More than a Dream

Today as we celebrate the MLK holiday, I find that many of the issues Martin Luther King Jr. espoused seem to resonate even more deeply than they have in the past. Maybe it’s because over the past year or so I have become more involved in state politics providing both volunteer and aide support to one of the few African American senators in Colorado. Maybe it’s because in trying (and often failing) to juggle these commitments and my writing I’ve had to reevaulate my writing ‘dreams’. Or maybe it’s because I celebrated a ‘big’ birthday last year which inevitably meant taking stock of what I’ve achieved so far…whatever the reason, I find myself feeling more philosophical than usual today.

On one hand, I feel I’ve contributed (albeit in a small way) to progressing society towards some of the goals MLK held dear. On the other hand, this work (and my struggle to balance it with my writing goals) helped reinforce the truth that for me, writing really is the dream I cherish. In some ways this was an important lesson to learn – one I could only really learn when my time to write became so compromised that I realized how much I missed it! Unfortunately, since the legislative session just started in Colorado I have been sucked back into a political vortex (the new aide to my senator just resigned…and I stepped back into the breach) – so I feel a little like I’m back where I started… and I need to recommit to my dream once more and find the right work-life/dream balance.

I was mulling over the concept of ‘dream’ when I caught an excerpt from an episode of “How I Built This” on NPR. Guy Raz was asking the founder of an active wear brand how she thought she managed to make her dream a reality. Her answer was one powerful word – ‘persistence’. When you think about all the dreams we have – from the lofty and powerful ones MLK articulated to the smaller, more individualized ones we hold dear – the only way those dreams can become reality is through persistence. So I’m taking this day to try and recalibrate my expectations and recommit to the concept of persistence.

So TKZ, on this MLK holiday, what dream are you committing to? Any guidance on how to  embrace persistence, despite the challenges?

 

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Happy New Year!!

Happy New Year from all of us at the Kill Zone and welcome to 2020! Here’s to a new year that is both productive and fulfilling for everyone’s writing career!

As usual I have many, many, resolutions – some writing, some fitness/life-balance related but one new resolution of mine – to be kinder on social media – came out of an experience with a wonderful online community that I joined late in 2019. This Facebook group is devoted entirely to collies – and, of course, as an avid collie owner I had to join – even though I had no real idea what to expect. As with everything online, my previous experience with Facebook and other social media groups had always come with some cautionary caveats. We’ve all experienced online ‘discussions’ which (inevitably) lead to arguments, bad behavior, and (more recently it seems) the hurling of insults. For a while there it seemed no topic or group was immune to this, until I discovered the joys of the American Collie Facebook group which exists for the sole purpose of celebrating and cherishing a beloved dog breed and (perhaps more importantly it seems to me) being kind to one another. No one says anything disparaging, no one sets up any discussion just to draw people into an argument – all you get a wonderful, upbeat posts about collies. No one makes snide comments or insults another owner and for every photograph or video posted you see tens (sometimes hundreds) of likes and loves. It’s the way social media should be…or could have been in an alternate universe…and I love it! For me, no matter how many Facebook posts I see where friends rip into each other for their beliefs or twitter rants I read, I know there’s this wonderful safe haven I can visit online. I view it almost like meditation – only with Lassie:)

So this year, no matter how crazy the world gets, or how horrible people can be online, I’m going to follow the example this group has shown me…I’m going to kind. I’m going to ignore the posts that infuriate me and focus on the likes and the loves rather than the hate.    I’m going to know that even in the worst of times, I’m able to belong to a group of people who have their priorities straight – where it’s all about life, love, and a good dog by your side:)

I’m going to be like my own collie, Hamish… (here he is in his holiday post for the Facebook group:))

So TKZers what are your hopes for the new year?

 

 

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Are You An Audiobook Fan?

This Thanksgiving week I’m already starting to worry about Christmas presents for my family – though I’m thankful that for both my sons, books are always an awesome idea – but what about someone who wants to read more but just can’t seem to find the time? (yes, hubby, I’m talking about you!)

After chatting with members of my book group, I discovered that many, if not all, prefer audiobooks these days, as it gives them much more flexibility and allows them to fit more reading time into their busy schedules. Now, apart from listening to many an audiobook in the car on long drives, I have to admit I’ve never really been a huge audiobook fan. Although I’ve enjoyed listening to them, my preferences has always been for paper or an ebook. Once I started mulling over the audiobook gift idea, however, I soon realized just how popular they are these days.

Consumer demand for audiobooks has been steadily rising over the last few years, with estimates indicating that over half of all Americans listen to audiobooks (see Publishers Weekly report here). Not surprisingly, mystery, thriller and suspense titles are the most popular genres.  Part of the appeal to listening rather than reading a book is that audiobooks apparently stimulate our “echoic memory” or the process by which sound information is stored while we wait for the next sounds to make sense of the whole (click here for the link to the article in The Guardian)… Who knew?!  Anyway, the upshot is that I’ve obviously been a luddite for too long and I need to open my mind to the benefits of audiobooks – especially as a gift that I can also enjoy:))

So TKZers, I’d love to get your input on the pros and cons of audiobook options. First of all, are you an audiobook fan? If so, do you use Audible or another service? What would you recommend? One thing I do know is that it’s all about the voice/narration – so if you love audiobooks for mysteries and thrillers, who provides the best narration? What audiobooks are on the top of your must read/listen list?

Thanking you all ahead of time for your guidance and recommendations…

Happy Thanksgiving week – and if you live anywhere like I do, travel safe in the snow!

 

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First Page Critique: The Master’s Inn

Today, I’m reviewing the first page of a woman’s fiction novel entitled The Master’s Inn. My comments follow – looking forward to getting input from this great TKZ community and bravo to our brave submitter!

The Master’s Inn

“Mom! Where’s my iPad?” Joanie bellowed.

Susan Brown, downstairs in her newly remodeled dining room in Sandpoint, Idaho, ignored the stomping noises overhead and her fourteen year old daughter’s frantic voice.

It sounds like a bull moose on the rampage up there.

Staccato stomping was followed by Joanie’s voice floating down the stairs as she talked to herself. She used every foul word in her teenage vocabulary—loud enough for Susan to hear. Something else to confront.

She shook her head in exasperation and reviewed the contents of her garment bag once again—no mistakes this time. Two other bags were packed and strapped by the front door. She wanted to surprise Bill by being ready to go on time tomorrow. He was a stickler for schedules and sometimes lashed out at any bump in his plan.

She hummed to herself as she scanned her list for the third time. As usual, she’d packed too much.  But she hadn’t been able to decide what to bring. She’d whittled it down to two evening and three day outfits she could mix and match.

She tucked everything neatly into the bag and made sure the clothing was tightly strapped. It wouldn’t do to have wrinkled blouses—although the venue hotel in Las Vegas offered full valet service. Nothing but the best for Bill.

She lined up the bags by the front door where he would see them when he came home, then returned to the dining room and grabbed a clean microfiber cloth she kept handy and wiped the table where she’d had her bag. Bill had a critical eye—he would notice a blemish on the expensive table.

She stretched and looked at her watch. He would be home from his meeting soon.

She looked forward to the long weekend—only her and Bill. The one thing she didn’t look forward to was watching him compare her to the glamorous women they’d see on the stages and in the restaurants. She’d never had any reason to question his loyalty, but she knew—after all these years—that she didn’t measure up. She’d lost her petite figure and the glow had faded from her complexion.

She walked back out to the entry hall and looked at herself in the elegant full-length mirror outside the dining room. Her face turned red at what she saw.

Pudgy. That’s the word.  

Overall Comments

I liked how, as I continued to read this first page, the tension over Bill slowly began to build until the reader realizes just how much Susan is in his thrall, and how terrified she is of disappointing and angering him. That being said, I think that the dramatic tension could have been ramped up even more, so as to place the reader right at the moment Bill comes home. In some ways we get too much of her anticipation of what might happen if she doesn’t have everything exactly right for him and not enough actual conflict. Even the tension with her daughter is remote (just hearing her upstairs, rather than being engaged in an argument with her). I also wanted to know where her daughter figured in the upcoming trip – is she going with them or going to a friend’s place? Is Bill her step-father or just her mother’s boyfriend (and how does her daughter view Bill’s controlling nature?). I wanted a little more of this backstory to become invested in the characters and a little less about the house or the contents of the bags.

One thing I did ponder was whether Susan was going to be an unreliable narrator or if Bill really was as controlling as she made him out to be. As a reader I was torn between empathizing with her and being frustrated that she was so worried about satisfying his need for order and control. Given that the novel is described as women’s fiction, I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a suspense or mystery aspect to the story – but I have to say I already hope Bill gets what’s coming to him:)

Specific Comments

  • There was some repetition of words like ‘stomping’ and ‘strapped’ which was distracting and, as I looked down the page, 7 paragraphs all began with the word ‘She’. Although this might seem pedantic, it’s important to vary sentences so as not to appear repetitious or sloppy.
  • I also noticed that, apart from Susan’s inner monologue and preoccupation with her appearance, we don’t actually get any description of her which made it hard for me to picture her in my mind.
  • Although the descriptions of the house suggest a measure of wealth – expensive table, elegant full-length mirror, and remodeled dining room for example – the reader doesn’t actually get any specific descriptions to help visualize the scene. I would have liked a more sensory exploration of the house so I could imagine Susan in it (the glint of polish, the smell of cleaning spray etc.) as well as specifics that could be telling (such as the brand of bags, clothing etc.)
  • Finally, the title of the book, The Master’s Inn, seemed a little incongruous as it evoked more of a historical fiction novel in my mind.

So TKZers what additional comments or feedback would you give our brave submitter?

 

 

 

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An Amazing Story of Luck and Persistence

For today’s post I have something a bit different to my usual musings – this post concerns a real life story that impacted my family last week. Even though it truly is a remarkable story in and of itself (one providing a perfect antidote to today’s winter-comes-way-too-early weather in Colorado!), it also offers a heartwarming affirmation that sometimes luck and persistence pays off (a belief all of us writers should embrace, especially in our darkest moments…)

Last Monday, my mother-in-law was out walking her beloved border collie,Tess, in the Australian bush outside the Victorian era mining town she lives in, when the dog literally disappeared. One minute Tess was scampering through the undergrowth, the next minute she was gone. My mother-in-law called for her frantically for nearly an hour, but there was no answer – and no sign of Tess. By the time we received the news in Colorado, Tess had been missing the whole day – and by then the anxious waiting was already taking its toll. Had Tess run off after kangaroo or been bitten by a snake? In an area known for abandoned mine shafts (during Victorian times, this was a huge gold mining area), had she fallen down one and been injured? Another day passed and hope was fading – it’s almost summer in Australia and there hadn’t been any rain for almost a month. How could she survive when there was no water to be found? Three more days passed and we all feared the worst…

Then at midnight we  received the most remarkable call – Tess had been found alive and well after having fallen some 5-10 meters down an abandoned mine shaft. It was a movie-like moment and (as you will see from the photos) a truly remarkable ending that has captured the local imagination (and news!) in Australia. Even now, after a weekend to digest the news, I don’t think any of us can truly believe what just happened. For my mother-in-law it was the kindness of a friend who went back to an area that had been searched 2-3 times and who just happened to be at the right place and the right time to her Tess whimpering from the depths of this mine shaft:


Then they waited for the specialist mine-shaft rescue team (yes, they have one!) to drive over from nearby Bendigo and watched as they winched down a man who grabbed Tess and held her as they winched them both back up:

And here is the lucky dog, herself, looking none the worse for her experience. As far as the vet can tell she suffered nothing more than a scratch on the nose (and some dehydration of course).

 

This is such a lovely story of how luck and persistence came together to save a dog’s life, that I simply had to share it.

I think we can all take heart, that sometimes, miracles do happen!

For those interested in seeing the news story on Tess’ rescue – I’ve posted the link below:

 

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The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

In this weekend’s NYT Book review’s ‘By the Book’ I saw two questions (this week for YA author John Green) that I don’t recall seeing before and which started me mulling about the impact of timing (and one’s age, specifically) when in comes to appreciating certain books. The two questions were:

  • What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
  • What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Great questions – right? Not because I believe that anyone should prescribe a particular book to a particular age group but because I’ve begun to realize just how much age has been a factor in terms of appreciating certain books in my life. This realization came as I was trying (unsuccessfully I might add!) to cull some overflowing book shelves, and I started leafing through books that I absolutely adored when I read them but now, as I began to flip through them, all I could think was ‘huh?’.

My book group a few years ago did an experiment where we chose a book that everyone had read years before and which we wanted to revisit only to have us all recoiling in horror, unable to believe that (a) We’d actually read the book before (so much had been lost to the mists of time…) and (b) That we’d actually loved it (the book BTW was The Magus by John Fowles). I remember our discussion circling round whether age was the main factor in our changing tastes in literature – and, although we all instinctively knew this to be true, it still surprised us just how much impact it had. Going through my shelves the other day, I was surprised how many books I’d loved in the 1980s and 1990s now seemed dated, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of themes and emotional resonance. If I were to read these same books today I have little doubt that my reaction to them would be completely different…Actually, it made me sad to think of the books I no longer loved:(

So the questions in the NYT book review got me thinking – both about books that I think everyone should have read before turning 21 as well as those I don’t think people should tackle until they’re at least 40…The first question seemed easier as I immediately thought of To Kill A Mockingbird (as well as a myriad of children’s books, like the Narnia series). The second question was harder…much harder…although I recently read Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and I’m pretty sure this would have made zero impact if I’d read this as a younger woman. Some books touch on themes that really only resonate at certain points in your life with both age and experience (and What Alice Forgot is definitely one of those books). Other than that though I was stumped… so I thought, why not turn to my TKZers for guidance and input…

So if you had to answer these two questions what would you say? What book do you think everybody should read before the age of 21? What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

 

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Toxic Romance?

My mother-in-law forwarded me an interesting article on the toxicity of many of the romances depicted in YA novels and it got me thinking about how writers tackle the whole romance thing, especially in an age where many protagonists (in mysteries, thrillers as well as YA) are often ‘bad boy’ (or ‘bad girl’)  heroes/anti-heroes.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age (link here), is an interview with Kasey Edwards, an Australian writer, about the often abusive, stalkerish, and horrible relationships depicted in some YA novels (most notably, the Twilight series) where girls fall for the ‘bad boy’ who thinks ‘no’ just means ‘try harder’ when it comes to winning their affection. And it’s not just YA – you have books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series which translate this behavior in a decidedly adult way where girls/women fall in love with someone who is more powerful, controlling and possibly abusive (I confess I haven’t read the Fifty Shades of Grey books so I can’t really comment!).

I do think there is a broader issue at play in terms of the way relationships and romances are depicted, irrespective of gender or genre. I know I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of creating emotionally distant male characters who don’t treat their female counterparts with the respect that I certainly would demand in real life. But then fiction isn’t real life and nice, kind, pleasant people don’t necessarily make the most compelling characters!

In YA I think the issue of depicting abusive, controlling relationships and toxic romance as ‘normal’ is a definite concern, because girls (and boys) reading them may start to believe that these are the sort of relationships they should seek in real life. In adult fiction the lines are more blurred and, though I wouldn’t want to write a book that would in any way condone or encourage abusive relationships, mysteries and thrillers by their very nature deal with the darker aspects of human nature as well as society. So how do we, as writers, reconcile the two? How do we create compelling relationships without falling into the trap of writing ‘toxic’ romance?

I don’t have any answers, except to say that I support a writer’s right to choose to depict whatever characters, relationships, or romances they want – even though somewhere along the line those choices must come with some level of responsibility (again, I think in YA, this is much greater). Beyond that, I’m not really sure – although I do think it’s a valuable topic to debate. After reading this article, I’ll certainly think a little more carefully about the type of romance and relationships I portray in my books.

So TKZers how do you approach the issue of potentially ‘toxic romance’ in your writing? Do you step back and consider the nature of the relationships and romance between your characters – especially if they might be seen as condoning abusive or dysfunctional behavior or perpetuating damaging stereotypes?

 

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What book made you a reader?

I’ve been reading some of the previews of the upcoming version of Little Women (though seriously, how many film versions do we need?…) and it got me nostalgic for the days when my sister and I would reenact scenes from the book (I was always Jo, she was always Amy). Looking back I realize just how definitive this book was in turning me into a lifelong reader – and when I see books like ‘How to Raise A Reader’, I wonder if some books really do turn out to be pivotal in inspiring someone to love reading. I know for my sister at least, there really wasn’t any one book (or books) that proved critical to turning her into a lifelong book lover. In fact, growing up she was indifferent to many of the books I adored and, though we played ‘Little Women’, she didn’t actually read that book until she was a young adult. I wonder if for her it was just a matter of timing – finding that one amazing book at the right time in childhood that would make all the difference – because, even though she is a great reader now, she was never as passionate (nor as voracious) a reader as I was as a child. This got me questioning whether many ‘non-readers’ simply never found that one pivotal book in childhood that inspired them to read…

For me, Little Women was one of many books that inspired my love of reading. I remember how much I wanted to be just like Jo, how I wished she’d married Laurie (I really hated Amy for a while!), and how much a wept over Beth’s death. Little Women wasn’t the only book I remember reading vividly – there was also C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Madeline L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School Series (which I read and re-read for many years). When I think back to my childhood reading experience, these are the books that really stand out for me – with the memories of the first time I read them indelibly imprinted on my brain. When I look at my own children, I feel grateful to have witnessed their own ‘book’ moments that turned them into lifelong readers – but then I wonder what happens to those kids that never find that special book, or who never have those moments which turn them into book lovers…?

So TKZers, what were your early reading experiences like? Was there a particular book (or books) that turned you into a reader? Do you think it’s getting harder for kids to experience this? (asked against a background of dread that ‘screen time’ has now replaced book time!)

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Labors of Love

Happy Labor Day weekend!

I hope you all are enjoying the quasi-official end of summer. For me, the approaching fall has got me thinking about how few of us have time for hobbies anymore. I think about this as my twins enter their freshmen year at high school and how crammed their schedules are with both school work as well as activities, most of which (given everyone’s focus on college and careers) cannot be mere hobbies anymore.

Sadly there doesn’t seem much time now for activities undertaken simply for pleasure. You don’t have to excel at a hobby – you don’t even have to be any good at it – you just have to enjoy It. But for my kids especially, there is a culture of excellence which means they should forgo what they’re not good at (even if they enjoy it) for sports or other activities they excel in. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all about getting into the competitive sports teams (recreational leagues being few and far between for my boys at least), or working towards varsity in your chosen activity such as marching band or debate. The focus is definitely on pursuing activities that will either look good on your college application or that might lead to scholarship or other opportunities. It’s really hard for them to find time just to enjoy something for fun!

Even for the adults around me, there’s very little time left in our busy schedules to undertake anything remotely resembling a hobby. Take gardening, for example…what was once an enjoyable hobby for my husband has now turned into a desperate scramble to keep things alive in the garden with the few minutes or hours that can be carved out over a weekend!

This fall, however, I’ve decided to buck the trend and indulge (that’s what it feels like sometimes – an indulgence) in not one but two hobbies…the first is my painting, which I love, and the second is knitting, which I’ve never succeeded at before. When it comes to my art, I’ve always felt guilty setting aside time to paint, especially as most of my life is taken up with writing (something, my husband considers a hobby anyway:)). There are always so many other chores or errands to run, that taking time to paint (especially when I’m clearly never going to make a career or money out of it) feels wantonly indulgent. Recently, however, I returned to art class and loved it so much I vowed that I had to allow myself time to  to paint. Painting unlocks a different creative process for me than writing – the only difficulty is, I still feel guilty doing it!

I decided to take up knitting for completely different reasons. When I was at school we had one compulsory craft unit in 7th grade, and I was so terrible (and I mean terrible…) at the knitting component, that the teacher had to get assurances from my parents that I would never do another craft lesson with her! As a result, I’ve been designated the ‘uncrafty’ one throughout my adult life – the one incapable of knitting or sewing, while my mother, mother-in-law, and sister proudly knit, sew clothes, embroider etc. A  few months ago I stumbled across a website ‘We are Knitters’ and decided I would finally throw off the yoke of ‘uncraftiness’ and try knitting. I’ll admit I had pretty unrealistic visions of sitting by the fire in the mountains knitting away…but I was determined to give it a try.  A month ago my mother-in-law was in town and she helped me get started – and, despite some fear-filled moments of dropped/wrong stitches, I’ve finally managed to get the hang of it. Now, I feel like knitting could actually be a real hobby of mine – if only I can find the time…I’m also totally fine with the fact that I might never be actually that good at it!

So, TKZers, what new hobbies have you tried this year? How do you find (and justify) the time? Do you find having a hobby helps or hinders your writing process?

 

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Independent Editors

Happy Monday!

A few weeks ago I reached out to my fellow bloggers about freelance editor recommendations and, although I got some great names and assistance (thanks!), it made me realize just how little I know about the process of hiring an independent editor to help with the development and revision of a novel. Up till now I have relied on my beta readers and my agent to get feedback during the drafting/revision process prior to submission, so I faced a bit of a dilemma when my agent and I realized that additional changes were still needed to one of my novels but that both of us were now too close to the material to know the best way to proceed. An independent editor seemed the obvious solution – but, after my agent lucked out with her contacts (all of which were over committed already), I said I’d try and identify additional options. It was at this point that I realized just how little I knew about the process…and how hard it was to identify the ‘right fit’ when it came to freelance editorial services. Not only did many seem super expensive, few I initially identified seemed to really align with what I needed. This was where I appreciated getting personal recommendations (again, thanks!) but hiring an editor still seems like a daunting task (especially given the potential fees involved!)…so I thought, why not open it to the TKZ community to see what their experiences have been…:)

So for all of you TKZers who have used independent editors, I’d appreciate honest answers and feedback to the following questions:

  • How did you identify your editor? What research did you undertake? Did you access any useful resources beyond getting other author recommendations?
  • What key questions did you ask to ascertain that this editor was the right fit for you?
  • What was your experience with using the editor you selected? Was their input as valuable as you were hoping? Did the relationship continue for further books?
  • How much did the editor charge – ball park figure – if you don’t mind me asking?!
  • What feedback or advice would you give to someone seeking an independent editor to help with their novel?

Thanks in anticipation for all your advice and shared experiences (and recommendations too if you have them!).

 

 

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