I Made a BookRiot List (!!!) and Other Fun Updates

So I made my first list today! Bookriot does all kinds of cool book lists, and this one, Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurum: Arthurian Legend in History And Literature, is even cooler because a) it’s about Arthurian Legend and b) I’m on it for Daughter of Destiny! It is so thrilling to be in the company of major award winners like Kazou Ishiguru, legends like Persia Woolley (to whom The Once and Future Queen is dedicated) and my real-life friends like Helen Hollick. Plus, I added Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell to my TBR list.

If that isn’t enough, I’ve got an article on author branding in the November issue of InD’tale Magazine (p.23-27). This article is also the basis of one of the online classes for authors that I’m developing with Teachable. Hoping to have those available to you by the end of the year.

And I have the next to final layout of The Once and Future Queen in my hands. I have two days to proof and index it. If you don’t hear from me for a while, that’s what I’m doing.

Plus, I am toying with the idea of exhibiting next year at Wizard World convention in St. Louis, where Sebastian Stan (the inspiration for Nick in Been Searching for You) is slated to appear. Yep, I’m going to go all fangirl on him. Actually, I’ll be more crazy author “OMG-you-are-my-character-come-to-life,” which I think is worse! We’ll see if it works out.

Oh and speaking of 2018, I found out that the Historical Writers of America conference will be in Rhode Island, which is the major place I need to go to research my biography of Marie Rose Ferron. So that book may be finished much sooner than I anticipated.

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Hedgebrook Master Class with Deborah Harkness

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Our Master Class group, including teacher Deb Harkness

How do you begin to describe the opportunity of a lifetime? Knowing me, it’s not with few words, but I’ll try to limit myself.

IMG_0500Many of you know that I just got back a week ago from attending a Master Class led by #1 NYT Bestselling author Deborah Harkness. It was held at Hedgebrook, a magical area of land on Whidbey Island, about two hours outside of Seattle that is dedicated to advancing female writers.

I found out in mid-January that Deb would be teaching a class on using history in fiction when she tweeted about it. At first, I didn’t think I could afford it, but then a wise soul (my mom) pointed out that it would not only be a great opportunity to learn about writing, but also allow me to cross off several items from my bucket list (meet Deb Harkness, take a class from her, go on a real writing retreat, see the Pacific Northwest). So I applied and was one of six writers chosen. Deb later told us that she hand-picked us because she saw potential in us and our writing, plus we were creating stories about strong women that she wanted to read.

Fir Cottage

Fir Cottage

Hedgebrook is a unique place. Each writer has her own cottage, named after the type of wood from which they are made. Mine was Fir Cottage. They are very simple, hand-crafted in an Amish style and heated by wood burning stoves. Each one has a small kitchenette with a toaster oven, single burner and just enough cookery and plates for single use. There’s a desk to work at, a comfy window seat and the world’s most relaxing recliner. There’s also a half bath and a loft with a bed and chest of drawers. That’s it. No wifi or anything fancy. As it turns out, this simplicity taught me that I don’t need so much stuff in my life and I’m beginning the process of purging, but that’s another story.

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My writing space inside the cottage

Every day (except for Saturday, which was a writing day), we had two hours of class with Deb. We were her first ever creative writing class, but if she hadn’t told us that, I wouldn’t have known. She’s such a great teacher! Every lesson had a different theme: character, plot, setting, world view, point of view, research, etc. I’m hoping to share with you a little of what she taught us in each lesson, but I’m waiting on final permission from Hedgebrook to do so. The really cool thing about this class is that it wasn’t taught from some rule book; Deb used her own experiences and encouraged us to share our own in order to make learning a group process. She even shared drafts of her own writing with us so that we could see how her writing evolved from one draft to another and told us personal stories of frustration and triumph with the writing process that made us all feel so much better, since it meant we weren’t alone.

The view from one of my windows.

The view from one of my windows.

One interesting thing that I will share is that Deb took great pains to convince us that we, as non-historians, are actually in a better place to write historical fiction than historians, like herself are. She made the point that historical fiction, at its core, is about telling a great story; the history is window dressing. As we haven’t been through the training emphasizing facts only that historians have, we’re more in touch with the imaginative side of our brains that wants to fill in the gaps, which is where the storytelling takes place. This doesn’t mean that we can just make up whatever we want or be sloppy about research, but it does mean we have greater freedom. That being said, she also explained how closely the job of a historian and historical fiction writer resemble one another, as even historians can never know the truth for certain; they have theory, use facts to back it up, and do their best to convince others that they are the most right. Not all that different from the stories we tell, albeit we go into our stories knowing they are fiction. This made me feel a lot better, as I’ve always questioned if I was qualified to write historical fiction.

IMG_1276After class, we’d go to the Farmhouse together for dinner. This building is where the kitchen and dining areas are, plus a cozy library/living room. Oh the food! I can’t rave enough! From salmon patties and curry to fresh mussels and clams and chicken Mirabella and the best vegetarian enchalladas – it was all so fresh, all organic, so good, made all the better because it was made with love. As we ate, the wine and conversation flowed. Boy did we tell some funny stories!

Hanging out after dinner.

Hanging out after dinner.

Deb fit right in. She is so open, so warm and so human. Each night after desert, we’d adjourn to the library/living room for conversation. She intended to do a little work, but always ended up joining us and answering questions about her stories. I learned more about movie deals, book tours, audio books and the behind the scenes of publishing from her than I could have in any class.

Once we were done, we all grabbed our groceries for the next day and walked back by flashlight (there are no lights and it was cloudy for all but one night so we didn’t have moonlight) to our cabins to shower, read, write or do whatever before we went to sleep.

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

Look! I learned how to build a fire all by myself!

We also each got at least an hour of one-on-one time with Deb. Some people gave her writing samples to critique. I wish I had part of book 3 that was ready for that, but since I didn’t, I spent my time talking with her about what it’s like to be a historian (and realized that a PhD is probably not right for me) and also about the publishing process and life as an author. I can’t tell you enough just how wonderful and wise she is. I am so blessed to have had this chance to spend time with her and get to know her.

Now, a week later, the whole thing feels like a dream. It really did go by fast. But as I reflect on my journal entries, hang new photos on my wall and keep in touch with my fellow writers on Facebook, I realize just what a special opportunity this was. I’m so glad that Hedgebrook provided it and that I went for it. I’m already planning on applying for a residency at Hedgebrook at some point in the future and I will be supporting them in every way I can. There’s a running joke among Hedgebrook alumni in the journals kept by residents of each cabin about the goddess of Hedgebrook, the spirit of the place. Call it what you will, but there really is something healing and inspiring about it. It is a place that women can come and feel creative, safe and nurtured, things sometimes very lacking in the outside world.

IMG_1223Thank you to everyone who made this opportunity possible – at Hedgebrook and in my personal and work lives. You don’t know what a gift you’ve given to me. To everyone reading this, if you get the chance to visit Hedgebrook, or do anything similar in your own life, go for it! You only get one shot at this life and it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. As a Hedgebrook alumna, I know I am several steps closer to mine now.

What questions do you  have about my writing retreat? Please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Four Things Keeping Me Sane

Okay fine, my sanity is a bit questionable, but you know what I mean. A blogger/author friend of mine frequently posts lists of things she loves, so I thought I’d share four things that are helping transform my inner world:

  1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – My best friend has been raving about this book ever since I met her and although I’m only two chapters in, I can see why. It’s a must read for all writers. It has reminded me of the real reasons why I’m doing this whole novel writing thing: I love to write and I love to read and I want to write something others will love to read. Getting published will just be icing on the cake. (For those curious about the title, her dad once told her brother that he’d get through a school report on birds “bird by bird,” the same way we get through novels, paragraph by paragraph.)
  2. Dream Angels – This is an online community founded by musician Lee Safar for people who are focused on making their dreams come true. Dream Angels is all about choosing the path you want to live, working through the fear that stops you, and making it happen.  A new site will launch this weekend on  www.leesafar.com, but in the meantime, check out the Dream Angel Youtube channel where Miss Lee (as she likes to be called) posts video blogs about the Dream Angel process. 
  3. Tazo Chai Tea Latte Mix – This is the best stuff I’ve ever tasted. The smell and taste are inspirational and comforting at the same time. It’s like the woman from Mistress of Spices (if you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, it’s a good one) came into my life and gave me exactly the right blend I need for where I am right now. And best of all, it comes in decaf, so we don’t have to worry about me having a stroke or heart attack.
  4. All of you – Thank you to everyone who has volunteered to be a beta reader,  listened to me talk about my book (especially those of you lucky enough to hear every single idea that springs to mind – good, bad and ugly), or  supported me in any way. Writing can be lonely if you don’t have a strong support group – and I have one of the best.

So that is where I’m finding my strength and Zen right now. What about you? What works in your life? Please, share your tips and experiences in the comments. We can all use a few extra sources of positive energy in our lives.

Three Things I’ve Learned from Writing

I’m going to get all Zen philosophical on you for a moment. Feel free to assume lotus pose (if you can I’ll be really jealous) and curl up with a warm cup of Chai. Maybe put on some soothing music. Here are three insights about life and writing I’ve gained in the process of writing my first book:

  1. Every tiny step forward counts. The blank screen and blinking cursor are the bane of every writer’s existence, whether you’re writing a novel or a note inside a greeting card (okay, that involves a pen, but you get the point). It can be overwhelming to think about the sheer volume of what you’re trying to accomplish. That is, until you take a step back and realize every novel is written one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one scene, one chapter at a time. (I tell myself that all the time.) Similarly, any goal you’re trying to achieve is really measured in tiny steps so any and every little bit of progress should be celebrated.
  2. It’s the journey that really matters. Sometimes I get so caught up in finishing my current book (or even the whole series) by whatever artificial deadline is my head that I forget to enjoy myself along the way. I have remind myself that this writing time is something I will never get back so I should savor it, rather than try to rush through it. You can’t ever write a book (or even a single scene) for the first time more than once. Life is the same way. We rush through so many seemingly little things (sunsets, time with loved ones, a really good meal) trying to get to the next milestone that we risk not realizing what we had until we’ve missed it. I, for one, don’t want to look back on my life with regret because I was too busy to take the time to appreciate all the highs and lows that got me to the end of it.
  3. Be yourself, not anyone else.  A writer friend of mine was worrying the other day that her writing style is too plain to be interesting to people, especially in comparison to other authors. I told her this: Your voice is what makes you, you. There is an audience out there for the whole spectrum of writing. I’m no Cassandra Clare, but I enjoy her descriptive style. People will enjoy hers too. I think simplicity fits certain genres and time periods better than others [she’s writing about the Midwest during the Depression.] Now, if she was writing about Victorian England, maybe not so much. The same can be said about life. No matter how much we may admire others for their personality, talents, looks, etc., we can’t be them. If we try to imitate them, all we do is shortchange ourselves. We are who we are for a reason, so we should find our true selves and let them shine, warts, misplaced modifiers and all.

Hmmm…I’m starting to wonder if I should have written self-help books instead of historical fiction. Nah, a knight and an Avalonian priestess would look very weird giving advice to people in the Information Age.

Reaching for the Stars, Stats be Damned

So I read last night that 70% of fiction never turns a profit and the average advance (especially for a first-time author) is between $10,000 – $20,000, rather than the larger, less common six figure numbers the media likes to quote. My response: so what?

I know it’s likely I’ll have to keep my day job for a while, but I’m okay with that. The reason I am doing this is because there is a series of stories in my head that have to be told, otherwise my characters won’t shut up and I won’t be happy. Don’t get me wrong, meteoric success is my plan, but there is no rule saying it will come with the first published book. Plenty of authors had several books published before a later one put them on the best seller list (Dan Brown, Alyson Noel, Suzanne Collins, just to name a few). But then again, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer prove that once in a while, someone hits it right the first time. (And how many musicians and actors are on the same path? It only takes one golden opportunity to make it big.)

No matter which path my career takes, I’m dreaming big. To me, there is no point in doing anything else. So what if a six or seven-figure advance is unlikely and the NYT best seller list is very difficult to attain? My theory is if you start out expecting to be mediocre, that’s all you’ll ever be. Delusional or not, I’m planning on hitting it big with my first series, best sellers, foreign rights, movie deals and all. For me, there is no other way. It’s kind of like winning the lottery; it’s not statistically likely, but as long as you buy a ticket, you have a chance. If I don’t dream big, I may as well give up. And that’s something I won’t ever do.

If you have something to say, please leave a comment using the “comment” link below. It’s after the categories and tags. I know it’s hard to find, but I can’t customize that. Sorry.

A Dream Come True: Meeting Alyson Noel

Alyson noel book signing

Those who know me won’t be the least bit surprised to learn that three hours before the book signing, I was already nervous and shaking. This was my first time to meet an author so I had no idea what to expect. I respect Alyson so much, for me it was like meeting a Hollywood celebrity. And we all know how well I handle that…I tend to forget how to speak or what my name is, but more on that later.

Tulips we gave Alyson Noel

Alyson started with a reading from the first chapter of Everlasting and then took questions from the audience of about 20 people. She talked about everything from her writing process and characters to a movie deal with Summit. As I mentioned in my last post, some of the things she said hit so close to home for me I almost burst into tears. I’m just glad I didn’t; that would have cemented my weirdo status.

alyson and niki

My reason in blogging about this, besides it being one of the coolest experiences of my life, is to say this is how you should treat your fans/readers. Alyson is incredibly friendly to her readers and genuinely wants to get to know them. Months before our meeting, we started corresponding on Twitter. I never thought that a NYT bestselling author would bother to reply to little ol’ me, but she did, again and again. She is an example of how I hope to behave when I have fans of my own someday.

It still kind of amazes me how much social media has opened up the world for authors. I remember being a pre-teen (we didn’t use the word ‘tween then, and I still don’t) and reading Sweet Valley Twins books wondering who the creator of this world was. At the time, there was no Internet, so the best you could do was maybe a photo and a mention of what city they lived in on the back of the book. That made authors this untouchable enigma, certainly not people you could relate to or aspire to be.

Now, I realize there are some writers out there today who have little or no online presence whatsoever and who don’t like to interact with fans. That’s their choice. But I don’t think it’s a good one. Your fans are your bread and butter, the ones who keep you relevant and marketable, so if you know what is good for you, you’ll be good to them. How much is up to you. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, email, meet-and-greets, all of these things forge very valuable connections between author and reader that keep both coming back for more. (Can you see my PR background shining through?)

As an as-of-yet unpublished writer, these connections and support are all the more important to me. I’ve gotten advice from published authors online and in person that I think of every single time I write. As I told Alyson, just knowing I have her support means the world to me. It’s what helps get me through the rough times in my day job,  writers block and the daunting task of querying agents. Just knowing they went through all the same things, were succesful and are rooting for me (even if in only the smallest way) can mean the difference between persevering in making a dream come true and giving up.

So, thank you, Alyson (and all the others who have encouraged me along the way). I only hope I can return the favor someday.

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