Work In Progress Wednesday

I’ve decided that once every month or so I’ll post about my work(s) in progress. Don’t ask me which Wednesday it will be, or even if it will be every month. I can’t commit to being that organized or consistent with this blog (or much else in my life, it seems), but I am trying!

And I am very excited about all of the great romances I’ve got in progress right now. These past two years have been the most fun I’ve ever had, in terms of really enjoying the writing and editing process. It is great to be at a point where some of those stories I’ve been working on are starting to be published. It is wonderful to hear from readers and know others are enjoying them too.

To those of you who have taken the time to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads, and/or who have posted a review of Saving Grace on your blogs or websites–a heartfelt thank you! Aside from the additional readers that reviews generate, it is the most gratifying reward for an author to learn that someone loved her story. It’s the motivation to keep plugging away, when a current work-in-progress has one pulling out her hair or otherwise feeling frustrated.

Next up for publication is a novella ( a longish one–very rarely do I write anything short) titled Loving Helen. It’s a companion to Saving Grace, and is the story of Grace’s younger sister Helen.

Helen’s story has been particularly enjoyable to work on because it takes place during the same time as Grace’s and includes some of the same scenes from Saving Grace, from a different (before unseen) point of view. The novella continues to the end of Grace’s story–and beyond. Already knowing the characters and bringing back favorites for their happy endings has been such a fun process, much like revisiting old friends and discovering new secrets about them.

I can’t wait for readers to enjoy it as well. To that end, here is the gorgeous cover and a few paragraphs from the very beginning of the story. Hope you enjoy.                 Publication date: February 9, 2015.

Chapter One                                                                                                               Yorkshire England, October 1827

Helen Thatcher gathered the voluminous skirts of her satin gown and tiptoed across the small foyer. Stopping outside the double doors that led to the sitting room of Mr. Preston’s guesthouse, she peered through the crack between the doors and spied her lady’s maid, Miranda, busily folding linens at the table. Like this room that filled so many purposes—they visited, dined, read, and sewed here—her maid had taken to doing many tasks outside her usual duties as well. Helen wished it might be otherwise, though it did seem that both her servants, Miranda and Harrison, were happier here than they had been since her grandfather, the late Duke of Salisbury, had died and the new duke summarily dismissed them from his residence.

We might all have stayed and continued on in comfort. The guilty thought plagued Helen, as it had every day the past several months. Had she only accepted the new duke’s proposal, she and her siblings, Grace and Christopher, along with Miranda and Harrison would still be at the grand estate, with everything they needed, even everything they desired, at their disposal.

Yet because I did not desire it, we’ve become little more than penniless outcasts.

Because of her cowardice and refusal to marry her distant cousin, Grandfather’s heir, her sister had been forced to meet with suitors of their father’s choosing, each of whom proved to be wretched, lecherous men. Until the last, Mr. Samuel Preston, had surprised Grace with genuine friendship and a concern that extended beyond her welfare to that of her siblings and servants. But by then Grace had taken drastic action, and her reputation had been ruined, by a most unfortunate middle-of-the-night mix up in the bedroom of Lord Nicholas Sutherland, Mr. Preston’s closest neighbor and former brother-in-law.

Even then, amidst the worst of circumstances, Grace had been concerned for her siblings. And so Mr. Preston had arranged for the four of them—Christopher and Helen, and their servants Miranda and Harrison—to reside at his guest house, until the matter of their inheritance was favorably settled.

Would that I had a shred of Grace’s courage or selflessness, Helen thought, frustrated with herself yet again. She smoothed the front of her gown, knowing that what she was about to undertake, while a small step, was going to require at least one of those valiant qualities. She desperately hoped she possessed courage somewhere.

On Having It All

The past few years have been tough for me in terms of anything to do with writing—time to pursue it, books published, finding an agent, blogging . . . The fledgling career I began in 2007 when Counting Stars was published seemed extinguished before it was even fully lit. I was sad about this, but life became so demanding there was little I could do.

In 2009 we were finally blessed with our fifth child—nine long years after his closest sibling. He was a hard-earned gift, and I intended to cherish every minute with him. For the most part, I feel confident I’ve done that. I’m known for telling everyone I can that they should have a baby at forty. What joy, what fun, what a miracle he is. How awesome it has been to have another round of toddler time at the library, more trips to the zoo and children’s museums, more Disney movies and music playing, more Legos strewn everywhere in our house, more tucking in at night and snuggling, more magic.

Along with all of that—how exhausting, how crazy, how nuts is it to be raising children whose ages span eighteen years and who seem to be at just about every stage in life. Young married? Got one of those. College students. Five, if you count my daughter’s husband and my son’s fiancée. High schooler. We’ve had that one covered for the past several years. I’m still patiently waiting to graduate myself—from algebra and term papers, especially. And finally, this year, we’ve got a kindergartener. Our miracle baby is no longer a baby, but an exuberant little boy, so excited his turn to go to school has finally arrived.

Along with the busyness of starting parenthood over, while in the midst of surviving the teen years with our older children, Dixon and I became grandparents a couple of years ago, a scant eight months after our daughter’s wedding. Her miracle was that her firstborn survived—after arriving three months early. His sudden appearance caused a ripple effect of financial and other stresses on our still newlywed daughter and her husband, and as a result our basement is used for a lot more than ping pong tournaments these days.

Along with living with us, our grandson spends mornings with me, driving children to school and then driving me a bit crazy as he gets into everything he can in our very unchildproof house. It’s impossible to be upset with him—the memories of his fragile two pound self are still too fresh, and I can only feel grateful that he is both curious and fast, with both a mind and legs that work quite well. So easily it could have been otherwise. We are truly blessed to have this little boy tearing around our house.

Still, writing time continues to be at a premium and a minimum. I haven’t had time to mourn my youngest going off to school, because I don’t come home to an empty house. There are eight of us currently living here, five of those students, which makes for a lot of insanity. And a lot of good times too. I worried that Andrew would grow up alone, since his siblings are so much older. Instead, it feels like he’s got a little brother to pal around with, and he knows not only his oldest sister, but her husband as well. They all share a bathroom, and it doesn’t get much closer than that!

So while I may not be able to devote much time to that fledgling career just yet, I still do feel like I have it all. Or the all that I’ve chosen, at least.

I don’t have to look any farther than my critique group to see others enjoying/enduring a similar phenomenon. Our group meets regularly these days—maybe ten times a year if the fates align! Somewhere along the way our lives all became too complicated, our houses too far apart, our schedules too different, for the consistent weekly meetings we used to have. Some have to travel a lot, some are dealing with serious health crises, some support their families financially, and all of us have families. And those families have always come first. It’s a universal rule that we all understand and respect. And at the end of the day, or the year, and eventually our lives, I don’t think any of us will feel too much regret that we never had enough time to write.

Fellow critique group member and dear friend, Lu Ann Staheli gets this perhaps more than any of us. Lu Ann married later in life and then opened her heart and her home to foster children, five of whom she adopted. It hasn’t been smooth sailing with her five boys—far from it—but she has been and is the mother they needed, all during years when she might have been having great successes with her writing—because she is an amazingly talented author. Over these years Lu Ann has also been a teacher, nurturing talent in others and watching as many of those students went on to their own successes, sometimes achieving the dreams she’d set for herself and not yet had time to reach for. But her generosity has continued. I am just one of many benefactors.

Last summer Lu Ann learned she has stage IV cancer and has since entered into a determined fight for her life. During her treatment she continues to write—letters to her missionary son and then her novellas and novels and non fiction as she has time and feels well enough. She is upbeat and positive, and has exhibited quite an amazing peace about her situation and a readiness to do what must be done to beat the cancer. In this too she is a wonderful example, as she has been an example of having it all, or the all that matters.

So if you happen to be at a point in your life (middle age, anyone?) where you feel your goals are lagging, and you just haven’t accomplished all you hoped you would, I hope you’ll think of Lu Ann and others like her. I do believe that we can have it all, in terms of families and careers. The caveat is that we cannot have it all at once. Our challenge is to choose wisely that which comes first. For me that will always be my family. Any hero I may write will never be as great as the guy in the other room folding a mountain of laundry right now. A paycheck in my purse will never mean more than sticky hands and slobbery kisses on my cheeks. How blessed I am to have to have those, even if it means my writing career remains fledgling a little longer.

In the Name of Love—or research—or why My Family Rocks

Upcoming Booksignings for Captive Heart

Saturday April 9th, 9-10:30 Spanish Fork Seagull

Saturday April 23rd, 11-12:30 Springville Seagull

Saturday April 30th, 11-12:30 Orem State Street Seagull

Tuesday May 3rd, 7:00 pm, Provo City Library (with authors Sarah Eden and Jennifer Clark)

Saturday May 14th, 11-12:30 American Fork Seagull

It’s after midnight, and I’m just getting started on this post (long night helping youngest daughter make Tangled birthday invitations, rocking/comforting two-year-old who still has a difficult time sleeping, and listening to oldest daughter who is nursing a broken heart).

I was sorely tempted to leave blogging until tomorrow evening (after young women and a camp planning/presidency meeting . . . hmmm maybe not), but your comments about why you need escapist fiction have inspired me to stay up a little later.

I really ought to give away books more often, as it seems everyone out there has good reason to read something fun and lighthearted. All I can say to each of you who have commented here and on Facebook is WOW. I am appreciating my life right now! The good news is that your chance of winning a book is excellent. If you have no clue what I’m talking about and haven’t entered the drawing yet—more good news. There is still time. I’ll announce winners next week.

Now, about these pictures.

One of the standing jokes between our children is that the majority of our family vacations over the years have been to visit rocks. We’ve been to Yosemite (Half Dome, anyone?), Yellowstone, and Grand Teton (isn’t that whole mountain range one gigantic rock?) national parks. We’ve visited the Grand Canyon (looking over lots of cliffs at—a lot of rock), Arches (standing beneath rock), and Zion national parks as well. We’ve played hide-and-seek at Goblin Valley, climbed Independence Rock at Sunrise, and gazed in wonder at Devil’s tower in north eastern Wyoming. And the same year we all gawked at the real Close Encounters of the Third Kind set, we continued east, dragging our children even farther to . . . you guessed it, look at a few more rocks.

The idea to visit Mount Rushmore had been blossoming for quite some time when I began doing research for a historical romance set in the Black Hills. The more I read, then more I longed to go there, and finally, my husband agreed. Our children were not quite so enthusiastic.

“We have to go see more rocks, and they’re HOW many miles away?”

Good times. Really. They were, or at least that’s how we all remember that trip five years later. Ah, memories. Gotta love how they become sweeter with time. Which is why I hold out a lot of hope that our children will someday refer to their childhood as charmed (as opposed to some of the ways they consider it right now).

Our first stop in South Dakota was the ranger station, where we picked up an old national forest map. Little pick axe symbols dotted the map, indicating the presence of old mines. Towns I’d researched were listed too, though many I knew to have been abandoned for years. Clearly, it was time to put the suburban in four wheel drive.

Several hours and miles, four cranky kids, and a few no-trespassing signs later, we struck gold—from a writer’s perspective, anyway—when we located an abandoned community. The chalkboard still hung on the wall in the old schoolhouse. A partially-covered well sat in front of a tumbled-down house. An old mill jutted out from the side of a mountain. We even discovered an old root cellar, something that later became key in my story.

As we explored the old buildings, inhaled the fresh forest air, and really lived the beauty of the Black Hills, the wheels of my imagination were churning faster than our camera was snapping pictures. I was in heaven, and the story I’d been drafting—about a school teacher taken against her will to the Black Hills—came completely to life. Truly, there is nothing quite so wonderful as being able to visit the location you are writing about. On that trip I fell in love with both the Black Hills and my story.

For both my husband (who enjoys exploring) and me it was a vacation that rocked. Of course there were also those moments (possibly more than moments, but my memory fails) when things were rocky with our kids. It was an exceptionally long drive, and a trailer full of popsicles and ice cream bars notwithstanding, it wasn’t always fun. They—my wonderful husband and children—went on that trip because I wanted to. Because they loved me enough to cross two states so I could look at rocks.

So to each of them I say thank you. I held Emma’s book in my hands for the first time last week, and that wouldn’t have been possible without you. I continue to be grateful for the things we all do for each other in this family, all in the name of love.

Oh, and just so you know, Dad and I decided we’re going to visit Four Corners for our family vacation this year. We hear they have some pretty sweet ruins—built in a giant wall of rock.

Captive Heart

Emmalyne Madsen sends a desperate plea heavenward as a band of lawless men makes their way up the aisle of the railcar. When one hauls her roughly from the seat, threatening and cursing, Emmalyne fears her adventure out West has just turned into a nightmare.

Thayne Kendrich has an urgent need for a school teacher, and he’s not above doing whatever it takes to get one — including forcing her at gunpoint across the scorching prairie. But the teacher he chooses turns out to be a little tougher — and softer — than he anticipated, and before long he finds himself battling emotions he vowed to never feel again.

Emma, too, struggles with feelings she knows she ought not be having toward Thayne. He’s an outlaw, after all — or is he? As the days pass and their destination — the Black Hills — draws nearer, Emma realizes that out West, the line between right and wrong is sometimes blurred. Might the man she believed to be on the wrong side of the law have acted with the purest intentions? If so, her greatest danger may be in her own heart, as he holds her captive in more ways than one.

Captive Heart hits store shelves in April, and it is available for preorder on both the Deseret Book and the Barnes and Noble websites. But before you rush off to order one (you were going to, right?), here is your chance to win a copy. And all (well, almost all) you have to do to win one, is agree to share!

As this is my first historical romance release, I’m both excited and nervous about getting it in readers’ hands. I really want to know what readers think about this genre, and particularly this story, so I’ve set aside ten books to play the “Books Go Round” game with again. I did this when Counting Stars was released, and it was so hugely successful, that I’m hoping someone out there wants to play again. Here’s how it works.

First, post a comment on either my blog or my Facebook page, telling me why you need some good, romantic, escapist fiction right now. Be sure to include where you are from. Two weeks from now I’ll draw names and announce the winners on this blog. At that point you can contact me with your address. In an effort to get Captive Heart all over the place, the drawings will be held geographically.

Two books will go to readers living East of the rockies.
Two will go to readers from the western states including, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Arizona.
Two books will go to readers from Utah.
Two will go to readers from the west coast states California, Oregon, and Washington. Any readers from Hawaii or Alaska will also be included in this pool.
Two books will also go to readers from out of the country.

This is obviously seriously skewed in favor of those living in or around the Jello Belt (send me an email if you have no clue what this is), so I do reserve the right to change the categories a little, depending upon the numbers and locations of the entrants. In other words, I’ll do my best to be fair.

Once you’ve won, received, and read your copy (and are hopefully sighing with satisfaction at Thayne and Emma’s happily-ever-after ending), there is one more little thing you must agree to do—give the book away. You can give it to a relative, a friend, the mailman—it really doesn’t matter who, but if you’ve enjoyed the story, try to think of someone else who might also enjoy it, and share the fun with them.

In each of these Book Go Round copies, there will be a place to put your name and location. It is my hope that the person you give the book to will also put her name on the list and pass the book along to someone else. Of course it would be great for me to know where these books end up, but I’m not going to make posting about it here or emailing me a requirement. We’re all so crazy busy these days, I realize we don’t need one more thing. So keeping things simple, it’s—

Read, sign, pass it on to someone else.

And hopefully the cycle continues and continues and continues.

I’ll also be giving away copies at signings and other events I have coming up. More on that and Captive Heart later. But for now . . .

Remember all that sickness I spoke of in my post last week? It’s still lingering longer, and tonight—in an effort to get rid of a sinus headache and get a good-night’s sleep—I took an Advil PM. Probably not such a good idea to do when blogging. Along with the right to change the drawing pools as needed, I’m adding a disclaimer to this entire post:

Errors due to writing under the influence of general malise, extreme fatigue, and a pill I probably shouldn’t have taken a half hour ago.

Happy writing, and reading.
And sleeping (if you are me, tonight!).

Gratitude in the Off season

It’s nearly the end of March, and I should be blogging about my next book that will hit store shelves in a couple of weeks. I am quite excited about it, however, I have other things on my mind tonight. But to answer Jennie’s question—and thank you for your kind comments—my next book, Captive Heart, will be released in April. Go here, and you can read all about it. Come back next week, and I’ll tell you more—including how to win a free copy. I’ll be giving away about a dozen.

So next week fun; tonight, a little serious.

Last November, in the typical season of Thanksgiving, I worked hard all month to help our family think about and express gratitude. My daughter and I die cut what seemed like about a thousand paper leaves, and every day of the month each member of our family wrote one thing he/she was grateful for on a leaf and put it on our patio doors (note: double sided sticky tape on glass doors is a bad idea). Some of those expressions of gratitude had me rolling my eyes (Facebook, seriously?), but others I could tell had actually taken thought and reflection. For me, at least, it really was a month of Thanksgiving.

And then the year rolled on.

And then the new year came.

And then March was upon us, before I’d even managed to get all the Christmas decorations collected and put away. My own March Madness ended up being a little more intense than I had planned. In addition to finishing up/turning in a manuscript (enough by itself on top of my usual, overbooked schedule to make me sufficiently stressed), our family has been slammed with varied and yucky illnesses all month.

Our two-year-old hasn’t been to church the past three weeks, while he’s been battling a runny nose, chest cold, fever, cough, croup, can’t-sleep-all-night thing. It’s been a pitiful sight each Sunday to see him pull his dress shirt and tie from the closet and croak in his raspy voice, “church,” when he notices the family members who are healthy (a whole two of us, on average) preparing to leave.

My husband, who is never sick actually took time off work, went to a doctor, and ended up with two prescriptions. My oldest daughter, currently in a beat-the-clock race to finish courses in time for graduation, has been wiped out too. Last week I became the final one to fall and succumbed as well. For the past five or so days, I’ve been sorely missing my ability to breathe normally. Just when I thought that surely, we were all on the way to being healthy again, today—in a fitting end to our sickly month—the family computer contracted a virus and crashed. Now, not only can I not breathe without sounding worse than Darth Vader, I cannot pay my bills online. Hardships indeed.

And yet . . . I’ve had much opportunity this month to think about how very blessed we are. Yes, money always seems to be tight, and we have been worried about finding new renters for our previous home. But, we have a home! Two of them, in fact, that are standing and in good repair. We have a pantry and refrigerator full of healthy food. Clean water flows from our tap. We are warm, safe, and mostly well.

Our son has been stressed about the cost of college, finding a good job, and choosing a less expensive school to attend next year. But how wonderful that he has a state full of universities to choose from. How blessed we are to have him home again.

I am often stressed because my days are ridiculously full. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to fit in all the playing with my toddler, homeschooling my daughter, helping and listening to my older children, spending time with my husband, serving in my calling, cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundry, bill-paying, and writing that needs to be done. And yet, I am here to do it. What a wonderful blessing.

Last month my husband and I attended a funeral for a family friend. I didn’t personally know the woman, a mother of five, not much older than me, who had passed away. But her funeral so touched my life that I doubt a day has passed since that I haven’t thought of it—of her. She was a beautiful woman who loved life and especially her family. Her bishop and husband both spoke of her reluctance to leave them behind. She suffered greatly during her last seven years of life and battling cancer, likely staying on earth as long as she did to raise her children as much as she could.

I imagine that those last seven years were a little different than some that came before she was ill. Perhaps things like keeping her home clean, staying caught up on the laundry, and even paying the bills slipped in their level of importance. Certainly time spent with her children did not. But I imagine that daily interactions with them—even things like helping with math homework, reminding them for the sixth time that it was their night to do the dishes, or caring for them when they were ill became precious moments of opportunity. Not simply one more part of a too-busy day, as I have often felt.

When we returned home from her funeral, I kept the program, reflecting on the life of this woman I’d never met, and tucked it in my nightstand drawer, as a frequent reminder to feel gratitude. Turns out, that was good timing, because March has been a bit of a rough month for our family, in more ways than those mentioned in this blog. But it has also been one of reflection. Who am I to complain that I feel awful? That our toilet paper consumption has doubled from the blowing of noses? That some of our children are struggling? That we’re probably going to have to buy a new computer? I’m here. I am alive. I have the opportunity to keep loving and serving my family, difficult and busy as that may, at times, be.

The tragedies unfolding in Japan are overwhelming to contemplate. To lose family, friends, a home and more is suffering beyond what I have ever been called on to endure. So I am left to think that a little sniffle, a little extra worry now and then is probably a good thing because it makes me grateful. For health, for family, for the opportunity to have a maddening month every now and then.

March Madness and a book you should buy

A short post tonight (or shorter than usual, anyway), as I’ve created my own version of March madness, by committing to my new editor at Covenant that I will send my next manuscript to him no later than March 28th. It’s going to be both a long and short month. Long nights because I’ll be up writing instead of getting sleep. Short days because I’ve got a lot to do before the 28th.

Deadlines are generally a good thing for me. I especially love them when they’re past, and I made it! Oh, the joy I felt after finishing the 20th Whitney romance nominee and casting my vote in January. April promises similar bliss.

But last week I took a brief respite from writing to read Rob Wells’ young adult dystopian novel, Variant. It’s not scheduled to be released until this October, and I’m truly sorry for all of you out there that will have to wait that long to read it. It’s a GREAT book—totally worth getting behind on the laundry, feeding my family mac-n-cheese, and forgetting a couple of appointments and things my kids had. Thanks, Rob, for so thoroughly messing with my mind and life for a couple of days.

Like other dystopian’s I’ve read in the recent past—the Hunger Games trilogy, and Ally Condie’s MatchedVariant puts teenagers in a situation where all is not right in the world, and they’ve got to rise above it/figure it out/buck the system to first, survive, and second, get what they really want (usually a love interest). While I really enjoy dystopian novels, one thing that seemed to set Rob’s apart and make it even more enjoyable is that it begins in the present day. The main character, Benson, is a typical teenager (one who’s been raised in the foster care system) from a typical place (Pittsburg) who ends up in a boarding school that is anything but typical. Because the story is set in our day, Rob didn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining how the “society” functioned. Instead, we learn how the school functions—or doesn’t—along with Benson when he’s the new student. The story held me captive (hint!) from the very first page, and the cliff hanger ending made me want to drive up to Rob’s house and shake what happens next out of him.

What’s not to love about a book like that?

So along with fun-sized chocolate this Halloween, treat yourself to some genuinely tense moments by reading Variant. It’s available for preorder on Amazon now, and if you are on my Christmas list, there is a good chance you’re getting one.

Happy reading!

Gems of Wisdom from Life, the Universe, and Everything

For the past twenty-two years I’ve lived in the shadow of my alma mater, BYU (part of that time I was a student there), right here in Provo, Utah. For eleven of those years, I’ve been serious about writing. Yet last weekend was the first time I’ve ever attended the annual sci-fi/fantasy writing symposium, Life the Universe, and Everything, that’s been held at BYU for the past twenty-nine years.

All those other years of missed opportunity . . . Definitely my loss.

A few hours there, in the auditorium and conference rooms packed with about eight hundred other writers, and I was feeling motivated, inspired and—a little on overload, so great was the quantity of excellent information being crammed into my brain. Fortunately, a lot of that information made it to my laptop to be more thoroughly digested later. For those not able to attend, here are a few gems of wisdom I gleaned from the fabulous presenters and classes.

From Plotstorming with Paul Genesse—

“‘Writers who write great plots have really good books.'”

“‘Writers who write great characters have really good careers.'”

“‘Our primary focus as a writer should be to make readers connect emotionally with our characters.'”

This one I loved (no pun intended). The favorite story type is . . .

1. Boy meets girl.

Yes, romance rocks!

From Rewriting to Greatness with Dave Farland—

It was both inspiring and depressing to learn that Dave does 6-7 edits on every book he writes! On one hand, I feel a little better about my own tedious editing process. On the other hand, it looks like I won’t necessarily get any faster at this. But I loved that he titled the class, “Editing to Greatness.” That’s really what it is all about. A lot of people can write a story, but taking the time, going through the necessary steps of cutting and rewriting and adding and rewriting what you added, just putting the work in to make a story great is really what being a master storyteller is all about.

ONE of the SIX edits Dave does is a syllabic edit. This edit involves taking a good look at word choice and syllable length in action or other intense, fast-paced scenes. Using words with less syllables in those scenes makes for a quick, easy read, and therefore makes the scene feel more immediate and tense.

Wow, is all I could think of as he explained this process. I never would have thought of that one on my own. And now I’m wondering . . . for those slower, emotionally packed, highly romantic scenes, should I be searching for words with many syllables? Probably not :)

From Charisma is not a dump stat with Jake Black, Howard Tayler, and Tracy Hickman—

First, I have to say that this was a fun class. It’s also a class I needed, and I probably still need several more like it. I’m pretty content at home in a mom t-shirt (meaning that there is a good chance someone has wiped something on my shirt throughout the day) and jeans, sitting at the computer with my hair in a messy ponytail and wearing little to no make-up. That’s the real author look, isn’t it?

According to these guys, not so. We need to figure out what our uniform is (based on who our audience is) and then wear that out in public, because “clothes matter!”

As the panel was discussing this, I glanced at the shoulder of my white sweater where, on my way out the door that morning, I’d noticed a dried glob of some unidentified kid goo (cereal, mashed banana, snot?). I’d done my best to scrub it off with a baby wipe, but it was still there. Nice uniform, Michele.

If that wasn’t bad enough, I’d been unable to find socks—without holes—that matched my pants, so I’d borrowed a pair of my husband’s (socks, not pants). His foot is a size 12; mine is a 7. You see the problem. I saw it clearly too whenever I sat down. Nothing like a big, puckery wad of sock heel sticking out from your shoe to scream professionalism.

As I said, I needed this class.

Aside from discussing wardrobe choices, these guys also did a great job of emphasizing the importance of each and every interaction we have. “Everyone is someone important, so treat them that way,” is advice you can’t go wrong with. I sincerely hope to be as genuine and helpful as these guys were in each and every step of my writing path.

Both my computer and composition book are filled with fabulous notes, like the sampling above, from LTUE. I can’t share them all, but I do want to mention one more wonderful, out-of-this world, chock-full-of-awesome-advice class. It was taught by Elana Johnson, author of the upcoming YA novel, Possession. She taught a class on pitching to agents that was INCREDIBLE in it’s wealth of detail and practical advice and instruction. If you happen to be going to the ANWA conference this weekend, go to her class! You won’t regret it. Plus, she brought chocolate 😀 Thanks, Elana, for the great advice and for emailing your entire presentation. If your book is half as fabulous as you were, it should sell great!

Happy writing, everyone. I hope you enjoyed my ramblings on life, the universe, and Everything.

Love it; love it not.

In honor of Valentines Day yesterday, here are a few things I love—or not.

I love that my fourteen-year-old and her friend were happy with their “single” status this Valentines Day. Here she is, wearing the shirt she made, celebrating her boyfriendless status and warning guys she’s planning to stay that way.

But . . . It didn’t really matter. Tonight she came in and flopped on my bed and told me about the guy she likes and how he likes her back. ARRGH! I do not like the whole teenage romance thing. Worry #784 to add to my list of things I think about at night when I should be falling asleep.

I love that my husband and I were able to go out to dinner at the Olive Garden last night. I love that I got dressed up and did my hair and met him there after work. I loved sitting across the table from him, holding his hands, and pretty much keeping to our rule of not discussing our offspring. I love that we both had cards for each other. I love that mine made him laugh and his made me blush. Dinner was excellent; the company was even better.

But . . . I did not love the family of six sitting behind us. I did not love their noisy kids who were climbing across the table. I did love that it wasn’t us disturbing the peace this time. Yes, we have been there, done that—-as recently as December when we went out to celebrate my birthday. During that excursion, Andrew kept reaching over the booth to pat the guy behind us on the head (he was bald), he spit rice all over the table, and he knocked over a glass and it shattered in my dinner. I really do get the whole “trying to take your children out to eat with you” thing. But on Valentines? Only in Utah.

I love that we have church from 1-4 this year. Every other week—those weeks it isn’t my turn to get up with our toddler who thinks 5:30 a.m. is an acceptable time to rise—I get to sleep in. I love that we’re making good use of our Sunday mornings (my girls are not loving working on personal progress every week, but I am!). And finally, I love being on time to church and not feeling rushed.

But . . . I do NOT love the 1-4 church schedule because it is right during naptime (some serious extra blessings for the nursery leaders this year!). This is Andrew last Sunday after church. I was fixing dinner as fast as I possibly could, but he didn’t make it.

What do you do with a two-year-old who falls asleep at 4:15? If you wake him up—as we did last Sunday—you suffer the wrath of the two-year-old the rest of the night. He literally cried for an hour. If you let him sleep, he’ll wake up around midnight and realize he’s starving and he’d like dinner and some playtime. Either way it’s ugly.

I love the TV show, The Middle. It makes me feel waaaay better about our family (compared to the Hecks, we are normal), and it’s my comic relief—when I get to watch it.

But . . . I do not love that it is on at 7:00 Wednesday evenings, a time nearly impossible for me to watch TV. I do love that my son set up NetFlicks on our computer when he was home last weekend. I do not love that the past two days I’ve caught my daughter watching Scooby doo when she was supposed to be doing her K12 lessons. Now I’ve got to have consequences and monitor her and—Sigh. One step forward; two steps back.

I love that I’ve been meeting my goal of blogging regularly again.

But . . . I do not love that I still haven’t turned in my next manuscript to Covenant, nor have I sent out all those queries I told myself I would during the first quarter of this year. To that end, I need to start writing shorter posts!

I’d love to hear your love and love nots. It seems to me that everything really does have two sides. I hope your Valentines Day weighed in on the love side and was brimming with romance.

Dream Big and Go For It!

First, a heartfelt thank you to everyone who took the time here and on Facebook last week to “help my hook.” Unfortunately, it still needs help, but hopefully it’s a little closer now. Great suggestions all—from Lu Ann, catching a glaring error (Yikes!), to thoughts about whether or not to start with dialogue, and which direction the story should go. I really do appreciate the input.

I haven’t blogged much about homeschool lately, but we are still plugging away over here. January brought an exciting change, in that we added three hours of theatre to our weekly schedule (which means that we are now reading the history book late into the evening—disguised as a bedtime story—more than ever). Cramming this additional activity into our already bursting week has, in this case, been well worth it. But it was an experience we almost missed out on.

At the beginning of the year, on one of my many homeschool group lists, I read about a new theatre opportunity at the Covey Center. My daughter expressed interest, and since the play they were going to be doing was Annie, I told her she could try out if she wanted to. I hoped she might be able to be one of the orphans or a servant at Mr. Warbucks mansion.

The day before the tryout was Sunday, and I was gone much of the day. I asked my fourteen-year-old to read over the script with her little sister, so she’d be ready. Then, in the midst of other responsibilities that day, I promptly forgot about it.

The next morning Hannah reminded me when she announced at breakfast, “I’m going to try out for the part of Annie.”

My immediate reaction was, oh no. This will not be good. She will be crushed. There will be tears. Must not allow that to happen. But it was a Monday morning, and I was still half asleep, so I didn’t actually say all that to her right away. Instead, I thought about it.

Good thing.

Who am I, I finally decided, to tell her what she can and cannot aim for? Yes, she has dyslexia, making reading a huge struggle for her. No, she hasn’t ever been in a play, nor has she had any singing experience (I figured the annual primary program probably didn’t count). Surely those things would stack against her, but when we headed off to the tryouts, she had a huge grin on her face. She was confident and excited.

On the way to the audition, I did try to tell her—as gently as possible—that there would likely be many little girls there, all of whom would love to play Annie.

“And some of those girls may have been in other plays before. The directors may want to give the lead to someone with more experience.”

“I know, Mom. I just want to try.”

And she did. My worries came back as I filled out her audition paper and wrote none next to prior experience for just about everything. But she went into the audition smiling, and when she came out a while later, she was clutching a yellow call back slip.

“Not very many kids got these!” she said excitedly and then proceeded to tell me all about the song she sang and the parts she read. “They even had me read Miss Hannigan,” she told me. “And I did her all snarly.”

Who knew? Not me. Who’d have guessed that the girl who dreads reading could pick up a script and read with expression? I was starting to think that Hannah would likely get to be an orphan, and that this could be very good. I’m all about read aloud sessions that are not sheer torture, and she seemed to be getting into this script thing.

During the callback, the girls were asked to dance. This, Hannah could do. In fact, she’d done quite a lot of it at her previous dance studio (before her brother went to college and the money for dance lessons went with him). Now she was really having fun. I snuck down the hall and peeked in for a minute, and it was then I realized she might just have a chance at the lead.

For the next several days we waited anxiously. Then finally, the email.

“Hannah has been assigned the part of an orphan in scenes 1, 2 . . . and she will play Annie in scenes 5, 6, 7.” The directors had split the role, giving Hannah the lead for part of the play. She’d done it! And it was exactly what the teacher—me—ordered. A healthy boost to her self-esteem, and the potential for lots of reading practice. In fact, she is the one coming to me with script in hand each day, telling me it’s time to read. Love it!

In the weeks since then, Hannah has skipped off to rehearsal with joy in her heart. She loves the play. She’s made new friends. She’s happy in all the scenes, both when she is Annie, when she is an orphan, and when it’s her turn to get props on and off stage. I continue to marvel at our good fortune and at her can-do attitude. At first, I wondered where she got it from, but a quick look around the dinner table, and I had my answer.

My husband thinks he is some kind of superhero—or ironman. And he is, having run over a dozen marathons, competed in several triathlons, and completed an Ironman competition last year in 14 hours. He sets goals; he works hard; he achieves. Last year leading up to the Ironman, we all watched his intense and amazing training. And Hannah was right there with us at the finish line.

Hannah’s brother dreamed of going to a college that costs $26,000 a year in tuition alone. Coming from this single income family of seven, that goal was farther out there than the Ironman. Along with the rest of us, Hannah watched the color rise on the chart on the basement door. She was part of it, giving up dance so he could get there. And there he is, and has been all year, at the school he dreamed of going to. He’s loving it. He made it happen. He’s been working on more scholarships to continue to make it happen.

Hannah’s sister wanted to get a job as a lifeguard. This was another one of those “mother’s mental cringe” moments. As, But you don’t even swim that well, trailed through my mind, I was telling Carissa it was a great idea and she should go for it. She did. She nearly drowned a couple of times attempting to pass the tests, but she did pass and in the process became a very strong swimmer. She’s still a lifeguard, and she’s the youngest CPR instructor the Red Cross has right now.

Hannah’s other sister is the youngest on her school dance team. Why wait until I’m a sophomore to try out? was her mantra. It was a good one. She’ll be heading to New York to dance with that team next month.

And the craziest thing of all in our family—Hannah’s mom thinks she can write books! She imagines stories, writes them down, rewrites them, rewrites them some more. She sends them off to agents. She collects rejections. She goes back and forth on edits with her editor. Her books are in the library. Hannah thinks it’s fun to see them when we’re there.

I’ve realized that we are a family of dreamers. We imagine we can do difficult things. Quite honestly, I think we are all a lot like Hannah in that we don’t see the obstacles as much as we see the possibilties. We may not always realize success quite so simply as Hannah did, but that never seems to stop us for long.

We dream, we believe, we achieve. We like to go and do. And when we’ve gone and done, we like to go and do some more. I’ve loved publishing in the LDS market, and I hope to continue, but I also have dreams of publishing nationally. It may be a long time coming, but those dreams still burn bright for me. My husband is already gearing up for another Ironman next year. My son is talking about Ivy League graduate schools back east. My daughter wants to be an EMT—within the next eighteen months. My other daughter has talked about dancing at Juliard someday (somehow I think next month’s New York trip is only going to intensify that desire). Are we all crazy? Maybe a little, but I think it’s mostly a good thing.

I really shouldn’t be surprised that Hannah wanted to be, and believed she could be, Annie. I hope, in the future, she’ll continue to think she can be anything she wants to. And the next time she comes to me and tells me she wants to be an olympic gymnast or be an artist for Disney, I’m going to banish those negative thoughts and tell her to dream big and go for it.

Help My Hook

Last week Nathan Bransford held his annual first paragraph contest. On a whim I entered the first paragraph of one of my novels in progress. Today I learned that it . . . is not a finalist. Considering there were 1500 entries, that was to be expected. But it was a fun exercise, and it was interesting to see the paragraphs that were chosen. It was also a good opportunity to examine my own hook(s) and to admit they still need some work. Unfortunately, figuring out exactly what they need is proving difficult.

This is the one I entered.

From the moment we are born, we are dying. This my father taught me. We gasp and tiny lungs expand, inhaling that first breath of air—air we need to live but that ultimately ages us. The heart, already beating for several months, pounds away at a frenetic pace, pumping blood throughout the body. It’s rhythm feels dependable—invincible, even—but eventually it will grow old, tire, and cease to beat. With time bones become brittle, skin wrinkles, hair thins and grays; bodies grow infirm. Death is the inevitable end to life. All this my father taught me. I wish, for me, it were still true.

After posting this entry, I realized that without the text that immediately follows, this kind of sounds like the hook to a vampire novel, which it is NOT. Nothing against those who write about vampires, but not my thing. What is my thing (or one of them currently) are fairytale retellings. The above paragraph is from a sequel to the first of these sort of stories that I wrote. It is very much in the drafting stage (was my NanoWrimo project this past November), so I’m not too worried about getting it just right anytime soon.

The other fairytale is a different story (no pun intended). I’ve played with it for a couple of years now—yes, years. Some projects are slower than others, and this one I haven’t been in any hurry with. But for better or worse, it’s time to send out some queries. My last excuse—that all my free time was spent judging for the Whitney Awards—ended at midnight last night. I’ve done my homework and have a list of agents. I even have a query letter ready to go. And yet, still I drag my feet.

Why? I don’t think it’s because I’m worried about rejection. I’ve been down this road before and have quite a lovely collection of letters (set to music on a dvd, no less) to remind me of what a difficult task lies ahead. I don’t fear it like I used to, but rather see it as a part of the process. My story is a tiny piece in an enormous publishing puzzle. It may take a lot of tries to find where that piece will fit. It may be in another puzzle altogether at some distant date down the road. That’s the reality of this business, and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is sending out something that is not the absolute best I can make it. For all the work I’ve done with this story, for as much as I love it and feel like it is the best thing I’ve ever written, I also know there is still something that is not quite right. That something is the first paragraph.

Not a good sign when I’m hoping to get an agent’s attention.

But I do feel it isn’t very—hooky, as in interesting, intriguing, captivating and all that. In fact, I chose not to enter it in the contest because I didn’t think it was strong enough. As with the other (above) paragraph, I like it as a whole with the rest of the page that follows. Unfortunately, I may not get the luxury of an entire page to hook an agent. It is far more likely that, if the first paragraph does not immediately intrigue, the overworked, overtired, ever-behind agent will not look further and a rejection will be sent.

So I’m asking for your help. I need fresh eyes and ideas to get this hook in shape. I want to send my queries with confidence. Last week I gave a lot of unsolicited advice; now it’s your turn—and I’m asking! What might make this paragraph better? What is it missing? Did you fall asleep already?

Any and all honest feedback will be most appreciated. Thank you in advance for your collective, brilliant suggestions. As you may have noted with my post last week, I was merely passing on what I’ve learned from others. The LDS writing community is wonderful that way—we share, encourage, and help each other become better writers. I continue to be grateful to be a part of it.

Here are the first few paragraphs for your critique.

“There is no such thing as a princess.” Ogres are another manner entirely. One of those stood behind me in the form of my mother, watching me, breathing down my back as I bent over the sink, scrubbing the pot from our breakfast mush. “And since there are no princesses, I’ve no need to worry about meeting one.”
Mother sighed her disapproval. “You don’t know that, Adrielle. You’ve not been to Tallinyne. You’ve not seen the things your father and I have.”
“Nor am I likely to.” I bit back angry words and turned around, reaching for a dishtowel. I should very much have liked to visit the capital, or at the least a neighboring township, but such a thing was out of the question. Once upon a time our family had been able to indulge in such luxuries. We hadn’t been well-to-do exactly, but there had been enough to eat, clothing to wear that wasn’t in tatters, and, most importantly, time—for something other than work. “Not ever,” I grumbled.