, and bed.

I’ve felt fine, but as I reintegrate into society, I’ve noticed the aftermath of my physical hiatus. I’ve taken a few tumbles and observed the extra effort my parents have had to exert to assist me. These signs of my relapse discouraged me, but they’ve also opened my eyes to the impact of the fundamentals—even the ones I greatly dislike.

Foremost of those is standing in place. Now, I realize that sounds ludicrous to able-bodied people, but trust me when I say I’d much rather walk a hundred meters than stand still for five minutes. My spasticity coupled with my lack of balance makes it very difficult, but for the sake of my progression, my dad built me an upright wooden frame to stand in as a kid. They, along with my therapist, used to call it my “princess tower,” but no cutesy nickname could make the experience pleasant in my estimation. I used to count down the milliseconds until they’d say I was done.

Nonetheless, the exercise contributed to my advancement, and I’ve had to force myself to resort to standing in five-minute increments again…sans the torture tower! My folks and I have seen a change for the better in my balance and posture. I’ve also retreated to other fundamentals, upping my stretching habits and now that I’m able to get to the rec again, walking a single lap instead of my usual two so that I can build up my stamina and strength.

In truth, I’ve always considered it defeat if I don’t improve, much less regress. These past few months, however, have retrained my outlook. I now accept the fact that life doesn’t always allow you to keep riding up an elevator without ever returning to a lower floor. Just because you accomplish something doesn’t mean you can leave everything that propelled you there below you for good.

Circumstances beyond our control happen and might send us down a level or two, but we don’t have to remain there. We just need to take advantage of whatever that level offered us and use it to get back to where we were. And once we make it, we should revisit those floors from time to time in order to keep progressing.

Whether you’re disabled like me or not, everybody has one challenge or another that is a daily part of his/her life. You’re bound to take a step backward once in a while, forcing you to redo something that you didn’t expect to repeat. But don’t be ashamed or resent the basic fundamentals. Rather, embrace them, knowing what they once brought to your journey and what they can bring again. 

Also See

The Highs, the Lows, and the Crummy Plateaus

A Proper View of Progress

My Story

Is Hindsight Always 20/20?

In my post last month, “Growing into Your Garden,” I discussed how we need to come to accept our lot in life, even if it looks different from what we once envisioned. Whether we achieve the dreams we had or have to compromise for second best, however, we’re all subject to regretting something at one point or another. It may be a mistake on our part or just a so-called missed opportunity, but regardless, those what ifs can plague you for a long time.

We have a well-known saying because of this fact of life, “Hindsight is always 20/20,” meaning you can always see your mistakes after you suffer their consequences. “Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” is a phrase in the same vein. Of course, life would’ve been easier if we could live it in reverse and know what was awaiting us, allowing us to adjust our course to reap a different outcome. At the same time, though, can we really be sure altering our decisions would’ve bettered our situation?

For instance, you might be running late to work one morning, and then, to compound your tardiness, you encounter a back-up along your route. You tend to let out a few words and grumbles of frustration, maybe pound your head against the steering-wheel, and bewail everything that put you behind schedule. On the other hand, when you pass the collision that caused the traffic jam, you have to wonder, “Would I have been in that accident if I hadn’t been delayed?” More than likely, the people who were involved are rolling some What ifs around in their own minds.

I’m not encouraging unpunctuality, but the scenario illustrates how faulty our predictions can be. Speculations are never absolute, even when they pertain to everyday matters. We often picture the choices we make as being at a crossroads, where you either go down one path or the other. In truth, there are usually way more than two directions, and countless possibilities—good and bad—that arise after you make the initial pick. You may well have made the best decision, but underlying and unforeseen obstacles led to a poor result.

So, does our inability to predict outcomes mean that we should simply make decisions by flipping a coin? No. Our reasoning powers and the wisdom we acquire over the years can spare us a lot of trouble and lead us to success. When we meet with failure or at least unpleasant aftermath, however, acknowledging your limitation will help you resist beating yourself up with regret. Yes, matters may have turned out better if you’d done this or that, but they also may have turned out worse.

Bottom line is, none of us ever have 20/20 vision when it comes to making choices. We only get one chance to make that one choice, so we have to accept whichever one we make. Our imperfections cloud our perception, preventing us from truly making an objective judgement on our past, present, and future. Experience, maturity, and good friends can act as glasses, aiding our deficient sight to a degree. Still, don’t despair if those measures fail you. Rather, focus on how you can make the most of whatever results from your actions, instead of the hypothetical ways you could’ve changed them.

Not-So-Subtle Book Plug

Hunter Jett gets a second chance to right his wrongs, but will it go as planned? Find out in Forgetting My Way Back to You. Read it today!

Misery-Pox: The World’s Oldest Epidemic

Everyone’s heard the saying, “Misery loves company,” and if we’re honest, we’ve all been on both ends of the equation. Negativity is a side-effect of being human in the world as it is, and a prolonged exposure can lead to a misery-pox infection…which spreads very easily.

As hard as I work at cultivating optimism, I’ll admit I’m not immune to the disease, either, and these past couple years have made me more susceptible. I’ve especially sensed evidence of it as I’m working on a draft of a manuscript I wrote six years ago. While my life was far from perfect back then, I can see my brighter spirit and outlook in my words. Thus, you might say I’m writing this post as part of my treatment for my own case.

Regardless of your circumstances and challenges, I think age compromises your ability to fight off misery-pox and not because of a weakening immune system. Rather, as you experience more of the so-called real world and its punches, you acquire a thicker skin that is supposed to protect you but can all too easily jade you. Does this mean we’re prone to be the cliché “grumpy old man (or woman)”?

We’re bound to have flare-ups of misery-pox from time to time, but we can avoid a serious, extended bout of it. A precaution I realize I need to take more often is to embrace the fresh start of a new day. From my experience, the dawn almost always offers the most pleasant perspective of the day ahead. Even if yesterday didn’t go so great, you seem to have the best vantage point of it after a good night’s sleep. When you rise and just begin rehashing yesterday’s troubles, however, you throw that clean slate out the window. Instead, savor that fresh start and endeavor not to focus on whatever contributed to the bad day.

A chat with a good friend also combats misery-pox, but at the same time, this comes with a caveat. Because of the transmissibility of the disease, you could end up worsening your case and passing it on if you don’t let fresh air in. Though we might enjoy having somebody understand us, we shouldn’t wish for them to suffer as we are. That phrase, “misery loves company,” is true, but it doesn’t mean it’s right. If we’re a true friend, we should want to build up a friend and allow them to build us up, too. Even when they might try something that didn’t go well for us, we shouldn’t rob them of their enthusiasm by sharing our poor experience, but we can hope for the best that they’ll have a better one.

Misery-pox is caused by far too many contaminates, and it almost certainly will strike on occasion. The good—and sometimes tricky—part of it is that the cure comes from within. For those who suffer from chronic emotional illness, medicine and professional help, of course, are often needed. In cases where it’s “just” life getting you down, however, do your best to outwit it, not with masks or social-distancing, but with resilience and gratitude.

Sell What You Write or Write What You Sell?

As I wrapped up my first manuscript back in 2011, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterward, besides start shopping it for publication. From a young age, I’ve always wanted to finish what I start before I move onto anything else. The people I love have even poked fun at my strategic way of eating each part of a meal one-by-one, with a swig of my drink in between.

When it came to my writing pursuits, however, I realized that kind of approach could hamper my progress. As much as I wished I’d find a publisher right away, I knew that wasn’t likely, so I may spend years twiddling my thumbs until it happened. And what if I never received an acceptance letter? Would I give up on my dream just because my first attempt never took off?

I did hook interest from the first publisher I queried, but ironically enough, that’s what made me decide not to wait to begin a new story. Why? Because they told me I wouldn’t hear back from them for a whole year! Due to my lack of experience, I chose not to send any more queries, foolishly convinced they’d present me with a book deal. Thus, while I shopped for the perfect dress to wear to sign my contract—I’m not kidding—I reckoned I’d better keep writing.

Long story short, I’m glad I did, as that incident only led to the news that my manuscript—sent via snail mail—never reached their desk. Even if it had, the company closed their doors later that year. Though the development disheartened me, at least I’d continued toward my goal. I was learning my craft and fostering my personal style, which built the foundation of the writer I’ve become.

That was just the first occasion of many when I’d have to pivot to further my efforts. In previous posts, I’ve discussed how I’ve put a project on the backburner when opportunities fell through, as well as the need to revise my work when others gave me input. In the case of my first two manuscripts, I combined them to make up Forgetting My Way Back to You, a more sellable version of both stories. So, the question is do such adjustments constitute selling yourself out in order to please a buyer?

Some people in various fields have the mentality of sticking to their mold, even if it costs them success. They want to be their authentic self and think that wavering from that is compromising their identity. I agree that everyone has their own, unique style, and nobody should try to take that away. However, if you want a seat at the table, you should hone your skills in a way that may draw an invitation.

As I shared in “No Writes or Wrongs,” I refused to write non-fiction just because an author claimed it was easier to sell. You have to have a passion for whatever you’re writing and shouldn’t simply give into whatever’s on trend. At the same time, if years go by and you can’t seem to find a match with a publisher or agent, you shouldn’t close your mind to reevaluating certain elements. Doing so doesn’t mean you’re selling yourself out; it’s part of the growing process.

While I direct most of this to traditional publishing based on my experience, the principle applies to self-publishing to a large degree. True, you forego the process of trying to catch an editor’s attention, but you still want to catch a reader’s attention. Hence, like a seasoned baker, we can bring our own twist and ingredients to our treats, and tweak the recipe here and there depending on the feedback we get. Then, we’ll delight our audience without sacrificing our individuality.

Also See

The Power of Persistence in Publishing

Who Governs Your Genre?

Growing Into Your Garden

In many parts of the world, the long-awaited growing season has begun. I’ve admittedly never been much of a gardener, but living in a rural community for my whole life, I’ve witnessed the anticipation of my farmer neighbors and friends who plant gardens. Dependent on the weather and other factors, that anticipation either yields to fulfillment, frustration, or disappointment as the harvest nears.

In life, growing season never really ends, does it? Our thoughts and circumstances are almost always changing, and often, they’re triggered by conditions over which we have little control. We might embark on something with what we think is the right “seed” and “soil” so to speak, but because of unexpected elements, we don’t reap what we hoped to.

A few years ago, I wrote a reflective post about what I’d learned through the past decade, and in it, I included the following quote:

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” ~Douglas Adams

In the years since then, I’ve continued to understand those words with more and more clarity. No, I’m not at all saying the various challenges we’ve faced in the past couple of years have benefited us, as many have suffered greatly. I also don’t believe in fate or that everything happens for a reason, like some say.

Still, I’ve come to appreciate that the unforeseen winds that blew me off my projected course didn’t ruin my whole plan. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, roadblocks throughout my career have led me to better opportunities, and in dealing with my physical struggles, certain unpleasant adjustments made me progress more than I could’ve imagined. In matters big and small, I’ve learned how unreliable my own compass can be and how what seemed to be a misstep can land you exactly where you need to be, when you need to be there.

All this said, it takes time for this awareness to seep into your soul. Weeks, months, and—more often than not—years have passed for me to appreciate various disruptions to my aspirations. In that timeframe, you’re usually not waiting to make such an epiphany, and typically, the last thing you want to hear is, “Someday, you’ll be thankful for this.” Setbacks and disappointments of every sort sting, and especially when it’s major, you need to process/grieve it.

Thus, be patient with yourself and the circumstances that arise. Moments will likely come when you feel like there’s no way you’ll reach the destination you once had. Don’t give into that notion. Like plants, we all need time to grow, and we weather storms in the process. We shouldn’t despair just because the garden we find ourselves in doesn’t look like we intended. With fertilizers like patience, resilience, and appreciation, we can still flourish in it.

Also See

Ugly Changes Lead to Beautiful Transformations

Keeping Surprises in your Plan

No Writes or Wrongs

Last week, I participated in a panel with three other incredible authors, which will be featured as a part of this weekend’s Ohioana Book Festival. We discussed various topics about our process and publication journey. Somewhere along the line, Connie Berry pulled out a take-away from our exchange, namely that our different approaches show that there’s no right or wrong course in the writing world. 

The statement resonated with me and took me back to the onset of my path to becoming an author. When I was nine years old, my mom and sister took me to a meet-and-greet with a children’s book author, Tracey Herrold, at our local library. Hearing Tracey speak about writing sowed that seed in me, but at the same time, one thing she said didn’t fly too well with me. She told us that, if we ever considered pursuing publication, non-fiction stories were easier to sell at first.

At my tender age, I didn’t know what I wanted to write, but was quite certain of one thing: I didn’t want to touch non-fiction! Call me a juvenile daydreamer if you must, but over twenty years later, I still don’t want to venture into the genre. Nonetheless, her statement stuck with me and especially my mom, who repeated it for years.

As much as I played around with the notion, the inspiration never struck me to compose a non-fiction work. In the end, I took a chance and started down the fictional road, hoping I wouldn’t look back later with regret. Truth be told, I don’t think I would’ve ever begun to write if I’d tried to tackle something I didn’t want to, just because of somebody else’s experience.

The writing world is vast, and the window into it is opaque. Because of that, it’s advisable to ask questions to those who have experience in it if we have the chance. Even so, we need to strike a balance when it comes to taking advice. While we benefit from listening to others, we shouldn’t take every word as if it’s the law. Every writer has a different journey, so we can’t assume a roadblock for them will be a roadblock for us…or that a shortcut for them will be a shortcut for us.

There’s no set map to having success in the writing world, and for that matter, we each have our own definition of success. Like with many other aspects of life, we can elicit or share advice, but we need to couple it with respect. Just as we won’t have the same experience as the author on our right, the author on our left won’t have the same experience as us. They may ask for our input, but if they don’t follow it, it doesn’t mean they won’t succeed. As fellow travelers on the same yet wildly different journey, the best thing we can do is support one another through the rocky beginnings, the jerky bumps, and the exhilarating climbs.

You can view the Building a Mystery panel here, beginning Friday, April 29 at 10am EDT

Features Connie Berry, TG Wolff, Robin Yocum & Karina Bartow

Also See

The Education of Writing

Setting the Scene…Without Naming It

Through the years, I’ve written about the lengths I’ve—happily—gone to in order to make the settings of my novels realistic. (See Setting the Scene and Setting the Scene Act II) As I chronicled, I’ve explored towns and cities in Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania for inspiration, even visiting restaurants and other venues for the sake of authenticity. I know, it’s so difficult to turn research into a vacation, but someone has to do it!

This past year, however, I had a shake-up to my strategy. With a new publisher comes new regulations, and in this case, one of them was that I couldn’t use any trademarked names. In all honesty, I always braced myself for such a standard, but once it finally confronted me, I had to evaluate a lot of my creative decisions.

More than anything, my various locations needed addressed. Thankfully, I could keep names of towns and streets, but those restaurants and stores I “dragged myself to” had to go. To replace them, I could either do the sitcom trick of reimagining the name—would anyone like a bowl of Fortunate Shapes for breakfast?—, or I could go with the generic, restaurant or store. I ended up doing a mix of both. Since my other books used real-world names, I didn’t want to get too liberal with tongue-in-cheek monikers, but I did when circumstances called for it.

I didn’t run into any major issues with Brother of Interest, but I can’t say the same with Wrong Line, Right Connection, which comes out later this year. I set it in Louisville, Kentucky, the actual hometown of my friend who inspired the story. Since I started the novel a month into the pandemic, I couldn’t travel there ahead of writing it. Even if I had, though, the plot takes place sixty years ago, so I couldn’t have enjoyed a truly authentic experience.

Because of those factors, I researched unlike ever before. I hit the jackpot, finding a book all about Louisville’s historical restaurants. It included details about the dining experience at each place, as well as their signature dishes. I burst with excitement and pride over the detailed, genuine narrative I could impart to my readers.

But then I couldn’t use any of their names.

In truth, it deflated me at first, as I felt all my efforts were wasted. Eventually, however, I realized the research equipped me to invite the reader into the setting, regardless of whether I named it or not. I could still include most of the specifics, which enhanced the scenes even more than just a name would have. Between that and the time period itself, I learned how much choosing a famous name or figure can become a crutch, blinding you from employing straight-up creativity.

When somebody calls on you to readjust a long-held technique, it’s a challenge and can quickly turn you resistant. If you fight that tendency and pivot, you’ll reap rewards. We never learn anything if we simply stick to the pattern we’ve cut over and over again. If someone gives us some new scissors along with a different design, let’s take a crack at it. It may just turn out to be our favorite one yet.  

Also See

The Education of Writing

The Book the Blog Wrote

The Advantages of Other Vantage Points

From the time I was a kid, I’ve often grappled with the feeling of being misunderstood. In most circumstances, I was the only disabled person in the room, watching the able-bodied people just carry on however they wished. I hardly ever felt like somebody could relate to me because they weren’t feeling what I was.

As I’ve matured, I realize how many people feel the same way, for one reason or another. No matter your lot in life, you only get to live in your own skin, and it’s easy to get caught up in thinking nobody’s walked the same path as you. If you aren’t careful, that mentality can isolate you, making you conclude nobody can understand your challenges and help you navigate them.

While it’s true that we all encounter different obstacles and a variety of combinations of them, we should resist the tendency to conclude no one hasn’t felt the way you do. Though we want to think we’re unique, we typically face many of the same struggles as our neighbor, even if they have a completely different set of circumstances. Isn’t that what makes any kind of art successful? The artist captures an emotion we can relate to and expresses it in a way that connects with us.

Isn’t it silly, then, to convince ourselves nobody understands what we go through? More than that, aren’t we misjudging others when we make the very accusation of “You’ll never understand my situation,” when we don’t even give them a chance? If we aren’t willing to take that risk and share our battles, we don’t put them in a position to try to understand and help us. We also close the door on an opportunity to hear them relate thoughts and/or experiences similar to ours and how they may have coped with them.

Imagine this scenario: A homeowner never examines the exterior of his/her house but starts to notice the ceiling leaking. He goes to his neighbor’s house, and the neighbor leads him to the window. The neighbor then points out the root of the problem, and even better, he tells the homeowner he’s dealt with a similar issue and knows how to handle it.

Likewise, we don’t have an objective view of our problems many times, and we can all too easily huddle into ourselves. We focus primarily on the symptoms of the problem without really trying to remedy it. That’s where an outsider’s perspective comes in handy. They can give us a view of the matter that we might’ve overlooked on our own and may provide just the insight we need to better manage the predicament.   

An ancient proverb states, “Plans fail when there is no consultation, but there is accomplishment through many advisers.” Life is the ultimate building project, and just as it takes at least a small crew to construct something, we all need a handful of people to lean on, especially when difficulties arise. Unlike a construction project, we can’t make a true rendering of the finished product because of the unexpected. Thus, we must not block out people, assuming they lack the skill set or experience to assist us. Rather, we should embrace the input they can give us, allowing them to open the window we couldn’t find.

Can You Read My Voice?

During my first few months of writing, I tried to think of how my words would sound if Julie Andrews were reading them aloud. I just figured, if I could imagine someone with a British accent saying it, it must be good. I think I even touted that as the key to writing among my family. What can I say? I was eighteen!

It didn’t take me long to realize the whole Julie Andrews test—though she seems like a lovely woman—didn’t constitute a great technique. Let’s face it: even an insurance policy can sound interesting in a British accent. While it may have given me confidence to launch my pursuits, it didn’t contribute anything to my development as an author. More importantly, it didn’t allow me to develop my own voice.

When I refer to my voice, I’m not talking about my literal voice, which I despise. Rather, we all have an inner voice that reveals who we are as individuals, and especially when we create something, we want it to shine through. Others may inspire us and might give us a guiding hand when we start out, but we never want to let their voice become ours.

In music, a number of different songs carry the same general message, but we continue jamming to the new ones that emerge. Why? Because we like hearing it come from different perspectives and voices. Similarly, many plots have already been done by someone else before us, but that shouldn’t make us despair. Rather, it should motivate us to give our readers what they’re looking for when they pick up our book: our individual voice. 

Throughout my whole career, many people have spit-balled ideas at me about what I “should” write next. I hear them out, sometimes with a noncommittal chuckle, but I typically pack them away in File 13. On occasion, I’ll throw in a component of a suggestion I received just to tickle a friend, but I don’t use them to form a major aspect of the plotline. This isn’t because I feel like I’m too good for anybody’s input; it’s simply because it’s somebody else’s voice.

A lot of new authors worry editors will have this effect on their work. Some who probably found it hard to cooperate with an editor share horror stories about how they felt their voice was stripped of the book after it was edited. But this doesn’t have to be the case. From my experience, I’ll admit there are areas where a word or phrase isn’t my individual style…and I can pinpoint every one. For the most part, though, you can compromise by implementing your editor’s advice while still maintaining your voice. 

Make no mistake, however: An outsider isn’t the only person who can taint your voice. Your own head can. Years after I learned the Julie Andrews trick wouldn’t cut it, I unknowingly altered my voice in the months following my first book deal. I didn’t even discover this until the past couple of months, when I began revising my manuscript from that period. As I review it, I see that my satisfaction and pride over my accomplishment comes through in it. Instead of writing with my usual candor, I took the role Authoor, having more of a narrator’s air with hints of Julie Andrews in it. I allowed my confidence to crowd out my voice, and the story suffered.   

Regardless of where you are on your writing journey, work hard to develop your unique voice and keep hold of it. People want to hear it, and you never know the impact it might have on them. It may grow and evolve, but it should always remain authentically you.

Brother of Interest Release: Sculpting a Sequel

After months—actually years—of build-up, Brother of Interest comes out TODAY, courtesy of The Wild Rose Press! As I shared in The Power of Perseverance in Publishing, I fought long and hard for this release, and at times, I truly doubted I’d meet with success. Thus, I’m thrilled to finally unleash it from its stale file in my hard-drive into my fantastic readers’ hands.

Funnily enough, I didn’t plan to write a sequel to Husband in Hiding. I’d only written standalone stories up to the time when I finished it in 2013, and I really didn’t have any interest in writing a series. I ended it with a very air-tight conclusion—which you can read here—where Minka joins Wes in witness protection and starts a whole new life.

From the little I allowed her to read, my mom encouraged me to continue Wes and Minka’s story, but I didn’t take her biased input too seriously. A month or so later, however, my writing coach finished reviewing my first draft, and without knowing my mom’s appeal to me, she, too, encouraged me to write a follow-up. Granted, she’s not exactly unbiased, either, but since she’d never made such a suggestion with my other stories, I decided to take the recommendation a bit more seriously.

I toyed around with the idea for a few days and slowed down in finalizing the manuscript. I knew the ending may well need to be revised to permit a sequel. I considered continuing the mafia storyline and having them find Wes and Minka in their hideaway, but I didn’t want to belabor that plot. I feared my audience—if I ever secured one—would be disappointed just to have all the loose ends Husband in Hiding that tied up unravel all over again.        

I put the specifics on ice for a while, but I changed the ending at least, figuring it’d be best to keep Minka and Wes in Orlando in case I explored this sequel idea. I didn’t hurry to start it, especially given the fact that Husband in Hiding needed to be published before a sequel to it would be entertained by anyone. Still, I pondered if the first novel had any gaps in in that I could exploit and open up further in a second installment.

Before long, I identified Minka’s brother, Robin, as that gap. I’d revealed some details about their relationship as children but nothing about it in the present. As I mulled that over, a cluster of experiences close to home began to generate the premise. I can’t say they were exceptionally pleasant ones, mind you, but they inspired me, nonetheless.

So here’s the gist of the plot: For the past fourteen months, Minka’s been basking in the joys of new motherhood, a far cry from the life she had as a deaf police detective. She sometimes misses the rush of chasing criminals, but she finds more excitement than she ever wanted when Robin ends up at the top of the list of suspects in a high-profile assault investigation.

She may not have a badge anymore, but the sister and law enforcer in her impel her unofficially explore the matter on her own. Will she find her runaway brother? Will the evidence she unearths exonerate him…or point to his guilt?

To any of my new readers, I hope you enjoy getting to know Minka and the Avery clan! If you’d like to catch up with them before digging into Brother of Interest, download the Kindle edition of Husband in Hiding for free through Friday, February 18. The hardcover is also 25% off on KarinaBartow.com for a limited time.  

And to my loyal past readers, thank you so much for your patience and ongoing encouragement for me not to give up on this pursuit! I hope Brother of Interest lives up to your expectations and gives you an entertaining escape for a few hours!


“Could I talk to you about a case?”

It complimented her that Cael valued her insight, but Minka tried her best to repress her love for her former career. She didn’t want it to detract from her primary focus of caring for her baby. “Like I’ve said before, Cael, I can’t get involved. I’m out of all that now.”

“I know, but you’re going to have to make an exception this time.” His firm tone seized her attention. “A man named Perry Hamilton was found behind a bowling alley downtown last night, beaten like you wouldn’t believe. He’s president of Stags Technology, a rising software company. Anyways, we discovered he has a disgruntled employee, who’s suing him for not giving him a promotion. People overheard them arguing the afternoon of the assault.”

Minka’s fears began to materialize. “Why does this concern me?”

“Because the employee is your brother.”   

Buy your copy today at Amazon and all major retailers!

Watch the book trailer now!

Also See

Character Spotlight: Minka & Wes Avery

Character Spotlight: Robin Parker

Character Spotlight: Cael Avery & Autumn Hastings

Character Spotlight: Cael Avery & Autumn Hastings

Next week, Brother of Interest, the second installment in The Unde(a)feted Detective Series, will be released to the world, and I couldn’t be more excited! In honor of the fast-approaching launch, I’ve been posting a series of three character spotlights to acquaint readers with old and new characters in the book. For my last one, I’m covering Cael Avery and Autumn Hastings, who create the novel’s secondary storyline.

Readers of Husband in Hiding, the forerunner to Brother of Interest, probably remember Cael well, as he played a prominent role in the book’s ending. Being Wes’s brother and Minka’s partner, he shared a special relationship with the couple and showed unwavering support for Minka while Wes sought refuge in witness protection. In fact, their bond runs so deep that Wes and Minka name their baby daughter, Caela, after him.   

In contrast, Autumn is new to the series, introduced in the sequel as Cael’s girlfriend. Spoiler alert: Their romance culminates to a marriage proposal halfway through the book. Meanwhile, Minka, who’s still adjusting to not being Cael’s partner, grapples with insecurities about her place in his life. Plus, Autumn’s bubbly personality and hipster ideologies don’t sit well with her future sister-in-law.  

Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll step aside to let fictitious reporter Doreen Packard give her take on the lovebirds in her article announcing their engagement.

Detective Cael Avery to Take on a New Case—Matrimony  

By Doreen Packard

Sorry, ladies. One of Orlando PD’s most eligible bachelors has turned himself in to be locked up in wedlock. Detective Cael Avery has asked Autumn Hastings, a local fitness instructor, to be his bride. Though the handsome police officer has held on to his single status for many years, he sprung the question after just a few months of dating Miss Hastings.

“I cringe at the cliché, but it’s true: ‘When you know, you know.’ ” He winks at his fiancée.

The couple has one of the most adorable love stories out there, engineered by some cunning and a tiny matchmaker.

Autumn begins, “We met at the grocery store. I haven’t lived in Orlando for long, so I didn’t recognize him from the news or anything. I thought he was cute, but I wasn’t impressed by the selection in his cart.”

Cael snickers. “I was stocking up on soda and microwavable pizza. I can’t resist a good sale on the essentials.”   

She shakes her head with a grin. “I reserved my judgement when he approached me and struck up a conversation. I mentioned that I started an aerobics class for toddlers, and he told me about his little niece, who was almost a year old and had just begun to walk. He said he’d refer me to his sister-in-law, but he didn’t stop there.”

Cael takes over, “I didn’t refer Minka as much as I begged her to let me take Caela. As usual, she put up some resistance, but I eventually convinced her.”

While we’re on the subject, I address Cael’s bond with his sister-in-law and former partner, and I ask Autumn what it’s like to be marrying into such a tight-knit family.

“I admire their relationship and all they’ve been through together. I hope Minka and I can grow close in time.”

I zero in on this remark and ask if they have trouble getting along at present. She slides a cautious look over to her husband-to-be.

She finally responds, “Minka’s just been going through so much lately, with her brother and everything.”

Cael sighs. “Yeah, we’re all dealing with lots of changes.”

I reached out to Minka for comment but didn’t hear back by my deadline. Guess we’ll have to wait to see them gather together for the big day, being planned for this fall.

How does Autumn fit into the Avery clan? Find out in Brother of Interest, available for pre-order now.

Also See

Character Spotlight: Minka & Wes Avery

Character Spotlight: Robin Parker

Character Spotlight: Robin Parker

Two weeks from today, Brother of Interest, the second installment in The Unde(a)feted Detective Series, will be released. Last week, I started a series of three character spotlights to acquaint readers with old and new characters in the book. Today, I’m introducing Robin Parker, the brother of interest himself.

Minka’s younger brother gave her the drive to become a police officer without even realizing it. As revealed in Husband in Hiding, their neighbor kidnapped him when he was under her care as a child, and always feeling responsible for the trauma, Minka saw the police force as her way of making up for it. Despite that, you never meet Robin in the first novel, even for Wes’s fake funeral.

Brother of Interest provides a glimpse into the siblings’ troubled relationship, but I don’t want to give any of that away here. Rather, I just intend to give you some background into Robin’s personality and what led him to land on the suspects’ list in a high-profile assault investigation. To do that, I’ve decided to let Robin share his perspective through a blog post he’s written. Keep in mind, though, this is not an actual element in the book. 

Stags Tech or Scam Tech?

By Robin Parker

As many of you know, I’ve worked in the coding department at Stags Technology for five years. I’ve accomplished much since I was hired. I uncover glitches in our algorithms before any of my colleagues and head up a lot of our updates. Without me, the company would be in the tank.

Naturally, then, I assumed I’d be the obvious choice to replace my supervisor when he retired at the end of the year. I didn’t think I’d have to do too much to prove myself after all I’ve done. I thought even the interview was just a formality for the legal team and the brownnosers who also applied for the position. The notion that I wouldn’t land it seemed absolutely foolish.

Well, turns out I work for a bunch of fools.

That’s right: I didn’t get it. Instead of granting a loyal employee this well-deserved promotion, the boss and his team of idiots handed it to my kiss-up of a coworker, who has less seniority than I do. Sure, it’s only by a month but still. It’s an insult…which I’m finding out, my boss, Perry Hamilton, excels at.

After I took the blatant slighting up with the brass, Hamilton writes up all the supposed reasons he had for overlooking me. Every one of them has an upside, though. Sure, I arrive late on occasion, but the extra rest makes me more productive. And yes, I’ve tipped the vending machines to get a free snack here and there, but the jostling keeps the dust from building up.

To tell you the truth, I don’t like to complain this way, but I want the public to know Perry Hamilton is not the golden boy he pretends to be. He’s hardly even at the office, too preoccupied hobnobbing with his millionaire friends. Don’t get me wrong, he has his enemies, too, and from what I hear, they keep him just as busy.

My sister, Minka, and I don’t have much in common, but we both are committed to meting out justice. As a former cop, she has different methods than I do, given how much our experiences with the law have differed. I may not have a badge, but I will find a way to get justice for myself and give Hamilton what he wouldn’t extend to me—the treatment he deserves!

Will Robin get justice? Or will he end up on the other side of it? Find out in Brother of Interest, available for pre-order now!

Also See

Character Spotlight: Minka & Wes Avery

Character Spotlight: Cael Avery & Autumn Hastings

Character Spotlight: Minka & Wes Avery

In three weeks, Brother of Interest, the second installment in The Unde(a)feted Detective Series, will be released. To familiarize new readers with the characters and reacquaint past readers with them, I’m starting a series of three character spotlights today. First up is none other than Minka and Wes Avery, the couple at the center of it all.

Husband in Hiding gave a window into their unusual love story, which began when they were neighbors as children in a suburb of Orlando, Florida. Born deaf, Minka learned sign language from her mother, while Wes watched on from his house next door. At three years old, she struggled at times, so seven-year-old Wes would sneak over and help teach her when her mom stepped away.

Before long, Minka’s parents moved their family away, devastating young Wes. He never forgot the little girl to whom he’d grown so fond, and his experience with her inspired him to become a teacher at a school for the deaf. To his astonishment, life brought Minka back to Orlando, who’d become a police officer and was partnered with his brother, Cael. Despite their years apart, a romance soon blossomed, and they married.

Husband in Hiding left off with the couple reuniting after Wes’s stint in witness protection. Having recently found out she was pregnant, Minka decided to resign from the police force to stay home with their baby on the way. When we pick up in Brother of Interest, we find her just over a year after her daughter’s birth, still basking in the joys of new motherhood.  

To catch everybody up to speed, fictitious reporter Doreen Packard interviewed the couple for an exclusive about their life today.

Minka Avery Goes from Cracking Cases to Tackling Toddlerhood

By Doreen Packard

A year and a half has passed since prominent detective Minka Avery turned in her shield to take up a bottle—a baby bottle. After devoting the previous five years to public service with the Orlando PD, Minka’s days now revolve around her fourteen-month-old daughter, Caela.

“I may not pursue criminals in high-speed chases anymore, but this little mischief-maker keeps me rolling, especially since she started walking a couple months ago,” Minka says, right as the toddler dumps a tote of toys onto the floor.

In their Ocoee home, Minka and her husband, Wes, cherish the ruckus Caela makes, a sharp contrast to the noise surrounding the former detective’s last few months on the job. As widely reported, Wes inserted himself into one of Minka’s investigation of the DeSoto family. He landed on the mafia’s hit list and had to abandon his life upon entering witness protection. Meanwhile, they let the world believe he died in a car accident.

The two have never spoken of it publicly until now.

“Faking one’s death may sound humorous, but it opened up a lot of challenges,” Minka shares. “I couldn’t tell my own family the truth, which still hurts them.”

“I hated being away from her,” Wes adds. “When they arrested DeSoto and I could come home, I was blown away. But our obstacles didn’t end there, since I didn’t know if the school where I teach would rehire me after the mess I made. Plus, we had to navigate the whole ‘I’m not dead’ conversation with everyone. Like she said, it’s not remotely as funny as it sounds.”

Wes had extra reason to worry about providing for his family, given Minka discovered she was pregnant during the two months he was away.

When asked if his wife’s news surprised him upon their reunion, Wes shakes his head. “Actually, no. I won’t go into details, but I surmised it while I was off the grid. I guess you can chalk it up to husband’s intuition. We wanted a family from our wedding day on, so I was thrilled once she confirmed it. I’ll never take for granted the opportunity we have to share Caela with each other because of how close we came to losing that chance.”

By the time matters allowed him to return home, she’d already decided to leave the police force before the little one arrived.  

“My whole perspective changed because of all that happened, and I couldn’t keep a job that would endanger our family again.”

Still, I ask if she misses her days of crime-fighting.

She smiles. “I do from time to time, but I wouldn’t trade a moment with her for anything.”

“What about me?” Wes shoots her a playful grin.

Like it or not, Minka’s ties to law enforcement have recently been tangled again. Her brother, Robin Parker, is a person of interest in the assault of Stags Technology’s CEO, Perry Hamilton. Detective Cael Avery, Wes’s brother and Minka’s former partner, is heading up the investigation, in which officials have yet to uncover Parker’s whereabouts. I asked the couple for their thoughts on the matter.

Wes answers first, “We’re doing everything we can to cooperate. Minka keeps Cael in the loop on whatever she learns.”

Minka gives a simple shrug. “What can I say? The men in my life never fail to surprise me.”       

Want to learn even more about Wes and Minka? Read Husband in Hiding on Kindle or buy the hardcover here.

Also See

The Making of Minka

Character Spotlight: Robin Parker

Character Spotlight: Cael Avery & Autumn Hastings

Stamping out Self-Doubt

As I’ve shared in recent months, 2021 ended up being a whirlwind that surpassed my wildest expectations. I signed my book deals for two new novels and an extension for my 2018 release, Forgetting My Way Back to You, all within four months. In truth, however, my self-doubt painted a pretty bleak picture hardly two months into the new year, one much different from the final product.

I completed Wrong Line, Right Connection in January and had high hopes for it being the right fit for a certain publisher. In fact, they had an open call for a storyline that I felt matched my plot well, and I really thought this would be my easiest route to publishing. I also had hopes of it leading to a further business opportunity.

I’m inclined to say, “Long story short,” but it wasn’t a long story at all. A couple hours after I queried the company, I received the reply that it wasn’t what they were seeking. I didn’t even get to submit a sample. As you’d imagine, the letdown dashed many of my hopes for the book and my writing journey in general.

In my public persona, I strive to motivate people with a “no quit” and “you can do it” attitude, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t take effort for me to get there. Behind the optimist everybody knows, the realist in me lurks, anxious to pounce. Because of that, I often don’t expect things to turn out the way I’d like, especially after I’ve faced disappointment like I did then. Thankfully, the fighter in me likes to put the realist in her place and helps me rise above that self-doubt. Yep, I suppose you could say I have multiple personalities!

Regardless of background and social status, we’re all prone to self-doubt, even if we don’t admit it. It’s inevitable, so we have to develop a mechanism to counteract it or else it’ll paralyze us. For most of us, it isn’t as simple as repeating the words of a motivational speaker back to ourselves. Rather, we need something deep inside us to silence our self-doubt…or distract us from it, at the very least. It may take some reflection on past accomplishments or kind words a friend wrote you years ago. Whatever works for you personally, don’t hesitate to unleash it.  

In addition, my experience last year taught me how fast things can change—and for the better. The past couple years, on top of everyday challenges, can sometimes make you only expect things to spiral out of control when you have a slip-up. But you need to remind yourself a spiral goes both up and down.

Hence, as we begin 2022, be patient with the goals you may have for yourself. Don’t let one downfall invite self-doubt to the table, especially when that downfall is based on someone else’s opinion. But on the inevitable occasions it does creep into the party, find your own “bouncers” to boot it out.

Also See

A Proper View of Progress

This Time Last Year…

The Quick-Sands of Time 

Hard to believe 2021 has drawn to a close, isn’t it? Around this time every year, I reflect and can’t figure out how the new year’s baby grew into an old man beyond my notice. When I was younger, the year used to roll by like an antique, rickety wagon being pulled by an arthritic horse, but as I’ve grown older, it flies by with the speed of a brand-new, multimillion-dollar sports car.

I’m not one to recap “the year that was,” but I thought I’d share a truth that occurred to me in my rumination. In pondering the change of lifestyle we’ve all experienced in the past couple years, I realized time doesn’t just move forward linearly; rather, it can encompass you like quicksand. I’m not talking about how it can swallow you to your demise or anything gruesome like that, but I’m referring to the way it can sink you into a mentality without you being aware of it.

For example, I received a card a few years ago, and when I saw the return address, I said out loud, “I don’t know anyone from there!” Incredulous, I opened the envelope, which reminded me I did know someone from there. We lost touch years before, which saddened me for quite a while. Yet, in that moment, I didn’t have any recollection of them. I couldn’t believe how, somewhere along the line, time sucked out my sorrow and sunk me into genuine apathy.

I realize I’m not alone in this, as everybody experiences time tugging former acquaintances apart. That’s why we hear a lot of people holler, “Hey, you,” at reunions to conceal that they can’t remember each other’s names. The daily demands of life crowd out the attention you once devoted to people or activities in the past. They become like dreams in the night that your brain terms insignificant and discards by morning.

As a firm believer in creation, I don’t promote evolution. Just the same, it’s no secret that we adapt to changing circumstances, which helps us to move on even when it goes against our nature. I don’t like change and usually don’t handle it well initially, but if I stick it out long enough, I conform to the point of forgetting my struggle—for the most part, anyhow. I wouldn’t say I’m completely on board with the adage, “Time heals all wounds,” but it can definitely mask them.

While time’s cleansing effect is beneficial in many ways, it also reminds us of the need to keep up with the aspects of life we don’t want it to wipe away. If we don’t maintain good habits or even good friendships, we can’t expect to elude time’s ability to sink them out of sight. Just like an abandoned property, the ground will sprout new life—mostly weeds—and transform our landscape into something even we have difficulty recognizing.

I once wrote a poem about time and suggested we could overcoming it, but now I understand you can’t in reality. It’s an uncontrollable force that does as it pleases. The acknowledgement of its power, however, can help us choose how to use it. We’ll never evade its grip, but at the very least, we can try to manipulate it to sink us into the right kind of sand.

Capping Off the Everyday

Not long ago, I realized almost every story I’ve written ends with some big milestone or celebration in a characters’ life. I never strategized for it to be that way; it just has always seemed to culminate to that. Of course, I’m not the only writer to do that, as countless books, movies, and television shows all usually have that kind of grand finale.

This trend no doubt stems from our yearning to have some sort of fanciful closure in real life—or do these storylines foster that desire? Regardless, in most grand finale scenes, characters use these big events to express their appreciation and true feelings to others, leaving us with the conclusion that their life has improved moving forward. Then, the sequel or next season comes out and you learn otherwise. But I digress.

The point is we put so much pressure on these “grand finale” moments, and all too often, they don’t pan out the way we fantasized. Personally speaking, the majority of my big celebrations haven’t left me with the gratification I imagined. Does that mean you’ll never have those happily-ever-after moments? Of course not. In truth, most of those moments come when we least expect it. For me, my best memories are of ordinary days with the people I love. There are no elegant gowns or elaborate festivities; it’s just us enjoying time together.

 I doubt that I’m alone in this because life, by and large, is made up of simple moments, which is why we term the other days “special occasions”. When you realize this, though, it changes your perspective on the big milestones and their “make-or-break” importance in the long run. You won’t put so much gravity on how they turn out, and usually, that makes them better. We put ourselves in line to be surprised rather than disappointed.  

Something else we can take away is the fact that we don’t need to wait for an occasion to make a day special. If there’s something we want to say or do for someone, why hold off until a certain date? Every day brings something to celebrate if we look close enough, and making somebody else’s day a little brighter provides ever more reason to rejoice.

No matter what time of year it is, then, glean joy from the everyday rhythm. If the day was good for you, celebrate that. If not, celebrate that it’s over! Most important, share that spirit with others whenever you can. Don’t listen to the calendar: it’s old, flat and square!

Delightful Distractions

During various trials, loved ones have advised me to focus on something other than what’s bothering me. I’m sure everyone’s heard similar counsel. I’ve always understood the practicality of the sentiment, but being the problem-solver I endeavor to be, I resist to follow it. I feel like I need to find a way to wrap my head around whatever I’m feeling and conquer it. I’m not a cat who can just be distracted by a laser light and everything’s fine after that.

I recently read an article, however, that made me reconsider my mindset. It discussed overcoming negative emotions, and citing psychiatric professionals, one of the primary techniques it recommended was distracting yourself from your low spirits. As Dr. Maxwell Maltz put it, “When your phonograph is playing music you don’t like, you do not try to force it to do better. . . . You merely change the record being played and the music takes care of itself. Use the same technique on the ‘music’ that comes out of your own internal machine.”

Though the analogy itself is pretty dated, I appreciated the value in his words. A lot of times, our problems and the way they affect us are as unchangeable as playing someone else’s music. There really isn’t a solution, and we can’t always master even our own feelings. In those all-too-frequent instances, the best resolution may well be to preoccupy yourself with more positive pursuits, a different record.

Does this indicate weakness or—as I expressed earlier—a feline-like inability to concentrate? Not at all. Suppose you’re standing in the ocean, wading in the water on a mild afternoon. Suddenly, the wind shifts, stirring up the gentle current. You realize how far out you’ve wandered and feel the tug of the riled waves pulling you even farther. What’s the path of least resistance: caving to its prodding or straining to retreat to the shore?  

Likewise, we’re not cowards if we choose to flee from our present state of mind. The storms of life hold the power to suck us under the weight of them, and it takes great strength, not weakness, to outrun their wrath. But we can’t expect willpower alone to accomplish this. Rather, we have to dig our heels into something else, an anchor from our own vices.

All this said, there’s a healthy balance you need to strike. Some matters must be confronted, and running away from them often compounds the issue. Plus, the world offers an array of the wrong kind of distractions. Thus, you have to be prudent in when to “change the record” and which one to select. If you choose well, though, you can transform a tragic concerto an uplifting symphony.

Also See

Imagination for Self-Preservation

The Book the Blog Wrote

I’m going to be honest: blogging is a challenge for me. As I admitted in my first official blog, I most enjoy fictional writing, so it’s taken me a while to warm up to the personal narratives I now share. When I began blogging almost four years ago, I never expected it to inspire a novel…but it did. Better yet, I’m announcing today that the novel—Wrong Line, Right Connection—has been accepted for publication and will be released some time in 2022!

Before I get ahead of myself, let’s rewind three years (who doesn’t want to do that?). Leading up to the release of my second published novel, Forgetting My Way Back to You, I posted a series of character spotlights to acquaint readers with the plot. One of them featured Mabel Stentz, a secondary character who really stood out in the book. Mabel was based off a cherished family friend, so to craft the post, I pulled a few true experiences she had and threw in a heap of make-believe. I loved the results, as did my former-teacher-turned-writing-coach, Jennifer Wilson.

Mrs. Wilson adored Mabel from the first time she read about her in my first draft of what became Forgetting My Way Back to You in 2011. In fact, one of her notes when she returned the draft read something like, “Next book idea: A spinoff about Mabel’s life story!” She even put stars around it for emphasis.  

Now allow me to explain my mindset back then. I was twenty-one, and the real Mabel was a grandmother figure to me. Not liking to write non-fiction, I didn’t want to undertake a biography, and it seemed even weirder to write a love story—my preferred genre—about my grandma, even though I had a stack of her love letters. In my estimation, her part in that story fulfilled my childhood promise to her to put her in a book. Other plots were swirling around my mind, and I wanted to play around with those.

BUT Mrs. Wilson didn’t forget about it, and though she gave me praise for every book that followed, I think­—know!—she was disappointed every time I started a new novel that wasn’t about Mabel. Thus, when I put out my character spotlight, it reignited her fervor for it. I had no hopes of stamping it out after that.

For the next year or so, I kept circling back to it and eventually realized the core of the storyline was right there in the blog. My age also made me soften to the idea in a couple different ways. For one, my maturity and life experience gave me a clearer approach to it, and it no longer struck me as cringe-worthy to envision Grandma Mabel’s romantic side. On top of that, I came to the sobering discovery that she’d been gone for half of my lifetime, which blew my mind. She still seemed so alive, especially when I wrote about her, and I craved that companionship again.

Add in a global pandemic, and I committed to it at last. It gave me just the escape and fulfillment I needed to get through 2020. I wrote it faster than any of my other projects, and I’ve never gone from first draft to an acceptance letter as quickly, either. Mrs. Wilson had it pegged all along.

And why should it surprise me? After all, I studied my subject from a very young age!

Read the blog that started it all!

Character Spotlight: Mabel Stentz

The Authorpreneur

One of my favorite television series of all time is “Castle,” which follows a mystery author who assists the NYPD in murder investigations. In between cracking cases and driving his partner-turned-love-interest crazy, Rick Castle is always fielding calls from his editor and agent, pushing him to finish another chapter or setting up press engagements. When the show premiered in 2009, I was an aspiring novelist, and I soaked up all those scenes. I envisioned myself answering calls like that and how sweet it’d be to receive such clamoring.

Twelve years and three books later, I’m still only fantasizing about such matters!   

I can just speak to my own experience on this subject, never having worked an agent or publicist and being published by small companies. Maybe depictions like that are realistic for best-selling authors who work with the big five companies and have high budget marketing teams at their disposal. For many of us, however, much more than writing the book and showing up at appearances is involved; we have to be an authorpreneur.

What’s an authorpreneur? Well, a regular entrepreneur has to initiate everything he or she needs to establish his/her proposed business, especially at the very start. Likewise, the authorpreneur is an all-in-one position. You have to be the driving force to get your book into readers’ hands from beginning to end of the publishing process.

It didn’t take me long to appreciate this. I thought my job was done after I received my first acceptance letter, apart from editing and posing for pictures. Either that day or the next after I signed the contract, though, I was asked to write up my own bio, provide a photo, and later, make up my website. You’re also usually in charge of the synopsis on the back of the book, among other marketing tools. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun and even flattering, but it makes it humorous when somebody naively tells you, “I really liked what they said about you in your bio!”

Publishers are supportive and often do their best to give your book the exposure it needs, but in truth, they have their hands full. They have books lined up before and after your release, so they can only devote a certain amount of energy to yours, and in the long run, that’s good for you. If they’re allotting all their efforts to you and your book, chances are they don’t have much else to offer—including an audience.

Thus, you have to be proactive in promoting your work, meaning keeping your eye out for contests, book fairs, reviewers, and whatever else you choose to implement in your marketing. These days, an online presence is as important as anything, so unless you can afford a digital manager, you have to handle that, too. And oh yeah, you should probably write in your next book once in a while!

Sound overwhelming? Believe me, I know it does. In fact, I always used to back out of any publisher’s website if they requested a marketing plan with your submission. Gradually, though, I’ve realized from research and experience that nobody knows your book as well as you do. Because of that, you can promote it better than anyone else can, so you have to embrace the opportunity to do so.

While being an authorpreneur may not be as glamorous as taking calls from prominent agents and the like, it does bring its own fulfillment. When you look at your book and the accomplishments that come with it, you have the satisfaction of knowing you were instrumental in its success from start to finish. Just like a hand-made-quilt, you can look at each stitch and remember the story behind it. When someone tells you the coziness it brought them, you’ll cherish it that much more.  

Also See

The Hidden Pitfalls of Publishing

The Education of Writing

Profitable versus Rewarding: Is There a Difference?

The Secret Behind the Garden

I’ll start this post with somewhat of a confessional. My mom, an avid reader and fan of The Secret Garden, exposed me to the story at a young age by means of one of the film adaptations. I loved it, and as you’ll see, it made a lasting impact on me. Never keen on old-fashioned English, however, I didn’t read the book until this summer. Yes, even this author will sometimes skip the book and watch the movie!

As embarrassed as I am to admit to reading a childhood classic for the first time as an adult, I gleaned a lot from my long-overdue review. It both unleashed the lessons I drew from it years ago and fostered some new ones. I hope I don’t give away any spoilers here…but the novel is 110 years old!

My mom used the story to motivate me not to give in to my disability. In the plot, Colin Craven simply assumes he’s ill, and it cripples him both physically and emotionally. He drives people away from him because of his bitter demeanor, and he refuses to move around for fear of worsening the hump on his back—which isn’t even there. His lack of exercise causes atrophy in his muscles, enhancing his handicap that much more.

Mom always honed in on this example with me. From a very young age, I’ve been a doer despite my limitations. Once, my dad set out to follow me around for a day, but he only lasted a couple of hours. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m always impelled to do the right thing for my body. My parents and therapists instructed me to do exercises that make me groan to this day. Nonetheless, Colin’s reluctant and stubborn ways, as well as how he later benefitted from physical activity, have stuck with me and refrained me from wallowing in my sorrow over my difficulties.

As I read further, I remembered a sentiment I often had when watching the movie in my early days. I thoroughly enjoyed Colin’s interaction with Mary and Dickon, two kids who overlooked his challenges and broke him out of the box in which he placed himself. I haven’t viewed the movie we liked in a long time, but I still snicker when I think about a scene where Mary’s almost hostilely forcing Colin to get out of bed.

Again, I never quite needed that firm of stimulus to get going, but I yearned to have friends like that in my life, apart from my wonderful family. My Cerebral Palsy did impede my social status, and I used to wonder if I’d ever meet people like Mary and Dickon.

As you can learn in My Story, I found many such kind-hearted individuals. I’ve discussed the big events they did as a group, like rooting me on during my weekly hundred-meter “dashes” and having me lead them out before a football game, all of which surely contributed to my success…and pushed me out of my comfort zone.

But the simpler experiences of a select few that I’ve chosen to keep private have impacted me more than they’ll ever understand. Like Mary and Dickon helping Colin in the garden, they took the time when not many were watching to show me my potential and worth, one even taking my side during my therapy sessions.

Lastly, I drew a lesson that could only be reaped from the book itself. After Colin comes to appreciate the advantages of leaving behind his rigid shell, he realizes the power of his thoughts and attitude. When he just focused on his weaknesses and fears, he closed himself off to the joys his life could bring. Once he allowed Mary and Dickon to avail him to the outside world, however, his woes took the backseat to his newfound happiness. As the book beautifully put it:

“Where you tend a rose, my lad, a thistle cannot grow.”

The profound quote applies to all of us, especially amidst the challenges of these past two years. No matter what circumstances we may face, the way we view them will govern the outcome we encounter. Concentrating on the downsides will add to our burden, whereas looking at the positives will lighten it. Like Colin, we need help from one another, but if we work together, we can plant a bright, luscious garden that will stand up to any drought.

The Rules of Reputation

As an avid baseball fan, I don’t object to the so-called “unwritten rules of the game,” but one in particular gripes me. An all-star caliber pitcher may throw a pitch just outside the strike zone, and the umpire deems it a strike. In a later inning, though, his rookie teammate throws a pitch in the exact same location, and the ump charges him with a ball. Why? Because the veteran has an established reputation of making his mark, whereas the rookie hasn’t proven himself yet.

It isn’t fair, in my opinion, but it illustrates a truth that exceeds the baseball diamond: Reputation can make or break a person. You don’t need to be a professional athlete to have your reputation give you an unfair advantage or disadvantage. Whether we notice it or not, we see it in numerous everyday situations to varying degrees. We may make the same mistake or accomplishment as another person, but our reputation governs how it’s received.

It starts in grade school. A kid who often makes trouble and manifests a lackluster work ethic usually gets disciplined every time he acts up or misses an assignment. An honors student, on the other hand, might have a bad day and misbehave or forget the prior day’s homework, and he hardly gets a word of reproof. This scenario plays out throughout our lives in the workplace and other settings, so we might as well get accustomed to it at a young age.

 Once again, it’s not always fair, but we won’t make it very far by just lamenting this fact of life. Rather, we should use our experiences with it—good or bad—to motivate us to furnish a well-respected repute for ourselves. We can’t take for granted the impact of our actions and decisions in big and small matters.

For instance, what we consider a “white lie” or “no big deal” may dismantle our credibility with someone, especially if it becomes a consistent behavior pattern. Remember the little boy who cried wolf…and became the beast’s dinner? On the flip side, if we string together seemingly minute admirable choices, we might be surprised the esteem it fosters in others.

All this said, I wish I could claim every reputation is hard-earned, but I know that isn’t true. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve been stereotyped because of my disability throughout my life, and that affects my reputation quite a bit. While it may help me in certain circumstances, I’ve experienced the converse a fair amount, too. One person may share their misconceptions with friends, and it becomes a lot of others’ misconceptions. This happened to me in several areas of life and stuck me with a reputation that followed me everywhere.

How’d I get past it? For one thing, I just pressed on and endeavored to be the person I knew I could be. I tried not to let it embitter me and not to assume everyone adopted that unfounded view of me. Eventually, I managed to prove myself to the right, open-minded crowd, and they helped improve the way people saw me.

The rules of reputation can be tricky and sometimes unfair, but like it or not, we’re all subject to them. It’s never too late to try to boost yours, whether it’s deserved or not. It’ll take time and hard work, but it’s worthwhile. It’s not really about popularity or kissing up to people. Establishing a good reputation comes with a lot of perks, but the best one of all is lifting your own self-worth. In truth, when you respect yourself, others are bound to follow.     

Happily- or Tragically-Ever-After?

 For almost 110 years, the sinking of the Titanic has captivated the interest of billions of people. Even seven decades after its wreck, explorers and nations alike clamored to find its final resting place, sparing no cost and building special equipment to locate the legend. Since then, various exhibits—like the one I visited in Orlando, Florida—have popped up all around the world to quench our thirst for insight into it. Today, its deterioration concerns many who don’t want it to disappear from the ocean deep. The hype can be somewhat confounding if you contemplate it, given over 1,500 souls perished. Why are we so fascinated in such a tragedy? 

As I’ve admitted before, I’m not qualified to rattle on about the psychological reason why calamities and their aftermath rivet us. I can only speak to my observations in my own curiosity about the subject and what I’ve witnessed in others. At the heart of it, it is a story, and understanding its lasting impact can help any kind of storyteller who wants their tale—true or not—to resonate with their audience.

Countless ships have met with the same fate as Titanic, yet most of us can’t name many others. What sets Titanic apart? Sure, its status as the largest vessel of its day plays a part in it, but in my opinion, it was its claim to be unsinkable. It touted a promise it couldn’t live up to even on a single voyage. Nobody could’ve dreamed up a more dramatic irony.

This illustrates how much people delight in a surprise, whether it’s a good or bad one. Nobody likes it when a plot turns out exactly as he/she expects. Those surprises often end up being the most memorable element of the storyline, particularly when it’s near the climax.

To create such surprises, you obviously need a stunning contrast to the rest of the plot that leads up to it, like what happened in Titanic’s case. After I finished reading a highly-praised novel this year, I found myself disappointed with the ending because it lacked contrast. Sure, there was a shocking twist, but it was just as sad as the entire book. I kept waiting for it to round that corner and give the heroin the nice outcome I thought she deserved, but it never transpired. Instead, I felt like it was a waste of my time.

On the other hand, my favorite book had a sad ending, but since the book up to the climax carried a positive message, it didn’t bother me. In fact, the somber conclusion made everything more poignant and enhanced the story, in my opinion. Though I would’ve loved for matters to have resulted in a happily-ever-after for the characters, the way the tragedy changed the hero made it more meaningful.

We storytellers shoulder a lot of weight when we craft an ending, and it’s up to us to decide which kind is better for our story. While we can’t obsess over what will please people, we need to carefully consider the impression we want to leave on them, because that’s what will govern their view of the complete work. We may not have the enduring legacy Titanic did, but even if our story sticks with just a few in our audience, it’s a success.

Also See

The Pressure of Creating a Satisfying Conclusion

The House the Author Built

Throughout my years of blogging, I’ve compared the writing process to a variety of things. While I was recently editing my upcoming novel, I stumbled on yet another metaphor that I hoped could help my fellow authors as we all craft our works. Though I’m not much of a DIY kind of girl, I’ve witnessed enough projects in my family to see the similarities between renovating a house and reworking a story.

When you set out on a house or a book, the concept often seems easy and you’re tempted to schedule a finishing date before you even get started. In fact, I thought I could write a whole novel during summer break when I was in high school, which didn’t happen. Obstacles almost always arise and impede your progress at one point or another. If they’re major, you might question if the universe is telling you to quit. I failed that test the summer I wanted to complete a whole book, ruining a floppy drive when I encountered my first minor setback!

Building a new house or writing a first draft is daunting and time-consuming, but renovating what’s already there can be a bigger challenge. When it comes to a house, you may start a project with the intention of just adjusting an existing feature but discover a hidden problem that requires an entire overhaul. Or an inspector may locate the issue and recommend modifications.

I’ve met with this very scenario numerous times in my writing, as well. Early on, I tried to preserve a lot of my work even if I saw that it needed improvement. Gradually, however, I realized that sometimes a “cease and abandon” is the better course of action…as much as it may hurt. Unlike with a house, you rarely have an exact blueprint of the finished product, and the plot evolves in a different way than you imagined months or just weeks ago. Thus, your story merits the best developments in order to flow well, and that may well require you to delete a scene you really enjoyed.

I ran up against this in my latest round of edits. There was a scene in the book that I considered entertaining—and boosted my word count nicely. My editor, however, knew from personal experience how inaccurate a lot of it was. She gave me a few tips on what I could do if I wanted to keep some of it intact but strongly encouraged me to strike it altogether. I debated the options, and in the end, I followed her recommendation. I saw that fresh content would better suit the story, whereas trying to make the old fit somehow would likely create a clunky scene.

House and writing projects alike can be long, grueling endeavors. No matter how long it takes, though, the payoff makes up for it. You’re left with the satisfaction that accompanies making something with your own hands and mind that you and others can enjoy for years to come.

Also See

Rewrite? Say that Again?

Bringing the Outside In

When I was enjoying my pool recently, a casual conversation with my mom evoked a memory I hadn’t thought about in ages. I mentioned how thankful I was to have been introduced to an aqua belt, the flotation device I’ve used since I was an adolescent. It gives me the support I need to keep me from drowning, while also offering me freedom to move about somewhat naturally.  Prior to our discovering it, I had to either use a life-jacket, floaties, or an inner-tube to have fun in the water—and in those cumbersome implements, I’d hardly call it fun.

We didn’t discover the belt on our own, though. In fact, we never would’ve if matters had gone my way. When I was in third grade, my school had everybody in my class take swimming lessons at the local recreation center. I usually tried to do everything the other kids did and never wanted my Cerebral Palsy to define me, but on this one, forget it! I’d had a pool at home since I was a toddler, and I managed in it just fine. I realized I wouldn’t swim like a regular person, so what was the use? It’d just be another instance where I’d be reminded of what I couldn’t do, and I’d feel like an outsider.

Despite my pleas to stay behind and read in my classroom, my teacher and parents insisted I go. At my first lesson, a surprise came my way in the form of my own personal instructor, who I’ll call Becky…because her name was Becky. I still remember her smiling face as she approached me, her eagerness to help me easing my tension and stubbornness in that moment. And what was she carrying? Yep, the aqua belt. (Photo courtesy of Amazon) 

For the next six weeks, she trained me to use the belt so that I could get the most out of swimming. While I didn’t get to share in the shenanigans my peers were doing, I had relaxing, one-on-one training that benefits me to this day. Best of all, I had a warm pool almost to myself, whereas my classmates had to crowd into the cold one! What I dreaded all summer ended up being the highlight of my year.

Admittedly, I still have my bull-headed streak that rears its ugly head on occasion, but the experience taught me a lesson that went beyond the water. I learned I couldn’t assume I was going to be an outsider just because I usually was. I’d been through a very rough patch at that time, and looking back, I realize I’d let it embitter me, even at that young age. But Becky showed me I couldn’t let the harshness of others make me give up on the possibility of someone being kind.

When you’re accustomed to being the outsider or even an outcast, it’s all too easy to get a chip on your shoulder or to simply say, “I’ve had enough.” If you stick it out and power through it, though, you’re bound to find people who will pull you in the circle and improve your life in ways you’d never fathomed.  I guess you could say you can’t let the bruises you get on the shallow end discourage you from trying out the deep.

Also See

Ugly Changes Lead to Beautiful Transformations

The Power of Perseverance in Publishing

Last month, I signed a new book deal with The Wild Rose Press to release the sequel to my debut novel, Husband in Hiding! This was the culmination of five years of waiting, hoping, and yes, a little crying. But a lot more work went into it than that.

I’d already finished the sequel—I’ll wait to reveal the title until it’s finalized—when Husband in Hiding was released. My publisher at the time seemed eager to continue the mystery series, so I thought I was set to have a new installment out every year like the big-time authors do. I broadcast it to just about everyone who bought the book, which began an endless game of hearing, “When’s the sequel coming out?” The anticipation thrilled me, but as matters started to fizzle out with the company and the sequel’s publication appeared ever more unlikely, the question became wearisome to discuss. (See This Time Last Year…)

At a crossroads, I decided to shift my focus until the dust settled and pursue my second novel, Forgetting My Way Back to You. In fact, I first discovered Wild Rose when I was shopping that to companies in 2017, but it didn’t end up being the right match for them. I proceeded with Vinspire Publishing and hoped they might be a good home for the sequel in the future, but they didn’t feel that it was right for their catalog. Nonetheless, they gave me input that helped the plot along. While it changed the way I originally wanted the beginning to unfold, I saw the advantages of implementing their advice and how it would better attract readers and prospective publishers.

Fast-forward a year, I came across Wild Rose again and realized they also publish mysteries, so I figured I’d give it another shot. After reading the first three chapters, the editor wanted me to make some tweaks but said she’d be willing to look at it again once I did so. When I resubmitted it to her, she complimented me on my adjustments, but she felt the story needed some work. She suggested I read Revision and Self-Editing for Publication as I continued to sculpt it further, so I ordered the book that day.

Between its guidance and hers, I looked at the plot with clearer vision and adjusted elements I may never have thought to without it. I didn’t even intend to submit it to her again, but I didn’t want to waste the insight she gave me. I knew it’d benefit me regardless.  The week I resumed sending out queries, I mustered the nerve to contact her to thank her for her help and ask if she’d like to review it once more. To my surprise, she did, and it led to a long-awaited acceptance letter.

I wanted to share this experience for the hard-working, often frustrated, aspiring authors like me—and dreamers of all sorts. Perseverance and persistence does pay off, but it involves more than pure willpower. You can’t close the door on a company just because of past rejections. You also can’t squander the wisdom the right people provide. When it comes to publishing, very few editors/agents give you anything past a straightforward rejection, so you should appreciate it when someone takes the time to give you tips. They could give you just the leg-up you need to find success…sometimes where you least suspect it!

Also See

Rewrite? Say that Again?

The Hidden Pitfalls of Publishing

The Highs, the Lows, and the Crummy Plateaus

From the time I was a year old, I spent a lot of time in therapy—physical, occupational, and speech. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I never thought a lot about if, when, or how I’d be released from it. I guess I expected to be “normal” one day and take a victory lap out of there.

As I reached adolescence, my therapists started ending my treatment one by one. When my occupational therapist decided to terminate my sessions, she told us I’d ‘plateaued,’ a term I hadn’t heard before in my eleven years. My mom explained it to me, but at my young age, I didn’t care much. I was just happy not to have to go anymore.

A couple years later, my physical therapist had a similar conversation with us and used the same word. While I was still glad for my newfound freedom, the thought of having ‘plateaued’ troubled me more than it did before. I could only stand on my own for a minute at a time and walk about five feet without assistance. She didn’t think I was going to get any better? I wouldn’t be able to do a victory lap?

I don’t remember my exact feelings in the weeks after that, but I didn’t let the assessment dampen my outlook on what I could or couldn’t accomplish. I continued making strides to walk on my own—no pun intended. In fact, I started walking around a whole gymnasium within a year’s time. Plateaued? Not me!

Everyone encounters points in life when they feel they’ve plateaued or hit a stalemate. Some, like me, may even hear that from others. In our personal and professional lives, we have ebbs and flows, with stills in between. Do those stills mean we’re stagnant or that we’re failing?

When you go out to sea, you feel the ebbs and flows rocking your boat beneath you, which is pleasant in good weather. If you run into high winds or stormy conditions, however, you don’t want to feel those sways. Instead, you’ll find a spot to dock or throw down your anchor wherever you can to stabilize the vessel. Is that stationary anchor a sign of weakness? Absolutely not. On the contrary, it fights hard against the water pressure to keep the boat in place.

Similarly, when we feel like we’re not moving forward, we need to take into account that we also aren’t moving backward. Many times, that’s something to celebrate in itself. Especially when you’re facing adversity, holding your ground takes great strength. It’s all too easy to look at where we expected to end up, but we often neglect to acknowledge where we started. When we do, though, we might well realize we’re actually advancing beyond our notice.

In reality, plateaus aren’t all that crummy. They can give you a chance to take a breath and take in the view of both the past and future. We should appreciate them and use them to get stronger, rather than resent them and squander the opportunities they provide.

Most importantly, we can’t let other people—even ‘experts’—convince us that we won’t progress. Ten years or so after my last therapy appointment, I had to go back to the center to be assessed for insurance purposes. My former therapist no longer worked there, but the one who saw me that day and her colleagues watched me walk around the whole room, unable to believe how well I did. At long last, I took my victory lap!

Also See

A Proper View of Progress

Ugly changes Lead to Beautiful Transformations

My Walk to Remember

By All Appearances…

Whether we like it or not, a year has come and gone since the pandemic began—old news, I know. I’ve noticed in my own life that the milestone seemed to catch up with us all in one way or another, even if we didn’t admit it to anyone. We may have adjusted to this different lifestyle and don’t feel the panic we did at first, but discouragement still lingers as we trudge along.

I’ve come across several sources that claim that we also aren’t communicating like we used to, and I think that only compounds the gloom we’re feeling. We’re projecting on social media and Zoom calls/meetings that everything’s great, which can just make us feel more alone. We might assume everybody else is fine, when in all actuality, they’re putting on the same façade we are. Why can’t we be real with one another?

I can’t answer that, and that isn’t the purpose of this post. Rather, this is merely an example of a truth that has been going on for eons before this, namely that we can look fine but have struggles nobody realizes. Many grapple with physical, mental and emotional illnesses that are invisible to the eye. Even the ones who don’t, never lay out every obstacle he/she faces on a daily basis.   

I know quite a few people who suffer from these invisible conditions, and I feel for them. Most of them are beautiful, young women, yet they deal with debilitating pain, fatigue, along with other chronic conditions. Many fail to see the battles they have to live with day after day, and they often have to defend themselves to convince others that what they feel is real because they “appear” to be okay. Such ones deserve special consideration and care instead of scrutiny and judgement.

For those of us who have evident disabilities, the appearance game is different but not easy. I’ve heard that I’m better off because people can see my handicap and show me the understanding I need, but I’m here to tell you that simply isn’t true. Some assume I have more severe limitations than I really do, while others believe my challenges aren’t as bad as they truly are. Plus, I never have even two seconds in which a stranger just sees me and not my Cerebral Palsy.

Even if one understands my degree of difficulty, I’ve found that they can still misjudge how I’m affected by my limitations. For instance, a lot of people just see that I can’t walk or perform many fine motor functions, but few realize the toll my spasticity takes on me. It makes every task more difficult, since my body can never stay still. It’s like I constantly live in an earthquake zone, and the magnitude of them varies by the day. Even as a baby before anyone knew about it, I’ve always had to keep my arm positioned just so, in order to keep it somewhat under control. Of all my challenges, that’s the most grueling.

The saying, “Everyone’s going through something,” is so true, especially in the past year. That’s why it should be more than a mantra; it should be a mentality. It should make us act kinder and more compassionate because we don’t know what somebody is facing. We also ought not to compare our struggles with another person’s, as that can quickly breed division. On the contrary, let’s look beyond appearance, listen to each other, and learn from one another’s coping mechanisms. After all, Hollywood’s moved far past silent movies, so why shouldn’t we?

Also See

The Comparison Conundrum

The Making of Minka

The Therapeutic Benefits of Writing

The Education of Writing

A question many have when they begin to kick around the idea of pursuing a career in writing is, “Do I need to go for higher education to do so?” I had this curiosity, as well, especially when I was in my junior and senior years in high school. I spent quite a bit of time researching it while I considered my career plan, but I never found a clear answer.

In truth, there probably isn’t one answer that covers every type of author. For instance, if you want to write nonfiction on history, self-help or specific topics like that, you’d be expected to have certain credentials to back up your area of expertise. Hence, I can only speak to what I—a novelist who didn’t go to college—have experienced in my decade in the book publishing world.  

In most professions, you present a resume to a perspective employer, in which you list your level of education and degree you’ve earned. When it comes to pursuing publication, you submit a query to agents and/or publishers that introduces your manuscript and you, but unless your education is somehow relevant to your story, you typically don’t mention it. Rather, you focus on your history with publishing and what makes you a good candidate to write the story. Of course, you have to reach a little when you’re getting started, and a degree can be helpful in that regard. More than anything, however, editors and agents want to see you as a person and what gives you a unique perspective to be a storyteller. You’ll find that, too, when you’re exploring companies to figure out where to submit. I’ve never come across publisher guidelines or agent wish-lists that mention the need for a degree.

The bottom line is, having a degree won’t hurt you, but it also isn’t a sure-fire way to land you a book deal. You may wonder, though, if you should further your education in writing, even if it isn’t required. In my opinion, that depends on you. Proper grammar and formatting goes a long way in making your work attract attention…the right kind of attention. My education in primary school has been invaluable, but there are quirks in publishing that go beyond that. What gets you straight A’s in English class may not be up to par from a publisher’s standpoint.  Perhaps a course would teach you such, but there are also a plethora of books that offer instruction, too.

On a personal note, something that held me back from pursuing a major in creative writing was my fear of losing my personal writing style. I’ve always been a student who follows instruction pretty much to the letter, and I’m prone to doubt myself if I’m made to feel that I’ve failed. I excelled in all my writing courses, including an AP one, and they laid a foundation for everything I’ve done since. At the same time, I didn’t know what I was capable of creatively until I went for it on my own and wasn’t confined by a grading rubric. I didn’t have a professor standing over me and saying I was wrong to do something just because he didn’t like it. I could learn on my own terms, and I flourished.  

I don’t regret my choice not to go for a degree, but I’ve had to compensate for my lack of higher training by studying on my own and being willing to accept correction. Like I stated earlier, you might think you’ll blow an editor’s socks off with a technique that earned you praise in school, but it ends up driving him/her crazy. For example, teachers want us to change up dialogue tags often instead of just relying on ‘said’ or ‘asked.’ For years, then, I flexed my creative muscles by using every word I could think of to avoid such, but I’ve recently learned most companies prefer the more common tags, if you must use one at all. Trends like this change somewhat often, so it’s good to take refreshers so that you’re better equipped to satisfy a publisher.

In all honesty, writing is a craft in which you never stop learning, whether you have a degree or not. Just because you didn’t attend college doesn’t mean you shouldn’t educate yourself, even after you’ve had a book published. You have to be open to being a student, regardless of if you’re in a classroom or in your living room. When you do so, though, you have to have a balance when it comes to trying to implement everything you’re taught. Remember that readers, agents, and publishers alike are looking for unique storytellers, and you can’t become that by falling into someone else’s mold. Whatever path you choose to take, let it guide you to your individual voice, and your talent will take you from there!   

Also See

The Hidden Pitfalls of Publishing

Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World of Readers?

The Profession of Friendship

If you’re looking at the title of this post with confusion, I don’t blame you. I was puzzled, too, when I put out a mad lib on social media recently that asked for a professional title, and someone responded with the word, “friend.” I found it odd and didn’t use it in the game’s solution because other contributions fit better with what I wanted, but I kept going back to it in my mind.

In my rumination, I came to realize that friendship could, in some ways, be viewed as a profession. Of course, you don’t—and shouldn’t—get paid for it, nor does it typically bring the strife a job can, even if it has its tough moments. While true friends don’t keep up a relationship under duress like they would with holding down a job, friendship does require each side to hold up their end, or else it risks termination.

‘Friend’ has become pretty loosely used nowadays, with social media marketing it unlike it’s ever been conceived in the past. I’d be lying if I said I’d never accepted a friend request from somebody I haven’t met in person. You can have thousands of so-called friends from every corner of the world, without speaking one word to them. Some may prefer it that way, and if you’re one of them, I’m not here to judge. My point is that the term doesn’t always mean what it once did, diluting it in a way that can have an adverse effect on our relationships outside of cyberspace if we aren’t careful.

 Back to my mad lib: friendship is a title, but most of us wouldn’t deem it a professional one for the reasons I mentioned earlier. All too often, though, I think we, myself included, forget that it’s a title that has to be earned and maintained, much like a professional one. For instance, someone may graduate with a doctorate in medicine, allowing them to put “Doctor” on his/her letterhead from that day forward. But what if they don’t practice for a long time or never practice after school? Would you hire him to be your provider?

Similarly, we need to work at true friendship if we want to retain that title. Professional titles, no matter how fancy, refer to the position you choose to have in a workplace. Professing to be a friend refers to the position you choose to have in someone’s life. It isn’t an inactive moniker, unless we’re just interested in having friendships in name only. Rather, it takes ongoing effort, and you have to show up for it, even if it’s not five or six days a week like a job demands.

Granted, we’re all busy, and whether we intend to or not, we’re bound to lose touch with even close friends. Despite how many means of communication we now have at our disposal, this world isn’t wired for promoting deep relationships that go beyond a simple thumbs-up or an exchange of a few words. It keeps us too immersed in what we, ourselves, have going on to be concerned with others.

That’s why we have to put in the effort and keep ourselves in check as to if we’re living up to that privileged title of friend. A true friend won’t give us a job evaluation and knock us for areas where we’re failing, so we need to do that for ourselves. A lot of times, both people have room for improvement, but we can only do our part. Like in the workplace, though, good coworkers motivate each other to perform better. While you won’t get a raise or dock in pay, you’ll earn a wage that far outweighs any salary.

A Reality Check about Fiction

In Keeping the Fiction in Fiction, I discussed what a writer needs to weigh out before he/she brings current events into his work. I shared the importance of giving readers an escape from real-world problems like the pandemic, instead of making them relive it all over again. That said, fiction still needs a good helping of reality in it to allow readers to relate to it.   

When I started writing on my own, however, I didn’t know that. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never enjoyed writing nonfiction. I like to use my imagination to provide that getaway from real life for myself and my readers. When I embarked on my first novel, I thought I could explore the whole depths of my creativity and that it didn’t matter whether or not it was realistic. This was fiction, right? Isn’t it the definition of make-believe?

If I’d wanted to go into the sci-fi or dystopian genre, maybe I could’ve stuck with that mentality. Even with most of them, though, an author has to yield to reality at some point. Why? Because readers want to relate to the storyline and characters, even if they live in another time, place, or planet. I’d dare to say that that’s the reason the main characters in Star Wars—and many other sci-fi flicks—are human, despite being surrounded by other world creatures.  

I can’t claim to have accepted this fact overnight. After I finished my first manuscript, I handed it over to a former teacher of mine to proofread and make any suggestions she might have. I expected her to notate grammar tweaks and the like, but I didn’t anticipate the input she gave me about my unrealistic components. In my early twenties at the time, I wondered, “Why do I have to keep it realistic? Won’t that take away from my creativity?”

On that first run-through, I probably didn’t take her advice as much as I should’ve, and the final product attested to it. I may not have had Marvin the Martian dropping in for a steak dinner, but the plot was filled with over-the-top drama, cringe-worthy dialogue, and unreasonable characterization. While you may find such on daytime television shows, I eventually realized that wasn’t what I was going for and it wasn’t going to sell…at least not to the type of company I wanted to pursue.    

In time, I came to understand the need to keep readers engaged and the vital role realism plays in that. I saw that the notes my teacher made weren’t only her concerns, but they also represented the confusions readers would likely have. True, we want to keep them guessing, but there’s a difference between guessing and head-scratching. Guessing makes them turn page after page, whereas head-scratching can make them close the book and reach for a more comprehendible option.

Even so, you don’t always have to choose the most common—a.k.a. boring—developments to be realistic. For instance, say you’re writing about a car that runs out of gas. You might be tempted to just say it stalls and have the characters walk to the nearest gas station, since that’s what normally happens. But when a reader picked up your book, he was looking for more than that expected outcome. He wanted your individual spin on a situation like that. Instead of sticking with the no-brainer development, then, come up with a realistic yet intriguing way to handle it, such as a former love interest or rival coming upon the scene.   

Our audience will enjoy the twists and turns we create, and every so often, we might get away with treading the fringes of reality. It’s a balancing act, and we can’t go too far towards the edge. When debating if something’s plausible enough to use, think like the reader and consider whether it would pull you out of the story because it’s disruptive or if it’d draw you in because it’s compelling and relatable.

While we should aim for originality and the element of surprise, we can’t assume that our book is all about us flexing our imagination just because our name’s on the cover. Rather, we have to keep our plot and characters to the fore by coming up with realistic developments that don’t bring readers out of the story’s flow. Like the flow of a river, it needs to be consistent, even if it’s more intense at one point or another. If we maintain that, we’ll provide our readers with a refreshing outlet where they can find both connection and amusement in our characters.

Also See

Editors: A One-Person Jury or a Friendly Doorman to the World-of Readers?

A Proper View of Progress

Last week, people were posting their year-end recaps and discussing the year that was, and I noticed several admit that they thought 2020 would be a special one, where everything would fall into place. I, too, had similar hopes about my writing, thinking I was going to flood publishers and agents with my query in an effort to land a contract for a book I’ve had on the shelf for five years. I started out doing just that, until reports of instability in the industry made me halt my pursuits for a few months. In the end, I sent out just sixteen queries all year, with a mere five of them going out after March.

2021 is here, and as I mentioned in my last post, it has some high orders to fill. The turn of every year brings optimism and hope for big transformations, but I’d venture to say this one surpasses most of those prior to it. Seven days in, however, and the shine of it seems to have tarnished in the eyes of many. We still see the not-so-great news reports every day and continue to have to take the same protective measures we lived with for most of last year. So far, it’s like 2020 version 2.0.

How, then, can we try to reach for goals when we feel like we’re on a stationary bike? From my experience, we have to adopt the right mindset towards progress. When it comes to my publication efforts, it’s disappointing to sit here with no more prospects for the book than I had twelve months ago, but a modest evaluation of where I am has made it easier to swallow. While I didn’t receive an acceptance letter, I drew some interest from a company that resulted in valuable input that I can use to better develop my story. Besides that, the compliments the editor gave me strengthened my confidence in its potential, even if it needs a bit more work.

That’s the way I’ve had to approach my professional endeavors as well as personal ones. Success rarely comes in leaps but rather, in little skips, and you can’t take any of them for granted. No matter how small, each one contributes to your desired outcome. Often, though, you have to perceive those tiny steps to even recognize them.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched old videos of my journey to learning how to walk as a teen. The coaches who helped train me had me walk a hundred meters on a weekly basis and timed me to track my advancement. After viewing the ones we recorded, it surprised me to see how fast I improved my time, only for it to plateau for the next three years. I began to question how much I’d progressed, until I realized that my form and stability had improved despite my slower pace, which benefitted my overall performance.  

Similarly, it takes a while to achieve the results we want and in the way we want them, but that doesn’t take anything away from the strides we make to reach them. Everybody encounters setbacks, and frustrating as they may be, they can better us and our pursuits. It’s up to us, though, to let them do that. If we give in and permit them to embitter us, we likely won’t excel past our current predicament. But if we accept the obstacle and see how it can propel us to our destination, we’re sure to grow from it and might well appreciate it in the long run.

 Thus, be patient with 2021 and with yourself. You may not be able to attain your aspirations with the speed or efficiency you’d hoped to, but you’ll get there with persistence and ambition. Celebrate even the smallest measures of progress, with confidence that bigger ones will someday follow.  

Also See

Measuring Your Own Success

This is the Year…