Friday, November 30, 2012

Lovely Words

My nephew Charlie left us eleven years ago today.

He was a beautiful little kid. Sweet. Happy. Full of life and all boy. Then a disease sunk its claws into him, claiming him so quickly that we could hardly take it in.

One night in the hospital, while his mom (my sister) was off grabbing a quick bite to eat, Charlie decided that Christmas carols were in order.  It wasn't an issue to him that Christmas was still a month away.  What was the point of having an adoring aunt around if he couldn't command her to sing what he wanted to hear?

So sing she did.

I can't recall why—but for some reason, we sat on the floor. Yes, indeed, the cold, hard floor. I scooped him out of the bed—tubes and wires and all—carried him across the room, and slid down the wall until we were in a nice, cozy huddle in the corner. Charlie would call out a song title, and off I'd go. Santa Claus was definitely coming to our town. We were going to deck some halls.  And Jesus, our brother, was kind and good.

Then Charlie got down to business. His favorite.  Joy to the World.
I sang it, all four verses.
Again. Please.
I sang it again, three verses the second time around.
The last one.
Okay then. I sang the last verse.

He nodded and yawned. We grew silent.  Thinking that he had dozed off, I began to shift, preparing to stand.

You sure are pretty, Aunt Beth.


I settled back down.  He and I weren't going anywhere.  We were going to stay in our nice, cozy huddle until someone pried him from my arms.

They were the final words he ever said to me.

I learned two lessons that night from Charlie.  First, statements don't have to be complex to be profound.  Perhaps true eloquence can only be wrapped in simplicity.

The second lesson is harder to achieve, but I'll never stop trying.  Let people know how you feel about them.  Close every conversation with love-ly words. Please.

In memory of Charles Sebastian Barrett
11 July 1997 - 30 November 2001

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Place of Confidence

I've always loved eighteenth century history. When I was in elementary school, that time period seemed so romantic with its pioneering spirit, elegant balls, travel by carriage, and tea parties staged to quench the thirst for freedom.

Before I wrote Whisper Falls, I researched that period of history for six years, visiting historical sites and reading historical tomes.  Along the way, I discovered just how brutal, frightening, and uncivilized that Colonial and Post-Revolutionary America could be. Reality only intensified my curiosity. What mindset did it take for the upper classes to not see the human beings who served them? How must it feel to believe in an ideal so fiercely that the possibility of forfeiting life, family, or fortune was deemed worth the sacrifice?

By the time I began writing Whisper Falls, I had saturated myself with learning about the people of the 1790s. I'd collected reams of data on their clothing, daily life, food, religion, and jobs. The quest for information continued as I wrote. Susanna (the heroine) was an eighteenth-century indentured servant. Mark (the hero) was a modern-day mountain bike racer.  I am neither, so I had to research both. Two luxurious years elapsed between writing the first-word and making the first-sale.

For the sequel, I've had to compress the schedule dramatically.  A Whisper in Time1 must be written and researched in nine months.

In the historical part of the second book, even though a new century has dawned, I assumed that my previous research still held.  Wrong. America evolved a great deal during the ten-year span between 1795 and 1805.  Politics, fashion, architecture, attitudes—all were changing. 

In modern-day part of the sequel, I gave my protagonist an obstacle that involves Federal laws with little precedent, a government official of little imagination, and the thin line between truth and fact.  The protagonist's struggle to wade through the maze of regulations and governing bodies became my struggle.  The process of discovery nearly crippled me.

I hit the jackpot late last night. After weeks of battling websites and dense content, I finally connected the dots and figured out how the system works.  Not surprisingly, it is boring, time-consuming, and often stupid. But it is possible to navigate.

For an author, knowing the system allows me to alter it. Poetic license is possible now that I understand.

The book has resumed writing itself. Once I've done the research—once I have complete access to the facts—only then I am free to write from a place of confidence.
1 A Whisper In Time is the working title for book two of the Whisper Falls trilogy.

Monday, November 19, 2012

366 and counting . . .

November 19 is the big day—in 2013!

Yes, in precisely one year, Whisper Falls releases. It seems so far away. I want it to be here already.

Of course, it's not like I'm lying around waiting. I have more edits to make. Two more books to complete. Facts to research. Readers to meet. Swag to design. ARCs to sign.

And, naturally, there's my life outside of writing. I have two daughters to (s)mother. A house to ignore. A geeky job to perform. A spouse to adore.

Yeah, maybe that year will fly by...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Be Not Afraid

Sunday was a spectacular day in many ways.
  1. North Carolina had another gorgeous autumn day. (Have I ever mentioned how much I love my adopted state?)
  2. It was Veterans Day. People told me thank you for my service to the nation (and I, in turn, thanked those who gave the far-greater sacrifice of service during wartime.)
  3. I attended my first author's event.
I'm about to make a confession, and it's a statement that my introverted little soul never thought I would say: I loved my first author's event! Two hours flew past (at least for me.) After I gave a reading of the first chapter of Whisper Falls, the discussion started. And the questions flowed. We talked books, the craft of writing, historical research, the publishing business, social media...

I learned so much from this wonderful group of young women and their moms. (For the YA writers reading this post, get thee to a book club. You will get way more than you give.)  I asked the group if I could interview them, and they graciously consented. Read on and I promise that you too will benefit from their collective wisdom1.

Q: What do you like least about the current YA fiction market?
  • There is too much sameness. Bookstores have entire sections of Paranormal Romance.  We're seeing too many Twilight knock-offs.
  • The storylines just seem too young.  A lot of today's books are better suited to the middle grade age group than high school readers.

Q: What makes a YA book appealing to you? What would you wish to see more of?
  • When writing a character, allow him/her to be:
    • more real
    • both good and bad
    • multi-dimensional and flawed
  • We want stories with:
    • more complex plots
    • higher quality, especially in execution
    • better writing in general (style, voice, sentence structure, literary devices, vocabulary, etc)

Q: How much slang is okay? How much cursing?
  • Only use slang in dialog.  Leave it out when we're inside the character's head.
  • With cursing, it really doesn't matter.  It's fine either way.  But—if you do use curse words—don't let them be gratuitous. It has to flow naturally from the characters' personalities and the situations they find themselves in2.
  • FYI... we spell out everything in our texts now.  We might be a little easy on the capitalization, but everything else is usually correct.

Q: What topics can authors address in YA fiction?
  • Avoid anything too cliched. We've seen plenty of books on typical teen issues.
  • Give us more about relationships.  Romantic relationships are still fine, but there are other kinds too. We have relationships with our parents, friends, siblings, grandparents, and teachers.  Explore those.
  • It would be great to have more characters who struggle to find their purpose in life.  Why am I here? Where should I go next and how do I get there?  Write books about the process of self-discovery.

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring YA authors?
  • Don't try to follow a pattern too much. Don't copy what's already on the market.  If you do, you're missing the point. You have your own good qualities, your own voice, your own unique way of executing a story.  That's the book we want to read.
  • Don't cater to the least common denominator. Don't dumb down the book. We like well-written stories. We like good sentence structure and vocabulary. We want complexity.
  • Let the characters be real. Let them make mistakes and suffer the consequences.
  • Don't be predictable. We don't want to see the plot twists a mile away.  But don't just insert yourself into the story and make things happen either. Surprise us in the right way.

Q: What makes you want to pick up a book in a bookstore?
  • The Cover [the girls said in unison]
  • [laughter]
  • [silence]

Q: Anything else besides the cover?

A: Back blurbs, although not everyone reads them.  Some readers don't want to have too big of a hint in advance.

Q: Tell me more about what you like in cover art.
  • It has to be cool.
  • It needs a great font.
  • We like photographs better than artwork, but it has to be good quality photography.

Q: What types of social media do you use most?
  • Twitter, for conversations
  • Pinterest
  • Tumblr, a little
  • But Facebook? Not so much.  FB seems to be fading away.

Q: How do you find out about books?
  • Word of mouth is the best way.  We get recommendations from our friends and our moms.
  • booklists from teachers3
  • magazines
  • Once we like an author, we'll research more books by that author on or the author's website.

Wow. Are you not blown away by their wisdom? I'm so glad I asked them for this interview.  The girls4, like their answers, were smart, profound, fun, and inspiring.  I enjoyed this visit so much that I'll just have to beg, borrow, and steal my way into other such opportunities.

America, you have nothing to fear. The next generation is amazing!


1 The answers to interview questions include actual quotes from the book club members. The teens answered more than the mothers, but Moms are represented in there too.
2 The adults agreed with the teens on this issue, which is good since my characters (especially the hero) curse.  I think it is organic to his personality, though.
3 There was a Language Arts teacher at the book club meeting. She told me that her booklists tend to contain classics. She said that it's hard to find well-written books in the current market that she can recommend. That, YA authors, is a sobering statement. Just sayin...
4Thanks to Ellie, Claire, Laura, Melanie, and Michelle for inviting me!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Dog's Tale

My co-worker Ed is visually impaired. He has a seeing-eye dog who has his own blog.

Willie-the-seeing-eye-dog Blog has been in existence for about six months and has had two postings.  Willie and his ghost-writer Ed have been too busy to give it the attention it needs.

Ed has asked me to take over the responsibility of ghost-writing for Willie.  After all, I'm a writer. How hard could it be to switch from writing fictional characters to channeling a live dog?

I've said yes to writing the blog.  But the request reminded me of a simple truth about artists that might not be intuitive. Our abilities tend to be limited to specific genres and forms.  Consider dance. A dancer who has trained in hip-hop for years will not be able to pick up a role in classical ballet overnight.  While hip-hop and ballet are both forms of dance, the style, mood, and required skills can be very different. This holds true for writing. Just because I'm good at novel-length fiction, it isn't a certainty that I will be good at short stories, poetry, or ghost-writing for a non-verbal creature.

But I'm going to give it a shot.  If you check Willie's blog periodically, you may see the ghost of Elizabeth there.